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On Being with Krista Tippett is a public radio project delving into the human side of news stories + issues. Curated + edited by senior editor Trent Gilliss.

We publish guest contributions. We edit long; we scrapbook. We do big ideas + deep meaning. We answer questions.

We've even won a couple of Webbys + a Peabody Award.

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Sitting Bull and the Lakota People: A Painful History I Better Understand Now

by Krista Tippett, host

Tatanka Iyotake - Reimagining Sitting Bull
"One Bison, Horizon Cloud" (photo: Jim Brandenburg)

I can’t say that I knew much about Sitting Bull when we began researching his legacy for our show titled "Reimagining Sitting Bull, Tatanka Iyotake." His is the final name in a series we envisioned several years ago, of programs on the spiritual legacy of historical figures. We’ve delved into Albert Einstein, Reinhold Niebuhr, Charles Darwin, Rumi, Aimee Semple McPherson, and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel in this series. Producing these shows has been extraordinarily rich at times and at others extraordinarily hard. None of them has felt more complex or more daunting in the end than Sitting Bull, Tatanka Iyotake.

The word “elusive” also describes the process of approaching the facts of this man’s life and the meaning of his legacy. That is in part because of the complexity of this legacy, and of the terrible history of the United States government’s treatment of native peoples, of which the story of the Lakota on the northern Great Plains is just a part. It is also a function of the relative privacy and largely oral nature of the historical record of Lakota culture.

Sitting Bull was a thorn in the side of the U.S. government that first gave the Black Hills to the Lakota, then wanted them back after gold (Sitting Bull called it “shining dust”) was discovered there. He refused to negotiate or sign treaties with federal authorities; he didn’t, decreeing from observation and experience that their word was not good — and certainly not to be trusted over lands that he understood as a sacred inheritance. General Custer’s army attacked, and Sitting Bull’s troops improbably prevailed. Thereafter and until the end of his life, he was pursued as public enemy number 1 by American journalists and politicians. I’ve read some of those reports; Sitting Bull was portrayed like the Osama bin Laden of his day.

Pictographs by Sitting Bull's Hand: A Smithsonian PerspectiveAfter weeks and months of being steeped in what feels like this hidden realm of American history, I feel confident about the truth of that paragraph I’ve just written. I know, at the same time, that it is nearly as simplified as those newspaper reports of Sitting Bull’s day — one side of narrative made up of competing and utterly irreconcilable points of view. In the end there was, to be sure, violence all around. And Sitting Bull’s own relatives and people were divided over his leadership and his resistance to any partnership with the federal government. Members of his own extended family were implicated in his death. This is a wound they carry even today, layered among the many wounds they have carried forward out of the settlement of the American frontier and into the present.

In the end, Sitting Bull’s mistrust of treaties was vindicated by the history that followed. But he is not remembered in Lakota oral history principally for that, or for the victory at Little Big Horn. He is remembered for qualities of character that were invisible to press and politicians of his time yet that inspire and strengthen his people even now: humility towards the land, compassion towards living beings, and the ultimate sacrifice of his life on behalf of his people.

SoundSeen: In the Room with Ernie LaPointeOf all I have learned that makes me ashamed of this history and my implication in it as an American citizen, I am appalled that it was not until 1978 — 1978! — that the American Indian Religious Freedom Act guaranteed the right of the Lakota and other tribes to perform their sacred rituals and ceremonies. And these were at the essence of Sitting Bull’s life and legacy. Ceremony is the very element of Lakota spirituality and lifeways. Sitting Bull helped shape the vision quest and the Sun Dance. Yet even while his closest lineal descendant, Ernie LaPointe, was growing up, which is not that far away in our lifetime, his family lived in fear of speaking openly or performing these ceremonies.

It is very moving to hear from Cedric Good House, who lives on the Standing Rock Reservation where Sitting Bull died, how the vision quest and Sun Dance are now experienced as sources of healing, very much in the best spirit of Sitting Bull’s memory. Cedric Good House brought his son to our interview and is carrying forward songs that kept different memories and meanings of history alive in the hardest of times. I interviewed them in late November. As we finished and said our goodbyes, Cedric wished me, “Happy Thanksgiving” — a blessing that warmed me and stayed with me for days, containing, as it does, such a long view of history in which true generosity can be obtained.

He also offered the image of the pilgrimage some of the Lakota will be making on horseback, in memory of Sitting Bull’s death and life — from Standing Rock Reservation straddling the Dakotas to Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Reservation in southwestern South Dakota. This is painful history to know as my own. But I am grateful for it, and more complete. I’m delighted to know Sitting Bull by his real name, Tatanka Iyotake, and to witness his enduring teachings of humility, compassion, passion, and healing alive in our midst.

Sitting Bull by Bill YenneAnd, if you’re looking for a starting place for reading material about Sitting Bull, I recommend reading two books: Sitting Bull: His Life and Legacy by Ernie LaPointe and Sitting Bull by Bill Yenne. I consider these two books as complementary reading.

Sitting Bull: His Life and Legacy by Ernie LaPointeBill Yenne’s biography is meticulously researched and gives you a detailed understanding of Sitting Bull’s life within a larger historical and geographical context. 

On the other hand, Ernie LaPointe brings the gift of simple storytelling to the page through the oral tradition of his family and culture. Reading one account gives a richer sense of the other, and through this we gain a better understanding of “parallel histories” in contemporary American culture.

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Curating the Dead Sea Scrolls
Shubha Bala, associate producer

"Scroll" Jar and Lid
An exhibit showcases one of the clay “scroll” jars discovered in the Qumran caves that dates back to 100 BCE–70 CE. (photo: Craig Thiesen/Science Museum of Minnesota)

In late May, a listener from Mississippi, Emily Haire, was walking through the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport and noticed an advertisement for the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit at the Science Museum of Minnesota. A few days earlier, she had listened to our show podcast about manuscript preservation in "Preserving Words and Worlds" and submitted this interesting observation:

"Walking through the MSP airport this morning, I noticed advertisements for the Dead Sea Scroll exhibit at the Science Museum. I had just listened to the SOF a few days ago. I’m wondering how museum curators of religious artifacts interpret, or navigate, the distance between very academic topics and the knowledge base of the general public."

So, we decided to contact one of the curators and ask her question, along with some questions of our own. In the audio above, Mike Day, a senior vice president at the Science Museum of Minnesota, sheds some light on the decision-making made by their team about how they present these unique artifacts.

Also, in the unedited version of my interview (download mp3), he expands on how the exhibit touches people, and he even discusses the inclusion of the Saint John’s Bible. When the tape stopped rolling, he told me that the shape of the cave entrance in the photo above is an exact replica of one of the scroll fragments.

Cave 4 above Qumran
Excavations of the caves above the ancient settlement of Qumran yielded thousands of Dead Sea Scroll fragments. This particular cave, Cave 4, held approximately 500 manuscripts that were discovered by Bedouin shepherds in 1952. The scrolls stored here were placed on the floor or on wooden shelves, and the complete fragmentation of these fragile documents made it difficult to reassemble all the pieces. (Ed Fleming/Science Museum of Minnesota)

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History From the Bottom Up
Colleen Scheck, senior producer

"Take your minds and think through them. Take your hearts and set them on fire. Amen." —Studs Terkel

I was excited to see that our show with Studs Terkel is listed on HBO’s resources page for the documentary "Studs Terkel: Listening to America," which debuted this past weekend. Even more exciting, though, is the announcement that roughly 6,000 hours of his interviews will be digitized by the Library of Congress.

A quote from the trailer: “History is so often told from the top down through the voice of statesmen and politicians, but what Studs has done is to tell history from the bottom up.” Amen.

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Renaming as an Act of Healing
Nancy Rosenbaum, associate producer

Durban Street RenamingIn Krista’s interviews with Archbishop Tutu and Cedric Good House, each discuss the devastating impacts of colonialism and oppression on native peoples in different geographies. Both men also speak about the potential for renaming as an act of healing.

Tutu tells a story about D.F. Malan Driveway, an arterial road in Johannesburg that was originally christened after the country’s first National Party prime minister Daniel François Malan, one of the key architects of apartheid. Johannesburg’s mayor changed the road’s name to Beyers Naudé Drive in 2001.

Beyers Naudé was an Afrikaaner cleric in the Dutch Reformed Church who rejected any scriptural basis for apartheid and became an anti-apartheid activist. Today, you can find other landmarks in South Africa, including a high school, that are named after him.

Tutu says that this act of renaming is one manifestation of a “God of surprises” whose “sense of humor is quite something.” Hearing Tutu tell this story, I was reminded of Cedric Good House and what he said about the significance of place names in "Reimagining Sitting Bull: Tatanka Iyotake":

"Today, there’s a lot of things that we’re going through. You know, people are talking language, they’re talking a lot of things. … if you come to Standing Rock, even here in Bismarck, you find things that are just predominantly from that time. You see here in town Grant Marsh Bridge. We pass by Fort Lincoln. We pass by Custer’s house. On Standing Rock there’s a town called McLaughlin. It’s just infested with that type of mindset."

In the audio above, Good House also points out that things are starting to change as some towns have renamed themselves to commemorate their Lakota heritage: “There was a lot of things we needed to heal from and continue to and it’s happening.”

I wonder about the possibilities and limits of these acts of renaming. Andrew Boraine, chief executive of the Cape Town Partnership writes on his blog that “a renaming process can be superficial and shallow if it is not part of broader efforts to genuinely build social cohesion and address the physical and materials needs of citizens.” He continues:

"Like patriotism, the practice of renaming can become a refuge of scoundrels, enabling leaders to deflect from delivering on substantive issues. However, I don’t buy the argument that the process of renaming certain streets and places is irrelevant or that there are "more important issues."

Lead image: traffic signs in Durban, South Africa display the former and new names of streets in central eThekwini (photo: Andrew Boraine).

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History Written in Charcoal & Sand
Andy Dayton, associate web producer

The video above made its way into my inbox last week, apparently after making the rounds through the rest of the internet. It’s a performance by 24-year-old Ukrainian artist Ksenya Simonove, first prize winner of the TV competition “Ukraine’s Got Talent” in 2009. She creates and transforms her images by manipulating sand on a light box, in this case telling a story from life in the Soviet Union during WWII. From the wet eyes in the audience, Simonove seems to have tapped into a part Ukrainian history that is still emotionally raw for those connected to it.

Simonove’s continually transforming images reminded me of another artist — South African filmmaker William Kentridge. Rather than drawing with sand, Kentridge is known for using charcoal and pastel on paper. But his animations have the same sense of “history.” Rather than using a fresh image for each frame, he continually erases and adds to his drawings to make them come alive on film.

Many of Kentridge’s films also carry with them a painful story from a difficult national history — in this case, apartheid in South Africa. From the Tate Modern’s description of his animation, History of the Main Complaint (video below):

”[History of the Main Complaint] was made shortly after the establishment in South Africa of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, headed by Archbishop Desmond Tutu. It was set up to conduct a series of public hearings into abuses of human rights perpetrated during the apartheid era. The hearings, in which individuals told their stories of personal suffering, were held in order to make reparation for abuse and in the hope of creating reconciliation between peoples.

The underlying theme of this film is a (self) recognition of white responsibility. This is played out through a ‘medical’ investigation into the body of Soho Eckstein, the white property-developing magnate and greedy-capitalist protagonist of most of the preceding films, which provides the starting point for a revelation of conscience.”

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The “People’s Historian”Andy Dayton, associate web producer
Last Wednesday was, of course, President Barack Obama’s first State of the Union address. And while coverage of the speech filled up the news cycle, there was another important story not to be forgotten: the passing of Howard Zinn.
Zinn was a renowned historian, activist, and author of A People’s History of the United States, which presented many of the unheard and undocumented stories of U.S. history. Zinn continued to pursue this course throughout the rest of his life, and in a 2008 interview said that he hoped to be remembered for “introducing a different way of thinking about the world.”
Last year a friend invited me to see Zinn’s Voices of a People’s History of the United States — one of a series of performances that brought the stories of A People’s History to life through public readings. Rather than bring a troupe of actors with him, Zinn collected an impressive array of local performers, with a variety of different skill levels and delivery styles. Included in the evening were reenactments of Sojourner Truth’s "Ain’t I a Woman?," Maria Stewart’s "Address Delivered at the African Masonic Hall in Boston" and Martin Luther King’s "Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence."
But the part I found most stirring was a breathtaking delivery of Frederick Douglass’ 1852 speech, "The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro" (you can watch Brian Jones performing the same speech below). On a day that many Americans were celebrating, Douglass delivered a scathing indictment of slavery in America:

"The feeling of the nation must be quickened; the conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed; and its crimes against God and man must be proclaimed and denounced.
What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim.”

For me, this memory takes the confluence of Zinn’s passing and Obama’s address from coincidence to something more meaningful. At first, there is an irony in the fact that a man whose life was devoted to telling the stories of the oppressed was, on his death, nearly eclipsed by the first black president of the United States. And, on the eve of Black History Month, Douglass’ words remind us how far we’ve progressed since his time. It also gives a biting reminder of the problems yet to be overcome and the inconsolable history we continue live with as a nation.




(photo: Andy Dayton/Flickr)

The “People’s Historian”
Andy Dayton, associate web producer

Last Wednesday was, of course, President Barack Obama’s first State of the Union address. And while coverage of the speech filled up the news cycle, there was another important story not to be forgotten: the passing of Howard Zinn.

Zinn was a renowned historian, activist, and author of A People’s History of the United States, which presented many of the unheard and undocumented stories of U.S. history. Zinn continued to pursue this course throughout the rest of his life, and in a 2008 interview said that he hoped to be remembered for “introducing a different way of thinking about the world.”

Last year a friend invited me to see Zinn’s Voices of a People’s History of the United States — one of a series of performances that brought the stories of A People’s History to life through public readings. Rather than bring a troupe of actors with him, Zinn collected an impressive array of local performers, with a variety of different skill levels and delivery styles. Included in the evening were reenactments of Sojourner Truth’s "Ain’t I a Woman?," Maria Stewart’s "Address Delivered at the African Masonic Hall in Boston" and Martin Luther King’s "Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence."

But the part I found most stirring was a breathtaking delivery of Frederick Douglass’ 1852 speech, "The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro" (you can watch Brian Jones performing the same speech below). On a day that many Americans were celebrating, Douglass delivered a scathing indictment of slavery in America:

"The feeling of the nation must be quickened; the conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed; and its crimes against God and man must be proclaimed and denounced.

What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim.”

For me, this memory takes the confluence of Zinn’s passing and Obama’s address from coincidence to something more meaningful. At first, there is an irony in the fact that a man whose life was devoted to telling the stories of the oppressed was, on his death, nearly eclipsed by the first black president of the United States. And, on the eve of Black History Month, Douglass’ words remind us how far we’ve progressed since his time. It also gives a biting reminder of the problems yet to be overcome and the inconsolable history we continue live with as a nation.

(photo: Andy Dayton/Flickr)

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Does Dan Brown Represent?

Colleen Scheck, Producer

I’m intrigued by the wildfire surrounding Dan Brown’s new novel. Frugal people I know who detest buying hardcover books have already purchased The Lost Symbol, have finished reading it, and are now wondering what hairstyle Tom Hanks will sport in the movie version. Even our own host — among illness, travel, multiple interviews, and other production duties — already has read it. Much to her surprise, she sent an enthusiastic e-mail to staff about the book saying we should consider a program on noetics, which she said is not uninteresting, just never well articulated beyond stereotypical New Age speak.

Confession: I never read The Da Vinci Code or Angels & Demons, nor did I see the movies (I know, appalling), but I still enjoyed our program, "Deciphering The Da Vinci Code" with Luke Timothy Johnson and Bernadette Brooten, for its exploration of early Christianity that helps put Brown’s suspenseful mix of fact and fiction in perspective. The History major in me feels the authors of historical fiction have a cultural duty to get it right, even while employing artistic and dramatic license.


A Prince Hall Freemasons sign in Atlanta, Georgia. (photo: Erica Joy/Flickr)

While I ponder picking up my husband’s copy of The Lost Symbol, I’ve kept an eye out for similar thoughtful context for this latest popular culture phenomenon. This week I found an example in an article by Samuel Biagetti. A Columbia grad student in American history, Biagetti studies Freemasonry and uses his academic expertise to evaluate Brown’s treatment of this mysterious movement that is central to the founding lore of the United States. “However naive the novel may be,” he writes, “it testifies to the myths that helped to make the modern world, myths in which Brown places zealous faith. In so doing, it reads like a love letter to Masonry.”

If you’re one of the bazillions enjoying The Lost Symbol, I think his article will help keep you grounded while you enjoy Brown’s clandestine world of Masonic secrets.

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Shifting Plates, Shifting People
Andy Dayton, associate web producer

This week we’re wrapping up production on our program with French geologist Xavier Le Pichon, which will be released on podcast this Thursday. Krista and Le Pichon cover a wide range of topics — from his childhood in French Indochina to underwater plate tectonic research in submersible vehicles, to life in a spiritual community aiding the disabled in southern France.

Karl JaspersWith such a wide scope, there seems to be countless jumping off points to different ideas throughout the conversation. One of those points is Le Pichon’s mention of what the German philosopher Karl Jaspers referred to as the “Axial Age” — the period between 900 and 200 BCE when many of the great spiritual traditions of the world began. As Krista mentions, the Axial Age is also central to Karen Armstrong’s recent book, The Great Transformation (preview above). Armstrong has been a guest on our program before, when she spoke to Krista about the roots of her “freelance monotheism.” Armstrong writes about the “Axial Age”:

This was the period of Buddha, Socrates, Confucius, and Jeremiah, the mystics of the Upanishads, Mencius, and Euripides. During this period of intense creativity, spiritual and philosophical geniuses pioneered at an entirely new kind of humane experience.

What I found most engaging about Le Pichon’s conversation with Krista is his ability to link seemingly disparate parts into a unified whole — an ability which he links to his daily prayer routine. It’s in this spirit that I see his worldview and Karen Armstrong’s book connected in unexpected ways. They both deal with the grander, sweeping evolutions of our world — Le Pichon with the shifting of our planet’s tectonic plates and Armstrong with the spiritual evolution of the human race. And while geology might seem unrelated to spiritual evolution, perhaps by sheer scale alone they share a unique vantage point of the human race.

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A Historic Bible for a Historic MomentAndy Dayton, Associate Web Producer
With all of our recent talk of ancient manuscripts, there’s another (not quite so ancient) book in the news today: Barack Obama has chosen to be sworn in on the Lincoln Inaugural Bible. Read a bit more on the Bible’s history in this short interview with Library of Congress’ Clark Evans.
(photo: Michaela McNichol/The Library of Congress)

A Historic Bible for a Historic Moment
Andy Dayton, Associate Web Producer

With all of our recent talk of ancient manuscripts, there’s another (not quite so ancient) book in the news today: Barack Obama has chosen to be sworn in on the Lincoln Inaugural Bible. Read a bit more on the Bible’s history in this short interview with Library of Congress’ Clark Evans.

(photo: Michaela McNichol/The Library of Congress)

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The New Year (for Trees)
Andy Dayton, Associate Web Producer

As we’ve mentioned here before, one of the hardest parts of the production process can be deciding what to leave out. For me, sorting through over 70 ancient woodcut illustrations from Scott-Martin Kosofsky’s The Book of Customs for this slideshow was definitely an excercise in leaving things out.

Just as it was necessary to leave out many of the images, there was also wealth of information about the customs they depicted that needed to be pared down into succinct captions. One illustration that intrigued me more than the others was Tu b’Shevat, or “The New Year for Trees.” A New Year for Trees? I was intrigued, so I looked to see what The Book of Customs had to say about it:

This was the date on which the year was determined for tithing of fruit trees during Temple times. Since a tenth of the fruit was obligated to be given to the Levites and Temple each year, it was necessary to calculate from a measurable turning point in the growing season.

At first I was disappointed by this description — to me it sounded like celebrating tax day as a holiday. But as I read further, Tu b’Shevat revealed itself as a great testament to the ability for customs to take on a life of their own. It turns out that many traditions have been built around the holiday — from simply eating fruit to reciting passages in the Bible, Talmud, and Kabbalah related to fruit. More recently, Tu b’Shevat is interperated by many as a kind of Jewish Arbor Day — an occasion for celebrating the environment, planting trees, and raising ecological awareness.

The truth is that many of the customs shown in this slideshow followed a similar historical trajectory, becoming abstracted from their original purpose — and of course, Judaism doesn’t hold a monopoly on this sort of evolution. What kind of traditions have you observed that have expanded out from their origins — for New Years, for trees, or otherwise?

For a better quality, higher resolution version of this slideshow, view the Flash-based version on our site.

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