Cultures in Conflict:  One religion, many visions
Peter Harriman
Argus Leader
Sioux Falls, South Dakota

published: 7/20/2003

Leaders squabble over who can take part in native ceremonies

The legitimacy of Travis Erickson's spirituality lies in an act of devotion expressed in 23 years of physical labor that a saint would admire.

In a one-man quarry at the Pipestone National Monument, Erickson worked out a personal theology involving canupa, the sacred pipe that is central to the traditional spirituality of many Native American tribes.

With sledge hammers, pry bars, chisels and wedges, he reduced an 11-foot wall of pink quartzite into a mound of sharp-edged slabs, a 30-foot-high pile of tailings he calls "Mount Erickson."

He broke and moved all this rock to expose a retreating deposit of heavy, red stone from which the sacred pipe is carved.

"Every time you come out and quarry, it should be a spiritual experience. You are within the womb of Mother Earth, in the stone," says Erickson, who was born and raised in Pipestone, Minn., and is an enrolled member of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Sioux Tribe. "Hopefully, the harder it gets, the more humble I will become."

But Erickson, like many modern practitioners, has tailored the pipe tradition to his own use.

"When I started using the pipe in my life, I followed it straight," he says. "I did that for two years. I really felt constrained, tied in. I wasn't given enough room to do what I felt should be done.

"Just because you are praying doesn't mean you have to take the pipe out every time."

Such willingness to adapt the pipe falls comfortably in line with Lakota tradition, where sacred ceremonies are conducted in accordance with each medicine man's spiritual vision.

Interest in sacred pipe spirituality grew tremendously after Indians forcefully asserted their right to exist in the 1973 Wounded Knee occupation. But that revival brings its own peril. As Northern Plains tribes reclaim their religious tradition, some spiritual leaders fear 21st century influences - such as treating sacred ceremonies as commercial enterprises, and mixing pipe spirituality with other beliefs - threatens its future. The very thing Indians are trying to revive, the thing that defines them, may be distorted out of recognition.

For instance, some of the stone Erickson is quarrying will create a pipestone floor inlay in the national Native American museum being built on the Smithsonian mall in Washington, D.C.

"I feel like I am making the heart of the museum," he says.

A touching thought, but dismaying to people such as Arvol Looking Horse, a Lakota spiritual leader, who believes pipestone has a greater purpose than serving as an art medium.

Of even more concern is the fact that many who dabble in the sacred pipe spirituality - picking and choosing the aspects they like and mixing these with a New Age mixture of beliefs in natural spirits, energy transfer and the like - are non-Indians.

The sacred pipe religion, an expression of the interrelatedness of people and their ties to the natural and spirit world, includes traditions of:

** Hanbleciya, or vision quests, where individuals fast and pray in solitude for as long as four days in an effort to promote dreams handed down from the spirit world that offer guidance on how to live.

** Inipi, purification ceremonies such as the sweat lodge.

** Wiwanyang wacipi, the sun dance ceremony, which culminates with dancers offering physical sacrifice for their family and tribe by piercing muscles of the chest or back and tethering themselves to a tree or pulling buffalo skulls like a gang plow until their flesh tears.

The religion has become an attractive vehicle for spiritual hitchhikers who think Tunkasila, the Grandfather God of the Lakota, Dakota and Nakota, has answers Jesus Christ, Mohammed and the Buddha don't.

Michael Hull, a white lawyer from Austin, Texas, is a pipe follower who wrote a book about his experience called "Sun Dancing." He indicts those of his own race who are drawn to Lakota spirituality for the wrong reasons.

"Cut off from legitimate training, some whites respond by adopting silly-sounding pseudo-Indian names, claiming Indian heritage we don't have, buying ceremonial items we can't make and our native friends can't afford. Some travel around the country charging exorbitant sums to lead ceremonies they are not qualified or authorized to run," he says.

The Pipe Legend

Those who have taken up the pipe believe the original implement was brought to two Lakota warriors by the White Buffalo Calf Woman about 500 years ago. Legend says she taught them how to pray and gave the Lakota people seven sacred ceremonies and a bountiful way of life involving the buffalo. When the woman left, she turned into a white buffalo calf. She also promised to return.

A vein of catlinite, or pipestone, that began close to the surface in what is now southwestern Minnesota has drawn members from tribes throughout the Northern Plains to quarry stone to make sacred pipes for hundreds of years.

The land became part of the Yankton Sioux Indian Reservation. It was sold to the federal government in 1928, and in 1937 Congress made it the Pipestone National Monument. It's a bureaucratic anomaly that is maintained by the National Park Service as a historic site but also awards one-year renewable quarrying permits to enrolled members of federally recognized tribes.

"We view this site as a church, and we try to get visitors to understand that," says Jim LaRock, Pipestone's supervisor.

Sacred ground administered by the government is just one example of the uneasy relationship the pipe has with the 21st century.

From 1890 through the mid-1930s, ceremonies associated with the pipe religion were suppressed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which feared at first that the ceremonies might stir new hostility in a conquered people, and later that they would retard the transformation of Indians into modern, civilized Christians.

The sacred pipe religion was kept alive by spiritual leaders who practiced its ceremonies in remote areas, such as the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, and taught them to succeeding generations.

The era of suppression was officially ended in 1934 by passage of the Indian Reorganization Act, and the pipe and its ceremonies were further affirmed by the 1978 Native American Freedom of Religion Act.

But where the pipe was once in danger of being lost through suppression, some prominent Lakota spiritual leaders feel it is now at risk of being corrupted by new non-Indian believers and by medicine men who cater to them.

"I guess the money is good," says Floyd Hand, an Oglala Lakota medicine man, of his contemporaries' willingness to sell ceremonies. "But it is really disturbing our ceremonies.

"Some people take advantage of this and kind of prostitute themselves to the European world. It really saddens me."

Looking Horse: Indians only

Erickson carves the rich red stone he harvests into pipes. Some of them are simple elbows and T's, others ornate, fanciful eagles, bears, bison and horses. These are viewed variously as sacred objects or as art by the people to whom Erickson sells or trades them.

"A lot of people come to me, and they want the pipe in their life," he says. "White, black, it doesn't matter as long as their heart is into it. My responsibility is to carve the pipe. My responsibility is not what they do after that."

Such ambivalence concerns Looking Horse. For nearly a decade, he has preached a message of world peace based on the teachings of indigenous people's spiritual traditions. He has spoken before the United Nations on two occasions and lectured around the world. In June, he was in Australia.

But now, Looking Horse says, it is time for Indians to close ranks around the sacred pipe. Abuse of its ceremonies by both non-Indians and Indians who refuse to follow stringent ceremonial protocols has reached the perilous point where the spirit world may abandon the pipe. "If we don't save these ways, then we as a nation will die out," he predicts.

This warning is given weight by the fact that in 1966, at age 12, Looking Horse became the 19th generation keeper of THE sacred pipe, the one the White Buffalo Calf Woman gave the Lakota people. It is preserved at his ranch on the Cheyenne River Sioux Indian Reservation.

Looking Horse says he will publicly display the pipe this fall. In preparation, he announced in March of this year that non-Indians should no longer take part in Lakota ceremonies in any more than a support capacity.

They must not be inside the hocoka, the altar for the sacred rites. Indians themselves should obey the strict protocols of ceremonies, which must be conducted in Lakota.

"There should be no price tag allowed to participate in any of our sacred ceremonies," Looking Horse adds.

Only an offering of tobacco is required, although "medicine people do need to survive, and if people wish to give a monetary or any other gifts after they receive their help from a ceremony, giving it from their hearts, I see no problem with that," he says.

Looking Horse's pronouncement established a sharp line of demarcation in a long-standing and growing debate on whether the sacred pipe spirituality should be closely held or offered widely.

"This statement hurt a lot of our non-Indian friends," Hand says of Looking Horse.

Beyond that, by instructing all spiritual leaders about sacred ceremonies, Looking Horse introduced the idea of a hierarchy to a spiritual tradition based on individuals' visions.

'Like racism'

Clyde Bellecourt, co-founder of the American Indian Movement with Dennis Banks in 1968, is a member of the Anishnabi Nation but has participated in Lakota sun dances for 31 years and for the past 15 years has organized one of the two sun dances that are held at the Pipestone Monument.

"The Creator has never given such an order," he says of Looking Horse's prohibition. "A lot of medicine people have told me to pay no attention. The songs were not given to Arvol Looking Horse. It is not up to him to say nobody else can use them."

Looking Horse acknowledges that, since March, "I've been in a position where people say this is like racism." But he says his statements have more to do with ensuring sacred ceremonies are practiced properly, and not treated as a commercial product, than with restricting non-Indians from participating.

"What I said about protocols is that in our way, you have to learn that the time is right for a person to carry the canupa, then to go on a hanbleciya, then to take part in a sun dance.

"Today, the protocols are not being followed. There are people buying pipes and people becoming medicine people overnight."

A precedent for extending the sacred pipe to others was set in the early 1970s, when Looking Horse's father, Stanley Looking Horse, and Frank Fools Crow said that tribes that had lost their own spiritual ways through the federal government's policy of assimilation should be allowed to take part in the sun dance and other sacred ceremonies.

Interest in Indian spirituality really grew from the AIM activism of the early 1970s.

"Before Wounded Knee, our own people were colonized to the extent they were ashamed to be Indians," says Russell Means, an early AIM leader and a dominant voice in Indian activism for more than 30 years.

Bellecourt participated in this spiritual revival and in 1971 went through the sun dance.

"I'm a born-again pagan. I found out who I am."

White Sun Dance

When Bellecourt pierced in 1971, he did so at Leonard Crow Dog's sun dance on the Rosebud reservation. Crow Dog was AIM's medicine man. But he also opened his sun dance to non-Indians, allegedly for a hefty price. In 1997, he did something to offend not only the strict traditionalist Looking Horse, but AIM's Bellecourt as well.

Crow Dog made Hull, the white Texas lawyer, a sun dance leader.

"Leonard is a brother of ours. He contributed much to the movement. I can't go into how much he means to it," Bellecourt says. "But as far as selling the sun dance, giving bundles, that's definitely wrong.

"I don't tell anybody they can't come and pray, but the sun dance itself is for Indian people."

Crow Dog did not respond to several requests through intermediaries to be interviewed.

Hull says he did not take the responsibility of being a sun dance leader lightly. Before accepting, he went through "four years of pretty careful thought and prayer."

His sun dance in Texas had about 100 dancers this year, he says. "There was a large contingent of mixed-race Indians who were not tribally enrolled, some Europeans, some Africans, some tribally enrolled people."

While he supports extending the sacred pipe to other cultures, Hull agrees with Looking Horse that protocol should be strictly followed. "I also think those who complain that some whites have been off doing their own thing without authorization, training and background are right. I think that has been an unfortunate byproduct."

Hull strives to run a sun dance so strict that critics such as Looking Horse "would not be able to complain about what we are doing; they would only be able to complain about who we are."

Looking Horse suggests that if Hull is indeed abiding by tradition, he is doing so illegally.

Sacred Lakota ceremonies require eagle feathers, Looking Horse says. "The eagle feather stands for indigenous knowledge and guidance in our spiritual ways."

But the federal Lacey Act prohibits any private individuals but tribally enrolled Indians from possessing eagle feathers.

Hull is vague on how this plays out at his sun dance. "We kind of let people handle that on their own. I won't talk about it."

Other Visions

Means believes attempts to bridge sacred pipe spirituality to other cultures are doomed to fail. Non-Indians, specifically white Americans, appropriate what they want from other spiritualities and then become born-again Christians, he says.

"You can't come and expect to take just a piece of the pie and leave with any sense of wholeness," he says. "My own response to non-Indian participants is, we welcome you into our sun dance, provided you continue to participate in our way of life. If you cannot do that, we do not want you to participate because we do not want to harm you."

Gene Thin Elk, a University of South Dakota instructor, uses principles expressed in the sacred pipe spirituality in his Red Road substance abuse treatment program. He says those principles are available to anybody without compromising the sacred ceremonies.

"What we're trying to get at is that whatever you found in the native way of life, you can find in your own culture," he says. "Once you find that, you can come to the table with something, as opposed to taking."

He is undeterred by Looking Horse's attempt to limit non-Indian participation in ceremonies.

"I don't see it as a controversy, I see it as a re-education," says Thin Elk. "We need to reclarify and re-establish ourselves. There are a lot of things, due to the genocide that came to the Americas through colonization, that make it necessary to isolate, insulate and regenerate."

Herbert Hoover, a USD history professor, learned about pipe spirituality in the early 1970s from a generation of leaders who practiced its ceremonies underground and brought them back into public view.

"I have never known anybody in my life more ecumenical than traditional Native Americans," he says. "That kind of person is not going to deny anybody."

Hoover suggests those people were secure enough in their beliefs to feel comfortable opening the sacred ceremonies to non-Indians. But the generation that followed the religious renaissance is less confident about its relationship to the pipe.

"What you have here is almost the new-convert syndrome. They seize upon (the sacred pipe), and they want to make it special. They also have a fear of taboos and fear they are going to botch up the religion," he says.

Hull figures efforts by Looking Horse and allies to restrict participation in ceremonies will be divisive but not determinative.

"You can't put the toothpaste back in the tube," he says. Too many non-Indians, like him, are involved with the sacred pipe.

And while Thin Elk supports a new religious segregation, he says that is for the benefit of the practitioners, not the sacred pipe itself. "Anything of great sacredness that comes from another world and time takes care of itself," he says.

He chuckles.

"We get egotistical enough to think we can take care of the sacred. It will take care of itself."
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