I felt a bit depressed and aimless before Christmas, last year. I know I’m not unique in this. I study Buddhism; it says something that many religions say: that helping others, strangely, makes you a happier person. And I’ve experienced this myself. So when the opportunity came to drive a truck full of donated toys, food and clothing to the community of Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, I signed on.
Wounded Knee is infamous in American history. On December 29, 1890, 350 men, women and children-members of Chief Big Foot’s band of Minneconjou Lakota (Sioux)-were mowed down by the guns of the U.S. Seventh Cavalry and buried in a mass grave. Big Foot’s people were practicing the Ghost Dance, a non-violent, desperate prayer for the restoration of the environment, the return of the buffalo and of their many dead Lakota relatives. The Ghost Dancer’s dream of protecting the culture and ecology that existed on the Great Plains for over 10,000 years was full of a heartbreaking hopefulness that died, there, in the bloody snow at Wounded Knee. The legal right to practice their traditional religion would not be returned to the Native Americans until a special act of the U.S. Congress in 1978.
In 1986, a group of Lakota including Chief Arvol Looking Horse, a descendant of Chief Big Foot, initiated an annual commemorative ride on horseback that retraced the journey to Wounded Knee by Big Foot’s people. This Ghost Ride was intended to “wipe the tears” of the Lakota people and release the trauma of a troubled place.
In typical Lakota style, these warriors endured their long, cold journey by laughing and teasing each other the whole time. Once, when the riders had not eaten a hot meal in quite a while, they came to a small town with a Chinese restaurant that had an “all you can eat” buffet. After watching the way some of these big guys were chowing down, an anxious owner came out of the kitchen and shouted, “You go now!” Telling and re-telling stories like this provided the Ghost Riders with hours of entertainment on their long ride.
Chief Looking Horse has worked to protect sites sacred to indigenous people in North America and around the world-even receiving the Temple of Understanding award at the United Nations in 2006 for promoting world peace.
Today, Wounded Knee is a small community of 300 people in Shannon County, South Dakota-the second poorest county in the United States. Toward the end of his second term, President Clinton visited Pine Ridge Reservation and pledged to do something about the poverty there. Like so many other promises made to the Indians, this one has yet to bear fruit.
Our travel weather on December 23rd is sunny and strangely mild, but the snow from a recent blizzard is piled deeply along the roadside. My companions are Beverly, a Buddhist who has organized donations for Wounded Knee for years; and Christinia, a Lakota woman whose sister-in-law was recently killed in a car accident on the reservation, leaving five children behind. My co-pilot in the truck is David, a member of the Unity Church, three times divorced and like myself looking for a little meaning in the holiday season.
We reach the town of Pine Ridge and stop at Big Bat’s Store and gas station, a local landmark whose name comes from Baptiste “Bat” Pourier, a French trader of the 1800s who married a Lakota woman. At Big Bat’s, two local Indian women, Loretta and Misty, offer us beaded earrings which they make and sell for a little holiday cash for their families. I buy two pairs for our young friends, Lauren and Mikayla, with whom we spend Christmas back in Colorado. A couple of local drunks panhandle and harangue us about Jesus.
We travel on to Wounded Knee and arrive around 10 p.m. The night breezes remain warm. Surrounded by soft, grassy, nearly treeless hills, there’s a vast dome of bright stars overhead, the like of which you only see nowadays on the prairie. An owl hoots softly under the black night. I’ve been here a half dozen times since the mid ‘70s, and it always feels like a place where there is a gap-where seen and unseen worlds, past and future overlap. It’s unsettling.
Stopping at a little church, we unload our U-Haul. It’s filled floor to ceiling with frozen turkeys, potatoes, carrots, apples, oranges and canned goods, as well as four or five bikes and other presents marked for recipients by age, including lots of new clothes with the labels still on them. I feel heroic and happy, like one of the characters in the Christmas specials I watched when I was a kid, or maybe the Grinch after his heart had grown three sizes. One gift in the pile is a puzzle for a toddler that has elephants, tigers and monkeys on it. “How many children that age will ever see those animals?,” I wonder. “Will these animals continue to be part of our world?”
The Lakota have a prayer, mitakuye oyasin, which means “all my relations.” To this day, an ingrained sense of not taking more than one needs and always leaving enough for other beings, “our relations,” lies at the core of their culture.
It’s a lesson I dearly wish that we would learn also. The whole Christmas iconography is threatened-the little town of Bethlehem lies in the midst of a region that has long been divided by violent conflict. Due to global climate change, reindeer and polar bears are in jeopardy. Whether we think that Santa Claus is silly or charming, the question looms: what will we tell our children and ourselves when the very heart of our Christmas dreams, the North Pole, is melting? The plight of polar bears drowning because they can’t swim the increasing distance between the shrinking polar ice and the mainland may seem remote, even (if we are honest with ourselves) inconsequential. But what is truly at risk here is more than a healthy ecosystem-it’s the nature of our humanity, and, eventually, our continued existence as well.
Christmas is a time we remember that giving to others brings us joy. Whether it’s Santa Claus bringing toys to all the world’s children or three wise men guided by a star, seeking a holy child born into humble circumstance, these stories point to our potential.
Perhaps we could remember this lesson throughout the year, and give a little bit back to the Earth, the only home of every known living creature. Leading scientists say that we have 10 years, at best, to fix the problem of CO2 emissions and climate change; beyond that the damage will be irrevocable. But solutions to this looming ecological crisis exist, awaiting implementation.
The real test of the human spirit will be whether we can learn, like Ebenezer Scrooge, to care about others, keeping the universal message of Christmas throughout the year. Or will our own children of the next generation (over nine billion of them) wander like poor Tiny Tim, hungry, sick and neglected, due to our short-term-only vision? Will our own fate be like that of the Ghost Dancers, fervently wishing for the return of all that was beautiful and dear to us after it is too late?
Driving back from Wounded Knee on Christmas Eve, passing thousands of little birds who had gathered at the highway’s cleared edge in order to escape the deep snows, I made a little prayer for ourselves, as well: “May all travelers on this uncertain road arrive home in peace and safety, All My Relations.”
Jim Tolstrup is the Executive Director of the High Plains Environmental Center, a non-profit that promotes environmental stewardship and sustainable development: suburbitat.org.