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Was Black Elk speaking about the Lakota family before the Whiteman?

I grew up extremely poor in a tiny community of less than 40 people in the late 1940s through the mid-1960s. My schooling was at a reservation boarding school where the devastating “kill the Indian, save the man” doctrine denied me my language, culture, and history. Despite my demeaning existence, I did well academically, at least enough to get me by in today’s world.

I finally left that place near the end of the 1964/65 school year. I like to think that I escaped that ethnic purging process, but I did not. The only thing I retained is my language. My culture had been effectively removed from my psyche. I went home not knowing who my relatives were and knew nothing of the wakan wicohan (ceremonies) of the Oyate (people). I knew about the Bible though.

I was completely unaware of my tiopaye (extended family group) history which was replaced with a new and strange American history. I call it strange because it does not include me as a native of this land and instead alienated me. Although, some positive change has occurred in recent years, the American majority continues to treat Indians as “savages,” “pagans,” and essentially sub-human creatures.

In other words, within this new history, my morality and intelligence is less than that of ordinary Christian human beings. Mainstream America has been successfully indoctrinated into believing this papal fallacy. Some of these Euro-Americans believe they are a superior race and all others are less. This is cause for racism by the majority and suicide among native populations.

It is very reassuring to see people, even though they may have a European bloodline, take pride in their Lakota heritage. At the same time, it is depressing for me to see Lakota people emulating the white man in every way possible. Our ancestors wanted us to be educated in the white man’s ways and that was wise. However, they did not anticipate total obliteration of indigenous knowledge and identity.

Anyway, I realized that the best way to answer my questions and preserve my cultural posterity was to learn my tiospaye history. I spent most of my adult life doing this. Sadly, all the elders who held this vital information are gone now. However, I learned enough to reclaim my true identity as a Hunkpapa/Oglala person in this new world order.

I must do this because within this new American history, I am an outsider. Awareness of indigenous history is important in many ways. Without it, one’s world is diminished and isolated from the rest. This brief narration is my explanation of how and why history is important to me. Realistically, the lack of historical knowledge or awareness negatively affects all aspects of our lives today.

For example, our ancient form of government was one of those essentials to an autonomous life. It was obliterated by the newcomer’s colonization process. Hardly anyone, in today’s society, remembers the particulars of traditional government. In learning about this system of government, a most vital element that made that system work was the family unit, which was dismantled.

There is a cultural teaching being used in our modern schools regarding the tipestola (conical home). Basically, the poles represent the female as nurturer, also referred to as the “backbone of the nation.” The tanned buffalo hide cover is representative of the male as provider and protector. Together they formed an environment where cultural standards were effectively transmitted to their children.

Imagine an ancient tiospaye camp where such individual homes were beautiful and well cared for with both parents actively participating in raising their children. Now imagine a camp with charred and broken poles standing with no covers and the children huddled inside the circle of poles. I’m referring to the current situation where single mothers are raising their children without their fathers and vice versa.

The family was the foundation for the tiospaye system of government. Such a family consisted of two parents (a man and a woman) and their children. Both parents were proficient in all aspects of childrearing and with providing their children necessary life skills. Such a family was able to exist on its own if it had to. Each home or tipestola (conical home) housed one such family and no more.

The family unit’s self-sufficiency and self-governing ability was essential for the tiospaye governing system to be effective. Any number of such families made up the tiospaye system, which included grandparents, aunts, uncles, and other blood relatives.

I have witnessed many elders, men mostly, try to revive this old government system but have not seen it yet. I saw a variety of organizational structures, but my belief is that without this family unit, we don’t have a chance at reviving the old tiospaye system of government. I want very much to bring the old system back too but, let’s face it, we have to be realistic.

Our society today has an overabundance of single-parent families. To support my allegation, I present two of Nicholas Black Elk’s (1863-1950) quotes from the book, Black Elk Speaks, Joseph Epes Brown, 1953. Brown (1920-2000) was an American scholar who dedicated his life to native traditions and helped bring those traditions into the limelight of academic society.

The first quote is “The sacred hoop of my children was one of many hoops that made one circle, wide as daylight and as starlight, and in the center grew one mighty flowering tree to shelter all the children of one mother and one father. And I saw that it was holy.”  It certainly appears that he was referring to the family that existed in the pre-contact era, or before Columbus.

The second referred to the 1890 Wounded Knee Massacre of which he was a witness. “I did not know how much was ended. When I look back now from this high hill of my old age, I can still see the butchered women and children lying heaped and scattered all along the crooked gulch as plain as when I saw them with eyes still young.”

“And I can see that something else died there in the bloody mud, and was buried in the blizzard. A people’s dream died there. It was a beautiful dream. And I, to whom so great a vision was given in my youth, you see me now as a pitiful old man who has done nothing, for the nation’s hoop is broken and scattered. There is no center any longer, and the sacred tree is dead.”

I believe he was referring to the Lakota family unit and the tiospaye. Even now we struggle with a new system of government under the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934. This was brought to us when America was in the midst of its colonization process. Until we come to terms with our history and our culture and language, I fear we will not be able to call ourselves a culturally distinct group of people.


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

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