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Cultural awareness is not “living in the past”

Cultural awareness is not “living in the past”

by: Ivan Star ComesOut




I’ll never forget the racial taunts since the 60s to now in the towns surrounding the Pine Ridge Reservation. Intense nonsensical gibberish like “Go back to the reservation,” “Stupid Indian,” and “Join the rest of us in the modern world!” The two I truly struggled with were, “You people (or ‘Indians’) never had a culture.” and “Your people contributed nothing to society.”

Decades later, I’ve realized that such hate-filled taunts originate from Manifest Destiny, the belief that the newcomers had a divinely justified right to expand throughout the continent. Undeclared war was waged on natives and destroyed our cultures and histories, thus creating horrific damage for the people who resided in their homes.

Contrary to this doctrine, first coined in 1845, I realize we do have a valid culture, language, and history. Our contributions to the world are everywhere. Meanwhile, the majority of natives, having been effectively assimilated or colonized, have rejected their own languages, histories, and cultures.

I was fortunate to have attended a couple of community gatherings in the late 1980s where songs, a meal, and culture were shared. For example, one elderly man spoke of four difficult situations every person will endure. From the least difficult to the most difficult, to run out of food in the middle of winter, to be surrounded by an enemy, to lose your firstborn, and to lose your mother.

Although the basic message is the same, there are variations. For example, the least difficult is to see an orphan in tears begging for food, not knowing the whereabouts of a son killed on the battlefield, to lose the firstborn, and the most difficult, to lose one’s mother or wife. These teachings are a far cry from the fabricated “merciless Indian savage” imagery that is so popular in America today.

This ancient oral tradition is proof of human intelligence. He said that the first two situations can be changed. However, there is nothing anyone can do about losing loved ones, especially a mother. The only thing one can do is to accept the loss for what it is. For this purpose, our ancestors developed cognitive processes to help survivors return to the world of the living.

Acceptance occurs is when one realizes the reality of a situation so that one can make smart choices about how to respond. For example, it was one year after my third treatment for alcoholism to completely realize that I cannot “handle” alcohol. In other words, the idea that I cannot ever touch a drop of alcohol became real.

For people who have trouble accepting reality, a crucial point is to realize is that you are going against nature. Reality, as unpleasant as it may be, cannot be changed. Unfortunately, modern society erroneously dictates how we should react to our realities. Crying is a natural human response to loss, yet, society tells us it violates societal standards. For example, crying is a sign of weakness.

In Lakota culture, mourning is acknowledged. Also, ancient protocol encourages a four-day limit. Then a ceremony is carried out by relatives with water, canli (tobacco), sage, and words of encouragement by an elder to help the grieving family member’s transition back into the world of the living. Basically, this ceremony helps bring about closure for the family as well as the community.

Mourning too long creates an imbalance in a person’s psyche. Our culture teaches us to “walk in balance.” This means sadness is as normal as happiness. We are taught that too much daylight or too much darkness creates problems for any living thing. We are taught that we need and have a balance throughout our lives.

So when an ignorant yet arrogant person tells me that I am a “merciless Indian Savage,” I can easily reject that thought and continue rebuilding my self-respect and well-being through my language and culture. Albert Einstein once said, “Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”

Anyway, I close here with the hope that as descendants of the Ikce Oyate (Natural/Human Nation), we can carry out the thought and wish of Tatanka Iyutaka (Sitting Bull), which is for us to put our minds together and build that path for our children, our future, to walk on.

It is also important to realize/accept the fact that colonization nearly destroyed our ancestral ways. We must do this for obvious reasons. American history is rooted in deceit and outright lies. We do not belong there. Lastly, I agree, it is impractical to live in a canvas tipi year-round and hunting bison is contrary to our ongoing effort to rebuild the herds to save them from extinction.


(Ivan F. Star Comes Out, POB 147, Oglala, SD 57764; 605-867-2448;

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