Spiritual Journey

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Hau mitakuoyasin,

I have not disappeared from the Sacred Mother Earth, I have just been relishing in the wonders of Indian people, our beautiful homelands, and our graceful sacred ways. During these past two months, I have had the most marvelous experiences of my life at two of the tribal colleges. Both of those experiences were sacred, special, and life-changing.

Last year, Al Chandler called me and said he had a vision of restoring a long-forgotten ceremony among his people. His dream was simple in many ways, but extraordinarily difficult in reality. He wanted to honor five Indian people in the old way. He wanted to present them to the people and tell their story—a story of dedication to Indian people and education. I was shocked when he said he wanted me to be there to be honored. At the ceremony, Gerald Stiff Arm served as the eyapaha (Lakota for master of ceremonies) and his words were enlightening as well as intriguing. Gerald frankly stated that he had been around a long time and was not quite sure how to do this kind of honoring ceremony, since it had not been done in his lifetime. Al quietly explained each step of a delicate process, where each honoree was first wrapped in an intricately decorated buffalo robe designed and decorated specifically for the person. Tribal chairman Mark Azure followed this by putting a war bonnet on each person and presenting the honoree with a staff with four eagle feathers. The story of each person was recounted along with the reason why they were being honored. Chandler’s vision of renewing a sacred ceremony of the past was realized. My family and I were breathless and I will always be thankful for Al, his wife Carole Falcon Chandler, and the beautiful Aaniiih people.

My next experience was perhaps not as monumental as the “making a leader” ceremony, but it had a significant impact on my personal and spiritual life. My niece, Sunshine Archambault Carlow, who is an education program manager for the Standing Rock Sioux Nation, insisted that I attend the Lakota Language Institute at Sitting Bull College in Fort Yates, North Dakota. It was always my dream to speak the Lakota language. I signed on to attend the three-week Lakota Language Institute. The Institute has the moniker of being a “boot camp.” I did not know that boot camps tortured people. The institute was three weeks of excruciating, tortuous, academic abuse. At the end of each day, my head hurt and to make matters worse there was required homework. After an already mentally exhausting day, I was required to do homework, which usually took another hour and a half of focused concentration. I had no access to cell service for my phone and the Internet connections were haphazard at best. I could only call home at night, usually after 9 p.m. or early in the morning before 6 a.m. I always thought I had a good grasp on the language and could understand conversations. That notion was washed from my old brain by the end of the first day.

Diphthongs, inalienable nouns, dative and benefactor verbs, and ablauts were all new concepts that overwhelmed my limited linguistic repertoire. Did you know that there is only one diphthong in Lakota and the intervocalic glottal stop is fully predictable and is not marked in the orthography? And, aspirated stops in Lakota occur with guttural or voiceless velar fricatives during aspiration? I did NOT get any of this and I probably should have taken linguistics back in college 40 years ago. Despite the rigor, the experience was absolutely amazing.

I analyzed the epistemology of this language acquisition model and was amazed at its philosophical underpinnings. The Lakota way of thinking was central to the entire academic experience. An example of this was how the content strived to be free from anglicized content. A typical greeting outside of the Lakota world would be hiha’nni wast’e, or good morning. In the Lakota culture every greeting would start with a kinship term to establish the relationship with the person. The pedagogical approach to teaching was extraordinary. The courses were taught utilizing all teaching styles and modalities that were perfectly in line with Native students’ learning backgrounds. In every classroom there was a fluent speaker, who was usually elderly. Many of the participants were fluent Lakota speakers and were there to learn how to teach the Lakota language. It is safe to say that you can be a competent, fluent Lakota speaker but not have the best teaching skills. The supporting academic classroom material, including an on-line dictionary that provides correct pronunciation of words, increased the overall value of the experience.

At the “making a leader” ceremony, Al Chandler emphasized that “education is the ‘returning of the buffalo.’ Education brings back pride, knowledge of language, culture, and self-awareness that will make us grateful for life, work, health, and each other.” The old people used to say the Lakota language was Wakan. I know now what they meant. For me, this was a spiritual journey which I will never forget. We know the buffalo is returning, bringing us sacred knowledge through education. Tribal colleges have indeed changed the history of Indian education in America.

…In a good way.


Rick Williams served as president and CEO of the American Indian College fund from 1997 to 2012.

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