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Getting to the Understanding

Published in Indigenous Links Magazine, London, United Kingdom

Getting to the Understanding

By Charmaine White Face
To speak about the Native American connection with the Earth requires first, a clean slate. By that I mean, wiping away any preconceived notion or idea of who Native American people are in the first place. Everyone, Native and non-Native alike, has been fed information that was colored by the colonizers values and culture whether English, French, Spanish, an now, American. Furthermore, in the American system: the schools, the churches, the government, American society in general has imposed a perspective of who Native American people are and continues to push that perspective on everyone in the world. It is a perspective that arises from a colonizers mind set, and is not representative of who we really were, and still could be.

This different perspective also has been forced on Native American people for generations through the colonization process, and many Native American people believe it and will reinforce the misinformation by repeating it. This is a form of double, perhaps triple victimization, as not only does it harm Native American nations as a whole, but also the Native American person who has repeated it, and reinforces the misinformation in the minds of the non-Natives who hear or read about it. Since it came from a Native American person, it must be true, with no thought of the amount of forced assimilation or colonization that the Native person has endured probably for generations. There is also the problem of Native people who were taken away as children and only know their Native self from books although exhibiting the physical, Native characteristics. The extra burden they carry is not being able to connect with their roots as they cannot trace back to their original tribes.

The first thing I'm usually asked is, What about you? Haven't you been colonized too? Yes, it's true. But what is not known is that much of the old Tituwan information and understanding continued to be taught quietly and in secret, not all, but some. I remember distinctly my grandmother saying, This is how we are, but don't tell anyone. Then she would teach me something. Because I had great respect and love for my grandmother, I didn't tell anyone  until in my forties when I finally realized that there was too much misinformation being given out to everyone, and it was and is still hurting all of us, everyone.
The secrecy arose from protection not just of the culture, which was outlawed for years, but also for the people. Many were killed, jailed, or taken to have experimental lobotomies performed because they tried to teach the culture, or the treaties between the United States and Native nations. Knowing, and especially practicing our old culture was outlawed since the early 1880s. The Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1974 finally opened the door to more open practices of the culture. But so much was lost in almost 100 years, and the fear of reprisals caused those who did learn something to be very reluctant to speak to today.
Although it has been twenty years ago since I first started speaking up, it has been very painful and difficult to talk about some of the things my grandmother taught me. The difficulty stems partly because she asked me not to. Another part is becauses if it is not written in a book, usually authored by a non-Native, then it does not have credibility. It's not easy speaking a truth and having it labeled a lie. Again, another form of blaming the victim.
In these current times with so much at stake, it is necessary to start trying to put some new information on a clean slate. The first piece of information for that clean slate is that those who are now called Lakota, or Lakota Sioux people, are really Tituwan, translated in English to Dwellers on the Plains. Ah ha! A new perspective. A new way of thinking. We are not Sioux. We are not Lakota. (Lakota is a dialect of a language.) We are Tituwan.
Many people now know that Sioux was a misnomer given by the French to the people of the Great Sioux Nation, and was taken from an Anishinabaeg (Chippewa) word. But few know about Tituwan. Some might have heard of Teton Sioux, but again the word Teton was another mistake made by the first Europeans who encountered us in the 1600s, the French. When they heard the word Tituwan they translated it to Teton, a French word for breast. Think of the Teton Mountains and why they were called Teton and you'll remember. But we are not the Breast people. We are the People Who Live on the Plains, the Tituwan.
The Tituwan Oyate, or Tituwan Nation was a sub nation of a total of seven subnations that made up the larger Great Sioux Nation. The Great Sioux Nation was known as the Oceti Sakowin, or Seven Council Fires in recognition of the seven sub nations. Again, the name, Great Sioux Nation was somewhat of a misnomer. There was indeed a great nation called the Oceti Sakowin.
The Tituwan Oyate spoke the Lakota dialect of the three dialects of the Oceti Sakowin, the Great Sioux Nation. That is where the word 'Lakota' comes in. Lakota is the language spoken by the Tituwan Nation. The other two dialects, Dakota and Nakota, were spoken by the other six sub nations. The Nakota language was spoken by two of the sub nations: the Ihanktowan and the Ihanktowanna, often called the Yankton people. The Dakota language was used by the other four sub nations: the Wahkpekute, the Isanti, Wahpetuwan, and the Mniwakantowan.
As the people who spoke the Dakota dialect were the first encountered along Lake Superior by the French in the early 1600s, the subsequent Indigenous people the French encountered were all called Dakotas. Thus there are the American states of North and South Dakota. However, the entire structure of the seven sub nations was much more complicated and sophisticated than the first French fur traders could even imagine. Consequently, the impressions from the first encounters, influenced by the European perspective from the 1600s, was handed down to both Native and non-Native peoples and is still being pushed today.
This is why it is necessary that the mind, or the slate must be clean in order to begin to try to understand the relationship with the Earth from the Tituwan perspective. It is not as simple as saying, This is Mother Earth and we are all related. It is not as simple as saying We need to live more simply and primitively like the Native Americans used to do.
The reason why Native American nations, hundreds of them, and other Indigenous nations throughout the world, existed for thousands and thousands of years in the same geographical regions is a consequence of living by 'natural law' rather than man-made law.  Although Indigenous nations had societal rules to live by within the community, the idea of man-made laws to govern everything is a European and subsequent American concept. This colonizer perspective also includes the idea of territory. There is a basic difference in the European and American perspective of territory and Indigenous peoples perspective of territory which again reflects the difference in natural law versus man-made law.
For example, according to natural law, a natural field will contain many different kinds of species of plants. Some will be more dominant, such as grasses, and some less, such as a few clumps of a certain kind of plant, or tree, or bush, depending on the environmental conditions. Is there more water in a certain spot? Some special plants will live there. Is there a different soil in another? Only certain plants can grow there. So too with human beings.
In the middle of the North American continent, the dominant human species was the Oceti Sakowin, the Great Sioux Nation. However, there were other smaller nations living in this same geographic region as well: the Cheyenne, the Arapaho, the Mandans to name a few. Trade was a common denominator so that natural law could be maintained, and all could survive.
The human mind is capable of receiving and digesting so much information, learning new ideas and concepts. New information can be taken in if people let it. It goes back to the will. It goes back to what is at stake if someone truly tries to break out of their previous understanding of the world.
What is at stake now is tremendous. It is the water, the grass, the animals, the very air we breathe, life on the Earth as we know it. Will people be able to wipe the slate clean and learn a new way of looking at and living with Mother Earth? Will human beings realize they have a relationship with Her and all of creation? Or are the European-American perspectives, the colonizers perspectives too engrained? Is there another way that can be transitioned in? Do we have time before there is no more water and food? Important questions everyone must consider now.
Charmaine White Face, Zumila Wobaga, (61) is Oglala Tituwan Oceti Sakowin (Oglala Lakota from the Great Sioux Nation). She is a grandmother, former science educator, writer, founder and Coordinator for Defenders of the Black Hills, and Spokesperson for the Teton Sioux Nation Treaty Council. Ms. White Face may be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it
May 18, 2008

Mission Statement

"Defenders of the Black Hills is a group of volunteers without racial or tribal boundaries whose mission is to preserve, protect, and restore the environment of the 1851 and 1868 Treaty Territories, Treaties made between the United States and the Great Sioux Nation."

Speaking about radioactive fallout, the late President John F. Kennedy said,

"Even then, the number of children and grandchildren with cancer in their bones, with leukemia in their blood, or with poison in their lungs might seem statistically small to some, in comparison with natural health hazards. But this is not a natural health hazard and it is not a statistical issue. The loss of even one human life, or the malformation of even one baby who may be born long after we are gone, should be of concern to us all. Our children and grandchildren are not merely statistics toward which we can be indifferent."

July 26, 1963 upon signing the ban on above ground nuclear tests