An Elder Speaks Up

Excerpts from the book
"Neither Wolf nor Dog. On Forgotten Roads with an Indian Elder"
Kent Nerburn
New World Library, 1994

Summary by Cheryl Harleston


Promises   ||   Land and property   ||   Silence and talking   ||   Owning
Selling sacred things   ||   Freedom and honor   ||   Language
Two types of Indians   ||   Leaders and rulers   ||   Teachers
   ||   Written history   ||   The anger


Back to Lakota Wisdom




Neither Wolf Nor Dog

Silence is the lie of the good man or the coward.
It is seeing something you don't like and not speaking.


They say that perhaps it is not by love, but by blood, that land is bought.
They say that perhaps my people had to die to nourish this earth with their truth.
Your people did not have ears to hear.
Perhaps we had to return to the earth so that we could grow within your hearts.
Perhaps we have come back and will fill the hills and valleys with our song.


My people have done well.
You have tried to take everything away from us, but we have survived.
We have lived with you pushing against us for five hundred years.
We will live with you pushing against us for five hundred more.


There are spirits to help you. There are spirits to help us all. If only your people would learn to listen to them, to go into the sunlight and give thanks for the day, they would find them. Then they would not be so quick to do harm, or so able to rest at night when they spent the day working only for themselves.

The earth is deep, and its knowledge is great. Listen to the stones, and listen to the wind. Do what you must do to find the voices that will speak to you. They are there. They are calling. Do what you must do to find them, and share their words.



On Promises

The tobacco is like our church. It goes up to God. When we offer it, we are telling our God that we are speaking the truth. Whenever there's tobacco offered, everything is wakan —sacred or filled with power.

That's a lot of why we Indians got into trouble with the white man's ways early on. When we make a promise, it's a promise to the Great Spirit, Wakan Tanka. Nothing is going to change that promise. We made all these promises with the white man, and we thought the white man was making promises to us. But he wasn't. He was making deals.

We could never figure out how the white man could break every promise, especially when all the priests and holy men —those men we called the black robes— were involved. We can't break promises. We never could.

A lot of them were private —we didn't need a priest to make them happen. But they were real. They were promises to the Creator to do something. So we thought we were seeing the same thing from the white man. Especially when he swore on the Bible or used the name of God to make a promise. But I guess it was a lot like their church. It was only important on some days. The rest of the time it didn't matter.



On Land and Property

Let me tell you how we lost the land. It wasn't our land like we owned it. It was the land where we hunted or where our ancestors were buried. It was the land that the Creator had given us. It was the land where our sacred stories took place. It had sacred places on it. Our ceremonies were here. We knew the animals. They knew us. We had watched the seasons pass on this land. It was alive, like our grandparents. We were part of it. The land was part of us. We didn't even know about owning the land. It is like talking about owning your grandmother. For us, the earth was alive. To move a stone was to change her. To kill an animal was to take from her. There had to be respect.

We saw no respect from these people. They chopped down trees and left animals lay where they were shot. They made loud noises. They seemed like wild people. They were heavy on the land and they were loud. Then these new people started asking us for the land. They wanted to give us money for the land. Our people didn't want this. Then these people said that we didn't belong here anymore. That there was a chief in Washington, which was a city far away, and the land was his, and he said they could live here and we could not.

We thought they were insane. These people would ride across the land and put a flag up, then say that everything between where they started and where they put the flag belonged to them. That was like someone shooting an arrow into the sky and saying that all the sky up to where the arrow went belonged to him. We thought these people were crazy. They were talking about property. We were talking about the land.

Your people came from Europe because they wanted property for their own. They had worked for other people who had claimed all the property and took all the things they raised. They never had anything because they had no property. That was what they wanted more than anything.

Everyone believed that whoever had a piece of paper saying they owned the land could control everything that happened on it. The people came here to get their own property. We didn't know this. We didn't even know what it meant. We just belonged to the land. They wanted to own it.

Your religion didn't come from the land. It could be carried around with you. Your religion was in a cup and a piece of bread, and that could be carried in a box. Your priests could make it sacred anywhere. You couldn't understand that what was sacred for us was where we were, because that is where the sacred things had happened and where the spirits talked to us.

Your people didn't know about the land being sacred. You were killing all the animals. The buffalo was gone. The birds were gone. You would not let us hunt. You gave us blankets and whiskey that made our people crazy. We were put in little pens of land that were like tiny islands in your sea.

The worst thing is that you never even listened to us. You came into our land and took it away, and didn't even listen to us when we tried to explain. You made promises and you broke every one. You killed us without even taking our lives. You killed us by turning our land into pieces of paper and bags of flour and blankets, and telling us that was enough. You took the places where the spirits talked to us and you gave us bags of flour.

To us the land was alive. It talked to us. We called her our mother. If she was angry with us, she would give us no food. If we didn't share with others, she might send harsh winters or plagues of insects. We had to do good things for her and live the way she thought was right. She was the mother to everything that lived upon her, so everything was our brother and sister. The bears, the trees, the plants, the buffalo. They were all our brothers and sisters. If we didn't treat them right, our mother would be angry. If we treated them with respect and honor, she would be proud.

For your people, the land was not alive. It was something that was like a stage, where you could build things and make things happen. You understood the dirt and the trees and the water as important things, but not as brothers and sisters. They existed to help you humans live.

You took the land and you turned it into property. Now our mother is silent. But we still listen for her voice.



On Silence and Talking

We Indians know about silence. We aren't afraid of it. In fact, to us it is more powerful than words.

Our elders were schooled in the ways of silence, and they passed that along to us. Watch, listen, and then act, they told us. This is the way to live.

Watch the animals to see how they care for their young. Watch the elders to see how they behave. Watch the white man to see what he wants. Always watch first, with a still heart and mind, then you will learn. When you have watched enough, then you can act.

With you it's the opposite. You learn by talking. You reward the kids who talk the most in school. At your parties everyone is trying to talk. In your work you are always having meetings where everyone interrupts everyone else, and everyone talks five, ten, or a hundred times. You say it is 'working out a problem'. When you are in a room and it is quiet you get nervous. You have to fill the space with sound. So you talk right away, before you even know what you are going to say.

White people like to argue. They don't even let each other finish sentences. They are always interrupting. To Indians this is very disrespectful and even very stupid. If you start talking, I'm not going to interrupt you. I will listen. Maybe I will stop listening if I don't like what you are saying. But I won't interrupt you. When you are done I will make my decision on what you said, but I won't tell you if I disagree with you unless it is important. Otherwise I will just be quiet and go away. You have told me what I need to know. There is nothing more to say. But this isn't enough for most white people.

People should think of their words like seeds. They should plant them, then let them grow in silence. Our old people taught us that the earth is always speaking to us, but that we have to be silent to hear her.

There are lots of voices besides ours. Lots of voices.



On Owning

Owning things is what white people's lives are about. From the first you are told, "This is mine, this is yours;" "Don't touch that, it doesn't belong to you." You are told to keep away from things because of ownership, not because of respect. In the old days we never had locks on our doors. There was no stealing, but if someone was hungry, they could go in your house and get food. Why didn't people take things? Because of respect.

You build fences around your yards and pay money for people to measure the ground to tell you if your neighbor's fence is one inch too close to your house. You give nothing away unless you can get something in return. Everything is economic. No wonder white people need such big houses. They aren't to live in, they are to store things in.

We believed everything was a gift, and that a good man or woman shared those gifts. Good people thought that they should give, not that they should get. We didn't measure people by rich or poor. We didn't know how. When times were good everyone was rich. When times were bad everyone was poor. We measured people by how they shared.

Things are important when we need them. If we don't need them, they're not important. Our ancestors believed that you owned something only so long as you needed it. Then you passed it to someone else.

In our way, everything had its use, then it went back into the earth. We had wooden bowls and cups, or things made of clay. We rode horses or walked. We made things out of the things of the earth. Then when we no longer needed them, we would burn them or leave them, and they would go back into the earth. Now we can't. Now things don't go back into the earth.



On Selling Sacred Things

When something is sacred, it does not have a price. I don't care if it is white people talking about heaven or Indian people talking about ceremonies. If you can buy it, it isn't sacred. And once you start to sell it, it doesn't matter whether your reasons are good or not. You are taking what is sacred and making it ordinary.

We Indians can't lose what is sacred to us. We don't have much left. What we have is in our hearts and in our ceremonies. The land is gone. It was sold by false Indians who were made into chiefs by white people. Our sacred objects are gone. They are collected by anthropologists who put them in museums. Now there are Indians who are selling ceremonies in order to make money.

When they are gone, all we will have is our hearts. And without our ceremonies, our hearts will not speak. We will be like the white man who is afraid to say the word 'God' out loud and goes around trying to buy sacred ceremonies from other people. We will have the same hunger in our hearts and the same silence on our lips.



On Freedom and Honor

The most important thing for white people is freedom. The most important thing for Indian people is honor.

The white world puts all the power at the top. When someone gets to the top, they have the power to take your freedom. In your churches there is someone at the top. In your schools, too. In your government. In your business. There is always someone at the top, and that person has the right to say whether you are good or bad. They own you. No wonder Americans always worry about freedom. You have so damn little of it. If you don't protect it, someone will take it away from you.

When you came among us, you couldn't understand our way. You wanted to find the person at the top. You wanted to find the fences that bound us in. Your world was made of cages and you thought ours was, too.

Everything looked like cages. Your clothes fit like cages. Your houses looked like cages. You put fences around your yards so they looked like cages. Everything was a cage. You turned the land into cages. Little squares. Then you made a government to protect these cages. And that government was all cages. The only freedom you had was inside your own cage. Then you wondered why you weren't happy and didn't feel free.

We Indians never thought that way. Everyone was free. We didn't make cages of laws or land. We believed in honor. To us, the white man looked like a blind man walking. He knew he was on the wrong path when he bumped into the edge of one of the cages. Our guide was inside, not outside. It was honor. It was more important for us to know what was right than to know what was wrong.

We looked at animals and saw what was right. We saw how every animal had wisdom and we tried to learn that wisdom. We looked to see how they got along and how they raised their young. We did not look for what was wrong. Instead we always reached for what was right. It was this search that kept us on a good path, not rules and fences. We wanted honor for ourselves and our families.

The only time freedom is important is when others are trying to put you in chains. We had no chains so we needed no freedom. We had always had our freedom, so you had nothing of value to give us. All you could do is take it away and give it back to us in the form of cages.

You took our honor and gave us your freedom. And even you know that is no freedom at all. It is just the freedom to live inside your own locked cage.



On Language

I think I should talk about words. Your language. It is another thing that bothers me, and I think I should take away the burdens of the things that bother me. That is what I heard from the old ones.

I grew up speaking the language of my people. It wasn't until school I had to learn English. What was important to Indian people was saying something the best way. In English you had to learn to say things a hundred ways. I still watch white people talk and I'm surprised at all the words. Sometimes they will say the same thing over and over and over in different ways. They are like a hunter who rushes all over the forest trying to bump into something instead of sitting quietly until he can capture it.

I don't mind this, mostly. But I don't like it when it is used to hurt us or other people. Now I'm going to tell you some of those things that hurt because of the way people say them.

The first one is about the battles. Whenever the white people won it was a victory. Whenever we won it was a massacre. What was the difference? There were bodies on the ground and children lost their parents, whether the bodies were Indian or white. But the whites used their language to make their killing good and our killing bad. They 'won'; we 'massacred'.

I don't even know what a massacre is, but it sounds like dead women and little babies with their throats cut. If that's right, it was the white people who massacred more than we did. But I hardly ever heard anyone talk about the white massacres.

Here's another one: uprising. You use that word to talk about anytime our people couldn't stand what was happening to them anymore and tried to get our rights. Then you should call your Revolutionary War an uprising. But you don't. Why not? There was a government taking freedom away from you and you stood up against it. But you called it a revolution, like maybe the earth was turning to something better. When we did it, it was called an uprising, like everything was peaceful and orderly until we 'rose up'.

What about 'warpath'? When you came out against us you 'formed an army'. When we came out to defend our families we 'went on the warpath'. I won't even talk about words like 'bloodthirsty' and 'savage'.

My little great grandson came home one day and told me they were studying the frontier in American history. I asked him what it was. He told me it was where civilization stopped. Just look at that! They were teaching him that civilization only existed up to where the white men had reached. Well, we were on the other side of that line. We had governments and laws, too. Our people were better behaved than the people that came into our lands. But here is my little great grandson talking about the frontier and civilization. It was like we didn't exist.

Every time you talk about the frontier you are telling us that we don't matter. You teach about the frontier. You talk about the wilderness and how empty the land was, even though to us the land was always full. You talk about civilization like we didn't have any, just because we didn't try to haul big chairs and wooden chests across the desert in a cart.

The way you teach it, America started from some ships that came to Massachusetts and Virginia. The people got off and had to push their way through some big empty land that was full of danger. It was like the place was empty and you filled it up, and history is the story of how you filled it up and what happened while you were filling it.

That's not the way it was to us. For us, this was a big land where people lived everywhere. Then some people came and landed on the shores in the east while others came up from the south. They started pushing us. Then some others came down the rivers from the north. All these people were fighting each other. They all wanted something from us —furs, land, gold. They either took it or made us sell it to them. They all had guns. They all killed us if we didn't believe that God was some man named Jesus who had lived in a desert across the sea.

Our land was taken from us from every direction. We can look at the same facts as you, and it is something completely different. But you build your history on words like 'frontier' and 'civilization', and those words are just your ideas put into little shapes that you can use in sentences. The big ideas behind them are weapons that take our past from us.

Without even knowing it, you made us who we are in your minds by the words you used. You are still doing that, and you don't even know it is happening. I hope you'll learn to be more careful with your words.

There was an old man who told me when I was a boy that I should look at words like beautiful stones. He said I should lift each one and look at it from all sides before I used it. Then I would respect it. You people have so many words that you don't respect them the way you should. There is always another one, so you just throw them out there without thinking. Those words are like stones. Even if they are beautiful, if you throw them out without thinking, they can hurt someone.



On Two Types of Indians

For white people there are only two types of Indians: drunken bums and noble Indians. In the old days we used to be savages, but that's gone. Now it's drunks and noble Indians. I like the white men better who think we are all drunks. At least they're looking at us as people. They're saying what they see, not what they want to see. Then when they meet one of us who's not a drunk, they have to deal with us.

The ones who see us all as wise men don't care about Indians at all. They just care about the idea of Indians. It's just another way of stealing our humanity and making us into a fantasy that fits the needs of white people.

You want to know how to be like Indians? Live close to the earth. Get rid of some of your things. Help each other. Talk to the Creator. Be quiet more. Listen to the earth instead of building things on it all the time.

Don't blame other people for your troubles, and don't try to make people into something they are not.



On Leaders and Rulers

Sitting Bull was a leader. He was a real chief. People followed him because he was great. He never won any election or was appointed by any government. That's not how you get to be a leader. It was an honor you earned.

There are leaders and there are rulers. We Indians are used to leaders. When our leaders don't lead, we walk away from them. When they lead well, we stay with them.

Your system makes people rulers by law, even if they are not leaders. How can a calendar tell us how long a person is a leader? That's crazy. A leader is a leader as long as the people believe in him, and as long as he is the best person to lead us. You can only lead as long as the people will follow.

In the past when we needed a warrior we made a warrior our leader. But when the war was over and we needed a healer to lead us, he became our leader. Or maybe we needed a great speaker or a deep thinker.

The warrior knew when his time had passed, and he didn't pretend to be our leader beyond the time he was needed. He was proud to serve his people, and he knew when it was time to step aside. If he won't step aside, people will just walk away from him. He cannot make himself a leader except by leading people in the way they want to be lead.

That's why Sitting Bull was a leader. He was needed by the people and the people followed him. He was brave. He was smart. He knew how to fight when he had to. And he understood what the white man was all about. People saw that he could not be tricked by the white man, so they followed.

That's why the U.S. government hated him so much. It wasn't just that he set a trap for Custer. Anyone could have done that. It was because he was a leader and people listened to him, and he wouldn't listen to the U.S. government. He listened to the needs of his people.



On Teachers

A person wasn't a teacher because they had been elected or got a certificate. They were a teacher because they knew something and were respected. If they didn't know enough, they weren't teachers. Or if we didn't need to know what they knew, we didn't go to them.

Now you send us teachers and you tell us to send our children, when we aren't even sure what the teachers know. We don't even know if they are good people who will build up the hearts of our children. All we know is that they are teachers because someone gave them a piece of paper saying they had taken courses about teaching.

What we want to know is what kind of person they are and what they have in their hearts to share. Telling us they have a paper that lets them teach is like putting a fancy wrapping on a box. We want to know what's in that box. An empty box with a fancy wrapper is still an empty box.



On Racism

White people are afraid of everyone who isn't white. Look at how you define black people. If a person had one black ancestor back somewhere, and you can see it, you tell them they are black. You don't do that with Italians or Irish. But one black grandma? Bingo, you're black.

But the thing is, you're not really saying they are black. You're saying they're not white.

But at least with blacks you let them alone once you decided they weren't white. You just threw them in a barrel —black, brown, tan, whatever— and called them black. But us Indians, you couldn't even leave us alone to be Indians once you decided we weren't white. You start dividing us up, calling us half-breeds, full bloods. Try calling a black person with some white blood a half-breed. See how that goes over.

You've got all sorts of rules that you don't even know. Like, it's okay for white people to adopt Chinese kids, but it's not okay for Chinese people to adopt white kids. If a white man is with a black woman, then he's liberal. But if a black man is with a white woman, he must be a pimp. It's the same with Indians. If a white man is with an Indian woman, it might be okay. That's the way they like to do it in the movies. But if an Indian man is with a white woman, there's something wrong with her that she would choose to be with one of 'those people'.

I think it has to do with conquering. The white man has to be in control.



On Written History

We always had history like white people history. You just wouldn't believe us. We had our stories and our pictures. We had our ways of doing things that were passed down to us from our elders. That was just like white people history. It had facts, too. But they weren't good enough for you.

If I show you how my grandfather made something, you didn't trust me. But if some white person who didn't even know what he was seeing wrote it down, then that was good enough to be history.

There is too much to know everything. We Indians just tried to know the important things, so we could live better and understand. We had people who could tell us about the old days and why they were important to us. We made our children learn the stories so they could repeat them just as they were told. Our history was alive. But your history was dead, even though it was written down in words.

If you hear a song, is it real? Or is it only real once somebody writes it down? Well, for us, the story of our people was like a song. As long as somebody could still sing it, it was real. It never mattered if someone wrote it down. When you came you said that our song wasn't real because it wasn't written down. Then you wrote it down the way you wanted it.

You are still writing down our story, using your words, and you are still getting it wrong. Your words are all full of sharp edges that cut us. But we have been bleeding so long we don't even feel it anymore.

It doesn't hurt me. I am old. I knew the old language and so did my friends. We still speak it. It is still the song in our heart. It is the young people who must learn to sing the song again.

It is why you wasichu are in trouble. For you nothing is wakan. You have taken the power out of the earth and the sky and the things that live there. Everything is a fact. You will drown under your facts.



On The Anger

There is no Indian alive who dares to think too much on the past. If we looked too long at the past we would be too angry to live. You try to make it up to us by making us into heroes and wise people in all your movies and books. That's fine for you. But I can still go to a museum and see my grandmother's skull in a case and hear someone talk about it as an artifact.

And sometimes I think about all the wars between my people and your people. Those white men that fought us were men without families, lots of them. They weren't your best people. Many of them were brutal and stupid. They did terrible things because it was fun.

My people never had a chance. We were families. We were in our homes, with our old people and our babies. And the soldiers attacked us. They attacked our homes and killed our elders and our children. Then your people have the nerve to talk about massacres by the Indians.

We did kill innocent people. I know that. It happened when our young men got angry at what was happening to the old people and the children, when they were starving or being killed. The young men would get so angry they wouldn't listen to the old men. The old men knew we couldn't win and that more white people would come and there would just be more killing. But the young men were so angry that they attacked anyone.

If you saw your father lying on his bed too weak to stand up because he was starving, or you saw your baby crying all the time because she was hungry, and you knew it was because someone took their food away from them, wouldn't you be angry?

What if some men came through and killed your grandmother and didn't have a reason? They just did it, then they laughed and rode away. And you stood there and looked at her cut up or shot. Can you tell me you wouldn't be angry?

I don't blame my people who ambushed the white soldiers or even raided the homes of the settlers. I don't say it was right. I just say I understand. We lost everything. Your government sent heartless, greedy men to keep us under control, and they lied and raped and stole from us, and they could kill us for any reason and it was okay. What if someone raped your little sister? That happened all the time. What if someone took your wife and slit open her belly and pulled out your unborn child, then laid it on the ground like a trophy, still attached to her dead mother? That happened, too.

See, we weren't even people. Did you know that? The Catholic church even held a conference to determine if we were people or not. In their great wise religion they thought they should decide if we were people or animals. That's the way we were thought of and treated. It was okay to do anything to us.

We were taught that the old people and the babies were the closest to God, and it was for them that we lived. And your people came in and killed them. We had to do what we could to protect our old people and our families, and we couldn't because your soldiers broke into our houses and killed them when they couldn't get away.

It wasn't the same when we fought the other tribes. They respected the old people and the children, too. When we fought each other there were some things more important than the fight. The greatest act of bravery was to touch your enemy —to 'count coup' upon him— not to kill him. But not for your soldiers. They just wanted to kill us.

Now there are skulls of my grandparents in museums, and sacred blankets and drums on walls of museums for rich people to look at. You go there and talk about how sacred it is. You call it sacred because you don't have anything of your own that's sacred. But it's not sacred, because you took the sacred out of it, just like you take the sacred out of everything, and now we can hardly feel it ourselves anymore. You killed our people and you took what was sacred to us, and then you told us that's what proved you were better than we were.


There is no more time for fighting. Our anger must be buried. If I cannot bury mine, it will be for my children to bury theirs. And if they cannot bury theirs, it will be for their children, or their children's children. We are prisoners of our hearts, and only time will free us.

Your people must learn to give up their arrogance. They are not the only ones placed on this earth. Theirs is not the only way. People have worshipped the Creator and loved their families in many ways in all places. Your people must learn to honor this.

It is your gift to have material power. You have much strength not given to other people. Can you share it, or can you use it only to get more? That is your challenge —to find the way to share your gift, because it is a strong and dangerous one.

It is my people who must stand as the shadow that reminds you of your failures. It is our memory that must keep you on the good road. It does you no good to pretend that we did not exist, and that you did not destroy us. This was our land. We will always be here. You can no more remove our memory than you can hide the sun by putting your hand over your eyes.


© Copyright 1994 Kent Nerburn

Back to Lakota Wisdom