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It's true: Chief Joe Brings Plenty

Brian Wright O’Connor | 5/19/2010, 5:49 a.m.
Cheyenne River Sioux Chief Joe Brings Plenty shown with students at Harvard College after speaking at a Winthrop...
Cheyenne River Sioux Chief Joe Brings Plenty shown with students at Harvard College after speaking at a Winthrop House forum. Erint Images

The anger of tribal members, especially disaffected and unemployed young men, has led to high rates of substance abuse and violence, said Brings Plenty. “We cannot survive if we can’t overcome it,” he said, citing his own awakening to the effects of drinking on his life.

“We cannot turn our backs on the modern ways, but we cannot forget the old either,” he says. “It will take a combination to keep us going.”

His search of the old ways led to long sessions with tribal elders, who taught him sacred songs and ceremonies. Brings Plenty opened his talk at Winthrop House with a prayer song — his voice filling the room as students passing in the courtyard outside stopped to listen in the fading light.

While in Cambridge, he also toured an exhibit of rare Lakota artifacts at Harvard’s Peabody Museum and examined objects in the archives, many of them dating back to the 1800s and exhibiting decorative motifs still in use today.

In contrast to its troubled early history of attempting to educate and convert Native Americans, Harvard in recent decades has strengthened ties with tribes through repatriating remains and other sacred items, stepping up support of scholarship programs, and establishing development partnerships. Brings Plenty praised the current Peabody exhibit, “Wiyohpiyata: Lakota Images of the Contested West,” which was co-curated by Lakota artist Butch Thunder Hawk.

The exhibit includes a Lakota ledger book, recovered from the Little Big Horn battlefield, containing drawings from Plains Indian warriors.

In 2007, just a year after taking reins as tribal chairman, the chief’s leadership and reverence for tradition led to a rare convocation of elders of the four Lakota bands living on Cheyenne River. During the unusual ceremony, they selected Brings Plenty as a lifetime chief.

“My unci — an elder woman — named Clara High Elk came up to me afterwards with tears in her eyes and said she was 83 years old and had never seen this ceremony until now. She looked back and pointed at all the people and said that they would probably never see this again,” said Brings Plenty.

“She said she didn’t think it would ever be held again in the lifetime of those who were there to witness it. Then she turned to me and said, ‘Now I don’t have to worry about the people because you will always be here to take care of us.’

“My unci made me understand but it also made me sad to hear the history of this ceremony,” he said. “Maybe it’s true that we won’t see it again. And maybe not. It’s up to us.”