Beauty, Gallantry and Protection

This past week we enjoyed a two-day visit by guests here at Wingsprings, the location of the CAIRNS office. Wingsprings is a unique architectural facility being built in the Lacreek District of Pine Ridge Reservation. The surrounding landscape of rolling hills is crosscut by an integrated network of springs that flow into Bear In The Lodge Creek. There is a 64-acre natural sanctuary around the Wingsprings facilities that was fenced in 2010 to keep domesticated animals out.

The CAIRNS office, documents library, meeting spaces and art gallery (currently under construction) are integral elements of the Wingsprings architectural facilities. Wingsprings is on allotted trust land, and the sanctuary portion of it is also a “natural library,” a designation that references an insightful statement, by Vine Deloria, Sr., on the fundamental difference between natural and wild: “That is not a wild fire, it is a natural fire; that is not a wild flower, it is a natural flower; I am not a wild Indian, I am a natural man.”

Whereas a typical library has shelves of books and other printed documents that can be read and learned from, the Wingsprings natural library is full of entities and beings that we do not know how to “read.” Nevertheless, these entities and beings are being protected with the expectation that there are persons who can and will read and learn from them, if not now then in the future. The natural library provides an opportunity for the land, water and beings to strengthen and reestablish themselves.  

Last week, twenty-two elks jumped the south fence into the natural library and settled in until around noon the following day. Their presence afforded a rare opportunity to observe them from a respectful distance for an extended period of time during which they felt no threats or unwanted intrusions. They lounged around, leisurely eating and drinking most of the day. Then, late in the afternoon, they meandered to the sanctuary’s north end, a half-mile distance, before making their way back to the south end, where they apparently spent the night.

In Lakotan language, unpan is a female elk, whereas hehaka is a male elk. Eugene Buechel, in his Lakota-English Dictionary, states that etymologically there are two words from which hehaka is derived. One is he, “a horn, the horns of animals” and the other is haka, “branching, having many prongs, as some deer horns.” According to Thomas Tyon, in a document written in the early 1900s and published in Lakota Belief and Ritual in 1980, “the Spirit of the Male Elk presided over sexual relationship.” Similarly, in Societies and Ceremonial Associations in the Oglala Division of the Teton-Dakota published in 1912, Clark Wissler wrote, “Among the Oglala the elk was regarded as endowed with special powers over the females of its kind.”

The first day the elks were here, there were a couple instances of a hehaka exercising these special powers. In one, an unpan seemingly stood transfixed as a hehaka sniffed and nudged, and licked and rubbed her. For a long time! But there are additional cultural meanings about male elks that resonated in Lakota society. Shooter, a “thoughtful man and well versed in the old customs,” shared the following reflections with Frances Desmore, who published them in Teton Sioux Music in 1918:

“The best part of a man’s life is between the ages of 18 and 33. He is at his best. He has the strength and ability to accomplish his aims. He is brave to defend himself and others and is free to do much good. He is kind to all, especially to the poor and needy. The tribe looks to him as a defender, and he is expected to shield the women. His physical strength is at its best. He is light on his feet and can reduce long distances to short ones. He is taught true politeness and is very gallant. What animal has these traits more than any other? It is the elk, which is the emblem of beauty, gallantry, and protection. The elk lives in the forest and is in harmony with all his beautiful surroundings. He goes easily through the thickets, notwithstanding his broad branching horns.

The hehakas that visited Wingsprings had already shed their antlers. Nevertheless, in the late afternoon a couple of them demonstrated their speed and endurance, running with amazing speed back and forth along the springs and the hill sides, necks stretched forward, legs reaching and then powerfully propelling them over the land so fast along the gang of elks, then darting towards each other and suddenly stopping, steam billowing from their open mouths, heads high and wild-like, momentarily jostling each other, then in motion again, one pretend-herding another. Other times their break-neck runs slowed to bounding crow-hops, their four legs fully extended directly beneath their bodies like pogo sticks. Sometimes, between hops, they smoothly transitioned into fast ostentacious prances, with their heads rigid facing straight ahead like they were marching in a parade, snapping their large hooves high with each alternating step before extending their legs exaggeratingly far and striking the ground.  What a sight it was to behold! It was embued with beauty, gallantry, and protection!