Updated: May 10
In this narrative recollection of real events, a woman struggles to define her family of belonging, in the midst of societal judgement and turbulence, disease and death. She finds hope for self-definition in a two-week-long traveling tribal ceremonial celebration of another woman’s life — a woman whom she never even knew. This narrative essay examines how to be at peace with death while encountering daily chances to be alive.
Who, what and how can I be?
I came home in third grade, the year my blonde hair started turning brown, declaring proudly to my mother what my cheerleader friends had sent me home believing about myself: “I’m weird.” The designation of weirdness had fallen upon me after we had watched the movie “All Dogs Go To Heaven” in class. I had to sit alone in the hallway outside the classroom until I could quit loudly sobbing over the mobster dog sending another nice drunken hobo dog to go sleep forever with the fishes. My friends later asked, “Why do you care so much? It’s just an animation. You know dogs don’t have souls.”
I grew up in a suburb of Dallas, Texas, in a town afflicted with what my mother calls “affluenza,” a town overrun by religious nuts who blindly believe that crazy sort of thing… dogs not having souls. Can you imagine? My friends and I had words. After my official social exit from the blonde clique, for the rest of my young brunette life I sparingly made new friends based on who my family had prepared me to be. I figured I had never really felt like I belonged to the mainstream anyway. My parents and sister were mostly nice. They could be my friends if no one else would. And there were those times when I had no one else and really needed my family, here and there.
My dark-headed parents naturally didn’t look down upon my new hair color, nor my belief in the holiness of all natural things. They had shown it to me, after all. My mom, a stay-at-home enemy of the patriarchy, had taught me that all living things do, in fact, have souls. She had taught me to draw prairie and mountain landscapes. She had taught me how to weed the neighbor’s Bermuda grass out of our deep-rooted buffalo grass. She taught me the right times to collect and spread the seeds of the wildflowers, mint, dill, garlic, cucumbers, tomatoes, marigolds and kale. She and my dad had instilled in my sister and me the delicious value of working together to make things like home-grown, home-canned plum, peach and blackberry jellies.
My dad, a gentle soul who had grown up working hard in school to repair a speech impediment, had taught me to contain the enormity of the neighborhood, nation, globe, galaxy and universe all within my imagination. He told me to always remember that the universe-dwarfing Creator loves me much more than he or my mom could ever even attempt. When we visited my dad’s relatives in the Appalachian mountains, he taught me his Pappaw’s trick of counting the fogs in August to know how many storms would come that winter. He taught me to pay attention to how high caterpillars climbed on the trees to predict the snow pile. He told stories of the sometimes deadly strength of the Nolichucky River, pointing out that the name means “rushing waters” in Cherokee. His pride in craftsmanship was passed down to him from his father. He’d lead us in song on long road trips.
There were indigenous hauntings all over my childhood home in the form of baskets, blankets, tools and more. On visits to his childhood home, my dad pointed out to me the beautiful faces of exotic-looking great-aunts framed above my Bibi’s hearth. There was indigenousness on my mother’s side too. She grew up hearing whispered stories about her Little Grandma, a reportedly full-blooded Cherokee woman who raised my mom’s blonde mother alongside dark-haired aunts and uncles. Little Grandma was the mother of Pap, my mom’s grandfather. One time when we were touring a Kentucky Shaker Village, a strange-named man was there making brooms. He looked, to my mom, just like her Pap. She asked him if he knew the origin of his family name. He answered, “Funny, most people just ask me what tribe I’m from.”
My mother doesn’t remember and can’t find Little Grandma’s actual name, but she remembers being told about the Trail of Tears before learning about it in school. The graphic retelling, passed down to my generation by my mother, was raw and vivid, so much that my guts become wringing hands when I hear mention of the trail’s name. The story’s prior guardian, Little Grandma, cooked, cleaned and watched eight kids while Granny worked as a nurse and Pap was out being an entrepreneur and street-marching Klansman. “But he wasn’t like a Klansman,” my mom says. He must not have attended the orientation long enough to realize that the Klan would have preferred it if his mother didn’t exist.
My mom, whose father died when she was young, watched all of Pap’s children, her own aunts and uncles, die off from the effects of alcoholism, habitual tobacco use, and adult onset diabetes. They were not always kind to each other at home when they were alive together. When she finally grew old enough to escape a turbulent home life and go to college, she recounts now, she felt an instinctive pull in a comparative religion course that talked about Native American ways. She knew she could probably get a lot out of further research on the subject, but it wasn’t the religion of her upbringing. She could lay no claim to it.
If you ask my mother, who is now a reference librarian, there’s no reason for me to chase down any familial link to Indigenous America. She has been searching, doing genealogical research for decades, enough to find a spread-out twenty-five percent of her post-Revolution family lineage, and she’s found zero Native Americans. She’s been coaching my dad, but every time my dad seeks proof of lineage, he only finds family rumors of infidelity and intrigue, or stories of questionable independent worldly behavior. He sent in a cheek swab to generate a DNA profile. It didn’t detect enough Native American genetic material to mention.
As someone who has been told by many people over the years, “You’ve got that exotic look to you,” or even “You look Native,” I have a difficult time letting go of the possibility that there might be a link. But expressing my burning desire to follow this thread of possibility raises my mom’s defenses quicker than stepping near a rattlesnake. She doesn’t want me to seek out a connection with the Native Americans. She knows they’ve been hounded enough. She knows that the searching for legitimate evidence would end fruitless, because there were so many people lost, either by their own escape and evasion, or by disease and lack of care, or by forcible end of life. Besides, she has more to worry about at this stage in her life. She is working full-time while caring for my father as his Parkinson’s disease progresses.
My parents are my link to my still-undefined family history, but they are getting so old and fragile.
Claiming the Native American identity is dubious to the entire modern world, even to some actual Native Americans. In the past decade I have seen Native American women in congress receive the full reproach of people who viscerally disagree with these women’s right to exercising political voice. This knee-jerk reaction is even displayed toward women who only look Native American but identify as Latina. I have seen a presidential candidate tagged with the name Pocahontas as a tactic to call attention to her discrediting blonde hair. I have now seen people identifying as Native American get fully enraged at other people with proven Native American heritage for monetarily benefiting off of the inherited appearance, knowledge and lifestyle. Claiming Native American heritage is risky business.
Yet belonging is so important, especially in an era where people are fighting to not be left out.
So where does that put me, a woman who is mostly white, who has claimed to be white all of her life, but has undeniable Native American physical features? It’s too heavy to claim belonging to the age-old evils brought by whiteness, but claiming indigenousness would be incorrect due to the circumstances of my upbringing. The only other option is easy to choose in a spiritually sterile modern world. I ought not belong to any heritage.
I truly believed this, and acted like it, until this year a Lakota family took me on a two-week horse ride from Kansas to South Dakota.
When life leaves no other choice
The pandemic kept me indoors, conversing with my coworkers through countless daily meetings on a laptop screen. After the meetings I’d stare at that screen some more to read and edit coworkers’ work, or to research concepts, or to record my opinions, for between 10 and 17 hours every day for weeks upon end. I’d steal away into a park to peek at the sun through wind-tossed leaves every once in a while, or to meet a friend for a walk to collectively scheme about how to save the world, but largely, my skin had good reason to look nearly translucent after 10 months of bunkering with my husband and two kids. It got to my head.
The day that I looked longingly outside at my driveway from two floors above, through my bedroom office’s window, I scared myself. I was massaging the front of my aching head with the window’s coolness, then changed stances on a whim, rolling my head to lean the rest of my body against it, trying to guess the amount of time before my weight would burst through and end the monotony of endless inside days. That day, I called my counselor to resume services. Talking out my hidden overwhelm helped, but the bigger issues never fit neatly into our 55-minute COVID-era phone sessions. I felt this deep need to connect with the whole earth, not just my bedroom and a few trees. I needed to be let out.
One of my only regular escapes was to see my friend Hazel, a retired photographer who runs a nature sanctuary out of her picturesque colonial farmhouse on the outskirts of Kansas City. I was helping her nature sanctuary to apply for 501c3 status, taking duck and chicken eggs home among her many other heartfelt forms of payment. One day after our tax-exemption project had been successfully completed, she told me about another opportunity to help an inspiring effort.
A friend of hers, who she called GiGi (apparently short for GiGi’s favorite saying, “Get it going”), had just died of cancer. Hearing Hazel’s request for my involvement made my breath catch in my throat. I had caught sight of her tender elegy for GiGi, whose actual name was Iris Nokomis Zephier, on my Facebook feed a few weeks before. Iris was a warmly smiling cultural educator and traditional dancer with beautiful lash-framed almond-shaped eyes, who inspired Hazel to travel to the Standing Rock Reservation to photograph the realness of the protests and protest suppression that had happened there. The two mission-driven women had been so close that they publicly called each other Hunká (huhn-KAH) sisters. Iris’s husband needed help with organizing as he planned a memorial horse ride that would bridge the distance between Iris’s birthplace in Mayetta, Kansas, to her resting place in Marty, South Dakota. “Of course I’ll help,” I said. “What can I do?”
My current strength is administrative organization. The arranged video call that resulted from Hazel’s connection-making began with a man singing a prayer song in simple baritone notes. The otherwise-clear melody sputtered in and out over a spotty connection. The family members, young and old, were timid, smiling and polite. They needed a best recommendation on how to manage donations. They invited me to attend the horse ride. I chuckled, humbly admitting that I’d been led around on a slowly walking horse a total of three times in my life. I didn’t want to mention that taking extended travel exoduses from my husband Luke had nearly led my marriage toward divorce before my kids came along. Luke is more at peace with a continuous presence of his family nearby, and as his wife I became his first family member away from his parents’ home. But having just met these people, some things just didn’t need saying. My answer was simple: “Not this time.” Luke gratefully agreed with my choice when the Zoom meeting ended.
Iris’s daughter and husband were coming in person to Hazel’s house in Kansas City to further discuss ride organization, and they were still interested in receiving my help even though I wouldn’t be a rider. I internally doubted my useful purpose, but I showed up at Hazel’s house anyway, ready to listen. We sat in a circle and passed around a large clam shell with fragrant smoke rising from sage bunched inside of it, each leaf’s edge glittering with the breeze. Iris’s husband Jack told us that the smoke, if wafted by hand over our head, shoulders and legs, would purify us and our efforts. He sang an opening prayer song, this time uninterrupted, and started the beginning of a months-long love story. Jack’s story lasted through the ride and afterward into the promise of internal purpose gained because of her. It was a love story about Iris’s life with him, her driving mission, and his unending love for her.
Iris was born and named “Míshkodé Quah” into a Potawatomi (or Bodéwademi) family, the Kansas-based Prairie Band of the Neshnabé people. The Bodéwademi/Neshnabé people have a relocation story much like the Cherokee people, in that they were forced from place to place away from their fire-council allies the Ojibwe and the Ottawa, before the final relocation, known as the Trail of Death. Now the Bodéwademi/Neshnabé are scattered among seven federally registered reservation lands in the United States, and seven reservations in Canada. Similar to many other tribal communities across the continent, the Bodéwademi/Neshnabé people are not allowed to be in a single place that they identify as their ancestral home.
For centuries, the child welfare and foster care systems have taken Native American children away from their families and home communities due to nothing more than poverty conditions. Jack and Iris both experienced what it is like to live inside of the often-abusive foster care system, due to their families’ poverty stemming from forced relocation. They both experienced what it is like to escape the physical and sexual abuse there and run from that system, only to be placed back within it. When Iris hadn’t yet passed into teenagerhood, her temporary foster father was so wrought with guilt over having done things to her that no child should ever experience that he fastened a belt around her neck and hung her from the bar in her bedroom closet. Iris somehow managed to kick her feet up and catch her weight, breaking the bar, and then jumped out of her second-story window to escape. It was a miracle that even with her injured legs and neck, she was able to run, hide and stay silent for hours underneath a neighbor’s deck as her foster father paced the neighborhood loudly searching for her with feigned concern.
After many more foster placements, Iris’s physically safe means of escape had become mental, under the cognitive veil of dissociation and the comforting escape of cocaine and alcohol. Both controlled substances were readily available to her circle of friends, along with many other youth, adults and elders on the Yankton Sioux Reservation. An Ihaŋktoŋwaŋ Nakota (ee-HAHNK-tohn-WAHNG nah-KHOH-tah) foster father and his wife showed her much-needed patience, creating a solid and culturally appropriate home environment for personal growth. They accepted Iris ceremoniously as a Hunká daughter, not just an adopted daughter. A Hunká Ceremony creates a scenario where your entire being is reborn into a relationship with a person or people who have proven with you that they know how to act as a family should. Hunká families dedicate themselves to mutually supportive familyhood for the rest of earthly life and beyond.
Finally, Iris had a culturally appropriate family. Through the combined efforts of her new sturdy family environment, a nurturing Ihaŋktoŋwaŋ Nakota Chief named Black Spotted Horse, and some patient school counselors and teachers, Iris was able to shake the hold of the drug scene and decide for herself that she would not be a product of her environment. Iris decided that since loving people had helped her out of a nearly hopeless situation, she would dedicate her life to helping others out of equally hopeless situations into hopeful futures.
Considering the countless other students sharing the halls of Marty Indian School whose futures would look nothing like hers, it is nothing short of a miracle that Iris walked across the stage at graduation with a scholarship to the University of South Dakota. There, she met Jerome Kills Small, an Oglala Lakota Elder, early Native American History professor and archiver of Lakota ceremonial song. Jerome continued the work of Chief Black Spotted Horse, making special effort to coach Iris into greater knowledge and practice of trans-tribal spiritual ceremonies. He gave her a Lakota name: Pejúta Wašté Haŋ (peh-JOO-tah wash-TEH hahng), or Good Healing Vision. With no less than three masters degrees, she stepped into the world understanding the legal, social and psychological frameworks that would help her create better futures for Native American youth.
The career that followed landed her in schools and therapy practices across various tribal communities, on reservations and off. She showed countless youth with waning links to their heritage a culturally appropriate path toward scholarships and college attendance. For her work in the education field, she was named 1994 Educator of the Year by both the National Indian Education Association and the South Dakota Department of Tribal Relations Office of Indian Education. In 2008, Iris was chosen to be on the team that developed the Océti Sakówiŋ (oh-SHEH-ti shah-KO-wing) curriculum for the Department of Education, due to a 2007 act of the South Dakota legislature, called the Indian Education Act. It required South Dakota public schools to adopt culturally appropriate curriculum, because students with Native American family heritage were present in a majority of classrooms across the state. Hearing this, I wondered how many young people in other states would benefit from similar legislation and curriculum.
Outside of the classroom, Iris helped the foster care system comply with the 1978 Indian Child Welfare Act. The original Act and its various updates set the legal groundwork enabling courts to recognize the appropriateness of indigenous life practices in the child-rearing environment. Before 1978, bearing a child while poor and Native American was considered indisputably harmful to the child. This assumption, at a minimum, caused some feelings of offence in Native American families. At its worst, it wrongfully mutated the cultural identities of hundreds of thousands of Native American children from 1860 onward.
Part of Iris’s work with the child welfare system was her ability to make new families. Before an appropriate bond could be formed between a family and an Océti Sakówiŋ child, she helped the adopting family understand how strongly in the child’s original home the seven sacred values had been pointed inwardly toward family members and outwardly toward the world. Those values were wisdom, respect, love, honesty, humility, bravery, and truth. She helped the family understand the daily and seasonal actions that children had grown up seeing their families perform with each other to keep those values and universal belonging top-of-mind.
After the adopting family understood these things, Iris would coordinate a Hunká Ceremony between the adopting family, the biological family and the child, bringing the children into a well-prepared, dedicated and fully supportive larger family. For children who have been tossed about from placement to placement, living in up to three homes per year for much of their childhood, this is vital to establishing a solid foundation.
She knew from experience that this way of re-grounding children so they can set down roots would make all the difference in helping them find themselves again. Jack taught the cultural classes alongside Iris for years. He recounted for us the palpable difference in a child’s demeanor once the child had been made aware of their real, personal links to brave, expressive and industrious people, both in their past and in their future.
I know children’s pain when they’ve been taken from their families. When I was executive director of a rural Court Appointed Special Advocates program, I had been required to read the awful intimate details of foster children’s cases. The job changed my perspective about the good and bad realities of parenting. It revealed to me the power of outside authorities to alter the path of a family’s life. Most importantly, it called my attention to how important it is to be able to imagine that there is a future. It turns out, adults are much better at imagining futures than children are.
Without hope or a sense of belonging, children languish and can even die in otherwise well-providing scenarios. What Iris did in her lifetime was the exact work needed to give culturally misunderstood children with very specific and unique needs a way to survive their adversity and discover their community-relevant purpose.
Riding to find myself
Hearing about what Iris did in her lifetime pulled me toward an increasing sense of duty to honor her life. I had a gentle discussion with Luke, mentioning that as I learned more and more, the idea of supporting a memorial ride meant to honor this monumental woman was increasingly pressing on my realm of possibility. He did not take it well.
I proposed that I could take my nine-year-old daughter Tora with me. There were other kids her age going along on the trip, I explained. Tora had talked many times over the years about wanting to ride a horse. She is responsible by nature, easy-going, and can hold her own in an argument. Tora’s presence, he noted, would also make it clear to any opportunistic man tagging along that I have a family and am not available for pairing. We plotted the map of the planned route together. I thought this meant that Luke was conceding on his usual “don’t stay long” family rhetoric, or even that he may come along for a spell. But further discussion about the array of equipment that I would have to purchase for the journey sent Luke back onto the opposing side of the discussion. Days later, he could tell I wasn’t likely to budge.
“Joy, this time I’m putting my foot down. I know that doesn’t mean much to you, but I will not support your involvement in this ride … except to come pick you up if you need to come home on day five.” Luke is a trained mechanic and keeps track of the performance potential of any vehicle we own. Neither of our vehicles, he surmised, would be dependably able to transport him and my son to come pick us up beyond a drive time around eight hours, round-trip. The drive time to the end-point of the ride in South Dakota would require a twenty-hour round trip for anyone coming to get us at the end of the planned two weeks.
In the midst of all the planning, I at one point asked how food and lodging would be arranged. The answer back to me was that, “In our community, when people hear there is a need, it all ends up working out.” Whoa. My planner’s mind did not like that. Hazel had warned me that Native American action groups seem to onlookers like barely organized chaos. She said that during her time at the Standing Rock protests, one moment everyone would be enjoying a story, and the next moment everyone would be running to get something done, and only half of them would know exactly what was going on, or why.
On one hand, my resonance with the many things Iris did was pulling me hard to learn something from the people in her tradition. On the other hand, especially during the times when I discovered a thin spot in the planning, doubts played with my strong seeking feeling. There was a likelihood that I’d be sleeping on the ground in a tipi for much of the trip, with night temperatures in the forties at the warmest. I still was unsure whether I’d be welcomed by the actual Native Americans participating in the ride. I really had never been in charge of making a horse do anything, whether I was on it or off of it, so I called in some help.
A mutual friend of Hazel’s, another indigi-curious white girl named Larkin, knew horses and had one for me to try out. She had ridden on a similar trip that memorialized the three hundred unarmed Lakota community members killed by a regiment of five hundred while they were being relocated to Pine Ridge. This meant she was a Wounded Knee Rider, which sounded important to me. Not only did Larkin introduce me to the experience of riding bareback, she got me saddle-ready up to a slow gallop. By the time Tora and I were packing for the ride, we had watched hours of instructional horse riding YouTube videos, and we each had a few hours of actual riding on a horse under our belts. We felt ready. Mostly.
Larkin had been given lots of horse-readying assignments by Jack, and as we were planning on carpooling to Jack’s with her, Tora and I arrived at Jack’s small pasture and bungalow with Larkin three days before the ride was to begin. Jack was nowhere to be found nearly all of those three days, but we met Jack’s biological daughter, Zandra, and a young man with prominent eye-teeth when he smiled big smiles, named Tony. I assumed he was Zandra’s boyfriend. Both of them were very polite, instructing us to put our sleeping things into Jack’s bedroom. Not wanting to deny the man use of his bedroom, I asked where Jack would sleep. I was told he would be sleeping someplace else during our stay. Larkin and I slept on the floor, giving the bed to Tora.
For the next few days, Zandra made a breakfast of eggs, sausage or pancakes every morning around daybreak in the small, square kitchen, while yelling at Tony to get out of bed and not be such a bitch. He would respond, “Why you gotta be such a bitch?” and get up to care for the horses. I took deep breaths and rehearsed the talk I would have to have with Tora later about the utility of cursing, and how it would not be appropriate for her to practice that kind of language until she was older. Zandra and Tony were not a couple, it turns out. They just had grown up together, and treated each other as siblings.
Our pre-ride days consisted of learning about horse care, gathering and organizing horse riding accessories which everyone called “tack,” and packing extra supplies into three pickup trucks. Jack decided would be necessary to use them to pull two horse trailers and a flatbed for hay, corral fence panels and tipi poles. His little yellow car needed cleaning out. There was a lot to learn and remember. I was out of my element, without my own vehicle to retain my independence, trusting that these people who I’d never met before would be nice enough to make sure my daughter got fed three meals a day.
They remembered to feed us. They also remembered that Tora and some of the other young riders needed horse-riding time. She got plenty of practice, while I hung back until a hoped-for time when someone would be available to tell me their mysterious Native American horse-whispering secrets. But it seemed nobody had time for that. There was something called a “sweat” and a horse naming ceremony to prepare for, which involved food preparation and the making of arts and crafts.
After Zandra asked me if I had a skirt and I gave her an aimless “no,” it was determined that I needed some instruction about sweat lodges. No metal allowed, and no menstruation, she said. For my skirt, Zandra washed and dried a swimsuit-covering maxi dress that she had slept in two days prior. Tora wore one of my shirts as a skirt. We changed into our impromptu skirts and t-shirts and ventured out barefoot among the people waiting outside the lodge around a fire. They were all waiting for stones deep within the fire to become hot enough to create steam.
When the stones were hot enough, Tora and I followed the other participants single-file clockwise around the fire and into a low round-roofed mound of blankets, which was a willow-branch hut covered in thick hides and blankets, with a hollowed-out pit in the middle. As we entered, we paused to say two words that tied our tongues in knots: “Mitákuye Oyásʼiŋ,” (mee-TAH-kweh oh-YAH-sheng) or simply, they said, “All my relatives.”
My Tora only lasted until the first time the elder opened the door that sealed the steam inside. As soon as the cool air came in from outside and the men outside started passing in even more hot stones, Tora stood up and announced that she was done. “Get me outta here!” I had never felt so similar to a piece of simmering steak than I did within the pitch blackness of the inside of that lodge.
Singing the repeated melodies was rough on my lungs, which had fought off COVID at least twice since the beginning of the pandemic. Speaking of the pandemic, this ride was supposed to be an all-outdoor activity! Being in there made zero sense, beyond the feeling of duty to honor Iris. I’m not sure if it was the increased heat of the second round or my preoccupation with the high risk of disease transmission that caused me to start hyperventilating.
The woman whose leg was touching mine to my left asked, “Do you have a towel?” When I responded that I did, she instructed, “Put it over your head.” I complied, and it made a world of difference. Somehow my body acclimated to the heat. By the fourth round of steam, I had taken off the t-shirt covering Zandra’s dress and was rocking to the melodies, sweat streaming down my chest and arms. In my vision, a horse visited me. Are you surprised?
The start of the horse ride went spectacularly, save for a few hiccups starting out. Zandra’s horse decided to roll on top of her. Tony got bucked off. But after everyone settled down, Jack was able to bring sage smoke to every rider in the mounted circle and sing his prayers of dedication for the ride’s beginning. We were off! Except … it was not a race. Our horses walked along the route, only picking up their pace when it was necessary for them to catch up with the others, or jump across little creeks here and there.
My boots were not fitting within my stirrups adequately, so eventually I had just given up on using them. I wasn’t concerned that my feet were hanging freely along my horse’s side. We would be walking for a while, after all, until suddenly we weren’t. When my horse leapt across the first creek, I could feel my body slide slightly to the left side of the saddle. I grabbed the saddle horn to reposition my body just as the line of horses shifted to travel on the topside of the berm next to the road. That shift, of course, required my horse to make three minor jumps up the hill, but a thousand-pound animal jumping a little bit feels like a big deal to a comparatively little human. Suddenly my rear-end was fully on the left side of my horse’s body. My foot was still on top of the saddle, though, and the saddle-horn was still in my right hand. I summoned all my strength amidst calls of “Joy, Joy!”
Hoisting my body back upon the horse was quite the feat, since I had gained about twenty pounds during my time working long hours on my bed in my makeshift home office. Afterward, Jack reassured me. “You had it. You’re strong.” But I didn’t feel so strong. Tora had decided to ride in one of the support vehicles after her horse had bounced her in a trot one too many times. I stuck it out as long as I could, but eventually joined her on the leather back seat of someone’s SUV. After we rode into the Sac & Fox pow-wow grounds and found our things distributed inside two tipis, I had to again face my lack of understanding about the plan.
To distract myself, I decided to ask the women around the soup fire what they loved most about Iris, which of her causes they identified most with, and what horses mean to them. These topics were the right ones to get everyone chatting about memories, hopes and dreams. Iris’s daughter, Jack’s step-daughter, Hannah was one of the women around the fire. She told me that her mom would say that when you’re on a horse, that horse is carrying you forward. You can tell the horse your feelings, and it doesn’t matter what you’ve been through, it won’t be too heavy for that horse. “Horses are strong,” she said.
That night, Tora, Larkin, Hannah’s daughter Karma and I laid on the floor of our tipi together, warming up in our sleeping bags, as Jack gave us a tipi orientation before heading to the boys’ tipi to turn in for the night. The flap on top was usually kept open to let fire out, but it was closed for us to stay warm that evening, since there was no fire inside the tipi. “These poles,” he said, pointing his finger from the top of one pole above our heads to where it connected with the ground, “are like our connection to heaven.” He told us, “There many different types of people in this world, as there are many poles in a tipi, but that everyone comes from the same place, just like that point in the middle up there.”
On the third morning of the ride, I was really wishing for a fire inside the tipi. It had rained overnight, and the wind had blown the flap open. Larkin was unshaken, jumping onto her horse and riding out with the rest of the core riders, but Tora, Karma and I decided to spend some time taking our first showers in days. Unfortunately, there was no hot water heater at the Sac & Fox campground.
I helped the girls squeal through the shower experience, handing them towels and changes of clothes through the curtains of their stalls. Once their twittering excitement had exited the shower house, a solemnness came over me. I was weighing when to call Luke and ask him to come pick us up. So far I had potentially exposed Native Americans to COVID, I’d proven my infantile riding skill level, and I’d lost feeling in my freezing toes. This was not what I signed up for.
Given the fumes that were wafting from various parts of my body, I had a new duty to attend to, and that was my own self-care. It was going to be painful. My inner thigh muscles were not used to the constant squeezing of a horse’s ribcage. The skin of my seat was slightly raw. The intense shivering that my whole body had begun in the shower was not helping matters. I hurt. That hurt mixed with despair and wracking shivers inspired some guffawing sobs as I yelled at myself in my head, “What business do you have even being here?” I wasn’t expecting an answer.
Feeling a sudden mood of gentle peacefulness, I heard a woman’s voice. “It’s time to take care of you,” it said. I slowed my washing, as if to encourage the voice to go on. “Tell Jack to be strong,” it said.
The voice continued. “Tell him that our daughters are sometimes the ones who hurt us the most, but that we have to love them anyway. Everyone here wants to be her, but no one can be her. They’re not made up of the same gifts, but everyone has some of them, and even more gifts that she didn’t have. Together they can continue her work, and more.”
I hear it’s not schizophrenia if the voices don’t argue with you or tell you to harm yourself. At least I hoped it wasn’t schizophrenia. There are certain experiences in life that make you ground yourself to figure out what just happened. I needed some ground, or at least some time alone to process this.
Recognizing the fact that there were only so many horses and many young riders vying for time on them, I decided to find something more useful than tempting fate with my stirrup-shy boots. Word had it that there were not enough people transporting vehicles, trailers, hay, tipis and fence panels to the next sleep site. I told Jack that I knew how to drive a truck pulling a trailer, because I had done it on a six-week assignment in Ohio once. I also knew how to drive a straight-stick manual transmission, which was relevant for rider pick-up and transport in his little yellow car, in case of unexpected shift changes or injuries. Jack was grateful for the help.
The time alone driving trucks gave me time to think about connection, belonging and mystery. The time picking up riders gave me time to listen to their stories about the things that had happened on the ride, or about their friends and families back home at the reservation, or about reservation life in general. The stories ran the gamut from hilarious to chilling. When I got the rare chance to transport Jack, he needed to tell stories too.
The first time Jack said he knew he loved Iris was at a horse race. The Dakota, Nakota and Lakota people are the People of the Seven Council Fires, or as they say in their similar languages, the Očéti Šakówiŋ (oh-CHEH-ti shah-KO-wing). All of the tribes, bands and clans of the Očéti Šakówiŋ have a relationship with horses, often individually. Graciousness and gratitude flow both ways between a person and his or her horse companion. The Očéti Šakówiŋ are locally famous for their ability to perform amazing acrobatic feats over challenging landscapes atop a horse. The point of this particular horse race was to gracefully fall down a cliff face and be the first to cross the finish line unscathed.
Unprepared or inexperienced riders would always do it wrong. They would ride across the prairie toward the cliff’s edge, slowing to a near stop to gather their courage and assess the severity of the drop. Their horses were most likely to stumble and roll down the hill, injuring themselves and the riders in the process. In stark contrast along the race path, well-prepared riders who knew and trusted their horses would approach the cliff face at a mad gallop and run right over the edge. This race happens every year.
As I listened to Jack tell this story, I interrupted to wonder out loud, “How is that even possible?”
He answered, “Because horses can do more than we can.” The actual point of the race, he said, was to remind the rider how a horse’s instincts about the surrounding world incredibly outnumber our own. A horse can hear a person’s heartbeat from eight feet away. Horses’ ability to assess situational threat and physical capacity for escape are much quicker than ours. And the horse allows us as passengers.
This particular year, Jack was out in front, careening with his equine partner toward a horizon that revealed on approach the misty rolling mounds of the Black Hills. This race was his! The wind in his ears disguised the rapid hoof-beats of an approaching threat to his title. The courageous competitor blew past him, black hair streaming behind. Before he knew it, Iris and her horse had dropped out of sight in front of him. She had stolen his heart, along with the race.
One afternoon during a tipi drop-off run to the next night’s sleeping spot behind some rodeo ground stadium seating, I caught sight of this ginger-headed, baseball-cap-wearing kid leaning against his teal Pontiac Trans-Am. There was a case of drinks on top of his car. He was right beside where I needed to pull the flat-bed, so I prepared my apology that I’d be completely blocking his party spot. I saw him eyeing my load of hay bales and tipi poles, so to deter any farm boy theft scenario, I rolled down my window to have some clear conversation that would imply to him, “I could identify you in a lineup.”
He spoke first. “Are you with the horse ride?” he asked.
“Yes,” I affirmed.
“How many nights will you be staying here?”
“We’re only staying here one night, and then we’ll move on to the next place. How did you hear about the horse ride?”
He proceeded to tell me that his aunt had heard about it from a friend, and when he heard about it, he wanted to make sure that he caught us so that he could give us the enormous case of water on top of his car. I gave him my words of thanks and was amazed to hear him immediately go on to explain further.
“I got Native in my family. My great-grandfather was full-blood Winnebago, but nobody really talks about it. I’ve wanted to get more involved in that side of the family, but I didn’t really know how.”
This boy floored me with his desire to help a largely ignored group of people who he knew lived in dire straits on the reservations. There were more unbelonging helpers like him all along the ride, coming out of the woodwork to make sure that we had everything we needed, from hotel rooms to pizza. Everyone had stories of their own lost Native American heritage. Many expressed a longing to connect with it more often.
After two weeks, I did complete the horse ride journey, hearing many more stories and learning many more lessons about the people I came to know as my friends-as-family. For me, the ride was my gateway. It became the permission that I needed to dig deep into my childhood of unconventional mysticism and use it to fix the all-too-evident sterility and loss in my post-COVID adult life. My patient new friends-like-family reassured me that I didn’t have to forsake the ways of faith that I’d grown up practicing. The recognition of God-in-All didn’t betray any part of who I already am.
The moment this hit me was on the seventh night when I ducked out of our tipi’s door flap, into the crisp night air, past midnight but before dawn. After I had done what I needed to do, I paused for a moment to take in my surroundings on my way back to the door flap. We were in the middle of a farmer’s field in northern Nebraska. Looking up, I saw a dense blanket of stars above my head that seemed so close to me, I could reach up and grab a corner to wrap around myself. I waved my hand above to see if there would be a swirl of glittering light. The stars seemed so close that my sleepy brain apparently had considered it a real possibility.
There were no more voices, no visions, just the realization that I am so small, and the universe is so big, but still I have more work to do in this world to help others live a full life. The peaceful feeling that accompanied that thought remains for me the perfect lullaby.