The descendants sat on bales of straw in a wide circle around a late afternoon fire as the sun dropped into the pine forest at the Maidu Active Cultural Center just outside Nevada City. Offerings of tobacco were tossed into the fire by each participant.
“Sitting Bull was a noble chief, a brave warrior and respected medicine man,” John Johnson told the people gathered on a hillside above the circle. Johnson, whose Native name is Spirit Hawk, is a descendant of Sitting Bull. He spoke from a motorized wheelchair via computer. His condition is the result of a traumatic brain injury suffered in a motor vehicle accident.
Speaking of his ancestor, he said, “This brave man lived his life with pride and a deep love for his people and way of life. He left his legacy for his family to carry on. He passed along his hunting skills to my great grandmother, who was a hunter until the day she died at age 87. She always said to have beans and rice in the pantry for hard times. She was a feisty great granddaughter of Sitting Bull. She taught me the pride and wisdom of my ancestors.
“I remember the stories of courage, determination, kindness and faith in the Great Spirit I heard growing up. This has helped me throughout my life and especially in hard times, encouraging me to work hard and not to give up, and trust in myself. I feel my ancestors around me, guiding me through my journey.”
“I am a Horse. I am proud to carry that name all the way back to Crazy Horse,” Ronnie Horse told the circle. “My father, Douglas Horse, was from Wounded Knee, S.D. I am a blood descendant and I am proud to stand here in front of all you people, different nations, all walks of life, all different beliefs, all cultures. In the circle of life we are all as one.
“I talked Lakota to my mom and dad. I didn’t know what English was. That’s how we grew up. We spoke our language. We never forget our language, because our language is the most important thing on this earth. As I got older and went to school, I learned to talk English.”
Horse spoke about being a warrior in today’s world. “Take care of your children, raise them, teach them our traditional ways of life, teach them their language, teach them what the eagle feather means. If you want to be a warrior in today’s world, that’s what you have to do, teach your children their traditional ways.”
He then sang, on behalf of Chief Crazy Horse, the Little Bighorn Battle song.
“We can return,” another of the descendants said. “I try my best to carry this on. I do the best I can. It’s about suffering; it’s about learning to overcome your fears, to go beyond your fears; your human fears and your spiritual fears.
“My grandpa said, I made a place for you years ago; now it is time for you to come and take it. And so I say to those who have been taken away from your people: You can return!”
Remarks from the circle of descendants were carried on three community radio stations in northern California.
The local four day Indigenous Peoples Days celebration, planned as an alternate to Columbus Day observances, was started in Nevada County a decade ago with a simple candlelight vigil. This year’s event opened in downtown Nevada City with a Round Dance in the street and continued the next day with runners carrying a salmon for seven miles to a ceremony “Calling Back the Salmon.” Some 300 people were served barbecued salmon lunch.
On Sunday, the descendants of famous Natives spoke as part of a gathering featuring Navajo flutists, Maori healers, singing, drumming and dancing.
Storytelling, dancing, and food at Miners Foundry Cultural Center in town the following day concluded the four-day celebration.