012410 Bear Butte – week of July 12, 1987
I went back to my journals from 23 years ago last night, looking for a memory. As I worked through my history of the year before my 36th birthday (SEE *Age 34-35 (August 1986 – August 1987) First Sweat Ceremony) I found the dates for which this even occurred, but did not find anything written about my experience. I now have to recreate the events from memory.
I was invited to attend a combined Baha’i and traditional Native American gathering held over a weekend during the second week of July, 1987 at the foot of Bear Butte in South Dakota. This area has been a traditional ceremony sacred ground for countless generations. This gathering was designed to be a spiritual meeting of like-minded people.
I left my two-year-old son with some dear friends so that I could attend alone. It was time to wean Jay from breast feeding anyway, so I figured the chance for he and I to be apart during this difficult period of transition would be helpful. And it was.
I traveled alone in my old rusty car to the camp ground area, being both dismayed and relieved to hear that shortly before people began to arrive for the gathering a large rattlesnake had been removed from the outdoor grilling area by the local people setting up the camp. I’d never had a close encounter with a rattler before, and certainly didn’t want to have one now.
The gathering was informal and relaxed. Speakers came and went. The sound of gentle flute music or rhythmic drumming filled the evening air. Groups of people mingled, visiting together about their beliefs, customs, longings and actions toward building a better world.
By the end of the second night rumors grew about a traditional Lakota ceremony being held several miles away on the reservation the next afternoon. All who wanted to could be a part of it. I met a Navajo/Dine woman, Charlene, who wanted to go and encouraged me to come along to drive her. The next afternoon we headed out across the country side following several cars toward the closest small town so we could buy food to contribute to the feast that would be held after the ceremony was finished.
I had been to several sweat lodge ceremonies among the Anishinaabeg tribal people in northern Minnesota where I lived. Always food was shared, venison, wild berries, wild rice, fry-bread. The collection of food carried to the home of the tribal medicine people holding the ceremony on this evening included white bread and lots of bologna, along with cookies and pop.
When we reached the trailer on the remote tall grass land where these people lived we were introduced to the grandfather and grandmother, father and mother, and the older brother of the man who had invited us. All the women were separated from the men as preparation for the ceremony began. Women made long strings of tobacco ties from small square pieces of red cloth, strung together with red crochet cotton. Each one was made with a prayer inside so they could be taken with us and hung inside the sweat lodge we entered for cleansing before the big ceremony started.
For many years the younger brother had taken care of the medicine pipe which had been in the family for hundreds of years, but it was the older brother’s destiny to work with the pipe. The spirits had said it was now time for the power of the pipe to be transferred in ceremony to the older brother.
As dark approached all those participating in the ceremony silently took their place in a large circle on the carefully swept barn floor on the property. Anyone who had brought a special or sacred item to be blessed by the spirits during the ceremony had placed them on the altar. I had carefully nestled the eagle feather I had been given among the items left there and found my place on the women’s side of the circle beside Charlene.
The older brother of the family was wrapped from head to foot with thick bundles of sage. Star quilts were then wrapped over his head and around his entire body and tied into place as he was lowered down to lie on a thick platform of sage in the center of the room. The ceremony began in pitch darkness with prayers in Lakota, songs and the sound of rhythmic beating on hand drums.
Each person in the circle was called upon one at a time to express to the Grandfather’s the nature of their concern or their request. Once voiced, the family consulted with the spirits for instructions or teachings that they then passed on to the participant.
The voices of the people came closer and closer to me on the right in the circle until it was my time to speak. I felt shy and insignificant, barely able to speak out loud into the vast darkness my questions about the four dreams I had questions for the Grandfathers about. I spoke quickly and briefly, somehow thinking that the spirits would read the rest of what I did not say inside my mind and my heart. The elders and their son began their conversation with the spirits present at the ceremony with their drums and in their Lakota language I could not understand. I sat with bowed head waiting.
On and on the drumming thundered, voices raised again and again, louder and louder. Then only the sound of lighter drum beats could be heard, and I could hear the lowered voices of the elders talking to one another. Again the near shouting, drums thundering, and then again the quieter conversing. Some time passed by until finally I heard in English from the elder’s side of the circle, “Please, who is next?”
After the queries and concerns of all in the circle had been heard and addressed, the main ceremony commenced that did not take very long, and the lights came on. I had never heard a sound of movement from the center of the room, but there sat the older brother unwrapped from his cocoon, cross-legged on the blankets and sage.
I left the room walking slowly beside Charlene, and was halfway across the yard to the trailer when the younger of the brothers came up beside me on my left. “Here,” he said, extending his had toward me, holding my feather. I had not thought about it once the ceremony had ended.
I looked at his face, and simply stated to him, “No, the feather belongs with you. Please, keep it.”
The brother thanked me, and told me briefly that the Grandfathers had said my dreams were not their concern. They had said that if my heart so desired, and if I walked the Good Red Road into my future, the dreams would come true if I desired them to.
After the food was shared, Charlene and I left, following a young girl’s car who led us to her house in town and gave us a bedroom to spend the night in so we wouldn’t have to drive the long way back to the campground that night. Charlene and I did not sleep. We talked together in whispers, and Charlene told me what had happened when I had asked the Grandfathers my question about my dreams.
Charlene was a long time member of the Native American Church, and I was awed by what she told me. Although she knew no words of Lakota, she understood every word that was said in that ceremony, including what the spirits had communicated through the drumming.
“I heard the Grandfathers speak about your dreams. I also heard how the elders saw something else about you. A circle contains you. You are inside this circle, and the elders asked the Grandfathers to remove you from it. The spirits refused. The elders asked again and again, and the Grandfathers absolutely refused to honor their request. When you heard the elders talking back and forth, I understood what they were saying. In all the years that medicine people have been in their family never until this request had the spirits refused them. They asked again and again, but no. You still have that circle around you and the elders do not know why. They do not know what the circle is or why it is there, and they do not know the reason the Grandfathers would not remove it.”
I listened to Charlene, intrigued. I was awed that she could understand all that was said. Her earnestness did not lessen as she told me this next. “You know that feather you left there? We need to go back and get it at daybreak. Those people will watch everything you do, know everywhere you go through that feather. You have to go with me to get it back.”
“Why on earth would they do that?” I asked her.
“Because they can,” she told me. “It is entertaining to them. It is their way.”
Sure enough as the first light entered that dark paneled little bedroom’s window Charlene led me quietly out of the house. We walked quickly for miles through the wet tall grasses, taking shortcuts across the land to get back to the elders’. The sun was up above the horizon and warming us by the time we stood on the damp doorstep knocking. Charlene spoke for me when the old man opened the door. “This woman would like to have her eagle feather back now.”
That was all she said. The old man disappeared into the trailer. A moment later the eagle feather, light and dark blue narrow ribbons still tied to its stem tip, was back in my hands. Still in a state of dazed wonderment, pant legs soaked to the knees from cold heavy dew on the grasses, I thanked the old man, turned with Charlene and walked away.
As we plowed our way back through the grasses on the path we had made before, Charlene looked at me and grinned. “That is good,” she said. “They cannot watch you now. You are free again. We have to hurry before the others leave without us. Come on!” She broke into a run as I sprinted to catch her.
Last night, twenty three yeas later, I wonder about that ceremony. I have always accepted that it is not possible for me to understand what that transaction was really about. I absolutely believed Charlene. She told me all kinds of other things that had been said in Lakota and in the drum beats that night concerning what was told to others. Charlene was gifted that way. But she had no idea what that circle might be that I am inside of, and no idea why the spirits refused to take it away. She said that it had been quite an argument, and the elders were not used to losing.
I see in the next journal entry I wrote on July 19, 1987 once I returned home that I never mentioned what happened on that trip away from home. I kept in touch with Charlene for several years through letters. She had spent the 45 years of her life on the Navajo Reservation, and had survived 27 alcohol related car accidents. She had lived a rugged life, continually battling her alcoholism.
Had she not found her way to that Bear Butte gathering and befriended me, I would never have known the missing piece to my story that night, and I would have been watched in some way, according to her, whenever those elders wanted to know where I was and what I was doing for the rest of my life.
As it was, I eventually gifted that feather to a young girl having her First Moon Ceremony. Non-Native people cannot legally own eagle feathers, no matter under what circumstances they are presented. Over the years it always saddened me. Every time I received one as an honored gift, I had to let them leave my hands and enter the hands of another.
At 58 I am entering my own stage of life as an elder, but I feel no wiser than I was that night I shyly asked for insight into the meaning of dreams I did not understand. I returned to the question of what that circle might be around me now because I want to understand this aloneness that has carried itself within me for my entire life. It shows no sign of leaving me, no matter how much I wish otherwise.
It dawned on me last night that perhaps my being alone is a kind of gift to me, and if it is then it might well be a part of my personal ‘medicine’. If it is a gift, it is like the gift of my sky blue eyes. I did not ask for them, either.
I can see that given the power of my mother’s hatred of me, a spiritual circle of protection could be the reason I endured and did not come out of my childhood also being unable to reflect upon my self in the world in the same way that my mother could not reflect upon herself in her life. But I am beginning to suspect that once that circle was put into place it could not be removed just because it was no longer needed.
I am pondering these things. The existence of this circle is a part of my life story. Without its presence I doubt I would have survived my mother’s 18 years of terrible abuse of me at all. If I was placed within that circle when I was born, as a shield of protection against my mother’s harm of me in ways that I would not have survived, I want to learn to be grateful for its presence.
At the same time it might well be that the presence of this circle around me — that I cannot get out of, that others cannot get into (including my mother for all she tried to harm me), and that cannot be removed in my lifetime – means that until I learn to accept what cannot be changed. Perhaps it is because I do not really understand this circle that I end up feeling so alone, for this feeling has been with me all of my life.
My lonely aloneness has been temporarily suspended at times, but it always returns. Can I make my peace with this reality?
Connects to January 25, 2010 post: