Worshippers follow traditional rights of Dakota people
Like a cathedral made without hands, the hill called Medicine Knoll - Paha Wakan to the Dakota - rises above the plain a few miles east of Pierre, just south of U.S. Highway 14 near Blunt. And on top is the evidence that Native Americans came to the site to practice what is possibly the area's oldest known religion. Near the steeper north side of the knoll is a stone effigy in the shape of a rattlesnake formed by two lines of stones. Including the contours of its body, the snake stretches a distance of 328 feet, modern archaeologists say.
Royal Runge, the previous owner of the site, told the Capital Journal in 2013 that he believes the site to be at least 400 years old or older based on a nearly perfect arrowhead found at the site that archaeologists dated to about A.D. 1500 to 1675.
But no one knows who made that stone effigy — perhaps the best-known stone effigy in South Dakota — or for what purpose.
"It is a ceremonial ground, no doubt about that," Runge told the Capital Journal (http://bit.ly/22NOet4 ). But the significance is lost in time.
Linea Sundstrom, an archaeological consultant who studied South Dakota's boulder effigies and wrote a report about them for the South Dakota State Historical Society, noted in her 2006 report that of the seven snake effigies that have been found in South Dakota, six are on the east side of the Missouri River near Pierre. They could be shrines associated with corn growing - the area was farmed by the Arikara people centuries ago, and the Arikara were noted for growing corn - or they could serve some other purpose. They might even have been shrines to pray for safe passage over the Missouri River, since the Pierre/Fort Pierre area was a crossing on an ancient trade route.
Whatever the purpose of those snake effigies, the Dakota people later used the same site for religious rites.
Vine Deloria Jr., in a book called "Singing for a Spirit: A Portrait of the Dakota Sioux," tells that Deloria's great-grandfather, a member of the Yanktonais Sioux, did his vision quest on top of Medicine Knoll in 1831 at about age 16 while his family camped in a draw below the northeast side of the butte. The Deloria account also makes it clear that the Dakota knew of a snake effigy - "a long twisting trail of rocks arranged to resemble a rattlesnake" is how he describes it - and thought of it as very old already in 1830.
Paha means "hill" or "knoll," and wakan means "holy" or "sacred" — thus the English name, "Medicine Knoll."
But Native American religion in South Dakota isn't a fossil set in stones - it's very much alive.
More is known about the way the Dakota people worshipped, because there are still worshippers in the Pierre area following those traditional rites of the Dakota people. One of them is Raynard Howe, a descendent of Chief Bone Necklace who became sober several years ago through a life-changing experience with the traditional ways of the Dakota people. Though raised in the Roman Catholic faith, Howe wasn't attending church. He would occasionally go to a Native American sweat lodge ceremony, but not regularly, and he was using alcohol and marijuana.
"But about eight years ago, there was an incident that happened with my kids," Howe told the Capital Journal. "They were taken away by DSS (Department of Social Services). I went down to Leonard Crow Dog's Sun Dance at that time. It's down at Rosebud. I stayed down there by myself. I just prayed that I wanted to be with my kids because I missed them. After I came back to Pierre, after the Sun Dance, the Department of Social Services called and said that they could come back to me. After that I stopped using. I don't use drugs or alcohol. I stayed sober after that."
Howe was moved partly by the emphasis Leonard Crow Dog placed on changing his lifestyle. It was similar to the message Leonard Crow Dog posted a few years later at an online site promoting a Sun Dance in 2012:
"Tomorrow we are going to begin the Sun Dance. You need to get your sacred pipe and all your other instruments ready. Those of you who have a particular life style, we are going to break that life style so you can move in new ways. Your prayers are going to take you to a new life. Remember what you are here for. We are here to be Wakan. If you want to be Wakan, you have to act that way otherwise you will never get there."
Howe spent four days at that Sun Dance eight years ago. He slept in his car and talked and listened to holy men. He didn't dance that first year.
But now he sun dances every year. He goes to sweats as often as he can. He prays for himself and others. For the past six years, he has worked as an auto body technician for Beck Motors Collision Center in Pierre. The company is good about giving him time off during the summer when he takes part in the Sun Dance.
"Some people say you dance for the people - so the people will live. It's not for yourself," Howe said. "People know that I sun dance, and they just kind of ask me to pray for them. Tunkashila, Wakan Tanka, that's who I pray to," he said.
Tunkashila, he explains, means "Grandfather" - a Dakota term for God.
And even before he was following the red road, as he calls it, he had the sense that the God of his fathers was protecting him. Once in Bismarck he was stabbed in several places.
"I'm still here," Howe said. "Tunkashila watches over you."
Ann Marie Bahr, emerita professor of religious studies at South Dakota State University and an author or editor of several books on Christianity and other religions, said there are difficulties in interpreting the impact of Native American spirituality. Bahr said the Pew Religious Landscape Survey, from 2007, lists Native American Religions as less than 0.3 percent of the U.S. population.
"The American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) does not have a category called 'Native American Religions,'" Bahr told the Capital Journal in answer to a question about Native American spirituality. "It has a category called 'Indian religion' but there is no indication of whether this refers to Asian Indian religions or American Indian religions, leading to probable confusion on the part of respondents to the survey. For what it's worth, ARIS lists 0.1 percent of the population as belonging to 'Indian religion.'"
Bahr said she has examined the methods of both surveys and said neither Pew nor ARIS seems to have taken the special circumstances of indigenous religions into account.
"For example, indigenous religions are often indistinguishable from the culture of the indigenous groups associated with them. A respondent may consider Native American spiritual practices to be part of his or her culture, and may list his or her religion as 'Catholic' or 'evangelical Christian.' Consequently, it is difficult to know how many people actually practice a Native American religion. Since they are not typically institutional religions, there are no membership rolls."
However, Bahr said, looking for statistics on the growth or decline of Native American religious practitioners may not be the best way to frame the question anyway.
"The influence of religious or spiritual beliefs on the world may be a better measure of religious health. You can have hundreds of people sitting in a church every Sunday, but their religious beliefs may have no real impact on their lives or on the world around them. Or, you can have one person who is totally committed to a set of religious or spiritual ideals - someone like Jesus of Nazareth or the Buddha - and that individual may shape a large percentage of the world's population for millennia.
"Certainly, Native American spirituality is having a greater impact on the world today than it had in the 19th century or for most of the 20th century, although the actual number of practitioners is probably less. As a spiritual path, it has proven useful in healing personal addictions and social disintegration. It has exercised an intellectual and inspirational role in addressing environmental problems; indeed, it has played a more significant role in this respect than have numerically larger religions like Christianity or Islam."
Native American practitioners have addressed such issues in cooperation with other indigenous peoples around the world, Bahr said, and in conjunction with the United Nations.
"Spiritual activists have proven more effective than purely political activists in renewing Native American cultures, and in drawing the world's attention to the environmental and social wisdom found there. In sum, while practitioners of Native American religions remain a small minority of the total U.S. population, there is a growing awareness of the value of Native American spirituality for addressing contemporary problems. "
Native Americans in Pierre who follow other roads, such as the move toward evangelical Christianity, often still express respect for the red road.
One of them is Joseph Ashley - a son of the later Vernon Ashley, the Crow Creek Sioux chief who died in November 2015. Joe Ashley said though he was raised in the Episcopal faith, he liked what he found in a charismatic church in New Mexico.
"That's kind of been my foundation," Ashley told the Capital Journal. "I started in my 20s with this born again, Spirit-filled walk, and here I am in my mid-50s and I still have a lot to learn."
From his father, a faithful member of the Episcopal Church, Ashley said he learned there was much to value about Native American ways.
"There are a lot of parallels between Native American spirituality and Christianity. A lot of the same values are there," Ashley said. "It's not religion, it's spirituality, it's a relationship with the Creator. It's being humble, it's being generous, it's being compassionate - being a good neighbor. They call that wolakota - being a good neighbor, treating your neighbor in a good way, living your life in a good way. But the biggest difference is Jesus and the cross. Whereas in Native American spirituality, it's Tunkashila and the pipe - the pipe being the conduit to God. But in Christianity it's Jesus."
As an evangelical Christian, Ashley said he also appreciates the parallels, as well as the differences, in the idea of sacrifice that is at the heart of Christianity as well as in the Plains Indian rite of the Sun Dance, in which the dancers pierce themselves and tether themselves to a pole or tree, then dance in the sun.
"There are similarities with Sun Dance. Sun dancers, they sacrifice - they give of themselves. They pierce their flesh and tie themselves on the tree. And they do that, suffer for the people or for whatever reason they're sun dancing, for four days. The parallel to Christianity is that Jesus was the sacrifice. He died, was crucified and died on the cross for a sacrifice for all mankind, so all mankind's sins could be forgiven. So we don't have to do that because Jesus did that. We just have to trust in him."
There are even parallels in the practice of seeking after God, Ashley said.
"The vision quest, they call that in Dakota and Lakota, hanbleceya - where a person is called to get closer to God and they go sit on a hill. There's a lot more to it than that, but I'm just simplifying it. And they spend time alone in prayer to try to get direction from God for their lives. That's one of the seven sacred rites for Dakota/Lakota people, to do that - seeking a vision. Here again, the parallel to Christianity: That's a key piece, that you have to have time alone with God. Time alone, free of distraction to seek him in prayer, studying the Bible. But in Christianity you don't have to do go up on a hill or you don't have to do a certain thing."
For Ashley, it's as simple as reading the Bible and praying early in the morning.
In one very basic fashion, Ashley said, Native American spirituality still has much to teach mainstream culture.
"Just the way society was formed, it was the whole opposite of European culture, and that's why there was such a big clash. My ancestors lived a nomadic lifestyle. They followed the buffalo. That's why they lived in tipis - they needed to be mobile. They couldn't have a lot of material possessions, because whatever they had, they had to carry. So material possessions did not take on the importance that they did with Europeans," Ashley said. "Europeans came over and materialism came with them. You buy a piece of land, you set down roots and you start building and you stay in the same place and pretty soon you build your wealth. That wasn't my ancestors' way of life."