Come Together and Listen

IN MAY 2011, I found myself in France, sitting with brothers of the Taizé ecumenical monastic community, talking about the history of my people, the Lakota.

After evening prayer, the prior, Brother Alois, invited a few of us to join him for supper. This special gathering was held in the bedroom of Brother Roger, founder and first prior of the Taizé community. His room has been kept the way he left it when he died in 2005. The room held a small shelf filled with books, a few furnishings, and a table by the large window. The walls were painted a mango orange color that seemed to enhance the already spirit-filled space. The light in the room became warmer and softer as the sun set.

While eating we talked about many things related to the Lakota, in particular, and First Nations peoples in general. The brothers’ questions were heartfelt, and they listened intently to my every word. At some point during the conversation, I came to a new understanding. This time of breaking bread and conversation was a sacred time. It was Eucharist.

I was born and raised in South Dakota where my people, the Oglala Lakota, reside on the remnants of our original homeland that make up the Pine Ridge Reservation in southwestern South Dakota. One of my earliest memories is hearing the drum and singing late into the night and feeling the earth reverberate from the deep bass of the drum as both sound and feeling lulled my siblings and me to sleep.

Like most people, I knew very little about what the Taizé community actually does, other than their music. I owned a collection of chants on CD. I’d sung a couple of chants in English during worship services over the years. It wasn’t until Brother John from Taizé came to Pine Ridge in 2010, and I was asked to be his host, that their work for reconciliation became clearer to me.

The year before, Rita Teschner-Powell, vicar of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Vermillion, South Dakota, led a group of college students to Taizé. Among them were Tyson and Tyrone White of the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation.

“Apparently, we were like the first openly Lakota people to ever visit [Taizé],” Tyrone told The Rapid City Journal. The Taizé brothers were interested in these young Lakota men, and the Taizé focus on reconciliation and justice resonated with the young Lakota. Discussions with the group, especially on the issues of reconciliation between Native Americans and whites, led to the invitation for Taizé brothers to visit South Dakota.

In October 2010, Brother John (who was born in Philadelphia and joined the Taizé community in 1974) made Taizé’s first-ever trip to South Dakota. I spent a day with Brother John, taking him around the Pine Ridge Reservation. He met with then-tribal president Theresa Two Bulls (my aunt), prayed with the Christ Church Episcopal congregation at Red Shirt Table, and visited the Catholic Jesuit community at Red Cloud. We talked about the idea of reconciliation: what it means for Lakota, what it means for Taizé. He agreed there was a real need to do something ecumenically, given all the different denominations working on the reservation. Brother John took in all he saw and those he met in a deeply spiritual way. That’s the kind of people the brothers are. As Lakota, we would call him a “holy man.”

In 2011, Teschner-Powell, who had spent several months living at Taizé four years earlier, invited me to accompany her and a contingent of young people on a week-long pilgrimage to France to visit the community. This time there were four Lakota.

Rev. Teschner-Powell asked if I would celebrate the Eucharist in Lakota, as part of presiding at a worship service there. I readily agreed. It is always a deeply spiritual experience for me to say and hear my language in ceremony. Early one evening we gathered at the village church, a 1,000-year-old stone structure. Buildings that old are common on that side of the globe, but they are rare in North America—the pueblos in the Southwest are the only buildings on the continent that were constructed around the same time as the chapel in the village of Taizé. Structures such as the chapel and the pueblos are sacred spaces.

In preparing for the evening worship service, I tried to imagine all the worship services this chapel had held over the last 10 centuries and all the people who gathered to pray within these walls. It wasn’t easy to get my mind around it, but I realized that this would be the first time in this chapel’s millennium of history that the Eucharist would be celebrated in Lakota—in part because Christianity has been among the Lakota for only 140 years. As age goes in the Christian church, we are young, though as a people our Lakota culture goes back many generations.

At sunrise, I had worshiped in the old chapel with Russians. Their liturgy flowed from their Russian Orthodox tradition. Though I didn’t understand the words, the music was beautiful to my ears. As the evening service began, I saw that the small chapel space was packed, just as it had been at sunrise. We gathered to break bread and share the cup. We prayed and sang in the Lakota language. People were standing outside during the worship, as there was no room even to stand in the chapel. It was a great day. The Lakota language can now be counted among the many tongues that have filled the Taizé village chapel with prayer.

The Pine Ridge Indian Reservation has an estimated population of 40,000. Pieced together from scraps of the Oglala Lakota original homeland, the reservation is managed by a federal agency called the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). All the reservation’s governmental affairs are run by both the Oglala Sioux Tribal Council and the BIA. The Indian Health Service, another federal agency, operates our hospitals and clinics.

South Dakota’s Shannon County is also part of the reservation. For the past 30 years, it has been among the 10 counties with the lowest per capita income in the U.S. The 1980 census showed Shannon County to be the poorest county in America. By 2010, Shannon was the third poorest in the country—beat out in this sad race by South Dakota’s Todd County, which lies entirely within the Rosebud Indian Reservation, and Ziebach County, on the Cheyenne River and the Standing Rock Indian Reservations.

The stories recounted about the Oglala Lakota, the Pine Ridge Reservation, and the various historical leaders of the area trace a familiar pattern, using a litany of words such as poverty, high mortality rate, disease, diabetes, alcoholism, substance abuse, racism, gangs, and violence. The key historical events highlight the pattern: the 1890 Wounded Knee Massacre; a trail of broken treaties; the 1973 Siege at Wounded Knee. Without fail the names of long-gone and still-revered leaders are also mentioned: Crazy Horse, Red Cloud, Black Elk, Little Wound. The litany wraps up with something inspiring about Lakota pride in culture, tradition, and language, and that we have a deep, spiritually centered connection to the land. The conclusion is that the Black Hills in western South Dakota are sacred to the Lakota, and that the land was taken illegally. The rest of the story is simply details fleshing out this litany.

Most of the litany is true. But I’m not sure any good has come from this way of telling my people’s story. How have the Oglala Lakota benefited from this litany, since life on the reservation hasn’t changed in 30 years?—and some might argue it’s gotten worse.

In 2008, Minnesota marked its 150th year of statehood. Much was celebrated, but only part of the state’s history was highlighted. Left out were the Anishinabe and Dakota stories of how the state’s land was stolen from them. The land had natural resources. There were those who wanted to exploit those resources. There was money to be made.

In December 2012, another sesquicentennial will be marked: the 150th year since the Dakota Conflict of 1862. On Dec. 26, 1862, 38 Dakota warriors were hung in unison on a cold winter day, and the remaining Dakota people were imprisoned and then shipped out of the state, many of them to South Dakota. This is the one historical event on many people’s mind: The largest mass execution in America’s history. The hurt and anger are still present.

With the help of the brothers from Taizé, many Lakota, Dakota, and others are starting to plan a great gathering centered on reconciliation, prayer, and music. We envision a pilgrimage made up of young people from all points of North America and abroad arriving together at the Pine Ridge Reservation, forging community, doing the hard work of reconciliation.

Taizé’s idea of reconciliation is so simple: Come together and listen to God. Listen in silence in the face of great hurt and great troubles. Listen in the great power of our young people. Begin building a deep communion that will nurture us all. It can be a new beginning.

Rev. Canon Robert Two Bulls is the missioner of the Department of Indian Work and Multicultural Ministries for the Episcopal Church in Minnesota. He is also the vicar of All Saints Indian Mission in Minneapolis.

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