The Lakota Way 

Stories to remind us who we are–or who we should be

“The Story of the Flutemaker” tells of a man who goes off into the woods to mourn the loss of the woman he loved, after she chose another man for a husband. Trying to outrun his pain, Cloud crosses rivers and prairies and finally finds himself, drained of energy, in the woods beneath a tree. He awakens to the heavy darkness of his broken heart and to the sound of a mournful voice. He listens; it seems to echo the voice in his heart. The melancholy sound, as it turns out, comes from a tree branch, hollow, pecked full of holes. When the wind traveled through it, it made a haunting, lonely sound. He took it down and started to play it. “Because he and the wind had given the branch a voice, he decided to call it a hokagapi, or ‘to make a voice.’” He played and played, letting it cry, giving sound to the bottomless pain in his heart. It provided his only relief. Back in his village, he played the flute, drawing the attention of the villagers, one of whom was the woman he had loved. She had made a mistake, she told him. He was the man to whom her heart belonged. Suddenly, the song from the flute became joyful, alive, full of hope. Cloud and his wife, Dawn Woman, were married, bore children, and lived out their lives together. “The Story of the Flute” was passed on from over generations. “There will always be a hollow tone of sadness in the voice of each flute,” the story goes, “to remind everyone that while the flute is played to win love, winning love is also winning the chance of a broken heart. Such is love.”

“The Story of the Flute” is one of many in Joseph Marshall’s The Lakota Way: Stories and Lessons for Living, a book that combines Marshall’s experiences and knowledge with the traditional stories that demonstrate the essential lessons and virtue-based philosophy of the Lakota people. “The Story of the Flute” is simple, unadorned, lovely. Reading it, you can almost hear the wind crying through the hollow wood, and see the broken-hearted man putting it to his lips, giving voice to his own pain. It also stands out among many of the other stories as it seems to capture the essence of the whole book. The story reflects the ebb and flow—the constant balancing act—of joy and sadness, perseverance and humility in the hearts of the Lakota people.

Born and raised on the Rosebud Sioux reservation in what is now south-central South Dakota, Marshall was brought up by his grandparents, all of whom were Lakota. When he was a little boy, he came home from school crying and upset. He had been barraged at the end of a schoolyard dispute by racial epithets and hurtful name-calling. His grandfather told him, “Insults can hurt, but only if you let them. If you learn to let the wind blow through you, you will take away its power to blow you down.” Marshall lived by the stories and shared experiences of his grandparents, and of the community in which he was raised. Stories were not just for entertainment; they were to teach, to warn, to draw together.

The Lakota Way is divided into 12 chapters, each illuminating a virtue crucial to the Lakota people: humility, perseverance, respect, honor, love, sacrifice, truth, compassion, bravery, fortitude, generosity, wisdom. “By providing both knowledge and inspiration, stories continue to strengthen Lakota society and enable us to cope with our world and the times we live in,” Marshall writes. “Stories of virtue are at the core of cultural renewal for each generation. But even more importantly, they reach us individually as men and women, young and old.”

Toward the end of the book, Marshall writes about the ritual of the sweat lodge. The structure of the sweat lodge represents the womb, another symbolic circle or cycle “we enter to be reborn. ... When the ceremony inside is concluded the participants exit. The final words they speak as they leave are mitakuye oyasin, or ‘all my relatives.’ Their emergence from the lodge or the ‘womb’ symbolizes their rebirth and new beginning. … The acknowledgment of the connection of all things living is a real and operative concept for the participants in the ceremony. Everything that is a part of the ceremony symbolizes that connection, or kinship. … All the elements and all the relatives—all living things—are brought together to share the burdens and give their strength for whatever lies ahead.”

Reading each chapter in Marshall’s book, we are forced to take stock. We live in a materialistic, ego-driven world. We are all about success, accomplishment, aggrandizement. Sure, we may be loving to our families and friends, do volunteer work here and there, go out of our way to help out a stranger, show courage, dignity, compassion. We also walk, on occasion, on the opposite, darker sides of these virtues. The world Marshall writes about is layered, complex, joyful, sad, full of hope, full of loss. It also seems far more pure and truthful than the one I sometimes find myself in. In our world today, especially, when buildings are being bombarded by terrorist-driven planes and viruses are being sent in the mail, one can’t help but wonder if not today then when will it be time for us all—every human being—to look up into the hills, into the clouds, and listen closely to the footsteps of our collective ancestors, to the call of our earth’s animals from generations ago. If we did, we might actually hear as if for the first time in a very long while.

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