“Today is a good day to die.”
Legend tells us these are the words that the Native American leader Crazy Horse told his fellow warriors during the Battle of Little Big Horn, a battle many of us know as Custer’s Last Stand.
The words, “Today is a good day to die” mean that there are fates worse than death; that it is better to die bravely than to live apologetically or timidly. This statement “Today is a good day to die” has become a rallying cry for the contemporary American Indian Movement. It was a rallying cry at Wounded Knee in 1973 and it is a rallying cry in our time inspiring action to stop the construction of the Dakota pipeline that is being built just north of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation.
Over 200 tribes have joined together to support the Standing Rock Sioux in their struggle against this pipeline, to protect sacred sites from desecration and to guarantee the tribe’s access to clean drinking water. Plans for the pipeline have been diverted before at the behest of white communities so this is difference of practice not principle. These native leaders reject the term “protesters,” instead they are “protectors”, protectors of the water and the earth.
As one tribal leader has said, “Water is life. Water is more important than oil. Water is more important than money. Water is life.”
A few weeks ago a clash between private security guards and protectors turned violent with 6 activists being bitten by dogs and 30 people pepper sprayed. Just this week there was a confrontation between activists and law enforcement where 141 people were arrested leading to accusations that the legal authorities are trying to repress freedom of speech and the right to protest.
In this context the statement “today is a good day to die” means it is better to die than to remain silent. It is better to die than be mistreated, disrespected, humiliated or ignored. “Today is a good day to die,” means a willingness to take the risks that are necessary to meet humiliation with pride, to confront disrespect with self-respect, to counter repression with freedom.
And yet, the phrase also means much more than that for there is a fundamental difference between the way Western religion and Native American traditions see death. When Muslims speak of the commonalities between Islam, Christianity and Judaism they often say, “We are people of the book,” and as we all know, every book has a beginning and an end. We who are shaped by Western culture tend to see life in a linear way with a beginning and an end and a straight line between the two.
The religion of the Indian does not come from a book. The religion of the Indian comes from Nature. Where Western Civilization tends to see things in a linear fashion, indigenous people tend to see life in a cyclical manner. Whereas a book may have a beginning and an end, nature moves in circles; Winter. Spring, Summer, Fall, sunrise, noon, sunset, midnight. Life moves in circles, constantly returning from whence it came and continuing to move with the cycles and seasons of death and life. Just as the leaves that fall from the branches nourish the roots of the tree, death and life are one.
Black Elk the Oglala Sioux shaman described it this way when he said, “Everything the ‘power of the world’ does is done in a circle. Birds build their nests in a circle and theirs is the same religion as ours…Our teepees are round like the nest of birds where the Great Spirit meant for us to hatch our children.” The circularity of the teepee and of tribal meetings is meant to reflect the circularity of life itself.
This difference between the Western and the Indian view is on display at Standing Rock today where many circular teepees have been set up in the path of the construction of a very linear pipeline.
The cycle of life and death is a theme in other cultures as well this time of year. In Mexico we have the Day of the Dead. In the Gaelic tradition we have Samhain. In Christian tradition we have All Souls and All Saints Days. Indeed, the pre-Christian origins of many of the traditions around this season have caused some discomfort among some who belong to the more conservative forms of the faith. Some churches have gone so far as to rename Halloween Holyween (and at least one church has a sign saying Hallowlujah for Holyween.) This is one way to show discomfort for the many pagan practices that have made their way into the church.
However, in my experience, most meaningful holidays and holy days are a conglomeration of influences from many different cultural sources. Indeed a strict puritanism always spoils a good holiday. The Puritans of New England did not celebrate Christmas or Easter or Halloween as they felt they were too rife with pagan imagery and tradition, eggs and bunnies, bows of holly and mistletoe, jack a lanterns. So this puritan tendency to avoid hybrid holidays is not new. But personally, given the choice between puritanism and a good party I will always choose the good party.
And let’s be honest we need some holiday or holyday to gives us an opportunity to talk about death, because it is a conversation topic that is often avoided. It is the nature of our contemporary society that all too often we separate the living from the dead.
Here at our church we try to do things differently. Up on the hill we have a memorial garden that contains the ashes of the dear departed. But that garden is also a place where our children and our youth groups might have their meetings, or where people of all ages might dance around a Maypole or where a meditation class or contemplative prayer class might meet or a wedding or an animal blessing. The idea is to stop segregating life and death but to live life mindfully in the presence of death.
Archeologists and anthropologists tell us that some of the earliest evidence of human religion concerns the human attempt to live life mindful of the presence of death. Artifacts from ritual burials are some of the early signs that human beings turned to religion in order to live consciously with the knowledge of our own mortality.
This time of year we are told that the veil between the living and the dead is thin. And so this time of year we can hear the words of Chief Seattle in a new ways,
“Even the rocks, which seem to be dumb and dead …along the silent shore, thrill with memories of stirring events connected with the lives of my people, …And when the last Red Man shall have perished…these shores will swarm with the invisible dead of my tribe, and when your children’s children think themselves alone …they will not be alone.”
The words of Chief Seattle remind us that our ancestors are not just a part of our past but part of our living present.
The poet Williams Wordsworth was a writer who aspired to stay close to Nature, to allow Nature to be his teacher. And so even though he was English he captured some of the same spiritual themes that one finds in Native American traditions.
Wordsworth poem “We are Seven” is one that speaks to me in a very personal way. Like the little girl in the poem I am one of 5 children. In a photo album in our family there is a picture of us all, my mother, my father, my sisters Merriane and Shannon, my brothers Sam and Bill. My parents look very young in the photo, younger than I am now. My older sisters and brothers also look very young. Two of those seven people in the photo are no longer living. My brother Bill died in a car accident when he was a teenager. My mother died of a stroke at the age of 72. And yet in that photo we are seven. The words of the poet ring true, “We are seven.” In many ways that photograph of us seven speaks to a spiritual truth greater than the head count at the last family reunion.
Of course, there have been other people who have been part of our family circle who are not in that picture. When my stepfather James Hunter Mitchell died I remember his son Carter drawing on his father’s interest in Native American spirituality by evoking words on that occasion that can never be easy for a son to say of his father, “Today is a good day to die.”
Many years ago I heard a Taoist teacher about death and the Tao. This is not an easy thing to do as the Tao te Ching says of the Tao, “Those who know don’t say, those who say don’t know.” But she said to understand the Tao is to be able to say, “Now that I have found the Tao I can die in peace,” and this is fundamentally different from many other things for very few of us can say, “Now that I’ve won the lottery I can die in peace” or “Now that I have met the partner of my dreams I can die in peace” or “Now that I got the promotion I’ve been working for I can die in peace.” In other words, to understand the Tao is to understand how it is possible to die in peace.
The elder Takatoka of the Manataka American Indian Council spoke of a similar experience when he said of that famous phrase, “Today is a good day to die” means that we are ready in our mind, heart and spirit to become one with the Eternal Spirit of the Creator. It means we are prepared to enter the never-ending and timeless River of Spirit to float forever. The Creator may later require our energy and spirit in the form of another creation so we may become the fodder and substance of something entirely new, return as fragment of another being or some other transformation as the will of the Creator may dictate. Who can say otherwise?” Such is the circle of life.
Over the course of my ministry I have spent many hours with those who are dying, atheists and true believers, skeptics and theologians, agnostics and mystics. What I’ve observed is that what we believe about life after death is less important that how we feel about the transition. (Listen up Unitarians: What we think is less important than how we feel.) The Unitarian suffragist Susan B Anthony worked tirelessly to help women gain the right to vote during her lifetime but when she was asked about her ideas about life after death she said, “I believe that a life well lived on earth is the best preparation for whatever is to come. Whatever is next will be right.”
So the fundamental theological question does not really involve what we think about life after death. Instead the important question is about how we feel, Do we approach death with fear or trust? Do we trust whatever is next?
According to Native American tradition the dead are not powerless. The dead are not dead but are still present with us. According to Rudy Giuliani the dead may even vote in this next election. If so, Susan B Anthony might just exercise her right to do so. She died before women got the right to vote. Indeed, she was arrested for trying to cast a ballot when it was still illegal for women to vote. Many other suffragists went on hunger strikes or engaged in acts of civil disobedience where injury or death was a very real possibility. However, as the movement for nonviolent social change reminds us in the many different forms it has taken across time including this week at Standing Rock, “It is by finding a cause worth dying for that we become fit to live.”
In North Dakota, at this moment, there is by one observer’s estimation the largest gathering of Native American tribes since the battle of Little Big Horn. The hopes of the activists were raised even further this week when thousands of buffalo showed up thundering across the plains just as the law enforcement was taking action to stop the activists. One cannot help but feel that the Great Spirit is at work.
One young Indian activist told a reporter that the rally against the pipeline was bringing new dignity to her people, “Now everyone is taking us seriously,” she said, “We are not just in history books. We are not just Halloween costumes. We are people. We are still here. We are still fighting.”
The Native American leader Crazy Horse did not die in the Battle of Little Big Horn but he was prepared to do so and he has become a symbol for the unbroken spirit of a people. In many ways this movement at Standing Rock is an action not only of the living but of the dead, not only of the present generation but of the ancestors, a reminder of a thousand broken treaties and a thousand un-kept promises.
The statement, “Today is a good day to die” is much more than a battle cry. It is a statement not only about death. It is about life and how we want to live. It means today is a good day to stand up for what we believe. Today is a good day to speak out for those who have not been heard. Today is a good day to take action, to oppose all the powers and principalities that like to bulldoze all opposition. Today is a good day to protect the water. Today is a good day to protect future generations. Today is a good day to stand up for the living and the dead. Today is a good day to die.
(This sermon was preached by the Reverend Chris Buice at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church on Sunday October 30, 2016.)