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Sharing stories of Standing Rock

“These wisdom stories have a prophetic feeling. As we tell the story it begins to happen—anew.“

by Crystal Kotowski

Editor’s Note: This is the third Crested Butte News story about Crested Butte and Gunnison connections to the situation in Standing Rock.

In order to deepen the conversation regarding the Dakota Access Pipeline protests through a traditional form, local community animator Marcie Telander shared with the Crested Butte News evocative Native American stories that directly correlate to the ongoing situation in North Dakota.

Explicit in her sensitivity to appropriation of Native traditions, Marcie noted, “Mark [Schwiesow] and I have been private about our interconnection with the Lakota Medicine teachers. The elders and wisdom-holders who transmitted these traditional stories also told us: ‘You will know when it is the right time to share these with your people.’ The current national and local concern and the rising up of support for advocates at Standing Rock allow us to speak about these things with our home communities.”

Nestled along the banks of the East River, flanked by a labyrinth, rests Wise Acre, an intentional sacred space cultivated over the decades by Telander. Telander and her partner, Schwiesow, who honors his own rich Native American family ancestry, have dedicated much of their lives’ work to uniting Anglo-Americans and indigenous cultures through storytelling.

Called by a Lakota Sioux Medicine Man to the Black Hills through a friend’s vision quest, Telander was given an eagle feather to return to the Lakota tribe. Then working in Chicago, she followed her call—and returned through a series of summers, eventually meeting a number of influential elders and statesmen from the American Indian Movement (AIM).

Sitting in a wooden rocking chair, a plump kitten resting luxuriously on the bookcase behind her, Telander began to share her colorful history. “Storytellers are honored in indigenous cultures. It is said that a storyteller is like Spider Woman, weaving together the past, the present and the future so that All the Relations may continue to live together in harmony and learn the healing wisdom teachings. I am a storyteller—that’s how I believe I was called to spend time with the Elders, and how the sharing began almost 40 years ago. By receiving and returning to the Black Hills of South Dakota with Wambli, the Golden Eagle Feather, I was specifically invited to share, learn and offer the stories of my world.

“Of course,” Telander continued, “I didn’t interview the elders and Medicine People; I simply sat with them as they told the stories they wished for me to share with my people… Mark and I have been privileged to receive this interface and story sharing. The stories are the Web. The Web has never been destroyed—and the potential destruction of that Web by colonial domination has been a concern of all the North American Indigenous Peoples.”

Telander explained, “For the clan-Mothers and Fathers who shared these, Stories are Life. They are not symbols, allegories, or subjective imaginings. They are as immediate and real as the first moment they were experienced and related, to the First People. All of the stories’ cautionary and healing energy is believed to come directly through to guide and inform us. As we tell the story, it begins to happen—anew.”

White Buffalo Calf Woman

Telander reflected on the appearance of hundreds of buffalo at Standing Rock amid escalating tensions on October 28, 2016. Considering the decimation of buffalo in the 1800s as an act of war, the return of the buffalo holds profound significance for Native Americans. Estimates put the peak bison population, during the mid-1800s, near 60 million, but based on the “carrying capacity” of the Great Plains, Temple University history professor Andrew Isenberg, author of The Destruction of the Bison: An Environmental History, 1750-1920, believes the number was closer to 30 million. He explains that estimates that went as high as 100 million came from travelers on the plains who saw the heaviest congregations of herds during their summer mating season.

Isenberg said, “Some Army officers in the Great Plains in the late 1860s and 1870s… foresaw that if the bison were extinct, the Indians in the Great Plains would have to surrender to the reservation system.” Colonel Dodge said in 1867, “Every buffalo dead is an Indian gone.”

Myriad prophecies foretell a time of great need when the White Buffalo will appear again. “There could be no more powerful expression of Creator than the great gift of White Buffalo Calf Women and the Sacred Pipe. Nor a more direct co-relation of species than that between the Bison and the Plains Indigenous Peoples. There are so many similarities between the extermination of millions of bison and the experiences of Native Americans undergoing government enforced marches, massacres, destruction of sacred lands and decimation through concentration on reservations and White Man illnesses,” Telander pointed out.

Numerous Water Protectors have spoken of a modern manifestation of this correlation between the people and the bison, which occurred at Standing Rock on October 28. A number of Crested Butte participants involved in the event shared their experience of armed police closing in on them, pushing them against a fence, surrounding them on three sides from which they could not escape.

“They were forced into a long defenseless line by bulldozers and militarized police. Suddenly someone pointed up to a hill above them. All along the summit were Tatanka Oyate [Lakota language for bison family] with more and more joining them as they all watched in awe. The appearance of the bison shifted everything in that moment of fear, confusion and finally of unified courage,” Telander notes.

“There are many layers to cosmological stories. The sacred story of the White Buffalo Calf Woman that was shared with me, was consciously transmitted in a form that would be appropriate to share with all people. More and more is now becoming available, through the approval of Native Elders which may be offered between cultures because there is a deepening respect and honoring which guides many Anglos’ interactions with indigenous people,” Telander continues.

“The 19th Generation Holder of the Canumpa [Sacred White Buffalo Calf Pipe] is Arvol Looking Horse. This is a very important artifact for the Indigenous People of North America because it represents a time, a teaching and a sacramental gift that appeared when the people were most desperate. It is not surprising that there is a profound resonance in this story for contemporary people. It may be seen to reflect many Native Americans’ and Anglos’ views of the current construction practices of various oil pipeline and extractive mining companies across the country,” says Telander, introducing the story.

Telander’s Telling of the Story

“There was greed and a desire for conquest at any cost. The people were not honoring their GrandMother Earth. They continued to take from her without thought or care. Because of these thoughtless and destructive actions the GrandMother brought upon Her body a great drought. The animal herds disappeared. The people were starving. Because of their desperation, the people were not as pure in thought and action as is considered honorable or sacred. 

Two men are hunting. They are out on the plains and see this exquisite, glowing white cloud coming toward them. It is moving very gracefully. Out of it walks a white buffalo calf. And the two hunters are filled with wonder and awe. As they watch, it transforms into a powerful and majestic woman. She stands there in the white buffalo calf robe—and one of the hunters sees how beautiful she is. And he approaches her in a greedy and disrespectful manner. He wants to overpower and take her. The other hunter is filled with awe, recognizing that she is the sacred feminine. And he stands back in profound respect. The disrespectful man moves toward her, he is annihilated. 

White Buffalo Calf Woman holds forth a pipe of exquisite beauty. Its bowl is made of red stone, which is the blood of the Earth and the Relations. The stem is carved of sacred Pse, or strong wood. The two fit together perfectly as the joining of the Earth and Creator. And because of his honoring humility, the respectful hunter receives into his hands the sacred Canumpa to share healing with all of the People.

The Creator wanted the People to receive Buffalo Medicine through the Canumpa or Sacred Pipe to connect the world of the Creator, humans and the Tunkasila (the Grandfather spirits of Nature) to help the people be less spiritually desperate, to avoid greed and waste and to embrace the holiness of GrandMother Earth. When they learned to do this, it was said that the terrible drought ended, the four-leggeds returned and the People were given great luck in their hunting. 

This is a powerful teaching for the Native American people because there are prophecies regarding when the White Buffalo Calf Woman would appear again and that it will be in a time of equally great need,” Telander shared.

Marcie also shared a number of other prophecy teachings from her experiences with Hopi and Navaho Elders that seem to align with the developments at Standing Rock. “The prophecies foretell a time when ‘Our children will come back in the white man’s skin,’ (Chief Seattle), ‘When Spider Women’s Web will be woven across the sky like smoke signals, all people will read the signs’… of course that’s the internet, (Hopi) and ‘In the seventh generation, the children of the white man will learn from the Native People and the light will wake up in the people and all men will join in the Sacred Circle and be one with the Creator,’ (Crazy Horse)” says Telander.

Telander also noted that the commonly used term for people of non-indigenous descent, “wasicun,” can also mean “fat eater,” or one who only eats the fat, not utilizing all parts of the animal. The term was a way to identify wasteful, destructive people who don’t live in rhythm with the natural world, a long-term colonialist behavior.

Return to indigenous hunting

One of the most contemporary Buffalo Medicine stories comes from Crested Butte supporters who recently traveled to and returned from supporting Standing Rock indigenous Water Protectors. This account comes from an attorney, a Native man, currently active at Standing Rock. The story was meant to be passed on in the Old Way, by word of mouth.

“The vision came to me and said ‘You are being called to hunt in a sacred manner, to hunt how your ancestors have hunted. You will not seek and stalk tatanka; tatanka will seek you.’ And in his vision he saw a very unusual bison with a split horn, very powerful.

The warrior went on foot, and received permission from one of the great bison herds to hunt there. He was terrified because tatanka are fierce, and yet he knew this was fated for him to do. He approached the herd and through the herd came a bison bull with a split horn. This was Pta, the Herd Father, and it came toward him and began to speak the Conversation of Death. Indigenous hunters always speak this way—they know that the bison chooses if it will give its life. So the warrior gratefully took Pta’s life. He was worried the other bison would stampede, but instead, they made a corridor for him. Then this hunter brought the bison back to the Red Warrior Camp. It was shared—all parts of it—as has been the custom throughout time. Do not waste the gifts of the Creator,” shared Telander.

“These wisdom stories have a prophetic feeling, I think. We are starting to understand the profound indigenous teachings; the land of Standing Rock is a sacred cathedral, one that many Indigenous and Anglo people believe is being desecrated,” Telander reflected. “I am so grateful for the generosity of spirit in which the Lakota and other First Nation elders have shared their powerful stories. I have waited for over 36 years to begin sharing some of these with my tribe. We are all connected through an energy that I call Native Spirit. And, we are all indigenous to this Earth. Now is the time to honor the importance of our profoundly inter-dependent relationship with the natural world, the waters and wilderness. As Indigenous Peoples say: ‘We do this thing so that all our People may live. We do this for all our Relations!’”

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