“The Gift of Truth” by Terri Fried

In public education, history classes tend to marginalize and gloss over the Native American experience as being inevitable in the face of progressive American settlement, what I like to call the “Manifest Destiny Pageant.” I make this reference with regard to “The Pageant” because I grew up in Custer, SD, and part of Gold Discovery Days was an extravaganza called “The Pageant of the Paha Sapa,” where locals put on a history pageant for visitors once a year. It fell from favor, thank God, but for many generations of children growing up in the area, this was our knowledge of its history. It was, to say the least, glorified in favor of The Inevitable March of Progress or the growth in prosperity of the settler community, at the expense of the Lakota peoples and other American Indians.

One of the most difficult things a human being can do is to grow past personal bias, and it is an understatement to say that not everyone has the desire to try. 

Sometimes, this growth must be compelled, as the State of South Dakota has tried to do with the Oceti Sakowin Standards. However, even the best-laid plans must have good people to implement them. While I had been on a long journey to move past my personal biases by the time I took the CAIRNS “Lakota Lands and Identities” and “Approaches to Teaching American Indian History and Culture,” courses, I still lacked the background knowledge needed to really understand the extent of my ignorance concerning how the American government achieved the brutal suppression of the beautiful culture indigenous to Western South Dakota, the only place I have ever known to call home, in order that I might live a privileged life in the Black Hills. 

Those classes opened up a world of which I had been only cursorily aware and laid out a path of learning through which Dr. Howe has graciously mentored me. As a seeker and then a research assistant on several CAIRNS art exhibit projects, I have learned the depth of Lakotas’ ties to this land, with Lakota Emergence, The Great Race, and Tapun Sa Win. I have delved into the historical records concerning the Lakota treaties, Wounded Knee, and reservation settlement.  

My eyes have been opened to a more holistic truth. 

The question then arises, “Now that I know, what can I do?” As an educator in Western South Dakota, serving a mostly settler-descendent populace, I can raise awareness and open up facts often glossed over to an audience not always receptive to them. Harsh experience has taught me this must be done not through confrontation and anger, but by activating the innate open-mindedness and curiosity of youth, and the truth and beauty inherent in art is a powerful medium for accomplishing this. 

CAIRNS newest exhibit, The Gift, currently under development, again reflects the order and value of Lakota culture. The narrative, “The White Buffalo Calf Pipe (Ptehin’ cala Canon pa)” as told by John Lone Man upon which the show is based, is found in Frances Densmore’s Teton Sioux Music. My biographical research into Mr. Lone Man and other Lakotas who guided Ms. Densmore opened my eyes to the plight of early reservation settlement. This latest pestilence burning through the country is not the first in recorded history to exact an unequal toll on the economically defenseless. 

For me, the gift of The Gift is yet more truth. Perhaps this is what Keats meant when he said, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

(This article is also published in Lakota Times.)