All things living and breathing, spiritual and earthly

By Denise Lana,

Prosper Waukon speaks during a visit to the St. Anthony of Padua Chapel near St. Lucas. (Driftless Multimedia photos by Denise Lana)

Many readers may recall an award-winning television commercial that began airing in the 1970s on behalf of the “Keep America Beautiful” campaign – a Native American Indian was shown crying, a teardrop running down his face, as he witnessed people littering along highways and leaving garbage in streams. Although it was eventually criticized for stereotyping American Indian people among other issues, it was heralded for representing their plight against the destruction of land and environment. 

Five decades later and lightyears away from that commercial, accomplished indigenous leader and community figurehead Prosper Waukon has similarly devoted his life to keeping his tribe’s traditions and practices alive, including a long-standing respect for every living thing around us that makes up our “community.”

During his recent visit to Decorah for the city’s 175th anniversary celebration, Prosper, the great-great-great grandson of Chief Waukon Decorah, paid a visit to the Turkey River area in St. Lucas. Accompanied by his wife, daughter, three grandchildren and great-grandchild, Prosper addressed a small crowd of local history aficionados who were eager to hear more from him. 

As the group gathered at the World’s Smallest Church in Festina, Prosper spoke slowly but with confidence and power, describing his lineage and sharing anecdotes from his childhood. Prosper took the opportunity to address the group in attendance, asking them, “What do you think is the difference between white people and Indians?” A hush blanketed the crowd as Prosper continued. “There is a lot more in common that people want to admit, but the spiritual life of a Native American is far greater. It is in our thinking. How many white folks go around do a sun dance?” 

Prosper then asked the group to give him the definition of community. One person answered “togetherness.” He continued, asking who a community involved. Several chimed in, collectively saying “communities… families, friends, neighbors, churches, towns…”

“So, you’re talking about a human community,” Prosper summarized, as he slowly recited and eyed the crowd. “Know where our community is?” He pointed to the ground and replied, “It involves our plants, our insect community.” He extended a long, tanned arm and pointed towards the sky and declared, “There is our animal community. There are our flying creatures.”

Waving his arms slowly around him, Prosper announced to the crowd, “They are all a part of our community. Our community is a lot bigger than just people – that’s the way we think. Everything we do affects everything else. It touches and involves a much wider community.” Gazing up at the trees above him, he slowly continued, “You’ve got all these elders out here around us, these trees are older than us, so we go to them.” Waving his arms again in a slow gesture, Prosper preached, “Those animals out there have more knowledge than we will ever have, so we go and watch them. We observe how they treat each other.”  

Prosper’s granddaughter, Ciarrah Reine Waukon-Latraille, softly spoke up. “When my daughter, Luna, was two years old, there was a large palm tree in our front yard, and every single day she would always put both of her hands on it and be one with it.” 

Prosper added, “Many people believe that things that happened in our physical earth are separate than our spiritual world. Do you believe that? That’s what many have been taught, but in the Indian world, the spiritual and physical world interact. Through different ceremonies, you get to see and visit those realms and realize there is only one world.”

Symbols

Ciarrah, who has numerous tattoos on her arms and hands, said that many of her tattoos are symbolic and represent her family’s culture. Explaining the tattoo that wraps around her arm and ends in a snake symbol, Ciarrah said, “It’s in our traditional appliqué style. When we have pow wows, we have a traditional dance style specific to the Ho Chunk people. Our last name is Snakeskin, and the snake has a huge significance for with our family.”

A tattoo on her hand is a replica of the one her fiancé had, and she had it done after he passed away last summer. 

“Some of his ashes are in the tattoo ink,” Ciarrah explained. “My grandmother’s ashes are also in this tattoo as well, but the tattoo itself is not symbolic of anything,” she said, pointing to her tattoo of a plague mask. 

A thunderbird symbol is tattooed on the back of her arm, representing the Thunderbird clan, as Ciarrah explained, “There are 12 clans, and they help define the roles we play within our society and our tribes.”  

Her earrings and the colors and ribbons on her skirt represent the Indian medicine wheel, which represents health and healing. The four colors can stand for a range of things from various human races and the four seasons to the four types of creatures that breathe and traditional medicine plants. For Ciarrah, she explained, “They signify the four elements and the four directions.”

She summed it up best, saying, “Like my grandfather said, we are all about being connected to everything around us.”  

More photos can be found in the June 25 Driftless Journal.

 

 

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