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Jim Garrett


        In every system there is an element that holds the bigger system together and helps to keep it from unraveling. In the temperate zone grasslands throughout the world, it is the roots of plants, or to use a more common expression “grassroots,” that hold everything from blowing, washing, or burning away. These grassland plants have to hang onto life through tremendous periodic disturbances such as windstorms, freezing ground storms, gully-washing rain storms, and of course, fire and drought. The prairie grasses and forbs that make up the majority of plant life in the grassland ecosystem are there mainly because they have evolved in such ways that enables them to survive these temporary disturbances. The Lakota Indians admire these prairie plants because of the strength and the character they exhibit and the plants are often referred to as “the plant tribes.”
        Most of the plant’s body parts are below-ground and therefore are never touched by the very inhospitable forces that have the potential to destroy plants. In fact, if one study’s the plants and compares the growth of trees to grasses, they are very different because of the ecological conditions that each has had to survive within. The tree itself can become very large in its above-ground parts but its root system is usually much smaller than its above-ground parts. This physical make-up allows the tree to grow large and tall always to gather more sunlight than its neighbors, but it also is extremely susceptible to the harsh forces of nature that are mentioned above. Let us use fire as an example. We all have seen what a fire does to a tree. If the fire is hot enough, it will consume the entire tree. Some of the time it retards the growth of the tree so much that the tree may die or will take a very long time to recover from the effects of being severely burnt. The prairie grasses however are usually fairly small. Many only rise above the ground a few inches or a few feet; while some can grow as high as a man on horseback. The roots of the grasses are intense and are usually spread deeply underground in all directions. In actuality, the configuration of the roots of a grass plant can resemble the above-ground parts of a tree with all its glorious branches going in every conceivable direction. When a fire comes along and burns the grasses, just like the tree, most or all the above-ground parts get burned or more often than not burn entirely up. What does this do to the grass plant? It really doesn’t do a lot of damage because the major portion of the plant is underground and therefore the fire barely even affects the roots as much as 70-90% of the individual grass plant is below-ground. The grass plant can then immediately begin allocating its resources to allow regeneration of itself by directing nutrients to its above-grounds parts once again.
        When I think about Indian people that are from the prairie, I tend to think of them as being much like the roots of the grasses and forbs. Sometimes, their tops get burnt off but they bend with the climate, whether it is meteorological climate or political climate, and they survive because most of their real roots are somewhere else and not in this physical everyday world in which we live. These Indians are waiting for another type of day to surface for them and their families; we are existing in order to survive. There will be another day where the world that our ancestors knew will regenerate itself. I believe that we are in a transitional state between when the fire burnt our tops and when our spirits regenerate us back into whole beings once again.
        As an undergraduate at the University of California, I took a Native Religions course and had to write a lengthy research paper for the class. I diligently conducted my literary research, wrote the paper, and gave a short presentation of my research findings to the class at the end of the quarter. The subject was the Ghost Dance Ceremony and the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890. It turned out that another student in the class that was visiting from France had chosen the exact same subject however we had reached very different conclusions. My classmate swore up and down that the Wounded Knee Massacre in 1890 ended the Indian people’s former lifestyle and they had to adapt to assimilate into the proverbial “melting pot” of America. Maybe he read too much Black Elk where he declared that the tree of life and the hocoka (circle) had died that day in the snow at Wounded Knee. But my conclusions were different. Research illustrated to me that the sacred prayers, songs, and dances that the Ghost Dancers of those extremely troubled times did was not for naught. They put into motion a certain inevitable renaissance.
        I fully understand that the Ghost Dancer’s prayers will be answered certainly not in their life times, nor ours either for that matter, but there will be another day when all the prayers are answered and the earth will rejuvenate itself once again. My fellow student did not know the Indian people the way that I know them to be. I know that their roots are much deeper than one can see and so a major catastrophe such as happened at Wounded Knee does not harm the being. Sure, there is no doubt that the massacre killed and maimed many of the Chief Bigfoot Band (my paternal tiospaye ‘extended family’) on that fateful day, but the Indian-ness lives on in those that were left behind and they, in turn, have passed it on to their children. And so, their spirits are just waiting for a time when they can rejuvenate themselves once again. These are the thoughts that I have when I think about what grassroots really mean to me. Our mission today is to make sure that our roots do not die, but that they remain vigorous enough that when that particular day comes, our people’s roots will regenerate themselves once again.
        My research shows that some of the most basic tenets of the Ghost Dance Era may be beginning to come true. The Ghost Dance, or more properly called the Wangi Wacipi, held that eventually the buffalo will come back, the European people will leave, and the Grandmother Earth shall rejuvenate herself to her former beauty and richness. Current data indicate that these tenets may be coming true. The buffalo has come back from the very edge of extinction and they are becoming a nation once again. The white people have always had a difficult time making a living on the prairie and consequently there have been “boom and bust” cycles of economic stability and instability throughout the entire length of their occupation. This has caused, and continues to cause, the descendents of homesteaders that go away to gain an education not to return home to take over the family farm as once was expected. Nowadays, when a member of the older generation passes on, the family farm is usually sold. It is usually sold to a corporate farm and it is doubtful that these super-farms will last another generation. The population demographics of most Indian Tribes illustrates that the largest majority of their populations are under the age of 18-years of age. With the buffalo acting as an agent of ecological change, the white people moving away from the Plains, and the Indian population exhibiting a large growth cycle and not leaving, then I’m lead to believe that the Ghost Dance prayers may actually be coming true. The roots have held against the mighty force of extirpation and obliteration, colonization, ecological degradation, cultural erosion, termination, and assimilation. They are but periodic disturbances to our spirits. Ho hetchetuyelo (that is how it is)! Mitakuye oyasin (I pray for all my relatives).