by Geoff O’Keeffe
To the east lie the Black Hills, to the west, the Bighorn Mountains. Between is a vast prairie: grasslands, sagebrush, lightly forested in places, sometimes lush, most often bone dry. The rivers are iconic, the stuff of legends: Yellowstone, Powder, North Platte, Bighorn. On this side of the Divide, all rivers flow eastward, joining the Missouri and eventually the Mississippi, heading toward the Gulf of Mexico. This is enormous land. Barely imaginable.
This and so much more was Red Cloud’s land. From the Dakotas to Idaho, Montana to Nebraska, this is sacred land of the Lakota and other tribes, reaching back in time thousands of years. European colonists struggled to comprehend this connection to place. I struggle to see and hear the past, speeding north on Interstate 90, with eighteen-wheelers and quarter-million-dollar motor homes whizzing past. If I squint my eyes, blur vision, I can see buffalo, warriors on horseback, resigned cavalry, and hapless settlers in broke-down wagons in the haze.
Gold and silver and the promise of wealth brought thousands of white settlers west along the Oregon Trail, hoping to skirt the rigors of the Rockies and the Sierra. North of Fort Laramie, another trail, the Bozeman, left the security of the North Platte River and headed northwest to gold fields in western Montana. Along these trails, ill-prepared intruders littered the landscape with their discarded belongings, leaving pianos, chiffoniers, cast iron stoves that broke green wagon axles, along with trampled grasses and dead buffalo. All these were insults to those who had lived here lightly and respectfully for so long. They were poor guests. They had no idea where they were or how to survive gracefully in this land if they were to survive at all. Many did not.
So, this is where we gathered to meet for a week. We followed the Tongue River west, up over 8,000 feet, through lush green valleys, alongside lakes and mountains, to where we made a temporary home. We were thirty-five in all, six Native Elders and four of their children, and twenty-one “Zens” as we are kindly called, and four Zen kids. The kids were with us all week, the younger ones playing together, running and climbing, chasing and laughing, Zen kids and Native kids, joyous, free and together. I prayed I was seeing the future.
We were joined by Manny Iron Hawk, Violet Catches, Renee Fast Hose Iron Hawk, Claudia Iron Hawk, Wendell Yellow Bull and on our third day, Arvol and Paula Looking Horse.
Our Elder friend, Manny Iron Hawk, had arranged with Cedric Broken Nose that we be included in a multi-tribal Constellation Ceremony at the Medicine Wheel on our second day. Over seventy attendees represented Lakota, Northern Cheyenne, Crow and other tribes. This was a rare gift. We spent a day in preparation and another following in sharing about the experience. I won’t go into detail about the ceremony we experienced other than to say that it was deeply moving for all of us. We spent all day at the sacred site, one of dozens if not hundreds throughout the wider area, possibly dated to 3,000 or more years ago, above 9,600 feet, in the sun and under a bright blue sky. We heard songs and stories and sharing by the Elders attending, held stillness and prayed. We heard the wind and the screeches of birds overhead. We faced the four directions with open hearts and prayers for others.
Each of our five days together was unique: a new location, a fresh perspective, gentle ways of growing together, both in our understanding of Lakota life, culture and spirituality as well as of one another. We held Council that was deep and intimate. We took our time, as much as was needed, to listen and hear.
Late one night a group went back up to the Medicine Wheel and sat in stillness at midnight under a waxing crescent moon. Little was said the next day.
At week’s end we were filled and emptied, exhausted and energized, quiet inside but hugging and laughing and saying our farewells.
We will return.