Cathy's Blog

What the Old Ones Knew


Ellsworth Chytka, photo credit Maryanne Heldt.

I’ve been working all month on What the Old Ones Knew, a book proposal for  Yankton Sioux elder and oral historian Ellsworth Chytka, getting it ready to submit to publishers next month. As this has taken up all of my writing time, the following is a synopsis of the proposal for my April blog:

For many years Ellsworth has traveled the world, talking with people about his tribe’s history and culture. It’s amazing how, no matter where I go, people say that when they hear me talk about my relatives they have a sense of deja vu,” he says. “My stories awaken something, and then this feeling of familiarity just grabs them. You might put it down to romanticism, but really, it’s not. It’s because not so long ago, in the bigger scheme of things, we all lived and believed like Indians. These people just got severed from their ancestral roots. I want to help them get reconnected.”

The source of that familiarity, the author says, comes from traces of an ancient and once universal culture that still exists, “a need to connect to something spiritual that people once had in their own history that they don’t know about because religions came along and more or less obliterated it.”

It’s something of a miracle that his story didn’t get obliterated as well during the hundred years when it was illegal for Native Americans in the United States to speak their own language or practice their own traditions. Ellsworth is a “keeper of the way,” a lineage of spiritual people responsible for transmitting the tribe’s oral history and culture to the next generation. His elders were forced to go underground to preserve it. Living in “spiritual pockets” far from the tribal agency in South Dakota, in homes reached by barely recognizable trails, this group of extended families managed for generations to keep their history and spiritual practices alive. When the law was finally changed in 1976, much of Native American culture around the country had been destroyed, with devastating results, “but we Yankton never let it go,” he says. “We just went down to the creeks and bottoms where the BIA and the Indian police couldn’t see us.”

Although there are spiritual people in every tribe, “traditionals” who still follow their ancestral ways, the Yankton are different. “In other places they change things. For us that’s not possible. We pass on our history exactly as it was told to us. You don’t improve on it. You don’t do any ‘correcting,’ either, just because you think the ancestors were ignorant of the facts and it embarrasses you. My grandma told me the Paha Sapa, our sacred Black Hills, was shaped like a heart. I told that to people for years and they just laughed. Then we saw the first satellite photos and lo and behold, she was right. Now even the most unbelievable things our ancestors told us have turned out to be true. Science is finally catching up to what the Old Ones knew a long, long time ago.”

That this information has been transmitted down through the ages unchanged is its unique value. Quite possibly it is one of the oldest and most authentic oral histories in the world. The author wants it written down not only for Native Americans who have lost their culture but for the vast majority of people whose connection to the land and the spirit of their ancestors has been severed. “Go back far enough and this is everybody’s story,” he says. “It takes us back to that universal spirit we once accepted without question until we’re told that spirit is just our imagination. I was fortunate. No one ever told me that. It’s still there, waiting inside of people, but no one’s ever given them the authority over their own spirit journey. They’re the ones I want to reach, but I don’t want to teach them anything. I want to give them something that reawakens what they already know that reconnects them to Mother Earth and their own ancestors, their own history. All people have to do is know it’s there and believe in that connection. Life is simple if you let it be.”

April 28, 2018