One of Plenty Coup’s “boys” (such a diminutive term!) picked me up at the Pierre, South Dakota airport, a minuscule patch of cement amidst the rolling plains. I was disappointed that Plenty Coup didn’t come himself; I have so many questions about the vision quest, the Sun Dance. And I wanted to share our past-life regression work and the news that I was an Indian in a previous incarnation!
Bernie, my scruffy and slightly ripe chauffeur, guided me to a rusted-out VW and asked what I was “into.” I explained my practice as a psychotherapist, my attempts to bridge spiritual and psychological concerns. I told him about my seven years as a meditator in the Vipassana tradition, how I thought this discipline would help me in my vision quest. I asked him if he thought the various shamanic and meditative traditions would converge, as they seem to be doing on the Coast and in Santa Fe. Bernie said, “Gee, I don’t know, man. You got any money for gas?”
Bernie was apparently a meat-eater, if you know what I mean, and I had to roll down the window. He noticed this and apologized, explaining that he had been cutting wood for the sweat lodges all day.
Bernie told me that he met Plenty Coup twenty years ago. At that time Bernie was living on the streets in Denver, getting into crystal meth and petty theft. Plenty Coup adopted Bernie, an orphan, and Bernie had been following his “uncle” around ever since, helping out and keeping off the hard stuff.
The shadows deepened in the rolling plains as we drove south to the Rosebud reservation, past vast stretches of land without signs, gas stations, shopping malls.
Then Bernie asked me if I would mind if he lit a joint. I said, “No problem.” But I couldn’t deny the feelings of anxiety and confusion. (Can you imagine, Sarah, someone lighting up a joint on the way to one of our retreats at Mandala?)
I began to have some very negative feelings, and I wondered if Bernie would pick up on them.
(Then I thought of you, Sarah, standing up and speaking out at our Vision Committee meetings, encouraging others to spread some of the light to grassroots people: look at us, we’re all alike. There are people out there starving for real food, for spiritual food. Buddha didn’t step a foot on the path until he was exposed to sickness and death.)
Bernie must have been picking up on my thought-energy because he said, “So, Uncle tells me you’re going to donate a beef to the camp. That’s good; we’re short this year and there’s a whole lot of hungry people to feed.”
July 31, two a.m.
It was dark by the time we got to camp. I felt as though I were entering another time zone. There were campfires and tepees set up. (Just as you had envisioned, Sarah, when you predicted that I would be traveling to Dakota!)
Plenty Coup had about four tepees set up in his camp. He was sitting in a director’s chair — his “Buddha” belly protruding from his striped knit shirt — giving orders, joking, telling stories. (Remember how we discussed his aura the first time he came to lecture on shamanic healing at the Mandala — you compared it to fire?)
Plenty Coup greeted me as I approached the circle of people around him. “You got a tent, John?” he asked. I told him I did. “That’s good, ’cause otherwise I’d have to stick you in one of these tepees with one of my wives, and I don’t know if you could handle that.” Everyone laughed.
People continued to pull into camp for the rest of the evening. They came to greet Plenty Coup first; he’s the central nervous system.
Later Plenty Coup took me over to the Sun Dance circle, and he told me that he had found the perfect tree for the center months ago. Then he gestured toward the dark hills to the west of camp. “We’re going to take you up there, tomorrow night or the next. The women, we usually put over there.” He nodded in the opposite direction.
Plenty Coup told a number of funny stories, but I wanted to record this one: “We were in the sweat lodge last night, you know, and we had maybe sixty rocks and it was hot. When it’s like that, you know, you’re supposed to make your prayers short. But this one guy, he went on maybe twenty minutes, a half-hour. He covered everything. He started with every atom, then he prayed for the blades of grass, the insects, the reptiles. The four-leggeds. The winged ones. Then he started praying for people. His children, his family, his clan, his state, his nation. Then all the nations. He had to name each country, each county, each city. He prayed for the Chinese, he prayed for the Arabs, the people down in Africa. At least I learned some geography, you know. I never stepped foot in a school and I’m proud of that. But meanwhile, you can hear all these men groaning from the heat. The door stays closed until the prayer is done; that’s my way. Meanwhile, you can smell the hair getting singed in there, it’s so hot. Finally, there was a white man in there and he couldn’t take no more. He jumped over those red-hot rocks and crawled through the door. We found him later, curled up, all red. He looked like a newborn mouse.”
Woke to great activity in the camp. The “boys” were coming back in trucks loaded with pine boughs to make a shade for the Sun Dance arbor. The women were cooking around an open fire. I thought about helping out at the arbor, but I wanted to conserve my strength for my fast, so I decided to help out with the cooking. I introduced myself to a woman named Nina, an Apache from Arizona.
“You want to help? Here, flip the pancakes,” she said, and handed me a spatula. Some old men standing off to the side laughed. They continued to drink their coffee, talking away in Lakota. (Most of them had teeth missing. I thought they were guaranteed dental care under the entitlements!)
One of the workers came over and poured himself a cup of coffee. He asked for sugar. One of the older men said, “Ask the white man for sugar. The white man has all the sugar.” Everyone laughed.
My name has become the White Man. It doesn’t matter how many times I have introduced myself — I am still the White Man.
Nina told me that men don’t usually help with the cooking, but she was grateful for my help. I told her about my plan to go up on the hill. She asked me if I had ever fasted before. I told her about my monthly fasting and cleansing.
I asked her if she had fasted. She gave me a cryptic smile. “Oh yeah, we fast all the time,” she said. “At the end of every month when the money runs out.”
I flipped pancakes until I was saturated with grease and smoke.
Plenty Coup approached and nodded to me and said something in Lakota to the old men and they all hooted with laughter.
No one seems to be able to make decisions or take any action without consulting Plenty Coup. Money is short; time is wasted. (They could benefit from a little Western-style management!)
Example: Bernie came running up, saying, “Uncle, we need another truck to haul wood, but we have to pay this guy twenty-five dollars.”
“Will he take my credit card, do you think?” Plenty Coup asked; then he looked over at me. I found myself reaching into my pocket. Later, Nina approached me for a donation for camp groceries. No problem. Then Bernie approached me for money for gas. I seem to be the only one around with money.
I know prosperity is meant to be shared, but I started to feel uneasy, confused. I went back to my tent for the afternoon to clear my mind.
I am troubled to be feeling troubled.
Plenty Coup told me that he was traveling to Pine Ridge to visit another Sun Dance, and that he would be back before sunset so we could begin to work on some of the preparations for my vision quest.
August 1, after midnight
I had been waiting for Plenty Coup to return to camp for most of the evening, but as the sun set about 9:30, I had to let go of the idea of meeting with him.
This evening I walked off into the woods and sat for an hour under one of the magnificent ponderosa pines, and I felt restored. Back in camp, though, some of the anger and anxiety and disappointment resurfaced. (I wish you were here, Sarah, to help me get at the core issues.)
The litter and garbage around the camp really bother me. Garbage bags overflow with cans, plastic cups, and plates. Garbage collects in the bushes, drawing flies. The words Native American and ecology have always been synonymous in my mind. So I spent some time going around camp, filling sacks and raking the ground. I am hoping that others will observe my actions and imitate me.
I feel like a freak at times. I have tried to talk philosophy with some, to explain our work at the Mandala. People seem indifferent, or slightly amused. (Maybe their view is just too parochial?)
I thought Plenty Coup would show some consideration and carry through on his commitment to me. I know there are so many others who need his guidance, but I expect a man to keep his word.
Plenty Coup finally came back to camp about ten and I joined him and the others around the cooking area, determined to show some grace. The women fried meat and bread. (Their diet is heavy in starches and fat. No wonder the rate of diabetes and heart disease is so high. Oh, what I wouldn’t do for a big bowl of brown rice! )
“Eat! Eat!” Plenty Coup said when he saw me. “We traditional men have these,” he said and patted his belly. A few minutes later he took me aside and explained that he hadn’t expected to be gone so late, but we would find time the next day.
Plenty Coup described the Sun Dance in Pine Ridge and ended up on a tirade: “They had maybe thirty dancers in Pine Ridge. Several white men. That’s all I need — white men who want to dance. That one should be closed down. Lots of things going wrong. Then on the way back we ran into a relative of mine. Great-grandson to a chief, and he’s shit-faced. They’re going to get us when we’re down. The state is going to step in here, take over. They’ll want to tax us. We can’t pay — they’ll take what’s left of our land. We can’t be a tribe without land. This way here is the natural way. Communist way. Lakota way. Everybody works. If you work, you eat. I don’t know. I’m tired of all these problems. My people are pitiful. Maybe I’ll get a job with Honeywell or something. Get some credit cards. Maybe it’s my turn to be rich.”
Plenty Coup is a very angry man.
August 1, evening
I awoke at dawn to the sound of coyotes in the hills. The White River runs on the edge of camp, and I could hear the gurgle. There was an aura of rose and gold light over the hills. Plenty Coup was sitting in his director’s chair in front of his tepee; his wife was braiding his hair. He had all his regalia propped up in front of his tepee — his war bonnet of eagle feathers, his sacred staff, the great eagle wing he uses in the Sun Dance. I felt as though I had slipped back in time to another era, when the Lakota still lived free on the plains.
Plenty Coup called me over and pointed out the morning star. His wife served us coffee. Then he began to talk about the loss of his mother, which happened only a year ago. He is the only son in the family. His mother had been sick for a long time, he said, with the “white man’s” cancer, but the Indian medicine kept her going well into her nineties. When she passed on, they dressed her body in the traditional style, and took her out in a horse-drawn wagon to be buried on her own land, and they sang the old songs. As Plenty Coup talked, his eyes filled with tears, and I saw a vulnerability for the first time. He can be so macho, you know, but that is a facade. “My people are pitiful, but we’re going to survive,” he said.
I spent the morning watching the camp come to life. The same woman (or so it seems) rises each morning to make the fire in the main cooking area; the same few men collect wood for the fires. Most of the others rise later, when they can warm themselves around the fire. There’s one woman who wanders around, a vacant smile on her face, not contributing much, claiming to be from some lost Eastern tribe.
Nina asked me if I knew how to get a fire started and I shook my head. “You’d better learn, you never know when we might have a nuclear war and we’ll have to go back to the old ways.” I laughed and told her I didn’t think we’d have to worry about cooking fires in the event of a nuclear war.
“My people can survive anything,” she said, with some hostility and defiance.
(Still can’t get away from being the white man.)
I began my fast today, even though Plenty Coup said I wouldn’t need to fast until after I got out of the sweat lodge.
After breakfast I went with a group of men to collect rocks for the sweats, which are held all evening. They showed me which rocks were best — which would retain the heat, which would crumble. We had to use a crowbar to pry some of them out of the hillsides. I worked along slowly, wanting to conserve my strength.
They spoke Lakota most of the time, but finally one turned to me and asked in English, “So how did you become interested in our ways?” I told them about the Mandala Center; how Plenty Coup came out and conducted a sweat lodge for my clients. I told them I had been wanting to go on a vision quest for years, and hoped to conduct a workshop on shamanic healing for the Institute.
They were all quiet, looking at the rocks. Then someone told a joke in Lakota and they all laughed.
When we got back, Plenty Coup said, “So, you got your ties together?”
Ties! I didn’t know anything about ties! He told me I needed so many hundred tobacco ties — offerings of tobacco wrapped in tiny pieces of cloth — for the spirits.
Plenty Coup told me he’d take me to an aunt of his and she’d help me make the ties. “What about a star quilt? You have a star quilt?” he asked. I didn’t know anything about a star quilt! Plenty Coup told me that his niece made star quilts and that I needed to be wrapped in a brand new one when they put me up on the hill. “We have to do this right,” Plenty Coup said. “Then afterward, you give that star quilt away to someone. That’s the Lakota way. My aunt will help you out; she’s a good woman. You should take her some meat. She’s old now, and real pitiful.”
Plenty Coup’s aunt lives in a one-room log cabin in one of the nearby towns; the town must have grown up around the cabin. She is shrunken and deeply wrinkled and has only a few teeth left, but she is strong in spirit. There was a cot in the cabin and a wood-burning stove. She served us coffee that was so strong it was almost vile. There were paper bags everywhere: bags filled with clothing, odds and ends, herbs. Dried meat hung from a clothesline.
Plenty Coup explained the situation to her. “Good boy,” she said to me. She took the package of meat from me and put it in the refrigerator, which was almost bare. She burned sage and sweet grass and then went about making the ties, ripping and cutting brightly colored material, filling tiny squares with tobacco, wrapping them in string, with hands that were adept, though arthritic. As she talked, Plenty Coup grunted his approval or offered exclamations.
Then, quite suddenly, Plenty Coup announced, “A storm is coming in from the west tonight, John. I don’t think you’ll want to be up there on the hill tonight.” His aunt looked up at me and laughed. I laughed too; I thought this was a joke. The skies were perfectly clear — no sign of a storm.
But as the evening went on, it became clear that Plenty Coup had no intention of putting me up on the hill.
So here I am. My ties are ready. I have my star quilt (for which I paid three hundred dollars). I checked the skies again — there are all kinds of stars.
My expectations were so high today; I feel deflated, and anxious, and angry. Are they testing me in some kind of way? Have I become the brunt of some joke?
And how am I supposed to go up on the hill in this state of mind?
So, I was wrong! At about three in the morning I was startled by a terrible clap of thunder. There was an incredible storm — as Plenty Coup had predicted! Lightning struck close to camp. The frame of my tent swayed in the wind; water seeped into the bottom. (No, I would not want to have been up on the hill last night.) By morning, the skies had cleared and the temperature began to rise. It was one hundred degrees today.
Finally, I’ll be going up on the hill at sunset. Tomorrow is the last day of purification before the Sun Dance. Plenty Coup said he would pick me up before sunset tomorrow. “Don’t forget me!” I said. “If this heat continues, I’ll be pretty dehydrated in twenty-four hours.”
Plenty Coup smiled and said, “When I was only nine, I went on my first vision quest. In those days they still used the vision pit. I was in a pit, in the earth, for four days and four nights. No food, no water, nothing. Nine years old. You got to do it right, to get a blessing. You can’t cheat. No canteen of water. No sneaking granola bars up there, John.”
I asked him if I could take my journal. “As long as you don’t eat it.”
I went through the purification ceremony. Plenty Coup lit the fire for the sweat lodge with some flints passed down from his grandparents. He lined up nine sacred stones and prayed and talked before striking one of the flints. The fire came into being — a wonder.
Plenty Coup said we would have only one round, rather than open the door of the sweat lodge several times, since I was going up on the hill. A few men crawled into the lodge with us and it was so hot before the door was closed, I wasn’t sure if I could endure it. The rocks were red with heat. As Plenty Coup sang and poured the water, I could hear the others groaning from the heat. I shut my eyes, for fear they would melt down my face like wax. When it was over, I found red, scalded spots on my cheeks, ears, and knees.
I gave Nina several hundred dollars for a beef; she and several other women have agreed to prepare the soup for a feast tomorrow, when I return to camp.
August 3, dawn
The dawn has come with such gentleness. When was the last time I experienced dawn? The coyotes began to cry in the pale light.
I haven’t slept, though I almost lost consciousness a few times, even while in a sitting position, my head falling to the side like a great weight.
By turns, I feel exalted and sorrowful. I may have felt serenity in the first few hours; now I feel close to madness.
The sky appears (unfortunately) to be clear. My mouth is dry.
By the time we drove up last night, it was completely dark. Plenty Coup knows the land well, and managed to find this finger-shaped butte, which juts out over the pines. Bernie drove us up in the pickup. “This is where my relatives live,” Plenty Coup said. Bernie laughed nervously. “Don’t try to spook me, Uncle.”
Many others have fasted on this spot. Plenty Coup lent me a buffalo robe, so I can kneel or sit comfortably. He arranged the tobacco offerings in a small cedar tree, and prayed in the four directions, lifting his voice with such force it must have reached the camp below.
I felt overwhelmed, and cried there in the darkness behind him. He shook my hand, and proceeded back up the slope to the pickup, using a flashlight as a guide.
Far below I could see a fire in the camp. And then a complex, dramatic symphony unfolded. There was thunder and lightning in the west. The wind moved through the towering, dark ponderosas and it all seemed orchestrated.
I prayed. I cried. I gave thanks.
It rained lightly. I turned my face up and caught the drops in my mouth. At four in the morning (by my estimate), I lost consciousness. Then I heard a rustling, like footsteps in the grass, and the snap of a pine bough. I remembered what Plenty Coup had said about his relatives, and my heart raced.
I didn’t anticipate the fear. I have read so many accounts of medicine men and the spirits they encounter; suddenly I prayed to be spared that experience.
The sun is high in the sky now. The coolness of the morning has evaporated. There is no shade here. My concentration is ebbing. The periods I spend in prayer and meditation are shorter. Now I am becoming preoccupied with time. I keep thinking about the number of hours I will spend here before Plenty Coup picks me up.
I am worried that Plenty Coup will forget about me.
A while ago an eagle flew overhead. I looked up at him. He looked at me. He circled a few times and left. This was a blessing. I felt energized, uplifted for a while.
Then anxiety and extreme discomfort returned. I berate myself for being so weak, so distracted. The anxiety intensifies.
I can’t summon any saliva. My mouth no longer seems to be made of the familiar, wet membrane, but of a substance dry as leather.
Sweat is trickling down my back; I am attracting insects.
Is it noon? One or two, perhaps? I can hear the sound of a chain saw coming from the camp. I hear the laughter of children. Is anyone back there thinking of me?
I am sucking on grass for the moisture. I cry and I lick the tears as they come down. The sweat on my skin is sticky, like pitch from a pine.
I am having a vision of water.
Water in all its forms: rivers of water — flowing, flowing. Diving into a lake of water. Water as it comes out of a faucet. A tall glass of iced tea, the glass opaque from the cold.
I don’t care too much for Coke, but I’m thinking of it now. Lemonade — made from fresh lemons.
I try to pray, but I lose my concentration so easily. Then I break down in tears, appalled at my own weakness. Then I lick my tears, like a thirsty, trapped animal — devoid of any spirituality.
We take water for granted! It flows out of our faucets; we buy bottled, gourmet water. In Africa, women have to walk miles to bring home a jug of drinking water. Even back in camp, we’ve had to work for water — haul it, heat it, conserve it.
Food — we can live without it, for a while. Not water. We are water — 80 percent, I believe.
I think of our beautiful oceans. Oil spills and garbage washing up on shore.
I remember Plenty Coup talking about water rights — how the tribes would have to fight for water next, just to survive.
The sun will be setting soon. I worry that Plenty Coup has forgotten about me with all the activities in camp.
About an hour ago, I heard a pickup winding this way, its engine straining. I felt such relief! I even laughed at myself and thought: this wasn’t that bad. Then I heard a chain saw; someone was cutting wood.
Desperation returned, and anger. I wonder if this is deliberate, if they are testing me down in camp to see how strong I am.
I pray for patience, but I can’t hold out much longer. If they don’t come soon, I will have to walk down myself. I have to have water.
The thought of walking back to camp is humiliating. But if it gets too dark, I may not be able to find my way.
My ego is taking on a life of its own. It walks around in its own body, grotesque and ludicrous. I hold back and view it with detachment, as the eagle must have viewed me.
Plenty Coup didn’t forget me, though it was dark by the time they picked me up. I was confused and weak and could think of nothing except my first drink of water. I went through the purification ceremony again and it seemed so unbearable I cried like a child.
The women in camp had made some sort of instant, sweet drink. I drank glass after glass, gulping and panting. Then I started on water, consuming glass after glass. “Thank you for doing this,” Nina said, and shook my hand. They were passing out soup and fry bread in the camp.
I went down to the river and stretched out in the water. I stayed there, light as a hollow log. The stars were out.
Later, when the activities in camp had subsided, I saw Plenty Coup sitting on his director’s chair. He was alone, and I thought it would be a good time to talk.
“Hau!” he said. “Everybody’s got a problem. We’re waiting for these people from Oklahoma. They’re going to contribute a beef for tomorrow to help feed the people. Now they’ve got car trouble and they’re stuck in Nebraska. So how was it, John?”
I told him it was hard, much harder than I expected. He laughed. I told him about the eagle, my obsessive thoughts about water. He laughed again.
We sat there in silence for a while. Maybe it wasn’t the right time, but I felt that I needed to be honest. I told him I had felt anger, waiting up there. I reminded him that we had agreed that I would be picked up before sunset, and I could only interpret his tardiness as a lack of concern.
“John, there was a lot going on in camp,” Plenty Coup said, almost without apology.
“That may be so, but when you’re up there, it’s the only thing happening,” I said.
This put Plenty Coup on the defensive. “We don’t go by the white man’s clock; we go by natural clocks, the seasons, the rhythms of camp. Everybody has needs.”
“Maybe if you took advantage of our Western system of management, you would have more time,” I said. Plenty Coup was becoming enraged, but I didn’t really pick up on that until it was too late. “As it is, I’ll be going home without a penny in my pocket, and I can’t help feeling a little used. . . .”
Plenty Coup shook his fist at me, turned away, and then lunged at me, pushing me to the ground. I was stunned.
“Used!” he bellowed. “Maybe you’re using us. You people come here. You want to learn our ways, just like that! Oh, I think I want to be a shaman! Be sure to pick me up at sunset! Our medicine people go up on the hill for four days and four nights. And most of the time the spirits don’t come until the very end. You took all our land, and now you want our ceremonies!”
I could sense that people in camp were listening, but keeping a respectful distance. He talked about being at Wounded Knee, about being locked up in jail for a year. He talked about the 1868 treaty, how some of the chiefs were bought off with whiskey. He talked about all the cousins and sisters and brothers he had buried.
I got up from the ground when I felt he was winding down.
“This is all we got, John,” he said, gesturing to the Sun Dance arbor, the sweat-lodge area. His eyes filled with tears. “This is all we got left.” Then he walked off into the darkness in the direction of the arbor.
I thought of following him, trying to resolve the situation; but at the same time, I respected his need to be alone.
A couple of camp dogs followed me back to my tent, and I felt like one of them. I had no one to talk to. I felt humiliated, confused, angry, exposed.
And I can understand his point of view, his anger and exasperation. I can imagine how ludicrous the idea of a shamanic workshop must be from their perspective.
(I was not expecting this kind of vision, Sarah. I wanted you to be here.)
The Sun Dance began today. The dancers were up before dawn, going in and out of the sweat lodges. I was exhausted, but excited, and I summoned my strength so I could see the entry into the arbor at dawn. All the male dancers were lined up in their ankle-length red skirts, holding their eagle-wing fans. The women wore long cotton dresses of various colors, crowns made from sage.
Plenty Coup looked magnificent. He wore a deerskin breechcloth. His hair was loose; the head of an eagle was attached to one of his wrists. He carried a cane with a scarf and an eagle wing attached to it.
Before they entered the arbor, he talked about the significance of the dance. “You are going to fly,” he promised them. “You’re going to be between the earth and the sky.”
The dancers made shrill sounds on their eagle-bone whistles as they made their way to the entrance of the arbor.
All day I’ve listened to the songs and the drumming. There are some fifty different songs, but I have to listen very closely to distinguish between them, since I don’t know the language.
By midday I could see the lips of the dancers were dry and cracked. It appeared painful for some to walk over the grass after so many hours of dancing. One woman dropped to her knees, overcome by the heat. They are not supposed to have food or water for four days, though most of them have soup and water at night. Plenty Coup said he would like to do it the old way, but the people are weak.
And as I looked at some of the dancers, I saw that they had been transformed, that they had passed beyond the realm of suffering, and by the look in their transfixed, glazed eyes, the slight, awed smile, I could see they had a vision of a world beyond this one. They were flying. They were dancing between the earth and the sky.
Bernie will drive me back to Pierre in the morning so I can get back to the Coast; I hope he bathes or takes a swim in the river.