Culture, Faith and Identity: An Interview

Martin Brokenleg, OSBCn, is one of the wisest people I know. He is a member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe and practices the culture of his Lakota people. He holds a doctorate in psychology, is a graduate of the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and a retired priest of the Anglican Church of Canada. Fr. Martin is the founder of the Anglican Canon Communities of St. Benedict and prior of the Community of St. Aidan in Victoria, BC. He was also a co-founder of the Circle of Courage and continues to provide worldwide training for individuals who work with youth at risk on behalf of Reclaiming Youth International and is a much loved Mentor/Teacher at Cascadia Living Wisdom School. There is much more I could say about him, but let me stop and invite you to listen in on our recent conversation.

David:     Tell me a bit about your roots.

Martin: I grew up in the Sigangu Lakota Nation, one of the nations the government calls “Sioux.” My grandfather was a medicine man – what we called a bear healer – who first saw White people when he was 50 years old. I was seven when he died at the age of 99.

David:     Why were medicine men called bear healers?

Martin:   A bear healer uses sacred powers that come from the black bear.

David:     Tell me about your parents.

Martin:   They were both residential school survivors. My father was an Episcopalian priest and my mother was a professional homemaker.

David:     How did this lineage of a medicine man and an Episcopal priest come together in your family?

Martin:   In our home we practiced typical Episcopalian spirituality but our diocese was 86% Lakota. My parents lived in the shadows of Lakota traditional practices, some of which were still declared illegal by American law. Even social dances, called “powwow dancing” in slang, were strongly discouraged by Indian agents but my siblings and I were all dancers. I was in high school when our sun dance was finally done in public but only with a special permit from the Department of the Interior. It wasn’t until the 1980s that our traditional pipe ceremonies and other practices could be openly practiced. Some families had traditional practices even when they were illegal such as naming ceremonies, pipe ceremonies, and spirit calling ceremonies. I had my ceremonial name long before starting school.

David:     What is your ceremonial Lakota name and what does it mean?

Martin:   My Lakota name is Wanbli Wakita, Looking Eagle. It was given to me by both of my grandmothers who didn’t know one another. It refers to a golden eagle soaring high and watching what is happening below. My dance clothing used golden eagle feathers since the eagle is my spiritual helper.

David:     What was it like growing up on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota?

Martin:   I grew up when racism was open and legal. We knew where we could buy groceries, meals, and gas and which places would not serve us. I knew I could speak to White classmates on the playground at school but we were not to recognize one another when we were in public or if White parents were around. My grandmother and mother used to stand outdoors on the steps of the Episcopal Church in all weather to hear the service. They waited by a side door and the priest brought communion out to them after all the White people had left. When I was a child living in a major city in South Dakota we did not go to the White church downtown because there was only one bench by the back wall where we could sit. Eventually the Jesuit priests allowed us to come inside their Lakota church so we went there for years, and eventually built our own church building.

David:     How would you describe Lakota spirituality?

Martin:   The most sacred thing we have is our family and relatives. We experience and facilitate all things in the world as our kinfolk. Not only do we remember and nurture all our relatives by blood, marriage, and ceremonial adoption but we treat the other nations of plants, animals, and objects as our relatives. The prayer we say the most in our culture and in our ceremonies is, “Mitakuya Owas’in” [mee-DAH-ku-yay OH-was-ee] – “All my relations”. We are relatives to people, animals, spirits, plants, and objects. Our cultural practices and protocols embody the respect, value, and interaction of kinfolk. Our social life is intensely communal and our daily lives are filled with ceremonial practices that relatives owe to one another. So we thank the plants and animals that give themselves to us as food, clothing, and materials. This is not a quaint and poetic way to speak of these things; it is the reality we experience and live in.   The Lakol Wicoh’an summarizes an oral tradition learned by experience and instruction and presents the teachings and traditions about how Lakota are to live. Protocols are important since they embody these teachings and are the way we pass them on to other Lakotapi.

David:     When we served together on the Aboriginal Council of the Anglican Diocese of British Columbia I was struck by the way the aboriginal members of the council regularly referred to the presence of their ancestors. My sense was that this was a way of saying something like, “I am all here now,” not just, a sort of sentimental “Grandpa is watching over me.” Did I get that right?

Martin: Yes.

David: What’s the boundary between the individual, the family and the world in aboriginal psychology and spirituality? Who is one’s family?

Martin: Typically, First Nations families include 250-300 persons spread out over five generations. Relatives are known by the generation they come from: a generation of one’s grandparents including everyone in the community in that generation. Then one has a generation of parents and this includes those called aunts and uncles in other cultures. In my generation everyone is my brother or sister and the term “cousin” is not used within the family. Below me I have a generation of my children including those who would be called nieces and nephews in other cultures. Finally I have a generation of grandchildren, which includes all the children in my community. There is no separation between the living and those who have moved to the next life and so we are always conscious of their nearness.

David:     I know you have worked in New Zealand with the Maori and with the indigenous peoples of other countries. What are the common elements of indigenous spiritualities around the world?

Martin: Many of the social practices of Indigenous peoples around the world are almost identical. Ceremonial traditions are based on some common themes such as the combination of the spiritual and the material, the reciprocity of all customs in daily living, and the equality of human being with others “nations” from the animal, plant, spirit world, and earthly realms.

David:  How did your family and community understand gay people and how did they respond to your sexual orientation?

Martin:   I have many relatives who would be called Two Spirits. Lakota people have always considered those who embodied both genders as sacred and powerful. In Lakota men are called “Wi’i’inkte” – men who speak using women’s grammar. The Lakota language has a grammar spoken by men and a slightly different one spoken by women. Wi’i’inkte use both. Wi’i’inkte were thought to be spiritually powerful and families would cherish ceremonial names they gave to them.

When I found my partner, Gene, and our lives intertwined my family assumed the nature of our relationship. Lakotapi speak about human sexuality in light and teasing ways. We do not speak of a person’s sexuality – although we may make assumptions. A person’s sexuality is understood by intuition and is not normally verbalized.

David:     What about Two Spirit women? Were they honoured in the same way?

Martin:   Lakota society had no place for women warriors who had wives but our Crow Nation neighbours did.

David:     Let’s come back to the question of bringing together your Episcopal and Lakota cultures. How did your education help with this quest?

Martin:   I had always been interested in the dynamics of ethnic identity, and how culture and religion interacted. After seminary and ordination in the Episcopal Church I was still puzzled by the interplay of these three dynamics. Eventually, I decided to journey into the Eastern Orthodox Church to see what was western Christian culture and what was ethnic identity. I was not planning to be ordained in that church but spent several years in a Greek Orthodox Old Calendar jurisdiction and finally was ordained and founded a parish. Years later, I remember one day thinking that I had learned how to function in the Greek Orthodox Church but that it was not coming out of my centre, out of who I was. Moreover, the Greek Orthodox Church did not permit any Lakota ceremonies, only general artistic themes. I set a deadline five years ahead to return to the setting I grew up in if nothing changed. Five years later I returned to the Episcopal Church I began in and I returned to a few basic Lakota ceremonies.

David:     What did you learn about culture and ethnic identity from living within an ethnic Greek tradition as a Lakota Episcopalian?

Martin: I learned by experience that it is not possible to separate Christianity from culture. Christianity is always embodied in a culture, eastern or western. No religion is culture free.

David:     Why did you decide to move to Canada?

Martin:   The Episcopal diocese South Dakota had sent students to the Vancouver School of Theology on the campus of the University of British Columbia where Aboriginal cultures were considered the “Old Testament” of those nations. The Bible contained the history of God’s relationship to the Jewish people from creation forward. First Nations’ cultures contained how God related to that First Nation from creation up to the teachings of Jesus. The task of First Nations who wanted to place their story in a Christian context is to set the teachings of Jesus on the foundation of their First Nation way of thinking and understanding. This was what I had sought in my Greek Orthodox journey but what I found was only Christianity in Greek clothing. I wanted Christianity in feathers, buckskin and button blankets and I came home to it at Vancouver School of Theology in the Native Ministries Program, the program in which I later served as director and professor.

David:     That’s a really progressive theological way of connecting faith and culture..

Martin: The process of inculturation is the process of how Christianity puts on the clothing of a local culture. This happened in England as Middle Eastern Christianity eventually transformed into the Church of England. This happened when Semitic based Christianity put on Italian concepts, clothing and theology to become the Roman Catholic Church. Currently I see Buddhism trying on western clothing and feeling its way along. Eventually, if Christianity is going to nourish Aboriginal people, it will have to look, sound, taste, and smell like a First Nations ceremony.

David:     Culture is invisible to most of us and is, therefore, easily overlooked. Christian theology hasn’t helped because it seems generally to have shared this cultural myopia. How can we do better? What, creative responses to these challenges have you encountered?

Martin:   The best example is the Native Ministries program at the Vancouver School of Theology where theological education takes account of all these dynamics. Another example of conscious creative movement is the Roman Catholic diocese of Rapid City, South Dakota which took decades to develop a manual of how the Mass could be expressed as a traditional Lakota ceremony.

David:     You are a Superior of an Anglican Canon Benedictine community so obviously Benedictine practices play an important role in your life. Tell me a bit about the most important of these.

Martin: Benedictines are enormously social and communal and that is the same ethos as a Lakota world. What is different is the Benedictine use of texts as means of encountering the sacred, in psalmody, and in lectio divina. Christian ceremony and communal living are the ways the Benedictine way brings one to the threshold of the sacred.

David:     I hope I didn’t embarrass you when at the top of this interview I introduced you as one of the wisest people I know. I want to return to this question of wisdom for a moment before we wrap this up. In recent years I have been very interested in placing Christianity within the context of the perennial wisdom tradition – that is, placing its wisdom alongside of the wisdom found in other religious traditions. It seems to me that the indigenous peoples of the world are closer to that perennial wisdom tradition than the rest of us. If so, how can those of us who are non-aboriginals learn from the indigenous peoples of our world? And if there was only one thing that we need to learn, what would it be?

Martin: I have been calling for a realization of the basic human qualities that have helped humankind survive. They were not given to us by accident and they are the best we have to offer today. I am thinking of such things as kindness to those who are suffering, trust that all things will work out, forgiveness no matter what the mistake, and a way of belonging to one another for comfort and joy in this life. These are our sacred qualities that will save us if we let them.

David: Thank you for the conversation and for this reminder of the wisdom of these sacred but simple ways of being.

Comments are closed.