An Inspiring few days on the Crow Creek Dakota Sioux Reservation at Fort Thompson, South Dakota

By Dr Stephanie Pratt

This summer in late May, I was hugely rewarded through my involvement in the re-establishment of the Horse Dance Ceremony and foundation of the first Grandmothers’ (Kunsi/Unci*) Society on the Crow Creek Dakota Reservation in Fort Thompson, South Dakota. From my arrival around the 25th May, things started evolving in significant and profoundly moving ways. People gathered, families were brought together, food was made and consumed, feelings were shown, even some strong words were spoken but overall a general welling up of goodness, hope and healing from trauma was starting to emerge.

Within days of my arrival, a largely unseen and forgotten ceremony, the Horse Dance, had taken place on the Crow Creek Reservation, led by the Lakota Sacred Pipe-keeper, Chief Arvol Looking-Horse, who came from his home in the north of the state especially to conduct the ceremony at Fort Thompson. Also, the first Crow Creek Kunsi/Unci Society meeting took place in the Casino conference room near to the center crossroads of the whole community.

What I experienced over these few days was poignant and left me awestruck at times. The power of belief and the healing which comes from believing in oneself are sacred tools which many Native Americans are still struggling to regain.

I had come to the Reservation with my sister, Jean Fleury, who is the Peace Ambassador for the Crow Creek Sioux tribe to meet up with our niece [or in our Dakota language, ‘Tonjan’] Belinda Joe, the Tribal Affairs Ambassador for our tribe. During my stay at Fort Thompson, I was appointed to the role of Cultural Ambassador for the Crow Creek Dakota Sioux tribe. As a triumvirate of women we had come together to see through the visions and inspirations that had been received by several people on the Reservation and more widely over the course of some years, especially the visions received by Belinda’s aunty Stella Rencountre. These visions and other indications led to our group helping to revive the Horse Dance Ceremony at Fort Thompson.

My sister Jean had similarly received significant dreams and visions about the power of horses for healing and rejuvenation, they being a symbol for the Dakota and all the Sioux people of a new powerful being that had come to them in historical times and pretty much transformed their lives. Horses were the means to travel and communicate swiftly and their powers were duly appreciated through ceremonies such as the Horse Dance and other ceremonial activities.

During our recently revived Horse Dance both the riders and their horses were given painted adornments and ribbons to wear in their hair or on clothes to give them spiritual protection and force. It was marvellous to see the riders coming into the circle and to circle with their horses around the lodge or tipi in the centre of the ceremonial space. The women, both young and old, were told to sit around the lodge in the center and face outwards towards the spectators, an unusual and yet powerfully motivating experience as we were given a kind of pre-eminence in the proceedings. The final feast of the ceremony was accompanied by Saniel Bonder playing on his flute offering his total support to all of us there. I look upon Saniel as a brother in spirit and love.

The next day was our first Grandmothers’ Society meeting and its foundation as a support group. This entailed bringing together a dedicated group of women for the support of each member and to acknowledge the wisdom of the Native American phrase that “Grandmothers are the backbone of the people.” Here we witnessed many women, both young and old, making testimonies about their lives, the difficulties, losses and heartbreaks as they have seen their children and some grandchildren one by one affected by the traumas of drug use, alcoholism, prison, suicide and violence. These Grandmothers who were present acknowledged that it is they who are keeping the families whole, acting as their backbone, often raising their grandchildren as the parents are or were unable to do so.

Our new ‘Kunsies’ and ‘Uncies’ have met several times since this date in May and they currently maintain a Facebook page which keeps everybody informed about what is happening on the Reservation and more widely. Hopefully, this community of Grandmothers acts as a support for each other and for others outside of this Society.

We intend that this idea of a Society of Elders will spread to other places, other Reservations and indeed, to reach out to all Grandmothers and Grandfathers world-wide. It is only a first step towards the healing of deeply and lastingly felt traumas experienced by the Indigenous Peoples of North America, particularly affected by the institutions and violences of colonialism. We hope and intend that all Kunsies and Uncies can come forward and take further steps towards their necessary places of healing and strength.

Dr Stephanie Pratt is a Cultural Ambassador for the Crow Creek Dakota Hunkpati and Tribal Council.

*‘Kunsi’ and ‘Unci’ means ‘Grandmother’ in the different dialects of the Dakota and Lakota languages.


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This article appears in: 2015 Catalyst, Issue 22: Global Indigenous Wisdom