Wambli Sina Win (Eagle Shawl Woman) 10/5/2006
As a Native American (Oglala Sioux/Sicangu Sioux) woman, lawyer and advocate for human rights, I write this column to call attention to our many Lakota (Indian) relatives who have been forgotten and left behind in our state and federal prisons. The numbers just keep on growing as the prisons fill up. I grew up on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota where Native Americans are approximately 8% of the population but comprise approximately 25% of the state prison population.
I’ve worked in the criminal justice system as a tribal judge, a federal prosecutor and as a legal instructor for law enforcement officers. At the present time, I serve on the Oklahoma Corrections Advisory Council on Inmate Religious Rights and Practices as well as the Oklahoma Corrections Advisory Council on Volunteer Programs and Services and I do work with Native American inmates.
I have looked into the sad eyes of a gentle elderly Lakota man, a grandfather who was resigned to making his journey “south” soon. With most of his family gone, his only wish was to see a beloved granddaughter one more time.
I have sat next to a heartbroken young man who had been forgotten by his family and friends; no birthday or Christmas cards, no letters, no visits, nothing to show that somebody cared. Lakotas, all connected by their brotherhood of invisibleness, forgotten by everyone it seems, even their own tribes, which is a shame. This is not the Lakota way.
As I reach out to them, I try to remind them that out of love, Wakan Tanka (the Great Mystery) created all of us as equals and that no matter what each has done, we are all related, “Mitakuye Oyasin.” South Dakota declared a John Around Him Day in August of this year to honor John Around Him, a loved and well respected Oglala Lakota elder who has since passed away. John was a unique man who was very humble. He never considered himself better than the Native American inmates he ministered to in the South Dakota state prison system. I know that John conducted sweat lodge ceremonies for the inmates and he taught them to speak their Lakota language and sing Lakota songs. John also advised the inmates how to have a better life with spiritual help. This past August when John was interviewed by a reporter, he remarked, “We all have relatives who are in prison” and spoke of his dream to “turn the tide of incarceration.” We mourn that John Around Him is no longer with us but his memory and good works will live on to inspire us to work harder to change things for the better.
As a Lakota traditionalist, I am aware that what we now call progress means economic development and the pursuit and worship of the green god of money over our own people. Children are no longer considered and treated as if they are “wakan,” sacred, to be nurtured and loved by both parents. Consider that in the animal world, in spite of the fight for survival, eagle parents are able to work together to attend their baby eaglets. If the eagles can have love and compassion for their young, why can’t we also do the same for our human relatives?
In our busy lives, the majority of us no longer make an effort to live spiritually and we neglect to make time to pray to Wakan Tanka, the Great Mystery. We have forgotten that when we live in the traditional way, spiritual laws always take precedence over man’s laws. Under man’s laws, it is not against the law to hate our relatives, it is not against the law to hold grudges and it is not against the law to refuse to forgive others.
Moreover, under man’s laws, it is perfectly legal to allow a destitute person to starve to death outside of a grocery store for lack of food if he can’t pay for it. Nothing under man’s laws requires a store clerk, the storeowner or anyone else to feed the poor, despite their inability to pay. This is contrary to Lakota spiritual laws. By using this example, I wanted to point out some of the negative aspects of man’s laws, the sociopathic and materialistic nature that we may overlook. Just because something is legal doesn’t mean that it is morally or spiritually right.
Our Lakota elders have told us of the times when there was no separation of church and state; when the Lakota people had love and respect for one another and for our spiritual laws. It was easy to obey the spiritual laws because the people followed the laws out of love, not fear. I say that it is time to bring back our old ways. We must practice our traditional Lakota spirituality once again- to love one another, share and look out for those who are most vulnerable and to practice forgiveness.
Our ancestors, in their wisdom, were humble enough to look to nature for knowledge on how to succeed in life. For example, one of our animal relatives, the Tatunka Oyate, Buffalo Nation, by their example and behavior, could teach us about compassion and caring. A friend of mine, who raises buffalos, explained to me how the buffalos look out for each other. He related that when his pride and joy, a large buffalo bull named Iron Bear had a minor leg injury, the rest of the herd went over to the downed Iron Bear in order to comfort, protect and help him get back on his feet. These buffalo know their identity and whom their relatives are. They refused to abandon a relative who was “down.” We Lakota must remember who we are and we must never forget that we are but a small part of a much larger family. Alone we are fragmented and weak but if we hold together, we have strength in unity, as the buffalos.
Another valuable lesson on how to live came from our Lakota elders who possessed a wealth of tribal historical knowledge which they preserved and passed on through oral tradition. They taught us how our Lakota warriors never left a battlefield without bringing home our fallen warriors. Every Lakota was a relative, a valued tribal member, even in death. Great warrior chiefs, such as Tashunka Witko, Crazy Horse, a fearless Oglala Lakota and the brilliant Shawnee, Tecumseh, were much beloved as leaders/holy men because they always put their people and their warriors ahead of themselves. None of their warriors who were killed in battle were ever intentionally left behind.
Remembering this proud legacy that our warrior chiefs left us, I call upon all of you of Native American ancestry, all the tribal leaders, all those who are friends of the Lakota (Indian) people to help us to “retrieve” our fallen Lakota (Indian) warriors who have been forgotten and abandoned in state and federal prisons. A true leader holds sacred the breath of all their Lakota people regardless of tribal affiliation and it is a wise leader who recognizes that we all make mistakes.
We Lakota, like our relatives the Buffalo Nation and the Eagle Nation, are fighting to survive on a daily basis. With each passing generation, we grow fewer and fewer. A wise elder told me that when the last buffalo is gone and the last eagle has disappeared, so too will the Lakota be gone.
I am sure many of you never heard of John Around Him, but you may know of others like him. If John were here today, he would tell you that it is not our custom to kick a relative when he is down but it is our cultural and spiritual way to help our fallen, both on the battlefield and in life. In most Lakota tribes, there are no orphans for we are all related. “Mitakuye Oyasin” most certainly includes Native American inmates.
About the author: Wambli Sina Win (Eagle Shawl Woman) lives in Park Hill, Oklahoma. Her name, which she received during a ceremony in 1959, comes from her maternal great-grandmother. Her grandmother, Nellie Fire, is the sister of John Fire/Lame Deer, the Lakota holy man referred to in her article.
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