The wind whips angrily as branches release yellow leaves into the raging current. They rush across the sky before falling to the ground, a yellow blanket to cover Mother Earth. A coal oil lamp, its glass lantern black with soot, casts an orange light. A fresh pot of coffee percolates on the wood stove filling the kitchen with a welcome aroma. Wanbdi sits at the wooden table in the tiny old house waiting for the black brew.
Being alone is not something that Wanbdi has ever known. From a family of nine to residential school and then life in the army, there has always been people around. Yet with time comes change and the offer of something new. The quiet is heavy; it seeps into the empty spaces making him antsy.
Last month his parents moved across the road into a new house complete with electricity, central heat, running water and an inside bathroom. Wanbdi is happy his mother finally has comforts she has never known. When his father offered him the chance to live in the old house, he took it.
“It’s just what I need right now.” He told him.
One knock and the wooden door opens hesitantly as Grover Horned Antelope, all smiles, steps through. Hidden by the large man, a tiny woman, his wife Florence, follows behind.
“Come in. Come in.” Wanbdi welcomes them. “Have a seat here by the stove. It’s chilly out there.”
The black liquid steams as he pours it into mugs.
Grover Horned Antelope is a big man, not fat but stocky. His short white braids reveal his advanced age. He sports a cowboy shirt with white snap buttons, jeans and a large cowboy hat which he places on the chair beside him. His rough and calloused hands grab the mug and he drinks loudly.
Wanbdi places a loaf of bannock and bowls of hot soup in front of them, thankful his mother had left them for him earlier that day. His guests eat heartily, enjoying her delicious food.
“Where are you from?” Wanbdi asks.
“Originally we’re from the Rosebud reservation, but these days we’re living in Buffalo Gap, South Dakota. Our boy is a policeman, a sergeant over there. Herman Hapa invited me. I’ve never been to Sioux Valley before so my wife and I decided to come over.”
“I heard you were having ceremonies in the community.”
“Yup, I sure am.”
They visit easily, talking into the night.
“You will stay here with me.” Wanbdi offers. “I’m here all by myself. I’ve got lots of room. There’s a bedroom just down the hall to the left.
“Thank you. We will. It’s late and I’m tired. It’s been a long day. You know, I’m coming back in December. It would be good if there was an Ini, a purification lodge, here when I get back. We are going to need it.”
After Grover and Florence return home Wanbdi collects willows, firewood, rocks and tarps. Although he’s never built a lodge before that doesn’t stop him. He grew up with ceremony. He saw them built before. Determined, he teaches himself how to build the sacred structure.
When Grover returns in December it is waiting for him.
The old man shakes his head smiling from ear to ear, “Nina waste. Good job boy. You did it, didn’t you?”
Breath freezes white; smiling he rubs his gloved hands together.
“Thirty two.” He says reaching for rocks. “Let’s fire them up!”
A towering fire heats the rocks. When they glow red, Grover methodically prepares himself to enter the lodge. He removes clothing until he is clad simply in shorts with a towel around his shoulders. Kneeling he crawls through the small opening, the door, following by the men each in turn.
The lodge is round like a womb; one half is visible above ground, the other half invisible below. Bent willows frame the sacred structure and hold thick tarps in place to keep the heat in and the light out. A buffalo skull bleached white by the sun and weather waits patiently on the altar just outside the lodge door.
Upon a long pitch fork, Wanbdi carries each hot stone into the lodge placing it gently into the small hole in the center. From fire to lodge and back again; he makes many trips. The rock pile grows round bursting from the small hole. The pitch fork searches for the last of the rocks. Finding none, the burned wood is pushed together. It ignites quickly into a tiny fire.
Standing in the frigid December cold, one hand leaning on the lodge, Wanbdi quickly removes, jacket, boots, socks, pants and shirt. The hungry air bites at his skin. He rushes into the lodge pulling the tarp door down behind him. Instantly the heat from the hot rocks warm his skin.
Sitting cross legged, his back straight, the frozen earth is cold beneath him. With the tarp tucked in carefully over the door it is absolutely dark. Suddenly tiny orange sparks dance on the rocks. The sweet aroma of medicine fills nostrils.
Water splashes on the rocks screaming loudly before it transforms into vapour. Rising up steam bounces off the tarps and onto the men. Drops of sweat trace downwards, dripping.
“Wacekiya wo! Make prayers!” Grover encourages.
A rattle shakes vigorously, its piercing sound fills the darkness. In unison, prayerful voices sing and reach towards the heavens.
In the privacy of the blackness, his body clean from the purifying steam and his heart open from the sacredness of the moment, Wanbdi faces himself honestly. His secret feelings of shame, unworthiness surface in his chest once again, like they have many times before. He shakes his head to push them down. Emotion catches in his throat, then travels to just behind his eyes. With his mind focussed inwards, the men’s prayerful voices are both far away and very near.
To an unseen Creator and loving presence he pleads, “Unsimada wo. Unsimada wo. Take pity on me.”
Abruptly an answer is given.
For the first of what will become thousands of times, a old man Sacred Spirit speaks in the old Dakota language with hot breath directly into his ear.
“Grandson, build one like this every springtime. Use 16 willows.”
Eyes wide, Wanbdi leans toward the voice. He strains to hear more.
The Grandfather continues, “A pipe will come to you. Don’t go looking for it.”
As if in a dream, Wanbdi hears himself answer, “Tunkasida, pidamaya pido. Thank you Grandfather.”
The lodge is quiet now. Water sizzles gently on the rocks.
Wanbdi’s mind races back and forth searching for understanding. It wants to push away the voice into unlikely, into impossible, into “I’m not good enough.” Yet, the realization of a future as a ceremonial leader seeps in past his doubts, his hurt and pain. With every heartbeat, an acceptance pumps in and a knowing pumps out. Slowly, from a place deep inside him that is older, wiser, he accepts it.
Wanbdi exhales loudly. In the blackness of the lodge with sweat dripping from his forehead, his mind asks the question, “How am I supposed to do that?” ”
Join us for blog post #11 after a summer of ceremonies. See you in the fall.