'There's a notion that Indians practicing their religionsare less than religious'

  • Charlotte Black Elk

    Bread and Roses

Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story.

Charlotte Black Elk, 45, is a spiritual and cultural leader of the Lakota Sioux tribe. She lives on the Pine Ridge Reservation, 190 miles to the east of Devils Tower, where she began leading a Sun Dance in 1985.

Charlotte Black Elk: "I grew up going to Devils Tower. As a kid with my family, we would pass ourselves off as tourists, initially. Back then, the park wasn't a high-traffic place. People just drove up and took a picture and left. Close Encounters of the Third Kind changed all that. After that movie came out, a lot of people wanted to come see the place. I found it fascinating that people are driven not by their own culture, but by Hollywood. Just like sociologists or anthropologists watch Indian culture, I watch the tourists. I study them.

"Americans haven't been taught to deal with other cultures and religions. We know how to behave in a court, but I think there's a notion that Indians practicing their religions are less than religious. People come to Devils Tower and think, 'We're on vacation, we're going to go see Indians and take videos of them doing their ceremonies while we drink beer and wear short shorts.'

"As for New Agers, you have people who are on a genuine search for fulfillment, but they don't want to take the time to learn their own traditions, or they're totally fascinated with Native American religion. They're seeking power now, like the weight loss pills.

"I'm Charlotte Black Elk. People come up to me all the time and say, 'I read your grandfather's book, Black Elk Speaks.' They want to be a part of something poetic. Well, I tell them, I'm not my grandfather.

"One of the dividing lines has been when I tell the New Age practitioners, 'Go prepare for seven years.' Most of them want a hodgepodge of things without embracing the total culture. Those people treat Native American ceremonies like they would a diving vacation to the Bahamas. In reality, if you participate in these ceremonies, you have to give up a lot of things. You have to be accessible to the community, maybe even take foster kids in. Things like that.

"In white America, they're able to buy their place in society. They can't understand why they can't buy a place in a Native American community. Indians judge you by your actions. So what if you have a degree from Harvard and have $50,000? If you're a shit, that's how you'll be treated."

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