Lakota Sioux: ‘Still here,’ but struggling
For three days, people ate, drank and reminisced alongside the body of Bernard Ice Jr. His spirit was there, no doubt. Sometimes, it was hard to tell this was a solemn event.The dozens of people who passed through for his wake and funeral in South Dakota were celebrating a man who, while clearly imperfect, is irreplaceable.Bernard is the reason at least five of the Red Hail brothers from the Oneida Nation no longer drink. A recovering alcoholic, Bernard helped people out of addictions by leading them to Tunkashila, which means God in the Sioux language. He led people such as Gary Christensen to themselves by bringing them back to sweat lodges and filling their spirits with other forgotten traditions of the Lakota Nation.”People lost a sense of community, identity, tradition. We had to all come back,” Christensen said.Christensen and Bernard sobered up together about 18 years ago at Eagle Lodge in Denver, a recovery center for American Indians. Bernard taught Christensen ancient Lakota songs. There was medicine in his music that Christensen and others repeated throughout his wake.
Greeley becomes homeBernard moved to Greeley in 1992 for no particular reason. He was like a wandering soul after he left the reservation for alcohol treatment, ending up at the right places and the right time for people who needed him.In Greeley, he met Teresa McNeill, a Spanish-speaking Texan with Aztec roots whose hair nearly reaches her ankles. She was raised Catholic but had been searching for something more to fill her spiritual hunger. She helped start a sweat lodge – which is a garlic bulb-shaped sauna made of tree limbs and covered with blankets – near Eaton. McNeill said the lodge didn’t feel authentic until Bernard took over the sacred ceremony, which represents a woman’s womb, suffering and the emergence of a purified spirit. Bernard trained three people, including McNeill, to become water pourers, an honor bestowed on few people. It takes great strength because, the Lakota believe, water pourers take in the negative energy released by people crouched around the hot stones.Until his death Aug. 26, Bernard made Greeley his home, but he longed for the reservation and often got in his car and made the seven-hour drive as if he were going around the corner. About 30 people from Weld County attended his funeral.
Bernard adopted McNeill as his sister. Eight years ago, in a formal ceremony, she became known as Eagle Star Woman, after one of Bernard’s biological sisters died from complications related to diabetes – just as he did at the age of 53.The Lakotas are still hereDiabetes has devastated Indian nations, including the Lakotas, who recently got a new dialysis center on the impoverished reservation, which is plagued by suicide, alcoholism and deadly car crashes.”We used to be strong men,” said Gerald Ice, Bernard’s older brother, who was also recently diagnosed with diabetes.The Indians’ health deteriorated as they lost their identity, Bernard used to say. They were corrupted by the reservations, the boarding schools for Indian children where false histories were taught, the loss of Lakota language and the disrespect of elders.A monument to Lakota leader Crazy Horse sits at the foot of the long road to Wounded Knee, where in 1890 a clash of cultures and misunderstanding, according to history books, left hundreds of Indians, mostly women and children, slaughtered by government soldiers.
Indians have crossed out words on the monument’s corroding metal sign that refer to their leader as “fanatical” and “superstitious.” They replaced them with words such as “brilliant” and “visionary.” In a sentence describing Indian-led killings, the word “massacres” is replaced with “Homeland Security wars on terror.””A German guy comes to teach Lakota because he has credentials. That is the American way,” said Gerald, referring to a new class in the schools to teach children the Lakota language. “How come we can’t use our elders? We are losing them.””Bernard is going to tell our elders that the Lakotas are still here,” Gerald said. “But we are struggling.”He boasts about how his little brother went to college in San Diego. He spoke about Indian affairs at Harvard and helped start the Peace and Dignity Run, a four-five day memorial run for Wounded Knee that takes place in the winter. Greeley has participated since its inception in 1992.Bernard was out of town for weeks at a time, McNeill said, giving presentations or visiting reservations across the country, Canada and Mexico. Through his music and building sweat lodges, he would persuade people to go back to ancient beliefs.”We come from a matriarchal society. … A culture where women are revered. Now, native women are the No. 1 physically, emotionally abused,” said Gene Red Hail. Red Hail, 50, sobered up 16 years ago because of Bernard and now works for an organization to stop domestic violence on the Oneida Reservation in Wisconsin.
Passing traditionThe Lakotas have traditionally been a secret nation. They have intentionally kept their customs private for fear they would be corrupted by the outside world. People already run sweat lodges for profit, which the Lakota consider blasphemy. But now, they have opened their culture, partially afraid it will be lost and undocumented.The sweats lodges, lighting of the chanupa – a pipe – and a face-painting ceremony performed on Bernard so that the spirits will recognize him – those traditions have to be passed on, they said.Several children and young adults were involved in the ceremonies, training to take over their elders’ traditions. Headstones at the cemetery – where a mass grave sits feet away from the site of the 1980 massacre – mark the numerous bodies of people who never reached their 50s. Bernard will be buried here.Bernard’s nephew and a boy who claims to be his grandson – In Lakota culture, everyone is considered to be extended family – helped dig Bernard’s grave.His body had deteriorated in the last three years of his life. He went blind and couldn’t walk. He fought until doctors said they had to amputate one of his legs.
Bernard told McNeill to make sure his only child, Duane Ice, receives all of his sacred items when he is released from prison – his chanupa, feather staff and eagle feather wand. Bernard told her everything was going to be OK and to go home and rest. He assured her he would be there when she came back.He died at 8:40 the next morning.His spirit lives onBernard’s death could be a symbol of Lakota traditions dying. But Lakota believe when the body dies, the spirit is released to watch over them. It is up to younger generations to continue their traditions.Duane, who is serving a sentence in the South Dakota State Penitentiary for aggravated assault, was escorted to the funeral in an orange jumper and shackles by a sheriff’s deputy. He was brought before his father’s open casket and told before about 100 witnesses that all of his father’s sacred possessions would be waiting for him. “When you are ready, let me know,” a Sun Dance leader told him. “This is what my brother wants. He knows one day you will honor him, but first, you have to honor yourself.”
Choking on tears while a medicine man fanned sage smoke around him, 29-year-old Duane spoke. First in Lakota and then in English, he pled for the nation to welcome him back when he gets out of prison in two months. He said he wants to stay close to his father.Through the smoky air and the intensity of a man playing a hymn on a flute, it was obvious that Duane, and these people, was serious about keeping their tradition alive.Duane has never lived on the reservation, and he said later he is not sure if he ever will. But he won’t disappoint his father or his Lakota family, he said.The people helped shovel dirt over Bernard’s casket while others, including the great-grandson of Indian hero Black Elk, beat drums and chanted songs. They mourned four days for the physical loss of their healer. Then, they let his spirit go.Vail, Colorado