• Dr. Miller

The Black Hills and Sacramental Reality

Updated: May 31, 2019

Gray rock.

Vast green plains.

Multi-colored prayer ties blowing in the wind.

The Black Hills in the distance.

A sacramental reality.


This hour was the culmination of my maiden three-day journey into the Native American culture.


When I first realized that addressing gender theory required both a Scriptural and a universal cultural response, I was excited about a research pilgrimage which would allow me to return to countries where I had been formed and already loved the culture: the genteel country of the Guadalupana in Mexico; the many piazzas, pontifical libraries, and lazy sun of Italy; and the great bustling energy and excuse for braids in Kenya. And yet, one day when, on a whim, I asked a seminarian about the structure of the book on masculinity and femininity, “What do you think, David?” he responded, “I think you need to go to the reservations.”


I heard from David about the reservations and his great passion for Native Americans a few months earlier. My sister called me at 7:48am as I was preparing to teach an 8am class. She wanted me to know that my nephew was close to passing. With tears streaming down my face, I stood disoriented and confused in front of my 8am classroom, wondering how I could ever make the two and a half hour drive to the hospital afterwards, when a seminarian, David, stopped me. “Dr. Miller,” he asked, “what do you need?”


On the two hour trip to the hospital, David told me about his love for Native Americans, the decades he spent loving those he had met on the reservations, and how it seemed that, after a long hiatus spent in Ireland and then studying for the priesthood, God was calling him to serve these Nations again.


Thus, when I heard, “You need to go to the reservations,” I felt both honored and commanded.


David spent months setting up the schedule, interspersing the research interviews with experiences of the culture in which these gender expressions are understood. He e-mailed professors of culture at Oglala Lakota College on Pine Ridge Reservation, at Chief Dull Knife College for the Northern Cheyenne in Lame Deer on their reservation, and Little Bighorn College on the Crow reservation. He spoke with friends and elders. He called the Native Americans “the invisible minority,” and his labor of love bore witness to the dignity of this almost invisible group of Americans.


Then, finally, on Friday, May 10, the day after graduation, we flew to Rapid City in South Dakota, rented a car, and drove to Oglala Lakota College on Pine Ridge Reservation to speak with Professor Karen Lone Hill, Chair of the Lakota Studies Department. As the green plains brought us closer and closer to the College, I was both excited and nervous. I had managed to read two of her works on the Oglala Lakota and felt that I almost knew this woman. One, a book entitled, North American Indians Today: Sioux, gave a good introduction to the Oglala Lakota Nation: its history, traditional stories, spiritual ceremonies, and current social and political realities. The second work, an essay presented as “On Learning,” in the anthology Shaping Survival. Essays by Four American Indian Tribal Women, chronicled her upbringing as a woman in the Oglala Lakota nation. It was vulnerable and beautiful, revealing her rediscovery of her cultural roots and her entrance into the traditions of her people.


When we began our discussion on masculinity and femininity in the Oglala Lakota Nation, I expected that the interview would last only fifteen minutes. This, the articles I read on phenomenological, or experiential, interviews, had assured me was the norm. Instead, the three of us sat together in comfy, flowered chairs, and David and I listened as Karen spoke. She was confident and yet quiet, as she revealed herself and her Nation through her dreams, through stories from her tradition, such as those of Falling Star and his mother, and through reflections on the transmission of gifts through female and male lineage. When I asked for final thoughts, she said, “As women…the turtle is what we're supposed to be like… turtles, because they have strong hearts and they have that shell to protect themselves.” This, over an hour later, as the three of us reluctantly peeled ourselves from our seats, hesitant to leave. David and I walked back to the car stunned. How much there was to think about, to talk about! All we did was wonder at God’s providence and the stories through which we could examine our own lives. Deep in conversation, we drove to Red Cloud Indian School.


At the school, David showed me the grave of Red Cloud. Red Cloud, an Oglala Lakota chief, had resisted the advancement of the United States cavalry into Powder River country, the final stronghold of Native American hunting and life. And in fact, his resistance to the cavalry was so successful that in the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie, the US government was forced to acknowledge the rightful ownership of the Native Americans to this land. However, with the discovery of gold in the Black Hills some few years later, the government sought to amend the treaty. What they did not realize was that the Black Hills were sacred to the Native Americans. No Native American would give up the Wind Cave, where the Oglala Lakota believed that they first came into the world, or Bear Butte, a mountain so sacred that even First Nations from Canada would make the long voyage to pray there. The Native Americans refused to amend the treaty, and so the government took the Black Hills by force and confined the Natives to reservations.

Red Cloud, when he was finally confined, asked that the “black robes” or Jesuits be sent to the Oglala Lakota reservation. And in fact, it is the Jesuits who still run Red Cloud Indian School where, since 2007, they have sought to more fully integrate Lakota language and cultural studies into the school, in order to complement its initial focus on general education and the teaching of the Catholic faith.


The evening we arrived at Red Cloud Indian School, we were invited to a feather-tying ceremony for the seniors. Held in the school gym, like all important high school ceremonies, it was preceded by dancing and musical chairs. The young women were almost all in their long skirts, the young men working on keeping the beat. But immediately before the feather-tying ceremony, a man in his early 30s, Tyler, had an honoring for his Aunt Philomene. We first heard a sharp whistle blow, at which everyone in the gym rose to their feet. Tyler asked that all join in dancing with his Aunt Philomene to honor her, and a big circle of dancers was formed around the gym. They came, seniors, adults, little children, to dance and honor Aunt Philomene. When the dancers had come full circle, Tyler spoke of why he wanted to honor his Aunt Philomene: for the good that she had done in raising funds for the school and in teaching their traditions, teaching him at school and at home. He told us that he loved her, and he thanked her once more. Then everyone came to shake Aunt Philomene’s hand and honor her. It was incredible to see a woman publicly honored in such a way by her adult nephew. As a whistle carrier, he had prayed and sacrificed much for his people, and yet he felt himself in debt to this little woman before him. What honor we saw, what masculine receptivity to the feminine gift!


The next day, David spent time showing me around Pine Ridge Reservation. Of great importance was our visit to Wounded Knee, the site where over 300 Native Americans were massacred in December of 1890. All of them were buried in a mass grave. Surrounding their grave, in the midst of the wind and the light rain, I saw prayer ties for the first time. Ribbons of red, yellow, black and white, the colors of the medicine wheel, they held small amounts of tobacco. Tied to the fence of the cemetery, they fluttered in the breeze and served as prayers for the hundreds buried there. We joined our prayers to theirs, as we prayed for the souls of all the faithful departed.


And finally, Sunday, Mother’s Day and the day of the Resurrection arrived. Mass was at Our Lady of the Sioux. Traditional elements of Native American prayer and spirituality had been integrated into the Mass, per the liturgical recommendations of the Diocese of Rapid City. Smudging, or the burning of sacred herbs for purification, accompanied the penitential rite. A slow drumbeat, which symbolizes the beating heart, accompanied the consecration. And two young girls, modest and shy as little girls are about 7 or 8 years old, made their Baptism and their First Holy Communion, in white dresses and beautiful, intricate beaded moccasins.


This, however, was only the beginning of the Sunday pilgrimage that led to the sacred Black Hills. In the Black Hills, we visited and prayed at Wind Cave, the birthplace of the Oglala Lakota, and then at Bear Butte, the culmination of this three-day journey. As I began hiking the 4,400 foot mountain, sacred to all of the Native Americans, I prayed for my family, my friends, all who were making this research pilgrimage possible, and for their families. I prayed to the Blessed Mother, on Mother’s Day, asking for her intercession. And rounding the top of the mountain, I realized that this was a moment that, like the green plains below, extended into eternity: a moment of prayer, for a Nation and with a Nation, that was offering its “hidden treasures” of masculinity and femininity, of culture and grace, to the world.



This was the sacramental reality carved into the gray rocks, the prayer ties, and the rolling plains colliding into the Black Hills: a reality that all of Creation, every culture, speaks to us of the Creator, of what it means to be created “male and female…in the image and likeness of God.” We only need ask for the grace and the patience to listen.


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