Manataka American Indian Council
Today Is a Good Day to Die
By Takatoka as told by Lee Standing Bear Moore
I cannot remember when it was I first heard the Indian phrase, “Today is a good day to die.” Recently, we discovered the phrase is attributed to Crazy Horse before the Battle of the Little Big Horn, who said, "Hokahey, today is a good day to die!" We believe the term was used by many tribes spanning several centuries. The phrase was used in the context of a warrior’s desire to die an honorable and brave death. For many decades I accepted this idea, but as age and death-threatening ailments became commonplace, my idea of its meaning changed drastically.
I was born at the Bell Mission near Los Angeles and the product of a family forced to move west from our ancestral home in Arkansas. In the 1930's, many poor people of Oklahoma and Arkansas were “encouraged” by the government to relocate to the west coast to fill jobs. The mass relocation was similar to the Dust Bowl days when the dispossessed were drawn west from Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico and Arkansas. As John Steinbeck wrote in his 1939 novel The Grapes of Wrath:
"…families, tribes, dusted out, tractored out. Carloads, caravans, homeless and hungry; twenty thousand and fifty thousand and a hundred thousand and two hundred thousand. They streamed over the mountains, hungry and restless - restless as ants, scurrying to find work to do - to lift, to push, to pull, to pick, to cut - anything, any burden to bear, for food. The kids are hungry. We got no place to live. Like ants scurrying for work, for food, and most of all for land."
I learned the meaning of death as I grew up in gang-infested areas of Los Angeles County. There was little honor or bravery associated with the senseless deaths I witnessed as a youngster. The first time I experienced death was in 1956 as I sat in the emergency room of the Studebaker Hospital awaiting stitches from a bicycle accident. A boy from our school brought Jerry in with the hook of crow bar planted in his head. There was little doctors could do for him. As a 10-year old, the experience of seeing a schoolyard buddy bloodied from head to toe with gore was horrific. Jerry laid on a bench not three feet from where I sat and as I stared into his eyes blood streamed down his head across gang tattoos on his arms and dripped into a pool on the floor. He died holding my hand. As my formative school years past, shootings, stabbings, and bludgeoning deaths were nearly everyday occurrences. My heart and brain were anesthetized to death by the age of thirteen. I learned how to survive.
That is when my family decided to move back to Arkansas/Oklahoma and I decided to stay. Years later while reminiscing with family, I teased them with "You people ran away from me!" I didn't stay long in Los Angeles, maybe a year. I did a great deal of growing up in a short time in the angry big city. Every form of human degradation and mayhem was visible and in-your-face. So, alone at age 14 and with my family in a place I did not want to go, I decided to 'see the world', and stuck my thumb out on the highway and wound up in Death Valley, California. A big mistake right out of the shoot.
A truck driver picked me up somewhere in the San Bernardino Mountains heading for Las Vegas. Hours later his truck broke down and I was left afoot in the desert. After walking for hours, a car picked me up and deposited me at a crossroad a few miles down the road. I must have taken the wrong direction because there were absolutely no vehicles -- not for three days. The AbbaZabba candy bar in my pocket was the only sustenance I had. The nights were painfully cold. I took a pair of socks and filled them with sand and put the socks on my cold hands. Strange sounds occur in the desert at night. Strong winds blew and the vast star-filled sky became my blanket. The Sun was bigger and angrier than I had ever seen in my short life. I was afraid to die.
I was discovered by an old Paiute man driving a beat up blue pick-up truck. I was laying in a ditch along side the road partially covered in sand. I remember waking up when my head bounced off the floor of the truck bed. The old man took me to a shack somewhere out in the desert where I was revived and began a whole new adventure. But, is a another story for another time.
From the age of 14 to 18, I traveled the country in a giant circle, from California north to Nevada, Utah, South Dakota, Minnesota, across the Great Lakes states, into northern woodlands of Pennsylvania, New York, and Maine, along the east coast down to Georgia and Florida, then turning west into Alabama, Mississippi, Texas, and Oklahoma. Three years had past. Death crossed my path many times. Surviving was not easy sometimes. But, those are many stories best told at another time. Suffice it to say that there were many beautiful, wonderful experiences along that path that brought Bear into being.
After I entered the U.S. Army at the age of nineteen, I became intimately acquainted with death. As a platoon sergeant during the Vietnam War, I knew death was always an inch away during the many firefights and major operation battles. As months passed in the steaming jungles, an awareness of death consumed every moment. Friends dropped like flies. A single breath often separated my consciousness from death. As a matter of self-preservation and sanity, I was forced to become a friend of death and even welcomed it on several occasions.
On May 13, 1968, a mountaintop signal site called Nui Ba Den where I was temporarily stationed was overran by two regiments of North Vietnamese Regulars. The nearly 100 defenders were slaughtered. If not killed outright, many were tortured and some taken prisoner.
After the short battle was over, I wandered alone on the mountain for several days searching for food and water and removing booby traps from the bodies of dead comrades. At one point, when NVA patrols came dangerously close to my position several times, I was ready to give up my life. I felt like there was no hope for rescue and the prospects of being tortured was consuming me. It was then that I stood against the horizon and roared at the top of my lungs, “Take me now! Shoot me now! Today is a good day to die!” My screams were heard on echoes across the 6,000-foot mountain but the enemy had no ears. Strangely, the enemy did not take my life but allowed me to live.
It was NOT a good day to die.
Obviously, I was among the survivors but the gruesome memories haunted me for years and the faces of death are often seen in my dreams making me a life-long causality of that unnecessary and brutal war.
As years past, I knew death many times. Family, friends and co-workers crossed life’s threshold due to illness, accidents and sometimes circumstances that were not always brave or honorable.
Regardless of my close experiences with death over the years, the meaning of the term “Today is a good day to die” eluded me. That is until just recently.
During the past four months, I had three close encounters with death because of a bad heart and blood ailments received during the war. My heart was shocked back into rhythm during the last hospital visit. I knew during these encounters that death would not take me. Over the years, the Creator of All Things visited me many times. One time as I stood in the fire circle on the sacred Manataka Mountain the wind swirled around my body like a small tornado and the night sky opened to a voice that gave many instructions. Other voices sang many songs. And finally the time of my death was spoken. I have not completed all the instructions and thus my crossing time has not arrived. Each day I am allowed to continue my path and quest is a gift.
I do not think I have ever feared death. I steadfastly hold the ways of the Beauty Path in my heart and thus fear of death is insignificant. The depth and breadth of Indian philosophy and spiritual belief has always served me well in times of crisis. Just as the water of life is not distressed by its many changes, from liquid to solid to vapor in the eternal circle, I am not afraid of my body changing into spirit. After all, the same water that appeared a the time of Creation remains on earth today. The idea that my spirit will one day join with those of my ancestors and other loved ones is an appealing thought.
My opinions and hard-won beliefs about the Beauty Way have become rock solid over the years. However, my idea of the meaning of the term, “today is a good day to die” has changed.
I now know that this term does not necessarily refer to an action such has bravery or define some abstract ideal of honor. In my mind, the term does not have anything to do with the designs of mankind, but instead acknowledges the will of the Creator in a good way.
“Today is a good day to die” means that we are ready in our mind, heart and spirit to become one with the Eternal Spirit of the Creator. It means we are prepared to enter the never-ending and timeless River of Spirit to float forever. The Creator may later require our energy and spirit in the form of another creation so we may become the fodder and substance of something entirely new, return as fragment of another being or some other transformation as the will of the Creator may dictate. Who can say otherwise?
In keeping with the nature of all creation, energy and spirit never die as they are simply reformed repeatedly in a perpetual sacred symphony conducted by our Great Grandfather in heaven.
This definition of the term, “Today is a good day to die” is yet another example of the tremendous spiritual growth we have experienced because of the gift of knowledge and practice of the Beauty Path of the Indian.
Today IS a good day to die.
Read Today Is A Good Day To Die Part II
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