White hair explodes outward in all directions. Black rimmed glasses frame eyes deep and knowing. Dakota features sport a handsome face, sturdy and dignified. Meet Wanbdi Wakita on a Saturday morning. He is a man who makes prayers for people.
Yet to me, he is my best friend, my confidant and playmate – a funny man, engaging and kind. Suddenly, he looks up from his paper and smiles at me, a questioning look on his face. Does he know I am writing about him right now?
Probably he does because … he knows things – things that others do not know, hear or see. That’s what it means to be a Wicasa Wakan, a Holy Man.
Let me begin by telling you a little about him.
Wanbdi Wakita was born at home with the help of a midwife on a breezy day in October in the community of Sioux Valley Dakota Nation. It was 1940.
Overseas the world was at war. A different kind of struggle was taking place at home. The heavy hand of the Indian Act reached into the lives of Indigenous people in Canada squeezing tightly. The control of the Indian Act was smothering. It allowed no movement on or off the reserves without a pass from the Indian Agent. Traditional Spiritual Ceremonies were outlawed.
Ironically, while “Indians” did not have the right to vote in Canadian elections, they were allowed to risk their lives fighting in the Canadian Armed Forces and many did. Men from Sioux Valley enlisted; Wanbdi Wakita’s father was one of them.
It was a difficult time to be a Dakota.
Yet, for Wanbdi, his home and young life was rich with warmth and laughter. With three older sisters and a doting mother, he was cared for with great love. Although they were poor by today’s standards, he didn’t know it. Every year his mother grew a big garden. With his grandfather and an older cousin working the farm and hunting for them, they ate very well, even with his father overseas.
Wanbdi was a lively child, always busy and athletic from an early age. Everywhere he went, he ran. This was quite a feat because on the reserve, everything is far away. He tells this story.
“At three years old I found a brand new pair of goalie skates at the dump. Even though they were big for me, I told my cousins, ‘Just watch me. I’m going to put these on and skate right away without falling.’ And sure enough, I did.”
And so began a lifelong passion for all things hockey. Winter days he would walk down to the river, clean the snow off the ice and skate with the other children until he was cold and hungry. Summer days were filled with horseback riding.
Yet even then, strange and remarkable things happened to him.
Wanbdi says, “I saw lots of miracles and sacred things as a boy. Once I saw a red fireball hanging in the sky behind the garage. At other times, I saw black marks, colors and strange shapes in the air. I heard voices talking to me in my ear when no one else was around. I did not understand these things. At first they were scary. In fact once, it was terrifying.
Like the day when the boys and I were playing pow wow dancing down by the river. I was the singer. The rest of the boys dancers. Carefully, they tore long grass from the ground, tucked it into their pants and shirts to make their dance outfits. With a crooked stick, I pounded out a beat on a big tree stump, singing loud, eyes closed.
When the song finished I opened my eyes to see the boys running away as fast as they could.
Standing beside me was a little man about two feet tall dressed in brown pants with fringes on the sides, a button shirt, vest and round hat. He was smiling at me from ear to ear.
I was so startled I took off at a full gallop. In fact, I ran so fast I passed all the other boys running away.
Later, safe at home, sitting at my grandfather’s knee I told him what had happened. He listened quietly, like he always did. Nodding knowingly, his weathered hand reached out for my tiny shoulder.
‘Takoja, Ija hna wakanpi. They are holy too. Do not be afraid. Someday you will understand this.’
Much later I realized I should have talked to that little man. Imagine what he could have taught me? I learned from that.”
These sacred experiences were getting Wanbdi ready for the work that was waiting for him – a work given to him by Creator. He didn’t know it at the time, but up ahead there would be many trials in life and tests before he was ready.
Join us next week for Blog post #3 The Storm