Washaka--The Bear Dreamer excerpt
When a man’s body is raised high on a scaffold and burned, skin and hair and bone blacken, crumble, and become ash. The ash is lifted, carried by wind high above the earth and scattered.
I am ash now.
The day my body burned, the wind was blowing east and it carried me aloft, lifting and lifting until the sun warmed the ash, and the rain washed me back to earth
Ash has eyes and memory; spirit lingers in ash. When my body burned, I was freed from all physical restraint, free to fly like eagles and birds, free to mingle with earth and water, to nourish the grasses and plants, to be eaten by deer and bear and wolf.
When my body burned and became ash, I was no longer tethered by human limitation but liberated, turned loose amidst the world, free to roam, to watch, to cross previously unseen boundaries between life and death, to be breathed in by Wakan Tanka, the Great Spirit. I am still here.
I was even free to be reborn a hundred years later into the body of a boy in Thunder Butte, to ease myself into his dreams, to have him remember my story and tell it to others.
1 The Lakota Oyate—The People
The first time I heard about the Others, the different kind of people, I was in my seventh year. It was the edge of summer. The days had been blistering hot and dry for weeks, but suddenly the season shifted toward fall and the nights grew cool, the air scented with the smell of the coming winter. Our village was camped beside a thin, clear stream on the eastern edge of He Sapa, the hills of black. We’d been here since late spring and the men were preparing to hunt the buffalo.
My name then was Little Chief, Itancan Cikala. My mother called me “Little Mischief.” It was my nature to be busy from the time the sun rose in the morning until it dropped out of the sky again. Grandfather Whirling Hand called me “curious.”
The best part of every day was when the other boys and I gathered in Grandfather’s tipi to hear his stories. I never thought about where the girls were—I guess they were in Grandmother’s tipi. I loved Grandfather’s stories, even the ones I’d heard a hundred times before. I’d race through my evening chores and bolt to his tipi to help with his chores so we could get to the stories sooner.
Sometimes he’d refuse to let me in until I went to wash in the stream—he said I smelled like a sweaty dog and he couldn’t bear the scent of me. Grandfather was like that. He never held back words, but he could say I stunk and it hit me gentle-like, not harsh or cruel.
So that is how it was, the edge of summer—hot, flies buzzing, sun beating down during the day and the earth cooling and growing damp during the night. When Grandfather told the story about the Others, it was a night like this.
I was already in the tipi, my body clean as a river rock, when my little cousins came in carrying small stones and other things they’d found that day. They liked bringing their finds to Grandfather—he always made up a story about each object and what it meant. He said rocks and trees and bones all had spirit, and that these spirits spoke to him. Usually the stones and sticks had something to tell us about growing stronger, not whining, helping the women more. I knew he made up the stories to teach us. Grandfather was the oldest man in our village. Nobody knew how old—not even Grandfather. He was my father’s father’s father, which actually made him my great-grandfather.
During these times, all the children—including me—listened to every word. Grandfather told of how the world was formed from Inyan, his blood flowing in blue rivers to form sky and water until he himself turned to stone. He also told stories about coyote and bear and stars, and the early travels of our people. My favorite story told of our emergence from the body of Unci Maka, Grandmother Earth, after the second cleansing.
The night I heard the story of the Others, there were nine of us in a circle in Grandfather’s tipi. I always sat opposite him because I liked watching his face across the small fire. The curls of smoke looked like spirit fingers touching his nose and brow, and then rising up and out of the tipi hole. Grandfather’s face was smooth and brown, as soft as finely-tanned leather. He hardly ever smiled but, when he did, his eyes crackled like lightning in a stormy sky.
I was the oldest of the children in our camp and tanhansi Rabbit, my cousin, sat next to me. He and I were the same age and always together. Our fathers were brothers and we treated each other as brothers, too. That night we’d built a fire because Grandfather said his bones were stiff. The children laughed at him, saying bones are always stiff. There was a lot of laughter and joking around, but I just sat and poked at the logs with a thin, burning stick. Outside it was cold, but inside it was warm and dim as a cave.
I watched the flames, watched the smoke curl up like ghostly fingers, watched Grandfather’s face. A log snapped in the crackling fire as if signaling silence and we all went quiet. He began with a prayer to Wakan Tanka to guide his words and his stories, and to make our ears work. We waited for Grandfather to finish his wacekiya, his praying, and begin the storytelling.
When he finished, he looked straight across the fire at me and said, “Tonight, a story for you, Little Chief.”
That was the first time the shiver passed through my body. At the time I thought it was the cold night air, but it was more than that. I sat up straight, excited about having a story directed at me. I had no idea his words that night would change my life.
Grandfather began, “It was the summer you were born. Your mother was large with you, and we had made camp to the south of here. It was a difficult summer; the game had been hiding, and the hunters were often gone for days at a time in search of elk and deer. The buffalo hunt had not yet begun.”
A birthing story, I thought. We all loved hearing stories about how each of us had come into the world. I figured Grandfather was going to tell the story of my birthing day once again; how I’d had slipped into the world like a wet seed just as the sun topped the horizon, how my father had awakened the entire camp with his jubilant calls and cries, how Father carried me to Grandfather as if I were a small, slick buffalo calf.
On this night however, instead of birthing stories, he had a different story to tell. “A few days before you were born, Little Chief, your father and uncle went south to hunt. They came upon a small river. There was steam rising from the surface of that river. They got off their horses and put their hands in to feel the hot water, having heard of these hot streams but never finding one before. They decided to swim.”
I listened. His voice was like a river song, words tumbling like water over stones.
Grandfather went on. “There was a place where the water fell over an edge of rock and formed a small pool. Your father and uncle tied their horses to a nearby tree and were about to jump in when they saw a small mule deer standing in the woods. It was alert, rigid, its eyes fixed and staring in the opposite direction. The deer didn’t see them. They wondered what had caused the deer to freeze, as if afraid. They grabbed their bows and arrows, preparing for unseen danger and hoping to take down the deer—their bellies were rumbling.” Grandfather grinned. “A hungry man is always a good hunter.”
The children laughed but I shivered again, waiting to hear more. “Go on, Grandfather,” I urged him.
“Takoja, Grandson, I think you are in a hurry for this story.” He smiled and went on. “The deer skipped off before they could notch an arrow. Then they heard clanging and banging in the distance, a sound unfamiliar and out of place on the quiet land. They took their bows and arrows and followed the hot stream toward the sound. When they got close, your uncle climbed a tree to search for where such a noise was coming from. And that is when your uncle saw the Others.”
Grandfather paused, his eyes rose and looked out the tipi hole as if sending a prayer to the heavens, and then he went on. “Your uncle saw something built from wood plank sitting in a meadow with large wheels lifting it off the ground. It was covered with cloth, like a rounded tipi, or a sweat lodge. A team of horses was hitched to this wagon and a man was leading the team. The man was different from us—pale, his face covered with hair, his eyes shaded by a hat on his head, his body covered in cloth with chunky moccasins on his feet.
All of this your uncle whispered down from the tree from where he watched. Your father climbed up to see for himself what was being described. Atop the cart was a woman who, like your mother, was large with child. She was also pale—her hair yellow as the prairie grass in the last days of summer. Never had your father and uncle seen such a sight.”
I still held the burning stick in my hand. Something about Grandfather’s story was like that burning stick; it touched my mind the way a spark touches dry grass. I felt suddenly hot and cold at the same time. I tried to form a picture of what he described, but couldn’t. Curiosity shot through me. I wanted to see these Others. I wanted to see what my father and uncle had seen. The world seemed to tilt off its center. Other people? Different people? Hairy faces, and chunky moccasins, and rolling wagons, and— “What was the sound they heard, Grandfather?”
“The man was building something. Your father and uncle did not wait to see what it was he was building. They scooted down from the tree and returned to the village to tell us what they had seen.”
The younger children in the tipi were getting restless, waiting for a new story, but Grandfather was not done yet.
“I have heard of these Others,” he said. “My grand-father had a vision. So have other Elders. They said that one day Others would come, many Others, and that life would change for us.”
He looked at me, his face serious. “When your father and uncle returned, we moved camp further north, to stay away from the Others. But before we broke camp, they returned once more to the steaming river. The man and his wife were still there. They were cutting trees, pulling the bark from the logs, stacking the logs; they were building a home.”
“Where were their people?” I asked. “Did the woman have her baby? How could these people get enough food without their band? How could they live? Where did they come from?”
In the dim firelight, Grandfather’s smile looked sad to me. He shook his head and said, “I cannot answer all your questions, Little Chief, except to say that our Elders from long ago saw this, that these wagons would bring a different kind of people to our lands, and that there would be many challenges, many changes for the Lakota Oyate. That is all we know. You, Little Chief, were born the day after your father returned.”
That night I had a fever. It was as if I’d carried the fire of the story with me. The buffalo robe beneath me felt scratchy and rough. I rolled and rolled and couldn’t sleep. Mother crossed the tipi and put her cool hand on my forehead. “Shh, cinksi, my son. You will awaken your father.” She lay down beside me and her body stilled the shivering in my limbs.
“Mother, did Father tell you about seeing the Others?”
“Yes, son. He talked of nothing else for weeks after your birth.”
“Why has he never told me about them?”
“Little Chief, you are still a child. These are matters better left to the men. It was not your business. Go to sleep now, cinksi.”
I soon heard the soft sound of her breathing, but still my body did not rest. It hurt to be considered still a baby. Seven was not such a young age.
The next day, and for many days after, I couldn’t get the story of the different kind of people out of my thoughts. I wondered about them, where they came from, who they were, what circumstances had brought them to Lakota country. I also wondered why Grandfather had waited seven years to tell that story. Why had he told the story that night? Why then? It was like a secret he had been keeping.
2 The Others Up until that moment, I’d never thought about there being any other world but the one I knew. Until then, I had thought my world was the only world. I’d look out across the prairie, or to the upper rise of the black hills, and think the world must end where my eyes could go no further.
Grandfather told many stories about the world, but it was always the world we knew. Again and again he’d tell us, “We are Lakota Oyate, the people.”
I knew there were worlds beyond this one, the realms of the spirits and ancestors, but those were different realms. And I knew there were many other bands of people living on the land—we’d seen them, traded with them, sometimes married them and sometimes fought with them, but the Others Grandfather described in his story were a different kind of people—that’s what he said, like an owl is different from a sparrow.
All that autumn I drove tanhansi Rabbit crazy. When we weren’t helping with the chores, I would drag him off to the edge of a clearing near a stand of pines and put him to work. We tried to recreate the shelter the Others had built. We cut small, smooth sticks from trees and peeled the bark, stacking them one atop the other until walls formed a space inside, a living space. My miniature shelter entertained the other children, and they began to add their own shelters to ours; a small camp grew. Grandfather sometimes walked by to watch us work. He’d shake his head, and then go off.
Rabbit and I even tried to duplicate the rolling cart. Grandfather told us it was called a “wagon.” We didn’t ask how he knew this word. In fact, I began to believe he knew more about these different kind of people than a single story could contain.
At night, I’d stare at stars above our tipi and wonder if the woman had her baby and had the baby lived? My mother and grandmother helped with the birthings in the village, and I knew sometimes the babies, or the mothers, didn’t survive the birth. I thought of the man living in his log shelter all alone and decided no, he would leave if his wife didn’t survive.
And was the baby, if it lived, a boy or girl?
I tried to ask my father questions about the camp of the Others, but he would not talk of it. He said it was time to leave childish curiosity behind and take on my training to be a hunter. I quit asking Father questions. Instead I bothered my mother and grandmother with endless questions about childbirth. They knew about healing, about plants—which could heal and which could kill—and I was suddenly interested in both. I began trailing along as they gathered the roots and leaves they would need for the winter.
During the buffalo hunt that fall, a young man of our village killed ten buffalo in one day. His name was Runs Fast. I watched the hunters bring in the buffalo and the sight amazed me. There would be abundant meat for the winter. I thought the name Runs Fast was a good name and I wanted to be such a hunter one day. We celebrated Runs Fast and his amazing hunt with three nights of feasting, and preparing the animals. The meat that was not being cooked was cut into strips and dried. Every night there were dances, music, and the smell of buffalo stew circling the air around the camp. The younger children spent entire days gathering young turnip roots and greens to prepare with the meat.
On the third night, I saw Runs Fast leave the light of the cooking fires and walk away. I followed him. When he’d cleared the camp boundary, I caught up with him and said, “You are a hero, Runs Fast.”
He bent and picked up a small stone from the earth and tossed it out across the open meadow. “I am not a hero, Little Chief. I am a hunter.”
“But everyone says you are a hero for killing ten buffalo.”
Runs Fast laughed and said, “It is not hero’s work, Little Chief, to do what is necessary for the people.”
His words confused me. “But you are a wealthy man, to have so many buffalo robes.”
Again he laughed, but he was not laughing at me. The birds asleep in the trees scattered and twittered when he laughed. “What is rich, Little Chief?” he asked. “I have one buffalo robe, like you. The others belong to my mother. She will give them away at the summer ceremonies.”
“Give them all away?”
“Yes. I am only rich because of my mother. And father. A man is only rich when he gives away what he has no need of, what can be better used by others.”
I had heard the boasting and bragging of many hunters much less accomplished than Runs Fast. His words amazed me, and that he would perform such a feat and give the robes away, or leave the celebration so others would not call him ‘hero.’
“What is it like, Runs Fast? To kill a buffalo?”
He did not answer me for a long time. I looked at his arms and saw the strong muscles beneath his skin. “It is necessary, Little Chief. That is all,” he said.
“Have you ever seen the Others that Grandfather speaks of?”
My question appeared to startle him. “The Others?”
“Yes, the people who are different from us, the people with white skin?”
“No, Little Chief. I hunt buffalo, not people.”
Never once did I consider that Runs Fast’s words had any importance beyond that moment. Not until many years later.
That winter, Rabbit finally got sick of hearing me talk about the Others. “What is the matter with you, Little Chief?” he asked. “You talk of nothing else. It’s boring.”
“What’s boring? Don’t you care that there may be a whole different kind of people out there with pale skin building things with logs? They may be dead. There may be others who have joined them. How can you say it’s boring?”
Rabbit punched me in the shoulder. “Because it is. Boring. We are hunters. We are supposed to be learning to hunt. Instead you are like a squirrel hunting nuts—all these questions fill your cheeks and make them chubby.”
Rabbit was only a little younger than I. We’d learned to walk together. He was my best friend and brother. After me, my mother had not born another child and I knew she wanted more babies. She was always doctoring with Grandmother, and sometimes I’d catch her watching some of the other young mothers holding babies with a sad look on her face. Once I heard my parents talking late in the night. Father said she was keeping me small, that it was time for me to train and not be hanging around the women all the time. Mother started to cry and Father quit talking harshly to her, pulled her into his arms and whispered to her, but the next day he took me from her fire. From then on, I spent my days with him and the other hunters.
Rabbit and I learned to make and use our first bows and arrows that winter. Until then, we had had only toys. The craft was painstaking, choosing the wood, peeling the bark back, stringing the sinew. The arrows were even more complicated, but we liked the activity and sat for hours hearing the men tell stories about hunting.
Our fathers no longer let us join the younger children in Grandfather’s tipi every night, but took us into their circle. I liked being with the men, but I missed Grand-father’s stories, although he’d never spoken again about the Others.
To be a great hunter was important for the survival of our people and the good ones were always remembered with tales of their feats. Grandfather often joined the hunter’s circle. He’d bring out a single tooth, or bone, or horn that hunters had given him, and he’d use the object to tell a story about that hunter, that hunt.
On days so cold and crisp you could see your breath, Rabbit and I spent the hours beneath the bright sunlight learning to track small animals. I shocked everybody (myself included) by bringing down a small mule deer with my new bow. Much was made of my feat by Father and the other hunters and the animal was dressed, the hide scraped, and the meat fed to the whole village that night in a feast. Rabbit’s father gave me a gift—a flute he’d cut from a thin stick of ash. The sides were carved with tiny animal figures and, although I did not yet know how to play it, I treasured the gift.
Later I walked beneath the brilliant stars and felt myself a man for the first time. It was a grand feeling, a feeling that almost faded my curiosity about the Others, at least for the time being. Something large had grown inside me and I could find no words to express it. Instead, even on cold days, I’d go to the edge of the village and play my flute, listening to the wind wail in the trees. It was the sounds of the world around me that I attempted to bring forth from the flute.
That winter the snow was deep. It drifted up around each tipi until we were warm and snug inside. I’d come out of the dim light of the tipi and the blazing blue of the sky would hurt my eyes, every twig of every tree glazed and glittering in the sun.
Spring came at last and we broke camp and began traveling south. I was always excited to see the tipis coming down and the people moving once again. Winter was quiet, a time for stories, for making songs, for tanning hides; spring was another thing entirely. I lived for spring each year.
After the encounter with Runs Fast—after killing my first deer—I was burning for manhood to arrive, impatient and in a hurry. I thought no more of the Others but spent my days in training. With Father’s help, I built an even stronger bow than any I had yet held. The bow was stronger than my body, so I spent the days of spring pulling the sinew, stretching and stretching, holding it until my arms quivered and sweat broke out on my brow. Without ever notching an arrow, I held the bow taut. The younger children began teasing, calling me Little Tree, so long did I hold my stance. My arms grew strong, the muscles stringy and tight beneath my skin.
To make my lower body as strong as my arms and upper body, I ran. I ran up rocky hillsides, through the woods, down the stream. I’d race up the hill, gaining the meadow and breaking fast into almost a gallop.
One day, after such exertions, Rabbit caught up with me and asked, “Little Chief, why are you in such a hurry to be a man? Everything has its time and manhood will arrive soon enough. Come, swim with me—or let’s go fishing.”
I stood, still holding the bow, when suddenly Rabbit’s question pierced me like an arrow, and I realized what I was doing. It shocked me. It was not manhood I sought—but the Others. I was training because I wanted to follow the trail my father and uncle had followed when they found the man and his pregnant woman; the Others. All of my training was for this purpose alone. I wanted to travel south to the steaming river. I wanted to go in search of the shelter of logs, of the man with a pale, hairy face, the woman and her large belly. I told Rabbit this.
“You’re crazy, Little Chief. Those other people may not even be there any more. Likely they died, or left, or got eaten by a bear. You’re crazy.”
“Sure you are.”
I tackled my cousin and wrestled him to the ground. We were beside the river and Rabbit gained his feet, grabbed me by the ankle, and dragged me across the ground. Although I was older, and had been in fierce training, Rabbit was, like his name, quick and strong. He dragged me to the river and, before we knew what had happened, we’d rolled off the bank of the creek and into the water.
The frigid water closed in around us and we both leapt to our feet, sputtering and shivering and laughing. “You look like a drowned rabbit,” I told my tanhansi.
He shoved me and I fell back into the water and we had a great water fight. The children heard the commotion and came running down to the riverbank. There was still snow on the tops of the mountains and the water was icy, but nobody cared. The little ones jumped in and joined our games, tagging one another and pushing each other down.
When I finally pulled myself out of the river, I saw Runs Fast standing on the edge of bank smiling at us. I felt like a child again. Rabbit was right; manhood would come in its own time.
Later, as we dried off, Rabbit pulled the braid out of his hair and said, “At least I got you to swim, crazy boy.”
As the summer sizzled in, burning the grass and cracking the earth, Rabbit and I both reached our eighth year. Rather than getting me to play more, he went the other direction and began training with me. He was well named. He was lean, and quick, and nervous. I was more solidly built, with sturdy legs and a wider frame. We made a good team. Rather than totally abandoning youthful play, Rabbit convinced me that swimming, scaling trees, swinging from branches and rock climbing were all equally good training to be a hunter. We were together day and night. Sometimes we’d gather the other boys together and stage great pony raids, knocking each other from our horses and snatching the leather reins from the losers. We also managed to get into some scrapes.
Rabbit and I often lost track of time and wandered far from camp, realizing too late that we could not return by mealtime. Once we convinced three of the younger children to eat a type of mushrooms we knew would give them the belly trots. Another time we rigged the trees in a little grove with small animal skins strung from branches on almost invisible lines of sinew. Rabbit convinced three of the girls our age that he had seen an entire flock of flying squirrels. He lured them into the grove where I was hiding—ready to make the flying pelts attack the younger girls.
After each of these escapades, we were confined to the village grounds, forced to do what Grandfather called ‘woman’s work’ for three days. We were not even allowed to take our horses out for a ride during our restriction. After the incident with the girls, my mother doused both Rabbit and me with cold water, to get our brains working again, she said.
For the next two summers, we continued both in our training as hunters and as boys playing pranks. My mother finally carried a second child to full term (two others had left before gaining this world) and I had a baby brother. With this event, I felt one step closer to manhood. Something about the responsibility of being a big brother brought this home to me. I had a new place to hold in the family, now more man than boy, I decided. Mother spent her days in the care of the little one who was first named Shaking Leaf for the grove of aspens he’d been born under in the spring of the year. Later my brother would be given a new name.
Had I known these easy years marked the end of my childhood, I may have cherished them more—the peaceful play, the easy rhythm of summer and winter in my village, the pranks Rabbit and I performed. My parents were always watchful, always nearby, and Grandfather and my uncles were training us to step away from play and toward taking on our new roles as men. The thoughts of the Others faded into the background of my life, not gone, but not haunting my every moment either.
Until the night the dream came to me. And I caught it.
Leon Hale and Jamie signing books
Washaka--The Bear Dreamer was named a finalist in the PEN USA Literary awards and won a Ben Franklin Award for Best New Voice in Fiction in 2007.
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