I was in Red Wing, Minnesota, last week and visited with Winfred Red Cloud at the Prairie Island Lakota Community. He is the tribe’s Cultural Liaison: the traditional intermediary between the tribe and the outside world. We were introduced by the Fairview Hospital CEO and started gently listening to each other’s stories, experiences and relationships, and then talked about health and healing,
Winfred is in his mid-fifties, his face lined and rutted, hair tied into braids that reach mid-chest. He is Oglala Lakota from the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, and the great grandson of the great Oglala Chief, Red Cloud, who led the Red Cloud War (1886-1868) which resulted in a complete victory for the Oglala and temporarily preserved their homeland on the Powder River. Chief Red Cloud was the only Indian leader to win a major war against the U.S.
Winfred married a Mdewakanton Lakota woman from Prairie Island and has lived here for 20 years. In addition to his outside work, he also teaches the Lakota children to speak their tribal language and sponsors a dance and drumming group who travel to schools all over the state, performing and telling their stories. It makes the kids feel good about themselves, and they see non-Indian kids look at them in a different way.
He was candid about the difficulties the kids faced as well. “The casino is a blessing and a monster,” he said. It paid for many tribal improvements and is also profitable enough to give every tribal member a significant yearly income. For kids under 18, the money is kept in a trust fund until they’re of age and get a lump sum. “Easy money without work is not the traditional way,” Winfred said, “they don’t need to do anything to get it, they’re dropping out of school early, being recruited by gangs, selling and using drugs, losing touch with being Indian. I’m trying to recruit them too, but too many don’t want to hear my stories.”
Winfred’s lament is also mine; we both know that those who tell the stories define the culture. Today’s storytellers don’t sit around campfires with drums, but rather around video screens with games of unrelenting violence. The stories are told with blood curdling sounds of dying, blood-letting, torture, and are now even being told in churches. The New York Times reported (October 7, 2007) that churches are using video game nights featuring mature-only, violent entertainment to recruit young men. Churches are stocking their youth centers with game consoles so teenagers can flock around big-screens and shoot it out; their religious leaders say it’s the most effective thing they’ve done to get kids hooked on coming to church.
We must be telling better stories. We do not teach kids to be respectful and to value life by seducing them with the thrills of violence and pornography. Our survival and the quality of our lives should not be defined by blood-letting and suffering, but rather by the dance and drumbeat that kindle the spirit. I’m hoping that here is another Red Cloud at the sunset of a generation who can find a way to win his war and preserve his culture for another generation.