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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.

Indian Pilgrims “Collect Blessings” in the Holy Land

by Nancy Rosenbaum, producer

Prabhakar Kharchane
(photo: Trent Gilliss)

"This is like heaven for us." These are the words of Satish Kharchane who was traveling with his father Prabhakar to the Holy Land this month. Their family hails from Pune (Poona), India and were visiting the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, built on what is believed to be the site of Jesus’ birthplace.

Prabhakar, 77, whose health is declining, is visibly frail. He steadies himself on his son’s forearm as he walks with halting steps through the church’s nave. Both father and son are members of the Assemblies of God, a Pentecostal Protestant denomination. As Satish, 37, explains, their trip was the culmination of a dream delayed by family tragedy:

Growing up, Satish and his late brother Manesh learned about Israel through daily prayer and Bible lessons from their father. “We had seen Israel from the imagination of our father,” Satish writes. “What my father saw in his imagination, he [Manesh] wanted to show him in reality.”

Reflecting on his family’s pilgrimage to the Holy Land, Satish describes the experience as a “trip of collecting blessings.” Later on in our email correspondence, Satish says of his father:

He felt that as if his biggest goals of life have been achieved. By visiting Israel, he feels that he is so blessed as he had almost given up due to his poor health condition. In fact, many times during the trip he cried and shared his feelings of contentment and satisfaction. It was an experience like going to heaven for him.”

Like the South Korean Evangelical Christians we witnessed singing Jesus’ praises on the Mount of Olives a few days before, Satish and Prabhakar are living reminders of Christianity’s vast reach across time and geography, and that people around the globe cherish these holy sites with heartfelt and enduring reverence.


Fact-checking Sitting Bull

by Nancy Rosenbaum, associate producer

Nancy's desk

We’re nearing the finish line of a new show: "Reimagining Sitting Bull, Tatanka Iyotake (that’s Sitting Bull’s name in Lakota). This program has been a year-and-a-half in the making, and we’re eager to put it out in the world. Kate, our managing producer, has said she’s always known a show about Sitting Bull would create unchartered challenges for us practically and editorially. As a team of wasicu (i.e. non-Native) producers, we’ve been engaged in new levels of intercultural communication that’s stretched us all.

The learning curve has been steep. As we’ve sifted through all the information gathered, sometimes it’s been confusing to do the best we can to ensure that what Krista says on the radio is journalistically accurate. The historical narrative is complicated, and along the way we’ve had to make judgment calls, recognizing that sometimes there’s no singular, discernible truth.

Last week, Colleen wrote about her adventures fact-checking the script for The Moral Math of Climate Change. Likewise, we wanted to shed light on our script process for “Reimagining Sitting Bull.” Oceans of ink have been devoted to telling the story of this Lakota leader and historical icon, much of it penned by non-Lakota.

And yet, as we’ve verified our facts, we’ve had to remember that we’re neither historians nor documentarians. Our job as producers of a weekly radio program is to offer our audience engaging, illuminating — and yes — accurate audio and multimedia storytelling. One of our goals with this show is to explore a dimension of Sitting Bull that doesn’t get talked about that much — namely his spiritual legacy and connection to the Sun Dance. We’ve tried mightily to stay focused on this aim and keep the script from devolving into an unwieldy history lesson that’s difficult for listeners to digest. Let us know if we’ve hit the mark.

Here are a few “before-and-afters” that reveal how we’ve been refining the script as we’ve gone along. You can see in the photo above that my desk is cluttered with multiple versions of the script as it has progressed.

First script draft:
Not until 1978 did the American Indian Religious Freedom Act make it legal for the Lakota and other tribes to worship through ceremonies and traditional rites.

Second script draft:
Not until 1978 did the American Indian Religious Freedom Act guarantee the right of the Lakota and other tribes to perform their sacred rituals and ceremonies.

The first draft version suggests that up until 1978, it was “illegal” for Lakota and other tribes to take part in traditional spiritual ceremonies. As I’ve come to understand it, there was a period from 1883–1934 when the government passed laws to suppress Native spiritual practices and promote assimilationist Christianization policies. The 1978 American Indian Religious Freedom Act (AIRF) provided legal protection under the First Amendment’s establishment clause for Lakota and other Native Americans to worship without interference from the federal government. We changed the script language to more accurately reflect the nature of the AIRF legislation.

First script draft:
The Indian Offenses Act of 1883 decreed their social and religious customs to be “barbarous and demoralizing.”

Second script draft:
U.S. officials deemed native customs and rituals “barbarous” and “demoralizing” and passed the Indian Offenses Act in 1883 which banned participation in ceremonial dances, including the Sun Dance.

Third script draft:
[We cut the sentence].

Fourth script draft:
U.S. officials deemed native customs “barbarous” and “demoralizing” and passed the Indian Offenses Act of 1883.

I couldn’t find a primary source version of the Indian Offenses Act of 1883 to confirm that the words “barbarous and demoralizing” were included in the original legislation. A colleague in the MPR newsroom pointed me to an excellent 1997 Stanford Law Review article that provided more detail about the U.S. government’s Christianization policies and how these suppressed Native spiritual practices like the Sun Dance.

This article includes references to government officials using the words “barbarous” and “demoralizing” in published reports so we adapted the script accordingly and provided a little more information about the Indian Offenses Act itself and the Code of Offenses it defined. By the third draft, we cut this sentence from the script for time because the show was running long. Then at the last minute, Krista shortened the sentence and added it back in.

First script draft:
For Sitting Bull’s legacy also embodies divisions that arose with the Lakota people as part of their encounter with the Wasicu, or White, encroachment on their traditional lands as the Western frontier was settled.

Second script draft:
For Sitting Bull’s legacy also embodies divisions that arose among the Lakota as part of their encounter with the wasicu, or non-natives, as the Western frontier was settled.

Wasicu is a Lakota word that translates roughly as “those who take the fat” and you’ll see it used by Lakota to refer to non-Native Americans. Carole Barrett, a professor of American Indian Studies at the University of Mary in North Dakota wrote to us that, linguistically, the term has nothing to do with skin color. It’s used to describe a greedy person who takes the all the buffalo fat, “a choice part of the buffalo that was generally shared with others,” according to Barrett.

As you can see, some language we tweaked while other sentences landed on the cutting room floor. We’re curious if you have more knowledge and insight to add to the mix? Are there facts we got wrong or may have misunderstood? Please let us know your input.


A Story of Sitting Bull’s Signature

by Trent Gilliss, senior editor

While preparing for this week’s show on Tatanka Iyotake, Sitting Bull, we hoped to find audio recordings of this legendary Lakota leader talking or singing. We reached out to historian Bill Yenne and Alexandra Shadid, an archivist at the University of Oklahoma’s Western History Collections, which houses the papers of Walter Stanley Campbell — better known by his pen name, Stanley Vestal, one of the earliest biographers of Sitting Bull whose source material is the foundation for much of the current research being published on Sitting Bull.

Sitting Bull's SignatureSitting Bull’s signature from a pictograph he drew in 1882. (Image courtesy of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History)

Both scholars informed us that they weren’t aware of any audio recordings in Sitting Bull’s own voice, but Ms. Shadid did offer up the transcripts of Vestal’s interviews and songs by Sitting Bull. She also referred us to a recording housed at the Minnesota Historical Society, just a five-minute walk from our offices in downtown Saint Paul. Here, on Christmas day 1946, Mary P. Hunt tells the story of living in Fort Yates on the Standing Rock Reservation (in what was the Dakota Territory) and her encounter with Sitting Bull, who was, in her words, being held prisoner with members of other tribes. She recounts how she sat with him for a couple of days teaching him how to sign his name in English script, which he then sold in exchange for a 50-cent piece.

I’m not entirely sure of the veracity of Ms. Hunt’s story; Bill Yenne writes about Sitting Bull’s time at Fort Randall as such:

"Sitting Bull submitted quietly, albeit not happily, to his life at the post. He certainly knew that things could have been worse. The Fort Randall complex — more a campus than a stockade — was his forced residence, but ironically it gave him his first ever-known, fixed address. Because of this, Sitting Bull suddenly started receiving fan mail. Bags of it began arriving from all over the world. Having learned to write his name in wasichu script, he relished signing autographs for people who wrote to him, or who made their way up the Missouri to visit him."

Nevertheless, delightful anecdotes like Ms. Hunt’s are some of the gems that we’ve stumbled upon time and again while doing this work. Unfortunately, most people will never get to hear all this wonderful archival material that is part of the oral lore of a legendary figure, which only adds to the complexity of verifying what’s fact and fiction, and somewhere in between. I’m glad we could give her story a stage.


A Humble Offering

by Nancy Rosenbaum, associate producer

Krista Tippett meets Ernie LaPointe, Sitting Bull's great-grandson(photo: Nancy Rosenbaum)

Last week, I traveled with Krista, Trent, and Mitch for a production trip to the Black Hills in South Dakota. We’ve been planning a program about the spiritual legacy of Sitting Bull for years. Finally the pieces of this production puzzle have started to come together.

After landing in Rapid City, we drove through the snowy Black Hills until we arrived at the cozy home of Sitting Bull’s great-grandson, Ernie LaPointe. As we prepared for this trip, several people (including Ernie’s wife Sonja) advised us to bring him a gift of tobacco. Some of you responded to an earlier blog post, including David Born who once served as chair of the Department of American Indian Studies at the University of Minnesota.

He suggested where to buy the traditional pipe tobacco, or kinnikinnick, and recommended that we wrap it in a red (a sacred color for the Lakota) cotton cloth. What mattered most, he advised, is that Krista should present the tobacco with humbleness, humility, and respect. Here are some notes from our conversation:

"You can let him know that you understand it’s traditional when seeking the advice/wisdom of an elder to present a gift. You want to acknowledge that the information he’ll be sharing is important and sacred and you want to honor that. You can acknowledge your own ignorance about his customs and let him know that you’re not trying to be Native, stereotype Natives, or romanticize them. The gift of the tobacco is a way of both making a request and expressing appreciation — not just of Ernie but of the Lakota nation. What matters most is that the tobacco is given with "a good heart."

A quiet hush descended over Ernie’s living room when Krista formally presented a pouch of tobacco wrapped in red cloth. She spoke quietly and with grace. As I reflect back on this moment, it seems like this singular exchange set the tone for the two-hour interview that unfolded between them — one of respect and intimacy.


Weaving Personal Narrative and Others’ Stories
Eboo Patel, Guest Contributor

Meeting Laurie Patton reminded me of a basic truism about life: the best storytellers are also the best listeners. Listening in a way that evokes other peoples’ stories is, after all, how storytellers begin the process of collecting the pieces that they then weave together into the narratives they turn around and offer the world.

I got a glimpse into professor Patton’s gifts for listening on a recent trip to Atlanta. She moderated a panel with Andrew Young and myself, artfully integrating Reverend Young’s story as a senior African-American Christian leader involved in the civil rights movement and my story as a young American Muslim building a global interfaith youth movement.

Two days later, I caught up with Laurie again and convinced her to share some of her own pioneering story — as one of the first female chairs of a major Religion department, as a person who chose to convert to Judaism, as one of the most renowned scholars of Indian religions in America, as a poet and institution builder, and as a person who thinks the shortest distance between two people is — as story.

Watch the video, and take a listen for yourself.

Eboo Patel appeared on SOF as a guest in "Religious Passion, Pluralism, and the Young." He’s also the founder and executive director of Interfaith Youth Core, a contributor to the Washington Post’s "On Faith" blog, and author of Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation.

They are the ones who whispered it on the playground when nobody was looking. If we lose that language, we lose who we are.

Ryan Wilson, referring to tribal elders who were listening to young girls singing in Arapaho.

Trent Gilliss, Online Editor

Wilson, a member of the Oglala Lakota tribe and a board member of the National Indian Education Association, is working with the Northern Arapaho tribe to establish Hinono’ Eitiino’ Oowu’, an Arapaho language immersion school on the Wind River Reservation in northwest Wyoming. Wilson’s words remind me of something David Treuer said to Krista about his tribe’s effort to preserve the Ojibwe language:

"What I really love about language revitalization, what is so key to it, is that it’s always been ours and it’s a chance to define ourselves on and in our own terms and in ways that have nothing to do with what’s been taken. We can define ourselves by virtue of what we’ve saved."


Language Reclamation, Not Just Preservation

by Rob McGinley Myers, associate producer

What inspires a person to learn the language of his ancestors, even though he didn’t grow up speaking that language himself? And what inspires him to join a school where he can teach that language to children? What do those children think about the language? And what affect can the effort have on an entire community?

These were a few of the questions I had for Keller Paap, a teacher in an Ojibwe immersion school program called Waadookodaading (We Help Each Other) on the Lac Courte Oreilles Reservation in north-central Wisconsin. I got in touch with Paap while I was working on our recent program "Sustaining Language, Sustaining Meaning." You can hear his story in the embedded audio above. He begins by introducing himself in Ojibwe.

What I gleaned from talking to Paap was that this language revitalization effort is doing more than merely preserving the language. It’s literally keeping the language alive so that it can continue to grow and change, with new words and new ways of saying things. I love the way he describes his students’ relationship to the language. They aren’t dwelling on the long-standing U.S. policy of forcibly educating Native Americans in English. They aren’t learing Ojibwe as a political act or even as a cultural act. They’re just living in it, and making it their own.

This audio piece was produced with help from Trent Gilliss and Mitch Hanley. Music by Brian Blade & the Fellowship Band. Keller Paap took the photo of the Ojibwe road sign, which translates as “The Dam.”


How an Idea Becomes a Show
Rob McGinley Myers, Associate Producer

Each week at SOF, we get together in a small conference room to talk about the upcoming production schedule and other mundane matters, and for the last 15 minutes or so we toss around potential future topics for shows. A few months ago, I tossed out a vague idea for a show about endangered languages. This weekend that vague idea becomes a reality as our show “Sustaining Language, Sustaining Meaning.”

Coming up with a good idea for a show is the easy part. What’s hard is finding the right person to speak on that topic. In this case, Krista wanted to find someone who was trying to save the language of his or her own people, who could also speak about how the loss of that language could result in the loss of cultural and spiritual practices. But there are thousands of endangered languages around the world. Where to start?

I went down several blind alleys — contacting the Living Tongues Institute, doing Nexis searches, e-mailing linguists — before I made the lucky decision to contact the novelist David Treuer. I was familiar with his work, I knew he was Ojibwe and that he had a background in anthropology, so I thought he might know someone who was working on a language revitalization project. He wrote back to my e-mail the next day.

You’ve come to the right place! I just published an article in the LA Times about that very subject. In addition to writing and teaching I am involved (with a group of others) in efforts to preserve and protect the Ojibwe language. Our most recent effort is research (recording, translating) aimed at creating the very first Ojibwe grammar book; work which runs parallel to spiritual and ceremonial work.

Suddenly, this huge, unwieldy topic of endangered languages had acquired a specific language — Ojibwe — and on the day Krista interviewed him, David Treuer helped bring into focus the specific people engaged in trying to save that language. My favorite moment in that interview was the story David tells of interviewing the Ojibwe elder Eugene Stillday, who recounted a childhood moment of sitting in his house when his entire family was sick with influenza, and the only thing that kept him from freaking out was staring at the flickering light in the stove. To me, that light in the stove seemed like a metaphor for the language itself. The light helped keep Eugene Stillday calm, and the language helped keep the memory of that day alive.

That story became even more real when David Treuer’s brother, Anton, sent us the actual recording of Eugene Stillday telling the story in Ojibwe. We wanted more recordings of Ojibwe speakers, but Anton Treuer was leaving town, so David suggested I check with his friend Keller Paap, an Ojibwe immersion school teacher in Wisconsin.

Unfortunately, it was Keller’s last week of school before summer, which is always chaotic for a teacher. He said he would try to find some recordings, but it took him a little while to dig through what he had. As our deadline for finishing the show crept closer and closer, I kept checking my inbox. Then, just in time, Keller sent me his recordings, and they were magic. We used the sound of him speaking Ojibwe to his three-year-old son at the top of the show, and we closed the show with the recording of him singing an Ojibwe song he wrote with his students.

It was amazing to finally hear all those pieces fit together. To me this is what radio is all about: the marriage of words and sounds that go beyond words. David Treuer has some profound things about the power of language to keep culture alive, but hearing Keller Paap literally passing that language onto his son and the enthusiasm of his students singing in Ojibwe, that just makes the whole thing real.


What’s the Ojibwe Word for Beep?

"An Ojibwe Language Society Calendar" (photo: Hanson Dates/flickr)

Rob McGinley Myers, Associate Producer

Working on an upcoming SOF show about endangered languages, I called a professor of Ojibwe at Bemidji State University to get recordings of Ojibwe speakers for the radio program and website. His answering machine message was delivered first in Ojibwe and then in English. Then this week I called someone who works at an Ojibwe immersion school in Wisconsin, and his answering machine message was Ojibwe only.

It was a little disorienting but also inspiring to hear the language in this modern context, especially considering that Ojibwe is one of only a handful of Native American languages now spoken in the United States and Canada that is expected to survive beyond 2050.