from The Tragic, Sacred Ground*
by Erling Duus
In this essay I am seeking an evocation of the Northern Plains, centering in the Black Hills, as a sacred space. To approach that subject or that place is to come face to face with the Indian heritage of the region, especially that of the Lakota. As I have already observed, the Black Hills are sacred for the Indians of the Northern Plains, as is the region itself, The Great Spirit-Wakantanka is present and embodied in the wide domain. We are met by the land claims of the Lakota, their demands that Bear Butte be protected as a shrine for their religious practices, their claims that the usurpation and exploitation of the Paha Sapa which began with the rumor of gold has deprived them of their sacred center; therefore heart and soul, body and mind. These claims and this consciousness cannot be ignored. The worst tourist traps in the Hills peddle Lakota imagery, the Ziolkowski's continue to beguile eager tourists with the notion that they are going to turn Thunderhead Mountain into a mighty vision of Crazy Horse leading his people. Half the world appears to be fascinated, preoccupied and haunted by the classic ground of which I write, its history, landscape and people. Above all, it is this claim of the sacred which powerfully attracts, albeit at many levels. Left to ourselves, we would feel the power and sense the significance, but we would not have the courage or even the language to call it holy. If we are inspired and challenged by that, we are also burdened by it. This region, its peculiar power and tragic history, and the powerful hold it has had on our imaginations for well over a century, constitutes the ultimate symbolic nexus of America; it is as if the dominant images and themes of the American experience come together here.
The tragic conflict which under-girds the entire American epoch is dramatized here with more clarity and passion than elsewhere, but it should never be supposed to be a phenomenon apart from the rest of American history. The forces which have violated the sacred circle are finally the same forces which destroyed the Grundtvigian villages, and the poverty, despair, and alcoholism which are found in Appalachia or amongst Chicanos in the southwest, or amongst Blacks in the urban ghetto, or for that matter these same diseases amongst people of all kinds and groups all over the nation, are products of the same forces which ruthlessly oppose all tribalism, all living within the context of folk culture, all life-style that cherishes living with the cycle of the earth and heaven, within the continuities of time. The "heart" which was buried at Wounded Knee might well stand for the heart of all the American folk longing to live as a people. Black Elk stands forever in Neihardt's great book and in our common mind upon the summit of his mountain in lament over our history.
I did not know then how much was ended. When I look back now from this high hill of my old age, I can still see the butchered women and children lying heaped and scattered all along the crooked gulch as plain as when I saw them with eyes still young. And I can see that something else died there in the bloody mud, and was buried in the blizzard. A people's dream died there ... It was a beautiful dream ... there is no center any longer, and the sacred tree is dead.
Recently, I attended a funeral of a Lakota friend, a young woman who died suddenly at the age of thirty. The service was at the Catholic Church in the Rosebud village which bears the name of that greatest of the Catholic saints, St. Francis. The agony of the family was intense, and there was no relief or comfort as the interminable service droned on. No less than six priests went through their paces, there were hymns sung, Amazing Grace translated into Lakota, a soloist struggled through the Ave Maria. The endless litany of words flowed forth like a leaden river, as if by mere profusion they might comfort or inspire. It was an image from nearly two thousand years of history, the imperial mother church comforting, shepherding her wooden-eyed and pathetic sheep. The hard benches on which we kneeled awkwardly and painfully in abject prayer symbolized our lowly place amidst the generations of sinners hopefully saved by the mercy of the Savior's blood. From the church, we followed the body to the cemetery, where the litany was resumed, now rendered even more lifeless and hopeless before the raw earth and the open sky. The grave yawned dry and barren like a chasm prepared to swallow the life and hope of the people, the priests in their immaculate white robes seemed little more than shabby puppets dancing feebly before the lords of death. Finally, the long ritual was over, the coffin was lowered into the earth, and the Franciscans, having done their duty, departed. The mourners stood in silence as the shovelers slowly began to throw the earth onto the coffin. Suddenly, a drum appeared, a group of young traditionals gathered. A nod from the husband, a Lakota chief, and the drum sounded, the chant-like singing began. Out of depths and realms of magic it came, the heartbeat and pulse of the universe, and the song of a thousand years. The transformation was instant and total. Backs straightened, heads were turned up, the earth became in that instant a mother of boundless love, the air was alive with presence and power. The broken and shattered hoop was restored. Never have I seen so clearly, so starkly, the essence of the struggle between folk spirit and spiritual imperialism. How cleverly, how masterfully, the mighty church has woven itself into the life of the people, offering them easy, painless consolations before the mystery and pain of life, allowing them to remain as children, with the immunity of children. All power and authority are with the church, in heaven and in earth, against the very gates of death. And yet, the church for all its imperial pomp, is powerless, has little medicine, and what it has it borrows. What happened there at the Catholic cemetery in St. Francis was no isolated event, demonstrating the vestigial power of primitive consciousness. I have experienced similar moments in Grundtvigian America when the singing of an old hymn, or even a word spoken in the Danish awakened the folk spirit. I have experienced it in the Black Church, and in Appalachia. It can come into being wherever and whenever a group of people who share some sense of a common life in time and space draw together in heightened consciousness of the mystery and meaning of that life, its blunt, beautiful and awesome mystery, without the intrusion of piety or dogma. Only in the folk spirit, the folk voice, does the Holy One appear. But precisely at this point do we glimpse the intolerable burden of modern, urban life. For the mighty impact of the universal mystery cannot be grasped apart from the simple sacrament of earth and sky, and of a conviction of deep connection through ancestral blood and bone and spirit with all the elements of being. The notion that life can be affirmed at any depth with any power through the self-fulfillment of individuals living in unhallowed space and place is the pathetic illusion of bourgeois civilization, a condition that assures and requires superficiality because there is no real access to life at deeper levels. The legendary drama of Faust involved in titantic conflict over the price and future of his soul has little meaning in the modern world, for indeed, we render up our souls with scarce a moment of recognition. As I write this there is a national discussion over the problem of drug and alcohol addiction. And simultaneously, there is a grave crisis in rural America. One commentator, the omnipresent George Will, points out complacently that the movement of rural people to the cities is as American as apple pie. True enough. And what are we to make of that, Mr. Will? Some lines written by W.E.B. Dubois come to mind. "My journey was done, and behind me lay hill and dale, and Life and Death. How shall man measure Progress there where the dark-faced Josie lies? How many heartfuls of sorrow shall balance a bushel of wheat?"
The Christian Church betrays the spirit of Christ and the authentic life of the people when it seeks power from abstraction, from cherished beliefs and fervid piety. It is guilty of the most corrupting and destructive falsity when it supposes that the Gospel can be proclaimed where people are bereft of any sense of connection with time or nature. It proclaims Christ as the Logos, the Bread of Life, the Divine Savior, but it appears not to remember the man Jesus whose voice and heart was resonate with the folk spirit, and who is alive now as the Christ only where he finds a people living in memory and hope. The universal is borne on the shoulders of the local, the regional. The roots and trunk of the living tree are all the tribal and village groupings. Without the folk spirit, nothing! The Holy Spirit will remain a rumor.
Copyright © 1989 by Erling Duus
*The Tragic, Sacred Ground, Pine Hill Press, Freeman, South Dakota, 1989
You can go home again.