Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Oškate: A Victory Celebration

The morning haze made for a muggy afternoon at the pow-wow and rodeo grounds along the Long Soldier Creek.
Oškate: A Victory Celebration
A Commemoration Of The Little Bighorn
By Dakota Wind
Fort Yates, N.D. - Last year I had heard about a Little Bighorn victory commemoration on the Standing Rock Sioux Indian Reservation, where I’m from. Intrigued, but unable to attend the event, I waited. Another year passed, and my schedule allowed me to take it in.

My day began with the sunrise, north of Mandan. The morning sun shone brightly through the windows and into the living room spilling golden light throughout the house and into the kitchen. I bid the family goodbye and braced myself for a long hot day.

The morning was relatively cool. A light ran during the night kissed the grass with dew. The sun’s warmth rung the moisture from the ground and air, and filled the sky with a heavy clammy haze. Clouds hung low, and combined with the haze gave the landscape an almost dreamy quality. The sunlight danced through the clouds and haze as light would through water at the bottom of a pool.

The drive itself was quiet and uneventful. Traffic was light in the early dawn and I passed by what I imagine to be farm traffic. Almost nothing but pick-ups were on the highway or just merging with the highway from the many dirt roads that broke off from the main road.


 The poster that was circulating the web said that the event would begin promptly at 9:00 AM. I drove just slightly over the speed limit, pacing myself, so that I’d get there at least fifteen minutes before the flag song and flag raising at the Akičita Haŋska Wačipi grounds (the Long Soldier Pow-wow grounds).

When I pulled onto the grounds a group of veterans were already there patiently waiting for the singers (drum group) and Nača (headman) and eyapaha (announcers). One of my lekši (uncles) and his wife and their children and grandson came out to see and hear what was happening.

A short but pleasant wait later, the headman of the Šuŋg Sapa Gleška Okolakičiyĕ (The Spotted Black Horse Society) made an announcement that several people had mistaken the information that was circulating online and believed that the victory celebration wouldn’t take place until the evening.

Since there were veterans present, and two American flags to raise, regardless that the celebration wouldn’t take place until later that day, the leader brought out the Spotted Black Horse Society’s drum to render the Lakota National Anthem. There were few singers present, so my lekši and two of his sons, my téhaŋši (male cousins), joined the leader to render the song. My lekši turned to me and simply said, “Here,” and gestured to the drum. I have never sung with my lekši nor my téhaŋši before, and never at the grounds I danced at when I was boy.

Téhaŋši John led us in the Lakota National Anthem, then my téhaŋši Rick “Bu’bu” lead us in the flag song as the flags were reverently brought out and raised with honor.

One of the eyapaha, John Eagle, offers words in memory of our ancestors and encouragement to the Lakota people today. 

I thought to myself, “How could we [the Lakota] be so patriotic as we honored that flag and remembered our relatives who fought for a country who had once fought desperately to put us here, AND honor our relatives who fought to defend us on this day 137 years ago?” The setting of strong contemporary patriotism and commemoration for our relatives who defended our homes and land left me feeling a wonderful juxtaposition of humility, pride, and a tremendous amount of respect for our Lakota lalaki and unčiki (grandfathers and grandmothers) who fought, lived and sacrificed so that we could be here today.

Who can say they’re more patriotic in this land?

I took lunch with my lekši at his home. There he shared with me the story of my lala Innocent’s grandmother, Emma Creek, who had fought at the Little Bighorn to defend her family.

Great-Grandson of Sitting Bull, Ernie LaPointe, "Women didn't fight at the Battle of the Little Bighorn," he explained. 

A few summers ago, I heard an Oglala named Ernie LaPoint – a direct-lineal descendant, a great-grandson, of Tatanka Iyotanke (Sitting Bull) – speak about how Lakota women didn’t fight at the Battle of the Little Bighorn or elsewhere. I think that it may be true, from his perspective, that women didn’t fight.

Major Reno, who was an officer more at ease behind a desk than on actual campaign or in combat, lead his command of the 7th Cavalry into the Hunkpapa Lakota camp at the Little Bighorn.

There are other women who took up arms against the soldiers because the need to protect their children was so great. Among the Hunkpapa Lakota and Ihanktowana Dakota on Standing Rock there are women like Rocky Butte Woman and Moving Robe Woman, and many others, who stood up with their fathers’ or brothers’ warclubs and went into the fight, and not just to repel Reno and his command but also at General Custer’s fight on Last Stand Hill.

Midday came swiftly and the sun cast broken shadows through the passing clouds, dappling the land in sunlight and shadow. It wasn’t hot, but humid. The morning’s haze had burned away only by a small margin that the air seemed to have a bluish tinge to it. A nice crowd of maybe a hundred or so people had gathered at the rodeo grounds on the north side of Long Soldier Creek – the pow-wow grounds rest on the south bank of the creek.

I crossed the creek and memories of my grandmother Thelma camping along the creek during the pow-wow came back. I knew the exact spot where she set her tent, and I walked by it. I remember playing on the bridge there as a little boy during the pow-wows. I remember a quiet walk to the rodeo stand with a girl I used to like.


Jerking myself back from my own reverie of the past, I made my way to the racetrack where a horse racing challenge was about to take place. There, a drum group rendered an honor song for the spirit of the horses and a Lakota cowboy elder gave a prayer to commemorate our past relatives and the enduring spirit of the Lakota today.

Several races, bareback and saddle, occurred throughout the afternoon. My personal favorite to witness was the Stealing-A-Maiden race. The race began with my lekši providing exposition about a story he heard from his father, my grandfather, about a Lakota warparty long ago who went into Crow country not just to steal horses, but to bring back wives. One young man captured a Crow woman who eventually became so beloved by the people that when she died, she was honored in song.

Cedric Goodhouse tells the story of a Lakota horse-stealing raid that ended with a man taking a Crow woman too and eventually marrying her. 

My lekši shared too, that my grandfather also said to be mindful and respectful of the Crow because one day we may have relatives among them. And we do. My lekši has two granddaughters who are part Crow.

A young man "steals" a maiden in this race. 

The Stealing-A-Maiden race began in earnest with a bareback rider making a run to a point demarcated with a line of women. The riders rode hard to get to the women, dismounted, and put their women on horseback, then ran on foot while guiding their horses back to “camp.”


There was also the "Wounded Warrior" race in which a rider races to a point to pick up his kola (his best close personal friend; so close a friend that they were as brothers) from the open field and bring him back. I've seen a similar demonstration by the Frontier Army of the Dakota at Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park. 

The first place winner of the last race on foot and on horseback. 

The last horse racing contest of the day was a grueling test of stamina. It began with runners making a one-mile run uphill, down and through the creek, and to a line of horses, where they raced another three miles bareback. The runners/riders returned safely to the ending and singers honored them with victory songs.

The Vocational Rehabilitation program sponsored the feed. They made an announcement for people to bring their own plates utensils as was still practiced just a few decades ago, with the intention to cut down on refuse after the feed. I think I was the only one who saw that announcement in the poster, but the Voc-Rehab folks thoughtfully provided paper plates and plasticware for all.

The actual Oškate (Victory Celebration) began after the evening meal. There was no grand entry, typical of regular pow-wows. A young woman walked around with a handful of black grease paint, and applied a victory stripe to everyone’s cheek. The commemoration began with a victory round dance. Dancers were separated by sex. Men in the inner circle, women in the outer circle. It appeared to be generally arranged by age too. Generally speaking, older men and women led the circles followed, again, generally, by younger men and women. A whipman, a type of cultural enforcer, walked around the bowery and motivated passive attendees to become active dancers. Only the elderly or those unable to walk were given leave to remain seated.

The evening progressed with general community dances called “inter-tribals,” that is, songs were sung so that all dancers from all categories were invited to dance, even attendees who came in street clothes.

In between a few of the songs, the eyapaha invited people to come up and share family stories of relatives who were at the Little Bighorn. My tuŋwiŋ (aunt) Thipiziwiŋ was called up to the announcer stand and share the story of Rocky Butte Woman. She asked me to accompany her, and it was my pleasure to hear as complete a story as I’ve ever heard of Rocky Butte Woman’s account of the Little Bighorn.

Rocky Butte Woman entered the fight when Reno’s command attacked the Hunkpapa camp. She had no choice but to defend her children. A man, probably a lala or lekši of her’s told her to carry only a warclub into the fight at Last Stand Hill, as the air was so heavy with dust that none could clearly see. And it was as dark as dusk.

I left the Oškate at sundown with the question ringing in my heart, “Who can say they’re more patriotic in this land?”