Wancantognaka: The continuing Lakota tradition of generosity

Nov 15th, 1995 | By | Category: 7-3: Investing, Features
By Lydia Whirlwind Soldier

Sitting by the photo honoring their grandmother, Evelyn Staub, are Michael and Louis Whirlwind Soldier and Mato Standing High. The plate by the photo contains a small portion of food being served, placed as an offering. Photo by Margaret A. MacKichan

The school year at Penn State University was coming to a close, and I was in a panic. Six term papers, averaging 14 references for each paper, and a master’s paper with at least 30 references were due. I had been collecting references since the beginning of the semester, but I knew I could not possibly meet the deadline if I typed every paper myself. I also knew I could not afford the $1.25 per page that the professional typist charged to type my master’s paper. My grade depended on not only the content of the paper but how well that paper looked.

I contemplated how I would get the money, jokingly telling my friends I’d sell my blood if I had to, but I was determined to get a decent grade. As the end of the semester drew nearer, a day did not pass without thoughts of the financial burden of my master’s paper.

When the day arrived that my paper was due, I still didn’t have the money. That morning, discouraged and frustrated, I thought of all the work I had invested into getting a master’s degree. Despite my success up to that point, I would not be graduating with my class if I did not get my paper in. I had not called my relatives, knowing they would be unable to send money. Feeling sorry for myself, I dragged myself home. As I entered my apartment building, I checked my mail and found a letter from the president’s office, Sinte Gleska University. Inside, along with  the letter of congratulations for the master’s degree, was a check for $150.

I was so happy I akisaed (shouted in happiness). I had not been forgotten-‑the Lakota values of generosity and faith resonated from home. Lakolwicohan (the real way of life) has survived and was validated through the Sinte Gleska University’s president’s office. I had felt isolated out there, and I needed that gentle reminder from home.

From the beginning, Sinte Gleska University has risen to the challenge, advancing into the heart of the struggle to maintain and perpetuate Lakota culture, mediating between the home and community and the foreign educational system. The founders’ goals were to assist in strengthening the values and tribal ways that had gone underground and use them as a catalyst for a renaissance.


Some of the many gifts given away at the ceremony honoring Evelyn Staub. Photo by Margaret A. MacKichan

First, the design for our own educational system would employ methods used against us to regain our losses. The Indian Studies Department would reinforce the language and values taught to us by our families. A strong Human Services Department would address the dysfunctional influences of the drug and alcohol subculture and develop ways of validating the Lakota value system. The Teacher Education Program would train teachers who would be qualified to effectively teach Native American students. Every department at Sinte would take Lakota values and adapt them to today’s society and yet ensure they remained distinctly Lakota.

This effort would begin the healing from the forced acculturation that threatened to destroy the Lakota family structure, identity, values, language and kinship. The attempts at acculturation have created tragedies for all of us in one form or another and shaped our attitudes and life experiences. Oppression has distorted many of our beliefs, creating models of oppression within ourselves to do the work of the oppressors.

Cynicism has tainted the perceptions of our own people, making us believe we are romanticizing our culture when we relate the teachings and ideals of our ancient cultures and heritage. We risk buying into a society that teaches us that to survive, we must choose between our own culture and that of mainstream’s capitalist society. The capitalist lessons are: accumulation of wealth is vital for success, and a person can not live as a Native American and still be successful. These teachings are totally against our Native American philosophy.

Historically, Lakota values ensured that every member of the tribe was taken care of; every aspect considered the good of all, instead of the good of the individual. Every person was responsible for the welfare of his or her immediate family, then the extended family, and finally the tribe. Yet infringing on an individual’s rights was unheard of; if a person’s voice was not heard, then that person had every right to move his loyalties to another tiyospaye (extended family) or to wherever his voice would be heard.

Emphasis was placed on the welfare of children and elders. Our children are called Wakanyeja (the sacred ones). However, when the children were exiled to boarding schools that were deeply rooted in prejudices, they were not taught they were sacred. The indoctrination into foreign religions and education conveyed subtle and not‑so‑subtle messages that our heritage and cultures were inferior. The isolation from our families in boarding schools devastated our values and affected how we viewed ourselves and our families.

Traditionally, to ensure a functional, thriving society, the children were diligently taught the checks and balances of our societies. A dysfunctional person was given every benefit but would eventually have to contribute a fair share or move on.  Pride and honor were placed on family name, self‑reliance, social and tribal cohesiveness, and leadership. Teachings were so clear‑cut there would be no doubt as to what was expected of every individual.

Such teachings continue to be shared in Lakota homes and schools such as Sinte Gleska today. Wancantognaka means sharing not only material goods but generosity of heart, comfort, and support. The closest English word is generosity. My great grandmother, Elizabeth C. Whirlwind Soldier, told me often, “Generosity starts a reaction. What a person does affects many people. Actions–good or bad–continue and will return to where they began.”

Every time I attend one of the many Lakota ceremonies, I think of the wonderful, positive examples of wancantognaka we give our children. Giveaways are part of every ceremony–wopila (thanksgiving), wokiksuye (memorial), or yuonihan (honoring).  These ceremonies reverberate the commitment of caring and the sharing ethic, the generosity of heart of our fore‑fathers.  Employed tribal people still share their advantages and benefits with their tiyospaye (extended families).


Evelyn Staub's granddaughter, Kathleen King, provided a big helping of food to Harriet Burnette. Photo by Margaret A. MacKichan

Even the poorest of families save for a year to accumulate and make articles to give away in memory of their loved one. According to Lakota winter counts, the Spirit Keeping ceremony was brought to the Lakota by the White Buffalo Calf Woman about 3,000 years ago, and it survives today. The ceremony begins at the time a loved one passes into the spirit world. A designated family member takes a lock of hair and keeps it in a special place. The year of Spirit Keeping gives time to heal from losses, examine and learn from the lifestyle of the deceased, and develop habits to carry for a lifetime. The extended family heartens and comforts the grieving family members as they work together to prepare gifts. At the end of the year, they gather for the Soul Releasing Ceremony.

I’ll never forget the nun who grabbed me by the hair and said, “Indians never finish anything they start.” At this early age, I realized survival takes determination and fortitude. It takes more than lamenting over our past as a utopia lost forever. We must offer affirmations and teachings to our children and grandchildren, showing them that our culture has worth in today’s society. Unless we remain vigilant, we can do to ourselves what mainstream hasn’t been able to do.

We must remember the philosophy of the “Seventh Generation,” looking back seven generations and learning from our past experiences, looking ahead seven generations and planning what we want for those coming generations. Let’s be inspired by the strength of character and foresight of our leaders who have lived the last seven generations. Survival requires bravery, fortitude, generosity, and wisdom. Never forget–we are a spiritual and giving people.

Lydia Whirlwind Soldier is an enrolled member of the Sicangu Lakota, known by many as the Rosebud Sioux Tribe. She holds a Master’s Degree in Education Administration and serves as a regent for Sinte Gleska University. She is the Indian Studies Curriculum Specialist for Todd County School District.

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