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Song of Wovokaby Earl Murray
The two men presented an unlikely appearance: a Catholic priest on his first trip into the West and an Unkpapa Sioux man, returning to his home for the first time in seventeen years. They stood in the aisle of a New Year's Day train running west from Council Bluffs, Iowa, each insisting the other have the privilege of the window seat.
They stood nearly the same medium height, both slim, yet sturdily built. The priest's deep blue eyes and reddish-blond hair contrasted sharply with his black Jesuit cassock. The conductor called "All aboard!" for the last time, and the train lurched into motion. The Sioux man sat down in the aisle seat, and the priest sat down next to the window.
The train was filled with westbound passengers eager to view the solar eclipse expected later in the morning. Although the Sioux man was dressed neatly, no one had wanted to sit next to him. The priest, being the last aboard, had found the aisle seat next to the Sioux the only seat left unoccupied. The Sioux man had risen to offer his choice seat out of respect.
Startled by the articulate insistence from one in braids and buckskin, the priest stared at the Sioux man. "I'll be able to see the eclipse just fine," he said. "Is that why you're being so kind?"
"You don't want to look at the eclipse," the Sioux man said. "It will make you blind."
"Yes, I suppose you are right," the priest acknowledged with a laugh. "So why were you so persistent?"
"I felt that if I were kind to you, maybe they wouldn't make me ride back in the luggage car."
"Oh, I see," the priest said.
"Yes, they do that," the Sioux man continued. "When they crossed our lands, the railroad said we could ride the Iron Horse for free. They just didn't tell us where we would be put."
"That isn't quite fair, is it?"
"Not many things in life are fair," the Sioux said. "But now I won't have to worry about my death." He looked at the priest, a smile beaming from his dark eyes. "I've heard that those who are good and follow the Black Robes' medicine are to be favored in the next life."
The priest raised an eyebrow. "I've never heard it put that way before."
"Isn't that the idea, though?"
"Is that what you believe?"
"That's why I gave you the seat."
The priest laughed and extended his hand in introduction. "My name is Father Mark Thomas. I'll do what I can for you, but don't expect any miracles."
"I am Shining Horse, and I've received my share of miracles already," the Sioux man said. "So I won't expect you to perform any in my behalf. But for my people...well, that's another matter."
"What do you mean?" Father Thomas asked.
"It's going to take a great many miracles to keep my people from losing everything they have," Shining Horse said. "It is a very trying time. Everything is changing, and not for the better. So maybe you're right. Maybe you haven't got the right connections to be of much help to my people. I'm not certain that the white man's god cares that much."
"There is only one God," Father Thomas said. "He represents all races."
"I noticed you said represents and not serves," Shining Horse said. "I am of the opinion that the white race pushes into line first, and if there's anything left, everyone else must fight for it."
Father Thomas studied him without comment.
"Are you shocked by my words?" Shining Horse asked. "Does it surprise you that I can tell you these things so well in your own tongue?"
"I would be lying if I said otherwise," Father Thomas admitted. "I have no doubt that you are well educated."
"I was taken when I was eight and sent to school at Carlisle. I didn't know anything about Pennsylvania or any of the lands east of my home. A rich family wanted to make me into a Wasichu, a white man, and decided I should be James Williams. I was James Williams while I lived back there and went to their schools. Now I'm Shining Horse once again, and on my way back home to my people."
"You are very articulate, Shining Horse. What made you decide to come back out here?"
"No matter how well I speak the Wasichu tongue, I will always be of red skin. The two worlds are very different. I don't know if they will ever be one. Certainly not in my lifetime."
"Won't coming back be a bigger change for you than when you left as a child?"
"It might be so," Shining Horse acknowledged. "I just hope I can remember my own tongue. You don't speak Lakota, do you?"
Father Thomas chuckled. "I must admit that I know very little about your race. But that is all going to change. Very soon."
"I would bet that you're being sent to a mission."
"Yes, as a matter of fact," Father Thomas said, "I'm going to St. Francis Mission on the Rosebud to learn from the priests already there." He pulled a letter from his pocket. "I have orders from my new Provincial, in St. Louis, to bring the word of God to your people."
"I know it is an honor among Black Robes to go on missions," Shining Horse said, "but do you really know what you are in for?"
"What do you mean?"
"My people already know about the Black Robes. They have seen your kind and heard your words. Those who have not welcomed you never will."
"Yes, but that is why I wanted to come out here," Father Thomas said. "I believe I can reach those among your people who have shunned others." He opened the letter. "In fact, my orders state that I am 'to bring the word of Jesus Christ to those on the Sioux reservation who are the farthest away from God.'"
"There are many who will nor embrace the Wasichu god," Shining Horse said. "A great many."
"Where are they living?" Father Thomas asked.
Shining Horse shrugged. "All over the reservation."
"But who are the farthest from God?"
"Maybe the Minneconjou on Cheyenne River. Yes, Kicking Bear and his people on Cherry Creek do not have a mission. Sitanka, the one they call Big Foot, has asked for a mission. But Kicking Bear does not want anything to do with the Wasichu god."
"It sounds to me like your people are divided," Father Thomas said. "They don't all hold the same views?"
"There is a lot of bitterness among my people now," Shining Horse replied. "Your government has decided to pick the men among our leaders who best suit its needs and to give them the power to speak and sign papers for the entire Lakota nation. That does not sit well with the older leaders. They are the ones who are keeping the old ways alive. This has caused infighting among my people."
"But that is not the fault of spiritual people, such as myself," Father Thomas said.
Shining Horse chuckled. "They don't tell you much before you come out here, do they? You men of the Wasichu god have your own wars."
"What do you mean?" Father Thomas asked again.
"The Catholics and the Episcopals have a war going between themselves," Shining Horse said. "They both want the exclusive rights to force the Wasichu god on my people. I know about that. Too many different speakers for the same white man's god."
"How do you know so much about what's going on out here?" Father Thomas asked. "I thought you told me you haven't been back since you were a child."
"I made it a point to talk to the delegations who have traveled to the eastern lands over the years," Shining Horse explained. "There have been a number of them, from many different tribes. They come to try to settle some legal dispute, usually a treaty that has been broken. I know what's happening out here."
"I'm afraid I don't know enough about the situation," Father Thomas said. "With God's help, I will do as much good as I can."
"You had better have your god teach you the ways of a warrior," Shining Horse told him. "You won't do any good at Cheyenne River unless you learn how my people think."
"I'm sure I'll be learning more of what you've talked about," Father Thomas said. "I will be given a lot of instruction at St. Francis."
Both men looked out the window as a long shadow began moving across the landscape. Slowly the shadow grew longer as the moon's path took it closer to the sun. Everyone on the train began talking excitedly. Everyone except Shining Horse.
"The eclipse has begun," Father Thomas said. "Aren't you interested in things scientific?"
"I have already seen a great many things scientific," Shining Horse replied. "Including the Iron Horse, which destroyed the buffalo hunting grounds. I do not feel that this event we are now watching should be classified as scientific."
"You are a hard man to please," Father Thomas said. "Very hard, indeed."
"You will see that I am pretty open-minded compared to the others," Shining Horse said. "When you reach Cherry Creek, you ask Kicking Bear and his people what they thought of the sun turning black. I'm certain they will not call it a scientific event. They will call it a bad time, a time when the sun deserted them. Some will be angry, some will be sad. All of them will be changed, and that is what you will have to deal with."
* * *
Mako sica, the Badlands, locked in frozen white, showed no signs of life but for a lone Minneconjou Sioux woman riding horseback through the lower reaches of Big White River. Those who knew Fawn-That-Goes-Dancing were not surprised at her taking off alone in the dead of winter, having no fear of either the elements or the prospect of not eating until she reached her destination. But many found surprise in the reason for her journey.
Fawn was torn. She had received a letter from the Holy Rosary Mission at Pine Ridge, written and signed by a Black Robe, announcing that her mother, along with another woman, was to be married on the third day of January in front of the Wasichu god. Fawn had spent a day in the hills shedding bitter tears. It had been hard enough to see her mother leave the summer before to live with an Oglala man at Pine Ridge; but Fawn had never dreamed that Sees-the-Bull-Rolling would make her mother travel the White Man's Road.
Fawn dismounted at a small spring, her face turned against a sharp northerly breeze. She rubbed her hands together briskly, working the circulation through numbed fingers. After dislodging a large, pointed rock from the hillside, she slammed it through the brittle ice at the mouth of the spring, then stepped back while Jumper, her red pinto pony, sucked noisily from the thin flow, his nostrils flaring in the cold.
Fawn pulled the remnants of a tattered woolen blanket closer around her shoulders. Underneath, she wore an old, loosely fitted deerskin dress given to her by her mother on the eve of her first marriage. Her legs and feet were covered with cowhide leggings and moccasins, her feet wrapped in rags for added measure against the cold.
Maybe she was getting too old for this. Maybe she should have stayed back in the village at Cherry Creek and not risked the trek across Mako sica alone. Her younger brother, Catches Lance, had said he would ride with her and bring his closest friend, a warrior of mixed Sioux and Negro blood named Tangled Hair. Though Tangled Hair had argued they should go, Catches Lance had changed his mind and unsaddled his pony at the last minute.
Nothing, aside from death itself, would have stopped Fawn from going to Pine Ridge. She did not want her mother to think she no longer cared for her, even though her mother had decided to travel the White Man's Road and leave her old customs behind. Fawn missed her mother and had wanted to see her badly enough to ride off alone into the cold.
With the coming of the warm moons, Fawn would see the end of her thirtieth winter. Though she maintained her youthful beauty, to her the count of her years might as well be fifty, or even sixty or seventy. For her, time had no meaning now; there was nothing to bring joy, nothing to look forward to. Most of the old ways and traditions were gone, pushed behind with the sweeping movement of the Wasichu into Lakota lands. She was among the last of those holding out against the changes, living in Kicking Bear's camp on Cherry Creek, doing the best she could to survive and still maintain the teachings she had learned as a child.
She would pass those teachings on to her two small children. Besides her mother and her younger brother, they were all the family she had left. Her father and two other brothers had been killed in warfare against Bluecoat soldiers in the fight at Rosebud River, prior to the famous battle at the Greasy Grass, the Little Bighorn. At Greasy Grass she had suffered the loss of her first husband. One more had fallen to the Bluecoats after that, and her third had died in a stupid, drunken fight with his own brother.
During her marriages, Fawn had borne six children. Four of them had already crossed over from sickness. The two youngest, Hawk, who was eight, and Little Star, four, were now her entire life. She had left them with Catches Lance and his wife, Night Bird, who was her best friend.
Though Night Bird had yet to conceive, she treated Fawn's children as if they were her own. Like Fawn herself, she divided her rations for them, and sewed and beaded clothes to fit them from muslin meant for her own use. Not a day went by when Night Bird didn't give them both some form of present, even if it were as small as a playing stick.
Fawn considered Night Bird as she would a younger sister. They often talked well into the night, sharing their lives and their views of the future. Night Bird had told her there was no sense in riding down to Pine Ridge and had begged her not to go. Night Bird had once called Fawn's mother her own mother, but she would do that no more. She wouldn't accept anyone who turned to the White Man's Road, no matter how good a friend she had been in the past.
Fawn turned her head and held her breath against a sudden blast of arctic air. Shot with needles of frost, the wind stung like fire against her exposed skin. She wanted to cry out, but if she did, the air would only find the deepest recesses of her lungs and bring more misery.
When she was young, the cold hadn't dealt her the pain it now did. In those days, she reasoned, she had eaten better, and the times had been, if not entirely peaceful, at least happier. There had been buffalo to hunt and free space in which to live. All that was now gone. For this reason, she could not blame her brother for his seeming indifference toward their mother's marriage.
Fawn wondered now if she shouldn't have taken Night Bird's advice. She felt weak and numbed from the cold. She hadn't eaten for over a full day, and she hadn't filled her stomach for nearly a moon's passing. The villages all over the Great Sioux Reservation had fallen into famine, as the latest shipment of beef from the agencies had been under half the ration. The people had been left to scrounge for whatever they could find. The buffalo were gone; the deer and the antelope were scarce. Now jackrabbits were tracked down by the people and dug out of hiding. Children cried continuously from hunger, even the children among those who, like her mother, had given in entirely to the Wasichu conquerors.
Although she felt deep hunger, Fawn considered herself lucky. Unlike many other adults, and a great number of babies and toddlers, she did not have a distended stomach. There were many among her people who needed the nourishment more than she, including the young, who must live to carry on the Sioux nation. Many of the people had given up hope and now awaited the end. Too much had happened. It seemed unlikely that the people who were once the strongest tribe on the plains would ever have fallen to this.
When her pony was finished at the spring, Fawn drank slowly of the cold water. She wiped her lips and mouths, careful not to leave dampness and invite frostbite. She looked up at the sun. She felt something, a change perhaps, but saw no reason to think that the weather might soften soon.
She climbed back on her pony. The sunshine began to dim in a mysterious way and a fear she had never known gripped her. A dark shadow crept quickly over the land, engulfing the broken hills and deep ravines, changing the day into night.
Fawn wondered if the sun were dying and all life might be coming to an end. She thought she had prepared herself for the end; she had been certain she could face a Bluecoat soldier's bullet, or the slow, painful death of malnutrition. But this kind of death would be something she had had no way of preparing for.
Fawn did not look at the sun. She did not want to watch the life force that had sustained her people for countless generations sing its last song. Instead, she got down from her pony and stretched her arms skyward. She began to sing her death song, praying to the Powers that her life be taken quickly and that she be allowed to live in peace after crossing over. She prayed for the quick and painless deaths of her brother, and of Night Bird; of her children, and of all her people. When the sun died, nothing on the Earth Mother could possibly live.
One thing that puzzled her was the fact that her pony merely stood in place, awaiting her return to his back. The horse showed no fright whatsoever. Fawn began to think that if there were cause for alarm, Jumper would certainly feel it.
She stood in the cold, trying to get a feel for what had happened. Though it had become as dark as nightfall, the sensations were entirely different from when the sun went down to sleep. The air hadn't changed, as it did when the sun left; and though stars appeared, they did not glimmer as they did when night was real.
As the darkness settled into its thickest period, Fawn took a deep breath. Though the temperature hadn't changed, the air seemed somehow warmer to her. She realized that something was telling her not to be afraid, yet the panic wouldn't leave her. Somehow she felt that she was to experience something she didn't want to see, something that would terrify her.
Suddenly a presence began to surround her, as if a huge spirit person had come to stand beside her and envelop her to hold her in one place. Fawn's breath caught in her throat. She dropped the reins and started to run blindly through the darkness. She ran and yelled, stumbling and falling. Still, she could not shake the presence that seemed stronger around her.
Screaming in terror, Fawn tumbled down a steep bank, bouncing over rocks and brush, rolling for what seemed like an eternity, until she came to rest at the bottom.
She discovered that she could not rise. She seemed to be held fast to the ground, incapable of even lifting her head. In fact, it felt to her as if she were sinking into the snow around her, down past the snow and into the soil, deeper and deeper into the ground.
Copyright © 1992 by Earl Murray
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