An interview with Siniti and Victoria Oneda by Fetzer Institute Program Officer Chelsea Langston Bombino.
And I say the sacred hoop of my people was one of the many hoops that made one circle, wide as daylight and as starlight, and in the center grew one mighty flowering tree to shelter all the children of one mother and one father. —Black Elk
Victoria and Siniti Oneda's surname means "deep roots in the land" in Japanese, and their journey epitomizes the comingling of diverse spiritual traditions in pursuit of a shared vision. As practitioners of Lakota spirituality, they draw inspiration from Black Elk, a medicine man/holy man of the Oglala Lakota people, and his vision to mend the sacred hoop, as detailed in Black Elk Speaks. Their journey encompasses teachings from Native Lakota traditions, passed down to them through Fools Crow, Bill Eagle Feather, Henry Niese, and now others, including them. The Flowering Tree Center, a spiritual nonprofit, is the embodiment of their commitment. This center strives to realize Black Elk's vision by incarnating the concept of Mitákuye Oyás’iŋ (all my relations), recognizing the interconnectedness of all things, and offering wisdom through online and in-person classes.
Chelsea Langston (CLB): I have had the privilege of learning from you over the past decade. Through my husband, whose father has been close friends with Siniti for four decades, I have participated in different spiritual communities inspired by Lakota teachings, including your Flowering Tree Center. I feel honored to sit down with you, my friends and spiritual teachers, to talk about your journeys in Lakota spirituality, and how this way of life shapes your understanding of gratitude and shared flourishing. Can you both share a bit about how you came to Lakota teaching?
Siniti Oneda (SO): I was born in Japan. My Eastern background, particularly with Japanese traditions, allows me to connect well with the Lakota people. In Japan, despite Buddhism being the prevalent religion, there's a native tradition called Shintoism, making most Japanese inherently influenced by both traditions. The significant point is that Shinto means "spirit of the land," and anyone born in Japan is automatically considered Shinto. However, a person born outside Japan can never become Shinto because it's tied to the spirit of the land.
When I moved to the United States as a child, my grandfather emphasized the importance of connecting with the spirit of the land here. Unable to practice Shintoism outside Japan, I came to resonate with the Lakota teachings. I was planning on becoming a physicist like my father, but I met my teacher, Henry Niese (1924-2016), when I was in college, and it completely changed my path.
CLB: Victoria, I'd love to hear about your journey into Lakota spirituality as well.
Victoria Oneda (VO): I met Henry Niese, my teacher, during my freshman year at the University of Maryland. Intrigued by his course, I joined as a freshman among mostly upperclassmen. The experience was eye-opening, and I chose to continue learning from Henry throughout my college years.
In 1987, Henry invited me to the sundance, a practice he had kept somewhat secretive. Attending it in 1987 was transformative. After the dance, I had a profound dream that altered the course of my life. This dream inspired the creation of our nonprofit, driven by the need to guide humanity toward positive change for the planet and all its inhabitants.
CLB: You have both mentioned Henry Niese, who comes from a lineage of Lakota spiritual teachers going back to Black Elk. Can you discuss who Black Elk is and what his vision was?
VO: Our journey traces back to Black Elk, particularly his book Black Elk Speaks, a text Henry incorporated into his teachings. The sixties' political and ecological movements, influenced by works like Rachel Carson's Silent Spring and Black Elk Speaks, were pivotal. The latter narrates a medicine man's vision of restoring the sacred hoop through a ceremony involving people of all races dancing around a mighty flowering tree. This vision deeply resonated with us, inspiring the establishment of our nonprofit.
SO: It is important to also name the four directions. The tradition we're discussing is intricately connected to the land. The scholars who've delved into this over time have discerned the significance of our four seasons and the cardinal directions.
The initial creation in the physical world revolves around the need for night and day. As the Earth spins on its axis, it grants us the cycle of night and day. Yet, this alone isn't sufficient for life. Elements like water play a crucial role in creating and sustaining life. The interaction between the moon and the Earth, coupled with the Earth's axial rotation, gives rise to time and seasons.
The attributes associated with the four directions vary across traditions, primarily influenced by geographical location. For instance, in the Lakota tradition, the color red symbolizes the north, while white represents the south. In other Native traditions, especially on the East Coast and Northeast, white is associated with the north and red with the south. These color distinctions often link to the significance of elements like snow.
The richness of these explanations, bridging traditional knowledge and possible scientific insights, adds a fascinating layer to our understanding of the interconnectedness of nature and culture.
In 1984, Henry tasked me with a homework assignment during my visit to Japan. He wanted me to find out the most sacred object in the Shinto tradition, Japan's native belief system. At a Shinto cultural museum in Nagoya, I discovered the oldest spiritual artifact—an object that resonated deeply with Henry's teachings—the four colors of the sacred cross: black, red, yellow, and white. This experience reinforced the universality of spiritual traditions tied to the land.
CLB: Can you elaborate on how each direction has multiple meanings?
SO: In spiritual traditions, concepts like colors and sounds can have multiple meanings because spirituality is dynamic and evolving. As you progress in your spiritual journey, you gain a deeper understanding, adding layers of meaning to these symbols.
Another aspect of the four directions is understanding the concept of the four elements—water, fire, air, and earth. This concept is universal, seen in ancient Greek beliefs as well. While modern science recognizes more elements, the ancient understanding was closer to the states of matter—solid, liquid, gas, and energy. The four elements are integral to the symbolism of the four directions.
CLB: Thank you for sharing this. Can you share a bit about how gratitude is a guiding value in your practice of Lakota spirituality?
VO: We're deeply grateful for the teachings we've received on our spiritual path. Our mission is simple: to give back everything we've received. It's an expression of our gratitude, rooted in the belief that we can't keep this wisdom to ourselves; it has to be shared.
A beloved teacher once told me, "You can never do this alone." It's a collective effort, and Henry's work was driven by gratitude. We follow in that tradition. I can't imagine keeping all this wisdom to myself. It's a waste if you don't give it away. Spiritual wisdom has to be shared; otherwise, it's useless.
CLB: Is there anything I didn't ask that you'd like to share?
VO: It's crucial to understand that these things don't happen in a vacuum. There's always a context, and right now, we face environmental and sociological challenges that demand introspection. We need to ask ourselves: Why are we doing this? What is our relationship with each other, nature, the universe, and God? We're part of a lineage working to create a blueprint for the future. Everyone, regardless of their background, has a role in this collective effort. The future is now, and we need to figure this out together.