The gift of the Lakota

This was some years back, when Deb and I drove to Kansas to visit the tribe. (Not the Indians; my family.) We travel together very well, and this trip was no exception. On our way back, we crossed South Dakota and went to Mt. Rushmore and the Crazy Horse Memorial (a work in generational progress).

Mt. Rushmore itself didn’t really do much for me. Whatever upwelling of nationalism I was supposed to feel, I didn’t feel it. Paha Sapa (the Black Hills) were sacred ground for the Lakota (Sioux), and unfortunately, they contained gold. That they would be appropriated and exploited, in the 1800s, was foregone. That this place was chosen to carve sculptures of Great White Fathers, well, to me that’s just washing the Indians’ faces in it. It’s not like there aren’t other mountain ranges in the West suitable for sculpting, after all. Why choose this one, if not to hammer the nail deeper?

It bothered me, and I had come prepared.  Now, I am not an enrolled member of the Hiotna (Honky Injuns Of The New Age) tribe. (Credit to my bro John L. for the hilarious phrase, fairly typical of his main-gauche wit.) Their cultures are theirs, and mine is mine; my sliver of Indian heritage is the social norm for American whites today and signifies nothing. I did, however, desire to do a small observance, as a visitor to Paha Sapa. I had brought tobacco and cornmeal, offerings one might give to a holy man in some Indian cultures. And if they weren’t exactly right, I supposed that whatever called Paha Sapa an ancestral home, it would get my drift.

One tradition my bride and I share is the collection of heart-shaped rocks. Wherever we go together, we seek them out, and somehow we always manage to find one. We have dozens. Usually I do the looking and finding; it is a marital joy.  This autumn afternoon, we really weren’t thinking of that. We headed off down a side road, parked, and walked off into the woods together. I love remote forests and feel completely at ease there, the mirror image of the big-city denizen who feels at home walking on concrete, and who would quiver in terror at the mere possibility of wildlife. In their comfort zone, I would be as they are with a timber rattler, so I get that.

While I did my observance, Deb wandered off into the forest a bit. (Alaskan and Western, she is as much at home there as I.) She was at that short distance where I can see her, but not clearly, when she cried out: “Oh my god!  Jonathan, come here!”

When you’re out in the woods and your wife hollers for you, you get the hell over there. I ran toward her. She was standing before a boulder, but not just any boulder.

It was about the size of a washing machine, sloped on top, in our direction. Atop the boulder, a piece was broken off, like the edge of a top layer crumbling. It was fine-grained, probably metamorphic, charcoal-colored, covered with lichens. The broken piece was very recent, to judge by the lack of lichens where it had snapped off.

This piece was a near-perfect heart shape. Except for the upper left corner being a little pointy–imagine a home plate shape with a perfectly located notch in the upper middle–it called to mind nothing so much as a heart. Much larger than our usual heart-shaped pebbles: maybe ten inches across and six inches thick.

I suppose it’s possible that we just happened to pick that particular road, just happened to wander into the woods at that particular (unremarkable) stopping spot, just happened to blunder into the forest at just the right spot, and it just happened to break off very recently, and we just happened to notice it. That level of coincidence is less credible to me than the alternate explanation, which is that we were meant to find it. Of course, I didn’t come expecting to take anything away with me. If you had asked me beforehand whether I was planning on grabbing a souvenir rock from the Black Hills, I’d have said “Hell, no.” But what else does one conclude? What would you conclude?

Seemed to me that, for whatever reason, Paha Sapa had a gift for us of the kind only Deb and I would find, notice and care about. I took it up with care, examining it; probably weighed eight pounds. I think I was too awed to say anything more profound than “thank you.” Much moved, we took it to the car with us and went on our way. (We had a safe and easy trip home, except of course for the bone fragment through a front tire sidewall just outside Butte.)

The stone resides on our mantel, with all the lichens still covering it. (Early on, Deb suggested I clean those off.  No way, I said. We keep it as we got it. She did not demur.) And every time I look at the gift of the Lakota, I feel like they are my friends. Whatever we did or did not do, something noticed, and we felt a token of welcome and camaraderie.  And if there’s an issue, and there’s a Lakota side to it, I admit to a bias their direction.

I want to go back to Paha Sapa in the future, just to say hello. It now feels like a place I am not such an interloper. Not a native, of course, but at the very least, someone with a visa to visit, a safe conduct. I wonder how it will feel.

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