Beyond Words: a discussion with Tiokasin Ghosthorse

Originally posted on April 15, 2015

by Lana Bluege
Marketing & Social Media Editor

Image: Tiokasin Ghosthorse (from

There is power in words. This is a common phrase, but where does this power come from? Specifically, how does the English language have the power to steer cultural attitudes toward possession and isolation from nature? These are questions I encountered when sitting down with Tiokasin Ghosthorse, a Cheyenne River Lakota native who grew up on a South Dakota reservation. Currently, Tiokasin travels around the world to educate others about his culture and preserve the knowledge passed down to him. At a young age, Tiokasin left the reservation to pursue higher education and to make a positive impact for his tribe. The adventures and obstacles he encountered could fill several novels, but one concept he has focused on is the unfavorable consequences of the English language for the individual and the entire society. He emphasizes the important values that the Lakota language delivers, specifically words having “meaning beyond the meaning.” For Lakota, communication does not rest on words alone.

Tiokasin began our conversation with the English language and the negative power that swarms an entire society because of it. He brought up simple words like loneliness and explained, “It makes you feel like you are a singular person and that you do not belong.”

I thought, of course it makes you feel lonely. That is why the word was created, to express that feeling. I discussed my years as a child running into the woods to feel like I belonged somewhere due to this feeling of loneliness. The coming of age period appears hard for most cultures, although I can only speak from the experience of an American girl growing up in the suburbs. For me, things outside of nature were confusing and complicated.

He smiled and told me that it is this culture that made me feel this loneliness, and my generation is awakening to these truths. We know something is wrong with society and that the disconnection from nature means disconnecting from the truth. This isolation and frustration erupts inside us but most are unsure how to act upon it. Tiokasin stated, “Individuals have been given the way to think inside the box,” to stay away from the connection with nature and spirit. Instead they rely on material possessions to feel accepted and not lonely.

As Westerners we like to label things and put everything into categories that make sense to us. We determine that words are the only way to express feeling or thought. Every year new words are added to the dictionary in order to logically express thoughts, feelings, and discoveries. Words become our only form of communication. Even nature with all of its mystery and grandness gets stuffed into a category, defined, and (we assume) controlled.

I asked Tiokasin the word for nature. He replied, “In Lakota we cannot think ‘nature.’ There is no word for it because it is who you are.” He continued, “If you give it a name then you are objectifying it. You are isolating and categorizing everything and all of a sudden the connection is gone because you have taken the spirit out of it.” The Lakota language de-emphasizes categorization and focuses on feeling and intuition to communicate. In order to answer my questions, Tiokasin spoke English, but he struggles with the language because he is “no longer able to feel the connection.”

This connection and form of communication flows through every organism, whether it be human or a tree. There is a quantum physics behind the Lakota language that Tiokasin explained and it can be related to a study that I discovered some years ago. Dr. Masuru Emoto experimented with the physical effects of words on the crystalline structure of water. The water was subject to certain words that represented a negative or positive association. It was then photographed and the crystal forms were observed. The results were quite amazing showing beautiful crystallization of positively associated words. As Westerners we may think that words are only a series of sounds strung together, but I believe Emoto’s experiment showcases the power and emotion attached to them. The Lakota language embraces this understanding. Tiokasin stated, “You cannot translate 25% of the Lakota language into English,” although one man tried. According to Tiokasin, the Lakota language has 10,000 words. In the 1800s a Catholic Priest decided to translate the language into a book and created 28,000 more words in order to convert Lakota into English. Tiokasin does not believe this represented the language and stated, “He had to kill the language to explain it.”

Images from Emoto’s water crystal experiment (image from

The Lakota language was banned along with Lakota traditions, songs, and religion. These customs were quite strange and unfamiliar to the New Americans, or “little brother” and “little sister” as the native people call us. The language did not have a dictionary and the words had a meaning beyond a definition, which meant to many early settlers it was therefore wrong or inferior.

Tiokasin explored another word that is important in Lakota tradition and differs greatly from the English language. In Lakota there is no word for consciousness because everything in the world is conscious. It is an action and a state of being. “The bird, the tree, and the rock are conscious and are on an equal scale with human beings.” Organisms and natural entities are here and living without judgement and without categorizing. Tiokasin explained, “When you look into the molecules of a rock you see the same as the tree and as the human body. The Lakota language is such that it has to connect beyond the connection.”

The natural world is incredibly important to the Lakota nation and other native nations throughout the United States. There is a bond with the natural world, a mutual trust that has been lost to modern Western cultures. Tiokasin said, “Westerners are taught to think of nature as low, and we talk about it in a bad way.” He gives me an example referring to the weather. As a native New Englander I can attest that we talk about the weather almost every day, but Tiokasin explained that so often we complain about the weather and environment around us. “If it is not going our way, we put our mother down and insult her.” There is a war happening with humans and nature but Tiokasin reminded me, “We cannot be at war with our mother.” He continued, “Mother Earth has been here longer and she has been at peace. She moves things around but that is it.”

That phrase struck me: Mother Earth. I wondered what is behind the surface veneer of the English definition. The Lakota understanding of connection or spirituality may be there under the surface, but hidden and ignored. Tiokasin stated, “English forces me to have a spiritual war because Lakota is about spirituality.” The word “Lakota” itself means people of peace, he shared, and “this peace is from Mother Earth.”

This connection starts at a young age for those growing up in the Lakota tribe. Youth is an important time when a human being is molding values and ideas of the world, but it is often underestimated in Western culture, especially in regards to connection with and trust for the rest of the natural world. Tiokasin explained that in Lakota tradition, the males grow up with the women in order to develop a sensitive and intuitive side until it is time for their vision quest. At this point, only the young males go into the wilderness in a designated spot chosen by elders in the tribe. The young boy waits there for a vision or sign from nature. This occurs for four days and four nights without food or sleep. Here the individual learns to trust nature. The boy “begins to realize that he is not alone. He is more connected than he could ever think.”

This is greatly missing in my experience of Western culture. The English language limits communication through objectification, and so a connection with the world is not often formed. As children we are born with curiosity and wonder about the world but it is too often dismissed as we get older. Tiokasin articulated this Western notion thus: “We remove the child from ourselves. It is called maturity in the Western society.” Even as a child we are in fear of nature and things that may be foreign. That fear is not instilled in us as babies but learned from the culture.

Tiokasin gives an example of fire, one of the most feared elements of the natural world for Westerners. He discusses how children in Western culture are taught to stay away from the fire and always told NO. This word is spoken to children every day. They never have the opportunity to learn and respect this element, and so nature is associated with fear. Tiokasin continued, “All of their lives they ask, ‘Who am I?’ They are told it is based on physical possessions. You numb yourself until you are 65, then you die, buy a large tomb, and go to heaven or hell. What a program!”

This process made me chuckle in rueful recognition of its truth: our society literally makes life into a program and categorizes each stage. I asked Tiokasin how the Lakota tribe would handle fire with small children, since it is a dangerous element if approached without care. Tiokasin explained that the children are allowed to approach the fire but the parents are always watching and protecting. He believes it is important for children to learn the power of something like fire and to respect it instead of fear it. In this sense, nature is always a positive and magical part of life.

When foreign cultures came to this land hundreds of years ago, they saw the native people as savage, lazy, or different because they sometimes sat around doing apparently nothing. Had they asked the Lakota, they may have found out what Tiokasin understands: “Those natives out there sitting on the hill were looking at the stars and learning. There was time and we evolved as a culture to expand beyond our physical selves.” However, as Tiokasin stated, if “nature is blocked then a spiritual maturity never happens.”

Tiokasin believes that “the highest intelligence is to be one with Mother Earth,” not above it or aggrandizing oneself with it. Tiokasin noted that when Western cultures try to connect with nature they want to see themselves as the bear, the eagle, or another grand animal, but the Lakota are more likely to see themselves as the worm or another humble animal. It is this humility that Mother Earth embraces and teaches. “Humbleness means to always give, and Mother Earth is always giving.” There is no need to aggrandize oneself with a large animal. We all have the elements and energy of every animal. He encouraged, “Those that say I want to be the tree, you already are the tree.”

There is no separation from the other organism around us and there is no ending or beginning to those connections. Tiokasin said, “We are becoming sterile and believe that we are immune to Mother Earth. We are told what to do like robots getting turned on and off. But no source of technology can control my mind and my intuition.” That power is still inside each person from birth, and the Lakota people allow it to flow without categorizing and depending on a language to define emotions and thoughts.

The English language is spoken by millions of people around the world. Words and definitions are an inevitable part of languages today so that people can interact. But I urge that each individual attend to the words spoken, attend to the limitations of depending solely on a word to express and connect with other human beings and with the natural world. Limiting speech limits so many other aspects of the world.

Tiokasin said, “It is only us who are lonely. We are in fear of ending. But if you have a language that does not have a beginning and ending, you always are, regardless of what form of life.” Words are only one form of communication. Trusting in the natural energy in oneself and the listening to language in nature can drastically change the world in which one lives. It is not an easy task to relearn how to communicate, but in order to have a strong connection to nature, one must trust that other communications beyond speech can be vital and potent.

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