Peacemaking & the wisdom of Lakota elders

Zen Peacemaker retreatants & Lakota host families at sacred waterfall near Spearfish, South Dakota

Zen Peacemaker retreatants & Lakota host families at sacred waterfall near Spearfish, South Dakota

Inside our core is a heart of compassion. It is our natural state of being. It’s how we come to be alive, both spiritually and biologically speaking. We have an organic love for others – we bond to survive, we’re healthiest when we know well the feeling of love. All of us made of the same stuff, all sharing a human experience of beauty and comfort, disconnection and profound pain. We are literally wired for open-hearted, beyond-reason, all-encompassing compassion. The unbound heart. What gets in the way is what all of the spiritual and therapeutic practices that I’ve come across, work to resolve - trauma, our intelligent protection mechanisms, and the associated confusions/delusions.

  In my 32 turns around the sun, I have thankfully not needed to act in order to protect my family and culture from serious threat (though my grandparents certainly did – and devastatingly, the future may hold more racial discrimination) so I can’t know how I would respond, and have great respect for the warrior spirit that is sometimes necessary. But somewhere deep inside of me is a heart of nonviolence; of inter-everything, respect and reverence and celebration for all that is. How that convenes with a fierce protection of culture, family, of freedom and worth, is sometimes confusing. I take inspiration from those who moved mountains in a peaceful manner.

This past week I participated in a Zen Peacemakers programme in the Black Hills of South Dakota, visiting sacred sites and reservations with native Lakota hosts – strong, wise and loving people of the plains, of buffalo and thunder, of sacred knowledge and ceremony. We practiced deep listening without agenda. We received wisdom through stories, language, songs and ways of life. We talked together about shame, fear, despair, and injustice. We formed loving connection with each other in the face of human suffering and human resilience/spirit. We dropped together into a place of wild understanding, inspiration and hope. Blown away by their capacity to love us, willingness to teach us, and courage to be vulnerable with us.

"Historically speaking, we went from being Indians to pagans to savages to hostiles to militants to activists to Native Americans.  It's 500 years later and they still can't see us.  We are still invisible."

"We must go beyond the arrogance of human rights.  We must go beyond the ignorance of civil rights.  We must step into the reality of natural rights because all of the natural world has a right to existence and we are only a small part of it.  There can be no trade-off."

John Trudell – Santee Dakota

The unfathomable disrespect and dismantling of indigenous peoples, of their culture, their land, their language, their spirit – remains. The repercussions continue rolling on in devastating ways. The health and life expectancy of Native Americans compared to the average White American is alarming. (It is a similar situation in Australia.) I have been humbled to the ground to hear stories of those who have, and do, struggle with this new reality that was forcefully imposed upon them. Crying as I hear stories of the destruction of sacred sites more significant to their lives than our Western minds can comprehend, of children removed from families, children breathing their final breath in boarding schools, no-one caring enough to inform parents that their child has passed away.  

Please, just take that last sentence in for a moment.

I cried so many tears. And, I laughed. Because the spirit of these Lakota elders is one that knows joy. Amongst the heaviness of their unjust reality is an inherent lightness of being – what I’ve come to know as a deep (perhaps the deepest) wisdom. We spent a whole afternoon laughing whilst listening to Ikto’mi stories – in Lakhota culture, Ikto’mi is the trickster/clown, always doing the wrong thing and suffering the consequences, often hilariously. Humour plays its part in teaching children how to live respectfully, in harmony with each other and the world. Humour lifts adults out of taking life a little too seriously.

Lakota tipis at sacred site of Bear Butte, South Dakota - moments before a storm rolled in.

Lakota tipis at sacred site of Bear Butte, South Dakota - moments before a storm rolled in.

With whispers of stories too sacred to be told, we were invited in to understand the Lakota way of life as a prayer. Every step full of honour and respect. We learnt what it is to be good relatives. ‘Mitakuye oyasin’, we are all related. To put others first, not in a resentful obligatory way, but simply because that’s how we look after one another. And as you know, life is a wild oxymoron, a swinging to, and balance of, opposites. Modern humans seem to know self-hatred like no other, and are a culture of self-obsession, of individual success. For sure we need to take good care of our own body/mind/heart, to reclaim our personal, inherent right to life, and, we could also benefit from knowing what it is to be in true service, in true community, to live and breathe a fundamental ‘we’.

"The First Nations shall rise again and it shall be a blessing for a sick world… I see a time of seven generations when all the colors of mankind will gather under the Sacred Tree of Life and the whole earth will become one circle again.  In that day, there will be those among the Lakota who will carry knowledge and understanding of unity among all living things and the young white ones will come to those of my people and ask for this wisdom.  I salute the light within your eyes where the whole universe dwells.  For when you are at that center within you and I am at that place within me, we shall be one."

Tasunke Witko (Crazy Horse) - Oglala Lakota

I really invite you to look at where your heart feels hardened with protection, where you see another person and think of them as ‘other’, or unworthy of the same life as you. I invite you to sit with an elder – any elder you can find – and ask about their life. Ask them what their grandmothers and grandfathers taught them. Take in the historical context. Look at the way First Nations people are treated today. Sit with your feelings, share them, ask more questions. What does it mean to live a life of respect, reverence and honour? How can we be good relatives, and remain in close connection with our own boundaries and the right to make empowering personal choices? What can we learn from our first peoples’ ways of life, and how can we apply it to this present-day context?

And, perhaps most importantly, how can we help?

  The hope and resilience of the Lakota elders (and some inspiring young leaders) we sat with for the last week was infectious. I carry hope in my heart. They are in the midst of building a school dedicated to education by full immersion, for Lakota children in the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation. Teaching little ones their own native language and ways of life, because the loss of a language is the loss of a people. Providing an environment for children to grow up feeling connected to their roots is about as healing as it gets. If you feel called to support their efforts – even a small amount will go a long way – you can donate by sending a cheque to:

“LOWI School”

P.O. Box #43 LOWI School

Eagle Butte, SD 57625


When humans come together with peaceful intentions, we spark each other’s hearts. Our core of compassion, like a flame blown with wind, becomes strong and spirited, and anything is possible.


The Zen Peacemakers also run ‘Bearing Witness’ programmes in Auschwitz and Rwanda. Check them out if you’re interested in this powerful approach to peacemaking, within and without.