While their ability to triumph over adversity speaks highly of the strength of character of the settlers, this uncompromising determination to establish themselves in their new land had a darker side to it — their ever-advancing settlements contributed greatly to the destruction of the Indian nations. The Indians were, as Fred A. Shannon explained, “a settled people, living in villages and practising an advanced stage of agricultural economy. They had many hundreds of cleared acres of land on which they grew corn, sometimes a hundred bushels to the acre, in addition to an equal amount of such vegetables as pumpkins, squashes, and beans. For lack of any indigenous animals that could be domesticated for draft purposes, hand implements were the only recourse for cultivation, but for several generations the white man (who looked upon them as savages because of their different complexion and habits) failed to excel these Indians in the quality of produce or the size of crops to the acre.”
Throughout all the various Indian uprisings that punctuated the early history of America the central thread was to be the Indians’ attempt to put a stop to the continuing white encroachments upon their lands. The Indians fought bravely, their most prominent victory being at the Battle of the Greasy Grass (Little Big Horn) River when Sitting Bull’s braves wiped out General Custer’s cavalry detachment in 1876, but more usually they suffered continuing defeats, including the infamous and needless massacre of nearly 250 Indian men, women and children at Wounded Knee Creek, in South Dakota on 29 December, 1890.
Forced to take to the Great Plains to survive, the Lakota (Sioux) and Cheyenne had become imbued with a new sense of collective identity and purpose. Increasingly enraged by the government’s policy to exterminate them, a policy ironically supported by those Irish American soldiers who had fought on the Northern side in the Civil War, ostensibly to free the South from Black slavery, they had decided to stand and fight. Sitting Bull’s charisma and political acumen had allowed him to emerge as their leader, following a vision of victory he had received during a Sun Dance. But it was a close run thing.
So it was that I travelled as a medical student among the Lakota (Sioux) and later, as a doctor, learned a little of their language, traditions and natural-world philosophy from the Spiritual Elders, so that I myself was later considered by some as a Wisdom Keeper also. But to me this has essentially meant that by learning their language more thoroughly by means of a Course in Conversational Lakota, bought for me by my sister Isabel Sloan Kerr Beegle in America, I could more fully understand their concept of a First Cause. My failure had lain, not with the idea itself, but with the inadequacy of the English language to express it. Wisdom Keepers all share the idea that the four-legged and winged nations, the creeping and crawling ones, the plant and tree nations,and those that dwell among the stars, are descended from and are part of a Great Holy Mystery (Wakan Tanka). All things are part of an incomprehensible totality which always was and always will be.
To be continued