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The Heart of Everything That Is

The Black Hills are sacred to the Sioux Indians. For 100 years they’ve been fighting to get them back, and they’re not giving up.

Sioux IndiansSioux Indians

Sioux Indians Reservation, 1980

Dave Buresh/The Denver Post/Getty

Pine Ridge, South Dakota

Outsiders know them as the Sioux, but they call themselves the Lakota — “the Allies.” They once claimed as their own more than 48 million acres in what is now the Dakotas, Nebraska, Wyoming and Montana, lands “set apart” by the United States government in the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie “for the absolute and undisturbed use and occupation of the Sioux.” That treaty was violated six years later when an expedition led by Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer discovered gold in the Lakota’s sacred Black Hills. After the massacre of Custer and his troops at Little Big Horn in 1876, Congress forced the Lakota to relinquish the Black Hills and to settle on reservations by threatening to cut off their food rations — a choice the Lakota remember as “sell or starve.”

The Lakota were not just defeated in battle and deprived of their lands. They were broken as a people. In 1882, the federal Indian agency banned their religion because Indian agents and army officers recognized it as a source of continuing resistance to white occupation; the government prohibited the sun dance, the vision quest and the seven sacred ceremonies. The children of the Lakota attended government schools where they were forbidden to speak their own language.

The Lakota have been a defeated people ever since. Today their poverty is visible on a country road as a Lakota family passes by, its old Comet station wagon chugging along uncertainly. Or in the rickety frame houses of a remote settlement. One cold night on the Pine Ridge reservation I rode alongside a young man as he delivered a load of firewood to an elderly woman whose woodpile was exhausted. She lived in a sagging cabin, hardly bigger than a boxcar, without electricity or plumbing. It was heated by a wood stove, lit by a coal-oil lantern. Pine Ridge is in fact the poorest corner of America, the per capita income of the county the lowest in the nation.

When I first visited Pine Ridge as a young reporter more than fifteen years ago, I experienced the culture shock of visiting a third-world country — only this poverty was right here in abundant America. I was stunned by the harshness of life on the reservation, by the despair in the faces of the young people in the village streets. Some were beautiful faces, recalling the picture-book Indians that children study in school; others were pocked and bloated, with the vacant eyes of young addicts. And as I came to understand more about the Sioux on later visits, the more skeptical I became that any government solution could erase their problems. It was not only the economic barrenness of the reservation or the imperious bureaucracy governing their affairs that crippled the Lakota, for they were a divided people, trapped in bitter arguments, uncertain of their own future.

The Pine Ridge reservation was like a welfare state. Nearly everyone was dependent on the government, and the ambitious quarreled over the scraps of poverty politics. Full bloods resented mixed bloods. “Assimilationists,” trying to adapt to white culture, were stubbornly resisted by “traditionalists,” who clung to old ways. The 80,000 Lakota still living on or near the reservations were pitted against each other by history. Rivalries among the eight reservations — Pine Ridge, Crow Creek, Cheyenne River, Rosebud and the others — were compounded by the differences among the original Lakota tribes: the Oglala, the Minneconjou, the Hunkpapa and the rest. The more I understood these complicated arguments, the more dismal the future seemed to me.

I think now that I was wrong. Something was stirring among the Lakota even then — a vague but powerful sense of their own heritage. Some young people were taking up old ways and talking to elderly shamans about old secrets. Children were encouraged to study Lakota and to learn the rituals once outlawed. At the time, this cultural revival struck me as a pleasing development but hardly significant alongside the grave conditions on the reservations. When I returned to Pine Ridge after many years, though, I sensed an exciting difference. All of the old arguments continue, the bitter quarrels endure. Yet the Lakota seem to have begun to find a fragile basis for unity, a way to rise above the old arguments of history.

At the heart of this nascent struggle for unity are the Black Hills — the sacred ground the Lakota lost 110 years ago, the core of their spiritual inheritance. After decades of litigation, the federal government finally agreed in 1980 to make restitution to the Lakota for the vast lands confiscated from them a century ago. The United States at that time awarded them nearly $105 million for the Black Hills of South Dakota and offered another $39 million for the surrounding lands in other states.

But these Indians have done something astounding. In the money-mad Eighties, they have refused white America’s conscience money. Nearly $200 million dollars—counting interest—sit uncollected in Washington, D.C. For some Lakota families, cashing in would mean thousands of dollars. But even the poorest people on the reservations — where the median annual income is $3,500 — won’t touch it. The Lakota want the Black Hills back.

‘We cannot sell our mother’

“We are like the jews,” Patrick Janis says defiantly. “The Jews always had it in their minds to come back to Israel, and for 2,000 years it was impossible, but they did it. The same with us. Someday we’re going to do it. We’re going to get back the Black Hills if the people really want it in their hearts.”

Janis, 29, tall and square-shouldered, his coarse, wavy hair braided tightly, is himself a fair example of the spiritual revival among the Lakota. Like many Indians, he is of mixed blood — his great-grandfather was one of the white men who served the Sioux chiefs as interpreters, married Indian women and raised their children as Lakota. Four generations later Patrick Janis grew up at Pine Ridge, an angry and alcoholic teenager.

“I was drinking bad, getting in trouble, taking drugs, driving around shooting at people — trying to prove I was a man,” he says. Like young Indians on reservations everywhere, Janis saw another America on television and recognized there was no place for him in it. Anything “Indian” was an embarrassment, especially those elders who still mumbled that stuff about spirits and animal brothers and the sacred earth.

“Finally, I decided to quit drinking,” Janis says. “I met a guy who was a medicine man, who told me things. He let me sweat with him in the sweat lodge, and I liked it. I started learning how to pray.” At twenty-two, after much doubt and meditation, Patrick Janis undertook a once forbidden ritual, the vision quest known as hambleceya. For four days and four nights, he fasted alone on a wilderness peak, seeking guidance from the spirits. “I got a vision up there,” he says “which I can’t tell you — it’s personal and sacred — but it was a vision against alcoholism. It told me to fight against it and protect the children. After I got okay with the spirits, they gave me a medicine man to work with, and I started helping others to sweat. It was good, made them feel good to pray and get clean, but afterward a lot of them started drinking again.”

Like many of the young people today, Janis cannot speak Lakota, except for a few words and phrases. He studies old texts left by long-dead holy men, like Blue Horse and Good Seat, which were written down in English by white men. Janis does not pretend that his prayers and rituals are perfect replicas of theirs, but he knows he is speaking with the same spirits.

“I’m still being tested,” he says. “The spirits told me, ‘Practice humility. Don’t hurt anyone around you. Learn how to pray.’ I’m still in the process of learning how to pray.” Over the last generation, Lakota ritual and belief has regained vitality, expressed in the communal sun dances held every summer and in individual quests like Janis’s. Most of the Lakota have probably not undergone such an awakening. Their gods are still money and booze, as Janis says, and they do not understand all this talk about the sacred Black Hills.

But even the weak and ignorant respond to the issue. Perhaps they recall fragments of what their grandmothers told them as children. Or spooky prophecies they heard from the medicine men around the village. For generations, the Lakota have told their young that if the day ever comes when they sell the Black Hills, all life on earth will perish.

Gerald Clifford — the coordinator of the Black Hills steering committee, which was organized by the eight tribal councils as part of the effort to regain ownership of the hills — has witnessed the same eerie moment in dozens of meetings among the Lakota. “When the question of taking the money comes up,” Clifford says, “sometimes the talk gets hot and heavy, and people argue. But there’s always a moment in these meetings, sooner or later, when someone gets up and gives what might be called the Sacred Earth Speech. What they say, one way or the other, is this: ‘The Black Hills is our mother. We cannot sell our mother.’ There’s always an uncanny silence that follows. No one can speak against that. The debate is over.”

We cannot sell our mother, even for $200 million.

Sioux Nation of Indians v. United States of America

In 1876, when the treaty commissioners were imploring Chief Red Cloud to sign away the Black Hills, a warrior named Little Big Man rode into the encampment “singing of bad things to come,” as one witness later testified. “He shouted, but they held him back, then he said, ‘I will kill any among you that will sell the Black Hills.'”

In 1889, an Oglala leader named Iron Hawk declared to a delegation from Washington, “The Great Spirit has made me and put me on this land, and when he put me here, he made a heart for me, and that is the Black Hills. . . . This land is the Great Spirit’s wife, and I am born from there and my heart comes from there. I am Lakota, and I am standing on my own land. . . . We will not sell the land.”

In 1918, Eli He Dog, an elderly Sioux chief, made a notarized statement at Pine Ridge, detailing how most chiefs had refused to sell the Black Hills and recounting the long struggle to reclaim them. “I don’t know that this will do me any good to make this statement,” He Dog testified, “but it may do my children or grandchildren some good. I have been working on this Black Hills claim now for twenty-five years. . . . When I first started this matter, I went all over the reservation, and over $1150 was collected and counted at Manderson to pay expenses of delegates to go to Washington.”

In 1980, a group of Lakota elders — among them Charles Wisespirit, headman and healer; Stanley Looking Horse, pipe keeper and healer; and Vance Brings Pipe, singer and healer — sent a resolution to the United States Court of Claims objecting to a lawsuit being litigated in their name.

Sioux Nation of Indians v. United States of America is probably the longest-running lawsuit in the history of American jurisprudence. Since it was filed in 1923, the lawsuit has always been, despite the opposition of the Lakota, about financial restitution — never about restoring the Black Hills to their rightful guardians. The point is, none of these Lakota witnesses ever counted for anything in the American judicial system: their pleas and objections were ignored for more than sixty years in federal court.

“The records show,” Clifford says, “that the tribes have consistently wanted the land back, but the attorneys have always said, ‘That’s fine, but that’s impossible. We will get you the money instead.’ For a hundred years, whenever the question came up, you can always find in the records that the Indians said, ‘We want the Black Hills back.'”

A generation of Washington lawyers grew old tending the case; when they died, a new generation took their place. In 1942, the case was dismissed on technical grounds, only to be reinstated eight years later. At last, in 1974, a claims commission set up by Congress awarded the Lakota $17.5 million for the Black Hills, plus $85 million in accumulated interest. The Justice Department objected to the payment of interest and appealed to the United States Court of Claims, which dismissed the claim on technical grounds even as it conceded, “A more ripe and rank case of dishonorable dealings will never, in all probability, be found in our history.”

Finally, in 1980, an award of $105 million for the Black Hills was upheld by the Supreme Court. It was the largest Indian-claims settlement ever awarded, but it was not as magnanimous as it sounds. In 1923, the first lawyer for the tribes calculated their loss at $500 million in land, timber and minerals. In today’s dollars, that’s the equivalent of about $2.5 billion. According to one estimate, the Black Hills mines alone have yielded more than $2 billion in gold, not to mention uranium and other ores.

But even as they arrived at this settlement, the lawyers in Washington were hearing angry noises from their clients on the reservations. For years, the elected tribal governments had supported the litigation, but now they were under increasing pressure at home, both from traditional leaders and from young activists who wanted the tribes to reject the award and to pursue their original goal — the return of the Black Hills. One by one, the eight tribal councils passed resolutions refusing the settlement of their claim, demanding the land instead.

Caught in the middle, the Lakota’s Washington lawyers went ahead and won the money. (They took ten percent of that — more than $10 million — in attorneys’ fees.) In 1983, when the federal judge told the attorneys to visit the reservations and persuade their clients to take the claims money, the lawyers expressed some reluctance.

One lawyer, Marvin Sonosky, explained that on his last visit to Sioux country, angry crowds had run him off three reservations. “And now you want me to go back out into that country and sell them the same proposition because you put it down on paper?” Sonosky asked. “It cannot be done, and I owe it to my family not to expose myself to that kind of risk again.” Today lawyers on the case still shuffle papers and appear in court. The Lakota still will not accept the award. The money still accumulates interest in the Treasury Department. And Sioux Nation of Indians v. United States of America languishes in a legal limbo, a living monument to the mysteries of the white man’s law.

‘The heart of everything that is’

Charlotte Black Elk, a slender woman with large, serious eyes behind horn-rimmed glasses and gleaming long black hair, believes she was raised for this moment of history. She grew up in a canyon settlement called Manderson, a pocket of resistance where the clan of Crazy Horse settled after the Indian wars. When she was a girl, children in Manderson were still taught to speak Lakota and told the stories of the old faith.

Charlotte’s long-ago grandfathers include holy men and distinguished rebels — Hollow Horn, Plenty Wolf, Sun Dreamer, Black Elk. Hollow Horn performed a sun dance at Manderson in 1929 in defiance of the Indian agency; Black Elk became famous after he revealed to a white scholar the holy vision he received on Harney Peak in the Black Hills, which became the widely read book Black Elk Speaks.

Despite generations of repression, men organized as Those Who Speak of Sacred Things kept the secrets alive. As a child, Charlotte Black Elk listened and remembered. “This activism has been 100 years in the making,” she says. “People knew exactly what they were doing. The elders taught us to get an education and learn to speak English better than the white people because, they said, ‘Someday you’re going to fight this battle.’

“The elders said to us, ‘We lost one generation to the civilizers and the Christians. We lost another generation to the traumatic change and alcohol.’ They said our generation would be the last — if we did not fight the battle — because the others would go the way of the drugs or choose not to be Lakota. This was the obligation placed on the grandchildren.”

Charlotte Black Elk and her husband, Gerald Clifford, live now in a snugly modern house near Manderson. Gerald and Charlotte work in a cluttered little bedroom office, collecting evidence, planning strategy, exchanging information with a network of activists on eight reservations. Part of their time is devoted to collecting and codifying the testimony of long-dead Lakota warriors.

Despite what the court records in Washington show, the Lakota insist they were never willing to sell the Black Hills for money or to relinquish their sacred ground. To prove this point, Charlotte hits a button on her computer, and rattling out of an Epson printer comes Little Big Man’s threat to the white man and Iron Hawk’s oath of fealty to the land. Other voices are preserved on disc as well: Eli He Dog in 1918, John Hollow Horn in 1928, Charles Wisespirit in 1980. They all testify that the Lakota have never agreed to give up the sacred land.

The political objective of the steering committee is to recover the Black Hills, but the fundamental purpose is to restore the Lakota to self-responsible lives. They have to convince Congress that this is plausible — but they also must convince the people themselves. Their evidence is the voices of Lakota leaders stretching over 100 years, now stored in the computer.

Because she is bilingual and articulate in both languages, Charlotte works on sacred texts, writing down the oral legacy she heard as a child, first in Lakota, then in English, to rekindle the spiritual flame for those who no longer speak their mother tongue. She also accumulates corroborating evidence — historical, geological, biological — that demonstrates the coherence and authenticity of the Lakota legends.

It took an entire year to tell the Lakota origin legend in full, Charlotte says. The origin story is their Genesis, a rich expression of belief, both mysterious and logical, explaining every aspect of life and the cosmos. At her kitchen table one evening, I ask her to recount a little of it. “At the time of first motion,” Charlotte begins, “before anything has meaning, Inyan is. The spirit of Inyan is beyond understanding. . . . Inyan is soft and supple. And the power of Inyan flows from his blood. . . .

“Then Inyan desires there to be another, but there could be no other unless Inyan created it of himself, so all things are forever a part of Inyan. He takes of himself and shapes a disk. This he wraps over and around himself. He names this new being Maka, the earth. Then he desires that Maka be great, so he opens his veins. He allows his blood to run freely. All of Maka is great, but her heart is more great and special, and it stands first of all the places of Maka. Inyan’s blood becomes water, the blue of the blood becomes sky, containing the power. Each new thing is issued part of Inyan’s power and spirit and meaning.

“Maka desires a covering. The covering of Maka will be created as a part of her, forever attached to her, and she will nourish it from herself. Maka takes of herself and creates her covering. These she calls her children. People of the Four Relations are created: the Growing and Moving Things, the Winged, the Four-Legged, the Two-Legged. Of the Two-Legged are Bear and Humans. Humans are created from materials of the earth. Woman is shaped first, then Man. . . . Inyan gives so much of himself that he loses suppleness. He becomes hard and brittle, the oldest living thing, the stone.”

Like Genesis, the Lakota legends recall a fall from grace, a time of judgment when the people were expelled from paradise — not from the garden of Eden but from the center of the earth. The spirits, like fallen angels, were dispersed as well to govern the seasons, the four winds and all other living things. The people who call themselves the Lakota emerged from caves in the Black Hills, Wamaka Og’naka Icante in sacred vocabulary. Charlotte translates it as “the heart of everything that is.”

As she is talking, she rushes away from the kitchen and returns with an infrared photograph of the Black Hills taken from a satellite in space. From a vantage point miles above the earth, the mountains look like a copperish, pulsing muscle. “The darn thing really is a heart,” she says triumphantly.

“If you don’t really know the origin legend, it’s hard to comprehend why the Indians say the earth is sacred or the Black Hills is sacred,” Charlotte says. “What we find when we sit down with Indian people and explain it, people will say suddenly, ‘That’s what my grandmother told me!’ A lot of this feeling is buried under the surface. We have to bring it out and talk about it openly.”

Her husband, Gerald Clifford, 47, light skinned, with long black hair, approached the spirits from an entirely opposite angle. Clifford grew up on Pine Ridge, too, but he never learned to speak Lakota. Like Patrick Janis, he is a mixed blood, descended from an interpreter for Chief Red Cloud who married into the tribe. His father was a coach at the Catholic mission school, and his mother wanted him to be a Catholic priest, but Clifford studied engineering and wound up designing missile components for an aerospace company in Los Angeles. Uncomfortable with urban culture and disgusted with what he was doing with his life, he retreated into his Catholic religion, living for six years under the stern rules of solitude and prayer at a monastery. Finally, it dawned on him: his search for spirituality ought to begin at home. Like many young Indians educated during the upheaval of the Sixties, Clifford returned to the reservation. He began meeting with other young men who had returned to Pine Ridge and were now asking the same question: What does it mean to be an Indian?

“We essentially rejected the assimilation thing,” he says. “We said to ourselves, ‘It’s good to be an Indian. We’re going to be Lakota, whatever that is.’ I found there was this tremendously rich spiritual heritage that I was part of by inheritance. I’d been kept from it. Now I had to learn it.”

Clifford studied Lakota and learned to pray with the pipe, to fast and sweat, to call upon the spirits as his ancestors had done. And slowly he began to see a convergence between the Catholic and Lakota faiths in the figure of Jesus. “When the missionaries first came, Lakotas were very impressed with Jesus,” he says. “They thought Jesus was a very good Lakota. He fasted on a mountaintop. He talked to the winds and the birds. He did the ultimate thing — dying so the people would live.”

Equipped with his seminary training, Clifford explored the theological principles embedded in the Lakota legends and discovered what set them apart from Christianity — and what was valuable in them for everyone.

“In the Judeo-Christian origin story,” he says, “God ousted man from the garden and said that the earth would produce thorns and thistles and man was going to have to work by the sweat of his brow to survive and he would have to dominate the earth, to subdue it. But the Lakota origin story says that the earth is the mother who nourishes everything. It teaches respect for all living things, all related to one another. That’s an important difference.

“When you look at what ails this society, the willingness to treat the earth as a commodity that can be used up, the Lakota have a lot to offer other people. What we do today is not for us alone; it’s for our children and our children’s children. What we do today must not dishonor our grandfathers. If we can bring people around to this theological principle — a way of thinking that is broader in time — it’s going to benefit the entire society, not just the Lakota.”

Greetings from the Flintstones

The prairie in winter appeared burned yellow, the color of old straw, and empty as the open sea. Dusted with new snow, the grass glowed as though brushed by light. Driving across it alone, I briefly glimpsed what the Indians perhaps meant by their talk of the sacred earth. The empty landscape — rolling, dimpled prairie in every direction — first produced a moment of euphoria, the buoyancy of utter solitude. Against this endless land and sky, I felt small and insignificant.

In the distance I saw the Black Hills rising like a natural sanctuary over this harsh and humbling landscape: a few dozen miles northwest of Pine Ridge, the Black Hills hover over the vacant prairie like a dark green battlement. For generations, these hills were the sacred retreat of the Plains Indians. Even today, thousands of Lakota and Cheyenne return there each year seeking religious renewal. But now the Indians who undertake vision quests have to avoid the swarms of tourists visiting roadside attractions like the Life of Christ Wax Museum, the Reptile Gardens, Bear Country U.S.A., the Sitting Bull Crystal Caverns and Flintstone’s Bedrock City.

Politically, the Lakota’s objective of regaining the Black Hills looks impossible. Owned mainly by the National Park Service and the National Forest Service of the federal government, the Black Hills and their tourist attractions have become central to the commerce of western South Dakota. It takes an act of great faith to believe that the Congress of the United States of America would turn its back on the Flintstones and Christ merely to restore these sacred mountains to their rightful trustees.

One political leader who believes it can be done is Senator Bill Bradley of New Jersey, a practical, serious man who is hardly a romantic about the Indians or anything else. When he was playing for the New York Knickerbockers, Bradley conducted summer basketball clinics for the children of Pine Ridge, where he first heard the old stories about the Black Hills — about their sacred meaning and unjust theft. With Senator Daniel Inouye of Hawaii, he is cosponsoring a bill, S. 705, based on the recommendations of Gerald Clifford’s Black Hills steering committee.

The measure would restore 1.3 million acres of land held by the federal government to the shared ownership of the Lakota tribes. It would establish a Sioux national park, owned by the Lakota and comanaged by the tribal governments and federal agencies. Neither privately held land nor federal installations such as Mount Rushmore would be disturbed. “This goes to the core of who we are as a people and what it means to be an American,” Bradley says. “I am confident that over time justice will prevail.”

It’s only a beginning, of course, but the legislation would be, as the senator calls it, “a new chapter.” The young Lakota are trying to take what the old taught them and imagine a different future for their people, free of dependency on government handouts and responsible for their own lives. Enactment of the bill would not suddenly overcome generations of poverty, but it would fuse the practical with the spiritual. The Lakota would be compelled to work out their old differences and to manage the land wisely and well. At the same time, restoration of the land would restore their spiritual principles — a religion that promises its own healing powers for a people deeply wounded by history.

“Our relationships to one another as Lakota are defined by our relationship to the earth,” Gerald Clifford says. “Until we get back on track in our relationship to the earth, we cannot straighten out any of our relationships to ourselves, to other people.”

And the rest of America, if it listens closely, might even learn something about itself — about the mystery and the morality of our own relationship to the earth and about our history. Among the Lakota legends is a terrible prophecy that seems especially relevant to the nuclear age, a warning that mankind must reconcile itself to creation or someday face destruction. Charlotte Black Elk’s great-grandfather, John Hollow Horn, uttered the prophecy nearly sixty years ago when he danced the outlawed sun dance in Manderson: “A day will come in your lifetime when the earth, your mother, will beg you, with tears running, to save her. Ho, if you fail to help her, you [the Lakota] and all people will die like dogs. Remember this.”

Prayers to Inyan

On a chill winter evening, Charlie Bear Robe stoked the huge bonfire in a back yard in the village of Pine Ridge. A cover of fresh snow encircled the fire, and Bear Robe poked at a heap of stones buried in the flames. One by one, as the stones glowed red-hot, Bear Robe removed them from the fire with a pitchfork and placed them inside a low domed tent, the ini tipi. The tent was perfectly round, constructed with bent willow saplings in the way Lakota have always made the sweat lodge, only this one was covered with canvas tarpaulin instead of animal skins. A small altar of stones and forked sticks stood before the opening of the ini tipi, and as other people gathered by the fire, each one paused to place a small offering there.

Patrick Janis and the others began to disrobe discreetly in the cool night air. Tonight Janis would serve as the eryeska, the interpreter who calls forth Inyan in the darkness of the sweat lodge, and perhaps hear from the spirits. “We pray to the rock spirits because we have lost confidence in our lives,” Janis said. “We want to start over, to be born again. This is the womb of our mother. We go back into the womb and cast out all the bad things. When we come out, we are cleansed.” By the firelight, the ini tipi did resemble the rounded belly of a pregnant woman rising from the earth.

When all were huddled inside the sweat lodge, they became disembodied voices in the darkness, four men and six women squatting in a close circle around the glowing stones. Patrick’s voice rose in a plaintive invocation, joined occasionally by murmured assents from the others.

“Grandfather, pity us,” he called. “A lot of our people are in hard times. They are confused. They have problems that lead them to hurt one another. Pity them, Tunkasila. Take this water and purify them.” A dipper of water was dashed on the hot stones, and steam filled the darkness — an intense bath of moist heat that pressed against one’s breath and overwhelmed thought. Janis’s invocation echoed a sweat-lodge prayer recorded on this reservation eighty years ago: “Sweat-lodge stones, pity me! Sun, pity me! Moon, pity me! Darkness of the night, pity me! Water, standing in a wakan manner, pity me! Grass, standing in the morning, pity me! Whatever pitiful one is scarcely able to crawl into the tipi and lie down for the night, see him and pity him.”

Charlie Bear Robe sang a mournful, nasal chant, and Janis prayed again. Orville Looking Horse, a schoolteacher, sang another Lakota hymn and was joined by the others. Led by Janis, the worshipers began a round of prayers, each one expressing whatever he or she felt most urgently. Four times, after each round of prayers, the tent flap was opened for a spell of coolness, then closed again. More water was offered to the stones, more overwhelming steam filled the darkness and erased the boundaries of self.

Their prayers were about elemental things: for the troubled children, for someone who was sick, for another whose father died. They asked the spirits to heal ailments and help the alcoholics, to comfort the lonely old people and see that they had firewood. Modest prayers, humble requests.

When the stones no longer glowed, the ini tipi became totally dark, a warm, floating void, strangely comforting. Janis announced the presence of spirits and spoke for them. As he talked, the black emptiness was punctuated by small sparkles of light, like miniature stars dancing among our voices. Even I could see them.

When the people emerged from the ini tipi into the cold night air, they felt cleansed and refreshed and once again whole.

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