Bear Solider Wacipi and Honoring Veterans

Sunday, July 8, was filled with Lakota culture and thoughts. In the morning we met with Sandy Frazier in Eagle Butte. Sandy and Carolyn Rittenhouse are family members. When I called Sandy on the phone, she immediately invited us over for breakfast and coffee and to talk. Wonderful talking….we talked tribal politics, history of the Lakota people, health care, problems on the reservation today, plans for the future, and more. Bob Walters, a member of the Cheyenne River Tribal Council and Sandy’s brother, came to join us and shared his experiences. We were able to start to get a good sense of where McDaniel students and members of the Cheyenne River Reservation may connect. Afterwards, we weeded Sandy’s garden for her. She wasn’t able to get to it herself because she had hurt her leg a few weeks ago. So, we cleared out the weeds and I scored some Egyptian Walking Onions from Sandy’s garden to plant at home.

Weeding Aunt Sandy’s garden.

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We had planned to go to Mobridge, SD. for the day, but on Saturday, I had found out that there was a wacipi (dance) in McLaughlin, SD (Standing Rock Reservation). We headed up the road for the wacipi instead. You and I, on the east coast, would call a wacipi a Pow Wow, however many of the Lakota call them by their original name. This wacipi was hosted by the Bear Solider community. We arrived and were greeted by some of the people there. Unlike an east coast Pow Wow, we were the only non-Native people in attendance. But just like the Pow Wows I have been to on the east coast the were age and style categories of dancing. Fancy shawl, jingle, and traditional for the women, and then fancy dance, grass, and traditional for the men. It was a great afternoon of just being able to sit in and take in the colors and sounds. There were probably about 8 drum circles from the surrounding communities and they would rotate through the drums for the different dance songs. There was some great food (read: Fry Bread). There were intertribal dances and ceremonies to honor veterans.

I need to talk for a minute about Native American service in the armed forces. Remember the Red Cloud School statistic from this year? Six out of the 41 graduates of the school were going on to serve in the Armed Forces, over 10%. The Native American’s, as a group, have the highest percentage of their people serving in the Armed Forces. At the wacipi grounds, the dance area was surrounded by United States flags. Around 4:00 pm, the flags were lowered in a ceremony by members of the Armed Forces. As the ceremony unfolded, I discovered that all the flags being flown were given by members of the community who had a veteran, who had obviously passed away, in their family. The family donated the flag to the wacipi for the weekend and received it back at the end of the day on Sunday. The people who presented the flags back to the families were called caretakers and as the family accepted the flag back, they often gave a gift to the caretakers whether it was money, blankets, or feathers. Having the flags flown at the wacipi grounds for the weekend was a way to honor the memory of their family members.

I struggle with the collision of ideas (in my mind) of the service the Lakota people provide in the Armed Forces. At one point during the ceremony, as the caretakers and the families we dancing to honor all veterans, the announcer said “We honor our veterans because they have fought to keep us free.”. My first thought, was ‘you’re not free’ and my second thought was ‘how they can support a government through service that has treated then they way the US government has.’ As I watched the ceremony unfold however, it was clear that they were honoring the veterans, not the country. They were honoring the Lakota people who made them proud.

As a side note, and to continue the idea of these opposing views that go on, McLaughlin, SD is named for the military officer who ordered the arrest of Sitting Bull which ultimately resulted in his death as they tried to arrest him. Imagine living your life on the reservation in a town named for the person who is responsible for the death of one of your most honored leaders.

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