Congratulations to the Standing Rock Sioux: On Sunday (12/4/16), the US Army Corps of Engineers said it would not grant a necessary permit to allow the Dakota Access Pipeline to cross the Missouri River — putting the controversial project on hold indefinitely while officials explore alternative routes.
This drama reminded me of an interview I did with Ed McGaa in 1996.
Ed McGaa, an Oglala Sioux, was born and raised on the Pine Ridge Indian reservation in South Dakota. The son of strong parents, he grew up gifted and secure:
That is probably why I can take flack and it doesn’t bother me. I have a strong background in my mother and my father.
Ed’s (Eagle Man) development was nurtured by mentors such as Ben Black Elk, son of Black Elk, and an involved extended family:
He (Ben Black Elk) set the seeds because he always talked about his father’s book when I was little. My mother had a couple of sisters who played a strong role in my life. All my brothers saw combat in World War II so when I was a little boy I had these heroes, real live heroes, who would write letters back to me.
I have always been blessed with mentors. The spirit world put mentors in my life. I attended St. John’s University and a couple of Benedictine priests took me under their wing. Later Fools Crow and Bill Eagle Feather were honorable men to look up to.Ben Rifle was a congressmen who talked me into leaving the Marines to attend law school. Now I am older and my mentors are dead, but they are still here with me. I feel their presence.
As a Marine pilot Ed flew over one-hundred combat missions in Viet Nam. He earned a law degree from the University of South Dakota and is the author of many books including: Mother Earth Spirituality, Native Wisdom: Perceptions of the Natural Way, and Eagle Vision: Return of the Hoop.
Upon returning from Viet Nam he was a leader in restoring Native American spiritual practices to his reservation. He shifted from being a physical warrior to a mystic warrior:
A mystic warrior is concerned about the preservation of the natural way. We had our way taken from us and we were forbidden to do it. Now it is coming back. But in my time, when I was young, there were very few young men who stood up for the Indian way. Most of them were in the bars, and they were captured by the white man’s drugs and the white man’s alcohol. They were brainwashed in the white man’s way by the boarding schools. They showed little attention towards the return of the natural way. The mystic warrior doesn’t fight physically but speaks up against the crowd for a way of life and for our spirituality. The mystic warrior leads a life the Great Spirit would want you to live.
Ed McGaa turned down careers in the military and in the law to follow his purpose. A mystical warrior lives a life of integrity:
It was easier to be ethical and honorable in the old Sioux life style because materialism did not permeate it and the values allowed you to be honorable and ethical.
In the Sioux tradition there is a high degree of honor. Our ancestors were so truthful that they never broke a treaty. They have a track record of family, environmentalism, and patriotism to the tribe. They were true to all the great ethical descriptions.
Some say I romanticize them. I do not romanticize them. I saw these people who were pure, full blood Indians who would stay at my parents place and they were all these things, and they had humor on top of it. They were always open as to how they could improve their spirituality. They were always open to what others were doing. They were able to adapt. The Sioux were great adapters.
Warriors were observed by the people and the leadership emerged. Leaders were those who demonstrated bravery, good judgment, and provided for the people. They were those who made good decisions. A real leader had few possessions; they gave their possessions to the people. Leaders had to demonstrate loyalty, ethical ability, and honor.
We recognize what is honorable, and we recognize what is unhonorable. It is just put inside of us. We recognize what is honorable and what is ethical. You have to put truthfulness away for the spirit world as you put food away for the winter. Humans get in trouble by bending truths. Being truthful is seeing the natural ways of life.
In helping to bring Indian spirituality back to his reservation, Ed McGaa stepped away from the crowd:
Sometimes you are at the cutting edge and you are out in front and the people are not ready for it. Later on in 20 or 30 years they will come and be part of it but you will have been forgotten. So I don’t recommend leading for anybody if you are thin-skinned.
Now, many years later, I am on the cutting edge again in sharing our spirituality with non-Indians. Others want to keep it secret. Being on the cutting edge is not an easy road. I feel cursed by it in a way. You have to be extremely thick-skinned. I think in my next life I am going to be a simple farmer. Or I am going to be a poet or a musician. And not ever take this cutting edge role.
Why does he help non-Indians learn about Native American spirituality? “I don’t feel bad educating the white man. It is one world we live in.”