(ANALYSIS) Almost a decade ago, upon meeting my husband Josh, I was almost immediately welcomed into a tight knit and relatively private community centered on Lakota spiritual practices led by Henry Niese.
Josh was raised by his mother in an active and vibrant church in which we would eventually marry.
Through his father, Josh participated in this Lakota community since his youth. Niese belonged to a lineage passing down the spiritual teachings of Oglala Lakota visionary Black Elk from one generation to the next.
At that time, I worked as an attorney in a Washington, D.C., Christian think tank focused on public policies supporting religious freedom for diverse faith-based nonprofits. Despite my shyness to fully engage, I was captivated by the unconditional love within the Lakota community. Josh gave me Henry’s books, “The Man Who Knew the Medicine” and “The Medicine is Sacred,” to familiarize myself with Lakota beliefs.
Unexpectedly, these books exposed the multi-generational denial by the U.S. government of religious freedom for Native American communities. As a religious freedom advocate, I realized my own ignorance about how recently this right had been affirmed for Native communities.
Yet, Niese’s writings didn’t dwell solely on oppression. He highlighted how his teacher, Bill Eagle Feather, lived his beliefs despite government prohibition and advocated for policies supporting Native Americans’ sacred practices.
As Niese explained in “The Man Who Knew The Medicine,” Bill Eagle Feather and a group of individuals began openly challenging the government’s prohibition on their religious practices a decade or more before the 1978 American Indian Religious Freedom Act was enacted. Before this policy came into effect, Native Americans faced the constant threat of arrest for engaging in sacred rituals like the Sun Dance or participating in ceremonies. Niese wrote: “Uncle Bill was the first that I know of to… suffer the Sun Dance ordeal in defiance of the US government’s ban on all Indian religion. It was for this that he was made Sun Dance chief of the Rosebud people.”
Niese documented how his teacher, Bill Eagle Feather, shared with Niese and other students how the Lakota sacred practices and ceremonies were still being passed down and lived out due to the preservation efforts of Black Elk: “In spite of how hard the government has tried to take it away….Maybe you don’t know that, huh? In the land of religious freedom, Indians are the only ones forbidden to practice our God-given religion.” Niese elaborated that Eagle Feather eagerly educated young people (before the Indian American Religious Freedom Act was passed in 1978) that they were actually breaking the law by participating in Lakota ceremonies.
Eagle Feather explained to Niese that on the reservation, it was required to seek permission from the government agent before engaging in any sacred ceremonies.“We practice our religion in secret. When we wanted to hold a big ceremony like [the] Sun Dance, we had to hide out in the badlands.”
Niese further recounted Eagle Feather’s teaching of a group of younger people:
“Did you know there’s a bill in Congress right now aimin’ to give us our religious freedom? They had to declare a whole new bill… [so] us Indians could worship God our own way! … I think it’s gonna pass.” It was indeed approved, granting Native Americans the unprecedented legal entitlement to freely practice their religion, marking a historic milestone in our nation’s history.
I recently had the opportunity to speak with Siniti and Victoria Oneda, students of Henry Niese who have carried on the legacy passed down from Native American wisdom keepers Black Elk, Fools Crow and Bill Eagle Feather. The Onedas helped elaborate further on the legacy of embodied religious and spiritual freedom that they continue today through their spiritual nonprofit, the Flowering Tree Center.
Bombino: Can you share your story of carrying on the Lakota spiritual practices you have learned?
Siniti Oneda: I was born in Japan, where the native Japanese religion of Shintoism is deeply connected to spirits who inhabit natural elements, such as the land. I came to the United States as a young person, and I developed a deep affinity for the Lakota people and traditions in many ways. This was based on the shared connection between spirit and land that exists in both traditions. My grandfather encouraged me to find a spiritual practice indigenous to this land, to America. I did not seek out my teachers, they really came to me. I met my teacher in Lakota spirituality, Henry Niese, when I was in college.
Henry Niese was a student of medicine man and Sundance Chief Bill Eagle Feather of the Rosebud Sioux. Henry participated in over 100 ceremonies and danced in over 40 Sun Dances. He carried on the teachings of Bill Eagle Feather through founding a community that taught Lakota spirituality and performed ceremonies in Maryland throughout his lifetime. Henry taught me what nativistic really means, whether in America or Japan. It’s about the sacred connection to the land. So, it wasn’t hard for me, in that sense, to understand what Henry was teaching me. And in some way, I realized that it was easier for me to understand than white people who grew up in America. This is because, although I was not raised in a Native American culture, Japan was still at that time filled with traditions connected to the transcendent connection to natural things. My parents also saw this connection. My Japanese parents attended one Lakota ceremony which took place in the dark. The Spirits came in and unexplainably lit up the blackness. My parents were not shocked at all. My mom said to me, see, ‘I told you spirits come at night.’
Victoria Oneda: I think we need to return to Black Elk – his book, “Black Elk Speaks,” became a cornerstone for us in Henry’s teachings. This book tells the story of a Lakota medicine man during a difficult time when their community faced defeat and forced displacement. At nine years old, Black Elk had a vision about restoring the world to its former harmony. He spoke of the broken sacred hoop, attributing all the disasters and misfortunes to this rupture.
His vision, which was precipitated by a powerful dream when he was in a coma for days, centered on restoring the sacred hoop through a ceremony involving people from all four races dancing around a flowering tree in harmony. Bill Eagle Feather, whom Siniti already discussed, played a crucial role in taking steps in mending the sacred hoop in Henry’s generation. When he taught Henry how to conduct this dance, he emphasized its significance for all people. It’s vital to note the lineage: Bill Eagle Feather was directly mentored by medicine man Frank Fools Crow, related by blood to Black Elk. These sacred leaders, over several generations, were instrumental in reintroducing the Sundance to Lakota people and beyond, petitioning the US government for permission since it had been banned. The Lakota had to perform their Sundance secretly for a long time, facing repercussions if caught, until Bill Eagle Feather and others succeeded in securing their spiritual freedom to practice.
SO: Uncle Bill, as we called him, had a prophecy for Henry. He foresaw Henry organizing a Sundance, something Henry initially dismissed, but it eventually unfolded as Bill had predicted. Starting with a small group, five men and a few women, it took us about a year to prepare for our first Sundance. The event itself was a separate story, a deeply transformative experience. The Sundance, as Henry described it, aimed at the promotion and redemption of life. It’s essential to understand the context and significance of these ceremonies, stemming from ancient traditions and carrying immense spiritual weight. It’s about the idea of supplicating to the highest visible manifestation of the Creator, the sun, which became the inspiration for our Sundance with Flowering Tree Center.
Bombino: Can you share the purpose of the Flowering Tree Center and how it connects to this legacy of living out spiritual freedom?
VO: Like Henry was, we are surprised that we started a nonprofit. The purpose of The Flowering Tree Center is to work to fulfill Lakota medicine man Black Elk’s vision to mend the sacred hoop (Cangleska Wakan). This belief underscores the interconnectedness of all life forms—organic and inorganic—embracing plants, animals, rocks, and rivers within the universe. The sacred hoop is based on the Native American Lakota Sioux concept of Mitakuye Oyasin, which means that everything in the universe is related.
Mitakuye Oyasin is a connection to all organic life forms (plants, animals, insects) as well as inorganic (rocks, mountains, rivers and oceans). Our spiritual elders are ready to share their teachings humbly, fostering unity among races, faiths, cultures, and love orientations.
Collaboration with like-minded spiritual groups and nonprofits is our goal, recognizing that humanity’s survival relies on collective efforts for the benefit of all our relations. We believe this is a living testimony to the religious and spiritual freedom our spiritual forbearers sought and lived, when they were under constant threat from the United States government.