North Dakota State University -- NDSU Agriculture Communication
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May 16, 2002

Plains Folk: The Lakota Way

Tom Isern, Professor of History
North Dakota State University

 

Humility, perseverance, respect, honor, love, sacrifice, truth, compassion, bravery, fortitude, generosity, wisdom. These are the virtues cataloged by Joseph M. Marshall III, a Lakota born on Rosebud Indian Reservation. They are, he writes, "the foundation and moral sustenance of Lakota culture." Given such unquestionable virtues, how may they be passed along?

In my culture, as I have lived it in Kansas and North Dakota, the means of inculcating virtues is a catechism class. In Marshall's it is stories -- stories told by grandmothers and grandfathers, sometimes pointedly, sometimes offhand. "I knew growing up," says Marshall, "that at some point I was supposed to be the things I learned in the stories."

His new book, from Viking Compass, is "The Lakota Way: Stories and Lessons for Living." The chapters are rambling essays centered, if they are centered, on the Lakota virtues. Stories are the set pieces that carry the message.

Some of them come from the common canon of the Lakota. There is the one, for instance, of the giants, and how that long ridge in Tripp County, S.D., came to be there. That's in the chapter on perseverance. There is the story of White Buffalo Calf Woman, who brought the pipe to the Lakota. That's in the chapter on humility.

The greater appeal of Marshall's work is that he incorporates stories that are personal, current, or just plain odd. After the story of the giants, he shifts to a sketch of his grandfather, Albert Two Hawk, who took his team and scraper to work for the Civilian Conservation Corps, which built log houses with hand tools. Those things, too, were matters of profound perseverance.

In the chapter on bravery we read many stories we would expect, from Lakota camps to Korean battlefields. Then suddenly we read, "The Turtle Lady was one of those who lived life bravely." The Turtle Lady was a Lakota bag lady, wandering the northern plains one reservation to another, and in her bag she carried a turtle. Marshall writes, "I'll always admire her because she was quiet and unassuming, the epitome of courtesy, and bravery."

These stories that no anthropologist would note, the sketches of people that most of us would consider unlikely repositories of virtue, they are the ones that make Marshall's book rich.

Reading from his work, as I recently witnessed in my local independent bookstore, Marshall has powerful presence. He is reserved and unassuming, although by no means meek. He likes to say what he has to say by indirection. As in stories.

In recent years there has been an outbreak of people who consider themselves professional story-tellers. They give workshops and make story into performance art. This used to bother me, although it doesn't anymore. I just know it has nothing to do with what Marshall is writing about in his book, or I am writing about here.

There are differences among cultures both in how they tell stories and in how much weight they give to them. On the plains, for instance, both Lakota people and Icelandic people are great narrative artists, and yet the tone of Lakota legend is strikingly different from that of Icelandic saga. I think people of most cultures would agree, however, that story-telling is not what it used to be. This must be true among the Lakota, else why would there be a need for "The Lakota Way"?

Narrative arts have fallen into disuse, and we are the poorer for it. Pulitzer prize-winner Larry McMurtry (you likely know him for "Lonesome Dove") having moved back to his old home town of Archer City, Texas, writes about this is an odd little book called "Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen." I'm writing about it here. And Joseph Marshall is doing something about it.

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Source: Tom Isern, (701) 799-2941, tom@plainsfolk.com 
Editor: Tom Jirik, (701) 231-9629, tjirik@ndsuext.nodak.edu 

 

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