Lead By Example: Following in the Steps of the Lakota Native American Indian Shirt Wearers

Becoming a Shirt Wearer is one of the highest formal honors in Lakota Native American Indian culture. Shirt men, like Chiefs Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse accepted the shirt, as they felt it was their purpose to serve the greater good. Once they took the shirt, they endeavored to live their lives the best way they knew how, as an example for others. J.Marshall III, (2012). The Lakota Way of Strength and Courage (Kindle Locations 1559-1563). Sounds True. Kindle Edition.

There’s much we can learn from the Lakota way of life, especially its social value for leading by example. No matter the roles we take on in life, we are called to be examples of goodness, compassion, honesty, decency, empathy, wisdom, and resilience, for those of whom we are in charge.

We are all called to lead by example, no matter the formality of our roles. We are all shirt wearers. We guide children, students, patients, parishioners, employees, fans, and constituents. Our roles are vehicles to represent the most sublime characteristics of human nature. Sadly, some people fail to live up to this call, and, instead, let their selfish desires lead them (Kenneth LayBernie Madoff; Jerry SanduskyCardinal Roger MahoneyDr. Conrad MurrayEx-Congressman and New York Mayoral aspirant Anthony Wiener; and San Diego Mayor Bob Filner). Greed, fame, power, and limitless grandiosity motivate their decisions and behavior. Just yesterday, I learned of a Michigan oncologist, Dr. Farid Fata, who gave needless chemotherapy to his patients to line his pockets with 35-million-dollars over a two year period.

These are extraordinary events of dishonesty, immorality, and selfishness, most certainly. But, every day ordinary people decide against the welfare of other people, to satisfy more selfish personal needs and desires. They may maliciously spread gossip about people, do not pay back school loans, or resist drug or alcohol treatment despite their spouse and children’s requests. If you ask them if they are of good character, of course, most will say yes. But, can we step in and out of good character as it fits our purpose? Can we compartmentalize goodness, compassion, honesty, decency, empathy, and wisdom as meant for some people and situations but not for others?

Becoming a Shirt Wearer in Lakota culture is the highest formal honor because it speaks to a level and quality of emotional and spiritual maturity (character development) to which not everyone aspires. Shirt Wearers were ordinary people, like us. But, they had emotionally and spiritually developed to a point where they could exercise forethought, wisdom, and control over their behavior. They were expected to rise above personal matters, and if they did not they were stripped of their Shirt Wearer role, as was the case for Chief Crazy Horse. He remained a shirt wearer until 1870, when a dispute arose after a Lakota woman (Black Buffalo Woman) left her husband for Chief Crazy Horse. The woman’s husband shot Crazy Horse in the face with a pistol. This quarrel cost Crazy Horse his formal position as a shirt wearer.

We are neither Saints nor Indian Chiefs, but we can aspire to the qualities and character of the Lakota Shirt Wearers. We just have to want to nurture these characteristics in us. Then, we will be mindful of how our thoughts, feelings, and actions may stir up selfish conflicts and dramas of the ego that harm other people (Becoming Mindful; Strengthening the Empathy Muscle). This doesn’t mean that we don’t have personal needs and desires. It is more that we are very much aware and present to the ways that our more self-centered drives may get in the way of constructing solutions that show our goodness, compassion, wisdom, and resilience.

Shirt wearers have mature psychological and spiritual understanding, of themselves and of human nature. They are dedicated to carrying out their roles as leaders, mentors, advisors, caregivers, and helpers. They let the ethos of the shirt-wearer guide their actions, so that their decisions are good for all.

This reminds me of a wonderful interaction between the Roman Caesar Commodus and his sister Lucilla, in the DreamWorks’ film the Gladiator (2000). Lucilla is warning Commodus about his plan to get rid of the Senate and cautions him that the Roman people will not be happy about this. “Rome has always had a Senate“, she says; “It is  what makes Rome great,” to which he sarcastically replies:

“What is the greatness of Rome?” “I will give the people gladiatorial games, and they will love me for it.”

Lucilla: “Greatness is a vision, brother.”

As is the greatness of Rome a vision, so is the greatness of a person. If we are to culturally live up to the ideals of the roles we carry out in life, then we have to ask ourselves ~ How do my thoughts, feelings and actions affect the whole of the group? Shirt wearers dedicate themselves to letting their higher natures rather than their egos guide their actions. This aim and the positive impact on people in their care was their reward.

We have to grow into the identity of a shirt-wearer. But, Rome wasn’t built in a day, as they say. If we continue to learn as much as we can about our psychological strengths and weaknesses, we have a better chance of living up to the ideals of our life roles.

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17 Responses to “Lead By Example: Following in the Steps of the Lakota Native American Indian Shirt Wearers”

  1. avatar Noel Lyons says:

    Love this story of “the Shirt Wearer” Deborah as a metaphor of our fractured self (ego) growing into our more whole or “higher” self – and that Rome was not built in a day! We can still learn much from Native American culture today.

    • avatar Dr. Deborah Khoshaba says:

      I’m pleased you like the story Noel. I too am fond of the ideals it represents. Yes, it is a metaphor for our fractured selves having the courage to become more whole. Hope all is going well. Warmly Deborah.

  2. very amazing Post will try to read all of your post.. killing our ego and pride is a Very difficult tasks and those who have done it have certainly achieved a spiritual destiny.And sorry to say The educated class has done the Most damage to this world and to humanity.

    • avatar Dr. Deborah Khoshaba says:

      Hello Yasir, thank you. Yes, killing our ego and pride is a lifelong challenge. You are so right. But, it can be approached daily, with the goal only of progressing in this spiritual journey (as you say well). I’m interpreting from your comment (The educated class has done the most damage…..) that the most obvious way to behave doesn’t need education, higher learning. Humanness is felt not taught. You are so right. Thank you for your wisdom Yasir. Good to see you here today. thank you for your supportive friendship. Warmly Deborah.

  3. avatar yasir says:

    Its pretty awesome article. ur content deserves great many applause but ur language style is not that high flown.
    by the way hats off!

    • avatar Dr. Deborah Khoshaba says:

      Thank you so much Yasir. I’m so glad you find this awesome. I, myself, love this story. It means a lot to me. Thank you again. Good to see you here. Warmly Deborah.

  4. Dearest Deborah, ….The other day when I first saw this I read some Indian sayings. One was something like, “Tackle life’s problems like you would tackle a great plate of food.” I can’t seem to find them again. this is the only one I remember………could you pleeeeeease help me. Thank you

    • avatar Dr. Deborah says:

      Hi Linda, actually that is mine; I posted it on Facebook. It says:
      Tackle your life purpose, like you would a great plate of food. Dig in, until there’s nothing left to discover.

      And, I will be blown away if you know of an Indian saying that is similar. I post many of these under my Words of Wisdom link on this page. But, I would love to know some of the Indian sayings that you find. Warmly Deborah.

  5. avatar Manju says:

    Dear Dr. Khoshaba,

    You always post such insightful and practical lessons. Always a great read. Thank you.

    Warm wishes always,

  6. avatar RE Ramcharan says:

    Two questions: 1. The Lakota men who were not considered worthy of being named “Shirt-Wearers”: Were they not permitted to wear shirts? Or were these special shirts that were distinguishable from the ordinary wardrobe?
    2. Could you flesh out the connection (or lack of it) with the Ghost Dance, a Native American ritual in the last days of the frontier that was said to impart magic invulnerability to warriors who wore special clothing?


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