S.D. inmates make staff for ride honoring killed ancestors

In this March 7 photo, Shawn Mousseau, Jim Hallum, Perry Little and Mark Milk pose with the staff at the South Dakota State Penitentiary in Sioux Falls. The eagle staff is presented to people for their leadership qualities. (Abigail Dollins/The Argus Leader via AP)

SIOUX FALLS (AP) – Tohani Isnana Mani was hand-crafted by a man behind bars, but the staff will take a significant journey across the plains.

At a powwow in the gym at the South Dakota State Penitentiary, inmates presented the carefully created staff to Sacred Horse Society riders who will carry it in an August ride honoring those lost at the battle of Inyan Ska Paha, or Whitestone Hill.

Tohani Isnana Mani, or Never Walks Alone, is a staff made of golden and bald eagle feathers, and represents ancestors lost in the 1863 battle at Whitestone Hill, where hundreds of Native American men, women and children were killed or captured in North Dakota.

“The people we’re honoring today, we’re descendants of them. We think about stuff like that in here,” said Mark Milk, 45, who emceed the March 7 powwow.

Two inmates spent a few hours each day for a week making the staff, which included an inmate’s personal eagle feathers, which can only be obtained with a permit through the repository and can take years to receive, the Argus Leader reported.

The staff was presented after a grand entry with inmates dancing through the gym in traditional colorful clothing. One inmate wrote a song for the event, and the men performed it for the first time when the staff was handed over.

It’s a significant gesture, said one of the staff recipients, Perry Little, who is also the staff keeper for the Sacred Horse Society and tribal liaison for the Yankton Sioux. Inmates at the prison represent numerous tribes. It’s almost as if they’re all coming together again, Little said.

“The ride and staff is (sic) made for everybody,” Little said. “You get that here.”

The 1890 Battle of Wounded Knee may get a bit more historical attention in South Dakota, but the significance of the White Stone Hill battle – or massacre, as the men referred to it – is one to remember, the men said.

On Sept. 3, 1863, General Alfred Sully's troops attacked a tipi camp of Yanktonai, Dakota, Hunkpapa Lakota and Blackfeet as part of a military mission to punish participants of the Dakota Conflict, according to the State Historical Society of North Dakota.

Though there is no accurate historical count of the total loss, the North Dakota Historical Society says, it’s estimated that between 100 and 300 members and 20 American soldiers were killed and more than 150 tribal members were captured. In the following days, tipis, buffalo hides, wagons and as much as half-million pounds of buffalo meat were destroyed.

The Battle of Whitestone Hill resulted in more Native casualties than any other conflict in North Dakota and more overall deaths than at Wounded Knee.

“It’s our way of honoring our past, our forefathers that made the ultimate sacrifice for us,” said Milk, who has been serving a life sentence since 1994. “Even in prison, there’s a positive side.”

Many younger men who come to the prison don’t know much about their culture, and they often learn and practice it on the hill.

People may say it’s an “sad place” to learn about their culture, Milk said, but the men don’t see it that way.

“They’re all sober and clear-minded here,” said Native American Council of Tribes Pipe Carrier Shawn Mousseau, 41, who helped make the staff given to the riders.

The powwows are a chance for the inmates to reconnect with culture and share a meal a step above the average prison tray. A meal of fry bread, buffalo soup made with donated buffalo meat, wojapi and potato wedges is a welcome change of pace for the men.

Many of the men meet new people at the gatherings. It’s hard to talk with people who aren’t in your housing area or other activities, they say. They can don traditional clothing and sing and dance with minimal security. But they still must do daily head count with the rest of the inmates.

The most recent powwow, held earlier this month, was one of four such gatherings on the hill at the penitentiary each year, put on by the Native American Council of Tribes. Two are family powwows, which are held in the visit room instead of the gym, where inmates’ families can attend and share songs, dances, games and a meal.

The other two are held in the gym in the penitentiary, which can be reached through narrow tunnels and an elevator by the prison’s kitchen. The Jameson Annex, the prison’s top-security section, also has four powwows: two gym and two family.

Almost 100 inmates and 15 outside guests attended the most recent powwow.

The staff will make its way from Fort Thompson on the Crow Creek reservation to Whitestone Hill in North Dakota in August. The ride is slated to start Aug. 28 and end Sept. 3, the anniversary of the battle.

“We are honored,” Little said of receiving the staff. “It’s humbling for them to do this for us. They all made a mistake. Nobody is perfect.”

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