‘This is why we come to the big dance’

On top of Bear Butte, South of Havre, Montana, in early summer, in light rain I prayed with two people: Robert Gopher, a 71-year-old Cree who lived…

On top of Bear Butte, South of Havre, Montana, in early summer, in light rain I prayed with two people:

Robert Gopher, a 71-year-old Cree who lived simply and in poverty on Hill 57 on the outskirts of Great Falls, Montana, and Henry Crow Dog a very frail Lakota Sioux medicine man from the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.

It was 1974.

From the ridge I could see the Missouri River way off to the south and everywhere I could hear the trill song of red-winged blackbirds as they moved through the valley in great numbers.

There was magic and much excitement in what we were doing there high on a ridge overlooking the Little Bear Paw Mountains.

Robert and I had been on the mountain for four days. We had gone there without food and without water.

What sustained us was a blood-red pipestone pipe on which hung two very large dark-brown eagle feathers and a leather strap covered with small highly polished brightly coloured beads.

We each had a bedroll. Robert had an old, stained, pock-marked Ensolite pad.

At our small camp there was an old rusted metal bucket, two smooth large-diametre willow sticks and a paper bag full of freshly picked big sage and many braided strips of sweet grass.

Robert constantly drummed on the bucket when he sang and prayed. There was always a smudge burning.

We did not talk much during those four days expect when I complained to Robert I felt nauseous, dizzy and had a headache.

“The longer we go without water,” he said, “the louder your head will want to talk to you. You must not listen, pray.”

Henry Crow Dog had decided to join us on the last day of our fast. He came up with American Indian activist and folksinger Floyd Westerman and another friend of mine Warren Matte, a Gros Ventre and director of the Hi-Line Indian Alliance, in Havre.

These folks had surprised Robert and me and they had come up as a show of great celebration that we had finished our fast.

Before we left the Butte that day, Robert sung out a prayer I had heard so many times before it had become sweet music to me.

“Grandfathers, Creator above, I am nothing but a pitiful human being and I have nothing to offer to you but my tears and my prayers, and I offer those to you today.”

We all left the butte together and walked in silence down the trail to where the vehicles were parked.

Warren’s old pickup was packed with numerous boxes and Styrofoam coolers full of food.

Spread out over the bed of the truck was a large canvas tepee. And right in the middle of the canvas near the rear window of the truck — which was broken and replaced with a piece of plywood — sat a fat, smiling black dog.

Thirteen 5.4-metre lodge pole pine poles, which extended way out over the cab of the truck, were bound together with bungee cords. The dog was leashed to the poles.

We’re headed north across the border into Saskatchewan for Joe Ironman’s sun dance.

The sun dance is the highest and most elaborate religious celebration of plains Indians, and Warren had taken me with him to many in Montana. This was my first trip to Saskatchewan.

After a three-hour “shake down” at Willow Creek customs station — both Warren and Floyd were active members of the American Indian Movement and were red-flagged on some upgraded surveillance list — we rumbled out onto the great flat Cypress Hills and on across the Saskatchewan River.

My head was still pounding from dehydration and I took sips of water and nibbled on pieces of moist fruit.

At one point, in some weather-beaten roadside park, I got sick.

I decided to ride the rest of the way in the back on top the canvas with the dog. Stretched out flat and looking up at cotton-puffs of clouds through a maze of tepee poles with a dog’s head in my lap, I thought to myself, if this is a pilgrimage for religion I was certainly laid out for the ride.

Somewhere just south of North Battleford we pulled onto a deeply rutted side road and stopped. Floyd’s low-rider yellow Mercury pulled in behind us.  

We opened tins of tuna and canned fruit. Henry Crow Dog handed me a loaf of white bread.

“You had better eat now.” he said “If you’re gonna’ dance you might not get fed for the next few days.”

The road ended abruptly on a slight incline and we all walked on to the crest of the hill.

There, sharply contrasted by the late afternoon sun was a small village of tepees, sheepherder tents and pickups. Smoke from campfires rose straight up in the still air and, again, there was the sound of red-winged blackbirds.

To the north were several dilapidated sun dance arbors with their centre polls still sticking straight up.

Sun dances have been held on this particular piece of land for at least a hundred years Warren said. New arbors — surrounds constructed of pine limbs and decorated with brightly coloured prayer cloths — are built for each dance. The old ones just weather away.

The valley below the ridge was full of children, old people and horses milling about. I could hear drumming everywhere. And off in the distance near the newest arbor, the piercing sound of eagle-bone whistles.

At dusk it was time to dance.

During the dance I would sometimes peer out of the makeshift fence surrounding the great arbor and see the young children playing, laughing and singing to one another.

I would see great feeds being prepared by women, and my senses would be coated with the sweet smell of sage and long yellow grass.

I would hear and feel and would always remember the piercing sound of the eagle bone whistles we blew to keep track of our minds while we danced for days at a time.

I finally left that Indian country in 1977. But for many years I continued to travel back to Montana and to Saskatchewan to dance.

The more I did this, the more convinced I became of the importance of religion, art and culture to economic well-being, to social justice, to individual pride, to family stability and to overcoming the ravenous effects of drugs and alcohol on young people.

Warren had told me many times, the message delivered by members of the American Indian Movement was that native culture and native religion were expressions of a highly personal art form.

He felt fasting and praying took us beyond the ordinary experiences of daily living and dying.

The tall pole standing in the middle of the sun dance arbor represents the centre of the world and it connects heaven and earth.

“To get there from here requires you to be both a warrior and an artist,” Warren once told me as he tilted his head to the sky.

“They are really the same thing,” he said.

“They both take great courage, great discipline. This is why we fast and why we blow the whistles. This is why we come to the big dance.”