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ROSEBUD,SD — Long before they became a horse-and-buffalo society centuries ago, the Lakota and Dakota people used to rely heavily on another animal for their daily existence.
Sunka (SHOON-kuh), they called them — Lakota for "dog."
"It's common knowledge that prior to the coming of the horse, our people utilized the dog nation," Rosebud spiritualist Russell Eagle Bear says. "To help with movement, with gathering wood, with hauling ... dogs played a significant role in our society, and we had the utmost respect for them."
Today that respect has withered within the poverty culture that often characterizes reservation life. Dogs unattended and unfed have become a menace in tribal communities, maiming, even killing as they form packs and unleash their aggression.
In the frenzy after 8-year-old Jayla Rodriguez was killed by dogs at Pine Ridge, and four months later, when Julia Charging Whirlwind was attacked and died March 14 at White River, calmer voices tried to remind people that these animals were sacred once upon a time.
"They've always been in our culture," Alvin Bettelyoun Sr. said after Charging Whirlwind was killed in the Lower Swift Bear community outside of White River.
"We've tried to bring that up at our emergency meetings," Bettelyoun, tribal council representative for the Lower and Upper Swift Bear communities, said. "They've played an important part in our culture, and people seem to have forgot."
At the dawn of the 20th century, dogs were still being used to carry wood piles on their backs, Eagle Bear said. They were the alarms as well when intruders tried to invade Sioux encampments. They kept the people warm in the cold of the winter.
In the spiritual way of the Lakota, dogs also aided the thunder beings, Eagle Bear said. Thunder beings brought replenishing rain to fill up the creeks and rivers and nourish Mother Earth. But they also could bring destructive wind and lightning as well.
A medicine man who is a thunder being dreamer could heal with the help of sunka spirit helpers, Eagle Bear said. That often meant dogs were killed and their meat boiled to be consumed as part of the healing ceremony.
"That's why Lakota people are known for eating dog," he said. "We're known in history as dog eaters, but we just don't go out and eat dogs like we eat chicken. It was only on special occasions, to bring healing."
That today's young people among the Lakota and Dakota don't understand that is probably the fault of his generation, Eagle Bear said. Spiritual leaders on the Rosebud — on every reservation — need to step forward more and explain better what the spirit entities are and the roles they play in tribal culture, he said.
They also need to acknowledge that a centuries-old tradition of letting dogs run loose no longer seems realistic, especially with that freedom coming at such a horrific price these days, he said.
"We have too many dogs, and that's kind of our fault, too," Eagle Bear said. "I believe we need to re-educate our own people on certain areas, especially our culture and our spirituality. But we're walking the learning road, too. It's been 150 years of taking that away. It may take that long to get back on track."