THE BLOG

Looking in the Mirror With No Reflection

03/04/2012 06:17 pm ET | Updated May 04, 2012

I was struck by an article by David Rooks in the Rapid City Journal on March 2.

David Rooks is a nice guy. He was also a former employee of mine when I owned the Lakota Times. Our main office in Pine Ridge Village was in the old Western Auto store that was once owned by his father, Gene.

The problems I have always had with Rooks are that he wore his Catholicism on his sleeve and his entire world seemed to be built around his Catholic beliefs.

In the article he wrote he was lamenting the loss of culture and traditions on the Pine Ridge Reservation. He wrote, "Lakota culture is poisoned and dying from its contact with the West." He felt that "Traditional Lakota society is being buffeted and pummeled through daily exposure to western materialism and spiritual decay; particularly through its children."

Now mind you Rooks was out on the reservation as parish coordinator for a church known as Our Lady of the Sioux. In this capacity he walked in the footsteps of many Catholic catechists who traveled these reservation roads before him trying to damage or destroy the traditional spiritual beliefs of the Lakota.

A few weeks ago one of the true Lakota journalists I admire, Ivan F. Starr, a man who spent nearly all of his life in the Oglala Community on the Pine Ridge Reservation, wrote a very soulful account of the near destruction of the traditional tiospaye (pronounced tee-ospy-yay, which is a traditional clan or family). The tiospaye was once the heart of family life amongst the Lakota. It instilled all of the virtues such as honesty, courage and generosity in its members. The laws that governed the body were unwritten, but they set the guidelines for continuity and behavior within the community.

The near destruction of the tiospaye came at the hands of the ministers from the different churches who believed that in order for the Lakota to survive, they had to set aside their traditional spirituality and beliefs and embrace Christianity. In tearing away the traditions and culture and converting the people, especially the children, to a new belief, nearly all of the customs and beliefs that had supported the Lakota people for generations were washed away.

So here we have a preacher, Mr. Rooks, lamenting the loss of the culture and traditions of the Sioux people, when all the while he is inadvertently pontificating on the very tools of his religion that brought about much of that demise.

Rooks concludes his self-effacing column with, "Now that I think of it, the whole effort of retaining a vibrant and authentic Lakota identity for the generations to come is a conservative project. Not for its own sake, but because Lakota culture is beautiful and worth preserving."

When the Church and the federal government made the decision to "Kill the Indian; save the man," they set about by removing the children from their traditional families and tiospayes and placing them in institutions where they would have little or no contact with their traditional teachers, their parents and grandparents. By severing this most important link to their language, history and culture, the Church and the government effectively joined forces in an effort to remake the Lakota in their own image.

Rooks wonders why the loss of culture is happening. He writes, "The question is, given the cunning and power of the forces attacking it: How?"

While Rooks returned to the reservation considering how, "Those eight months back on the Rez altered my thinking about many things -- forever."

The traditional tiospayes existed for a thousand years and set the cultural standards that held a people together and made for a culture with very clear systems of spirituality, customs, and behavior. Because the Catholic Church and other church groups, did not understand the tiospaye, hence the Lakota people, they considered these clans to be a danger to their efforts to reform and change a people.

Many of the problems that now exist on Pine Ridge and other reservations can be traced directly to the Church and the federal government. Steeped in Catholicism, David Rooks set about emulating the preachers before him who came to the reservation wearing blinders; they could not see the forest for the trees.

Perhaps MTV, YouTube and Facebook will be the final nails in the coffin of traditional and cultural values of the Lakota youth, but the problems started long before they were introduced into the Lakota society. They started when Church and state set about to systematically plan for the future of the Lakota people without their input, and folks like David Rooks, although he is looking in a mirror with no reflection, were in the forefront of the cultural destruction.

Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota, is president of Unity South Dakota. He was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard with the Class of 1990. His weekly column won the H. L. Mencken Award in 1985. He was the founder of The Lakota Times, Indian Country Today, Lakota Journal and Native Sun News. He can be reached at UnitySoDak1@knology.net