Native American Bearing Witness Retreat 2016



Photo: Peter Cunningham

In this retreat we will bear witness to the genocide of the American Indians beginning in the 16th century, the injustice and abuse that continue to this day, and the thievery and exploitation of their land.
First nations around the world have lost their lands, languages, and ways of life at the hands of American and European colonialists pursuing an agenda of domination, genocide, theft, and the elimination of indigenous cultures and identities. Entire nations have vanished. This catastrophe is not just theirs; it belongs to all humans, and to the earth itself, for it has been succeeded by the calamitous loss of animals and plants, and the specter of global warming.
What does it say about us and our separation from this earth? What does it say about our relationship not just to biodiversity, but to human diversity? What does it say about our cultural assumptions of superiority and how they continue to underlie our historical narratives? It is time to bear witness to our systems of thought and values, and to their actions and results that persist to this very day. 


What does it say about us and our separation from this earth? What does it say about our relationship not just to biodiversity, but to human diversity? What does it say about our cultural assumptions of superiority and how they continue to underlie our historical narratives? It is time to bear witness to our systems of thought and values, and to their actions and results that persist to this very day.

While hundreds of Native American tribes have been eliminated, drastically reduced in number, exiled, and traumatized, the Lakota/Dakota people of the Western Plains have gained a prominent position in the world psyche as a major archetype of what has befallen America’s native people. The massacre at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, on December 29, 1890, is viewed by many as a defining event in the genocide of the American Indians, but it is just the tip of the iceberg. What we are most blind to is the continuous institutional violence practiced on the Lakota Nation and other tribes, comprising treaty violations, Congressional acts that permit thievery of their land and resources, the building of dams and flooding of burial grounds hundreds of years old, and the constant encroachment of corporate interests looking to “develop” lands commercially and mine sacred sites for various metals, including uranium.

Photo: Peter Cunningham

Photo: Peter Cunningham

In the midst of this unfolding story of domination and suppression, the Lakota are in the midst of a cultural and spiritual resurgence. By law they were not allowed to practice their religion in any form until 1978. Until then, any ceremonies or spiritual events had to be done in secret. As of a few years ago there were 57 Sundances being held on the Pine Ridge Reservation. That indicates a large number of people, from elders to youth returning to traditional ways. The Lakota language is being taught and many are working for its preservation with good results. The population includes a large number of social, economic and political activists fighting for treaty rights, social and economic programs, and recognition. A significant number of NGOs are focused on projects on the reservations of South Dakota.

Among the annual healing events are spiritual rides. The Bigfoot Ride envisioned by Birgil Kills Straight in 1985 is an annual 14-day horseback ride commemorating Bigfoot’s band journey from Standing Rock Reservation in northern South Dakota where Sitting Bull had just been murdered to Wounded Knee on the Pine Reservation where Bigfoot and his band were massacred on December 29, 1890. The Crazy Horse Ride is a four day event organized by
Bam Brewer that happens in the second week of June commemorating the journey that Crazy Horse’s family took to bury his body after he had been murdered at Fort Robinson September 5, 1877. Both rides have as many as 200 or more riders, predominately youth.
This retreat will support this new vitality and important work by Lakota elders. It will be multifaith and multinational in character. Our behavior in our five days together will be governed by the Seven Laws of the Lakota:

  • · Wacante Oganake: Be generous
  • · Wowaunsila: Have Compassion
  • · Wowauonihan: Give Respect and Honor
  • · Wowacintanka: Have Patience and Tolerance
  • · Wowahwala: Be Humble
  • · Woohitike: Be Guided By Your Principles, Disciplined, Brave and Courageous
  • · Woksape: Cultivate Understanding and Wisdom.

Video of photographs of the 2015 retreat in the Black Hills. Photos by Peter Cunningham, Music by Tiokasin Ghosthorse, Edited by Ola Kwiatkowska.