Expressions such as “excuse me,” “pardon me,” and “so sorry,” now so often lightly and unnecessarily used, are not in the Lakota language. If one chanced to injure or cause inconvenience to another, the word - wanunhecun - or “mistake” was spoken. This was sufficient to indicate that no discourtesy was intended and that what had happened was accidental.
Our young people, raised under the old rules of courtesy, never indulged in the present habit of talking incessantly and all at the same time. To do so would have not only been impolite, but foolish; for poise, so much admired as social grace, could not be accompanied by restlessness. Pasuese were acknowledged gracefully and did not cause a lack of ease or embarrassment.
In talking to children, the old Lakota would places a hand on the ground and explain; ”We sit in the lap of our Mother. From her we, and all other living things come. We shall soon pass, but the place where we now rest will last forever.” So we, too, learned to sit or lie on the ground and become conscious of life about us in its multitude of forms.
Sometimes we boys would sit motionless and watch swallows, tiny ants, or perhaps some small animal at its work and ponder at its industry an ingenuity; we lay on our backs and looked long at the sky, and when the stars came out made shapes from the various groups.
Everything was possessed of personality, only differing from us in form. knowledge was inherent in all things. The world was a library and its books were the stones, leaves, grass, brooks and the birds and animals that shared, alike with us, the storms and blessings of the earth. We learned to do what only the student of nature ever learns, and that was to feel beauty. We never railed at the storms, the furious winds, and the biting frosts and snows. TO do so intensified human futility, so whatever came we just adjusted ourselves, by more effort and energy if necessary, but without complaint.
Even the lightening did us no harm, for whenever it came too close, mothers and grandmothers in every tipi put cedar leaves on coals and their magic kept danger away. Bright days and dark days were both expressions of the Great Mystery, and the Indian reveled in being close to the Great Holiness.
Observation was certain to have its rewards. Interest, wonder, admiration grew, and the fact was appreciated that life was more than mere human manifestation; it was expressed in a multitude of forms.
The appreciation enriched Lakota existence. Life was vivid and pulsing; nothing was sacral and commonplace. The Indian lived - lived in every sense of the word - from his first to his last breath.
The white man is still troubled by primitive fears; he still has in his consciousness the perils of this frontier continent, some of it not yet having yielded to his questing footsteps and inquiring eyes.
He shudders still with the memory of the loss of his forefathers upon its scorching deserts and forbidding mountain tops. The man from Europe is still a foreigner and an alien. And he still hates the man who questioned his path across the continent.
But in the Indian spirit of the land is still vested; it will be a long time until other men are able to divine and meet its rhythm. Men must be formed from the dust of their forefathers’ bones.
No one was quick with a question, no matter how important, and no one was pressed for an answer. A pause, giving time for thought was the truly courteous way of beginning and conducting a conversation.
“Civilization” has been thrust upon me since the days of the reservations, and it has not added one whit to my sense of justice, to my reverence for the rights of life, to my love of truth honesty, and generosity, or to my faith in Wanka Tanka, God of the Lakotas.
For after all the great religions have been preached and expounded, or have been revealed by brilliant scholars, or have been written in fine books and embellished in fine language with finer covers - all man - is still confronted with the Great Mystery.
Kinship with all creatures of the earth, sky, and water was a real and active principle. In the animal and bird world there existed a brotherly feeling that kept the Lakota are among them. And so close did some of the Lakotas come to their feathered and furred friends that in true brotherhood they spoke a common language.
The animals had rights - the right of man’s protection, the right to live, the right to multiply, the right to freedom, and the right to man’s indebtedness - and in recognition of these rights the Lakota never enslaved an animal, and spared all life that was not needed for food or clothing.
This concept of life and its relations was humanizing, and gave to the Lakota an abiding love. It filled his being with the joy and mystery of the living; it gave him reverence for all life; it made a place for all things in the scheme of existence with equal importance to all.
The Lakota could despise no creature, for all were of one blood, made by the same hand, and filled with the same essence of the Great Mystery. In spirit, the Lakota were humble and meek. “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth” - this was true for the Lakota, and from the earth they inherited secrets long since forgotten. Their religion was sane, natural, human.
And in the midst of sorrow, sickness, death, or misfortune of any kind, and in the presence of the notable and great, silence was a mark of respect. More powerful than words was silence with the Lakota.
His strict observance of this tenet of good behavior was the reason, no doubt, for his being given the false characterization by the white man of being stoic. He has been judged to be dumb, stupid, indifferent, and unfeeling.
As a matter of truth, he was the most sympathetic of men, but his emotions of depth and sincerity were tempered with control. Silence meant to the Lakota what it meant to Disraeli when he said, “Silence is the mother of truth,” for the silent man was ever to be trusted, while the man ever ready with speech was never taken seriously.
But, because for the Lakota there was no wilderness, because nature was not dangerous but hospitable, not forbidding but friendly, Lakota philosophy was healthy - free from fear and dogmatism. And here I find the great distinction between the faith of the Indian and the white man. Indian faith sought the harmony of man with his surroundings; the other sought the dominance of surroundings.
In sharing, in loving all and everything, one people naturally found a due portion of the thing they sought, while in fearing, the other found the need for conquest.
For one man the world was full of beauty; for the other it was a place of sin and ugliness to be endured until he went to another world; there to become a creature of wings, half man and half bird.
Forever one man directed his Mystery to change the world. He had made; forever this man pleaded with him to chastise the wicked; and forever he implored his God to send His light to earth. Small wonder this man could not understand the other.
But the old Lakota was wise. He knew that the man’s heart, away from nature, becomes hard, he knew that lack of respect from growing, living things soon led to a lack of respect for humans, too. So he kept his children close to nature’s softening influence.