Chapter 5. Harmony and Peace


The frozen Cheyenne River looked serene and welcoming. Since their beginning, Native Americans lived a nomadic lifestyle, going from place to place. They built tipis close to rivers, and soon whole towns grew around them. Next to the river, there would be a wide field of grass, now changed to yellow. The river would be completely frozen except for its center part, so firm and solid that children played freely, running on the ice. There is a beautiful little town next to this river. In old photographs taken a hundred years ago, you can see hundreds of tipis along its shore. Now such images are only in the memories of the Native Americans.

For Native Americans all living things in the world are to be respected. They believe that there is life in everything that exists within this universe. Their religion is not based on a dualism where things are separate from, and opposed to each other, continuously fighting to conquer the other. Instead, there is a deep-rooted sense of harmony and peace with each other and with the surrounding nature. They communicate with the universe by following traditional rituals and ceremonies where they paint their bodies and step on the ground barefoot, dancing and making a circle together.

For Native Americans the world consists of four elements: water, fire, earth and air. Water is the main element of the human body as well as of the earth. It circulates, evaporates and forms clouds, becomes rain and creates rivers, in a continuous cycle. For people who think of planet earth as their own body, the rivers are the blood vessels.

Fire is the messenger of feelings and sympathy. Whenever Native Americans have an important conversation, they sit together and look deeply into the fire to reassure each other of the bond they share. They also believe that they can draw in power by looking into the fire. The soil of the earth provides food and herbs that heal and purify living beings. The earth bears life, but it does not belong to human beings. On the contrary, the earth embraces and holds us human beings in its hands.

Air makes all living things breathe. The air and the wind give birth and life to humans and other animals and plants. Therefore, you must not harm even a single insect or plant because the Great Spirit has given life to everything. For Native Americans, nature is not something to be conquered, but to be protected and respected.

Native Americans believe that the health of their souls is maintained only if they live right, respecting nature. Many Western thinkers have pointed out that the philosophy of the Native Americans is one way to solve the numerous problems in our modern society. Native American life did not have the ecological, political and sociological problems of our “civilized” society today. They have struggled to hold on to the values and traditions that have become lost to the modern world. For centuries Native Americans lived a disciplined life adapting to the ways of nature, where body and soul were united, not separated. They could even predict the weather accurately by reading the ebb and flow of nature.

In the morning, John broke the ice in the middle of the river and sprinkled sand there. Gently, several riders walked their horses to the middle of the river to give them water. The view of the broad frozen river, the sunshine reflecting on it and the long array of horses and people standing there, were aligned in perfect harmony. It was an exquisitely beautiful scene.

Because it was a special holiday, we ate buffalo soup. Every year around this time, Native American farm owners donate buffalos to the riders. The buffalo, called tatanka, is regarded as a sacred animal. In fact, the tatanka is so indispensable to the lives of Native Americans that it is treated almost as a spiritual being. Even today, if you look at how the Lakota Indians hunt the buffalo, you can see that the animal is not merely prey for hunting. After each hunt, a special ritual is performed for the soul of the dead buffalo. For about a minute, the hunters recite prayers while looking alternately up at the sky and down at the dead buffalo on the ground. This prayer is given in earnest. They are giving solace to the soul of the dead buffalo and giving thanks to the gods at the same time. In their hunting, they seek only what they need and use every part of the buffalo, throwing nothing away.

Over the years, Western settlers and their government systematically extinguished the buffalos that were crucial to Native American life. The white hunters even used cannons to slaughter the buffalos. They went rampaging from one prairie to another, wildly shooting their guns and cannons until all the buffalos were destroyed. Afterwards, they didn’t even take proper care of the dead animals, taking only their hides and letting them rot and decay on the prairies. The Native Americans could not understand this. One white hunter alone killed thousands of buffalos this way, earning him the famous nickname “Buffalo Bill.” Because of this wild hunting and killing by the white people, by the end of the 19th century most of the buffalos had vanished and those few that remained faced extinction. Only in the late 20th century, after a great deal of effort was made to protect the species, the number of buffalos slowly started to increase. Today, there are a few farms within the Native American reservations where there are special programs to protect and revive the diminished herds.

It is amazing to watch large numbers of buffalo thundering along the prairies. Last winter I went on a buffalo hunt with my Lakota friends. Alerted to us by the slightest sound of our movement, hundreds of buffalos started to run away as fast as they could. They are extremely sensitive and can perceive even the faintest of sounds and scents. If you try to approach them quietly even from hundreds of meters away, they will still sense you and start running away. After chasing them again and again, we finally succeeded in hunting down one buffalo. My Lakota friends explained that the male buffalo is usually their main target.

After checking to make sure that the buffalo was really dead, we performed a simple ritual for the soul of the dead buffalo right on the spot where he fell. After the prayer ritual we opened the animal’s stomach and pulled out the entrails. Marcel had cut a large piece from the liver and offered it to me, which I gladly accepted. It had a good and hearty taste, just like a cow-liver dish I used to eat in Korea. It was still warm and the meat smelled fresh. Because buffalos are muscular fast-moving animals, their meat has little fat, yet is juicy.

After carrying the dead buffalo into the house, three men worked on the carcass, cutting it into numerous pieces. When they were done there was hardly anything left to throw away. The dogs got the parts that couldn’t be eaten by humans. Then the meat was cut into hundreds of thin slices to dry on a long wooden pole. Later, we would either eat the dried meat or make soup with it. Marcel told me that his family would eat from this meat throughout the following winter.

Two years ago, when I was on my way back after visiting Bear Butte, I happened to meet a big male buffalo on the road. I was scared, but also curious. Standing still, the buffalo and I stared into each other’s eyes for about 30 seconds. Then he slowly turned away and disappeared into the evening sun. As with the Native Americans, the buffalos also survived the attacks of the white settlers due to their strength and vitality. It is a part of the Native Americans’ destiny to live among the buffalo. But this symbiosis between them and their buffalos came to an abrupt end when the people were mercilessly rounded up and confined to small reservations that restricted their freedom and dignity. Similarly, the buffalos faced extinction because of the uncontrolled hunting by the white men. Native Americans were deprived of their freedom and the uniquely traditional ways of life which had been theirs for hundreds of years. For them, whose lives were inseparable from the lives of other living beings in nature, buffalos had long represented the indispensable ground of their existence.

Last summer I visited the Navajo lands. I observed an inipi ritual and went to a little spring where people were washing themselves. As I approached the water I heard a strange sound. All of a sudden a friend next to me grabbed my arm and pulled me back. I was alarmed, quickly seeing a rattlesnake beside me that had also come to drink from the water. I picked up some stones to chase it away but the friend stopped me. He said, “Calm down. You should not throw stones at the snake. If you respect him, he will also respect you.” I lowered my arm and the snake gradually moved away. And I felt ashamed of myself. The doctrine of the Native Americans to respect all living things is simple and very wise, I thought.

In our modern city life, we are so used to the pollution of our air, water and earth that we have almost come to think of this as normal. A sorcerer I once met at a Navajo reservation told me that there will be an enormous disaster if our society continues to contaminate and poison the earth. He added that this disaster will be a natural process as the earth tries to protect its own body. As our earth becomes sicker and sicker, the philosophy of the Native Americans can teach us how to return this earth to life as it should be.

After taking care of my horse in the afternoon, I was introduced to several people coming from Pine Ridge. Many community leaders came together. They all knew the significance of their role for their community and each one felt the weight of his responsibility. An important rule for them calls for leaders and brave fighters to sacrifice everything of themselves for the good of their community.

Bridger is such a small town that you cannot even find it on the map. Maybe today is the day that most of the people are coming together. In the evening a big fire was built next to the river and the young people gathered around it to talk. Next to the fire the river was flowing gently and I could feel the fresh wind on my face. All the four elements of nature were perfectly combined at that moment. I cherished the illusion of seeing the shapes of the people’s souls as their faces were illuminated by the fire. I thought: we are all fortunate beings in this universe, sharing a spiritual life, grateful for everything we can experience, and appreciating the harmony and peace around us.

When I woke up the next morning, the prairie was embracing the dawn of winter. When was the last time my mind felt so transparent and clear like this? I sat in front of the fire and watched the day break and the sky slowly turn blue. While the darkness hadn’t completely vanished, children were already awake, leading their horses to drink. It was a cloudy morning.

This day was very exciting and full of activity because riders from many different places were joining our group. Everyone moved around busily, taking care of their animals and provisions. The number of riders increased at least twofold from when we had started the ride. Most of them came from Pine Ridge. There was a little girl with an eagle’s feather decorating her horse’s head, a man with a feather in his hat, and a Native American doctor who joined our group, to start the second part of the trip. And that was probably why the morning ritual felt more earnest and longer than usual. Native Americans who came from far and wide all over the big prairie now made a huge circle together. We all faced each other in this circle, as we had done at the start of the trip.

For the Lakota people, the circle symbolizes the Great Spirit. You can find the circle everywhere in the life of the Native American, as all of life is one unending circle. If you dance in a powwow, you make a circle. The circle is found in the dream catcher and the incantation wheel. Before starting a procession or upon arriving at a destination, you will hear people calling to form a circle. Our earth has a circular shape. Similarly, a village is formed in an ever-expanding circle. Tipis, whose entryways open towards the sun, are placed in a circular pattern to form a village. Each of these villages is again circled by a wider ring of tipis that form a larger circle around the first. Likewise, each of us is but one part of a circle that is a part of a larger circle around us, and even this circle is a part of an even greater circle that is all around us. (Interestingly, the formation of a clan illustrates a different yet ever-widening pattern. The Teton Sioux Tribe (one of the seven tribes of the Lakota Sioux), has seven different branches, and the Oglara Tribe which is one of these seven, again divides into seven more branches.)

Everybody was full of anticipation as we prepared to depart. It was still morning when I met “Harmony and Peace,” a girl from Pine Ridge holding a traditional Lakota flute. Her Native American name was “Wolakota Win Blacksmith.” I also met her mother “Arlett Loud Hawk,” a very friendly woman with a highly cultured and well-educated manner. Whenever she found the time, she told me interesting stories about her tribe. Talking with her I came to know so much about the everyday life of Native Americans. “Harmony and Peace” was born to her and her second husband who was from the Crow Tribe. His people live in Montana now and for years were the traditional enemies of the Lakota Tribe with whom they fought endless wars. The Pony Tribe, also an enemy of the Lakotas, was the aggressive tribe featured in the film “Dances With Wolves.” Supposedly, the girl’s name “Harmony and Peace” came from the wishes of her people for peaceful relations between the tribes. I learned that, as is done in Korea, Native Americans also believe that great meaning and power are derived from the names they are given. Thus Native American parents give their children names that represent a particular wish or ideal, and some have multiple names.

The sun was setting early, so we decided to camp overnight on the prairie. Before it became completely dark, the clouds became fiery red for a few moments before they slowly moved away and disappeared into the darkness. The image of the riders and the procession following them appeared as silhouettes between the burning sky and the darkening earth. Between the sky and the earth, human existence was illuminated in an unforgettable way.

Eventually, the wind picked up and strong gusts started to blow everywhere. When we finally reached our destination, everyone set about putting up their tents and tipis. Suddenly, one of the pillars of a tipi fell to the ground. My friend Victor was standing under that pillar but reacted quickly and managed to punch it away and luckily was not hurt. The wind on the prairies can be as powerful as the wind in the desert. Sometimes it is so strong that you cannot walk straight but must walk sideways to avoid facing the wind head-on.

After dinner, I looked around the campfire where I was sitting. Several children were trying to sleep huddled together in blankets. I stayed by the fire and looked quietly into it for a long time. Today while I was watching the Lakota people riding their horses freely and running on the prairie, many thoughts filled my head. If they could no longer ride or run with the wind like this, they would soon forget all the freedom and spontaneity that were once theirs. I became sad. And I sensed that the wind had also died down.

There was an old dog we met up North that followed our group all the way down to this place. No one knew who the owner was; we started calling him One Eye. We could have chased him away but at mealtimes the people took care of One Eye and when he looked exhausted they carried him on a truck. We all knew that One-Eye would go to Wounded Knee with us. Breathing heavily, he would keep up with the riders at the front of the procession. We thought he might have been a shepherd dog on a farm once.

I saw many unusual and malformed dogs inside the reservations. Some of them had lost their limbs and some were so skinny that you could see their bones. Many of my friends took these dogs with them when they left the reservations after completing their volunteer work.

Once I bought cigarettes for my friends who had lent me their horses and helped me with my car when it was stuck. I learned that among Native Americans cigarettes possess a special meaning. You can only share cigarettes with someone if you are really good friends. And if you take part in a ritual in one of the hot sauna tents, you smoke a long peace pipe. For this you must use pure tobacco with no artificial or chemical ingredients. Even if you start out as strangers, you become close to each other if you smoke this peace pipe together.

Tonight I will again sleep outside. It is the fourth night sleeping outside for me. Tomorrow we will pass the Bad Lands National Park and arrive at Red Waters, close to Kyle. We succeed in building our camp before night falls. We have a good time singing and drumming by the campfire. The sound of the drum is the sound of the earth. The songs we sing to the drumming send out melancholy and heartbreaking sounds.

It is a little difficult to wash ourselves, but it is tolerable. To tell the truth, I like it here. In the early hours of the morning, awakened by the cold, people gather together to make a fire. Then they stay there, staring into the fire in deep silence. Everyone has a spot where they will sleep. I like to sleep next to the fire. Some of my friends sleep in the horses’ wagon. Some sleep next to the wagon wheels and some anywhere on the prairie grass, wrapping themselves in blankets like sleeping bags.

I settle down in my blanket and am completely filled with awe as I look up at the night sky and see the countless bright stars above. My Native American friends do not look up at the night sky. For them, the stars represent their dead ancestors.

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