I first met my nephew, who lives in northern California, a few years ago when he came to the Rez for his father, my brother's, funeral. I have since been to California twice, and I visited him each time. As "Friends" on Facebook, we chat now and then. Some of these chats are requests for information about our Dakota culture. Just the other day, he wanted to know more about the medicine wheel and ceremonies.
I have received many such requests over the years by Indians and non-Indians alike. Most requests are for information about ceremonies or parts of our culture that have been romanticized by Indians and non-Indians: the Sundance, sweats and warpath, how we hunted the buffalo, etc. Very seldom have I received a request about what some people may see as the more "mundane" parts of our culture, our values.
In my view, our traditional values are the most exciting parts of our culture because they define who we are. Our behavior, our lifestyle, even our ceremonies...everything about us can be traced back to these values.
A few years ago, I did receive one such request for information on traditional values although it did not start out that way. A middle school principal who had visited my website, spiritlakeconsulting.com, became interested in the content, which is how to incorporate our traditional values of courage, honesty, generosity, and perseverance into the tribal workforce/workplace. After we talked about my website, he asked me to teach The History and Culture of the Spirit Lake Oyate to four classes of 5th and 6th graders.
After the third week of instruction, he came into my class and observed my teaching. After the class was over, he said something to the effect, "Erich, I wanted you to teach the information on your website..." His unspoken words said that he was not happy with what I was teaching. I pointed out to him that he directed me to teach The History and Culture of the Spirit Lake Oyate and that was what I was doing, however, I would gladly change the focus of my instructions to reflect the information (traditional Dakota values) on my website. He agreed.
The next day, my first assignment was to ask the students to get out a clean sheet of lined paper. Then, I asked them to write this question at the top of the page: What does it mean to be a Dakota (Indian)? By this time, I had already explained to them that most of them were Dakota, not Sioux. Sioux was a name the "white man" gave us. I then instructed them to write the answer to that question and hand it in. I was shocked and saddened with the answers. Not one of them (two classes of 5th graders and two classes of 6th graders) provided a satisfactory answer.
That was okay. In the Marine Corps boot camp, the rifle instructor told us, "The least you know about how to shoot a rifle, the less work I will have to do changing your bad habits." Similarly, the less my students knew about what it meant to be an Indian, the greater the opportunity for me to teach them what I thought it meant.
At the end of the semester, I repeated my first assignment, having the students respond to the question: "What does it mean to be a Dakota (Indian)?" The answers were much better; they reflected my instructions, which focused on traditional values. Students wrote: It means to be respectful to my parents and elderly... It means to be brave... It means not to quit and to not lie...
In my opinion, being a Dakota starts with these values.
My knowledge of who I was came from my mom. When I was a child, she taught me to tell the truth, never lie (honesty); to stand up for what I believe in (courage); to keep going (don't quit) when it got tough (perseverance); and of course, I learned to be generous simply because everyone was generous back then. She also told me over and over to never be ashamed of who I was and never forget that I was a Sioux (Yes, my mom as many in her generation, was brainwashed into calling themselves "Sioux," when in fact, we are Dakota).
Although I haven't always followed the values my Dakota mother taught me in my youth, especially during my late teens and early twenties, they did surface at various times in my life, and they helped me endure whatever particular crisis my lack of following those values had gotten me into.
I would have dropped out of boot Marine Corps camp within a couple of weeks had not mom taught me perseverance. It was that rough. When I was 29 years old, I broke my back in a car accident and was faced with the possibility of being in a wheelchair for the rest of my life. Had it not been mom's insistence that I face unpleasant situations without whining, I would have accepted that fate and would not have worked as hard as I did (a couple of years) to regain my mobility (courage). At the age of 31, my life was a total mess due to being a hard core alcoholic for several years. If my mom had not taught me to accept responsibility for my actions (honesty), I would have been dead from my alcoholic lifestyle within a few years. However, I could not go on living that destructive lifestyle once I admitted to myself that alcohol had complete control over my life. This rigorous self-honesty enabled me to overcome my alcoholism and stop drinking. When my son's mother and I divorced, I gave her everything, the house, the furniture, all the personal possessions we had accumulated over the years (generosity). It was in return for her helping me get sober and supporting me while I went to college and earned my teaching degree.
However, from the moment I gave up alcohol 29 years ago, I was always searching for something. Within three years of becoming sober, I had obtained a teaching degree and was teaching third grade at our tribal school. I was also appointed to the college board of regents around this time. After teaching third grade for three years, I went to work at our tribal college as the Academic Dean. Within twelve years after achieving sobriety, I was a tribal college president. Although I became a single parent around this time, my life was great. I eventually went on to obtain a doctorate degree and to form a business, Spirit Lake Consulting, with my good friend, Dr. Ann Maria De Mars- we made a lot of money over the past several years.
Life was good, at least on the surface. In spite of my personal satisfaction with my professional accomplishments, beyond the joy of raising three boys and one daughter as a single parent, in spite of earning the respect of many of my friends, relatives, and tribal members, there was always something missing in my life. I would try to fill this void by moving on to a new project or taking on a new challenge. I became an avid pool player and eventually won a state championship in the "B" division. I had a new car for the first time in my life, and I always enjoyed the company of women after my divorce from my sons' mother. However, the satisfaction I felt from these accomplishments, the joy of overcoming another challenge, would last only briefly, then I would have to move on to something new to keep that nagging feeling of emptiness at bay.
My conscious return to our Dakota beliefs and values began when my 17 year old son died in a car accident, and I was worried his death would have a negative effect on my behavior. At that time, I recalled a belief we Dakota follow. It goes something like this: However you act immediately after a loved one dies, you will be compelled to act like that for the rest of your life. For example, if you turn to drugs and alcohol, you will drink alcohol or drugs for the rest of your life. If you become angry, you will be angry the rest of your life. Due to my knowledge of this belief, I tried very hard to not get angry, to be more patient and tolerant, and to avoid loud arguments and confrontations. Indeed, more than one person has told me that I changed for the better since my son died.
After my son journeyed to the Spirit World, I began to try to live by the values my mother taught me. However, it wasn't until 6 years ago, when a proposal for a Tribal Leader's Institute Ann Maria and I wrote was funded, that I began researching, writing, and talking about our traditional values of courage, honesty, perseverance, and generosity. I slowly came to the realization of how powerful our Dakota values are - if you choose to live by them.
Once I returned to my Dakota values and attempted to live by them, I realized the void inside me, that feeling of emptiness, was caused by my own deceitfulness about who I really was.
This recognition of my character weakness was hard to accept at first. After all, no one was complaining, except my political enemies. In fact, my children loved and respected me, many of my relatives and friends spoke highly of me, and I had accomplished many of my professional goals that I had set for myself.
So what was the problem? Here was the problem; by not practicing the values my Dakota mom instilled in me, I wasn't living up to the potential the Creator had gifted me with. I could have been a much better parent, I could have been a much better brother to my brothers and sisters, I could have been a much better relative to my many cousins, nieces, and nephews, and could have had a better work ethic.
And deep down I knew it. I knew I was doing just enough to get by, not what I should be doing, or what I was capable of. But I didn't try to become that person the Creator intended me to be because I was lazy. I was selfish and dishonest; and at times, I was a moral coward.
Actually, without realizing it, I inadvertently began to return to my Dakota values a few years after I quit drinking. I had begun to grow spiritually, and as time went by, the older I grew, the more I began to return to the values taught to me during my youth. As result, it became harder to keep on lying to myself about my deception of who I was, and it was this unwanted knowledge that was making me so unhappy at times.
Once I began to incorporate my Dakota values into my life, I soon realized how much more rewarding my life could be. And, I had a glimmer of understanding of just how wise our ancestors were to have adopted the values of courage, honesty, perseverance, and generosity to guide them in everything they did. This understanding began to fill the void, the emptiness within me.
Our values appear so simple and in many ways they are. And they are tied into our Dakota language. My mother, a fluent Dakota language speaker, said this about her beloved Dakota language: "It's very descriptive; you say what you mean and you mean what you say." This inherent honesty in our Dakota language made it hard for a Dakota person to be untruthful and cowardly. And, stingy people who could not be depended on were not tolerated. And this was the kind of person I was and try as I could, I could no longer deny that fact and this knowledge was what was making me so unhappy, although the rest of my life was great.
Although I have a long, long way to go in truly understanding the full extend of our traditional values, the little I did learn about them (and by sincerely attempting to incorporate this knowledge of our traditional values into all aspects of my life) has brought me that inner peace that has eluded me all these years. And it is this inner peace, brought on by our Dakota values, that is helping me face my most dangerous foe, cancer, without complaining or self pity. Instead, those values will help me face my deadly adversary with courage and dignity. And, whatever the outcome, I will be proud in the knowledge that I put up a good, brave fight, and that is what matters most.