It’s a funny thing to say that Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota with its abject poverty, 80-85% unemployment, a life expectancy in the mid 40’s for men is actually probably my favourite place on earth and when I’m there I spend most of my time laughing my head off with the wonderful group of friends that I’ve gotten to know from all aspects of life on the reservation. But this is how it is for me. There is no denying that I’ve built a special connection with the reservation in the eleven years I’ve been going there on a regular basis after the repatriation of a Ghost Shirt from the Kelvingrove Museum in Glasgow first brought me there.
So I am heading back for three weeks and this time it is for a very special reason. Back in 1998 when I started to learn about Pine Ridge it had a lot to do with reading the remarkable autobiography of legendary American Indian Movement leader Russell Means. When I say legendary and many of you scratch your head in wonder of why you do not know the name is that racism is alive and well in the USA and you can see that most evidently in the reporting of current events and recent history. Russell instigated bigger civil rights actions than Malcolm X ever did. Some equalled the scale of activities of Martin Luther King and often exceeded the Black Civil Rights movement in terms of the violence thrown back at them by the US Government. Most famous is the Wounded Knee Occupation over 71 days in 1973 when members of AIM occupied the small village of Wounded Knee while residents still lived there and the Government with armoured personnel carrier and fighter planes flying overhead fired up to half a million bullets in on the activists. Amazingly only two AIM supporters were killed.
In the aftermath of 1974-76 Pine Ridge (where Wounded Knee is located) had a comparable rate of political murder and disappearance as Chile did under Pinochet. Of course this is not taught in Schools, the only thing that is remembered about the occupation today is that Marlon Brando turned down the Oscar for the Godfather in solidarity with AIM and began forging a close personal friendship with Russell. Amazingly I started to get to know Russell in 1999 and now we are very good friends and I am arriving to join him and others for his Sundance in the Black Hills of South Dakota, the most sacred of land for his people the Oglala Lakota. I dreamed about being at a Sundance in 1999 with Russell, their culture places great significance on dreams and it is truly a great honour to be invited by this great man to an event that was banned for many years by the US Government and thus for a non-Indian to be invited is a great gesture of trust and honour.
The Sundance starts on the 8th with the ceremonial Tree Day where the grounds are formally set for the dance and it finishes on the 13th with a feast and give away. Traditionally the leaders of the tribe had the least as it was considered a great honour to give away their goods. Something the Christian European settlers could never understand and tried to force the suppression of and enforce the ownership of land and property. But today give aways are still practised by the traditionals, horses, bison, etc. The final act of the Sundance is the host to give away to the participants. In spite of all the hardships people face purely to survive on the reservation to see such generosity still practised by some is a beautiful sight.
I am a bit in the dark over what to expect at the Sundance. We shall all be camping together for the time where Bison (often described as Buffalo on the Great Plains) roam freely. During the ceremony some of the men will pierce their flesh and have a sinew tied from their flesh to a Bison skull and then they’ll drag it around dancing till the flesh is torn free. Other similar offerings are made. For me I see a lot of Cultural Tourist from Europe with an idealised view of the traditional Lakota way of life for whom going to a Sundance would be their wet-dream. For me it is very different. For me my connection with the Lakota is not cultural but purely human and direct in an indescribably way but it’s a very clear thing that I and my Lakota friends feel. For me attending the Sundance is a great honour being bestowed by a great man upon me. But excitement I feel is spending a week in the wilderness disconnected from the insanity that has become modern life with all the fictions that we worry ourselves over. For me to shut my brain down from the fog of how many emails have come in since I last logged on and concern about a political situation in some far flung land. Just to commune with those around us and to get in tune with the natural world. The great beauty of the traditional Lakota is that they understand the different about what is real and what is an assumed reality. Of course the only downside is that I miss the kick off of the World Cup, but life is full of sacrifices :).
What amazes me most is that thing most glorious in life, how things you could not have imagine arise into reality. Twelve years ago Russell Means became a hero of mine when I read his book in my home in Scotland. Now I am sharing another chapter in our friendship together. How magical life can be. Oh and by the way, Marlon Brando and I have something in common, we’ve both helped bail Russell Means out of jail. Pity it wasn’t his looks or his talent very cool all the same.
Somehow I feel that this experience is going to lead to a shift in my evolution. Stay posted to find out.