Thoughts on Standing Rock

Thoughts on Standing Rock

by Bobby Bridger


From 1984-1992 I published a quarterly sixteen page tabloid titled Hoka Hey! with a mission statement to build a bridge of communication between Indian and non-Indian people. I was honored that the late Dakota philosopher/author Vine Deloria, Jr. would occasionally let me publish one of his essays. Little did I suspect that one of those essays would inspire me to write a book. 

Vine’s 1992 essay, Sacred Lands and Human Understanding, offered Lakota philosopher Luther Standing Bear’s criteria concerning the process for non-Indians to become indigenous to North America: “The man from Europe is still a foreigner and an alien”, Standing Bear observed, “but in the Indian the spirit of the land is vested; it will be until other men are able to divine and meet its rhythm. Men must be born and reborn to belong. Their bodies must be formed of the dust of their forefathers bones.” Deloria’s essay elaborated on Standing Bear’s observation of the non-Indian’s five-hundred year presence in North America: “Although non-Indians are born in North America, they are not indigenous to North America and they remain strangers in a land they do not understand.They have not had sufficient time to set down roots that will enable them to understand America or themselves. American Indians are indigenous because we have paid attention to what the land is saying to us and where there are sacred places we have become a member of the community of those places, where there are holy places we have paid utmost respect, and where we have consecrated the land with our lives and blood we have truly become native to this land.”

These profound observations by two very important Sioux philosophersimplied a “indigenous disconnection” from North America by immigrants for over 500 years. But they also suggested that this fundamental disconnection might very well be the source of many of America’s long history of environmental mis-adventures. So I kept exploring this notion of “becoming indigenous” until it developed into the book Where the Tall Grass Grows: Becoming Indigenous and the Mythological Legacy of the American West, that was published by Fulcrum Books in Autumn, 2011. 

The following section from my “Tall Grass” book offers yet another perspective into this matter of the non Indian’s indigenous disconnect to North America: “Focusing on the American psyche in his Studies in Classic American Literature, D. H. Lawrence concluded in 1924 that American consciousness was incomplete. After examining the literature of James Fenimore Cooper, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry David Thoreau, Herman Melville, and Walt Whitman, Lawrence proclaimed the American Indian to be the source of the nation’s incomplete awareness. Lawrence believed that the Euro American’s rational mind imprisoned him in an authoritarian social structure, whereas Indians represented pure instinct and freedom and the true spirit of North America. Classic American literature revealed to Lawrence that the Euro American desperately desired the American Indian’s sense of spirit, place, and freedom, yet he invariably failed to embrace aboriginal America and thus become complete. Lawrence believed white Americans needed either to destroy Indians or to assimilate then into a white world to resolve the crisis. [Vine’s son] Philip J. Deloria points out in his book Playing Indian, however, that both of Lawrence’s solutions were ‘aimed at making Indians vanish from the landscape. But losing this unexpressed ‘spirit’ required a difficult, collective, and absolute decision: extermination or inclusion. It is a decision that the American polity had been unable to make or, on the few occasions when either policy has been relatively clear, to implement’.”

It is interesting that Lawrence did not suggest that non Indians consider what it might entail to explore finally becoming indigenous to North America. One wonders if he even thought it possible. Instead non Indians made rational treaties with Indians; treaties worded with flowered biblical/legal language suggesting an eternal contract, but entered into with fleeting intentions. 

Lawrence wrote that piercing perception of the American psyche in 1924. In the spring of 2016, however, over 300 North American tribes and hundreds of non-Indians began gathering at Standing Rock united in non-violent resistance to a pipeline the U.S. Corps of Engineers planned to burrowunder the Missouri River, thus threatening the water for everyone downstream. Early into the effort to halt the pipeline those gathered were also very careful to define themselves as “protectors” rather than “protesters”. This designation is vital in that it included both Indian and non-Indian people into the effort while it also elevated the argument to a spiritual plane and simultaneously linked the cause with the legality of treaties signed in “upmost good faith”, between the United States and the patchwork of sovereign Indian Nations spread throughout the Great Plains states -where the tall grass grows. More important than my “Tall Grass” book, John G. Neihardt’s Black Elk Speaks kept creeping slowly back into my thoughts as the weeks dragged into months at Standing Rock and the people gathering there swelled into the thousands. As more non Indians joined the encampment it was becoming increasingly clear Standing Rock was the first major unified Indian/non Indian confrontation defending environmental rights.

With the November election of Donald Trump to the U.S. Presidency, however, it became clear that the dangerous era of political polarization that has been evolving steadily in America since the dawning of the counterculture movements of the 1960s has now crystalized. As Americans face the hard reality of Trump actually about to take control of the most powerful nation in the world, solidarity postings and photos of celebrities in T-Shirts “Standing with Standing Rock” exploded on social media and mainstream media coverage finally responded in kind. As the Standing Rock movement began to rapidly spread on social media many began to look to the Standing Rock encampment as a ray of hope for rational environmental consciousness as a sort of antidote to the darkness that Trump’s reign promises. Here it is very important to remember that Indian spiritual leaders -including the Keeper of the Sacred Pipe of the Sioux Nation, Chief Arvol Looking Horse- have been part of the Standing Rock encampment from the very start. Perhaps something of larger mythological importance is emerging now at Standing Rock. 

I’ll return my focus to “Becoming Indigenous”, the title of my introduction to Where the Tall Grass Grows:“…Early into my research into Plains Indian culture I was introduced to the Falling Star creation myth of the Lakota. Among many other mystical aspects of the culture, upon encountering the Falling Star myth I began to realize the unique landscape of the Trans-Missouri gave birth to the creation myths of the tribes of the Great Plains and Upper Rockies. This inspired the notion that when Euro Americans first encountered the Trans-Missouri while crossing the continent during the Great Migration of the nineteenth century, the very same landscape also produced the first genuine, collective, ‘Old World’ mythology in North America. America’s western expansion into the Trans-Missouri figured importantly in the beginning of the Civil War, and the fact that America immediately returned to the region with a renewed metaphorical intensity after the Civil War to create the Transcontinental Railroad as a symbol of national unity is a clear implication that this region held vital mythological significance to both non-Indian and Indian culture. Moreover, the mythology, religion, and culture of the nineteenth century Plains Indian culture -particularly expressed in Neihardt’s “Black Elk Speaks”- has since the mid-twentieth century been absorbed and spread by instantaneous electronic media and modern travel throughout a Pan-Indian culture of Indian nations within the United States as well as around the world. Equally significant, the enduring global success of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and Hollywood’s western movies have led the world to assume that all American Indians wear feathered war- bonnets, smoke peace pipes, and live in tipis -all cultural and religious accoutrements of Plains Indians. This led me to conclude the Trans-Missouri region to be the very cradle of America’s collective mythology -the sacred place our indigenous and immigrant nations will always return to when we need to collectively reinvent ourselves…”

Black Elk Speaks, as told through John G. Neihardt, was published in 1932 but was quickly remaindered to the out of print bins. Pioneer psychologist C.G. Jung discovered a copy while on a speaking tour in America and began urging the publication of a German translation and Black Elk Speaks began a slow rise to prominence in Europe that eventually led to its return to American bookstores in the early 1960s. In 1970 the astonishing success of his book Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, brought author Dee Brown to Dick Cavett’s popular talk show on ABC television. After the interview Brown suggested to Cavett that he should have John Neihardt on his program. A Nebraskan himself, Cavett quickly located Neihardt in Lincoln, Nebraska. Neihardt was in his 90s, nearly blind, but working on a proposed six-part autobiography. In 1971 Cavett brought Neihardt to New York as the single guest for his 90 minute program and sales of Black Elk Speaks instantly skyrocketed. Neihardt died two years later in 1973. 

By 1979 America’s foremost Indian spokesman Vine Deloria, Jr. proclaimed, “if any great religious classic has emerged in this century or in North America it has to be judged in the company of Black Elk Speaks.” Deloria also concluded that the most important aspect of the book is its impact on the contemporary generations of young Indian people searching for their roots in universal reality. The central theme of Black Elk Speaks is the holy man’s vision in which he prophesied a reunification of the Sacred Hoop of Indians Nations simply as a reunification of the hoops of many nations coming together in harmony.

Could we be seeing the first signs of Black Elk’s reunification vision emerging at Standing Rock? Considering this, it is also vitally important to anyone who knows the history of Sitting Bull and his renowned abilities of prophesy. Standing Rock was Sitting Bull’s home. It was where Sitting Bull lived and where he died. 

Prophesy aside, if nothing else the encampment at Standing Rock is the largest gathering of North American tribes in recorded history. Moreover, representatives of indigenous nations from all over the world are gathered at Standing Rock. As mentioned here earlier, the gathering defined itself -and the confrontation itself- from the beginning with spiritual and legal rights as “protectors”, thereby also opening the encampment to both Indian and non-Indian participation. It is also significant that the first Indian protectors gathered there around the concept of prayer and the principles of non-violent resistance that have been maintained by them throughout the entire stand-off. Even when provoked with such shameful tactics as attacks by vicious guard dogs, pepper-spray, tear-gas, arrest, numbered forearms, overnight imprisonment in dog kennels,being shot by rubber bullets, and being soaked by water cannons in sub-zero weather, the protectors have powerfully maintained their position of non-violent resistance. Protectors have even offered prayers for the spiritual harm the police are inflicting upon themselves by behaving barbarically. Perhaps most important, the non-Indian protectors have been encamped with powerful Indian spiritual leaders for months now and nearly all of them -especially celebrities- report they are having the most righteous religious experiences of their lives. 

Could Standing Rock be the sacred place where the power of light is simultaneously appearing as darkness descends on Washington? Are we all in training now for the environmental struggles yet to come?

I’m sure we’ll see this all play itself out in the days to come. Maybe I’m just seeing what I want to see here. I’ve made it abundantly clear long before the encampment at Standing Rock that I believe the Great Plains hold inherent mythological power for both Indian and non Indian people. I believe we reinvent ourselves in the Trans-Missouri or I wouldn’t have concluded my introduction to Where the Tall Grass Grows: Becoming Indigenous and the Mythological Legacy of the American West thusly… “The mythologies of the Indian and non-Indian fiercely collided in the Trans-Missouri during the nineteenth century, and this conflict has continued in various forms of legal, social, religious,technological, cultural, physical, and mythological violence ever since. Yet it also remains that even with this five-hundred year history of conflict duly noted, Black Elk’s vision prophesied a reunification of the hoops of many nations and races. Considering this, as well as Luther Standing Bear’s criterion for the non-Indian to become indigenous to North America, the continuing discord emanating from the Missouri River Country poses several important questions: Does a creative synthesis of these opposing perceptions of reality through the wisdom of Black Elk’s spirituality offer contemporary America mythological transcendence? And if so, how do we process, understand, incorporate, and reconcile Black Elk’s mythology with the dominant, non-Indian myth-making that subdued the indigenous nations of North America and plundered her natural resources, but, in doing so, created unprecedented opportunities for western civilization? Is reconciling these apparently contradictory mythological perceptions a pathway for non-Indians to become indigenous to North America? And finally, is Black Elk Speaks altering the mythological concept of the American hero, and, if so, what role does the Indian play in the evolution of the American archetype.”