Selling Your Culture For An Orange
I first met Leonard Little Finger in the summer of 2000. He was coordinating the return of Si Tanka’s hair lock from a museum in New England to the Pine Ridge Reservation. Si Tanka – known to the U.S. Cavalry as Big Foot – was killed along with some 300 Lakota men, women and children near the banks of Wounded Knee Creek on December 29, 1890. Rifles, clothing and, yes, even body parts were taken from the victims of the massacre and later sold.
Invited to the 4-day ceremony when this last fragment of the legendary Lakota leader’s earthly remains arrived at the village of Oglala, I told the story to the world. That time spent at the ceremonial camp began a long friendship with Leonard. Over the following years we visited many times as the tall, burly soft-spoken Lakota elder passed on oral traditions of his culture, his people and of his family.
The story that had the largest impact and remains with me to this day was about his father.
I was collecting boarding school stories for an article entitled “The Final Colonization of the American Indian”. I’d heard for years about the horrors of the federal government and Christian institutions Native Americans were forced to send their children to. From beatings, to mouths washed with lye soap, to kneeling on pencils for hours…the list was lengthy. My 12 years in Catholic school paled in comparison. But I needed first-hand accounts and I was fortunate to find Lakota elders who trusted me and were willing to share their past – even when doing so might bring back their pain.
Leonard himself had run away from the Holy Rosary Mission after just one week because he didn’t like the way the doors always seemed to lock behind him. Thinking back he placed no blame on his mother or father for sending him there. It provided food, a place to sleep and a roof over his head. Security his parents couldn’t ensure.
Notwithstanding, boarding school memories would haunt his father, Wallace, until the day he died. But it wasn’t the trauma of abuse that lingered. It was the memory of fruit.
It seems Leonard’s father had run away from boarding school as well – and several times. The priests needed to talk him into returning but couldn’t find a way to convince him. Then they came up with a plan. They would offer him an apple and an orange. This was at a time when fresh fruit of any kind was a rarity in most Lakota homes, while owning an orange was like touching gold.
Wallace weighed his choices. The apple looked inviting, but that orange… He took the fruit. And returned to school. And let the priests cut his hair. And stop him from speaking his language.
Leonard told me that his father kept a photograph of himself from that time. It showed a young Lakota boy with short hair. Underneath the photograph Wallace had written that the priests had cut his hair. And when they cut his hair…they took away his spirit.
Even 74 years after that day Wallace mourned the loss of his culture over 2 pieces of fruit.
It was for this reason, his own experiences in boarding school and the impact the generations that lost parts of their culture to assimilation had on the Lakota people that Leonard devoted much of his life to bringing back his language.
So it was synchronistic that I should hear of Leonard’s passing as I prepared to visit the first Lakota Language Immersion kindergarten class at Red Cloud Indian School – formerly known as Holy Rosary Mission.
When Leonard spoke to me for that article about colonization he said the Lakota would recover from the impacts of forced assimilation “because we’re a strong and an awesome people. We have what we need inside of ourselves and within our culture.”
As I stood in a class of 5-year old Lakota children, one after another introducing themselves to me in traditional Lakota fashion – and in their own language, I thought of Leonard. And when each child paused before answering when I asked them to translate what they’d said into English – or refused to answer me – I smiled inside. Their teachers had advised them that “only” Lakota would be spoken in this classroom.
It took about a century, but the rule on what language can’t be spoken at Wallace’s school has come full-circle. And as I looked around the classroom… there wasn’t an orange in sight.
Jim Kent is a freelance writer and radio producer who lives in Hot Springs. He is a contributing columnist to the Lakota Country Times and former editor of The New Lakota Times. He can be heard on South Dakota Public Radio, National Public Radio and National Native News Radio. Jim can be reached at email@example.com.