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Observations on the History of the Native Americans


It’s the state of North Dakota, in the United States of America. The bikers who have gathered in Fort Yates on this July morning are about to set out on a two-day journey. They are Native Americans living in the 21st century, rather than in history books. One of over 500 native peoples of North America. The Lakota, also known as the Sioux. Grandchildren of great leaders like Sitting Bull, Red Cloud, and Crazy Horse. The goal of their journey is to commemorate the Wounded Knee Massacre, which is considered to be the last bloody event in Native American history and the symbolic end of all Indians.

The bikers

The journey, which is repeated every year, begins in North Dakota and ends in Wounded Knee, where the massacre took place. The journey to the world of the Lakota begins. In how many different ways can an incident be interpreted? How much of what the narrator says, reflects reality? Buffalo roaming freely over a vast plain. If the only picture to be seen is this one, how much of the truth can be known? Like that, the story of Native Americans has always been incompletely told. A part of the picture was always missing.

Buffalo roaming

Making generalizations about Native Americans is the biggest mistake. The Native cultures of North America are usually divided into eight regions. Just looking at the styles of settlements is enough to see the differences among these groups. Even nations in the same cultural region can be as different from each other as two European countries. The best known among all groups of Native Americans are Plains Indians who live in the vast plains of North America. Such as the Comanche, the Cheyenne, the Crow and the Sioux. They were the Native Americans of Hollywood movies and comic books.

Most of the time, they were portrayed as fierce warriors scalping whites, or from a more romantic perspective, as the children of nature and the wise.

Groups of Native Americans

The first image of Native Americans that came to one’s mind was the image of the Plains Indian. It was generally believed that the characteristics of Plains Indians were the common characteristics of all Indian nations. As the reality got muddled up in movie frames, some details were forgotten. The arrival of Christopher Columbus on the island of San Salvador, was recorded in history as the “discovery of America”. But the “new world” was already home to Native Americans. Believing that he had reached India, Columbus named the natives, “Indians”. He never set foot on North America. The Plains Indians met the white man in the 18th century, almost 250 years after Columbus arrived in America.

In subsequent years, while the Native population of America was diminishing through wars, diseases like the common flu, chicken pox and measles proved to be just as lethal for Native Americans. In the war of the “Old World” to conquer the “New World”, the richness of the Native cultures always remained in the background. The diverse traditions, physical characteristics, languages and cultures of more than 500 nations are generalized with a single word: Indians.

And there follows all the misinformation, the prejudices and the theories about them. One of these theories is about the place where it all began. The theory that says the first people to set foot on the American continent had come from Asia during the Ice Age, reaching the continent by crossing the Bering Strait.

The Native Americans

Although debate continues about the origin of the first Americans, it is scientific fact that Native Americans have been living on this land for tens of thousands of years. Today, however, it is believe that these deeply-rooted cultures belong to the past, to be preserved only in museums. But Native Americans have not disappeared. The most vivid examples of their continuing vitality are the accessories, clothes, songs and dances that have survived.

Native American Culture

The image of Native Americans on motorcycles may actually disappoint many people. After all, this is not the pop culture image of the Native American. The real Indian must be on horseback, must have long hair, be athletic, wear traditional clothes, sing traditional songs, and must never talk or laugh. When Indians change, their culture is considered to be “contaminated” and to have lost its Indian identity. They are expected to preserve their way of life in the 1800s. Otherwise, they are accused of being assimilated.

In fact, Indians who largely adapt to the modern world are called “apples” to humiliate them. For being red on the outside and white in the inside. But even the image of the “Indian on horseback”, which is indispensable for many people is an example of their changing life style. Because there were no Indians on horseback before the arrival of the white men.

Americans on motorcycles

Although they are accused of being assimilated, the Lakota are trying to survive in a modern world while preserving their own identity. Today, the aspect of Native American culture that may attract the most attention and the most customers, is Native American art. Actually, the concepts of art and of objects merely to look at and admire, do not exist in the traditional Native American culture. Art, is simply a part of life. Today, Native American artists are creating innovative art by combining traditional and modern materials. Their work decorates the houses of wealthy art collectors. Native American nations, for centuries defined by others, are now telling their own stories.

Native Americans radio stations

Technology is also a means to do that. They have their own television networks, movies, web sites and radio stations. Another way for Native Americans to express themselves to the world is through literature. Coming from an oral culture, their skills in storytelling and verbal communication make them successful in this field. Expressing themselves through art, literature, music and media provide Native Americans with a new kind of power. Their common goal is to wipe off the pains of the past and provide better living conditions for the coming generations.

Coming generations

Today, the Lakota have their own schools and colleges. Youth in these schools are educated to remember their culture and language, and at the same time, to live in the present. Young graduates try to solve the problems of their own peoples, especially in the fields of law and medicine. Future generations are more fortunate than the former ones. The compulsory boarding schools that for so long pulled Indian children from their culture and families are gone.

Today, Indian children grow up with their families. Knowledge passed on from grandfather to grandchild, maintains the continuity of their culture. One of the most colorful events to prove that the Native cultures of North America are still alive is the pow wow. Pow wows are generally held in summer, on Indian lands called “reservations”.

Most of the visitors and dancers camp in the pow wow area. Some Indians cross America, from one end to the other, to go from one pow wow to another throughout summer. Pow wows are sometimes held for a local celebration, and sometimes as big competitions. Not only the dances, but also the costumes and accessories, meticulously prepared throughout the year, are of great importance in the competition for prizes.

There are some popular pow wow slogans: “Remembering our past, we celebrate our future”, or “The heartbeat of the nation”. The beat of the drum symbolizes the heartbeat of the people and the culture. Following the grand entry with all dancers in the arena, dances of men and women according to different age groups begin. Dancers return to their starting point by moving in a small or big clockwise circle. This way, they symbolize the cycle of life, universe and man.

The pow wow

Music has great significance for Native Americans. For them, songs are not a means of entertainment, sung for an audience to appreciate. Native Americans sign for all people and living beings. Dances mostly come from the rituals of old warrior societies or moves that imitate nature. It is important for the dancers to do the figures correctly and in perfect harmony with the beat of the drum. For Native Americans, the aim of pow wows is to meet with old friends, make new friends, and communicate with people from other tribes. But most importantly, it is to convey the message to the world that they still exist.

The biker group is at the Standing Rock Reservation. The monument they will visit here is the grave of Sitting Bull, one of the most important leaders of the Lakota. Sitting Bull’s remains were secretly taken from here in 1953, and moved to another spot where a new monument was built. It was because some of his family members wanted his grave to be close to his birth place, rather than the place where he died. However, there are people who believe that Sitting Bull’s remains are still in their original burial ground. Wherever his real grave is, Sitting Bull is still a very important leader for the Lakota.

The grave of Sitting Bull

Sitting Bull was born in circa 1831. His Lakota name Tatanka lyotake actually means Sitting Buffalo. The courage he had shown when he was still a child, his closeness to supernatural powers, his generosity and his wisdom earned Sitting Bull a significant place among his people. During the period he lived in, settlers were flooding into the Lakota territory, destroying the buffalos, the life source of the Lakota. Sitting Bull never trusted the American government and never signed any treaties. He was always against the partition of his land.

Only seven years ago we made a treaty by which we were assured that the buffalo country should be left to us forever. Now they threaten to take that away from us. My brothers, shall we submit or shall we say to them: First kill me, before you can take possession of my Fatherland!” Tatanka Iyotake – Sitting Bull.

The Lakota won a great victory against the American army in 1876 at the battle of the Little Bighorn. After that, life became even more difficult for Sitting Bull and his people. They refused to surrender and settle on “reservations”. As Sitting Bull said, “God made me an Indian, but not a reservation Indian”. They fled to Canada in 1877. But life wasn’t easy there either. Game was scarce. Four years later, when they even had to eat their horses in order not to starve, they had to return to North Dakota and surrender. During this period Sitting Bull joined Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show and witnessed a different way of life.

These people have made many rules that the rich may break, but the poor may not. They take tithes from the poor and weak to support the rich who rule. They claim this mother of ours, the earth, for their own and fence their neighbors away. That nation is like a spring freshet that overruns its banks and destroys all who are in its path.” Tatanka Iyotake – Sitting Bull.

When the Great Sioux Reservation was divided in 1889, pain and desperation among the Lakota increased. Believing that their ancestors and the buffalos would come back and that the white men would perish, the Lakota, with one last hope, started to do the days-long Ghost Dance. Fearing an Indian revolt and thinking that Sitting Bull was behind the Ghost Dance, the reservation agent ordered his arrest. Native police officers commissioned for this duty, came to arrest Sitting Bull at dawn on December 15, 1890. During the fight that erupted, 59 year old Sitting Bull was killed. But this wasn’t a surprise for him. Years ago, a lark had told him in his dream: “The Sioux will kill you“.

Another legendary chief of the Lakota was Tashunka Witko, Crazy Horse. He too had struggled to preserve his way of life and territory. Although he was forced to surrender in the end, he became the symbol of resistance. He was 35 years old when he was killed during his arrest. Now a huge statue is being made in South Dakota as a tribute to him.

Although many people think it is a good way to commemorate the famous chief, there are those who believe that the statue is an offense to the spirit of Crazy Horse. Because Crazy Horse used to refuse those who wanted to take his photograph by saying, “My friend, why you should you wish to shorten my life by taking from me my shadow?“. There is not even one photograph of Crazy Horse.

They made us many promises, more than I can remember. But they never kept but one; they promised to take our land, and they look it.” Mahpiua Luta – Red Cloud.

Red Cloud

Another Lakota leader, Red Cloud, had lived during the same period with Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse. He died at the age of 87. In spite of all the efforts of their leaders, the Lakota were deprived of their sources of life and forced to settle on “reservations”. Today, there are around 2000 Indian reservations in North America. Most of these semi-autonomous regions are suffering from many problems, such as poverty and unemployment. Yet, some Indians prefer to live in these reservations rather than in big cities. Just like the famous Lakota artist Floyd Red Crow Westerman tells in his song…

The vicinity of the city of Mobridge in South Dakota.

Mobridge in South Dakota

The bikers are about to arrive at the new grave of Sitting Bull.

What treaty that the whites have kept has the red man broken? Not one. What treaty that the white man ever made with us have they kept? Not one. When I was a boy the Sioux owned the world; the sun rose and set on their land. Where are our lands? Who owns them? What white man can say I ever stole his land or a penny of his money? Yet, they say I am a thief. What white man has ever seen me drunk? Who has ever come to me hungry and unfed? What law have I broken? Is it wrong for me to love my own? Is it wicked for me because my skin is red? Because I am a Sioux; because I was born where my father lived; because I would die for my people and my country?” Tatanka Iyotake – Sitting Bull.

The new grave of Sitting Bull

This monument, standing alone on the road side on the bank of the Missouri River can still be the target of racist attacks. At the end of the first day, the biker group arrived in Eagle Butte in the Cheyenne River Reservation. The goal of the ceremony held here is to honor them and give them blessings for the rest of the journey. For some, it may be surprising and ironic to see the American flag in certain Native American ceremonies.

However, for Native Americans, the American flag symbolizes the American land, not the government of the United States of America. Many Indians who fight in US wars, believe themselves to be fighting for their own land. Veterans are treated with the same respect as the old warriors. The journey of the bikers to Wounded Knee ends for the day.

The tepee is much better to live in; always clean, warm in winter, cool in summer; easy to move. The white man builds big house, cost much money, like big cage, can never move; always sick. Indians and animals know better how to live than white man. The white man does not obey the Great Spirit; that is why the Indians never could agree with him.” Flying Hawk.

Hills are always more beautiful than stone buildings, you know. Living in a city is an artificial existence. When people live far from scenes of the Great Spirit’s making, it’s easy for them to forget his laws.” Tatanga Mani – Walking Buffalo.

The most significant common characteristics of different Native American nations is probably their relationship with nature. This is one of the “positive” stereotypes about them. Their philosophy which considers man as an integral part of nature, rather than being outside of it, has been gaining more significance as environmental problems intensify. Many Indian proverbs like “We did not inherit the world from our ancestors, but we borrowed it from our children”, have become mottos for environmentalist movements. Indians of the 21st century do not think differently from their ancestors about nature.

Relationship with nature

You said that you wanted to put us upon a reservation, to build us houses. I do not want them. I was born upon the prairie where the wind blew free and there was nothing to break the light of the sun. I was born where there were no enclosures and where everything drew a free breath. I want to die there and not within walls.” Parra-Wa-Samen – Ten Bears.

Think not forever of yourselves, O Chiefs, nor of your own generation. Think of continuing generations of your families, think of your grandchildren, and of those yet unborn, whose faces are coming from beneath the ground.

Mako Shika, The Badlands.

The Badlands

The biker group is in the land where according to the Lakota belief supernatural beings live. As this is a place where lone travelers can easily be lost, it was called the Badlands by the Lakota. However, the same land has served as a shelter for the Lakota as well. Particularly during the Ghost Dance they held with one last hope, in 1890. These lands, which were home to the Ghost Dance and many other ceremonies are within the borders of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

And reservations are places where religious ceremonies and Indian beliefs are still kept alive. Believing in a single creator and supernatural powers, the Lakota generally hold ceremonies to give thanks for what they have. There are no concepts in the Lakota culture as to religion or religious functionaries.

However, there are medicine men, shamen or spiritual leaders who are believed to communicate with supernatural powers. Generally leading a simple, secluded life, these people are an important part of the Lakota spiritual life. One of the sacred ceremonies of the Lakota, which is not allowed to be filmed is the Sun Dance. In the Lakota language, it is called wi-wanyang-wacipi, which means “the sun gazing dance”. The Sun Dance, held secretly during the period when ceremonies were banned, can now be seen in many reservations each summer. Dancing and torturing themselves for the good of their people and themselves, the dancers sometimes participate in the ritual to fulfill a vow.

Although the Lakota still continue their rituals, the centuries-long efforts of missionaries and government policies to convert them to Christianity were not totally useless. Today, there are many Native Americans in North America who have adopted Christianity. However, this does not mean that they have forgotten their own beliefs. In general, they take the common characteristics of both beliefs and practice a unique kind of worshipping. Many symbolic elements that are sacred for the Lakota, like the pipe, eagle feather, morning star, and medicine wheel find a place within this combination of beliefs from two different cultures. However, the greater part of the Lakota have not adopted Christianity, and continue to practice their own beliefs.

Symbolic elements

The biker group has arrived at their final destination: Wounded Knee

Wounded Knee

On December 29, 1890, a Lakota group of around 350 people, who were trying to reach the Pine Ridge Reservation under the leadership of Chief Big Foot were surrounded here by American soldiers. More than 200 women, children and men were killed in the events that followed. This incident was considered by many people as the end of all Native Americans. Marie Fox Belly, as the grandaughter of Dewey Beard, a survivor of the massacre who lived to be 99, tells the events of that snowy winter day.


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