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The power of love

I’ve spent most of my life trying to understand Love, which was taken from me a long time ago. I’ve read that it can be a variety of related but distinct meanings in different contexts. Many other languages provide multiple words to express some of the different concepts that in English are denoted as love. Also, cultural differences in conceptualizing love has impeded the establishment of a universal definition.

It can mean an unwavering, unbreakable, and unparalleled fondness and devotion to a country. One English dictionary defines it as, “a profoundly tender, passionate affection for another person, a feeling of warm personal attachment or deep affection, as for a parent, child, or friend.”

I experienced the dictionary definition during the first six years of my life. I grew up with four brothers under the care of our Lakota language-speaking parents, our favorite Aunt Nancy, and our grandmother, “Lizzy” Good Shield-Star Comes Out. Essentially, as the fourth youngest, I was raised by the women in my family. I did not know my grandfather, Ivan Star Comes Out, as he died in 1939 and I was born in 1948.

Then my parents enrolled me at the on-reservation boarding school, Holy Rosary Mission (now Red Cloud Indian School), at the age of seven (1955). For the next ten years, the warn feelings of concern were very rare for me except for the brief moments of joy of going home for Christmas, Easter, and for the summer. That general lack of concern for my well-being was a factor in my decision to become a high school dropout.

It was a grand relief to be “free” of that cold restrictive environment. However, unknown to me, my outlook on life was already clouded by the enervating effects of that school’s oppressive atmosphere. I spent two summers (1966/67) with a summer youth program (Neighborhood Youth Corps). With $1.25 an hour, I supported my parents who lived in a canvas wall tent at our local powwow grounds.

Actually, those two years were the last memorable times of my life. I enjoyed that proverbial “quality family time” again. My mother cooked over an open fire and we ate our meals together on a large piece of canvas spread out on the ground. We were probably the poorest of the poor on the Pine Ridge Reservation, but I didn’t think of it as being poor. Many would scoff at such living conditions but it was pure bliss for me.

Then my high school classmates graduated and were moving on to college or military service. Feeling left out, I volunteered to serve in the military in August 1967. Again, those pristine definitions of love were rare and far in between. America was involved in a disputed war in Southeast Asia. The military was focused on obliterating the recruit’s individuality and recasting him into a “killing machine.”

The Vietnam War uprooted any semblance of love I may have had. I came home weary only to be spat on and called “Baby-killer” by anti-war protesters. My immediate family welcomed me home but the devastation of that initial rejection and scorn was already in play. I was in a highly culpable state and struggled alone with guilt, shame, anger, unwanted memories, and unsafe behavior.

I concede credit for my 50-year marriage to the woman who accepted me “as is.” She picked me up and dusted me off just as many times as she left me. Treatment for my alcoholism remains a very positive event in my life. However, my abstention from alcohol laid bare something I did not understand. I could no longer use alcohol to “cover it up.”

Post-Traumatic Stress (PTS), now defined as the “toll of service in war” has been a constant part of my life since 1969. Eventually, I entered a Veteran’s Administration treatment program in Denver, CO (1998). I learned that my PTS symptoms are normal reactions to abnormal events. Society’s misconceptions kept my symptoms in an unresolved state. Also, every human is susceptible to trauma and is responsible to manage his/her recovery.

I asked a counselor, a Marine Captain and Vietnam War veteran, about love. In turn, he asked me, “Let’s say you are the last man aboard a chopper as it is lifting off under fire and you spot a man alive on the ground, what would you do?” My immediate response was “I’d jump off and go to help him.” He left it right there. I have been working off of that since and managed to make some “rough around the edges” progress.

I am now in the penultimate stage of my life and my physical health has definitely seen better days. Regardless, I am determined to experience some of humanity’s finer traits. I’ve gained an improved understanding of my situation now, and although I’ll never be that 6-year old again, or that 17-year old enlistee from the Pine Ridge Reservation, I am relearning how to be Lakota… again.


(Contact Ivan F. Star Comes Out, POB 147, Oglala, SD 57764, (605) 867-02448,

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