Look Back At the Way We Came: A Talk With Joseph Marshall
The following is an interview with Joseph Marshall, author of The Lakota Way of Strength and Courage: Lessons in Resilience from the Bow and Arrow, available from Sounds True.
Tami Simon: Joseph, one of the themes of your work is the art of perseverance and how to work with difficulties: difficult times and challenges. As a Lakota Sioux elder, obviously I think this is something that you know a lot about from the history of the Lakota and all of the difficulties that have been experienced by your people. To begin with, I'm wondering if you could tell us about the key ideas about how to work with difficulty when it emerges in our lives.
Joseph Marshall: First of all, I think you know difficulty is not exclusive to any one group. All of us experience it in one way or another and to one level or another, sometimes every day. And of course, we all know that some difficulties are harder or worse and can really have a drain on us. But I think that, first of all, we have to understand that life comes with difficulties. There are problems. There are obstacles. There are situations for us to attend to day in and day out. Once we understand that reality, that's the most important aspect of dealing with difficulty and persevering.
One of the things that my grandparents -- both sets of grandparents -- always tried to teach all of their grandchildren is that life is good but life is not always easy. It's the not-easy times, those times of difficulty that we have to face instead of avoiding them. Those were two very simple realities that they tried to teach early on, even when we were little children. Everything, like crossing a creek, could be an obstacle. It's not a problem for somebody who is six feet and has a long stride but crossing a small creek could be a problem for someone who is not quite four-feet tall. It was an opportunity for them to teach us how to deal with this particular difficulty. And, in a broader sense, that difficulties are a part of life. Once we realize that difficulty is a part of life, that's the first step.
It's interesting -- you're making an observation that somehow in our contemporary society it's almost this idea, almost a commercial idea, that difficulty shouldn't happen, that there might be some way we can avoid it if we buy the right soap or something like that.
Yes, or take the right pill, or read the right book, or have the right kind of friends -- then we won't have difficulties. It's interesting. I find it interesting, and maybe you do too, that sometimes when I watch TV I see commercials for certain kinds of medication and along with what the medication can do beneficially, there's a whole list: a long recital of the side effects. And that's really what life is. I mean, there are certainly good things in life -- good events, good occurrences, things that happen to us that are good and positive. And we have relatives and friends who have a positive impact on us, but then also there are situations and people whose impact, whose attitudes, whose ways are not as positive. It's just part of life and no soap, no pill, no drink, no potion is going to do away with that. I think it would be good if we could have those things but we don't. And if we accept that reality, then it is better for us.
Okay, so that's the first step in working with difficulties -- just to recognize that it comes with the package of being an alive human being. Difficulties happen. But I know that there is quite a bit more in your work looking at issues like resilience and how we can bounce back when hard things happen. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Another thing that I learned early on, from basically grandparents and from people who were part of my upbringing, was that each of us -- whether we are young or old -- have a certain amount of strength to begin with. We come with that; it's part of the package. When we are born, we have the ability to be strong. And in order to flip that switch or turn on that strength, we need not avoid bad things; we need to face up to them. Whether we get knocked down or not is not really the issue. It is that we faced it. We probably will get knocked down or disappointed or some adverse thing will happen as a consequence of facing something. But we still need to face it -- we face it with whatever strength we have. I learned early on that I was, in my case, stronger than I thought I was and that I could face up to something and deal with it. Even if it knocked me down again, I would face up to it again. That's the strength we have and perseverance is simply not to give up. That's the first lesson -- not to give up.
I'm wondering, Joseph, if you would be willing to share with me something from your own life, something that happened that you found very challenging and how you were able to draw on Lakota wisdom as a way to keep going?
As a child, the first really difficult thing that I had to face -- there were disappointments as a child -- was going to school. I lived with my maternal grandparents until I was eight and really didn't know what school was about; what formal education in the Western sense was all about. There was an uncle of mine who I knew was in school but I didn't know what that meant exactly, precisely. No one ever took the time to explain to me what "school" meant. I knew he was going to school, that he would go to a dormitory and come home on the weekends and then he went away to the university, which was more school.
When I was eight, my uncle and my grandparents took me from the Rosebud Reservation to the Pine Ridge Reservation to my paternal grandparents. I had to stay with them and go to school. It happened so suddenly -- it was totally unexpected. We made this trip of 140 miles to my other grandparents and it wasn't that I didn't love them or respect them; it was that I had to suddenly be uprooted and placed in a different situation. That was the shock.
Added to that was that I was there because I needed to go to school. In a few days, my Grandfather Marshall took me to the Kyle Boarding and Day School, not far from where they lived -- just a few miles. It all came as a rush. There were different people. There were crowds of people. There were hundreds of kids. There were teachers. There were adults that I obviously didn't know. There was a language that I wasn't entirely familiar with. So it was. I just didn't know what to do. I was confused. And amid that confusion was a little bit of anger because I didn't understand what was going on.
But all I could do was get through whatever that first day was. Part of that first day, I remember very vividly sitting outside the principal's office for a long time. This very tall man, a white man, came out in a suit and he took me to a classroom and everybody tried to explain to me the best that they could -- because I wasn't very fluent in English -- what was happening. Then encountering a whole classroom of kids -- they were native, Lakota kids but nonetheless, I knew nobody. There was nobody I could relate to.
That was the first really emotional shock that I encountered, experiencing what "school" was really about. I knew what was expected of me and I just had to simply get through each moment and each day the best I could. I didn't at first -- it was difficult. I ran away from the school grounds several times and people had to come after me to bring me back to the school. But eventually, I decided that probably the only way to deal with it and get the adults off my back was to endure what was going on, even though I didn't like the food. I didn't like the routine. I didn't like where I was. I simply had to endure it. That was my first lesson in perseverance.
Did your grandparents advise you in any way or teach you in any way how to work with that situation?
They did. Once they realized -- especially my grandfather -- the amount of difficulty I was having in school, he finally sat down with me and said, "Grandson, you can't be running away from school because you don't want to learn to run away from situations that are tough." He explained this to me because he spoke Lakota as well -- all of my grandparents did -- and he took the time to explain to me then what "school" was about and why it was necessary. Whether we liked it or not, it was necessary. It was something we had to do. And he told me that he knew I could do it. Once he explained those things to me and spoke to me very gently and took the time to outline what was expected of me, then it was easy to contend with. It wasn't easy overall but it was easier to face.
You were raised by your maternal grandparents and I'm wondering if you can share with us a little bit about what that situation was like. Give us a visual of what your early childhood was like.
I was told that I was given to them, or taken to them, when I was just a few months old for several reasons. My parents were working and my father had several jobs going from one ranch to another to break horses for ranchers so it was not a lifestyle in which an infant was safe or comfortable. So I was given to my maternal grandparents. And we lived various places that I can remember, some more concretely than others.
It was in a northern part of the Rosebud Reservation, near a little town called White River, South Dakota -- in that general area. One of the communities on our reservation was called Horse Creek and that was our community. Another one was called Swift Bear and we were in that community as well. But it was, in most ways, very carefree for me. I was allowed to play. I was encouraged to play, to wander about by myself and explore my territory. There were about 150 square miles of land and meadows and a river and creeks and hills that I and a couple of dogs could go and just explore and see what was out there. It was their way of encouraging me to understand my environment and deal with whatever was out there, be it good or bad, whether it was dangerous rattle snakes or rabbits or coyotes or a fast-moving creek -- I had to learn to deal with that.
That was my childhood. It was carefree in many respects and very adventurous. They didn't forbid me to go to somewhere, some place or do something unless it was very, very dangerous. And then they would tell me, "You can't go there because ..." Generally speaking, I respected that because I respected my grandparents. But it was always out in the open. Even in the winter time we were always outside doing things, out in the environment working or playing. I had a couple of dogs and I had access to horses. I was put on the back of a riding horse when I was four or five years old and I had to learn to keep my balance and stay on -- that was the way it was done for a long time.
That was the way I was from my end of the experience. Because my grandparents were, when I came to them, in their fifties and sixties -- actually, my grandmother was 47 and my grandfather was 61. There were also people of their age and people of their generation -- our relatives and friends -- who came to visit. We visited them. There were a lot of social occasions. There was church on Sundays, for example, where everybody got together and when those things happen, then the old people always drew the children to them, to talk to them or to visit about things and to tell stories. So that was the foundation ... that is the foundation of who I am. That contact with those old people and how they were as people -- the kinds of things that they had to say, not just to me but to all of the other children that were there and the kinds of lessons they taught with their stories. So that was my childhood. It was, as far as I'm concerned, over much too quickly.
Now, Joseph, here you are, you're in your 60s and you live what one could say would be a Western lifestyle currently in terms of your home, your cars, and everything. How much do you think of your early experience and the wisdom that you learned from your grandparents and the people of their age? How much of that wisdom really applies in our modern world? What does and what doesn't?
As far as I'm concerned, everything applies because life is life. The only differences between now and then is the amount of technology and the amount of it that people have contact with. Everything else is basically the same. We still have to worry about making a living. We still have to worry about taking care of our families. We still have to worry about what's going on in the world that directly affects us. Those were some of the issues that they had to contend with when they were the primary care givers in my life as a child. Those kinds of issues, while they might be slightly different today, are basically the same.
The things that they taught me were about understanding the environment around me, about the kind of people that are out there in the world, about the kind of person that I should be as a Lakota and as a man. All of those lessons are applicable today because everyone knows that what we learn in those first formative years -- up to maybe the age of 10 -- is how we contend with life thereafter. And everything that they had to teach is just as viable today as they were then.
Now there are just a couple of questions that I would like to ask you. They are things that I've always wanted to ask a true Native American lineage holder, a true Native American elder. I hope that it's okay. I notice sometimes that I feel a personal sense of guilt when I speak to someone who is of Native American heritage. Guilt for what Euro-Americans did in coming over to this country a couple hundred years ago. I'm curious what you would say to someone like me or other people who maybe have a sense of ... maybe it's guilt, or shame for what our collective group of Euro-Americans did, the kinds of tragedies that they created.
It's an interesting question and statement. Yes, I have encountered that. People have asked me that. They declare, "Well, I do feel guilty." I get emails a lot. I get letters from people who say that very thing that you just did -- that there is a sense of guilt for how history turned out, how the interaction between our different groups of people turned out. First of all, there's no denying history. There is a reality to history that we all should be aware of for two reasons, not so much to feel guilty but just to have an awareness of it because the premise, the axiom, that those who forget history are doomed to repeat it is very, very true. On our part, we don't want those things to happen to anyone and we certainly don't want those things to happen to us. So along with feelings of guilt, right behind it and linked with it inextricably should be a sense of realistic awareness of how history really came down and why some of the things happened the way they did and what the attitudes were that were behind those actions.
Someone asked me, "Why do you want us to feel guilty?" I never ever said anywhere -- I never ever wrote anywhere -- that I want non-native people to feel guilty. What I would rather have is awareness: awareness about history so that we learn from it so that we do not treat each other and other people the same way that Euro-Americans treated native people -- and wolves as well. If you want to study what happened to native people, then study what happened to wolves. If you want to know what happened to wolves, study what happened to native people. It was that sense of entitlement and sense of superiority that drove all of that and those are the kinds of things, that perhaps as Americans overall, with which we are facing the world at large -- with that sense of superiority and entitlement. I think that some of us have not learned from our own history. In place of that guilt, that's what I would rather have -- awareness.
History is difficult thing. It is a difficult thing to remember and know exactly what happened. It's a difficult thing to own up to, and for native people like me, it's often a difficult thing to talk about because sometimes it's not easy to keep the anger at bay and the bitterness at bay, although I try. I try to present history in a way that is a learning tool. Not a bloody stump to hit somebody over the head with, but a learning tool. And when one uses it as a learning tool, then guilt is not the consequence. Awareness should be. And that's really what I would want -- that awareness so that we don't do the same stupid, awful thing again.
In that spirit, I know that our conversation here is not going to go on for days and weeks but I'm curious, what aspects of the history -- of the non-native people coming over to this country and what occurred -- what aspects of that history do you think are important to really emphasize that might not be in people's awareness?
What aspects of it? I think all of us function or operate or live from what our values are and what our attitudes are. And I think that Euro-Americans came to this continent with that sense of superiority, that sense that they were a better people, a more moral and enlightened people. And I think that there was one Pope, and I can't remember exactly which Pope it was, who issued an edict that it was acceptable to kill native people because they did not have souls like white people did, like Christian people did. When you have those kinds of attitudes, certainly you're going to act from those foundations, from those attitudes.
Certainly the guns and the liquor and the technology that Euro-Americans had did their share of damage, but without the attitudes driving them, we probably would not have had the kind of damage that guns cause. It is attitudes and how they drive people to do what they do. The whole thing of Manifest Destiny was that "we're entitled, we're supposed to come here and do this, it is our right." If you look around and if you listen to some of the things that are happening today in politics and corporate America, there is still that attitude of Manifest Destiny. And that's dangerous because that causes you to override the basic values of fairness and compassion and balance that all should be driving us instead. It's attitude that is the root cause of a lot of difficult things.
You mentioned that in yourself, you do your best to keep anger and bitterness at bay, especially when seeing not only what has happened in history but as you mentioned, what we currently see happening in our world in terms of people still holding those kinds of attitudes. How do you do that? How do you keep anger and bitterness at bay? How do you personally do that?
Well, it's finding a certain amount of balance, and understanding that anger is a destructive force, it's a destructive emotion. Maybe there is such a thing as righteous anger. Sometimes it is necessary for anger to cause us to be courageous when something goes wrong. But anger in and of itself when it is driven by ignorance is a very destructive force. We need to learn, or at least I'm still trying to learn, that anger is not the best way to teach a lesson -- to teach a positive lesson. But having said that, the anger is still there when you consider, when one considers the kinds of stories that emerge from history.
I remember my grandfather saying, because I asked him when I was probably 14 or 15. In school we were studying Western American history, and there was a brief mention of what had happened at Wounded Knee in 1890. My grandfather was born in 1888, so he was only two when that happened. But of course, his parents were alive so I asked what he knew about that event. And he told me what his parents and other people had told him in the years after that had happened and what their reaction was to it, which was basically an enormous amount of shock and sadness that this sort of thing would happen. He told me the story of what he knew about Wounded Knee and then he ended it by singing an honoring song for all of the people who died there.
I saw my grandfather cry maybe two or three times in my entire lifetime, and that was one of the moments that he cried. When he talked about what happened at Wounded Knee, I saw how it affected him. And when you see when that kind of event affects people, then you feel a certain amount of pity and empathy, certainly, but then you become angry because you're one of those people that it happened to. It was your kind of people that suffered with what happened at Wounded Knee. So it's not easy to keep the anger at bay but still, we have to realize that anger is not a constructive force. That is what I remember day in and day out: that it's best to teach with positive emotion rather than with negative emotion and anger is one of those things. Balance is important. I keep it in its own compartment, aside from everything else I do.
Thank you. One of the other questions that I've wanted to ask that I'm going to ask you now as a Native American elder, a Lakota elder, is how you feel about non-Native Americans adopting and then adapting certain native ceremonies like the sweat lodge ceremony or the vision quest experience and leading their own vision quest groups and sweat lodges. What's your view on all of that?
It's not acceptable to me, pure and simple. I don't think it's our place to deny somebody, anyone, who wants to come and participate with us in our ceremonies. There are several instances, but one comes to mind when I was living in Wyoming and there was an advertisement in a local paper that said, "Lakota Sweat Ceremonies, 7 p.m. on Wednesdays, call ..." and there was a name and phone number. So when I called the number, there was a machine on the phone so I left a message. I told them who I was, gave them my name and that I was a Lakota and I was interested in what this sweat ceremony was all about. I never got a reply back and I called several times.
As it turned out, I found out that the person who was doing the advertising was a local registered nurse who worked at the hospital, a male nurse. He had gone to one or two Lakota sweat ceremonies, just as a participant, and from that he assumed that he had the right and the wherewithal to conduct his own ceremonies.
I take issue with that kind of approach. It's up to each individual medicine man who he accepts into his ceremony and who he allows to be part of it. And if a medicine man says, "You can come and participate," that is not a license to conduct your own sweat lodge ceremonies -- no more than I would get up in front of a Catholic mass and say, "I'm conducting this mass and I'm going to preach the sermon today." It doesn't work that way and it shouldn't work that way. It's not acceptable to me for people to assume that they have the wherewithal or authority and the right to conduct Lakota ceremonies. People who are not Lakota, for them to come and participate and learn -- that's okay. That's the way we create awareness. But to come in and take over, as it were, for me it diminishes the whole thing and it's not acceptable at all.
Just to push on this a little bit, if that's OK Joseph, just a little-obviously someone advertising a sweat lodge as a Lakota sweat lodge is a pure and simple appropriation of something that doesn't belong to them. But I'm curious-and I'm curious because I know of a lot of people who are good, sincere people who have taken the sweat lodge experience itself. They've said, "Just come participate in a weekend of sweat lodge ceremony" where they're taking that essential piece of building a structure and having a fire and sweating and praying. How do you feel about? Just honestly, I'd love to know.
Well, that's OK. I've seen people and been with people who -- one of my nephews is a medicine man and he invites people to come, and there are all kinds of people who do come: native people from other tribes, non-Indian people who do come and they participate. When they participate in the spirit of learning and being part of it -- that's fine. I mean, that's the way we come to an understanding of one another. Native people go and they belong to Christian denominations and they go to Christian church services. But unless they become, through the process of pastors or deacons or whatever, and that system is available to them in that sense, they don't assume that they have any control. And that is where the rub is for me. I've been with a lot of people, non-Indian people, who will come and will courteously and respectfully and in the spirit of learning and being a part of something will participate. And as far as I'm concerned, that's good and fine.
But I'm taking it a step further. Not just participating but then going and setting up their own sweat lodge. Not calling it a Lakota sweat lodge but just, "Here's a sweat lodge experience" and leading people through that. They've never been initiated necessarily by any type of traditional elder but then they just take it and teach it in a "this is a universal practice of the sweat lodge." What do you think about that?
To me, that's at the very least questionable. I think that you know, in specific instances we need to know what their motivation is and what they are saying to people. The case in point is what happened in Arizona and several people suffered injuries and died because this one man built a sweat lodge that housed over 40 people inside one sweat lodge and the heat was overwhelming. A sweat lodge is not to see how hot you can stand it and to see how tough you are. It's a cleansing ceremony for one very simple reason: you become reborn. It's not how tough you are and how brave you are or how hot you can stand it before you give up. That was the sense that I got out of this story of what happened in Arizona. When people don't understand the real reasons and the full extent of why we do certain ceremonies, then that's where people who come to them are misled. And that's really what I take issue with: people who come to a sweat lodge that is conducted by a non-Lakota or non-native person who doesn't quite understand it fully. The people who come and participate are misled because they think that this person knows everything that there is to know and chances are they don't. That's the thing I take issue with.
Of course, your own prayer and ceremonial life is personal. Each one of us -- it's our own intimate experience of our spiritual life. But I'm curious if you would be willing to share a little and give us a sense of what Lakota ceremonies are important to you in your life now?
In general, they're all important but we don't always have the opportunity to participate in all of them and the one ceremony that I like to participate in is the sweat lodge or Inikagapi, which means "to be reborn." But every day, I start off my day, Tami, with several minutes of silence before I get to work, before I turn on any device in the house, before I make coffee, before I do anything else. I light a sprig of sage and I smudge. I let the smoke rise and I pray for a few minutes. I pray for my relatives, my friends especially, anyone who is having any amount of difficulty, or facing something extraordinary. I pray for them specifically, such as a cousin of mine who is now facing stage-four liver cancer. I thought about her today. I'm thinking about her all day. Then after I smudge, I sit down and -- making sure my feet are on the floor, that I'm in contact with the ground, with the Earth -- I spend a few moments of nothing but silence. If there's nothing but silence, that's okay but sometimes there are images and thoughts and feelings that come into that silence and I allow that. And that's how I start my day and that's my little ceremony every day. And it will be every day of my life from now on.
Joseph, we started our conversation and I was speaking with you about what you know about Lakota wisdom in terms of dealing with difficult times and the art of perseverance. I started with that because it is an aspect of your work that I'm quite interested in and that I think is very important. But I'm curious, beyond that theme, what you feel are the central teachings of the Lakota people that we really need in our world today -- that you really want make sure people are aware of. As in, "Here's what the Lakota can offer our troubled world."
Interesting question. The answer probably requires a lot more wisdom than I have at my beck and call at the moment. But what I understand and perceive about what we Lakota stand for -- and there are many things that we stand for -- but one of the things that we do is that we accept the reality of what is. There is a saying in our language, [which translates to] "that's the way things are." And if you take that simple phrase and look around, there are some realities that exist in our everyday lives, in our immediate environment, but also in the larger environment around us. Some of those realities the Lakota perceived way back when: the sun comes up and it goes down; it comes up in a certain direction and it always goes down in a certain place; and there are other realities as well -- there are circles and cycles to life. The seasons run in a cycle and the moon is round. The sun is round -- that is a circle. And these are the kinds of realities that are a part of our existence. We don't deny them. We accept them for what they are because we can't change them.
And the biggest reality is about life itself. It has a beginning and it has an ending and it is a cycle itself. We're born, we're infants, then we are children, then we are adults, and then we are elders -- that is the cycle of our life. Now I'm at the point where I'm at the beginning of being an elder so I'm into that last phase of my life and that's the way it is. Having heard other people talk about it, especially old people -- that this is way things are -- it enables me to accept that reality about life and about my life.
The one thing that I think is one of the most important things is how we relate to other forms of life. Out of that, we understand the reality that we, as human beings, are no better or no worse than any other form of life. Whether it is a shrub or a bird or a snake or any other form of life, we are equal because all of us are born into this life: we live our lives, fulfill our purposes, and then we end our lives. And no creature, no form of life -- especially us humans -- cannot circumvent that one reality. That's what makes us all equal. We don't regard ourselves as having dominion. We don't regard ourselves as being the one species that is in charge of all other species. We are no more and no less and that is the one reality that I think the world needs to understand in relationship to the Earth. Most of our cultures do not accept that -- they look at it from a different viewpoint. That has an impact on, certainly, how we treat one another, how we treat other forms of life, and how we treat the Earth. I think if there is one thing that other people can learn from us is that aspect of reality. We accept that reality in a humble way and we act on that reality from that knowledge that we have of it. So those are some of the things that we Lakota can offer to the world and that's the way I look at it.
Joseph, now I'm going to ask you even more! Can you believe it? This woman who asks so much! I know that you're a beautiful storyteller and I wonder if there is a story that perhaps comes to mind right now that encapsulates a bit of what we've been talking about in some way; any short story that comes to mind that you might be willing to share with us.
Well, the story that immediately comes to mind when you pose this question is one that happened to me and I've written about it and I talk about it a lot. It relates to how we as human beings look on the past and what it can offer us in terms of what we can learn from it.
When I was a boy -- four, five, six years old -- my grandfather and I would go for walks. We would go anywhere and everywhere any season of the year -- whether it was winter, spring, summer, or fall, we would go for walks. Sometimes we had something else to do while we were walking, like gathering wood or so on and so forth. But we would walk and we would walk a long ways, sometimes for miles. He had this curious little habit of stopping and then he would turn me around, grab me by my shoulders and he would say, "Grandson, look back at the way we came." So I would. I would look back at how we had come to this point, either by river or down a hillside or though this little grove of trees. However we had come, I would look back because my grandfather told me to.
After this had happened several times over the few years, I finally asked him, "Grandpa, why are you making me look back?" I suspect he had been waiting for me to ask that question because the answer was right there. He said, "Because, Grandson, one of these times I'm going to send you down this trail by yourself and if you don't remember the way you came, you will be lost." To me, that is the greatest lesson I ever learned about history and about the past because the past makes us who we are and makes us what we are. If we're not aware of how we came to this place and this moment, then how in the heck are we going to understand where we are going from this point on? To me, that is one of the most profound lessons I ever learned from my childhood.