A Way of Life: The Lakota By Josephine Anna Kaszuba Locke, September 2005
A recent TNT television network presentation, Into the West, stimulated my interest in learning more of the Lakota Native Americans. This led me to contact Penguin Compass, who kindly sent two books - The Lakota Way: Stories and Lessons for Living and The Journey of Crazy Horse: A Lakota History - written by Joseph M. Marshall III, a member of the Sciangu Lakota Sioux. Joseph Marshall is an educator, lecturer, author, consultant, actor (in TV series such as Return to Lonesome Dove), and one of the best-known voices of his people.
In The Lakota Way, Marshall addresses twelve virtues that underpin Lakota culture, and shows us how they have been passed down in a long oral tradition, through generations of storytellers (including his own grandparents). For example, Love is the theme of a tale of abiding devotion between White Lance and Red Willow Woman. Promised to another, she felt 'honor bound to do her father's bidding.' However, the two never left each other in heart and twenty-five winters later became husband and wife. Then, attacked by a powerful bear, 'they fell almost at the same heartbeat'. Years later, when two entangled skeletons were found beside that of a bear with a lance in its ribs, their fate became obvious. Beside the water of a grassy slope, two cottonwoods grew as if from the same root. In subsequent years, the new growth of cottonwoods by the Missouri River (once known as the 'Great Muddy') was said to be the children of White Lance and Red Willow Woman.
Many changes were forced upon the Lakota between 1890 and 1940. Their children were taken away to boarding schools and not allowed to speak the Lakota language. Their ritual Sun Dance was forbidden, hair had to be worn short, their culture was viewed as heathen and savage. Through Fortitude and Wisdom the Lakota kept the essence of their culture, and belief in a 'wheel of life' and the spiritual meaning of the circle. Of the latter, Marshall says, 'The greatest principle the circle signifies for me is the equality that applies to all forms of life. In other words, no one form of life is greater or lesser than any other form. We are different from one another certainly, but different is not defined as 'greater than' or 'lesser than'. And we all share a common journey, the 'maka wiconi', or 'life on Earth' - in English, the Circle of Life'.
The second of the two books tells of The Journey of Crazy Horse. It's a fascinating account of the legendary warrior (known to many for his involvement in the Battle of Little Bighorn) from the perspective of his own people. Marshall bases his tale on available research and on what was passed down through storytelling. He tells about Crazy Horse as man and warrior. He shows how the white man's migration westward affected Native Americans, including the different groups of Lakota. And he speaks of treaties made and broken - in particular the 'Council at Horse Creek' (as named by the Lakota) or the 'Fort Laramie Treaty Council of 1851' (as named by the whites), where nearly 8,000 Native Americans including Lakota, Crow, Blackfeet, Snakes, Hidasta, Arikara, and Blue Clouds, and less that 300 white soldiers met on Fort grounds. Marshall writes, 'The Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851 was the first treaty to establish static borders not of our choosing'.
I recommend these exemplary books for casual reading, school education programs, public and private libraries, and historical societies. It isn't just what a book is written about, it is also how the book is written. Reading Joseph Marshall's writings is like having a storyteller right in front of you.
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