Manataka American Indian Council










Bonding Fires


By L. Cota Nupah Makah




The upper, northern area of Nevada, where I spent many of my teenage years, is known as the high dry desert.  This vast open desert holds the beauty of deep purple haze which shrouds the mountains and valleys in mystery.  It is located 6000 feet above sea level where the air is clear and clean.  You can see for miles and miles.  From this high area you drop off onto the floor of the Great Salt Lakes of Utah and the basin area where prehistoric animals and reptiles once roamed a

mong the bubbling hot springs and lakes. 


Lava flow is still seen in the old rock formations that have produced ridges of round stones falling from the mountains into the valleys. Tulle-filled marshes, like an oasis, are reminders of the vast lakes that once covered this land.  Hot springs still bubble in hidden coves near the mountain range where it cuts across the skyline.


There is nothing better to ease the body than a long sit in one of the pools of silky mineral-rich hot water. The feel of your skin when you are through soaking is soft and smooth like velvet.  I would often stop on my long hot rides, just as the cool evening winds started, for a relaxing soak in the hot springs.  Near my favorite hot spring was a natural stream flowing from the Rudy Mountain, cold and clear, into the Standing Rock Reservoir.


We would run from the hot spring to the cold stream and splash around in the icy water.  I have gathered many an armful of watercress for soup in these streams where it grows waist high in the pure water.  The natural hot tubs of the desert are like no others and cannot be replaced by a chemical-filled one on the back deck.


Each spring we would clean out all of our old things and pile them in a heap on the rim of the canyon wall.  This included our winter trash and the tumble weeds from sagebrush that had gathered in the auroras.   It was our spring work to gather blown-down trees and branches.  We would tie them into bunches and drag them behind our horses to a huge pile we were building. This work served two purposes: one was to prevent the hazard of a range fire and the other was, if the brush was left in the aurora, it could trap cattle as well as provide a good hiding place for rattlesnakes.


On the eve of Easter Sunday we would pack our old Ford truck with blankets and pots of food and head out for the canyon.  Sometimes Mom would make a huge pot of stew from deer and root vegetables.  We would also have fried jack rabbit and wild prairie hens, eating this from the pan with our fingers, and wiping the grease on our skin to ward off mosquitoes.  Pan-fried potatoes were cooked on the open fire and served with steaming cups of boiled coffee. Traditional fry bread was served with wild berry jam to finish the wonderful meal.


At exactly nine in the evening my father would say a prayer and offer some food to the heap of brush and trees and then, with a flint striker, he would light the bonding fire.  All along the canyon, for miles, you could see the bonding fires from other families starting to flare up.  The fires were very big but seemed so small that they looked like fireflies flickering in the dark night.


We would stay at the fire all night, singing and dancing.  When we were tired, we rolled up in our blankets and fell asleep listening to the coyotes howling off in the distant hills.  We did not actually see our neighbors because they lived miles away.  Yet, on this one night, we could bond with them even from a distance.  The fires connected us once again, as in the old days, into a single family under the hoop of the star-filled sky.


Bonding fires go far back to the time when people gathered in the spring for ceremony and the first lodges or Inipi (some call them sweat lodges).  This was the time for renewal.  All old winter fires were silenced and cleaned from the fire pits.  We would, in those times, pack up whole camps and travel for days to a central gathering place. During this time of travel we lit no fires and ate only precooked corn cakes, sometimes called journey cakes or ho cakes, along with water, dried meat, and honey.


When we reached the gathering place we would set up camp and once again reunite with our relations.  This was a time of many ceremonies and other rites of passage for the young people.   At the end of the three day fasting and ceremony, the central council fire was rekindled.  After prayers and offerings were made, a new bonding fire was started. 


From this new fire we took embers home to relight the council fire in our own villages. The central village fire was prayed to and an offering made, then ignited with the council fire ember.  Each family carried, to their personal lodges, an ember to kindle their family hearth fire.  From this one fire we all gained our connection as one people.  This one ember and one light kept us united throughout year.


Families still gather around the bonding fires in the springtime along the canyon and renew, even at a distance, their connection.  I will place a small fire here, so far away from my family, this Easter eve in this distant land.  I know all I have to do is close my eyes and see the fires of our people burning across the high dry desert plains.  Once again I connect with the old ones from a long time back who now rest in the sky world.  These old ones have returned to the stars from which we all at one time came. They send us the new ones who are carrying the embers that will feed the bonding fires for the future. 


Love L. Cota Nupah Makah (Two Worlds)

Copyright 2009 by Nupah Makah (Two Worlds) L. Cota    All publication rights reserved.