Saturday, February 13, 2021

The Red Road and Other Narratives of the Dakota Sioux, A Review

Mniyo, Samuel, and Robert Goodvoice. The Red Road and Other Narratives of the Dakota Sioux. Edited by Daniel Beveridge. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2020. Hardcover. $75. 304 pages + xxvi. Contents, photographs, figures, maps, appendices, glossary, notes, bibliography. 

I grew up on the Standing Rock Sioux Indian Reservation hearing about the Red Road. My lekší Kenny struggled with alcohol and chemical dependence issues for years, and when he was clean we had some of the greatest philosophical discussions about the purpose of life, existentialism, and even the Red Road. He frequently questioned “why” about life, church, and traditional ceremony. I learned about the Socratic method of argument and the introspective meditative philosophy from him long before ever hearing about Socrates or Descartes. 

When I heard about the Red Road, it seemed to be a spiritual philosophy for people recovering from chemical and alcohol dependency. It was inseparable from recovery. I’ve had more than few, but I never let it become a lifestyle. Talking about the Red Road always seemed removed and distant. Conversations in school with friends about the Red Road immediately became quiet or turned to a discussion about becoming holy. 

The Red Road and Other Narratives of the Dakota Sioux was published in February 2020. I knew I wanted to read it after reading the title. It’s costly, and I waited for my local library to get a copy in so I could read it, but that never happened. I turned to the North Dakota State Library and did an interlibrary loan request, and a copy came in a week later from Nebraska. I hope that the University of Nebraska Press publishes a softcover edition soon. 

The Red Road is a duology of Dakhóta narratives which serve as a spiritual history of the Dakhóta people and by extension, the Očhéthi Šakówiŋ. Samuel Mniyo and Robert Goodvoice articulate an oral tradition of the Očhéthi Šakówiŋ that reaches back to a time when the Council Fires were not seven, but twelve. 

The Red Road is not a history book in the sense that it’s filled with footnotes, endnotes, and bibliography. It employs oral tradition that reaches into time beyond living memory, further back than winter counts can recall. It’s a pre-Columbian oral tradition without ever referencing that it is pre-Columbian. Historians who rely on the written record may struggle with these narratives. This reader suggests that this should be treated with the same respect and seriousness as one would treat the Holy Bible as history. 

The narratives in The Red Road takes readers to a time and place when and where the Twelve Fires traveled and occupied land that stretched from the eastern seaboard in the east, and the Gulf Coast in the south, to the Rocky Mountains in the west. The narratives don’t fully articulate why five of the Council Fires removed themselves, but it was during a time of great struggle when the people fought themselves over resources. 

The Seven Council Fires that remained united faced a great existential crisis in their search for ultimate truth. They searched for generations for the elusive Hill of Truth. Their travels took them across the great prairie steppe. Some stayed in areas to live their lives. Others remained nomadic in their generations-long pilgrimage. Mniyo goes so far as to suggest that this great quest was to prepare the Dakhóta to receive the biblical word of God when the missionaries arrived. “The promise of Oúŋ [Life] wasn’t really a lie. It was really the voice of God that spoke to our ancestors, but it was misunderstood. Oúŋ was not land [the Hill of Truth] but salvation in Jesus Christ, who went to Calvary Hill and paid for our sins.” (Mniyo and Goodvoice, 2020; 124). 

This retro understanding of Dakhól Wičhóȟ’aŋ (the Dakhóta Way of Life) removes the agency or sense of self-determination from the Dakhóta people and embraces pre-determinism, the very kind of thinking that colonizers and settlers embraced to justify missionizing the indigenous and taking their land. Mniyo’s philosophical approach to the arrival of missionaries is echoed in Pope Benedict XVI’s paternalistic statement in May of 2007 that the church had not imposed it’s will on the native peoples, rather, they were silently longing for Christianity [1].

The narratives include what one might call mysticism. Both Mniyo and Goodvoice recall stories of a person or people walking on water. Goodvoice includes a prophetic warning to the Council Fire people's encounter with people who speak a different language in the future.

One outstanding narrative retelling by Goodvoice recalls an encounter with Iŋktómi, a traditional folk character who causes mischief and oftentimes outsmarts his own self, in which he puts aside mischief and warns the Dakhóta that an epidemic will strike them in a forthcoming winter. He told them what medicines to consume and to sequester that winter and when spring came, they survived. (Mniyo and Goodvoice, 2020; 157-158). 

I have never read such a thought-provoking book. I picked this book up and set it down so many times over the course of a month. I don’t think that Goodvoice intended at all for readers to be provoked into relating a way of papel thinking - these narratives were recorded over forty years ago - but rather, Goodvoice perhaps wanted Očhéthi Šakówiŋ to consider that we are living in the best of all possible worlds. Perhaps in modern times, we will return to self-determination through the rediscovery of language and way of life. 

Goodvoice also provides an amazing narrative of the Dakhóta war effort in the War of 1812. The English gave the Dakhóta seven medals and a cannon. Goodvoice takes readers on a winding narrative of promises and betrayal worthy of an Indiana Jones film. Think, “It belongs in a museum,” as if that makes the appropriation of historic artifacts right. It doesn’t. 

The Red Road is a path of recovery and self-determination. The Mniyo and Goodvoice narratives inform us that one doesn’t need to be a holy person but an everyday common person. The existential journey that the Očhéthi Šakówiŋ took an age ago has come back around. Who are we? Where are we going? What does it mean to be Dakhóta-Lakȟóta? Like the relatives long ago, I as an individual, don’t know those answers. The book The Red Road has certainly provoked me to ask myself, “What can I do to cultivate Lakȟól Wičhóȟ'aŋ, the traditional way of life?” 

This deserves to be read by anyone who has an interest in indigenous philosophy. This book is history if one considers oral tradition to be history. It is philosophy. It might be religious studies. The publisher labeled this book anthropology. It's all these things. Buy it, read it, and maybe share it with a relative who can't afford it.

 Raymond Colitt, “Brazil's Indians Offended by Pope Comments,” Reuters (Thomson Reuters, May 14, 2007),

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