I woke up and realized I was not alone in my sleeping bag. I raised up on an elbow and looked into the face of an Indian, an Indian no-one except his mother would call handsome--and I wasn't sure about her. Hell, I loved the man with all my Indian heart and even I would have difficulty calling him handsome if I were objective, but objective I was not. He might not be "pretty" handsome, but his face was one which clearly showed his strength, his character--all the things which make handsome very low on the totem pole! He could have been ugly enough to frighten kids and I wouldn't have cared. He loved me and I loved him and that was all--absolutely all--that counted. I smiled as I looked into his sleeping face and thought of the long journey which had brought me to a sleeping bag in the Colorado Mountains beside the light of my life.
I, too, am an Indian--Native American, American Indian, American Aborigine, you get the picture. Being politically correct gets more complicated all the time. Call me an Indian without the extra, if you like, or call me Apache or Ndee because that's who I am. I began the journey which led to my being beside the first man--and the last--I ever loved, thirty-two years ago.
My journey began on a frosty January morning in 1963 on the Jicarilla Reservation. It was there that my mom gave birth to me in the shack my father's parents called home. My grandmother told me, when I was nine or ten, my mom had a difficult pregnancy. When her time came, there was no-one to help her except my grandmother. Shortly after I was born, my mother died as a result of my birth so I never knew her. I know several people whose father resented them because their mother had died in childbirth. Not me. My father adored me and I him.
I didn't get to spend much time with my dad since he was in the army. He came home for mom's burial but, of course, I don't remember that. Over the next twelve years, he came when he could get leave. As soon as I could walk I spent all my waking hours with him when he came home, exploring the mountains, hunting, listening to stories, including the story of his winning my mother's hand. Even as a very young boy, I knew he had worshipped my mom and missed her even though they had very little time together.
He was on the reservation for my eleventh birthday. Looking back, I know it was a pretty sparse celebration, but for me it was a birthday fit for a king. While he was on the reservation that time, he was inducted into a warrior society and I was so very proud of him.
Each time he was home, he told me how long it would be before he could get out of the army and never leave me again. On my eleventh birthday, he reminded me he would soon be coming back to stay. "We will have a wonderful life, Climbing Bear," he had said. "We will be real Apache, living in the old way and you will become a great warrior." Well, he did come back, soon, and he came back to stay. During the very last days of the Vietnam War, he was killed--shot by a sniper. So he came back to stay, in a box.
He was buried with full military honors under a gnarled cedar near the shack, his grave beside my mom's. Their graves became a place where I spilled out my anger, hurt, pain. I often sat beside my dad's grave and asked why he had abandoned me. I got no answer. When I asked my grandmother, she just said it was the way of the warrior, of a brave man. I didn't think it was brave to get killed when I was waiting for him. I hated him for abandoning me and wept bitter tears at his grave because I loved him.
I was hurt, angry, and grieving but, I guess, not grieving as deeply as my grandmother and grandfather. My grandfather's heart was broken, not only because his only son had been killed--he had, after all, died a warrior's death--but also because he and my grandmother both thought he had been killed in a useless, senseless war.
Over the next two years I saw my grandfather grow smaller and weaker. It didn't help that I became increasingly rebellious and disrespectful. I laughed at the very idea of school and was absent more than I was present. Two years to the day after my dad was killed, my grandfather, who had suddenly become very ill a few days before, died.
I became even more bitter and rebellious. I forgot about school entirely and cared little or nothing for anything or anyone, including my grandmother and myself. At fourteen, I discovered alcohol and how to get it. My grandmother warned me of its dangers and I laughed at her. She talked of my becoming a brave warrior and I answered, bitterly, "So I can get killed while I am young and have a military funeral? I don't think so."
The winter I turned sixteen, I was completely wild, totally out-of-hand. Grandmother tried to talk to me, reason with me, but it didn't do any good. When I should have been in school, when I should have been helping my grandmother, I was out somewhere drunk or finding a way to get booze. My life was about alcohol and nothing else.
The spring after I turned seventeen, I was invited to an all-night party. It wasn't a real party, just a bunch of Indians with enough money to buy cheap booze and get drunk. I don't know when I passed out, but the sun told me it was afternoon when I came to. I was alone in an abandoned shack, lying in a pool of vomit, my head splitting and my mouth feeling as though birds had used it for roosting.
I dragged myself to the door, pulled my body upright and staggered the two or three miles to my grandmother's place. When I staggered in, I saw my grandmother lying on the floor in front of her battered cook stove. When I got to her, I reached down to pick her up. As I took her hand, it was cold and I knew at once she was dead.
Her cause of death was ruled the result of a heart attack. Sure it was from a heart problem. She was heartbroken by her son's death and while I may not have been the cause of her death, I had certainly contributed to it. In spite of all I had done to them through my behavior, I loved my grandparents dearly. They had, in reality, been the only parents I had known. When my grandmother was laid to rest between her husband and son, I realized I had no family, no place to go. I was adrift in a world that seemed to hate me.
I really don't remember too much about the next two years. I took any odd job I could find to buy alcohol. By the time I was nineteen I was a full-blown alcoholic. The spring after I turned nineteen, I finally drifted into Denver.
Not only was I without family, I was also fighting another battle. I had known I was gay since I knew about anything, but I was so far back in the closet I was often able to deny it to myself. Being an Indian, and a drunk Indian at that, was enough--without adding being a drunk, gay Indian.
One night, after I had picked up a day job and gotten paid, a fellow drunk and I were drinking cheap wine. When we both were too drunk to give a shit about anything or anybody, we started playing around with each other. We were not only two drunk Indians, but also two very stupid Indians. We had wandered into a Denver park which was, I later learned, known for gay activity. Half-dressed, we were giving each other blowjobs or trying to. We were so drunk we couldn't even do that worth a shit. We were paying attention to no-one and nothing. Two policemen made their necessary drive through the park, spotted us and, before I knew what was happening, had us cuffed and in their patrol car.
They took us downtown and hauled us before the night court. We got tossed in jail for ten days for indecent exposure. You can imagine what happened when the jailer said, as he closed and locked the door behind us, "Fresh meat guys. These ladies like to suck cock." It was not a pleasant or romantic ten days. I wasn't sure my mouth or ass would ever be normal again.
Before the ten days were up, Running Water, the guy I had been with, was bailed out and left Denver with his father. I was not so lucky. When my ten days were up, I was turned loose--back on the street with no place to stay, no job, no skills, nothing. Knowing nothing else, I went back to day jobs and alcohol, sleeping under a bridge, in a doorway, anywhere.
A few weeks after I was released, I got picked up by a contractor to do grunt work--digging a ditch. He cared nothing for me or anyone else. You either worked or he gave you a kick in the ass and sent you packing. The ditch was almost five feet deep and he was not using side guards. As a result, one minute I was digging away and the next I was buried up to my neck when the sides caved in. Fearing what would happen if it was discovered he had not been taking the required safety precautions, the boss set the crew to digging me out. They couldn't work as fast as I was being crushed to death, so finally he called for help, after I had been buried for what seemed like days, and I was finally dug out.
I was rushed to the hospital--by that time I was unconscious--where I stayed two weeks. The first week I don't remember too well, but I was told it was nip-and-tuck as to whether I would make it or not.
I was in a semi-private room and shortly after I regained consciousness, my roommate introduced himself. He, too, was Apache--Ndee--but from the White Mountain tribe, and had grown up on the Fort Apache Reservation. His name was Little Raven. We talked about growing up on a reservation, all the problems we faced, that sort of thing. He had Indian and white friends who came to visit and he introduced them to me. I think it was the first time I realized Indians could live like anyone else. When I said that, he replied, "Yea, sometimes, but try to rent an apartment in a decent complex or go to a nice club. There are still signs around, maybe not in plain sight, maybe even invisible, which say, 'No Dogs or Indians Allowed', but things are changing, slowly."
The day before I was released, an Apache came to see my roommate. Little Raven introduced him as Crazy Coyote, "my tribe's medicine man". Crazy Coyote lit something in a bowl, waved the smoke over Little Raven, chanted a while and shook rattles over him.
When he finished, he came over to my bed and said, "I think it's time you got rid of the bad spirits eating you. You need to get rid of the hate in your heart and the anger."
He reached into the bag hanging over his shoulder and, as he did, I said, "I ain't interested in any Indian hocus-pocus bullshit. Take your shit and get out. Leave me alone."
"Guess I was wrong. Guess it's not time yet. Maybe I'm not the one to make a decent Indian and human being out of you. Tough shit for you," he said as he put the things back in his bag and left.
I got sober enough while I was in the hospital to realize I had spent two and a half years in Denver--all in a drunken haze. I had turned twenty-one in January, three months before.
I got out of the hospital the day after the Indian had wanted to do some mumbo-jumbo over me, right back where I started--back on the street with no place to stay, no job, no skills, nothing. It was about mid-afternoon when I walked out of the hospital. I had no money and no way to pick up a job this late in the day and I sure needed a drink. I tried panhandling with absolutely no luck-- one guy flipped me a quarter and that was it. Damn, I needed a drink.
I hadn't been paying attention to where I was walking and when I looked around, I was a block from the park where I had been picked up. I was sober--dammit!--so I figured I could watch out for cops. The guys who had forced me to have sex in the jail had talked about how much I could get for the blowjobs I have been forced to give them. "Hell, you are a shithead, fucking no-good Indian and you need a drink. What's sucking a cock or two if it gets you a drink?" I asked myself. I never got that drink.
I was headed toward the center of the park when a carload of rednecks drove by slowly, turned around and came back. One of them leaned out of the car window and shouted, "Hey, Chief, how about a blowjob? Come on, Chief, don't you want this white cock up your Indian ass?" The car stopped and the driver said, "Men, don't we want to teach this fucking faggot Indian a lesson?". They piled out of the car and dragged me into some bushes at the edge of the park. I expected to be raped but, instead, they started beating me. When I collapsed, they kicked me. Shortly afterward, I lost consciousness.
I don't know how long I was out, but it was dark when I came to. I was lying in a drainage ditch. I would have drowned in the dirty, stagnant water had I been dumped face down. As it was, I was barely alive. I started the very painful and slow process of dragging myself out of the ditch and finding help. I was half-way across the park when I passed out again. I don't know whether it was the pain or the injuries.
I might not have been found, I was told later, had I not passed out in the middle of a park path where a couple of patrolling policemen found me.
I woke up in a bed, I thought in a hospital until I looked around. I realized I was naked when I looked under the sheet and saw someone had cleaned me up and dressed my wounds before putting me to bed. I really needed to piss, but when I tried to get out of bed, I couldn't. As I struggled to get out of bed and to keep from pissing myself, an Indian I had never seen came in.
"I see you are awake," he said. "Seems to me you are one Indian who has a helluva time staying out of trouble."
"I'm going to be in more trouble soon unless I piss, and I can't get up." The Indian put his arms under me and easily lifted me from the bed and carried me to the bathroom. He gently stood me on my feet. I tried to piss, but couldn't. "I can't piss," I said. "It hurts."
"Just relax and you'll make water," he said. "Everything about you has been bruised, so it's not surprising you can't piss without pain."
I stood, relaxing as much as I could, and finally was able to pee. As I stood there, I said, "I'm Climbing Bear, Ndee."
"I'm Wounded Hawk, Lakota."
"My grandfather once told me a tale about a Lakota named Red Hawk. Know him?"
The Lakota started laughing so hard he almost dropped me. "That old buzzard will never leave me alone so long as I'm alive," he said, when he had stopped laughing enough to speak. "Red Hawk is my old man. I guess he's getting even with me for all the shit I gave him by giving me screwed-up Indians like you." I had finished, so Wounded Hawk carried me--literally--back to bed. When I was back in bed, he disappeared for a few minutes and came back with a steaming bowl of liquid. "Drink this."
While I was drinking, Wounded Hawk told me I had been found by an Indian policeman and his partner who respected Indians. "They took you to Crazy Coyote's house. You remember him from the hospital?" I nodded. "He already had a full house, so he sent them here with you."
I finished drinking the liquid from the bowl and was surprised when I started feeling better almost immediately. Wounded Hawk propped me up on pillows and asked why I kept getting my ass kicked. I didn't know what I should--or wanted to--tell him, so I was pretty vague. Occasionally he asked me a question. I never felt he was prying, just interested in understanding me. Before it was over I had told him everything, everything, including the fact that I was gay. I suddenly felt myself weeping bitterly--for the pain I had caused my grandparents, for my father's death, for all the life and opportunities I had wasted. When I ran out of tears and could cry no more, Wounded Hawk wiped my face with a cool, wet cloth and gave me another bowl, cool this time, to drink. Almost by the time I had finished drinking it, I was asleep.
For two weeks, Wounded Hawk brought me medicine and food, cleaned and dressed my wounds and listened to me talk. It was only after I was better and on my feet that I realized he had said little. He had asked questions and occasionally said something, but mostly he listened. One night as I lay thinking about the strange turn of events in my life, I realized I hadn't had a drink for several weeks and this time hadn't gone through the shakes. I was even more surprised by the fact that I wasn't craving a drink.
At the end of two weeks, I was able to get up and walk, so long as I wasn't in a hurry. When Wounded Hawk came in late one afternoon, he was carrying a bundle. "Get dressed," he said. "I suspect you are tired of wearing nothing but your underdrawers." When I was dressed, he said, "Ok, let's go". I didn't even ask him where.
Outside was a four-wheel-drive pickup, its load covered by the ever-present blue tarp. We left Denver at sunset, headed north. I was, perhaps, well, but had very little strength. I managed to stay awake until the last bit of sunset color had faded from the evening sky, then I was lulled to sleep by the steady drone of the truck motor.
Sometime later--I have no idea how long--I woke up when the truck stopped. "I need a piss break," Wounded Hawk said. I was very stiff, but able to leave the truck and follow the Lakota a short distance off the road where we stood, in the bright moonlight, pissing. When we finished, Wounded Hawk started walking away from the truck, following a path I had not noticed before. We had walked a hundred yards or so when I heard the faint gurgling of running water. The path ended at a pool formed by water trickling out of rocks above it. Wounded Hawk walked to the rocks, cupped his hands under a small trickle and drank. When he finished, I did the same. The water was icy cold and very sweet. I hadn't realized I was thirsty until I started drinking, but I must have been for I kept drinking, seeming unable to get enough water. When my thirst was finally satisfied, I rejoined Wounded Hawk who had gone back up the path a short distance.
"Water as good and pure as this is hard to find because we have shit in our nest so long and so often we have poisoned Mother Earth. But there are other springs as good where we are going," Wounded Hawk said.
"Where are we going?" I finally asked.
"I am taking you into the Black Hills where you will meet my mentor, Black Horse. I hope he will take you on as a project, as he did me years ago. He is a very old and very powerful Lakota medicine man. I think he might be able to make something out of you.
"Do you think he came make me straight?"
"Why would he want to do that? He's no fool. He's not going to try to make a rabbit out of a buffalo. Why would he try to undo what the Great Spirit has done? The Great Spirit knew what he was doing when he made you. He makes no mistakes. He made you gay because he needed you to be gay just like he needed me to be straight. Only a proud, vain, self-centered ass would claim to know better what a person should be than the Great Spirit who created him. No, it would be one damn stupid fool who thinks he can change what the Great Spirit created into something else. IF Black Horse thinks you are worth the effort, and IF he decides he can make something out of you, he will only enable you to become fully who you are. He will start with what the Great Spirit has made you--a gay male who is a pretty sad physical specimen, an emotional wreck, a spiritual cripple and an intellectual wasteland. But the physical, emotional, spiritual and intellectual are all there to be developed. That is a given and a part of that givenness is your being gay. Well, we need to move."
We got back in the truck and, once again, I fell asleep very quickly, still thinking about what Wounded Hawk had said about being gay. I wasn't sure I understood it, but he seemed to think being gay was ok.
The next time I woke up, the moon was setting over a distant mountain. We had left the interstate highway and were no longer on a regular paved road, driving along a trail that was barely visible. After an hour or so more, the trail disappeared, and how Wounded Hawk found his way I'll never know. Suddenly I pitched forward as the truck went over the crest of a hill and we started a very steep descent into a deep, narrow canyon. At the bottom of the canyon there was a small stream which we followed. Finally Wounded Hawk stopped the truck before a small, one-room log-and-mud cabin with a sod roof.
"We have arrived, Climbing Bear. If you are lucky, this will be your home for the next year," Wounded Hawk said, as he opened the door and hopped out after blowing the horn several times. As I got out of the truck, I saw the silhouette of an old man in the cabin door. "Black Horse, Wounded Hawk," the Lakota shouted, and ran to embrace the silhouette. I was really stiff, so it took me a while to reach the cabin.
"Black Horse, this is a very poor specimen of mankind called Climbing Bear. I hope you will find it in your heart to teach him the way."
"Two weeks ago, I had decided it was a great day to die. I did a sweat, went to my vision place and sat down to die. Well, damned if I didn't have a vision about a two-spirits-blessed one who had been beaten. It was you, Climbing Bear," Black Horse said. "I had a pretty ferocious argument with some spirits and I lost. I didn't want to take on someone, since I had decided to die, but I'll have to put that off for another year. I sometimes think this old Indian is doomed to live forever with my aches and pains. Welcome as always, Wounded Hawk, my son, and welcome Climbing Bear, two-spirits-blessed. Now that you have got me awake, I guess we can have breakfast and sleep again later. I'll fix breakfast while you two get cleaned up.
Wounded Hawk took a bundle from the truck, threw it over his shoulder and said, "Follow me". We walked along a grassy path toward the small stream running behind the cabin. As we approached the stream, I saw someone had used rocks to dam the stream, creating a small pool. Wounded Hawk put down his bundle and started stripping. "Climbing Bear, we are bathing, so I suggest you get undressed."
When I was undressed I found the late spring night chilly. While I was thinking about that, Wounded Hawk ran and jumped into the pool. I followed suit. The water was so cold it took my breath away. "Damn! This water is cold!" I managed to say between chattering teeth.
"Not nearly as cold as it will be when you have to break the ice to get to the water. Get washed up," he said as he tossed me a bar of strange soap. I quickly lathered up and rinsed off. By then I was so cold I didn't feel the cold any longer. I finished quickly and got out of the water as did Wounded Hawk, who pitched me a towel and I started rubbing my body to get my circulation going. When I was dry, Wounded Hawk tossed me new jeans, shirt and briefs. When I had them on, he tossed me a pair of the softest moccasins I had ever felt. I slipped them on my feet, gathered up the clothes I had taken off and my towel, and Wounded Hawk and I walked to the cabin.
Black Horse had coffee waiting and as he poured mine asked, "Did that sly Indian tell you you'd have to break the ice on the pond to bathe this winter?"
"Yes, he did."
"Don't believe all he says. He has never had to break the ice to bathe." I was giving a sigh of relief when Black Horse continued, "He has never been up before me, so I am the one that has always broken the ice." He then gave an absolutely marvelous belly laugh which I soon came to love. Black Horse served some kind of delicious stew and flat bread, cooked on top of the small stove he used for heat and cooking--when he cooked inside. I ate as if I hadn't eaten in days.
We finished before sunrise and Black Horse suggested we take a nap before we talked. He barely had the words out of his mouth before he rolled himself up in a buffalo robe on the floor and was sound asleep. Wounded Hawk went to the truck and returned with two air mattresses and sleeping bags. I expected to lie awake, since I had slept most of the night while we were traveling, but I didn't. I was asleep in seconds.
When I woke up, neither Wounded Hawk nor Black Horse was in the cabin. It took a while for me to get up. I guess the long trip had allowed me to get very stiff, and I had done little moving since I reached the cabin. I finally was standing and, after I got my balance, walked outside. The two Indians were near the stream stoking a large fire. When I reached them, I saw they were preparing a sweat lodge. I had seen one only once before when a Kiowa friend of my grandfather had held one. "Sweat lodge?" I asked.
"Yes, we are doing a sweat tonight," Wounded Hawk said without additional comment.
When the fire was ready, the two added large stones to it and more wood. I would have helped, but I knew I was too weak to lift anything. Having finished their task, the two walked back to the cabin. Black Horse sat on an old beat-up chair near the front door. Wounded Hawk went inside and brought out two more chairs.
When Wounded Hawk and I sat down, Black Horse said, "Climbing Bear, you have wasted much of the time you have been given. Your life has almost been cut short twice and still you didn't get the message. Wounded Hawk found you and brought you here for the same reason his father brought him--to see if something could be made out of you. I don't know. When Red Hawk brought Wounded Hawk, he was a mess too--drinking anything that he could find, screwing any old slut, everything he did was aimed at making his life a bigger pile of crap. He was filled with lazy, crazy, good-for-nothing spirits. Well after I got him sober, he was willing to work to make something of himself, to chase out the rotten spirits living in him. It took a while and there were times... there were times... but that's past and he's done good. He's a decent human being and a good Indian. He's working hard to make up for the crap he did before."
"Now you... I don't know. You've done enough shit to keep your good-for-nothing spirits alive and happy for a long time, and they are going to fight like hell to stay where they are. I can look at you and tell that. Look at the rotten spirits inside you. No respect for your elders. That's a dangerous rotten spirit. When elders don't get respected, the young screw up--drinking, putting poison in your body, going to a park where two spirits disgrace both. Yep, you are a piece of rotten work right now. You are a big job, but I guess this old man can help you get rid of the shit and see if there's not some good in there somewhere. Wounded Hawk tells me you are from good Indians. A brave warrior and a gentle woman. Well, you are going to have to work like a bear and you are going to have to climb out of the shit you have been living in. I cannot do that for you but, if you are willing to work at it, I will help."
I didn't know what to say. Black Horse was right, of course, but I didn't know whether I had the guts to change. I wanted to, at least I thought I did, but I didn't know if I could. Black Horse asked nothing of me--no promises, nothing. As I thought about that, I realized he had meant what he said. He would help--he made that promise--but he couldn't do it for me.
"Let's eat," Black Horse said, very abruptly. We went into the cabin and Black Horse set out three bowls and spoons, went to the stove and brought back a pot of something--I guess it was stew. I wondered if I would have to live on the same stew for... suddenly I realized I didn't know how long I would be in this place, and that kinda panicked me. I put a spoon of stew in my mouth after making sure it wasn't too hot to handle. It was stew all right but not the same as we had last night. Maybe stew three meals a day wouldn't be as bad as I thought.
When we finished, Wounded Hawk said, "We need to get the truck unloaded. I have to leave early tomorrow morning. Supposed to be in Atlanta next Monday for a conference on civil rights. Guess that will be interesting because there will be a group demanding more welfare. Hell, handouts have almost killed us Indians because we have forgotten how to make it on our own and you can't depend on whites respecting any treaty they have ever made, so the handouts have just about stopped. Of course, they really weren't handouts to start with since they were a pitance paid for lands taken by good old Uncle Sam." He walked to the truck and removed the tarp. The truck was filled with bags and boxes. "Climbing Bear, some of these will be too heavy for you in your present condition, so I'll have to select what you carry."
As we emptied the truck, I saw cases of coffee, bags of sugar, plastic bags covering sacks of flour and cornmeal, grocery staples in general, all well-packaged. These were stacked inside the cabin. There were new blankets as well as several pairs of jeans--some Black Horse's size, some mine, and others which would fit neither of us--shirts and heavy jackets and, for heaven's sake, long johns! There seemed to be supplies enough for a year or more piled in the cabin, on the table and the wide shelves which had served as beds for Wounded Hawk and me.
When the truck was empty, Wounded Hawk said, "Hop in". Black Horse was already in the truck, so I hopped in the back. Bad move I discovered as we started bouncing along where there was absolutely no path. Eventually we reached our destination, which was a huge pile of short logs. I couldn't manage many of them, but there were enough small logs to keep me busy for a while. When we got back to the house, the logs were neatly stacked near the cabin and we made three more trips then went back for a load of what Black Horse called fat pine, the resin-filled pieces from trees which had fallen and decayed leaving only the heart wood. I was to learn to be very thankful for the pieces we carried back, when I had to get up to a cold cabin in the dead of winter and start the fire.
Shortly after we had finished emptying the truck, Black Horse said we needed to get ready for the sweat. That meant another bath in the cold pond. Little did I realize how much I would have welcomed the cold water when we started the sweat, a new experience for me.
I'll admit I approached the sweat as a kind of cheap Indian sauna. So when we were inside and Black Horse started talking spirit guides, it sounded kinda spooky--like some religious stuff. I was embarrassed. I remembered being embarrassed when my grandparents had talked of spirits and religious stuff. I was shocked when Black Horse introduced me to the spirits as if they were sitting beside him. When he introduced me he added, "He's going to be a hard nut to crack, so I need your help and he does too." He spoke as if he were holding a conference with spirits in the sweat lodge with us. Pure nonsense.
The lodge became very, very hot, and the darkness seemed to be closing in on me. I felt as though I was trapped, so when Black Horse opened the flap to bring in more stones, I was relieved, my panic decreased, but not for long. When the flap was closed and Black Horse started pouring water on the stones again and speaking of endurance, cleanliness, strength and purity, I really panicked. Black Horse and Wounded Hawk had both told me it was no dishonor to leave the sweat lodge, but I wasn't sure I believed them. Soon it didn't make any difference. If this sweat lodge business was a test, I was about to fail! I jumped up so quickly I bumped my head on the top of the lodge, bent over and shot out of the lodge. Outside, I collapsed on the cool grass and sucked in great breaths of cool air.
A couple of times, Black Horse came out of the sweat lodge for hot stones and water. Then an hour or so after I left the lodge, Wounded Hawk and Black Horse came out of the sweat lodge and went to the pond, where they splashed around in the water, dried themselves and got dressed. I guess I expected them to have something to say about my leaving, but they didn't--either then or later.
We ate and went to bed. Morning came early, but since we had gone to bed as soon as it was dark, I had slept enough by sunrise. I woke up when I heard Wounded Hawk and Black Horse moving about. I got up, went outside to piss and then washed up at a shelf beside the door which held a bucket of water and a metal pan. Inside, breakfast was ready and the three of us ate in silence. When we finished, I took care of washing up the tin plates and spoons we had used, while Black Horse and Wounded Hawk loaded boxes into the truck. Later I would learn that these were things Black Horse had made for the tourist trade--his means of livelihood, since he would not accept anything for his work as a medicine man.
After Wounded Hawk left, I guess I expected Black Horse to sit me down and lay out a program, in his words, to get rid of "lazy, crazy, no-good spirits". Of course he didn't. He simply said, "We need to get things put away. I know you can't lift much, but some of this stuff is not heavy." Most of the boxes and bags Black Horse had to take up a ladder to a half-loft. I helped stack them and took up the things I could handle.
When we finished, it was time for lunch and we ate the stew left from breakfast, cold. It wasn't bad, but I again wondered if this was to be my diet for God only knew how long. When we finished, I washed up our plates and spoons, using cold water. Black Horse was waiting for me outside. "We need to get some things planted today," he said and he handed me a hoe. He was carrying one as well, and had a bag slung over his shoulder. We walked along the stream, away from the cabin, for a mile or so. We reached a place where the canyon widened dramatically and the stream flooding its floor over the years had created a wide, fertile field.
Black Horse started digging a furrow and indicated I should do the same. He, of course, worked much faster than I did, but together we soon had half the field furrowed. I had helped my grandparents plant corn and told Black Horse, so he had me drop the seed in the furrows and he covered it. When we finished, we walked back to the cabin.
When we got back, Black Horse set me to building a fire in the stove while he cut some dried meat into strips. He took things from shelves on the wall and added them to a pot of water. The smell quickly filled the small cabin and it made my mouth water. While the pot boiled, Black Horse made coffee and, when it was done, he handed me a cup and said, "Let's sit outside".
We took our coffee outside and sat in chairs beside the cabin door, watching the changing colors of the sunset. We were both silent, just watching the changing sky, when Black Horse asked, "Climbing Bear, why have you decided you are no good?".
I didn't know how to answer. If I really looked at myself, I had to admit that I didn't think much of myself. But why did I feel that way? I wanted to blame someone. After all, why would I think I was rotten unless someone made me that way? I was silent for a long time and then said, "Black Horse, I am a dumb, ignorant, gay,[delete as CB says he hasn't mentioned this to BH when they are in the sweat.] drunk Indian. I have been blaming that on my dad's death and the death of my grandparents, leaving me alone in the world. But, if I'm honest, I let the events in my life become excuses for doing nothing, then complaining because I had nothing. I know I have really screwed up, but I don't see how I can change that."
Black Horse was silent, just staring into space for a long time. Then he said, "Climbing Bear, you need to have time and space to sort yourself out. I don't think you are ready for that yet. Let's eat." That concluded any discussion of me and my situation for a month. During the month, I helped Black Horse with planting and caring for his plants. I went with him to gather herbs and other things for food and medicine. Only after a week or more of such treks did I realize I was learning about herbs, medicines, and such.
I was getting up with the sun and going to bed with it and that made for a long day, even going to bed that early. There were things which needed doing, and I was getting stronger every day so I could do more. When I was not helping Black Horse, I started taking long walks, often trying to identify the plants I saw. I added more rocks to the dam in the stream until I had a pool deep enough for swimming if I was careful. Then, I guess, I had been in the Black Hills a month when I just ran out of things to do.
I had intended to rearrange the things in the half-loft, to make getting what we needed easier, and one afternoon, out of boredom, I started. I had just about finished when I noticed some large boxes over to one side. I opened one to see what was inside, and discovered it was full of books. I had never done any more reading than I had to and, since I had skipped school the last two years, reading was not easy. But one book caught my eye. It was about the Lakota. I took it down with me and asked Black Horse if I could read it. "Read 'em all," he replied. I started reading the book and had to ask Black Horse a lot of the words. I was afraid he would grow impatient with me, but he never did.
Summer came and I really enjoyed the cool water in the pond. Every morning I got up, went to the latrine and then hit the water. It was too shallow for diving, so I just jumped in. After breakfast--which I fixed as often as Black Horse--we went out to gather food, tend our plantings and do any other chores which needed doing. When we finished, I took the book I was reading and found a place to read. Sometimes I just sat by the cabin door, other times I went into the woods, sometimes I sat by the stream. I could go where I pleased to read, because I no longer needed Black Horse's help.
I was growing stronger every day and my body showed that. I had never been in such good shape. My hair was pretty long before I came and now it was long enough to braid. One afternoon when I was complaining about the heat, Black Horse went into the cabin and returned with a soft buckskin breech cloth, and that became my wardrobe--except when we were working and I needed more protection. As a result, I became a very dark Redman. In June, Black Horse said he needed a sweat and asked if I'd like to join him. "I'll try, but I may get freaked out again," I replied.
"If you do, you can leave," he said.
I set to work preparing the fire pit, and got the fire going. Black Horse told me when it was ready for the rocks, and I put those in the pit and added more wood. Meanwhile, Black Horse had repaired the framework, which had come untied in a few places, then the two of us covered it with two layers of tarp, one blue and the other silver. When we finished, Black Horse said, "Climbing Bear, you might like to go into the woods and prepare yourself for a sweat". I didn't know what he meant, but didn't ask. Instead I just went walking and, when I found a pleasant spot in the woods, sat down. I wasn't really thinking, just letting the sights and sounds around me hold my attention. I'm not sure how long I sat, but finally I got up and walked back to the sweat lodge.
The stones in the pit were glowing red and orange. I stood looking at them and didn't hear Black Horse walk up behind me. "Sometimes the stones tell you something important," he said very softly, so softly that I wasn't startled. He walked to the edge of the pond, stripped and waded in. I followed him. We both scrubbed ourselves well and then walked back to the sweat lodge, which Black Hawk opened.
Instead of feeling hemmed in, smothered as I did before, as soon as the sweat started, I felt as though my world expanded, taking in the whole universe. It was a good feeling. I introduced myself to the spirit world and asked my dad to be my spirit guide for this sweat. After pouring water over the glowing rocks, Black Horse started singing very quietly to the beat of a small hand drum he held.
Black Horse opened the flap, went outside and brought back a very large rock. It was so hot its bright red glow lit up the lodge. When the flap was closed and more water poured over the stones, Black Horse spoke of endurance, cleanliness, strength and purity. I thought back over my life and how none of those characteristics had been mine. But now? A little over two months with Black Horse and I was definitely stronger than I had ever been. Purity? I really hadn't had any opportunity to be impure! But, yes, it was more than lack of opportunity. I had gained enough respect for myself that alcohol and screwing around had no appeal. Cleanliness? Certainly that was true physically, as Black Horse insisted on us bathing in the pond every morning, and usually every evening if we had been working. But, more than that, my spirit was growing clean. Endurance? That was a biggie because I could definitely stay away from alcohol and the life I had led before while I was here. As I said, I had little choice. But what about when I left? Could I endure then? I didn't know, but prayed that I could.
Once again, Black Horse opened the lodge and brought in more stones. He also brought in a new bucket of water and when he returned to his place, poured a dipper of the cold water over his head and bid me do the same. It was a great feeling. Black Horse instructed me in the sweat lodge as we went through the ceremony. At first I thought it would ruin his sweat, but he seemed perfectly capable of being both teacher and participant at the same time. So when he said we were in the third endurance and it was a time for individual prayers, I had gotten over some of my embarrassment and while prayer was not something I did often, I felt at home doing it here. I prayed for myself, for Black Horse and for Wounded Hawk. I also prayed for Running Water and, as I did, wondered where he was and what he was doing. Finally, I prayed that I would accept who I was, including being gay. It was the first time I had mentioned that in front of Black Horse.
Finally, Black Horse said we were at the endurance of healing, not just healing of bodies, but of hearts and minds. As he chanted softly, and for the last time poured water over the stones, I felt the sweat pouring from my body was taking with it much of the anger, hate, and fear which had been eating away at my heart, mind and soul. As the sweat soaked into Mother Earth, I felt her taking from me some of those lazy, crazy, no-good spirits which had plagued me so long.
The weeks following the sweat were very happy ones for me. There was not a lot of work to do, the fields were providing some fresh vegetables, I had finished one box of books and was reading very well. One evening as we were sitting watching the sunset, Black Horse said, "Climbing Bear, you have very little use for it here with me but, when you are ready, you have to return to the white man's world. I have watched your progress reading and you are smart. I think it's time you started working on math."
"How can I do that, Black Horse? I know I will be lost very quickly and that will be the end of it."
"Not if you have a tutor."
"Where am I going to find a tutor in this wilderness?"
"I thought you might be willing to have me tutor you," he responded.
"You? You can tutor me in math?"
"Sure. I was good at math in school before I ran away, and after that I studied it on my own. Can't get very far in calculus but, up to that, I'm here. You'll find some books in a box in the loft."
I was kinda embarrassed when I opened the box Black Horse had indicated and found math workbooks starting at third grade. I started just to skip ahead, but when I said something to Black Horse, he asked why I was afraid of doing something easy. "If you are finding nothing new, you can just whip through a workbook, but if there's something you have missed, don't be ashamed to learn it."
We never had any light in the cabin because we went to bed at dark and got up with the sun. Some evenings I was reading or working on something and didn't want to stop, but I didn't want to disturb Black Horse by having a lamp burning. One evening I was struggling with a math problem and just couldn't seem to get it. I sighed, put my workbook down and said, "I guess that will have to wait until tomorrow. It's getting too dark to see."
"Go inside and light the lamp," Black Horse said.
"I don't want to disturb your sleep," I answered.
"You won't," he said. We both went inside and he asked if I needed help.
When I said I did, he pulled his chair up to the table where I was working, looked at the problem and had me try again while he watched. At one point he asked, "Why did you do that?".
When I told him, he didn't tell me I was dumb or not thinking. Instead he grunted and said, "I guess that's why that problem's there, to trick you. Look at it again. Try to see it from a different angle."
When I did, it was immediately obvious to me what I had been doing wrong. "I guess I'm just too dense," I said.
"No, you just looked at the situation wrong. We all do that much of the time. We all need to learn to stop and try to see things from a different place. Like you need to see being gay. Most think it's wrong, but it's not. It's just different. Two spirits blessed, my medicine man called it. You have the spirit of both man and woman. You can do much. Well, if you don't need me, I'm going to sleep." Before I could offer to blow out the lamp, Black Horse was rolled up in his buffalo robe on the floor and sound asleep. Since he had gotten me over the hump, I continued to work for a while longer, finishing another workbook, this one eighth grade math.
The summer moved on and I loved every day of it. Every day I grew browner, stronger and happier. Black Horse told me how the Navajo greeted the morning by running and shouting, and I asked if I could. He simply shrugged and said, "Why not?". I started running the next morning and ran every day, rain or shine. Before long I was running a mile or two without really breathing too hard. And I loved it.
When fall came, we gathered the corn and beans, other things we had grown, and stored them. I noticed we were running low on some supplies but, since there was nothing I could do about it and Black Horse seemed unconcerned, I didn't mention it.
We did a sweat about once a month. Sometimes Black Horse asked me to do one, and I had learned how to conduct a sweat almost as well as he. He was right, the stones often told a story as I gazed at them during a sweat. One time I saw my grandmother's face in the dancing glow of the stones. I started weeping because of how I had treated her and the face seemed to change from just a face on a stone to my grandmother, and she said, "Climbing Bear, you are dear to my heart. I understand your rebellion and I forgive you. Grow into the mighty warrior you are." Having said that, the figure disappeared. In other sweats I was visited by the spirits of my father and grandfather, both forgiving me and telling me to become who I was intended to be.
In early October, fall came with its glorious colors--the reds, yellows and golds of the trees against the blue, blue sky. The days were warm but the nights were becoming cool. One early evening, as I was returning from a walk in the woods, I saw Wounded Hawk's truck coming toward the cabin. We arrived about the same time and I embraced him as he got out of the truck.
"It's sure hard to believe the beat-up Indian I left here last spring is standing before me," he said as he held me in a bear hug. "You are one good-looking Indian," he laughed. "Well filled-out, Climbing Bear, since I saw you last. Black Horse, you need to bottle and sell your medicine to all those scrawny white folks."
"I have done little. Climbing Bear has worked hard becoming who he is," Black Horse replied. The two Indians sat in the chairs beside the front door, talking, while I prepared supper. When it was ready, I called them in. Wounded Hawk was pleased with the meal and said so. He told us some of the things going on in the outside world, but not much--I guess because we weren't really interested.
The next morning, Wounded Hawk said we needed to unload the supplies, which we did. This time I carried them to the loft. When I was carrying the first load up, Wounded Hawk laughed and said, "Damn good-looking legs I see from down here". I looked over my shoulder and smiled. I'd have been lying if I said I didn't like his comment.
After we had the supplies stored, Wounded Hawk asked if I'd like to go with him in search of some medicine plants he wanted. Of course I did. I had learned just about all the plants from Black Horse, and surprised Wounded Hawk when I asked what he needed and took him directly to the plants. We talked as we walked though the forest[s] and it was only later that I realized I had done most of the talking. Wounded Hawk had asked questions from time to time, but had said very little.
When we returned, Black Horse had started a fire in the fire pit and was ready to put the rocks on. I did that, added wood and then the three of us had dinner. "The boy has done well with his reading and math," Black Horse said. "I hope you brought more books."
"Two boxes," Wounded Hawk answered. "Climbing Bear, years ago Harvard had what it called the Harvard shelf of books, books that every educated person should know. You've read most of them if you have read what I brought. The others I brought this time. I also brought something else. Don't know whether you will be interested or not, but I brought the whole University of Chicago Great Books program. If you use it, ok. If not, that's ok too. Of course, if you are ready to go back, you can bring them with you."
My heart sank. I hadn't thought about leaving Black Horse and this hidden corner of the Black Hills. I got a huge lump in my throat and couldn't speak. Finally I looked up and Wounded Hawk had to see the tears in my eyes. "What's the matter, Climbing Bear?"
When I was finally able to speak, I said, "Wounded Hawk, I haven't thought about leaving this very special place, a place where I have finally found peace, peace like I haven't known since I was last with my dad. I guess somewhere in my mind I knew I couldn't stay here forever, but I'm not ready to leave yet."
"Is it because you are afraid of facing the world out there?" he asked.
"Maybe. I don't think so. I just think I am not ready. Weeks ago Black Horse mentioned a vision quest and I have thought a lot about that, but haven't done it. I think there is still much I need to learn and understand."
"No-one will make you go, Climbing Bear," Black Horse said.
"No, no-one will ask you to go. I only mentioned it because I will be leaving tomorrow. Soon it will be impossible for me to get back and, to tell the truth, I don't plan on coming back until spring. If you want to stay, you can stay. I only warn you that the winter can be bitter. You will be in this cabin with little possibility of leaving for days at a time. It will be bitterly cold, but if you want to stay..."
"I do! I want to stay. I think I will know when it is time to leave and this is not it. Please!"
"Whoa! Hold everything, Climbing Bear, no-one's pushing for you to leave. You want to stay, you stay. I just want to be sure you understand that if you choose to stay, you are here until the spring thaw," Wounded Hawk said.
"I'm here until the thaw," I said.
"Good, I'm glad you made that decision," Wounded Hawk said.
"I knew he would," Black Horse said. "He will know when he's ready."
Just as the sun started setting, I opened the sweat lodge and started the ceremony. I think Wounded Hawk was surprised when I was the one conducting the sweat. During the sweat, the spirits of my mom and dad appeared and smiled at me. Neither said anything, but I knew they were proud of me. I was glad because I had been sure they would never have any reason to be proud of their son. While I still saw my parents, the faces of my grandmother and grandfather appeared in the hot stones and they, too, smiled.
When we were in the pond after the sweat, Wounded Hawk said, "You make me proud, Climbing Bear. You make me proud."
The night was very cool and I welcomed my sleeping bag for the first time since I abandoned it last summer for just a blanket. As I lay on the hard shelf, which had served as my bed for months now, I was very happy. It seemed that all who were important to me were proud of me. Even more than that was the fact that I knew I was a decent human being, something I had never dreamed would be true.
When I got up the next morning, Black Horse handed me a new pair of jeans and a new shirt. "Breech cloth weather is gone," he said as he handed then to me. When I pulled on the jeans, I realized why Wounded Hawk had brought some which fit neither me nor Black Hawk. My old ones would have fallen off. I had lost at least four inches of pot belly and replaced it with a hard stomach. I had gained a whole shirt size because hard work had developed my chest and arms. When Wounded Hawk saw me in the new clothes he smiled slowly and said quietly, "Damn, you are going to drive some men wild". I just smiled back.
Wounded Hawk left mid-morning, after assuring us he would be back in the spring. He carried with him carvings Black Horse had done during the summer and, along with them, some I had done after Black Horse had taught me to carve.
The remainder of the autumn passed quickly and we awoke to a snow-covered world one morning--I didn't even know what month it was, much less what day. When I asked Black Horse he said it was sometime in November. After that first snow, I did not see the ground until spring. During the long winter there was little to do. Black Horse and I did some hunting in early winter, but we had stored enough meat to last until spring and there was no hunting for sport, just for food. The logs we had hauled to the cabin when I first arrived, I cut into lengths to fit the stove, providing both exercise and warmth. Except on the bitterest of cold days, I continued to run--face, ears and hands carefully covered to avoid frostbite. So we stayed warm. At night the fire went out and each morning I awoke to a cold cabin. I used the fat pine to start a fire and as soon as it was burning well and warming the cabin, I rushed to the pond, cracked the ice and bathed--very quickly. On some mornings it was so cold Black Horse told me not to go because I might get frostbite. On those mornings I dressed warmly and went to the stream and brought back buckets of water. Black Horse told me that Indians often did not bathe in the winter, but he liked the white man custom so we bathed every day, either in the cold, cold pond or in the warm cabin.
One morning when I got up, Black Horse had already started a fire and the cabin was warm. The wind outside made venturing out dangerous, so we bathed in the warm cabin. There was a pile of wood in the cabin for just such days, so I didn't have to go out even for firewood. As we were eating breakfast, Black Horse said, "Do you know what day this is?"
I laughed and replied, "Black Horse, I haven't known what day it was since I came here."
"It's January," he said, "January 20th, your birthday. You are twenty-two. Tell me about your twenty-two years."
I wasn't sure what Black Horse meant, so I just started with my earliest memories and told him whatever I could remember. I talked for ages. It was almost time for lunch when I said, "And my twenty-second birthday came without my knowing it and it found me happier, wiser, more at peace than I have ever been."
"Good," Black Horse said. He then got up, walked to an old trunk I had never seen opened, opened it and took out a bundle. "Happy birthday, warrior," he said as he handed me the bundle.
I opened it slowly and inside found beautifully decorated leggings, breech cloth, vest, head and arm bands. Only when I looked at what had covered the bundle did I realize it was a buffalo robe. I got tears in my eyes as I grabbed the old Indian and hugged him to myself. "I am so honored, Black Horse," I said.
"You honor me," was all he said.