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Native Chiefs & Leaders Series: Black Elk

Black Elk, pub. by Warrior Nation at

Black Elk, pub. by Warrior Nation at

Black Elk was a well-known holy man and healer of the Oglala Lakota Sioux. Born in 1863 in Wyoming near the Powder River Basin, he grew up in the traditional Lakota ways and was a second cousin to Crazy Horse. The family of Black Elk followed Crazy Horse around the western plains, as the wars between the United States and the Sioux engulfed many tribes. Black Elk was witness to many historic battles throughout the West, such as the Fetterman Battle and the Battle of the Little Bighorn where Custer and his men were defeated.

Experiencing so much of the struggle and hardship among his people as the United States worked to annihilate the Native Americans from the West, Black Elk relied on his visionary nature and his ability to see what was true and right in order to help his people. Upon using his senses as a holy man to see where his people were headed when conditions became more and more hopeless. Black Elk stated, “And while I stood there I saw more than I can tell and I understood more than I saw; for I was seeing in a sacred manner the shapes of all things in the spirit, and the shape of all shapes as they must live together like one being.”

Black Elk understood that all of us as humans must come to the understanding that we are the same, and there is no reason that we should not be at peace with one another in order to flourish – in order for all things on this earth to flourish.

After the Little Bighorn, Black Elk fled to Canada but then returned to Wounded Knee. He experienced much of the ugly realities of early reservation life, such as no food, inferior shelter, meager provisions and uncaring superintendents. This was how the reservations were before the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934. Black Elk was also dismayed at the disorder and lack of harmony that existed in the world during his lifetime. He experienced the atrocities that the U.S. committed against his people simply because they were Native American. Recalling with great distress his memory of the Wounded Knee Massacre, Black Elk said,

“I did not know then 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 heapen 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 peoples dream died there. It was a beautiful dream. . . .the nations hoop is broken and scattered. There is no center any longer, and the sacred tree is dead.”

We are fortunate enough to know about many of the traditional Lakota ways through the book titled “Black Elk Speaks.” In this, Black Elk tells of his life and the vast sweep of life on the Plains for the Oglala Lakota in the latter part of the 1800s, when the Sioux Wars were ending and the U.S. was working in earnest to destroy the traditional ways of life for Native Americans.

Lakota values relevant and essential to us all

Lakota values relevant and essential to us all

In summary, Black Elk spoke to the extensive hope that an entire population had for the way of life they had known for centuries. Their way of life was vital to the way they approached the world, gave them balance and gave meaning to almost everything on the earth… the earth as a center, themselves as a center, that center that exists in all of us.

As a Native American myself, I feel that heartbeat when I hear the drums at powwow… that innate sense of my circle and who I am. And, I see who I am and who I was – that intangible connection to my ancestors through the tangible traditions that are alive today.

I think that is why Black Elk’s life and teachings through his words are so very important – because they give insight to the world around us, that center. This helps me to walk in two worlds, the world of my Native relatives and the world of my non-Native relatives.  And really, Black Elk’s life speaks to Lakota values that we can all find relevant, essential actually:  Generosity, Kinship, Fortitude and Wisdom. Each of these runs much deeper than their simple definition. Each is essential to finding that peace and balance and a life unlimited that Black Elk yearned for his people, and for all people.

*** Footnote to readers:  I hope you’ve enjoyed all six of my topics on Native American Chiefs & Leaders. This is my last entry in the series. However, if there is a particular leader you would like me to write about, please post a comment to let me know.

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Assayii Lake Fire: Over but Ongoing

After burning nearly 15,000 acres in the Chuska Mountains on the Navajo Reservation, the Assayii Lake wildfire is “over.” This land on the NM-AZ border and 60 miles northeast of Window Rock is the home and livelihood of the people who live there. Navajo Nation officials called this “one of the worst wildfires in known history on their land” affecting traditional grazing lands and threatening generational homes.

Pub. by at http://bitl.y/AssayiiLakeFire

Pub. by at http://bitl.y/AssayiiLakeFire

As of June 18, the Assayii Lake fire was 0% contained and winds were gusting 50 mph. On the Navajo Reservation:

  • 50 residences were threatened and two tribal communities were being evacuated: Sheep Springs and Naschitti, NM
  • 4 Navajo Nation structures were destroyed
  • Newcomb, Tohatchi and Crystal Lake communities were also being affected
  • The American Red Cross and the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) were cooperating on the incident, and nearly 700 personnel were working to bring the fire under control.
  • Command Posts were being set up at the Newcomb and Shiprock Chapter Houses, the Newcomb Middle School, and the Tohatchi High School for displaced and affected persons

As a first responder for the reservations, NRC was working through numerous Program Partners and community leaders, who were in turn working with evacuees and displaced families as well as volunteers and firefighters. A semi and two box trucks departed National Relief Charities in Phoenix on June 19 to deliver products for those in need. These shipments went to the Navajo Nation at their central location in Fort Defiance, AZ (near Window Rock). We also transported supplies and provisions to the Crystal Chapter as well as the Gallup Humane Society.

These supplies included about $400,000 worth of basic necessities requested by our Program Partners such as boxes of non-perishable food; water and beverages; emergency blankets; toilet paper and paper towels; personal hygiene products such as toothpaste, toothbrushes and lotions; cleaning supplies; face masks; and surgical gloves. We wish to acknowledge our partners here:

  • Rose Whitehair, Navajo Nation Dept. of Emergency Management
  • David Randolph, Newcomb Chapter President
  • Jacey McCurtain, President of the Crystal Chapter
  • John Brooks at Tohatchi High School and Lucinda Barney at the Tohatchi Chapter
  • Tony Watchman at Ft. Defiance Chapter
  • Terry Begay at Shiprock Chapter

As of June 30, 2014, the Assayii Lake fire was 100% contained and the BIA was ensuring that all the embers were “dead out” and posing no risk to life, land or livestock. We are grateful for this, but we also have to acknowledge that in some ways the fire is ongoing. As with any wildfire or disaster, public attention seems to wane once the immediate threat has passed – but the aftermath and the work of recovery continue for weeks and sometimes months. And so our hearts go out to these communities, their leaders, and our partners who work so tirelessly to care for the people.

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National Powwow XVI in Review

Chris Bryant, Chairman of the National Powwow Committee, says this gathering is not about something from the past, that American Indian culture is very alive today and people can see this at National Powwow. We certainly did. There were various dances and specials in the arena; outdoor and indoor areas with traders selling jewelry, silver, blankets and other crafts; a tipi village; activities for the children; and more.

AIEF scholarship recipient graduating from college (Navajo)

AIEF scholarship recipient graduating from college (Navajo)

I personally attended the powwow all four days and, along with our team in the AIEF booth, shared many visits with Natives and non-Natives alike. Although people were there to enjoy the dancers, shop for jewelry and crafts with the vendors, and generally experience American Indian culture, some of the visitors also had more on their minds. What struck me the most was the genuine care of people toward American Indians and their appreciation for the work of our AIEF program. Here are just a few examples:

  • One advocate who has donated both time and money to assist the Navajo said that he really appreciates it when organizations like [AIEF] get out there to really help people.
  • One couple was cognizant of a very real need for assistance on the reservations but was unaware of NRC or our AIEF program. I learned they had been looking for an organization that does what it says it will do, i.e., use a donation for education or other services as intended by a donor. Happily, I could assure them that more than 70% of donations go toward our programs each year (compared to the industry standard of 65%) and that 95% of Native students receiving AIEF scholarships complete the college year (compared to a national average of 21%).
  • Equally important, an Apache woman said she wished there had been a program around like AIEF when she was going to school. Working with our AIEF program, mentoring our scholarship students, and knowing that we shaped our AIEF services around Native American culture, challenges and norms, I took this to be both insightful and a message of hope to indigenous students throughout the U.S.

I appreciate the committee putting on the National Powwow every three years and NRC being a premier sponsor of the gathering this year. And I really enjoyed meeting all of you who visited our booth and shared your hearts with us. Thank you for your mindfulness and care.

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National Powwow XVI

The Historic National Powwow - AIEF banner adMany powwows are widely known and attended by dancers and visitors from throughout the United States. One such event is the National Powwow, (NPW), which is being held in Danville, IN this year from July 3-6.

Running every third year since 1969 and organized by an all-volunteer committee, the mission of this historically long-running powwow is to respectfully share in the values of American Indian culture, while increasing awareness of American Indian traditions among the non-Native community.

NPW’s mission goes hand in hand with the public education efforts conducted by National Relief Charities – information we share to promote a more accurate history and modern-day portrayal of Native American peoples.

In keeping with this commitment, we are proud to be a premier sponsor of the National Powwow this year. A team from our AIEF program will be onsite during the four-day event to support the event, promote scholarships for Native American students and visit with many of our donors from the surrounding area. We invite all who attend to stop by our booth at Spot #40. For more information, please check out the powwow press release.

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Obama’s Vision for Standing Rock & Native Youth

… [Native American] children deserve a world-class education too, that prepares them for college and careers. And that means returning control of Indian education to tribal nations with additional resources and support so that [tribes] can direct [their] children’s education and reform schools here in Indian Country. – President Barack Obama at Standing Rock

Obama's Promise - SD Bulk Dist folder - 51 BThis promise Obama made for Native youth is more of a vision. He and the First Lady spent a lot of time listening to Standing Rock youth, hearing about their challenges and their victories. Obama voiced the desire to strengthen education and job opportunities so that everyone in America, including Native America, has a fair chance to work hard and get ahead. He also made it a point to remember Native American veterans and their contributions to the United States.

President Obama acknowledged that “throughout history, the United States often didn’t give the nation to nation relationship the respect that it deserved.” He emphasized he is working hard to respect tribal sovereignty and uphold treaty obligations in a spirit of partnership, touching on these strides he has made thus far in behalf of tribes:

  • Settlement of long-standing claims related to mineral rights (Cobell) and loans to Native American farmers and ranchers (Keepseagle)
  • Access to affordable healthcare for Native Americans (Obamacare)
  • Strengthening the sovereignty of tribal courts in prosecuting violence against women (VAWA)

Obama's Promise - AIRC-Breakfast 12-Shayanne Blue Thunder (RO)Owner and Editor of the Lakota Country Times attended Obama’s Standing Rock visit in Cannon Ball, ND, along with 1800 tribal members and friends, as the President attended a Flag Day celebration and greeted the crowd in Lakota language. I am only sorry that I cannot link to her story, but the Times is a subscription-only newspaper.

In the story Vi Waln cites Tribal Chairman Archambault of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe as saying “no other Presidents come close to the honesty and compassion [Obama] has shown for our tribal nations.”

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Native Chiefs & Leaders: Crazy Horse

TV screenshot of sketch deemed accurate by Crazy Horse’s sister, © PBS History Detective, pub. at

TV screenshot of sketch deemed accurate by Crazy Horse’s sister, © PBS History Detective, pub. at

I was thinking about Crazy Horse and what he meant to his people. And what he meant to those he was fighting against. The answer is not simple. There are shrouds of mystery about this man who never had his photograph taken. His year of birth is not agreed upon but occurred sometime around 1842. His death on September 5, 1877 was also shrouded in some mystery as to the circumstances.

What is known with a great deal of surety is that Crazy Horse was revered not just by his own people, but also by chiefs and leaders from other tribes as well as the United States Army. The reasons behind this reverence are complex. Other tribes both feared and respected Crazy Horse as a warrior. The U.S. Army saw him as a threat and a formidable foe.

But, what lies at the base of this is a man, a human being that wanted simply to live as his ancestors had lived… in peace and harmony with the land and tied to the earth and tied to each other through their culture.

Crazy Horse is described as “a gentle warrior, a true brave, who stood for the highest ideal of the Sioux.” He was not a rash, hotheaded warrior who wanted revenge at every possible turn. Rather, he was a warrior and a leader that wanted the best for his people. He wanted to correct a wrong. He simply wanted U.S. officials to observe their obligations with integrity and honesty and treat the Native Americans as equals.

However, his actions on June 25, 1876 have garnered the most attention toward Crazy Horse. For on this day, he defeated General George Armstrong Custer and his 209 men at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. With Crazy Horse as a pivotal leader in that fight, Custer and his men were annihilated. His outstanding offensive tactics have been studied ever since and this battle between the U.S. and Native Americans is one of the most studied in military history.

It may surprise you to know that Crazy Horse was not looking for a fight that day – he simply reacted to the aggressive push of General Custer and his men toward his encampment. Crazy Horse was a man trying to move his people to safety and to live a life unencumbered by the incessant incursion of European settlers. His propensity for thoughtful resolve in times of stress is highlighted in these words of Crazy Horse:

All we wanted was peace and to be left alone. Soldiers came and destroyed our villages. Then Long Hair (Custer) came…They say we massacred him, but he would have done the same to us. Our first impulse was to escape but we were so hemmed in we had to fight.

In closing, I want to leave you with these thoughts:  Crazy Horse never signed a peace treaty. He never allowed his picture to be taken. He was never boastful or rash in his manner. He was a leader that led by example, always fighting alongside those in whom he worked to instill hope and never backing down from an opportunity to right a wrong. In short, Crazy Horse was what a great many of us strive to be, a person doing their humble best for their families, their community, and themselves.  Crazy Horse wanted to live a traditional life in a tumultuous time of upheaval. He did it the best way he could, given the times and the situation.

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President Obama Visits the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe

We can be proud of the progress we’ve made together. But we need to do more, especially on jobs and education. Native Americans face poverty rates far higher than the national average – nearly 60 percent in some places. And the dropout rate of Native American students is nearly twice the national rate. These numbers are a moral call to action. As long as I have the honor of serving as President, I’ll do everything I can to answer that call. – President Barack Obama

This week President Obama and the First Lady are visiting the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and reservation that spans the borders of North Dakota and South Dakota. This makes him the third leader ever to visit a Native American reservation in their official capacity as President of the United States.

President Obama - A New Day - MedicineWheelCMYKNational Relief Charities has partnerships with more than 40 tribal programs on the Standing Rock Reservation. Like all of our Program Partners, they are motivated and working for grassroots change. We wish for them and their communities a meaningful visit with the President and robust returns.

The last time a U.S. President visited Indian country was when President Clinton toured the Pine Ridge Reservation in July 1999 and the Navajo Nation in April 2000. After that, no President visited a reservation for more than 75 years. In the 1920s, President Roosevelt visited Pine Ridge.

For decades, the Pine Ridge Reservation located in Shannon County, SD topped the list of poorest counties in the United States. As of 2012, it ranked number three according to MSN Money, and Ziebach County on the Cheyenne River Reservation ranked as the poorest. Cheyenne River is also in South Dakota.

President Obama - Social JusticePresident Obama says his trip to Cannon Ball, ND is all about the poverty Native Americans face. He hopes to hear from tribal leaders as well as Native youth about successes and challenges they face daily. On June 5, 2014, President Obama wrote in Indian Country Today Media Network that he will “announce new initiatives to expand opportunity in Indian country by growing tribal economies and improving Indian education.”

President Obama acknowledges “the history of the United States and tribal nations is filled with broken promises.” However, he believes the U.S. has turned a corner, upholding agreements with tribal nations, respecting tribal sovereignty, and giving indigenous peoples a fair chance at the American Dream. Still, when it comes down to making the tough decisions about funding, federal shutdown, and sequestration, or projects such as the Keystone XL Pipeline, issues of tribal sovereignty and treaty funding seem to become less clear. Let’s hope this really is a new day that advances tribal self-determination and economies so that every Native American can share in the bounty of America.

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Native American Film Series: “Rez Bomb”

Outside the sky flashes with lightning, thunder rumbles, and I’m inside sitting on my couch hoping the power doesn’t go out before I finish writing this blog. What’s more, I’m thinking about how to introduce this next film in our Native American Film Series and suddenly realize the irony of my situation. There is a connection between what is going on around me and the volatile love story in Rez Bomb (2009).

Relationships, like thunderstorms, are something powerful, sacred, mysterious, that come and go with the winds they are blown in on.

Filmed primarily on and around the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, Rez Bomb is the story of a love challenged by the world around it and the situations in which Scott (Trent Ford) and Harmony (Tamara Feldman) find themselves.

An unlikely couple, a young Lakota woman from Pine Ridge and a young man from an affluent white family, Scott and Harmony have no one but themselves. Isolated by their families and living in one of the poorest places in the United States, their love is pushed to the breaking point when they fail to scam a local gambler (Russell Means) using money they borrowed from the only loan shark (Chris Robinson) on the reservation.

With less then 24 hours to pay back the loan shark, each passing second chips away at Scott and Harmony. While they do their best to make things right between them, their families, and those they owe, every step forward puts them two steps back.

As love and trouble unfold for Scott and Harmony, Rez Bomb explores the crises at the heart of a story on Pine Ridge. Both Scott and Harmony are shaped by the poverty, alcoholism, violence, racism, sadness and anger present there. While the film addresses these issues in sometimes powerful ways, often the point intended misses its mark. Perhaps this is partly the result of the Scottish-born Steven Lewis Simpson serving as the writer, director, producer, and editor of Rez Bomb. So, if you watch the film, understand that the issues in the film are real and serious, despite how the film may present them.


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Memorial Day & Military Service: A Native Tradition

As I reflect on Memorial Day, I consider the sacrifices made by so many citizens of the United States to serve in times of need. And I consider the contribution made by my own people, the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate, and the thousands of other tribal members that have fought alongside the United States over the decades in the many world wars and armed conflicts around the world.

Here are a few of the ways Native Americans have served the United States military:

  • 90% of the 45,000 Native Americans volunteered to serve in Vietnam
  • Native Americans have the highest rate of military service per capita of any ethnic group
  • More than 10,000 Native Americans volunteered for WWI service, even though most were not recognized as U.S. citizens at the time
  • Native Americans during WWII invested more than $50 million in war bonds and also contributed generously to the American Red Cross and other relief agencies

But, I think, at least for me, the meaning goes much deeper than this.  It reflects a culture of warriors who have it within themselves to serve with honor… to fight when a fight needs to be made… and to honor their lives and life in general by doing what is right, by defending purpose and integrity. As such, these quotes really stick with me:

We honor our veterans for their bravery and because by seeing death on the battlefield, they truly know the greatness of life. –Winnebago Elder

When I went to Germany, I never thought about war honors, or the four “coups” that an old-time Crow warrior had to earn in battle….But afterwards, when I came back and went through this telling of war deeds ceremony… lo and behold I [had] completed the four requirements to become a chief. –Crow World War II Veteran

The quotes speak to connecting with the deeper meaning of the warrior way, to our past as warriors… not blood lust in love with the fight, but rather the honorable reasons of why a warrior should fight and to do what is right for his people and for himself. My grandfathers fought to keep the culture and the values connected to that culture alive. You value this life that we are all given and you serve to protect that life and the people in it. You fight to honor yourself and to never give up until you have done what needs to be done for the good of those around you. A fellow Sisseton Wahpeton is a good example of this. Master Sergeant Woodrow Wilson Keeble personifies the Native American warrior spirit: honorable, selfless, and with a quiet humble strength.

So, I hope you enjoyed the video and the thoughts it raised for me, and I want to thank all those who have served or are serving in the United States military. Thank you, truly.

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Native Chiefs & Leaders: Cochise

Cochise, by Edward Curtis at

Cochise, by Edward Curtis at

I think a lot about what Cochise had to absorb as a Native American… the deceit and mistrust, the treachery by both the U.S.  and Mexico at the time.  I think about how his family members were killed with seeming impunity. There was violence from all sides – but it seemed to start with Cochise feeling that his people were not considered equals or deserving to share this world equally as co-habitants with other human beings, including the whites.  I think too about something Cochise said later in life:

Nobody wants peace more than I do. Why shut me up on a reservation? We will make peace; we will keep it faithfully. But let us go around free as Americans do. Let us go wherever we please.

These words resounded with me. They speak to the notion of freedom… the freedom to live as you please… the freedom to flourish and share in the same privileges enjoyed by others.  They speak to simply being human and wanting to be treated as such. And what a great irony that the very troops who sparked the violence against Cochise and his family and denied their freedom left to fight against slavery for the Union.

It has been stated that Apache do not choose their leaders. They recognize them for their leadership traits – and it seems evident that Cochise possessed every valuable trait for leadership. A Chiricahua Apache chief, Cochise lived in what is now southern Arizona and New Mexico.  It is unclear when he was born, but by most accounts it was sometime between 1812-1815. Described as physically well built and standing roughly 6 feet tall, Cochise was taller than most other Apache and this too attributed to his becoming a leader among his people.

Chiefs & Leaders - Cochise clipartLittle is known about his early life, but in 1861 a pivotal event occurred that would make Cochise very well-known among his contemporaries and to history. That February Apache raided a farm, took some cattle and kidnapped a young boy. Cochise and his band of Chiricahuas were blamed, and wrongly. When Cochise went to meet with the commanding officer Lieutenant George Bascom, he took members with him as a sign of trust members of his own family. But, Lieutenant Bascom still believed Cochise was responsible and held Cochise and his family hostage pending an admission of guilt. Cochise escaped by cutting through the tent with his knife.  Ultimately, Cochise’s brother and three other relatives were hung; his wife and son were spared.

This incident left Cochise with a bitter hatred for the Americans.  He could not understand why they thought he was lying and why they were so quick to react with grisly violence rather than diplomacy. It sparked many years of conflict with the United States.  When U.S. troops abandoned the military posts in Cochise’s territory to fight in the Civil War , Cochise fought to keep whites from entering his homelands.  He felt that only trouble could come from allowing whites to occupy the land the Apache called home.

In 1865 after the war, the violence escalated and the U.S. and Mexico, both trying to decimate the Apache, hunted them down.  It was a war of extermination to dispossess the Apache homelands in the Southwest. Not until 1871 did Cochise surrender, and only then when told the Apache could remain on their homeland. The Chiracahua Apache reservation was formed in 1872 and Cochise lived there for two years until his death in June 1874.

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