At two hundred feet he resembled a buffalo wallowing in a mud puddle. The former autobody man weighed in at just three hundred pounds. His hair hung to his waist in two neatly twisted braids. A third braid, smaller in diameter, weaved off the back of his skull in a fine, thin line. His hair was very well taken care of.
As we got closer, he didn't snort, he didn't run off. He remained, steadfast, down there, lying on his sacred Mother Earth. As we approached, he didn't even look up.
It could have been his legs. It had happened in Korea, a hundred a first airborne. His knees were shot to hell. They had put him back together, but the pain never went away. It pulsed. Sometimes he couldn't walk. Sometimes it induced visions. You could tell when he was on one because he sweat like a pig. But today he was dry and the pain, it was not in his knees, it was in his heart and in his mind. You could see that.
"Well Frank," he said. "I've made my stand."
The Buffalo looked up. Now that it had been said. You see, misunderstandings would occur. The future was now unknown.
"I knew you would," Frank replied.
The two looked into each others eyes. A look that gave away their deep and bonded friendship, the knowledge that each would die to defend the other, their people, their way. You see, Frank had been to Korea also. They shared the same wound. Not the wound in the knees, but Wounded Knee, the Conquest, the Alamo, Custer, Cortez and John Wayne. The wound of history. The one that tricked you, blinded you, sent you overseas fighting one of "their" wars. Their being them, them being they, they being the ones that stripped you of everything you were. They had taken the land.
Ernie and Frank had been through many battles before, the one waged now-- to secure the sacred Sundance. The ceremony that united the tribes had been invaded by non-Indians. The most sacred ceremony had turned into a show. The show was over. The Buffalo was making his last stand.
"Just four days," Ernie, the autobody man asked. "Four days for ourselves. We give you 361 days out of the year. your ancestors have taken our land. Let us have our ceremonies at least. Just four days to remember, to find out who we are again."
Trying to remember, surrounding Ernie and Frank were fourteen "vato Locos" (crazy guys)-- Members of the Chicano tribe, ex-gang warriors, green-card-carriers, Spanish and English speaking Indians who had their culture, religion and language taken away 500 years ago. To them the Sundance was the missing link.
There was Alex who we called the goat because of his laugh. There was Angel, who always kept his hair coiffed like he had just walked out of a barber shop on Brooklyn Avenue and who had enough knife wounds and bullet scars to be mistaken for a Sundancer himself. There was Crazy Larry, fresh out of TI (Terminal Island, the Federal Prison in San Pedro) and dressed to the nines in brand new camouflage.
There was Big Mike, I mean big. And Little Mike, whose mother had pawned him off on us so he wouldn't get into trouble back home. There was Guppy whose gang was desperately trying to lure him back with offers of PCP, mota, rucas and ranflas (elephant tranquilliser, marijuana, girls and cars). There was Jorge, El Gordo, who studied the law. And Rene whom we called "pocket warrior" because he was so short. There was Ronnie who breathed through one nostril from a childhood blow his father dealt. And there was John Blanco, the 50 year old biker decked in Oakland colors who worked for the gas company back home. There was me, Mr. Dramatics, whom the Goat dubbed, "Mad Max". And then there was Moonotter, our own white guy, who Ernie brought along to take care of his own.
"There are no Hispanics in Mexico," Ernie told us. "Maybe Mestizos. Take the masks off, you are Indian."
Ernie the autobody man was Dakota. Ernie, the man who sometimes couldn't walk, had walked across America in 1978. Ernie, who sometimes had visions, had one-- somewhere between Iowa and Indiana-- to unite the North and the South. Ernie had met Jessie, a Chicana, born in East LA, raised picking grapes, striking and boycotting Coors.
Like Mother Earth provides food and shelter, at the Sundance the women fulfilled the traditional role of cooking and taking care of camp. But Jessie was the Chief's woman and Stacey, her 13 year old daughter who diddn't read or write her own name, didn't cook and didn't clean. Helen, "Mad Dog Helen", Big Mike's companion did the cooking with Eva, a PoliSci graduate from St. Mary's, whom Frank recruited with the line, "Do you like camping?" It was Suzanne, Helen's fifteen year old and Suzanne's best friend, a white girl named Nicole who peeled the potates and did the dishes, content to be outdoors, never mentioning a word about the homeboys, bubble baths or hair dryers they left back in LA.
Women were our backbone, Ernie told us. The givers of life. Without them we were nothing. Women, Ernie said, were a walking, breathing ceremony in themselves.
They say the pain a man endures Sundancing is only half the pain a woman goes through delivering a child. "It's the least we can do," Ernie would say. "Especially today, because the men are weak and the women carry our burden."
If they were on their "moon", their monthly menses, they were given special treatment, not because they were thought "unclean", but because they were considered "too powerful" then. Their moon was a built-in, biological ceremony. It was called the moon because in the old days the women didn't have to count, the ceremony was in harmony with Grandmother. The Moon.
There's a ceremony to honor woman, a way for men to have a moon. We are Sweat Lodge people and every Saturday night we go back inside our mother's womb. Every Saturday night we gather in Juan's backyard.
You have to look hard amongst the tract homes, barbecues and hot tubs in the city named the Angels, but you can find us. The yard next door has an empty swimming pool, the yard behind has a picnic table and a swing, the yard to the right a tree house. In Juan's backyard sits an Inipi.
Inipi is Sioux for Sweat Lodge and represents the womb of Mother Earth. The shape of an igloo, framed by willow branches it is covered with rugs, blankets, whatever will make it light and air tight. A door points east to the rising sun. In the center sits a pit dug into the earth. The earth from which has been placed outside the door to form the altar. This represents the heart. Above the altar sits a fire pit. The the fire pit, the altar, the lodge form a line-- head, heart and womb. Seen from above, it resembles a woman.
A bonfire is built in the pit. Volcanic rocks placed in its center. As night falls we enter the Inipi. Stripped bare, except for a towel around our waist, we sit in a circle with barely enough room to breath. The rocks, our ancestors, red and glowing from the fire are brought in and place in the center. The door is closed.
Ernie is a funny guy and he cracks jokes a lot. But inside the Inipi, he tells us to be silent and reminds us why we came in. He brings in the drum, beats a rhythm and leads us in the AIM song. It goes likes this-- Aay ya, hey ha ya hey ya...
Some of us aren't so good singers. Either we sing too loud, too high, off key or we don't even know the words. Ernie tells us that we are in the Inipi to learn the songs. That maybe our ego gets in the way. Maybe we want to be at the top already. But we must learn first. We must be patient. That maybe it is the same in our daily lives.
In unison we say "Mitakyiose" (all my relations). The fireman opens the door. Ernie calls for four more rocks. We are thankful for the fresh air. It gets hot inside. I swear when Ernie pours the water on the rocks that the steam comes up and slaps my face. I swear when he talks about wanting to be at the top already, he's really just talking to me. Oh god, I say. Here come four more rocks. Am I going to be able to take it this time? Maybe I'll have to leave. I say this to myself, so no one can hear.
"Who wants to leave?" Ernie asks. "Who just thought that thing?" Ernie tells us that things are different now. That sweats are going to be this way from now on. That some of us aren't here for the right reasons. That some of us will fall out. That our commitment must be greater. He reminds us again why we came into the sacred Inipi.
"Your mother carried you for nine months," he says. "Can't you last a couple of hours?"
"Patience," he says, then tells us. "Go back, go back in time, back inside your mother's womb, the moment we first arrived. That beautiful moment when man, woman and spirit became one. Conception. The first heartbeat. The beat of the drum. Aay ya, hey ha ya hey ya...
The fireman closes the door and we pray, outloud, one after the other, in a circle. We learn the hard way, to the tune of two hundred degrees plus. Ernie splashes water on the rocks. The breath of our ancestors rises and soothes if our prayers are sincere, if they come from the heart, if we focus our minds.
One second becomes the next. One minute becomes another. One hour becomes two. When we get out it is like being reborn. Some iced horchata (Mexican rice water) and a couple of tacos at King Taco will taste great now. Of course we'll also check out the sweet young Chicanas who frequent our favorite establishment around midnight. Some of us are looking for wives.
And so this is how we came prepared for the Sundance.
It was already 90 degrees at ten in the morning. We had left Los Angeles at 7 the night before and drove a solid fifteen hours. We dispersed and pitched camp around Ernie looking for sleep.
Seeking privacy, as I knew there would be little the next four days, I pitched my regulation Vietnam jungle hammock between two cedar trees up and away from the others. Tossing and turning, I was restless, something was wrong. A family of ants had entered my humble abode. I broke camp and regrouped behind Ernie. For some reason, around Ernie, not even a mosquito would fly. The Buffalo and the insect had made some kind of deal, a pact of mutual respect. I fell asleep and dreamt.
Ernie had been asked to be Sundance Chief. Vincent Black Feather OSMM (Oglala Sioux Medicine Man) had been sent $700 by the elders to do the same. But he had yet to show up and, in fact, never did. OSMM, because that's the way the gift pens read he gave away one year, written in the space that once read, "YOUR NAME HERE".
Frank, whose peace time job was as a college counselor, was once again chief of security. Frank had asked Ernie if he could Sundance this year. Frank was a family man, had a four and five year old. His situation at home was falling apart. His wife wanted to leave. She wanted the cat, the dog and the kids.
Ernie wouldn't let him dance. Instead he reminded Frank of his commitment as chief of security. Three years before when the Navajo had imported the Lakota ceremony from South Dakota to the land dispute at Big Mountain, the elders held a special ceremony and asked Frank to take the job. This was his third year, there would be one more. Everything was done in fours. Four seasons, four directions, four races-- the red, the yellow, the black and the white. Four years.
Ernie had yet to let any of us Sundance, although I'm sure many of us had the desire. One of us had even pledged-- made public his desire at last year's Sundance. He began the year of preparation. This included a Humbleche, a vision quest-- four days and nights, no food, no water, alone on a hill. Whatever the weather, a single blanket would suffice. You weren't allowed to fall asleep. If you dreamed (the vision), you did it wake. In any event, you prayed. Our compadre never made it through the four days.
It was an honor to suffer for your people. When I say suffer, I don't mean pain. Our ceremonies were not about physical suffering, but spiritual suffering.
We drank the blood of our Earth Mother-- you call it water. We ate our brother and used his skin for shelter and clothing-- the deer and the buffalo. Life was just a phase we went through, there was no word for death. In the old days, when a child was born, someone had just passed away. Balance and harmony, not good and evil, the positive and negative forces were equal and one. Of all natural creation, man was the weakest creature, below the winged, the four legged, the rocks-- nothing was taken for granted. And we didn't pray for ourselves either. If someone was sick, we prayed for all who were sick. Once you Sundanced, your life did not belong to you, it belonged to the people.
If Ernie had his way, there probably wouldn't even be a Sundance. We weren't ready. And if there was one, there probably would be only one dancer. And it probably wouldn't even be him. Few if any deserved this honor. Or were up to it.
One hundred years ago the remnants of Custer's 7th Calvary slaughtered three hundred women, children and unarmed men at Wounded Knee. The Sundance was outlawed. The survivors were herded onto reservations, forced into schools, their wrists slapped if they spoke their native tongue. The buffalo was no longer food and shelter. No longer a direction, a path by which to emulate our lives.
In secret, in private, the people started a new ceremony, the Ghost Dance. They prayed for a heaven filled with their dead and a messiah to take them there. Then it too was outlawed.
In the Paha Sapa, the Black Hills of South Dakota, a place regarded so sacred the Indians wouldn't even live there, a place for ceremonies, for burial, for the hunt-- the hunt for the sacred buffalo-- gold had been found and the faces of four white men were carved into one of its peaks.
In the late sixties the spirits of Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull awoke. The American Indian Movement was born and the young warriors wanted to learn the old ways. The Sundance resurfaced. Indians from the North, the South, the East and the West united. From the cities, from the reservations, from Mexico, from Aztlan, from the barrios, the grape fields, the prisons, from the bars and skid rows of America, from the battlefields of Korea and Vietnam. From the autobody shops of Pacoima.
Today was the first day of Purification. Early this morning, before we arrived, the Sundancers went into the first sweat. They would return this evening for another round. This cycle would continue for four days.
Under Ernie's and Frank's direction we were given jobs. Alex, Rene and I were to handle the sweats. Angel, Crazy Larry, Jorge, Big and Little Mike, Guppy, Juan Blanco and Ronnie were put on security. They would enforce the rules.
A lot of work still need to be done. Only fifty of sixty brothers and sisters were in camp now, but five hundred or a thousand were expected. The arbor needed to be rebuilt. There was wood to be cut. Water to be hauled.
Nacho showed up. Half Sioux, half Chicano, hard core, bad ass Nacho. Bad ass like with the "T-shirt rule". All men, expect for the Sundancers were to be fully clothed. No one was to be running around half-naked. But with Nacho, it was, "that's a nice tan you got Nacho," and "no Nacho, I wasn't staring at you."
To be befriended by Nacho was rare for he might be asked to kill you for the sake of "the cause". Nacho was a one man security force. The Indian version of Rambo. He traveled the circuit, wherever there was trouble, he was there. Nacho was a "dog soldier".
In the old days, these warriors were known to go on raids with dogs tagging along. When they got hungry, they just ate one. When they went into battle, they set the dogs loose, staked themselves to the ground and dared all to approach, no way to escape. For a dog soldier, it was always a good day to die. That's how the story went. One we never questioned. At least not to Nacho personally.
It was Nacho who went to Frank, "Whose that white guy with the security shirt on?"
"That's Moonotter, our own white guy," Frank informed him. "Ernie brought him along to take care of his own."
Moonotter's job was to secure the non-Indian camp. Educate them about the dress code, ghetto blasters and boundaries-- All non-Indians were to stay away from the immediate areas of the Sundance arbor, the sweats, the Indian camps. Only work details were allowed entry. Moonotter had his work cut out for him.
It might have been easier to be a Sundancer for Frank and Moonotter. At least that way they would have known the direction the knife was coming from.
Big Mountain had captured much attention. There were 60 billion tons of coal under the land, enough to power the United States for 30 years. The oil and uranium deposits were untapped and extensive. Somebody wanted the land.
It was just two generations ago when the U.S. Calvary rounded up and force-marched the Navajo to "Indian Territory," whats now known as the present state of Oklahoma. The Federal Indian policy at the time was to capture all Indians and place them on one large reservation. In the midst of the Navajo "trail of tears" the government made an about face. They returned the nomadic, sheephearding Navajo to the "useless desert" and establilshed a reservation surrounding the village dwelling corn, squash and mellon farming Hopi. One inside the other, a circle within a circle, at the turn of the century mineral exploration boomed, the second invasion began.
The reservation, the government said, was unclear. The lines of demarcation unresolved. The government created the Joint Use Area, a rectangle one part Hopi, one part Navajo. The JUA will be both of yours they said and went searching for 3/4's of the male population to sign new treaties and leases. The people just stayed where they were, where they'd been for centuries. The government walked right over the clan system, the traditional form of tribal government and land jurisdiction. In the clan system, the women held the land.
Wherein they had to coerce or manufacture the required male signatures, the government's next move was to create the present day tribal governments. Yet most of the people did not only not speak English, they had never voted. The government chose "their" Indians, the process of lease and treaty signing was simplified. Mineral rights, the government told the tribal chairmen, were up for grabs.
The "Navajo/Hopi Range War" ignited-- tribal chairman vs. tribal chairman. And like happens in the JUA, whose rich coal deposits sit just below the surface, catch fire by a passive sun and burn for years and years, time seemed to linger. For people in the back country, in areas like Big Mountain, life went on as it had before. Decades past and in 1976, in the throes of the "energy crisis," the government stepped into "save the Indian from killing each other"" and passed Congressional Bill, Public Law 93-531 to divide the land once and for all. In the JUA, if you were Navajo on the Hopi side or a Hopi on the Navajo side, you were to be moved. Since one clan won't tread on another clan, the situation had presented two options-- move to the city (death) or stand up and fight (life) clear delineation of mineral rights and the profits there of.
Ten thousand Navajo and Hopi were affected. The government considered themselves generous and offered $50,000 for your house, your land, your sheep, essentially your life. The Navajo and Hopi who inhabited the area had been living a very traditional life. They lived off the land. No running water, no electricity, no paved roads. The money was useless to them. Few, if any, still had ever voted or spoke the English language.
Accusing the Indians of "overgrazing the land," the government imposed stock reduction. Herds of sixty were dwindled to five or four. Fences began to pop up. Bulldozers and test drillings appeared. This would be the first forced relocation since Wounded Knee.
A showdown was expected July 1986. The date was final, the government said, and lowered the offer to $40,000. After July, they would use force.
Something had to be done. An AIM Survival Camp was built. Warriors from Wounded Knee, young and restless Navajos from the "rez", Mexicans from the barrio picked up shovels and M16s'. Help came from as far as Japan, Austrailia and Finland. There were times when the camp had been empty. But over the years many had drifted in and out. The struggle had captured the imaginations of Indians and non-Indians alike. Time quickened, life began to change. A coyote had appeared in sheep's clothing. People, money and 2nd-hand clothing flowed in.
Some got used to the money. They fought over the clothes, only the latest fashions were saved, the rest strewn upon the landscape. Vegetarians arrived and imposed their menu on the mutton-eating Dine. And drawn by the heroic struggle of the Navajo matriarchs, women from the city came, some of them standing topless in front of the shy and modest grandmothers who dressed traditionally in velvet from head to toe. One elder abandoned her sheep, her Hogan (traditional Navajo house made of mud and tree branches) and took up with the non-Indians around the country.
"We all make mistakes," Ernie said. "but if we don't secure our ceremonies, we shall have nothing left."
This was Ernie's stand. He wasn't opposed to the help, there had been much done and still more to accomplish. "Just four days," he asked, "to find out who we are again. The circus has to stop."
Ernie didn't ask to be Sundance Chief. But now that he was, he had to do what had to be done. It wasn't his idea, it was Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull and Three Hundred Slaughtered at Wounded Knee.
Moonotter delivered Ernie's message. The non-Indians weren't so easy to convince. One named Cottontail led the charge-- Oh yes, I forgot to tell you-- the non-Indians arrived with names like Cottontail, Stormcloud and Moonotter; the Indians with names like Larry, Leonard and George.
Anyway, when Moonotter delivered Ernie's message, "We can stay, but we've been asked this year to make our own camp. Away from the Sundance. We're to stay here during the entire dance, the days of purification included. The chief wants to bring the ceremony back to the Indians. So it can be just for themselves. So they can find out who they are again. He asked that we respect him."-- Cottontail exploded.
"Who the fuck does he think he is?" Cottontail cried. "I've been coming here for three years."
"Well, those are the rules," Moonotter replied. "And by the way, could you turn your radio off? From now on only the Sundance drum will be played here."
"And who the hell are you?" Cottontail howled, his facing turning red.
"I'm Chief of Security for all non-Indians." Moonotter replied, a pre-school teacher back home.
"How come I've never seen you before?"
"I travel with Ernie."
"Ernie's a Goddamned racist!"
Cottontail turned his back on Moonotter and stormed away, muttering to himself, calling out to his wife and kids.
Later that night Moonotter would receive the first of many threats on his life. Cottontail would have his revenge.
Moonotter would sleep very little that night, not because of Cottontail or his threats, but from what Thomas had told him. Thomas being a young Navajo from Big Mountain.
Thomas told Moonotter about "skinwalkers, humans who take the form of animals to do their dirty deeds." Thomas told him about the one that appeared just before the Sundance.
"This one," Thomas told him, "came in the shape of a coyote. Khe Shay heard it howl in the middle of the night. He woke up and went out to protect his herd of sheep. Khe took his thirty-odd-six.
"He spotted it hiding behind the back of the water trough. Sure enough, it was a coyote. Khe lowered his sight, saw directly into its eyes and pumped one shell. He left it for dead and went back to sleep.
"With all the trouble going on here at Big Mountain," Thomas added, "anything could happen. This relocation thing is dividing up families. The ones who are ready to take the money, and those of us here who are fighting to stay."
"Well, what happened? In the morning? Was it a man?" Moonotter asked nervously.
"Yeah. It was a man," Young Thomas replied.
As Thomas and Moonotter stared at each other in the afternoon sun, our camps barely made, the first day of purification yet over, a meeting was called. A powwow to settle what was becoming a heated argument. If there was magic to be found on Indian reservations, you could always find it in black.
The non-Indians, led by Cottontail, had gathered support from some of the elders. The elders didn't understand why their friends were being asked to stay away. They insisted that they be welcomed. In fact, "the non-Indians will be sitting with us when the dance begins," they said.
The Buffalo dragged himself out of his mud puddle. He didn't want to get up, it was so comfortable down there. Immediately he was surrounded by his homeboys-- he didn't ask-- and proceeded down to the round house, the open air meeting room at the base of the non-Indian camp.
The Buffalo had spent so much time in the mud puddle, he hadn't seen all the new faces that had arrived at the camp. They looked at the Buffalo in awe, in suspicion, in fear, in respect.
Murmurs, rumors spread like wildfire. Who was this man? What language did he speak? Who are those lowriders standing there with him?
But the Buffalo was not the first to speak. Annie Holmes a Big Mountain local with a masters degree opened the meeting.
She sprinkled tobacco into a quietly dying fire burning in the center of the round house. A gust of wind blew through and gave the embers new life. The crowd grew silent.
"My name is Annie Holmes," she began. "I live here. I want to welcome you all here to Big Mountain. Me and my family, our neighbors appreciate that you came. We know how far some of you have travelled to be here and support us. Some of you, as much as three thousand miles."
She sprinkled more tobacco into the fire, then resumed.
"We are gathered here today, right now, to discuss this non-Indian business. That non-Indians will not be allowed to attend the Sundance."
The round house fell silent.
"I want to say that I for one do not understand this rule. But the medicine man here," she pointed to the Buffalo, "has decided that it be this way.
"I want him to explain it to me."
All eyes went to the Buffalo. He stood resolute, calm, those who knew him might have seen something, but it passed as just another breath of wind.
"But before the medicine man speaks," she went on, "I want to say, and I speak for some of the elders, that we welcome the non-Indian. They have helped us since day one of our struggle. I feel he deserves to be with us during this special ceremony.
"As you know though, the Sundance is not one of our ceremonies. We Navajos have our own. But because of our struggle here, the elders asked our relatives from the north to bring their ceremony here. That maybe this would help us in our time of need. We are thankful that it came.
This will be our third Sundance. Many of our elders have come to believe very strongly in it. At first they didn't understand, but they have seen the changes that it has made, the strength that it has given them through out the year.
"Many of our neighbours still don't understand. But many come. To them it is a curiosity. You see, Navajos don't shed blood in their ceremonies. When they see this, it upsets them.
"So if you see our neighbors and they look like they don't understand, maybe you Sundancers can explain it to them. That way, they will leave here with good thoughts.
"I would like to ask now that the medicine man here talk to us and explain this non-Indian business to me. Like I said, I believe that they should be allowed to be here with us. But I will abide by what the medicine man tells us.
"Because he must have a reason for it."
Again, all eyes fell on the Buffalo. The former autobody man cleared his throat. Before him were the elders, the Sundancers, the non-Indians, the entire camp which numbered about a hundred now.
"I will speak this one time," he began. "After this it is up to you, my brothers and sisters.
He took a deep breath and let it out looking everyone in the eyes.
"My sister here calls me a medicine man. That is what the white man called us. It is his term. I am not a medicine man, those are his words.
"In my language, what I am, does not translate. What I do is not more important than what everyone of you do. Out there under the Sundance tree I am the Sundance Chief, yet I am not more important than the dancers.
"In our culture, the one who could hunt was more important than the so called medicine man. For he could feed us and clothe us. The warrior too, for he protected. The woman, for she creates life.
"But, the hunt is no longer. The land has been taken away. Here at Big Mountain we fight for the last of it. Our language has eroded. My own children don't even speak it. Almost all we have left is our culture, our ceremonies. Even these we have had to fight for.
"All we ask is four days. Four days to be by ourselves. We give you eleven months and three weeks. All we ask is four days. Four days to renew our strength. Four days to get to know who we are again. Four days to find the power in our ceremonies once again.
"My non-Indian brothers and sisters, maybe you can understand. We need the Sundance. We need to establish that connection. We need to be stronger before we can help you.
"We can hardly help ourselves. How are we going to help you until our own people understand? Until our own young people know who they are? If we make mistakes, let us make our own mistakes. This is all we have left.
"The eagle feather is white. One of the flags in the Sundance circle is white. One of the four sacred colors is white.
"Four days. All we ask is four days."
The Buffalo paused and took another deep breath. Cottontail lit up a cigarette. Annie Holmes fidgeted with her velvet skirt.
"I understand that one of you have called me a racist," he continued. "I hope I never hear this again. And if so, I hope it is right to my face. And if so, I hope, I pray for this person that he can run faster than I can.
"I have grandchildren who are white. I can't tell which half is white and which is red. Don't ever call me a racist!
"We have brothers and sisters in prisons. They can't Sundance. They can't sweat. They can't pray with the pipe. Maybe when they are released, we can think about letting our non-Indian friends be a part of our ceremonies.
"This is the first day of purification. What are we doing here? We should be deciding what prayers to perform, who should be healed, what special ceremonies should take place.
"Do you know there's a Sundance in Europe? That there's a Sundance in Baltimore run by the Rainbows? What is going to be done about this.? Can't you just let us keep one thing of our own?
"All we ask is four days.
"Next year when the government has threatened to force the relocation. When the Army comes, the National Guard, the BIA, the FBI...will you be here? Will you be prepared to defend the land with your life?
"I will. I will be here."
We followed his last word with an "Aho" or "Hoh"-- the pan-Indian affirmative.
Cottontail had his hand raised like an anxious 1st grader who had the answer or needed to pee.
"I'd like to speak," he said.
The Buffalo had already stepped back. Annie Holmes gave Cottontail the floor.
"My name is Cottontail. I am the one who spoke those words. Words which were taken out of context and used against me. I resent this. I feel what has happened here has hurt me, my wife, my children.
"I've been coming out here for three years. I help build the kitchen here, the fence for Khe Shay's corral. I've herded sheep, I've worked and have helped these people as if they were my own family."
Cottontail got several nods from the elders.
"I have blisters," he went on, "blisters on both hands from chopping wood, from hauling water. I have blisters on my blisters.
"I don't understand why you've excluded me and my family. But I have to respect what you say. I don't respect this guy," he said pointing to Moonotter.
"A man with the same blood as me being a messenger of hate. Telling me what to do. Where I can stand, where I can sit. I don't respect him running to you and taking out of context what I have said.
"I have blisters on my hands!
"I have spoken." Cottontail finished, folding his arms in a sitting position as if he was Sitting Bull himself.
Cottontail got nods from several non-Indians around him and a hug from his wife. Moonotter set erect, a fire burning within.
"Any threats at the chief," Moonotter spoke up, "I will report to the Chief. What was asked of you in a good way, I reported word for word to the Chief."
Moonotter was steaming.
"I again ask my non-Indian brother to respect what has been asked of him."
"Are you speaking for the Chief?" Cottontail hollered out.
"Enough!" The Buffalo decreed. "I speak for myself. We will not argue here. This is sacred time. We should all remember that and keep our thoughts and feelings in accord. If not, we should leave."
Turning to Cottontail, in a private way, "Why my brother did you bring your family into this? Can't you take responsibility for your own actions?"
"You talk about blisters and years. I can't even count the number of years I have been helping my people. The blisters don't even come back after awhile, your hands get so used to them.
"Don't talk to me about blisters and years. Four days. All I ask is four days."
The Buffalo looked sad, he turned about and left the round house.
There are many lessons to learn going the Red Road. It is like becoming a child again. I will explain.
How many rocks do you use in the Inipi? Four, twenty eight, fifty six, seventy two? How do you build the fire,? With four logs on the bottom, four across, surround it like a tepee, then use cedar shavings for kindling. Oh, don't forget to say a prayer first. How do you cut wood? That's easy, but if you're from the city, it takes a little getting used to-- so the axe works for you and not the other way around.
Do you say Mitakyiose or Midakyiope? Or just All My Relations? How do you light the pipe? How do you hold it? How do you smoke it? Take full deep breaths, but don't inhale, for the tobacco is prayers. And it's not really tobacco either. And it's not that funny smoke. And don't call it a "peace pipe" like in the movies.
These are just some of the things we learn, things we make mistakes about. If you were to study them you would find most are based on something very practical and down to earth (not something mystical or romantic). These are the things we learn on the exterior. It is on the interior, deep inside, that we do are real learning. We find out what we are made of.
That night, Alex, Rene and I served our first duty as firemen, preparing and assisting in the sweats for the Sundancers. There was a reason Ernie and Frank had put the three of us together. It was a test of sorts.
You see, Alex is known to be a difficult kind of guy. The kind that orders you around, talks down to you like you were a kid and he was Mr. Know-it-all.
Rene and I were put with him because it was thought that we were the type that held our ground. That didn't take any shit.
Rene was cool. Humility with a lower case "h". He knew how to rise above the "chismes" (rumors), give you the shirt off his back and some pulque to boot. He didn't have papers, a father, or a mother. The shit just didn't affect him.
The responsibility fell on me. Geeeez. All my luck. I mean it was an honor to work the sweats, but what a test. I mean I already got a big ego, just my luck to spend the next four days with someone whose ego was bigger than mine. And when Frank added, "I'm depending on you," I mean, the situation was just ripe for conflict.
And so this is how it began, with Alex instructing us on how to build the fire, how to use a pitch fork, which rocks to use, how to pick your nose. But I respected him. And, geeeez, he's alot better than he used to be. He used to tell you how to wipe your butt.
And he had been around lot longer than any of us. And I had alot to learn. In our way, humility was a direction to be sought. So for tonight, the first day of purification, I put my ego away.
We worked really hard over the next four days. Cleaned the place up, got a routine going. Up at three, fire on by four, first sweat about five. Watching the sunrise. Bringing the hottest rocks in, closing the door, hearing the prayers of the Sundancers. Sometimes they even let you smoke the pipe with them.
There was something very special happening. I had been to two Sundances before. But I never felt such unity. I think Ernie really had something going here-- an all-Indian Sundance. You could feel it.
Jessie ran a sweat for the women, the elders and the Sundancers, those who danced in support of their men. She would clarify any questions the elders still had, especially for the neighbors who still had doubts. To her surprise, the Sundance sisters, one a ten year veteran, had even more questions than the elders.
Jessie gave a crash course in the Sundance. She spoke about the tree, how the men hang, stakes carved in their chests, until they break free. The symbolism of giving birth, the breaking of the umbilical cord.
The rocks were brought in. The ceremony began. When the pipe was brought in, it felt unnaturally heavy. Something was wrong.
It was getting hot inside and the women were loosing their concentration. Jessie was praying. An elder murmured something, but couldn't be heard.
"What," Jessie asked, breaking her prayer.
"Last year's tree has not been burnt," the grandmother said.
"Open the door," Jessie yelled. And sent Rene to get Ernie fast.
You see, every year a new Sundance tree is required. On the first day of purification, last year's tree is to be cut and burnt in this year's sweats. Although the Sundance lasts four days, the ceremony takes place all year. It is in the tree that the Sundancers prayers are placed and it is not until the tree is burned, it's smoke rising the Grandfather, that the prayers can be answered.
It was night when Rene found Ernie. Ernie was at the front gate giving Guppy a talking-to. A rattle snake had approached the gate and Guppy, on security, had dismembered it.
"It's the white man who made our people fear the snake," admonished the Buffalo. "In the old days, they too were our brother."
"Yeah," Guppy thought, "but why take chances," as Rene ushered Ernie away.
The next day, the second day of purification, another meeting was called. It seems things weren't quite settled by the meeting yesterday. Some people's feelings were hurt-- there was the question of half-breeds and quarter-bloods. And what about squaw men-- white husbands married to Indian women or Indian men with white companions. And there were elders who were defiant-- their non-Indians would be with them at the Sundance, lest they loose their support. The final decision would be made tonight. It would be a traditional gathering. The non-Indians would not attend. The decision would be that of the Sundancers and the elders, not even the Chief would come.
It had rained twice that day, once in the morning and again in the afternoon. The previous days had been all sunshine. One hundred degrees and up. The rains brought everything to a simmer.
A cloud bank had covered the sky since dawn. At twilight it broke clear to the south. The opening was oval in shape, an eye, one that looked in as well as out.
The land below lay in silhouette, at it center sat two tepees, erected during the day and adjacent to the sweats where a bonfire blazed for tonight's Inipi.
Stretching from one tepee to the other, the elders and the Sundancers found themselves sitting in the shape a half-moon.
Larry Anderson stood up. The six-foot-four, two-hundred-fifty-pound Navajo Aim leader welcomed everyone.
"Aho," he said.
Larry had been a "point man" in Vietnam. When his squad went on patrol, Larry walked in front-- the first to be sniped, the first to step on a mine. The Army had some notion that Indians made good scouts.
Larry survived, but in the middle of his tour he realized the enemy looked vaguely familiar. It took some time. But when it hit him, it reminded him of home.
"We are here to discuss two things," he began. "One, I didn't plan on, but am now forced by circumstances to discuss with all of you. I feel it is best this way.
"The other, as you all know, is to once and for all decide the fate of our non-Indians brothers and sisters. I know you must all have strong feelings on this matter and we will hear them all.
"But first, I must discuss with you what happened early this morning," he said with sadness in his eyes.
"A message was sent to me. I was awakened. Yesterday, the Denebito Trading Post was robbed. Several weapons were stolen. Rifles, pistols, ammo.
"Because of the struggle here. The arrival of so many for the Sundance. The suspicion was on us.
"I did some detective work. I put the word out. No questions asked, just return what was taken. I made a deal with the trading post. If all was returned, they promised not to call the authorities.
"By noon today, three of the weapons were in my possession. This afternoon I received the rest. The trading post has been satisfied. They have kept their end of the bargain. The matter is closed.
"I am telling you about this because you would most likely hear rumors. And we know how rumors spread and how the truth gets distorted.
"There is no one to blame. No one to point a finger at. There is no use in mentioning any names.
Larry now spoke in Dine (Navajo), translating all that he had just said. He came back to English to discuss the non-Indian issue. The evening went on like this, back and forth in the two languages, for each who spoke his mind.
"I will not attempt to translate for the women," he said. "As anyone knows, a man cannot speak for a woman. And so I ask that one of my sisters who speaks the two languages to do so."
An elder rose and spoke. Her Navajo tongue slicing the evening air, dividing the precise time when day turns to night. And with the night, a cold chill set in.
When the grandmother finished and sat back on the earth, a young woman in her twenties spoke in English.
"What my grandmother here says, is that she welcomes you and appreciates what you will be doing, the sacrifices that you are going to make.
"She says this morning she went to the trading post. She was treated poorly, as if she was under suspicion. That they did not respect her although she has been doing business there for many years. She says that they didn't really do anything, they just looked at her. She felt ashamed.
"She is worried about what's going to happen in the future. She says that if you were Sundancers and if you really believed in it, the power that comes from those prayers, why then would you resort to violence? Why would you steal? Why would you need weapons?
"Next year when they try and forces us off the land are we going to fight and shed blood or are we going to believe in our ceremonies and use them? Why have a Sundance if we don't really believe in it?
"She is very sad and upset. She doesn't feel comfortable going to the trading post anymore. She wants to know why. She says if the persons who done this thing, if they are a Sundancer, they should be asked to leave. They should be barred from the Sundance.
"Nothing is going to take away the shame she feels."
The young woman sat down. Rene and I put more wood on the fire. Not for the elders, the old grandmothers sat on the earth more comfortable than most of us. It was the Sundancers who need it, they were the ones who sat closer to the flames.
One broke from the ranks, a young Navajo with a Fu-Man-Chu, named Lincoln. Once Lincoln came to LA knocking on Frank's door. Frank gave him Mando, one of our bros, to look after him. Lincoln wanted to go to an Indian bar. They had all but disappeared, but Lincoln wanted to go looking anyway. They toured every bar on skid row. In each one, Lincoln started a fight. They never found a "skin" bar, but Lincoln got what he was looking for.
Lincoln now stood before the elders and the Sundancers. He spit out some chewing tobacco and spoke in a hoarse voice.
"I did it. I'm the one you're looking for.
"I don't need no one to hide me. I'm the one you want to bar from the Sundance.
"What I did, I did for my people. The trading post has been ripping us off for so long, I thought it was about time we ripped them off. Time to settle the score. Get even.
"I don't know how else to fight the government but to fight.
"It gets very confusing out here. What we're going through. Here at Big Mountain you're organized. You protect yourselves. Where I live. I live on the outskirts. They just come in with the bulldozers when we're not at home.
"It hurts. I can't live this way anymore. I had to do something. And I'd do it again.
"I'm sorry my grandmother feels this way. If you can understand, I did it for her. And I'd do it again.
Lincoln got a firm "Aho" from the Sundancers. The warriors among them. He got a few pats on the back. I for one admired his bravery. Exposing himself. Being so honest when he didn't have to.
Another grandmother stood up, denounced Lincoln, then spoke about her white son-in-law.
"What about him?" She asked. "He is white. And what about my grandchildren?"
Her daughter stood up, tears streaming from her eyes, and spoke for herself.
"I was married to an Indian man. Had his children. I'm a Sundancer, but I wasn't then. He was. He spoke about it all the time. What it represent. He told me all about it.
"He abused me. He hit me and my children. He drank. He abandoned us.
"I'm married to a white man now. He respects me. He takes care of us. He's sensitive and treats me and my children in a good way. I have his children now. What do I do? Tear them apart? I can't rip them apart. What do I do with them?
"I'd like my Sundance brothers and sisters to answer me. What does your conscience tell me? What am I suppose to do? You answer me!"
The evening star appeared in the retina of the eye that had formed in the clouds in the sky. The fire in the sweats lit whomever fell in its path, but most were in darkness, the Sundancers in silhouette, the elders shadowed. A Laguna woman, a Sundance sister and mother, stood in the light. She asked to speak.
"I am Laguna Pueblo. I have Sundanced here for two years. This will be my third. There have been white people here each year. Why is it this year that this has been changed? Why not start that way?
"In my pueblo, non-Indians are not allowed, have never been to our ceremonies. They have never been inside the kiva. We have festivals they are allowed to watch, but not our most sacred ceremonies.
"When someone is married to a non-Indian, they understand. They respect our way. The non-Indian stays home. The children are welcome.
"This way we keep our ceremonies for ourselves. So they do not disappear, do not fall apart. In this way we remember and pass along who we are."
A Navajo Sundancer spoke next.
"My father is a medicine man. I have traveled with him many times. He has asked me to help him, so I go along. I have been to many different ceremonies with him.
"I was wondering and one time I asked him, 'Father, what would you do if a white man came to a ceremony?'
"He told me he wouldn't know what to do. The question kind of shocked him. Then he said, "I would ask him what he wanted, give it to him if I could, then send him on his way."
A Chicano Sundancers was next.
"My companion is white. You know love, it hits when it hits. You don't know when or with whom. She is here with me. She's camped right now in the non-Indian camp.
"I don't understand this separation. But I talked about it with her. I told her it was the vision of the Sundance Chief and that he must have a reason for it. She respects me and respects our way. She has no problems being where she is.
"Here at the Sundance. We are out there alone except for the guidance of Tankashila (Grandfather) and the Sundance Chief. We are here to follow directions. The Sundance Chief gives them to us. There must be a reason for it. That is good enough for me."
A Hopi Sundance brother stood up and spoke.
"If he really respects you sister, the way you say he does then he will understand."
But it was too late. The sister with the white husband and the half-breed children had already left.
A grandmother spoke about the non-Indian helpers and the aid they have given since the struggle began. That they deserved to be allowed to watch.
The Navajo whose father was a Medicine Man rose up and spoke again.
"What about the Yebeche? The Squaw Dance? Grandmother, what about our own ceremonies?"
"No," she said. "It's different. They could not attend."
The meeting came to a close. They would respect the Buffalo's wishes.
Late that night, Frank was making his final rounds. He saw a figure in the sweats. As he approached he recognized Nacho.
Frank was going to offer to be fireman, but before he could say anything, Nacho spoke.
"No Frank. I need to be alone. There's too much confusion."
"What," Frank said. "We had the meeting. Everything is settled."
"Too many problems," Nacho replied. "I have to suffer. I have to pray alone in order to deal with it."
Early in the morning, a message was sent from the Buffalo. The non-Indians would be allowed to attend. He had selected a viewing area, one hundred yards from the Sundance arbor on the uninhabited slope.
"From there," he said, "you can pray with us.
"It's such a good spot," he said, "I might just come and watch the Sundance with you."
I went to see for myself. The viewing area was just above my first campsite, where the ants had invaded my tent. There were four cedar trees obstructing a clear view, but yes from a certain angle, you could see. It was better than nothing. And the Sundance is not a show. The Sundance is four days of suffering.
No food, no water, four days and nights. Dancing in a circle, the size of a bullring, from sun-up to sundown. Each day, one by one, the dancers are pierced in the chest. Skewers placed deep through the wound and tied to rope. By horse, by tree or by dragging buffalo skulls each dancer prays in his own way until he breaks free.
No drugs, no alcohol, no weapons, a sign reads at the entrance. And god forbid, no cameras.
"This is not a spectacle, a freak show, a zoo. I'm not a caged animal," the Buffalo would say.
Four days of suffering for the people, for Mother Earth, the sick, the unborn, The list goes on and on.
Now that it was settled, everything fell into place. The work pace quickened. The arbor received the last finishing touches. The Sundancers prepared their skewers. Sweats ran one after another. Children played Sundance-- tying rope to the backs of their parents' cars, they poked holes in their t-shirts, tied themselves up, prayed to the Great Mystery and yanked themselves free.
The Buffalo received visitors. None came empty handed. Each brought tobacco or sacred tamales. Each asking questions that needed answering. The Buffalo sent word out to find the Sundance sister with the white husband and half-breed kids. He would talk to her personally. Give her peace of mind. In the old way, the individual sacrificed for the whole.
Around noon, Frank got an urgent message from Angel at the gate. A busload of Rainbows had arrived. Frank tapped me on the shoulder. We hopped in the back of Big Mike's flatbed bug and raced down the mile or so to the front gate.
We almost lost it on a curve. The landscape is rugged at Big Mountain, roads barely drivable at a snails pace, four wheel drive or not.
At the gate a Greyhound Bus stood before us. Angel was scratching his head, in fact, we all were. How the hell did it get up here? The road was nothing less than a mine field of ditches, ravines, hairpin turns and gullies.
There were five Rainbows inside. Rainbows were Deadheads, one foot in the sixties, the other stepping on Indian land. Americans who had no culture of their own and thus desperately sought to find one they could use. They mixed Indian religion with LSD and marijuana and came out Rainbow, their own tribe. It's not that they weren't good people or their intentions bad, it's just that there were instruction to be followed, directions to be taken, respect to be paid.
I was told in a ceremony once that there was a reason the white man had come to the western hemisphere. There was a reason the black man followed, the yellow man close behind. There was a reason the three had come to the land of the red man.
That we were all one people once, all one land. That each of the four were given separate instructions from the creator. Then the land broke apart and each went their own way to live with the instructions the creator had given.
There was a reason the four had come back together again. That the United States of America had a definite role in this. Look around you and you see all four represented here. La Raza Cosmica, the cosmic race, the Chicano. This, I was told, was a sacred thing.
But when the white man came, escaping religious persecution and heralding a land of the free and a home of the brave, he killed off the red man, imprisoned the survivors on reservations, outlawed our religion and took the land. Fulfilling the prophecy, he brought the black man over as slaves on the East coast and the yellow man as slaves to the West.
There was a reason the four had come back together again. But there were instructions to be followed, directions to be taken, respect to be paid. Somewhere, the road map had been misplaced.
The five Rainbows were searched, given the rules and asked where they planned to park the bus. The driver wanted to take it in. He would park at the base of the non-Indian camp. What tenacity we all thought.
In the late afternoon we got the evening sweat going. Rene, Alex and I built the fire and laid the rocks in. A strange fellow appeared by the blaze.
He was about 30-35 years old, had sandy brown hair, cut short in a military style. He wore light blue jeans and a camouflage army fatigue jacket.
He said his name was Emit. He said he was Jicarilla Apache. His skin was a golden brown, but his eyes were green.
He said he had been an army Ranger in Vietnam and that's where he got the jacket and camping skills.
I admired those camping skills but admired even more that he was going to Sundance.
Imagine again what the Sundance meant and the particulars of the sacrifice that went with it. Imagine fasting for one day. Try it. Then go the entire four. Now imagine no water for a day. Two days, Three and four. Try it. Combine the two.
Now do this in August. Do it in the desert. Now dance in place. Run, since you don't know the steps. Run from sunup to sundown.
Pinch the skin above your breasts. Pinch it hard. Imagine an eagle claw piercing your chest, pointed at one end, broad at the other. Now, pray. Keep one thought. Erase all others from your mind. Pray like this for four days. Don't think of sex, your girlfriend or your rent. Don't think of food, water, comforts of any kind.
Imagine hanging from a tree, a rope tied through your breast, an eagle wing in each hand flapping.
Let go. This is the Red Man's way. These are our instructions.
You can see why I admired someone like Emit. The Red Road isn't easy. As Frank likes to say, "It'll make a Christian out of you."
The rest of the Sundancers arrived. The evening sweats began. In the second round, Emit bolted out of the door like he'd been shot from a cannon.
Emit, it turns out, had never been to a sweat. That's the first instruction if you want to Sundance. That you sweat for a year, at least once a week.
Then we got the message. Word was out on Emit. He was under suspicion. No one had ever heard of him. He had virtually just walked off the street.
Was he an informer? There were alot of AIM members around. The FBI had been harassing the American Indian Movement for years. The struggle at Big Mountain was surely under surveillance. There were always brothers at the Sundance who were on-the-run. Emit stuck around for another day then vanished. We never knew. We never found out.
Alex started to get on my nerves. "That way, this way, over there, not like that, like this, do this, do that, not now, now!"
I couldn't take it anymore, "You do it! Can't you see I'm already doing something."
And there went my ego. Mine against his.
"Look Max," he said, "I don't want any chismes. You got problems with me, let's talk it out. In a good way.
"Let's remember where we are. What we are doing here. This isn't the place to have arguments. But let's get it out. Let's talk in a good way. I don't have any problems with you." Alex stood firm.
I felt ashamed. Stupid. Humbled.
The Sundance is a ceremony. A ceremony is a prayer. What was I doing here? If I had any bad thoughts, put them away.
The Buffalo explained.
"Before judging our brothers and sisters," he said, "have compassion for them. Try to see the world through their eyes.
"None of us are perfect people. If we were, we'd be in the spirit world already.
"Look inside yourself. The conflict might be your own. Look inside yourself, then ask if you have the right to judge others."
The rest of our time there, although how short it would eventually be I did not know yet, I tried and actually things got better between Alex and me. My own worst enemy, like they say, was myself.
This was the morning of the fourth and last day of purification. Later this afternoon we would get the tree. The tree represents the woman, the ropes strung from it, the umbilical cord. Tomorrow morning, when the Sundance begins, man goes into labor. When he breaks from the tree, he is reborn a warrior. A spiritual warrior.
The day went down like clockwork.
At 10 A.M. the non-Indians erected poles and a plastic tarp to shade their "Viewing Area." At 11 A.M. Frank would make them change the sign to "Support Area." At noon we went for the tree.
The grove of cottonwoods sat deep in the arroyo at the base of the Hopi Mesas. A cottonwood, because it's roots went deepest into Mother Earth. The tree had incredible power. It could withstand hurricane, winter, drought and still feed the four-legged year round. It was called the tree of life.
There were about a hundred of us there. Sundancers, helpers and elders. At least a dozen Indian nations represented. The Buffalo stepped forth and singled out a tree. He pack his pipe and sent the smoke, the prayers, to the eagle who traveled with them to the creator.
By tradition, a young maiden was given the axe to make the first four cuts. The young girl, a Navajo, dressed in moccasins, gold velvet skirt, silver and turquoise, made the first cut to the North direction, then the East, the South and West.
Norman, a young Navajo, was given the axe next. He had prepared for a year in the traditional way. He would be dancing for the first time. He was to make four cuts. The blade flew off the handle on the second. This meant something. Everything meant something.
They got another axe. After twenty men had made there mark known, the tree fell. We carried the tree out the canyon on our shoulders. I'll tell you, even with a hundred men, that tree weighed a ton. It was like you were carrying it all yourself and you weren't doing a good job of it. But you did. Because if you dropped it that would mean something. And you didn't want to find out what that something was. The Buffalo joked and said we would turn into frogs.
We trucked it to the base of the camp, then hoisted the tree onto our shoulders again. The Buffalo lead the way, making each of four stops, offering prayers. From the arbor a whirlwind blew through and passed sweats, swirled by and caressed our faces. The path was narrow. That, combined with the length of the tree and twisting curves, caused some of us to step into cactus or get left behind in a bush. But we made it to the rhythm of the drum.
Leonard was there. Leonard Crowdog. Sitting Bull's great grandson. Waiting. In the arbor. It was 2 P.M.
The Buffalo invited him in.
If this was a ballet instead of a Sundance, the credits would read-- Written by the Ancestors, Produced by the Buffalo, Choreographed by Leonard. For that's what Leonard did. He staged the dance. Using the constellations and stars as his guide, each night he would study them, in the morning he would lead and the dancers would follow.
The Buffalo and Leonard were a team. A left hand and a right, each with their own bag-of-tricks. They didn't charge $25 a sweat or $500 a vision quest, these guys were the real thing, Classic Coke.
Leonard had three white people with him. A bodyguard, a cook and a nanny for his kids. And they would camp inside, deep inside. This troubled the Buffalo, but he had his and so left if unspoken.
The tree was replanted. The prayers made. The dye was cast.
At 5 P.M. Larry Anderson approached the mud puddle. He held something wrapped in deer skin. He handed it to the Buffalo.
"What is it?" The Buffalo asked.
"It's a pipe your people gave to me to give to my elders. The Lakota gave it to the Navajo when they allowed us to Sundance here three years ago.
"Why did you give it to me then?" The Buffalo inquired.
"I never gave it to the elders," was all Larry said.
"You cannot give back what has already been given. You were to give it to your own people. Not back to me," the Buffalo said, his eyes to ground.
Larry had a blank expression on his face. When the Buffalo looked up he was gone.
"What does this mean?" The Buffalo thought.
Dinner was at six. Helen and Eva had gone all out. Chile verde, tamales, fry bread, canned peaches and coffee. All you could eat and drink. Tomorrow the fast would begin and some of us would try.
After dinner Suzanne and Nicole moved to the non-Indian camp per instructions and out of respect to the Buffalo. Moonotter would take care of them.
Around 8 P.M., the Buffalo summoned the Navajo elder Khe Shay. He gave Khe Shay the deer skin sack, the pipe Larry was to have given to him three years before. The Buffalo explained it's history and purpose. Khe, who only spoke Dine yet knew alot more English than he led you to believe, said, "Thank you." Like Christmas morning, he walked away with the unwrapped gift, a smiling child.
The former autobody man from Pacoima fell asleep. He was hoping for four hours. Just four hours of dreams. Then he would awaken to the sound of the drum, the heartbeat of the Indian people. He would sweat, dress, then lead the procession alongside Leonard into the Sundance arbor. Just before the crack of dawn, the precise moment when night turns to day, the dance would begin. That would just be eight hours away. Four plus four.
At 10 P.M. a white man stormed into the mud puddle.
"Who the hell are you," the white man growled, "to tell me where I can sit or stand?
Awakened from a dream yet forming, the Buffalo looked up.
"I bring thousands of dollars here every year," said the man. "I've paid my dues. No one, not you, not anyone tells me what to do!"
Before the white man said another word he was surrounded by the cholos, the lowriders, the Chicano tribe from East LA. Foulness spewed from their mouth in two or three different languages.
"Beat it," Big Mike said.
In the morning the first sweat was in progress when Leonard appeared, distressed.
"Where are the pipes?" He asked.
"What?" Rene answered.
"Where is the pipe?" He asked again.
"Max," Rene turned to me, "he wants to know where the pipe is."
You see, on the altar you place sacred things. During each sweat a pipe, the sweat lodge leader's pipe, must be laying there. And at the end, it must be smoked.
The sweat in question was the one I was tending. They were just about to begin. I had just closed the door.
"Open it up," Leonard yelled.
You see, there was confusion. Each Sundancer has a pipe. After each dancer sweats in the morning, each packs his pipe. During the day's festivities, in the Sundance arbor, each pipe is smoked. George Martin, a veterano, the sweat lodge leader, was saving his pipe for later.
"No," Leonard said. "Now. You must always have a pipe on the altar."
I quickly got George's bag. He took his pipe and packed it.
This little confusion, this meant something.
I closed the door and the sweat began. They went four rounds.
Leonard appeared again and gave Rene the message, "Don't smoke the pipe."
"Save it for later, during the dance," Rene relayed.
It was too late. George was just handing me back the empty bowl, on the last round they had smoked the pipe. This definitely meant something.
The morning sweats were done. The Sundancers were dressed. After a dreamless night, the Buffalo was at the helm.
It was already day and they were ready to go but they had to wait. There weren't any singers and only two drummers. They needed at least sixteen. This little detail seemed to have been left unattended.
A half-hour passed by. A few more singers and drummers had been found when a message was brought in. Two white men in camp had offered their services. They had a business card, "Can sing and drum as good as the best," it read.
The Buffalo relented, "Bring them in," he said.
Khe Shay came running up with the pipe in his hands. He had a worried look on his face. When he had unwrapped the deer skin cover and saw the pipe for the first time, the bowl was cracked, split in thirds.
The procession led out, entered the arbor and the dance began. Morning was in full bloom. The dye, not only cast, it was beginning to take shape.
The non-Indian "Support Area" was packed. But a few tried to work their way in, relentless, undaunted.
One couple, a pair of middle aged hippies, tried to approach. Big Mike was on them lickity split. The man even had a set of bongos. Mike reiterated the rules and asked them to leave.
"We come with love in our hearts," the man said. "Peace to you also brother," the woman said to me, planting her feet into the soil.
"Kindly leave," Big Mike reaffirmed. "And don't dare beat that little drum of yours around here."
"Why are you treating me with such hate my brother. We come here with love for you and you," he said pointing to me.
The man just wouldn't let up.
"I don't hate you," Mike replied. "You know the rules, just respect them."
"But she's Indian," he said, pointing to his companion.
"Maybe she is, maybe she isn't. If it's so, you can talk to the Chief tonight," Mike replied.
She sure didn't look Indian to me, maybe Irish or something.
"We want to talk with the chief now!" The man demanded.
"That's it! You know the rules. Out! Now!" Mike said shifting his three hundred pounds from his right to left foot.
They turned around and walked back, flipping us the peace sign.
"Do you believe these people? I mean a bongo, can you
imagine?" Mike said incredulously.
"I can't believe it," I said.
That is what was going on outside the arbor. On the inside, the Buffalo was preparing to pierce. The Buffalo would be first, Leonard doing the job on him.
He would pierce in his arms and keep the skewers in four days. His skin would start to grow back and just when it would start to heal, on the last day, he would break free.
He was piercing for the children, the unborn, for the elders and the sick, for those who had gone into the spirit world. It was a special ceremony for all the healing that needed to be done.
He kept his vow that morning, not a Wasichu in sight. Oh yes, they were up on the hill, but who could see that far. And yes, there were two of them with the singers and Leonard had his three, but who was looking anyway.
Yes, to the Buffalo, that morning he pierced a free man.
His vow kept, the healing done, those "somethings" began to rear their ugly little heads. The chismes hit the arbor.
"Please Buffalo, now that you've pierced, have compassion. Let our non-Indians attend. We might lose them forever. And they give us so much..."
"Ay caramba," the Buffalo said.
The Buffalo walked out around noon. He gathered his lowriders down by the mud puddle and told them to get the non-Indians. He wanted a meeting with them. Now.
Back in the arbor the dance continued, but the rumors started to fly.
"What happened to the Buffalo?" They all asked.
A snake approached the drum and stood a full foot off the ground, hissing at it. It was going to strike. The elders saying "something is wrong, something is wrong," chased it away, down a ravine, one grandmother stamping it to death with a shovel.
Leonard kept them in tow. But the rest of the day would be hard. Tomorrow would be difficult. The last two days a real show.
The non-Indians were seated in the round house before the Buffalo arrived. A buzzard flew overhead.
When the Buffalo entered, escorted by his gang, the non-Indians got off their rears and stood.
"I hope you're not standing for me," he said. "What I have to say, you might not like.
"You are a part of history. This morning I pierced a free man. When I opened my eyes, all I saw were my own people," he said, the skewers still in his arms, the blood not yet dry.
"Tonight, my woman, will pull these skewers from my arms. A woman, for only a woman can change a ceremony, for she is the giver of life.
"This is my last Sundance. I will never dance again."
A hush went through the crowd.
"I will be leaving shortly," he continued. "Not because of you, but because of my own people. The kindness they have in their hearts for you. You have good friends among them.
"Its hard to forget the atrocities the white man has done to my people. I ask forgiveness from the fire and from Grandfather. But I will not argue with my own people and that is why I am leaving.
"You invaded us 500 years ago. Out of the kindness of your hearts and your ignorance you have invaded us again."
He returned to the mud puddle to pack up his things.
Nacho caught the Buffalo on the way. "What happened? We had it. Everything was under control," he pleaded looking deep inside the Buffalo's eyes.
The Buffalo just kept on walking.
"Yeah, Nacho, we had it," Frank said, trying to console him.
Frank said he never saw Nacho so sad. Nacho, showing a side he kept to himself, a side no one saw.
This lasted a moment.
"It's your show now," Frank told him. And Nacho was himself again. Frank having handed over the reigns of security to Nacho and Lincoln.
Most of us were in tears. Especially the non-Indians, except a few who were defiant and despised the buffalo.
"He's not talking to me," they said.
The non-Indians called a vote. A majority decided to return to the viewing area and stay there for the entire four days. They would honor the wounded Buffalo.
The others moved in quickly. But before the meeting was over, Pedro, Leonard's twelve year old son, gave them a warning.
"See! See what you've done," he said, choking on each word.
"The Great Chief, my grandfather, that's the way he would have wanted it. My own father couldn't do it. But when I'm Sundance Chief. I won't let you stop me!
"The Buffalo will come back then!" He cried, tears flowing.
In the afternoon we were ready to go. Four van loads of city Indians, the Buffalo at the lead. As Chicanos we knew what it meant to have your ceremonies taken away, lost in America on drugs, gangbanging, deep into hispanic denial. You have to know where you come from to know where you're going. The Sundance was the closest path to our ancestors. How were we going to travel now?
By late afternoon, of the non-Indians who had returned to the viewing area, most had lost confidence and will and had ventured down to the arbor to watch the dance. Like maggots on a dead animal, the man with the bongos and his woman half dressed, her legs spread open wide, sat down on Mother Earth.
The tarp roof of the viewing area broke away from two corners and was flapped in the wind. Only a few underneath, remained strong, paying their respects, humbling themselves.
We waited for Crazy Larry, he was nowhere to be found. We guess the air got him. So a team went looking.
The white man who claimed thousand dollar donations and his right to a box seat passed us by, a sheepish smile on his face.
The Buffalo and Jessie waited down by the gate in their van. They were in close proximity to the non-Indian camp. Jessie swung the doors open, a speaker on each side, and popped a tape in the casette. Floyd Westerman's guitar and voice shot out his popular Indian tune, "Custer Died For Your Sins."
A white girl came up to the van and not knowing who was inside, gave a warning, "You'll have to turn your radio down. Only the Sundance drum is allowed."
The Sundance continued its four days. The Sundancers kept their vows. On the third day, the non-Indians outnumbered the Indians three to one.
Crazy Larry was never found. We suspect he's out there in the hills somewhere.
All told, we held Big Mountain for five days. During that time, four elders passed away, four children were born.
When we pulled out, two eagles circled the Buffalo's van.
"That means something," the Buffalo said.
He broke into a cold sweat. He said it was a vision. And that Pedro, the child born-at-Wounded Knee, would be fulfilling it someday.
"In fact," the buffalo said, "he already has."