Summer 2009: Features

Ceremony inside teepee

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Circle of Darkness, Circle of Life

Exploring America’s history and modern-day life “on the rez”

By Gary S. Hauk 91PhD

Shirtless and barefoot, wearing a pair of running shorts, I sit in darkness so complete that I cannot see my fingers in front of my face. Heat more intense than any Atlanta August afternoon envelops me; sweat pours down my face and arms and off my elbows like water from a faucet. In this thick atmosphere I wonder whether I can tolerate the claustrophobia for more than ten minutes. So far I have been sitting here, Indian-style, maybe two. The schedule calls for two hours.

“Here” is a small sweat lodge in a field a hundred yards from the Tongue River, on the Northern Cheyenne reservation in Montana. Shaped like an igloo, some four feet high at its center and no more than ten feet in diameter, the sturdy, willow-frame structure is draped by thick layers of canvas and tarpaulins staked to the ground to keep the light out and the heat in. On this sun-filled May morning I have crawled into this artificial cave on hands and knees along with four other men and five women to participate in a ritual of the Native American Church.

Seven of us are from Emory, neophytes unbaptized into these mysteries, on a Journey program sponsored by the Office of Religious Life. The other three are brothers of indeterminate middle age from the Medicine Bull family, members of the Northern Cheyenne nation and college-educated teachers. This morning they are our priests, as it were, our expert guides through two hours of prayer, burning of herbs, chanting, ablutions, and alternating periods of darkness and light. And much sweating.

In these circumstances—heat, blindness, close confinement with others—I become conscious of two competing claims on my attention. First is my awareness of my own state of being—my breathing; the sweat dripping off my chin to my chest; the condition of my soul. It has been seven years since my last journey to “Indian country,” and that last journey preceded by two months the death of my sixteen-year-old son, Thomas. In the past week, since our group landed in Billings, his spirit has been as fiercely present to me as an old shaman.

I am also aware of the others in the darkness with me, friends with whom I’ve made this pilgrimage. Students, alumni, and staff members, we have spent six days meeting with professionals in the Indian Health Service and the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), law enforcement officers, and Indian artists, educators, and legislators. We have aimed to understand the different cultures that mix and overlap and sometimes clash here.

One of the great paradoxes of Native American life in the twenty-first century, especially as that life is lived out on the reservations of the American West, is that tribal affiliation is as much as ever a source of pride and rooted personhood, while the realities of the twenty-first century-American economy can dramatically erode the individual’s connection to that source.

On the reservations in this part of Montana, for instance, unemployment ranges as high as 60 to 65 percent, according to the BIA. The solution to this problem has proven elusive for more than a century. Initially the federal government proposed simply eliminating the problem by stamping out Indians’ sense of “Indian-ness,” through programs that encouraged assimilation. In this way, it was thought, the bane of unemployment would vanish along with an outmoded way of life.

Of course, Native Americans were not eager to give up so much. During the past forty years the resistance stirred by the American Indian Movement, the growing awareness of whites about injustice to Native Americans, and the recognition of tribal sovereignty by the federal government all have reaffirmed the power and value of the tribe.

Inside the sweat lodge I feel that power and value coming through the chanted prayers of Burt Medicine Bull and his brothers. During one of the periods of light, as the door flap is raised and water is passed clockwise (always clockwise) around the circle, Burt invites us each, in turn, to “express yourself”—say what deep need or calling moves us—and then, when darkness falls again with the door flap, to offer a prayer as he and his brothers chant in Cheyenne.

I cannot make out the words of the prayers being offered but only hear that prayers are being said, as the Cheyenne chants on top of the prayers—male voices, “hey-yo han’na,” gourd rattles—transform the prayers into an ancient appeal from the depth of the heart that blends with the darkness around us.

The Native American Church and other forms of spiritual discipline clearly ground tribal members with internal strength and eternal verities. Many Crow and Cheyenne are Roman Catholics but bring a kind of syncretism to their worship, drawing on traditional icons and imagery: eagle-feather crucifixes; images of Madonna and Child as Indian mother and baby; a medicine wheel in the center of the cross. Our ritual in the sweat lodge itself has elements of baptism and other symbols of death, descent, and resurrection. Such resources of spiritual strength are vital to people facing the stark challenges of their world.

In southeastern Montana the scarcity of employment remains a hard fact, for young Native Americans especially. How they resolve the difficulty may affect their connection to family, tribe, and land. According to Curtis Brien, a Crow and a health educator for the Indian Health Service, the only job crying out to be filled is that of nurse. The modern IHS facility where he works has some twenty nursing positions unfilled. Doctors also are needed to address the health problems that seem to afflict Native Americans disproportionately: obesity, hypertension, diabetes, alcoholism, and drug addiction.

Unless they have a career in health care in mind, however, young men and women have little incentive to leave the reservation for education if they want to return to live among their tribe; the rez offers few jobs for engineers, lawyers, accountants, computer programmers, or biologists. Teachers will have some opportunities. The rest will make their way with low-paying work or crime.

This harsh reality prompted a discussion during one of our group’s daily reflection sessions—really a challenge to Emory’s vision of “working for positive transformation in the world.” For middle-class students preparing for jobs in cities like Atlanta, where structures of work already exist, that phrase really means “doing good while doing well.” What would it mean to educate people so that they could, themselves, generate jobs, build structures of opportunity where none existed, and exercise a creativity that extends to the creation of livelihoods, forging of communities, and flourishing in a land that does not easily yield its bounty? Some Emory graduates surely operate outside traditional structures of work and institutional life. But in general, “Trailblazing 101” has yet to make it into the curriculum.

The tribes have both the freedom and the burden of figuring out for themselves the political economy that will work best for them. For the Crow and Cheyenne in this part of the world, their large tracts of southeastern Montana real estate are both an obstacle and a boon. Unlike their eastern or southwestern cousins (the Wampanoag and Mohawk in New England, for example, or the Apache and Pueblo in Arizona and New Mexico), these northern Plains tribes inhabit less populous areas that make it difficult to create tribal wealth—and jobs—with casinos. On the other hand, their land is rich in minerals, especially coal and coal-bed methane.

As happens so often, however, forces in the larger culture work against the Indian: in an age that seeks to be green, the natural resources on the rez are suddenly less clean and less desirable than alternatives like solar and wind power. Potential investors in mining coal and gas have been slow to step forward. Although Montana has begun to test the possibility of harvesting wind for power (it is the fifth-windiest state in the country), so far none of the seven reservations in Montana has been able to forge an alliance with any of the utility companies supplying electricity to the state.

The very concept of tribal identity sometimes raises conundrums, especially in regard to proposals for economic development. Jo’etta Plumage-Buckhouse, a Gros Ventre Sioux who works as an archaeologist for the BIA, told us that the question of how, or even whether, to develop a tribe’s natural resources sometimes cannot be resolved by the tribe itself. For instance, some members of the Northern Cheyenne tribe believe that the coal and gas beneath their ranches and towns should be harvested for the well-being of the tribe; others believe that the tribe holds the sacred land in trust and should not exploit it simply because America wants energy. While a new generation of tribal leaders might help find the way forward, for now the question stands at an impasse.

Further complexity abounds in Indian country—a term used by both Native Americans and whites to describe not only a geography but also a state of mind. As Michael Elliott, an associate professor of English at Emory, recounts in Custerology (University of Chicago, 2007), nothing underscores that complexity so breathtakingly as the site of one of America’s most famous battles, the so-called “Custer’s Last Stand,” more properly referred to as the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Our group of journeyers spent a full and arduous day on that battlefield with an expert guide, a former history teacher named Steve Adelson, who for twenty years has brought groups to this terrain at the western edge of the Crow reservation.

Elliott recounts the history of how that battle has been interpreted and, often, manipulated for various ends by whites and Indians both. Just as interesting is the continuing friction among the five tribes who rode on opposite sides on that hot June day in 1876. The Crow, who scouted for Custer, were rewarded for their friendship with the United States by being awarded the largest reservation in Montana, including the battlefield (except for two small parcels managed by the National Park Service). Abutting the Crow reservation to the east—and only a fifth as large for a population about half the size of the Crow—is the Northern Cheyenne reservation, home of those who killed Custer.

The Crow will say, however, that their rez represents only a minuscule portion of the land that “was always our homeland,” according to Lawrence Flatlip, a Crow artist and oral historian. Flatlip’s presentation to our group, on the first evening in our dormitory at Montana State University-Billings, included a map that showed ancient Crow territory extending across most of what is now Montana, into northern Wyoming, and north into Canada. (In fact the first reservation for the Crow established by treaty comprised some 33 million acres, compared to today’s reservation of about 2.2 million acres.) Some Crow historians also say, as Flatlip did, that the reason for the Crows’ working with the U.S. Army was that in 1825 the tribe signed what was called “the Friendship Treaty,” a document whose title and commitments the Crow took more seriously than the whites.

Little question remains that the betrayal of political promises and the murder of leaders has left room for lasting bitterness. In the circle of the sweat lodge, however, we are invited to know each other as human beings, not as ethnic beings divided by history. Larry Medicine Bull, in prelude to his prayer, reveals that his twenty-four-year-old daughter has died within the past week, leaving a child behind. The brothers also have recently lost a sister. No causes are mentioned, no details given, only the most basic fact, that here are men joined in grief. As the door flap descends and light changes to dark, the brothers chant their grief, and I find myself humming wordlessly in unison with them.

At the end of our sweat, we pilgrims crawl out of the lodge and drape ourselves in lawn chairs or across mats strewn outside as we recover; the enervation of the experience has left us physically drained and emotionally spent. We still have one more pilgrim’s journey to make on this last day of our trip, however. After cooling off and driving half an hour to the town of Lame Deer, we refuel with lunch in the tiny café of Chief Dull Knife College (the Cheyenne tribal college), and then we set out for our destination four miles north of town.

The sandstone monolith called Deer Medicine Rocks rises from the valley floor along Rosebud Creek. In this valley Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, and an estimated fifteen thousand Sioux and Cheyenne men, women, and children, along with their twenty-eight thousand horses, paused for perhaps a week before moving to the banks of the Little Bighorn and the fated meeting with Custer—“fated” because Sitting Bull himself had seen a vision of soldiers “coming down like grasshoppers,” tumbling headfirst into his camp, their hats falling off, their ears missing because they refused to use them and listen.

The site now is part of the ranch run by Jack Bailey, whose family has owned this land since 1883. A courtly gentleman who speaks with equal pride about his grandparents and his grandchildren, Bailey represents a critical generation in the preservation of this land. He invites us to this space as if to a corner of the Vatican. He and his family take seriously their stewardship of this sacred place and are working with a private trust to see to the long-term preservation of the site.

Bailey has brought his friend Phillip Whiteman to interpret the signs on the rock. A chief of the Northern Cheyenne Council of Forty-Four, traditional dancer, and horse trainer, Whiteman has led us in our vehicles from Bailey’s ranch house up the half-mile dirt track to the monolith. Thirty yards from the Deer Medicine Rocks, he kneels to clear a small circle of dirt in which he burns his “tobacco offering”—half of a cigarette that he lights and puffs on to get it burning well, then sets in the middle of the bare patch of earth. As he does so, the wind picks up and brings cooling relief from the hot sun overhead.

Standing with us at the base of the rocks, Bailey points across the valley to the small log cabin that his grandparents built in 1883. At the time, he says, the sundance pole used by Sitting Bull still stood about a hundred yards from the cabin.

Before us the rock face rises up and away at a slight angle, thirty to forty feet. Spread across it are petroglyphs, some of them predating Sitting Bull by hundreds of years. As Whiteman speaks, he interprets the carvings from right to left, and from bottom to top, at odds with our Western way of reading. Here we see a jagged blue scar from an ancient lightning strike running from the top of the largest rock to the ground. The streak runs through the carving of a deer, which, with the nearby image of a medicine man, gives the rocks their name.

“In this life,” Whiteman says, “we are all related. All of life travels within a circle. Everything is connected within that circle and eventually comes back around. In my tradition we call that circle the Medicine Wheel. You are not here by accident, just as Sitting Bull did not come here by accident. It was meant to happen this way.”

The way it happened for Sitting Bull was that when he found these rocks, he fulfilled his promise to Wakan’ Tanka, the Great Spirit, that in return for a vision he would sacrifice “a scarlet blanket” of his own blood and dance the sun dance. To prepare for the sun dance, Sitting Bull sat still and prayed while his brother cut fifty small pieces of flesh from each of Sitting Bull’s arms using an awl and a razor-sharp knife. With blood flowing from these wounds, Sitting Bull danced before the sun dance pole from noon, through the night, and until noon the next day, when he was laid out to receive his vision.

Within a day of carving onto the rocks the stick figures of Sitting Bull’s vision, the great camp of Indians moved on, leaving petroglyph messages for anyone who came after and an unmistakable trail to the Little Bighorn. The next week Custer and the Seventh Cavalry arrived at the Deer Medicine Rocks, where Arikara scouts interpreted the foreboding signs. Custer had no ears for their warning but followed the trail to destiny.

Leaving the Bailey ranch for the long drive back to Billings and a night’s rest before flying home, I ponder those carved images of men falling to their doom because they would not hear. The Emory motto, Cor prudentis possidebit scientiam, is the first half of Proverbs 18:15 and is usually translated, “The wise heart seeks knowledge.” The other half of the verse reads, “The ears of the wise seek it out.” We are wise to use our ears, but I wonder what we are not hearing.

I do know that my ears seemed most acute as I sat in the dark of the sweat lodge, listening closely to the sound of my breathing and to the presence of those men and women who, for centuries, found their way to the same sacred circle.

Gary Hauk 91PhD is vice president and deputy to the president and author of the book A Legacy of Heart and Mind: Emory Since 1836.