Editor’s note: This post was written in spring 2016 as an invitation to join the Bearing Witness retreat in South Dakota that year. Zen Peacemakers’s relationship and projects with Lakota folks continues. Read about our Bearing Witness Plunge coming in July, 2018. Photos by Peter Cunningham. Post updated April 6, 2018.
I had wondered aloud several times about what kind of crazy white folks were wanting to bear witness to our people’s genocide. The folks from the Wantabe nation are pretty clueless, well meaning maybe but clueless, this could be dangerous, I was skeptical. The genocide of my people, the Mnicoujou is ongoing: the mascots, the boarding schools, the textbooks, the incarceration, the whiskey, the meth, the white flour, the white sugar, the treaties, the land. Genocide like ecocide are words to me that hold breath taking, unspeakable meaning.
I had gone to visit the rainbow tribe a month earlier, their coming was with much fanfare and some segments of our tribal community in the black hills mistrusted their intentions. I was unsure, so I went to investigate and on the road to the camp I saw a couple of kids from my UU fellowship running barefoot and fancy free, when I arrived they fed me pancakes and I sat for a while in their drum circle. I left, not needing to linger, they were respectful to the land, they seemed genuinely happy, mostly self-interested I suppose, had I been ten years younger, I might have camped and become engaged, but I was chockful of engagement with white folks, there was nothing for me to learn besides, my dog Luta was geriatric, and I had been having to leave her more and more, I wanted to get back to her.
Later on that summer, investigating again, I came in the first afternoon while most everyone but Tiokosin and Jadina were touring Pine Ridge, you folks had a bigger tent, a tipi and looked a little more ligit than the hippies, but I had no real way to know you folks weren’t going to be donning regalia and dancing around said tipi, so I came back the next day. I was still so curious to see what bearing witness looked like.
The first day, I learned some stuff and met some people, so the next morning, Luta secured at her second home, I came back with my tent and began my relationship with the Zen peacemakers.
I stayed all week, soaking in the good vibes and the honest, thoughtful, compassionate folks I met everywhere. I loved the not knowing. I was in the middle of one of the most stressful years of my professional careers, the city of Rapid City had woke up to it’s racist city moniker. We are mired in a border town situation that holds the answer to the future of humanity: what does a post-colonial Turtle Island look like? What does an America that honors treaties and honors earth look like? It’s a daunting question and a complicated morass of ideological and historical understandings are necessary to even begin to answer it. I was totally okay with a bunch of folks coming in to see what kind of good action can come from their involvement.
I was amazed at all the love that came from the peacemakers. One the last day one of the youngest participants, a five year old Polish girl who spoke no English, asked her parents if they were there about “love.” That youthful wisdom was right on. I made lifelong friends. I shared moments of awareness and awakeness and compassion with so many different people, some I can’t even imagine my life without them, today, they filled a place in me. Then, a few weeks after the Black Hills retreat, after my very effective job of “white people whispering”– Genro asked me along with a Lakota group to Poland and my spirit, so full of my own people’s genocide survival and resilience was to open up even wider.
Two weeks before I left, sadly, one Sunday, I made fast trip home across the prairie, a gray day that was in the middle of a hawk migration, hundreds of hawks greeted us on electricity poles, fence posts, everywhere as we drove home, as I drove my Luta home for the final time, her body had gotten too old. I had been fretting about leaving her, paralyzed with indecision, she knew it, I think, her health dramatically declined, and that evening, my nephews and nieces dug her grave alongside the creek that bears our name. Ours because my great great grandfather manifested destiny there with his dakota wife. My great grandfather is buried on the hill to the west, since 1832, for almost two full centuries now, Jewetts, our two leggeds and our four leggeds have been dying along that creek, and, since we’ve been living alongside it too, that next week, I packed up and went to bear witness to a Nazi death camp.
The being there was critical, at Aushwitz-Berkinau: the shadows, the fog, the track, the guard bookstore, the tourists, the barbed wire, the broken bricks, the stones, the trees. you have to witness that place, you have to smell the air, you have to touch the tracks. The heavy shroud of death and the raw nakedness of life flows along that creek in Poland, it’s palpable, it’s a place in history like Wounded Knee, like Srebrenica, like Barunjuba, like Khan Yunis, places where evil and man collide and earth never lets us forget.
We called their names, those long dead spirits, Maria Baumgarten was five years old when she and her mother were meticulously entered into the papers of record. She died before the world could break her heart. But so many years later, I called her name. And an image of my sweet niece Jaylee, so vulnerable, so fierce came to me and, me, in all my brokenness and all my fear, and all my weakness, I called out her name, fiercely but my voice shook: Maria Baumgarten.
Later that week at dinner, our rowdy table of originals spontaneously began greeting folks by name a la “NORM!” from Cheers. We were loud and boisterous and like the spirits we greeted so solemnly by day, the spirits we greeted at night were thoroughly tickled. We don’t just survive, we laugh, us humans.
On the final day we walked together in ceremony, praying as all the peoples of the world pray. We walked as peacemakers, slowly with reverence, in homage to those who walked their final steps among those beautiful birch trees; their leaves were so perfectly golden that sometimes when they fell, it looked to me like raining sunlight.
The next morning, we drove away in song. The rabbis were singing shabbat songs as the buses whisked us swiftly away from Oświęcim, back to Krakow. Marsha Gildin told me on the way about Rabbi Schlomo, the Singing Rabbi who brought joy back to his people through song. I loved that and him and her and the signing rabbis. I loved the idea of singing ourselves through trauma, we do that, in a way.
I was so honored and humbled and awed to be apart of such wonderful circle of humans. Black Elk said:
“I was standing on the highest mountain of them all, and round about beneath me was the whole hoop of the world. And while I stood there I saw more than I can tell and I understood more than I saw; for I was seeing in a sacred manner the shapes of all things in the spirit, and the shape of all shapes as they must live together like one being. And I saw that the sacred hoop of my people was one of many hoops that made one circle, wide as daylight and as starlight, and in the center grew one mighty flowering tree to shelter all children of one mother and one father. And I saw that it was holy.”
There’s all kinds of different Lakotas: the Hunkpapa, Sicangu, Itazipo, Sihasapa, Oglala, Oohenunpa and the really good looking ones, the Mniconjou. Our Dakota cousins, the Mdwakanton, Wahpekute, Wahpeton, Sisseton, Yankton, Yanktonai, the Oceti Sakowin are still scattered throughout turtle island, throughout unci maka, doing what our ancestors taught us. We are surviving. We are thriving. We are still here, fighting for peace of mind for our children, and respect and the freedom to drink sacred water unpolluted by industrial waste. We don’t all look like Hollywood indians or powwow indians, some of us are barely legally enrolled, some of us were born when our ceremonies were illegal, some of us were beaten to a pulp for speaking our language, for having long hair, for living with our grandmas, like Russell Means said, we all held onto whatever indian we could, the sacred hoop of our people hasn’t been broken by three centuries of holocaust. We survive without money, without justice and despite the Washington Redskins.
Come and find out why! Maybe together we can use that knowledge to move humanity itself into a different paradigm. I’m excited for the second Zen Peacemaker Bearing Witness Retreat in the Black Hills. My new puppy Nunpa and I are happy to continue to expand our peacemaker hoop, and to have more folks join us in continuing to do what our people have been doing in this land since time began, listening, learning and laughing together, as relatives.
Thanks for reading, please join us in July.
Visit the links below to learn more about our Bearing Witness programs:
Chas Jewett is a Mnicoujou Lakota from Rapid City South Dakota. She is enrolled in the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, she has a cat named igmu and a dog named nupa, she grew up on a cattle ranch her family still operates, was educated by the Benedictines, and spends a lot of her time walking alone in the woods, collecting stone hearts, thinking of funny things to say. She is an environmental, reproductive justice, human rights and peace activist and community organizer.