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When a man’s body is raised high on a scaffold and burned, skin and hair and bone blacken, crumble, and become ash. The ash is lifted, carried by wind high above the earth and scattered.
I am ash now.
The day my body burned, the wind was blowing east and it carried me aloft, lifting and lifting until the sun warmed the ash, and the rain washed me back to earth
Ash has eyes and memory; spirit lingers in ash. When my body burned, I was freed from all physical restraint, free to fly like eagles and birds, free to mingle with earth and water, to nourish the grasses and plants, to be eaten by deer and bear and wolf.
When my body burned and became ash, I was no longer tethered by human limitation but liberated, turned loose amidst the world, free to roam, to watch, to cross previously unseen boundaries between life and death, to be breathed in by Wakan Tanka, the Great Spirit. I am still here.
I was even free to be reborn a hundred years later into the body of a boy in Thunder Butte, to ease myself into his dreams, to have him remember my story and tell it to others.
Chapter 1 The Lakota Oyate—The People
The first time I heard about the Others, the different kind of people, I was in my seventh year. It was the edge of summer. The days had been blistering hot and dry for weeks, but suddenly the season shifted toward fall and the nights grew cool, the air scented with the smell of the coming winter. Our village was camped beside a thin, clear stream on the eastern edge of He Sapa, the hills of black. We’d been here since late spring and the men were preparing to hunt the buffalo.
My name then was Little Chief, Itancan Cikala. My mother called me “Little Mischief.” It was my nature to be busy from the time the sun rose in the morning until it dropped out of the sky again. Grandfather Whirling Hand called me “curious.”
The best part of every day was when the other boys and I gathered in Grandfather’s tipi to hear his stories. I never thought about where the girls were—I guess they were in Grandmother’s tipi. I loved Grandfather’s stories, even the ones I’d heard a hundred times before. I’d race through my evening chores and bolt to his tipi to help with his chores so we could get to the stories sooner.
Sometimes he’d refuse to let me in until I went to wash in the stream—he said I smelled like a sweaty dog and he couldn’t bear the scent of me. Grandfather was like that. He never held back words, but he could say I stunk and it hit me gentle-like, not harsh or cruel.
So that is how it was, the edge of summer—hot, flies buzzing, sun beating down during the day and the earth cooling and growing damp during the night. When Grandfather told the story about the Others, it was a night like this.
I was already in the tipi, my body clean as a river rock, when my little cousins came in carrying small stones and other things they’d found that day. They liked bringing their finds to Grandfather—he always made up a story about each object and what it meant. He said rocks and trees and bones all had spirit, and that these spirits spoke to him. Usually the stones and sticks had something to tell us about growing stronger, not whining, helping the women more. I knew he made up the stories to teach us. Grandfather was the oldest man in our village. Nobody knew how old—not even Grandfather. He was my father’s father’s father, which actually made him my great-grandfather.
During these times, all the children—including me—listened to every word. Grandfather told of how the world was formed from Inyan, his blood flowing in blue rivers to form sky and water until he himself turned to stone. He also told stories about coyote and bear and stars, and the early travels of our people. My favorite story told of our emergence from the body of Unci Maka, Grandmother Earth, after the second cleansing.
The night I heard the story of the Others, there were nine of us in a circle in Grandfather’s tipi. I always sat opposite him because I liked watching his face across the small fire. The curls of smoke looked like spirit fingers touching his nose and brow, and then rising up and out of the tipi hole. Grandfather’s face was smooth and brown, as soft as finely-tanned leather. He hardly ever smiled but, when he did, his eyes crackled like lightning in a stormy sky.
I was the oldest of the children in our camp and tanhansi Rabbit, my cousin, sat next to me. He and I were the same age and always together. Our fathers were brothers and we treated each other as brothers, too. That night we’d built a fire because Grandfather said his bones were stiff. The children laughed at him, saying bones are always stiff. There was a lot of laughter and joking around, but I just sat and poked at the logs with a thin, burning stick. Outside it was cold, but inside it was warm and dim as a cave.
I watched the flames, watched the smoke curl up like ghostly fingers, watched Grandfather’s face. A log snapped in the crackling fire as if signaling silence and we all went quiet. He began with a prayer to Wakan Tanka to guide his words and his stories, and to make our ears work. We waited for Grandfather to finish his wacekiya, his praying, and begin the storytelling.
When he finished, he looked straight across the fire at me and said, “Tonight, a story for you, Little Chief.”
That was the first time the shiver passed through my body. At the time I thought it was the cold night air, but it was more than that. I sat up straight, excited about having a story directed at me. I had no idea his words that night would change my life.
Grandfather began, “It was the summer you were born. Your mother was large with you, and we had made camp to the south of here. It was a difficult summer; the game had been hiding, and the hunters were often gone for days at a time in search of elk and deer. The buffalo hunt had not yet begun.”
A birthing story, I thought. We all loved hearing stories about how each of us had come into the world. I figured Grandfather was going to tell the story of my birthing day once again; how I’d had slipped into the world like a wet seed just as the sun topped the horizon, how my father had awakened the entire camp with his jubilant calls and cries, how Father carried me to Grandfather as if I were a small, slick buffalo calf.
On this night however, instead of birthing stories, he had a different story to tell. “A few days before you were born, Little Chief, your father and uncle went south to hunt. They came upon a small river. There was steam rising from the surface of that river. They got off their horses and put their hands in to feel the hot water, having heard of these hot streams but never finding one before. They decided to swim.”
I listened. His voice was like a river song, words tumbling like water over stones.
Grandfather went on. “There was a place where the water fell over an edge of rock and formed a small pool. Your father and uncle tied their horses to a nearby tree and were about to jump in when they saw a small mule deer standing in the woods. It was alert, rigid, its eyes fixed and staring in the opposite direction. The deer didn’t see them. They wondered what had caused the deer to freeze, as if afraid. They grabbed their bows and arrows, preparing for unseen danger and hoping to take down the deer—their bellies were rumbling.” Grandfather grinned. “A hungry man is always a good hunter.”
The children laughed but I shivered again, waiting to hear more. “Go on, Grandfather,” I urged him.
“Takoja, Grandson, I think you are in a hurry for this story.” He smiled and went on. “The deer skipped off before they could notch an arrow. Then they heard clanging and banging in the distance, a sound unfamiliar and out of place on the quiet land. They took their bows and arrows and followed the hot stream toward the sound. When they got close, your uncle climbed a tree to search for where such a noise was coming from. And that is when your uncle saw the Others.”
Grandfather paused, his eyes rose and looked out the tipi hole as if sending a prayer to the heavens, and then he went on. “Your uncle saw something built from wood plank sitting in a meadow with large wheels lifting it off the ground. It was covered with cloth, like a rounded tipi, or a sweat lodge. A team of horses was hitched to this wagon and a man was leading the team. The man was different from us—pale, his face covered with hair, his eyes shaded by a hat on his head, his body covered in cloth with chunky moccasins on his feet.
All of this your uncle whispered down from the tree from where he watched. Your father climbed up to see for himself what was being described. Atop the cart was a woman who, like your mother, was large with child. She was also pale—her hair yellow as the prairie grass in the last days of summer. Never had your father and uncle seen such a sight.”
I still held the burning stick in my hand. Something about Grandfather’s story was like that burning stick; it touched my mind the way a spark touches dry grass. I felt suddenly hot and cold at the same time. I tried to form a picture of what he described, but couldn’t. Curiosity shot through me. I wanted to see these Others. I wanted to see what my father and uncle had seen. The world seemed to tilt off its center. Other people? Different people? Hairy faces, and chunky moccasins, and rolling wagons, and— “What was the sound they heard, Grandfather?”
“The man was building something. Your father and uncle did not wait to see what it was he was building. They scooted down from the tree and returned to the village to tell us what they had seen.”
The younger children in the tipi were getting restless, waiting for a new story, but Grandfather was not done yet.
“I have heard of these Others,” he said. “My grand-father had a vision. So have other Elders. They said that one day Others would come, many Others, and that life would change for us.”
He looked at me, his face serious. “When your father and uncle returned, we moved camp further north, to stay away from the Others. But before we broke camp, they returned once more to the steaming river. The man and his wife were still there. They were cutting trees, pulling the bark from the logs, stacking the logs; they were building a home.”
“Where were their people?” I asked. “Did the woman have her baby? How could these people get enough food without their band? How could they live? Where did they come from?”
In the dim firelight, Grandfather’s smile looked sad to me. He shook his head and said, “I cannot answer all your questions, Little Chief, except to say that our Elders from long ago saw this, that these wagons would bring a different kind of people to our lands, and that there would be many challenges, many changes for the Lakota Oyate. That is all we know. You, Little Chief, were born the day after your father returned.”
That night I had a fever. It was as if I’d carried the fire of the story with me. The buffalo robe beneath me felt scratchy and rough. I rolled and rolled and couldn’t sleep. Mother crossed the tipi and put her cool hand on my forehead. “Shh, cinksi, my son. You will awaken your father.” She lay down beside me and her body stilled the shivering in my limbs.
“Mother, did Father tell you about seeing the Others?”
“Yes, son. He talked of nothing else for weeks after your birth.”
“Why has he never told me about them?”
“Little Chief, you are still a child. These are matters better left to the men. It was not your business. Go to sleep now, cinksi.”
I soon heard the soft sound of her breathing, but still my body did not rest. It hurt to be considered still a baby. Seven was not such a young age.
The next day, and for many days after, I couldn’t get the story of the different kind of people out of my thoughts. I wondered about them, where they came from, who they were, what circumstances had brought them to Lakota country. I also wondered why Grandfather had waited seven years to tell that story. Why had he told the story that night? Why then? It was like a secret he had been keeping.
6th Graders Read Washaka