November 13, 2022 Essay: Lakota Resilience

Nov 4, 2022

As I reflect on the past week I spent on the Cheyenne River Reservation in South Dakota, building tiny homes for the Lakota Sioux with the National Y Alumni Service Project, the word “resilience” played over and over in my mind. The Lakota are wise and wonderful people. They are also a very spiritual people. Throughout the week, I witnessed the perseverance and resiliency of our Native American sisters and brothers. Passages from Luke’s Gospel, in which Jesus tells us to persevere through all the difficult times that will befall us, resonated through the stories of the Lakota people we met.

Dana Dupris, a Lakota Sioux elder and Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe Cultural Preservation Officer, shared his story with us. Dana is descended from the Iron Lightning band. At the tender age of six years old, he was taken from his home to the local Indian Boarding School. Dana recounted his story.

“First thing they do is, they make you form lines, and then they cut all your hair off. Then you go into the next line, and they pour powder on you because they say we’ve got bugs. In the next line, they pour kerosene on you to kill all the, whatever, bugs. Then in the next line, they give you a brush, and they tell you, ‘Go take a shower, scrub your elbows and knees, ankles, wherever there’s dirt,’ or I guess darkness because they want to scrub Indian off us. Then, when we’re done scrubbing ourselves, we’ll go and get inspected, and if they find some dark area, we’ll have to go and scrub. A lot of times, you scrubbed until you’re bloody. Your elbows or knees are bloody because that was the whole idea: control.”

Luke quoted Jesus in this Gospel, and here we also see control as the issue:

“Before all this happens, however,
they will seize and persecute you,
they will hand you over to the synagogues and to prisons,
and they will have you led before kings and governors
because of my name.” (Luke 21:12)

The Indian Boarding Schools were government-funded and church-run institutions that “seized and persecuted” Native American children. These children were horribly mistreated, using God’s name in vain. This is not what Jesus would have condoned in his life. I believe the Lord calls us to see the truth, seek the truth, and lift up our Native American sisters’ and brothers’ culture that exhibits a beautiful spirituality of the Great Spirit.

“You will be hated by all because of my name,
but not a hair on your head will be destroyed.
By your perseverance you will secure your lives.” (Luke 21:28)

Dana persevered through these difficult years of forced acculturation through the grace of his deep spirituality and his resilient core. That resilience allowed him to stay centered and not become an angry man.

Dana was not the only Lakota who spoke of being resilient. Dave West, Dana’s nephew, was raised in Iron Lightening and went away to college, and came back to the Reservation. He is the Director of the Eagle Butte Cultural Center, and his two brothers are Iraq veterans who returned home and landed positions in the housing authority and veteran’s affairs on the Reservation. The Lakota are resilient. There is no room to be angry; that is not productive in their eyes. Their culture and spirituality remain alive and well.

The Lakota believe that the Great Spirit is at the center of the rhythms of the Universe. This worldview is akin to Ignatian Spirituality—Finding God in All Things. Jesus affirms that God is the center of the universe and secures our lives through the virtues of perseverance and resiliency.

Pray for the grace to persevere and to be resilient in difficult times.

— Jean Santopatre, Pastoral Associate