The Red Road or “Chanku Luta,” as it is known by the Lakota, has been traveled by our ancestors long before us. Today, some may call it the road less traveled. According to Lakota belief, the Red Road begins even prior to conception and is a path which is available to those who are spiritually inclined. The Red Road which runs north and south, is a unique spiritual path, a way of life and enlightenment which has no end. During times of difficulty, the Lakota people could always rely upon the Red Road for strength and renewal, just as they could rely upon the Inipi, also known as the sweat lodge ceremony.
In the sweat lodge, the foremost of the seven sacred ceremonies of the Lakota, one may pray, seek healing, forgiveness, renewal, strength and help with life’s problems. Elders often remind the youth that materialism along with the negativity that it brings, have no place in a sacred sweat lodge ceremony. Just as there is a Red Road, a place where miracles begin, there is a negative counterpart, the Black Road- “Chanku Sapa,” which runs east and west. This is a path of non-spirituality and greed. A person is never satisfied for desires are insatiable and this road ultimately leads to an early death. On the Black Road, the load of misery accumulated in a lifetime, is carried on when one passes. Unfortunately, many of our youth walk the Black Road and are lost from us through misfortune. When I travel home to South Dakota, I am saddened by the many crosses lined up on the Reservation highways. The Red Road would have been a much kinder and more fulfilling life than the painful loss memorialized upon the Black Road.
In spite of the prosperity which gaming has brought to a small handful of tribes, the majority of tribes and Native Americans in Indian country still suffer greatly from poverty and other hardships. At times, it seems that all we Native Americans have is our culture, language and our relationship with Wakan Tanka, the Great Mystery. Our way of life, the Red Road is becoming extinct, just as our language, culture and sacred ceremonies are being lost, stolen, exploited or perverted.
The sweat lodge ceremony is the “Grandfather” of the Lakota ceremonies for the rest of our major sacred ceremonies start out with a sweat lodge ceremony for purification/renewal/rebirth. We Lakota were given these sacred ceremonies by Wakan Tanka and the Tunkasilas (Grandfather spirits) so that our people could live (hecel Oyate kin nipi kte). When a sweat lodge ceremony is conducted and people participate for the right reasons, there is great power and healing as well as other “miracles” which may occur. The Vision Quest, the Sundance as well as our Yuwipi or Lowampi ceremonies require that we purify ourselves first in a sweat lodge ceremony. I have learned that just being Indian does not reflect that a person is spiritual or that he or she walks the Red Road or is knowledgeable about the Red Road. Traditional Lakota elders teach that the sweat lodge is place for humility, not arrogance, or showing off to impress others.
In spite of the pressures of this material world, there remain many Native Americans who faithfully and stubbornly cling to their culture, speak their native tongue and practice their spirituality, following in the footsteps of their ancestors. It is thought that our leaders in days past such as Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, Dragging Canoe, Tecumseh, Osceola and other Native American ancestors died defending our lands but this is not entirely true. These tribal leaders defended much more than land. They sacrificed their lives to protect a way of life which includes the Red Road and our connection to Wakan Tanka through our sacred ceremonies. I am one of the beneficiaries of their sacrifices. I am an enrolled member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe with blood ties to the Sichangu and Standing Rock Sioux Tribes. I grew up in the small village of Wanblee, South Dakota, also known as the band of Pute Tiyospaye, Lip’s Camp band of the Oglala Lakota on the Pine Ridge, Indian Reservation in South Dakota. My maternal great grandmother was Nettie Horn Chips, a close relative of old man Chips, a powerful Lakota medicine man who was close to Chief Crazy Horse. Several of my other ancestors were also spiritual men including my grandfather, Chief Lame Deer, Tahca Uste, a Sichangu holy man. I feel fortunate that I have a son, Wiconi Was`te, who is also a spiritual man. Every summer, I make my way back to South Dakota to join in the celebration of the renewal of life for the people through our Sundance. I know on a very personal level that the Red Road has many challenges but many of us choose this way of life and we cherish our sacred ceremonies.
Therefore, it should come as no surprise that we Lakota are outraged by the recent scandal and events in Arizona regarding the theft/misuse/abuse of our sacred sweat lodge ceremony by James Arthur Ray, a non-Indian whose actions caused the deaths of several non-Indians. This man was not authorized by the Lakota to conduct a sweat lodge ceremony.
The Lakota do not proselytize or pressure anyone to convert or join the Red Road. This has simply been a way of life for the Lakota since time immemorial. It is not a recreational activity and neither does it have any connection to New Age or Wicca ceremonies.
Fees should never be charged for a sacred ceremony. There is no “tithe” at the sweat lodge or formalities of dress. And it is not that easy to follow this Red Road for the cold north wind blows against you at times but will leave you stronger when it changes to the south. Certainly, when a person has been healed or there is evidence that the person has been helped, out of gratitude to the Tunkasilas, it is customary to sponsor a thanksgiving ceremony where food, offerings and gifts may be given to show appreciation. Money was never the traditional way to show “gratitude.” In the old days, for a healing of a family member, a man might offer his best horse to show his appreciation. There should never be an attitude of entitlement as the truly spiritual person sacrifices not only his time and energy but also his very life to help others and his work is never done.
According to news reports, Ray charged non-Indians thousands of dollars to participate in a perversion of the sweat lodge ceremony. Thus he desecrated a sacred ceremony and in doing so, he disrespected the Wakinyan, the spiritual guardians of the sweat lodge. In time, the Lakota elders say that he will pay the spiritual consequences, regardless of the outcome of the secular legal process for one cannot play with a sacred ceremony.
It is disturbing that cultural ignorance about our sacred ceremonies and misinformation is being circulated by the national news media. This helps to perpetuate misinformation about the sweat lodge ceremony. I saw an interview of a fake Indian, a hobbyist, who was being interviewed about our sacred sweat lodge ceremony as if he were a spiritual person or an “expert” on Indian sacred ceremonies and it angered me. You cannot “train” just anybody to “run” a sweat lodge. It is an honor to conduct the sweat lodge ceremony and it means that you have adopted the Red Road as a way of life which takes sacrifice, prayer and preparation, sometimes over a lifetime.
I doubt that the Jewish community would allow an outsider non-Jewish person to walk into a Jewish synagogue, kick out the Rabbi out and take his place. The Jewish people would be outraged and they would never allow this to happen. So why do we Native Americans tolerate thieves stealing and exploiting our sacred ceremonies? Tribes must unify and collectively exercise tribal sovereignty by holding these thieves of our culture and ceremonies accountable. The time has come to craft tribal codes to protect sacred sites and sacred ceremonies and to be proactive in the international arena for the thieves are exploiting our ceremonies outside of the United States too.
There is great danger in apathy, laziness, doing nothing. Government may further impinge upon our diminishing tribal sovereignty by setting precedent through court decisions or more Congressional regulation because of the foolish and reckless actions of non-Indians such as James Arnold Ray. This is an invasion of the last sacred realm of the Indian, our religion and culture. Commercialization and exploitation is becoming accepted and we Native Americans are allowing non-Indians to define who we are. Is this acceptable to you?
What defines a sovereign nation? How far are we from being terminated? Is it the modern trend to not carry on and protect our culture and our spirituality? It is interesting that states with large Native American populations such as Arizona and New Mexico state legislators were forced by the voting power of Native Americans in those states to work with tribal leaders to include waivers for tribal religious ceremonies during burn bans, yet the Oklahoma legislature, despite Oklahoma being the home to over 39 Indian tribes, still does not respect the First Amendment right of Indians to practice their religious activities.
Oklahoma grants exemptions during burn bans for secular activities such as brush burning yet there are no exemptions or waivers for First Amendment right to free exercise of religion, supposedly guaranteed by our Constitution. Many Native Americans including inmates in Oklahoma prisons, are unable to participate in sweat lodge ceremonies for long periods of time when burn bans are in effect. In 2006, I advocated for a change in the law and I had meetings with several Oklahoma Indian tribal leaders to seek support for a bill which Mike Brown, a courageous state Representative from Tahlequah had agreed to sponsor. He was concerned about the lack of protection for tribal members’ rights to have ceremonial fires during burn bans.
The following tribal leaders supported our vision and a change in the law: Paul Spicer of the Seneca-Cayuga Tribe, Billy Evans Horse, Chairman of the Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma, the Chief of the Alabama Quasarte Tribe, the Chief of the United Keetowah Tribe, George Wickliffe, the Chief of the Caddo Tribe, the Chief of Sac and FoxTribe, Chief Froman of the Peoria Tribe and Chief Glenna Wallace of the Eastern Shawnees all supported legislation that Representative Mike Brown and I worked on to protect the religious rights of Tribes to have ceremonial fires. It is truly sad when a non-Indian politician takes more interest and has more concern for our First Amendment rights and our sacred ceremonies than our own Indian tribal leadership.
A person speaks what their heart is and I heard recently an old term that I haven’t heard in years, “Apples are everywhere.” When I sought support for Representative Brown’s bill, I talked to several tribal leaders and some of them told me, “Gaming is our priority, not culture, religion or spirituality.” Have these leaders never heard of Vine Deloria, Jr., a Lakota legal scholar and early champion of Indian rights who declared, “It is spirituality which drives tribal sovereignty, not the other way around”? These leaders (Chiefs) know who they are.
Growing up in South Dakota when some of the old holy men from days past, such as Chief Fools Crow, Frank Arrowsight, Joe Eagle Elk, Picket Pin, Henry Crow Dog, Pete Catches Sr., Robert Stead and John Fire was a great gift. Our people were able to survive and endure because of their spiritual leadership during a period of extreme deprivation and hardship when governmental policies attacked our language, culture and sacred ceremonies. Youth, take notice today, take heart, for tomorrow these words will be repeated by another elder somewhere, some other time. I pray that you will know who you are, you will remember your ancestors and that the Red Road is not for sale! There has been enough exploitation so let’s do something about this!
Wambli Sina Win is currently an Associate Professor and Director of the Bacone College Criminal Justice Studies Department in Muskogee, Okla.
Her grandfather was John Fire, Chief Lame Deer, Tahca Uste, a well known Lakota Holy Man from the Rosebud Sioux Indian Reservation in South Dakota. One of her sons is also a medicine man.
She has served as a Tribal Judge for the Oglala Sioux Tribal Court, as an Assistant U.S. Attorney, a Tribal Attorney and as a legal instructor for the U.S. Indian Police Academy at Artesia, NM.