WORDS BY RUTH H. HOPKINS
PHOTOGRAPH BY ERIC MEOLA
We have a hard road ahead of us if humanity is to survive. We will have to sacrifice, and some of us may be required to pay the ultimate price. However, even in our weakness, there is strength.
Every year for tens of thousands of years, the Lakota people have gathered in the Black Hills of South Dakota during the Spring Equinox to Welcome Back the Wakinyan Oyate, the Thunder Beings. Now, they gather at the top of what is currently called Black Elk’s Peak, a sacred site, to partake in the ancient celestial ceremony.
Settlers called it Harney Peak, in honor of General William S. Harney, a brutal U.S. commander who was responsible for the Blue Water Creek Massacre of 1855, where dozens of Lakota were slaughtered by soldiers. More than half of those killed were innocent women and children. Before being re-named after Lakota leader and medicine man Hehaka Sapa (Black Elk), the Lakota people called the peak Hinhan Kaga, Owl Maker.
Like all Lakota ceremonies, welcoming back the thunder is not just a solemn rite of reverence. It’s also about showing gratitude and passing on tradition. When we Welcome Back the Wakinyan Oyate, we bring the canupa (sacred pipe), leave food offerings, sing with the drum, and send prayers up to the heavens to celebrate that the thunder and lighting have returned to us to awaken the green, lush wilderness with their spark of life for another year.
The Wakinyan are ancient deities and the Wakinyan Tanka (Thunderbird) has long acted as a guardian to the Lakota Nation. Besides being our protectors, they have also chosen to share their medicine with us, by way of thunder dreamers, or heyoka. Through them, they impart powerful healing energy.
When the Lakota pray to the Wakinyan, we make sure to do so with humility and the utmost respect. Their force and intensity are beyond our full understanding as human beings, and while life on Earth as we know it would not exist without the storm, they are also dangerous and can inflict torment and destruction.
For decades now, our elders have warned that the climate is changing. Western scientists eventually began to gather evidence that proved these Indigenous assertions to be correct. There are still a lot of climate deniers in society, and even those who acknowledge the reality of climate change tend to think of it only in terms of global warming. It’s true that climate change causes a rise in global surface temperatures, but this increase leads to more than just heat waves and droughts. It also affects the intensity of storms.
The seasonal ceremonies we perform are meant to restore harmony to the Universe. Climate change is the perfect example of the importance of living in balance because at its core, climate change is an imbalance caused by human behavior.
As the situation becomes more dire and the consequences of our actions (and inactions) manifest, Indigenous people are rising.
One earnest voice crying out is enough to shake the very foundations of the corrupt system that’s led to our imminent demise.
Today, I received word that an old friend of mine succumbed to cancer. She was one of the Indigenous people I am speaking of. Her name was LaDonna Brave Bull Allard.
LaDonna was a member of the Standing Rock Sioux, a learned historian, and a recognized Tribal elder—but that is not what she is most known for. She will be remembered for taking a stand against an oil giant, birthing the #NoDAPL movement, and founding the first camp at Standing Rock during our fight to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline, Sacred Stone.
LaDonna found herself in the midst of a dreadful storm five years ago. The Dakota Access Pipeline was going to be built across her home, through the Lakota Nation’s Treaty lands, and under the source of fresh water for the Tribe and millions of others—all while desecrating the graves or her family members as well as our ancestors. And it would all be done against our will.
She could have been a good little ‘Indian’ and stayed quiet. She could have closed her eyes to the wrongs being committed to her and her people. But she didn’t. Instead, she ripped her own heart out of her chest and showed it naked and bleeding to the world. With tears in her eyes, she pleaded with anyone who would listen for help. She was a true Lakota in that she did not run and hide. She faced the storm, just as the buffalo have always done.
And they came. Tens of thousands of people of all races, colors, nationalities, and creeds from all over the globe journeyed to the homelands of Sitting Bull to protect it with their lives.
That’s the beauty of the storm. Even at its most devastating, it presents us with an opportunity. It’s a chance to build back better, to make things right, and to appreciate what we’ve been given. We are imperfect humans, flawed by design—but that doesn’t mean we cannot be powerful conduits of change in our own right. We can heal the land and water. We can save the planet. One earnest voice crying out is enough to shake the very foundations of the corrupt system that’s led to our imminent demise.
The pipeline was built, and even though a federal judge ruled that it was operating in violation of federal law and needed a full environmental review, the Army Corps of Engineers said one day before LaDonna died that they would not shut down Dakota Access. I cannot help but wonder how that news affected her.
In the Lakota way, death is not the end. She is now with the ancestors, and more powerful than she was in life. She is whole again. We are blessed to have known her, and that she will now carry our prayers as a formidable water protector traveling among the stars, continuing to fight alongside us and watch over us.
We have a hard road ahead of us if humanity is to survive. We will have to sacrifice, and some of us may be required to pay the ultimate price. However, even in our weakness, there is strength. We call upon the healing energy of the wakinyan oyate to purify us and shield us. As we dedicate ourselves to being Mother Earth defenders, know that it will be worth the cost and while we may have our hearts broken, be bloodied, and grow weary, we will not surrender—and we will win. Fight on, Earth warriors.