Belief and Ministry on the Pine Ridge

As Jesuits on the Pine Ridge Reservation who labor in educational and pastoral ministries among the Lakota people, we are daily immersed in interreligious dialogue. We live among a people with an entirely different religious expression of their faith. And since the 1970’s, especially after the American Indian Religious Freedom Act (1978), many Lakota have returned without persecution to pray to God within their own ritual tradition. On the Pine Ridge, if Jesuits are going to continue to understand the Lakota way of life while preaching the liberation of Jesus Christ, we must begin with what both traditions have in common: believing.
Essentially, believing is not about following rules, nor is it about clinging to propositions. It is about trusting Divine Revelation and looking beyond oneself and every human tendency to something greater. Belief denotes a deep longing within and being open to truth, making one capable of seeing the glory of God whenever and wherever it is revealed; even within other religious practices.
On a brutally hot and dusty, South Dakota July day, Lakota friends invited me to pray with them at a Sundance. Five men held one end of a rope where it was secured to a five-foot log and then thrown upward 25 feet into the air and across the fork of a cottonwood tree, called “the Tree of Life,” that sits in the middle of the sundance grounds. Tied to the other end of the rope was John Thunder Bull with his back to the tree, his head bowed in humility and prayer. On his bare chest two wooden pegs pierced his skin, inserted by the Medicine Man when he had blessed him. John tied a rawhide rope from the wooden pegs embedded deep within his flesh to the end of the rope coming down from the fork of the tree.
Slowly, the men on the other end began to pull. You could see the flesh pull away from John’s body. When the Medicine Man suddenly shouted, “Hoka,” the men pulled harder and walked quickly away from the tree with the log. John’s body was hoisted into the air, his neck hurled backward, and his face, full of agony, turned towards the heavens. His arms were spread wide-open, his legs crossed at the ankles. The skin from his chest, stretched and stretched, and he hanged there, suspended, crying out to the Creator.
Calvary! All I could see was Jesus, pierced and helpless, as I stood there parched, praying, on that hot, dry day. John Thunder Bull was not trying to recreate Jesus’ holy act; but, somewhere deep within him, he was offering himself, as Jesus had done. Eventually, John was lowered almost to the ground, and after taking up a little slack, the men ran as powerfully as they could, like fullbacks gaining an extra yard. The pegs tore from John’s flesh. He fell standing to the ground. With his knees weak and about to buckle, he found strength and slowly walked towards the Tree of Life, bowed and prayed to Tunkasila (the Creator, which literally means “grandfather” in Lakota).
Every summer, there are almost 60 Sundances on the Pine Ridge. Though drugs, alcohol, unemployment and poverty can plague the reservation, a deep beauty and determination flourishes within it. Many who come here fail to look beyond some of the social ills and see that so many of the Lakota believe. They believe in the Creator! Many sundance and fast for four days, and a few, like John, give of their very own blood and flesh. They dance and pray to the Creator, so that the people may live. They live in the hope that their prayers will be heard and that healing and liberation will come to the people. Amidst oppression and struggle, the Lakota people find reason to believe, and it is here, I firmly believe, where we must begin our dialogue with them. In the words of Vatican II (Nostra Aetate 2), we Jesuits on the Pine Ridge strive daily to “acknowledge, preserve and encourage the spiritual and moral truths found among” the Lakota who live here.
After teaching as a regent at Red Cloud Indian School from 2002-2005, I have now returned to Pine Ridge to minister in two small parishes on its eastern side. Presiding at funerals is a major aspect of my ministry, and I often choose to proclaim the Gospel of John on those occasions. I have come to learn that this evangelist’s endeavor was not simply to inform who is inside and who is outside of the community of salvation; nor was his concern how others find their way in. The concern of the evangelist was how everyone can be saved. For instance, when Jesus says that he is the way, the truth and the life and that “no one can come to the Father except through me,” (14:6) the evangelist denotes how Jesus reveals the parenthood of God, the fatherly character of God. Throughout the fourth gospel, Jesus continuously reveals that that which is universally true is indeed manifested through him, but this does not mean it is not manifested somewhere else.
The foundational concern of John’s gospel, wrapped in the dynamic of revelation, is “believing.” The evangelist uses the verb “to believe” 98 times (to the 34 times in all three Synoptics). Sandra Schneiders (Written that You May Believe, 1999) points out that the evangelist never uses the noun form of “belief.” For the evangelists, believing is not an acquired spiritual state but an activity, an ever-active relationship in the present— a believing into a deeper relationship with the Creator. The Pine Ridge Reservation flourishes with the beauty of such believing within the Sundances, the sweatlodges, the Catholic and Protestant churches and the daily life of many Lakota.
Such believing brings hope to the Lakota. Walking alongside them has helped me to hope amidst despair and to believe more deeply when times are difficult. Here is where interreligious dialogue begins. It is here where we proclaim Jesus, who invites all to believe in him and the Creator, so all can have eternal life with him.
Phillip Cooke, SJ, of the Wisconsin province, was ordained on June 6, 2008, and now serves as a pastoral minister on the Pine Ridge Reservation.

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