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  • Writer's pictureAntonio Gonzales

Ta Kola Ota (Darrell Standing Elk), a Beloved Leader Walks Quietly Down the Holy Road

Ta Kola Ota (Darrell Dale Standing Elk), enrolled member of the Sicangu Lakota Oyate, and respected leader died on September 20, 2015, he was 81. was born in White River, South Dakota on July 16, 1934, one of 12 children of Joshua Standing Elk and Blanch Janereau. He was an enrolled member of the Sicangu Lakota Oyate. Of his 11 siblings, brothers Virgil, LaVern, Sidney, Verdell, Alvin, Alvern, and Velmer Standing Elk, and sisters Alvina Standing Elk, Vivian Standing Elk-Brave, Violet Standing Elk-Medicine Bear, and Esther Standing Elk-Moves Camp, Darrell is survived by only two, Violet and Alvena, both of White River. He leaves behind his wife of 44 years, Carole Eastman-Standing Elk, and six of his children; Lisa Standing Elk-Mesteth of Pine Ridge, South Dakota; Kelli Eastman Many Lightnings, of Hankinsin, North Dakota; Kristin Eastman-Limon, of Hankinsin, North Dakota; Wasula Eastman-Baqueiro, of Pasadena, California; Ta Cangleska Wakan Standing Elk, of Davis, California; and Loren Lee White - Standing Elk, of Sisseton, South Dakota. A seventh child, Kevin Eastman, preceded him in death. Darrell also leaves behind 17 grandchildren, and 14 great-grandchildren.

American Indian Movement (AIM) founder Dennis Banks issued a poignant statement upon hearing the news of Darrell's passing. "I did not know Darrell in his younger years. I'm not exactly sure when we first met, but I do know it was like I had known him all my life. He was not loud or boisterous. He was always very calm and deliberate, and very savvy about issues that we faced. He was extremely knowledgeable of Lakota spiritual life. He spoke the Lakota language and knew the translation to correctly transfer the deep meaning of the Lakota ways. When U.S. Law was searching to jail AIM leaders, Darrell stepped up to the plate and took me in. He was at that moment on the right side of history. Every now and then, Native DNA produces a Crazy Horse, a Geronimo, a Chief Joseph, or a Darrell Standing Elk. That's how I feel about my old friend Darrell. I shall miss him deeply."

Life at Rosebud and His Travels Beyond

After the Plains Wars of the 1870s, the United States confiscated 7.7 million acres of the Great Sioux Nation's sacred Black Hills and created several small reservations. The Sicangu Lakota were sent to live on the Rosebud Reservation which includes all of Todd County, South Dakota, as well as communities and lands in four adjacent counties. Widespread unemployment, substandard living conditions, illness, and the lack of opportunities devastated Rosebud families. Many extended families pooled their meager resources to provide for basic living needs, and many others were forced to leave the reservation to seek work.

As teenagers, Darrell and four friends hitchhiked off the reservation and hopped a freight train to Nebraska in search of a better life. In Nebraska, they attempted to enlist in the Marines, where all but one, who was sent to the Army, was accepted. After his time in the military, Darrell applied to and was accepted by the Urban Indian Relocation Program in 1952, a federal program that moved over 100,000 Indians from rural reservations to city centers between 1950 and 1970. He was sent to Alameda, California, where he attended job training as a mechanic, eventually working for the Ford Motor Company and then at various construction jobs around the San Francisco Bay Area. In San Jose in the early 1960s, Darrell, who had become a skilled guitarist, enjoyed jamming with his neighbor and friend Carlos Santana in his spare time. Darrell also attended San Jose City College and later, the University of California at Davis, earning a bachelor of science degree in 1975 with a major in the new field of Native American Studies.

A Strong Spiritual Tradition

As a direct descendent of renowned Sioux spiritual leaders, Darrell was raised with traditional Lakota religious values and had experience as a sweat lodge leader from an early age. With this upbringing, it was natural for him to carry those spiritual traditions with him to the Bay Area urban Indian community. While in Davis, California in 1971, Darrell began teaching Lakota language classes at the newly established DQ University, one of the first tribal colleges in the nation. He also developed a strict criteria for Native cultural programs at DQ, organizing and leading weekly sweat lodge ceremonies according to authentic Lakota traditions.

In 1976, with the approval of traditional Lakota spiritual leaders, Frank Kills Enemy, Henry Crow Dog, and Shelby White Bear, as well as AIM leader Dennis Banks, who had been granted political asylum by California Governor Jerry Brown, Darrell ran the first Lakota Sun Dance ceremonies at DQ University. At that time, AIM emphasizing the need for the younger generation to return to the religious traditions of their Native ancestors in order to protect and preserve culture and sovereignty into the future, organized the "Longest Walk" in 1978, a 3,200 mile spiritual walk in support of tribal sovereignty and religious freedom. Darrell's friend Dennis Banks could not leave California due to his political status, but Darrell himself made the journey, walking with spiritual leaders from many tribes and nations. The Walk culminated at the Washington Monument, where the walkers smoked the Lakota sacred pipe they had carried with them throughout the journey. Although President Jimmy Carter refused to meet with the Walk's representatives, the following week, Congress passed the American Indian Religious Freedom Act.

Traditional Ceremonies for Community Healing

Working out of the San Francisco Indian Center in the early 1980s, Darrell led sweat lodge ceremonies on a weekly basis. As his reputation for assisting those with alcohol and drug problems grew, he was approached by Martin Waukazoo, director of Native American Health Center, and soon, he was running sweats as a traditional alcohol and drug counselor under an Indian Health Service grant out of the Oakland IHS Health Clinic.

Eventually, upon the advice of Crow Dog, White Bear, and other religious advisors, Darrell moved the Davis Sun Dance back home to Wanblee, South Dakota, working with his nephew and wicasa wakan Richard Moves Camp. As a highly respected community spiritual leader, Darrell was held in high esteem as an honest, generous, kind, and wise leader. Indian people of many tribes sought him out for friendship, advice, and spiritual guidance.

Declaring War on Cultural Exploitation

During the 1980s, however, commercial exploitation of American Indian spiritual practices, especially the sacred ways of the Lakota people, had reached epidemic proportions with the emergence of the New Age movement, particularly in California, and Darrell became deeply concerned over the debasement of Native religion. Together with his friend John LaVelle, a Santee Sioux tribal member attending Law school at the University of California at Berkeley (now a professor at the University of New Mexico School of Law), and Helene Hagen, a non-Indian supporter of Native causes, Darrell founded Center for the Support and Protection of Indian Religions and Indigenous Traditions (Center for the SPIRIT) in the late 1980s, a non-profit organization whose mission included raising public awareness of various threats to the survival of Native religious practices. During the 1990s, Center for the SPIRIT with Darrell as the organization’s president, worked tirelessly to bring the critical issue of spiritual exploitation to the forefront of public concern in both urban and reservation communities, formulating a "Declaration of War Against Exploiters of Lakota Spirituality" – signed by Darrell as well as Oglala Lakota spiritual leader Wilmer Stampede Mesteth and Kul Wicasa Lakota community leader Phyllis Swift Hawk. The Declaration was adopted unanimously at the "1993 Lakota Summit V," an international gathering of the Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota nations, tribes, and bands in the United States and Canada. The Declaration became an international call to action to end New Age cultural exploitation of Indian spirituality. A version of the Declaration was later adopted unanimously by resolution at an annual meeting of the Grand Governing Council of the American Indian Movement.

Due to his expertise as a Native speaker and as a representative of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, Darrell had an opportunity to work with the Lakota Language Consortium as a consultant on dictionaries and textbooks. That involvement, and his lifelong friendship with musician/actor/AIM activist Floyd "Red Crow" Westerman, led Darrell to his role as a cultural consultant for the film industry. As such, he worked as actor Vigo Mortenson's Lakota language coach on the film "Hildalgo" (2004), and with Steven Seagal as an extra in "On Deadly Ground" (1994). He also worked on the TV movies "Lakota Woman" (1994) and "Crazy Horse" (1996).

Despite serious health issues in his later years, Darrell continued to lead weekly sweat lodge ceremonies in the Bay Area. He also continued his active role at the annual Sun Dance ceremonies at both Wanblee with Richard Moves Camp, and with Wilmer Mesteth at Red Shirt Table on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. This past July, he participated in the Red Shirt Table Sun Dance as usual, afterwards, driving the 1,300 miles back to Davis, California for the last time.

Going Home

On Saturday, September 26, 2015, a memorial service, attended by many friends and family members was held for Darrell at the Intertribal Friendship House in Oakland, California. Those who shared their thoughts remembered Darrell as a quiet and kind man, but one who always stood for Native rights and cultural integrity.

"Darrell was a spiritual man who said, 'Being Indian is a spiritual thing,'" said Antonio Gonzales, AIM-West director and longtime friend. "He was known around the Bay Area and in the surrounding areas of Davis and Sacramento. He helped revive cultures and re-awaken spiritual beliefs and languages. He would always offer himself to teach and guide the ways of the sweat lodge to anyone who wanted to come back to the circle of life. He was a bridge to so many people, and valuable to those who could not have gotten through their lives without his sharing of knowledge. Darrell was always there for the people who needed him most. May the Great Spirit World receive our friend, brother, and warrior with a pure heart."

Darrell will begin his final journey home on Thursday, October 1 with a wake service at 1:00 p.m. in the multipurpose room at Sinte Gleska University in Mission, South Dakota. He will receive a traditional burial at St. Ignatius Church, White River, South Dakota, at 10:00 a.m. on Friday, October 2. Officiating at his memorial and interment will be Leonard Crow Dog, Richard Moves Camp, and Roy Stone. His pallbearers will include his nephews, Bernard Moves Camp and Harold Medicine Bear, and his grandsons, Caske Limon, Kelly Standing Elk, Hoksila Mesteth, Dakota Mesteth, as well as dozens of honorary pallbearers as well. His son-in, Wilmer Mesteth, who preceded him in death just months before, is almost certainly waiting to greet him on the Holy Road.


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