Friday, February 13, 2009

Lakota* philosophy 101: All my Relatives

If you want to understand the Lakota way of life, you have to understand the underlying philosophy of all their systems: everyone and everything is your relative. The Lakota phrase that expresses this idea is "mitakuye oyas'in"--all my relatives--and it is used as a prayer, by itself or at the beginning and end of ceremonies.

This idea comes from the creation story, which a lot of the classes at SGU, from botany to history to language, begin the semester with. Here is the way Albert White Hat writes about it in his book Reading and Writing the Lakota Language:

"Inyan was in the beginning. Inyan began Creation by draining its blood to create. The first Creation was Maka, the Earth. After Maka, another need arose and Inyan drained its blood to address that need for Maka" (27).

And further, from my class notes: Each time something was needed, Inyan drained its blood and made something to address that need: Maka was too dark and cold, so Inyan made the sun; but then that was too hot and bright, so Inyan made the moon and nighttime; the beings then needed the breath of life, so Inyan made the wind. And so on, through each being that was created: grass and trees, animals, and humans last (woman, then man).

Every time something was created here on earth, its double was created up in the sky, in the universe. And every time Inyan made something, it got weaker and weaker because its blood was being drained. Eventually, Inyan became dry and brittle, and was scattered all over the earth. (We refer to these dry, brittle things as rocks.)

Because of the way everything was made, we all come from the blood of Inyan, which means we are all related. We are all each other's relatives, and we should approach and treat each other and respect each other as such. The trees and grass, every human, the sky--these are all our relatives.

Those who are trying to live the Lakota way of life take this into account; they pray throughout the day, greeting and giving thanks to the relatives they meet, and asking for help when that's needed, just like you would ask a sister or an uncle to help you with something. (Albert says, though, that the Christian sense of "praying" doesn't quite work here--Lakota people don't bow down to and worship their relatives; they appreciate them and show them respect.)

I knew this before, from previous (shorter) trips to the reservation and from reading. What has struck me on this trip, however, is its pervasiveness. If you understand this concept, when you study other things you see it show up again and again. For example, in Traditional Arts class, I learned that representational designs are mirrored vertically to represent the doubling of things on the earth and out in the universe. In a class called "The Traditional Lakota Woman," I understood better why family groups are so important. In botany class, I could see the concept of the tiospaye--a group of extended family members living in one place--being borne out in the idea of the ecosystem--a group of relatives living together and helping each other. It's everywhere I look here.

So. That has got me thinking... What if I tried to live closer to this way of thinking? What if I thought of my neighbors as my cousins? or my lawn and garden as family members? or the food on my table as something provided by relatives? Could I think of my students as (young :) ) relatives? How can I create, especially for Dexter, the sense of a tiospaye when our extended family is far flung?

I hope these questions will stick with me when I go home and back to my daily routines. I hope those daily routines will be a bit different, a bit changed, by what I'm learning here. I'm sure that's partly what I'm here for.


*Try as I might, I can't get the diacritic marks to appear correctly, so they're missing throughout this entry. For example, the word "Lakota" should have a dot over the k, making it a guttural k (like the beginning of the word "hannukah"), and a line over the t, which makes it kind of sticky. To learn more, see Albert's book; you can buy it here. Mine came with tapes, but I see that it also comes in a CD version.

1 comment:

  1. I have to disagree with his vague view of "a Christian sense of praying." Just as their are over 500 different Native tribes, each with their own variations of philosophies, so as there are different beliefs of people who utilize the word "Christian." They're not all the same. Jesus prayed only to the father in heaven as our example here on earth and the church, and priests
    persecuted him.