Tales from the Heart of America
- By Scotte Burns
Harkening back to the halcyon days of our youth, working Renaissance festivals together and roughing it in lean-tos and tents with friends who became family over those years, Toni and I sat huddled over coffee and new friendships under the weathered roof and two walls of a shelter on the Lakota Sun Dance grounds, just outside St. Francis, SD. Having survived the pitted patchwork of rez roads, spilling my bike in a mud bog, and traversing open grasslands where no Harley was ever designed to go (between the two of us, that counts as four- wheeling, right?) our steeds rested, covered, near the cattle-guarded gate of the property, a mile or so west.
As singer Greg Grey Cloud did his best to kindly amend our ignorance of Lakota customs, honoring us with a rare invitation for non-native people to attend and support the Sun Dance, the savory airs of grilling onions and peppers wafted through the humid South Dakota air. Bo, a fellow Anglo who’d married into the tribe, his head graced by an enormous grey pelt and headdress, cooked chili on a campstove resting on the shelter’s plywood counter, humming softly to himself before offering us the first bowls. Guests are always served first in Lakota tradition, one of many traditional courtesies from people who balance a profound pride in their culture and history with an individual and personal humility that is in turn humbling to encounter.
Having overheard much of our conversation with Greg about our quest for the meaning of love and working to unify and reconnect Americans through recognizing such love in others, Bo related a conversation between a tribal elder and a previous visitor, also curious about the Lakota. As the elder finished a song he’d offered to the sky, the man asked him the meaning of the song. The elder replied, “I am praying for rain for the crops and land.” Later, following another, different song, the man again asked the elder its purpose. “I pray for rain for the rivers and lakes to be renewed,” he answered with a patient smile. Following a third song that evening, the man was told that the song he’d overheard had been offered in thanks for the rains that had come, and gratitude for the life it nurtured. “Your prayers are so often about rain,” the man observed. The elder laid a weathered hand on the man’s shoulder and said, “That is because all prayers are about the things we lack, the things that we need, or for which we hope. That is why your people’s prayers are so often about love. We have a great bounty of that. Here, we need rain.”
The elder’s words said much about how the Lakota see America, and their place within it, but Greg’s subsequent revelation about his people was even more astounding. As drums and songs drifted down to us in the secluded space just off-site where we were told our cameras would not offend, we asked him how to say “I love you” in Lakota, a question we commonly ask multilingual cultures across America. We learned that there is no single word or phrase in Lakota that translates simply as “love.” There are instead distinct terms for a human spirit’s desire to make another person a part of their family, to protect and defend what one holds as beautiful or treasured, to dispel other’s loneliness, and more. All the nuances over which other Americans cast a broad net, calling everything that is caught “love”, the Lakota have instead given its own name, its own face. It is as if we had no general name for sunshine, but instead called the daylight that makes crops grow by one name, that warms our skin another, that dries mud to clay another still. Then, each could be understood by us for its own unique character, defined by our experience of it, rather than broadly labeled and then left to us to define each for ourselves, often very differently from our family or neighbors.
In our work, Toni and I often see the distance between individuals and cultures reflected in such a hazy vision, and in the disparate definitions, of what love is - what it means in our individual lives and to us as a people. When we ask folks to define it, to finish the sentence, ”Love is...”, it proves among the most difficult questions for most Americans to answer. Many simply reply, “Well, you know it when you see it, but you can’t put it into words.” The Lakota have instead found ways to describe all facets of love, as well as those of spirit, sacrifice, giving, knowing, and more that don’t simply label such profound experiences with single terms, leaving it to each person to struggle with “knowing it when they see it”. Rather, they define the nature and meaning of each in its many expressions, so that each person can know what they lack, and for what they seek, thereby recognizing what they share of it with others.
It is, as with many things Lakota, a way of seeing and communicating that is unique to their culture. Their history and lives are their story, and like all greats stories do, it started me thinking. How does all this fit alongside my own story? How do I see and say love, sacrifice, spirit, giving, and knowing?
For what do I pray?
My thoughts along these lines joined the currents of the wide Mississippi at Davenport, Iowa, flowing between the banks of the Hawkeye State and Illinois. It became a fitting place from which to see that, just as the river both separates and bonds the lands along its banks, our lives and loves, along with our various visions of them as Americans of many different cultures and peoples, are separated by language, experience, history and traditions that vary and often even conflict. And yet, even though our words and ways differ, a bond remains in knowing that we all love, sacrifice, give, and live. Just as rivers both separate and connect the lands along their banks, the knowledge that we all love links us in ways that are not specifically Lakota, Anglo, Hispanic, Muslim, African or what have you. Knowing this, seeing it, taking it to heart by hearing one another’s stories, is what best defines us as uniquely American, when we have the wisdom to embrace it - and one another.
Several days and hundreds of miles later down America’s roads, added to the story of love in America the tales of a powerfully gentle African-American woman advocating mercy for death row inmates, a pair of hipster entrepreneur dudes spinning horse dung into gold and gilding the future of the community they love, a barbershop chorus reconnecting kids battling cancer through song and laughter, eastern Asian Muslims leading Jews and Catholics in creating ecumenical community dinner parties for the homeless. Each time we think we’ve seen every facet of love in America, a new jeweler comes along and strikes a fresh, brilliant cut. And when we share these stories between them, we see the most remarkable quality of all that love possesses. The more you give away, the more you have.
And in these stories of love and life from Americans of every culture, place, and history are the seeds of understanding that, while the cultures and people within our lands are unique, each with its own sacred heart and identity separating us, we are also bound together by those same tales - the profound wisdom reached when we see that each of us loves, and are loved in turn. May the tales that each of us hear and welcome from one another about that love, with its many different faces, be the rain that helps those seeds to grow.
This, I pray.