This week, my mind has been racing back fifteen years or so. I was still involved in the mainline church and a bit thinner then. The church I was working with decided to do a building mission trip to the Standing Rock Indian Reservation. The reservation is located in North and South Dakota, but our trip was to be in the South Dakota part of it. My church, at the time was a little unusual. This trip was not about “winning souls” or “converting the indians” as I have heard many say. When I say that we went out as a building team….I mean we went out as a building team…to make repairs to the local church and to build sheds.
We knew a couple of families on the reservation prior to our trip, so we had some familiarity, but at that time, racial tensions were a bit high. The families that we knew also knew of my heritage and knew that my grandma was full Cherokee. I didn’t realize how much that would help me until later. I had experienced reservation life on the North Carolina Cherokee reservation…but I wasn’t quite sure I was prepared for what awaited me. I was taken on this trip solely for my experience with troubled youth. I had worked as a Crisis Intervention Director with an alternative school years earlier. My area of “expertise” in the church was also trouble teens and working with kids with learning disabilities. I was also on the praise team….where the singing was going to help, I had no clue.
We flew into Minneapolis on a dry summer morning. I had no clue that we would be driving most of the day in a large white van to reach our destination. The majority of the team would be staying at a motel just outside the reservation. Some of us were allowed to stay in homes. I remember looking at the landscape around me…. so flat and dry compared to the lush green mountains of North Carolina. As I looked out the windows of the van, I could see fields of sunflowers. To this day, they remain my favorite. I looked to the right of us and see a buffalo ranch. I am in awe of these magnificent beasts. Giant, powerful beasts….they represented the heart of the Lakota people…once wild and free and now confined behind fences and boundaries.
We pulled into the church parking lot and were told by the locals that it would be best if everyone would just stay inside the church. I was told that I could go out with the local family members because I had the blood of the people in me. We walked through the reservation….along dirt roads and over hills. The first person we came across was a young girl of eight or so. She was playing with a litter of pups. She looked at me and spat out, “Why is he with you?” The young lady who was accompanying me replied, “How dare you treat him like that! He has our blood!” The little girls attitude toward me took on a total transformation. All of a sudden, it was as if she was my shadow. In all honesty, I am the whitest looking native you have every seen. I got every bit of my grandfather’s darker Irish looks and freckles…..the only thing that seems to have been given to me by my grandma is my dark skin in the summer.
I loved being able to visit the houses of the grandmothers and grandfathers and being given the honor of listening to so many stories….stories about when they were children….stories of accomplishment, but never told in a way that might be mistaken for bragging. My grandmother had told me before I left to always be gracious and honor each person I met. I was overwhelmed by the honor and graciousness which was shown to me. With each meeting there was always an abundance of laughter, strength and plenty of frybread. I love frybread with a passion. I finally had to learn to make the Lakota recipe. Nowadays whenever I feel the need for a bit of “home,” I make frybread.
The grandmothers and grandfathers loved to hear me sing. They told me that it soothed them. There were many times when I would just sit and hum as we worked. I would look over at one of the grandmothers and see her head tilted to the side with her eyes closed listening to me. It was then that I was made aware of the magick in music. I was told constantly that I had a gift…when I opened my mouth and music came forth, it was a calming, soothing sound that spoke to the heart. The last time I was on the phone with my grandma before she died, she asked me to sing her a song. I did. My hope is that it spoke to her heart that day.
I was introduced early in the summer to one of the grandfathers who was said to have strong medicine. My grandma told me later that he would have been considered a ‘medicine man’ or spiritual leader. On our first meeting, he told me that he actually saw very strong medicine in me. I was very much his shadow for the rest of the summer. We would climb buttes and roam the prairies….it was very much an awakening of my own spirit. I was allowed to experience things that I can only describe as a beautiful part of the Great Mystery or Wakan Tanka. I was shown a people who were still very much an indigenous group…people in whom the wild heart still danced.
My friend told me many times to be watchful of all things around me…to be watchful like the crow…that may be part of the reason I feel such a kinship with the crow…and also seem to draw crow to myself. He would spend many hours telling me about the personalities and characteristics of the animals. Through these stories I fell in love with buffalo, wolf, crow and eagle…..and was shown the cunning of the trickster, coyote.
It was also in this time that I was truly introduced to the medicine of those who had been before me. We would call this ‘ancestral magic’ now. I was shown how to pay tribute and honor to those who had gone before…to those whose footprints I walked in. I was taken to the burial site of Sitting Bull. I felt unnerved standing so close to history. I felt humbled knowing what he stood for. I still try to stop every day to give thanks to my ancestors and those who have walked the road before me.
My heart is full as I write these words. Memories overtake me. I am just as much standing in front of the buffalo that I was allowed to get close to now as I was fifteen years ago. I can still smell the smell of the reservation around me. I can still taste the frybread on the back of my tongue. I can still see the beautiful, beautiful lines in the faces of the grandmothers and grandfathers. Whenever I hunger too much for those times, I bring out gifts that were given to me….a drum, a pipe, and a flute. In using those gifts, I am there again…lost in the stories and teachings of one who had strong medicine.
I try every day to walk ‘the Good Red Road.’ Sometimes I am successful. Sometimes I fail. It is in those failures that I have to rely on that strong medicine inside of me. It is in those moments that I have to separate from the harshness of the city and escape back to where I came from. It is in those moments that I call on Great Grandfather Spirit and Mother Earth. It is in those moments that my medicine is strongest. When I commune with the animal spirits….when I dance in the open with reckless abandon….when I sing to the wind…..That is when I am the most free.