Last Real Indians

Wacontognaka (Generosity)

By:  Wizipan Garriott

Before there was anything, there was Inyan (Stone).  Inyan was alone, shapeless, and without form.  He wished to have companions and relatives, but the only way to create another being was to take from himself.  So, Inyan drew from his own blood.  His blood became Maka (the Earth), and Skan (the sky and power of movement and life).  From Maka and Skan, our world was created.  As Inyan’s blood and power flowed forth, he shrank and became hard.  Inya is the stone, the Grandfather of all creation.  It is because of his sacrifice that we have life today.

Our existence as Lakota begins with one of the seven principle virtues of the Canupa (sacred pipe):  wacontognaka (generosity).  Only by giving of ourselves can we live.

Everyone one of us has stories about the many forms of generosity.  It must be practiced in ways both minuscule and monumental.  Generosity must be consistent, with nothing asked for in return.  If you give, you will receive.  We must be willing to give up everything; time, energy, money, even one’s life.

An Auntie of mine was one of the most generous people I’ve ever known.  She lived in a small house, and her clothes were old.  Food was hard for her family to come by, so my Grandmother often shared our commodities with her family.  Yet, my Auntie was always giving us something.  She glued glitter to the bottoms of plastic pop bottles bottoms cut in the shape of stars for us to use as Christmas tree ornaments.  I cherish those little pieces of plastic.

When I graduated from college, my grandmother put on a give-away at a powwow.  She had worked for several years to make 50 star quilts, and when I was brought out to walk around the arbor for the honoring, my feet did not touch the grass.  People still talk about the give-away my grandmother did for her grandson.

One of my uncles told me about the time he was visited by an elderly couple.  The couple mentioned that they had been having a hard time getting to the hospital for needed checkups because they had no vehicle.  My uncle promptly handed them the keys to his only car.  A few weeks later, out of nowhere, someone gave my uncle a pickup truck.

Another Auntie of mine has devoted a lifetime to protecting women.  She’s spent countless nights away from her family traveling, raising money, advocating before the government, and doing everything in her power to ensure we have a safe place on the Rosebud Indian Reservation where women and children can escape abuse.  Now, she suffers from many different physical ailments.  Her gift to the Oyate (the people) has been sacrificing precious moments with family, as well as her very health and wellbeing.

Inya’s gift also teaches us that while generosity creates life, selfishness begets destruction.  An elected leader recently told me about a youth who committed suicide in his community.  An elaborate funeral procession was held for the youth.  The youth’s friends saw the attention given to the youth after he was dead.  The friends thought that they too would be given an elaborate funeral if they committed suicide, and were in danger of starting a suicide pact.  The leader lamented the fact that the youth’s families did not show their children that they were loved.  Maybe if the child was shown that his family cared for him through a give-away, he would not have committed suicide.

Over the years I’ve heard countless stories of tribes losing money– money that was supposed to go programs and services for the people.  Some stories are about simple mismanagement, and the wasting of millions of dollars on ineffective programs.  Others are about financial negligence and grants being pulled, costing tribes millions.  The worst are about outright embezzlement and theft.  All three instances are deplorable.  Those individuals mismanaging funds, being negligent in their duties, or stealing from their tribe, are acting selfishly.  Whether out of laziness, simply not caring, or greed, those individuals have put their own needs and desires above those of the Oyate.  If they gave of their self, devoting time and energy to the tribe, the people would benefit.  In some instances, perhaps someone’s life could be saved.

Traditional Lakota leaders were selected based on merit.  Only the best, brightest, and most capable with the most leadership potential were given a Wapaha (bonnet) and asked to lead the people.  One thing the people looked to was an individual’s willingness to give.  It is said that Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull were among the most generous people in their tribe, constantly hunting and providing for the elderly and sick.  People often think that the chiefs were among the most wealthy in our tribes.  Quite the opposite– our leaders were often materialistically among the poorest because they always gave their possession away.  A nephew of mine often says that elected leaders should give up their salary; we’d then see who really carries the people in their heart.

From the Lakota perspective, wacontognaka is something that must be practiced everyday.  It is active, alive, and moves forward.  Many other traditions, like Judeo Christianity, value generosity; but it is stated differently.  The 8th Commandment says “though shall not steal,” and the 10th Commandment directs us to not “covet our neighbors house…” and other possessions.  The Lakota way directs us to do more.  It is one thing to not be greedy.  It is quite another thing to be generous.

If you ask a Lakota speaker to talk about generosity you might hear different words being used.  “Wacontognaka” essentially means the act of keeping your heart.  The word for pipe bag is “contognaka.”  “Cante” is heart, and “ognaka” means to place something inside or a container.  Your pipe bag is where you store not only your heart, but the heart of the people.  Thus, one Lakota conception of generosity is to be a physical manifestation of a pipe bag.  It means to carry the 7 virtues of the Canupa in your very being.

Another word for generosity is “Tawacin Waste.”  Tawacin is a mind, thought, purpose, and free will.  “Waste” of course means good.  Thus, to be generous is to have a good mind, purpose, and will.  A person who is not generous is not thinking or acting right.  Something is fundamentally wrong with the person who does not give of themselves for the benefit of his or her family and people!

The price of gas, food, propane, electricity, and other goods and services continues to rise.  At the same time the U.S. government continues to break the sacred promises made in our treaties.  The state continues to infringe on our rights.  Everywhere we turn, Lakota and other indigenous peoples are being attacked.  Only by sharing our resources will be able to survive as a people.

When Pte Sanwin (White Buffalo Calf Woman) brought us the Canupa along with the seven virtues, her instructions provided us with everything we need to live life.  Inyan is the first example of wacontognaka.  The Lakota language guides us in how to think of generosity.  The leaders of our past show us what we can accomplish when we live our lives according to the virtues.  Our relatives provide living examples everyday on how we can embody wacontognaka, to be a living example of the Canupa and possess a tawacin waste.