Each spring since time immemorial, Lakota people have visited their sacred places in South Dakota’s Black Hills—Pahá Sápa in Lakota—to participate in ceremonies that both mark their place in nature’s cycle of rebirth and renewal and assure the well being of all people everywhere.
Their spiritual journey unfolds over four months—March, April, May and June—and takes them to Wicicala Sakowin Paha or Harney Peak, named after William S. Harney, leader of the Grattan Massacre and the Battle of Ash Hollow, which the American forces won while killing Brulé Sioux women and children as well as warriors. They also go to Mato Tipila, translated into English as Bear Lodge Mountain, but which really means where the bears dwell, Leonard Little Finger, a retired health care administrator, told Indian Country Today Media Network. And a third place of ceremony is Pe’ Sla, also called Wowakcawala Okislata, which means the purity of peace and harmony, Little Finger said.
On August 25, the place known as the purity of peace and harmony will come under the auctioneer’s gavel to be sold to the highest bidder. An Indian countrywide effort is underway to raise the estimated $6 million to $10 million needed to buy the sacred Pe’ Sla site in the Black Hills that, ironically, the United States government and its Supreme Court acknowledge already belong to the Lakota people.
On August 14, the Rosebud Sioux Tribal Council issued a press release announcing that “in the spirit of religious freedom,” the council will act as the fiscal agent to bid in the Pe’ Sla sacred site auction on August 25. “Every year, tribes within the Lakota, Dakota and Nakota nation gather to perform ritual and ceremony as a way to ensure the continued well-being of all people. The Rosebud Sioux Tribe is among those tribes that send contingents to the site every year,” Rosebud leaders said in the press release. “In that spirit, the Rosebud council voted to unite all the Oceti Sakowin—or Seven Council Fires of the Nation—in this struggle to maintain its deeply rooted traditions. If successful, this will mark one of the first attempts by the Great Sioux Nation to unite in common cause, bid for ownership and share the site for all tribal members to practice their faith.”
The tribe is working with Last Real Indians to accept donations from both tribes and individuals who want to join in keeping religious freedoms for Lakota people alive and intact at Pe’ Sla. Send contribution to: Rosebud Sioux Tribe/Pe Sla, 11 Legion Ave., P.O. Box 430, Rosebud, SD 57570 or donate online with LRI at indiegogo.com/PeSla-LakotaHeartland. All donations to the tribe are tax-deductible and will only be used toward the purchase of Pe’ Sla.
The Rosebud Sioux Tribe has designated $50,000 for the purchase Pe’ Sla land, according to Indiegogo. “By contributing to the effort of all the Sioux Tribes, we aim to purchase at least some of the tracts, if not all. Many of the Sioux Tribes continue to exist in poverty and do not have a thriving casino-based economy as the media may have portrayed. Yet we continue to fight for what is sacred, because it matters!” the Sioux leaders say.
The 1,942.66 acres of land will be divided into five tracts of land for the auction. “To the Oceti Sakowin, Pe’ Sla is The Heart of Everything,” writes Ruth Hopkins, a columnist for ICTMN. “Not only does this sacred site play a key role in our creation story, it is said to be the place where The Morning Star plunged to earth, and saved the People from seven creatures who had killed seven women. The Lakota hero then placed those women in the night sky as ‘The Seven Sisters,” called ‘The Pleiades’ by western astronomers.”
The ceremonies, Hopkins says, are tied directly to the Universe and the natural cycles of Ina Maka (Mother Earth). The location of Pe’ Sla is the essential sacred place where the ceremonies must be observed each year. “According to our beliefs, these rituals must be performed to keep the Universe in harmony and preserve the well being of all, Native and non-Native alike. You see, to the Lakota, Dakota and Nakota, Pe’ Sla is not merely prairie. Its grounds are holy. It is our Church of the Holy Sepulchre. It is our Mecca. Pe’ Sla is our wailing wall, where we are meant to pray,” Hopkins says.
The Black Hills are so sacred because they are an earthly reflection of the heavens, Little Finger says. “A good place to start (to think about it) is with a picture of a tipi. Before you put the cover on you have the poles set up in almost a circular pattern and tied together at the top. The poles create two triangles—one from the ground up to where the poles are tied and then there’s an inverted triangle above where the poles are tied. It represents that what’s in the heavens is on Mother Earth and what’s in Mother Earth is in the heavens,” Little Finger says.
Lakota ancestors studied the billions of stars that are so brilliantly visible on the prairie and observed 17 different constellations, Little Finger said, “and in those constellation there are four very important constellations that dictate a way of life for Lakota people and it begins with the time of year which when the day is equal to the night and that, of course, is the spring equinox.” Like all Indigenous Peoples, the Lakota ceremonies are fine-tuned to the heavenly movements of sun, moon and stars and are specific to their place of ceremony—the Black Hills.
Pe’ Sla is currently “owned” by the Reynolds family. But the Sioux have never accepted the expropriation of their land. The Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 granted the Sioux Indian Nation the “Great Sioux Reservation,” including the Black Hills of South Dakota, to be exempt from Euro-American settlers forever. But in 1874, General George A. Custer led an expedition into the Black Hills accompanied by miners who were seeking gold. That was the end of “forever.” Once gold was found in the Black Hills, miners swarmed into area and in 1877 Congress reneged and passed an act that reclaimed the Black Hills after the gold rush. The Sioux have struggled over ownership of their land ever since. In 1978 the Supreme Court conceded in United States v. Sioux Nation of Indians that the Sioux land had been taken unlawfully and the tribe deserved compensation, but the Sioux continue to refuse to have their land bought off.
Little Finger figures the original amount the government set aside—$17.1 million according to the Supreme Court website—now amounts to over $1 billion from accrued interest “and still Lakota have refused to take it because it’s our spiritual land,” he says. “It’s all part of the ‘sacred enormity’ and how can we sell something that’s part of us, how can we sell Mother Earth? And yet today this is being allowed even though the American Indian Religious Freedom Act is in place.”
Little Finger talks about the “seven directions” and says the sacredness of the Black Hills is related to what’s in the heart of the sacred enormity—everything that is wonderful and miraculous about being part of the earth and its universe. “If you stood in the center, you become the seventh direction—above you is heaven, below you, the earth, and all the directions, north, west, south and east encompass that sacred enormity. And on the outside is what I call homo economicus, reaching into that circle and pulling things out and all they want to do is own it in today’s concept.”
What happens, then, if homo economicus manages to buy Pe’ Sla and develops it, as it almost inevitably would be?
“We’ll still go because we have to do that and if they shoot us or disallow us there’ll be others that come. That’s part of us,” Little Finger says. “Everything was done to annihilate that belief, every form of action, extermination, what William Harney did, what happened at Wounded Knee, the assimilation process of cutting our hair, teaching us another language so that it could be the foundation of another culture.”
Sioux people still hang on to the important things, Little Finger says. “Our bodies are not important. At this point, it’s our souls and you can’t keep us from doing the things that try to rebuild and revitalize who we are as a people, as a culture that’s been in existence far, far before any other culture ever came to this land.”