Manataka American Indian Council














Vision Quest at Bear Butte


Morning mist leaves a rich earth smell in the air, much as a summer rain does. I love the smell of rain on the hot desert. It reaches into my memory and touches a place I cannot go. The sage bush drips with dew, small insects buzz and fill the air with newly hatched swarms. Birds land on the brush and ruffle their feathers in the wet leaves to wash them. A lizard peeks up from his sand shelter and looks puzzled. Inch by inch, he creeps up leaving, only his tail buried in the sand. I sit still and listen to the morning sounds of the desert and drink in the smells that drift around the weathered door jam.


Magpies and crow are awake and starting their morning arguments over territory. The shrill cries pierce the silence and make my ears ring. Wind blows gently against my dress and the windmill blades turn lazy in the pale light of day. I hear the horses nickering down in the lower corral and old Dolly, the Guernsey Cow, lows soft where she waits in the barn stall.


Just a few minutes longer, as I cuddle my hot coffee cup to my chest and breathe in the fresh coffee aroma. The day can wait I say, and I drift off into another path of my on-going vision. Traveling down long tunnels, I reach the land of my father. The plains and desert spread for miles into the sky, one starting where the other leaves off.


On the horizon, the high mound of Bear Butte is touched by the sun. Rust red in the sun, standing as a landmark for many years. Bear Butte, is the subject of many stories that are told around campfires and in winter lodges.


I throw my mind back to the first time I had seen this sacred place, when I was very young. My father was helping a young man to find his way back home after the war. We planned to stay for several days at the site and had brought many provisions with us. Dad would just curl up under a tarp in the back of the truck bed, and I would sleep on the truck seat on these trips.


After our arrival, the truck was unpacked and we waited for the others to come. Soon you could see a white plume of dust rising from the old dirt road. I sat and tracked the dust until it passed down a small gully and then reappeared just 100 yards from our camp.


There was lots of noise as the truck doors were slammed and everyone greeted each other. Soon the fires were lit and pots of food were placed by it to heat up. That morning, Mom had put some chili and corn bread in the truck so we did not have to cook that night. No one talked much but just sat hunkered-down by the fire, wrapped in blankets, and ate. I took my plate to the truck and sat on the tail gate watching the sun dip under the land and slip down the sky.


The sky was so dark and close you could see the huge stars like cherries hanging in some long forgotten tree.


In the morning, the men built a lodge and I was sent to gather sage. I brought huge arms-full of sage to the lodge and then waited for the men to cover it and make a fire for the stones. Twisted sagebrushes were pulled to the fire place then placed over the stones. The prayers were said and the brush lit. Tiny sparks flew into the sky like the Fourth of July only it was daytime.


The day was growing hot and the added heat from the fire soon had us all sweating. I went off to sit in the shade of the truck with my back against the rear wheel.


Black beetles crawled between my feet and wandered off into the sage brush in search of food. A few red ants felt around the soles of my boots, smelling for anything that they could carry back to their hill. I reached down and brushed off my boot to keep them from crawling up my leg and biting me. The sun crept into every place that it could find skin contact and soon I had to move from my once-shady shelter.


On my way to another place I picked up a grape soda and popped the cap on the truck door latch. The sweet, rich grape juice felt so good as it bubbled down my throat. I savored it a little at a time because we were going to be out here for a few days and the nearest town was miles away.


Soon I saw another plume of dust coming our way and I waved my hat to get my Dad’s attention. He was watching the fire and talking in low deep tones to the men there. This time an old ford coupe came to a gravel-sliding stop and a tall, skinny young man got out, His legs were so long he looked like a spider as he put first one foot out of the door, then the other. A beat-up old straw cowboy hat, sweat and dirt-stained, sat low on his head making it impossible to see his eyes or face. His faded levies were patched in several places but pressed with a crease on the legs. A plaid flannel shirt that did not quite cover his long arms hung out at the back of his pants. Well-worn, rough out boots with a low slung heel matched the scuffed brown belt that held his jeans up on his narrow hips.


He did not say a word but went and sat by the fire. Soon my father and the other men came and sat with him and the low talking kept up, broken with the sound of a rattle and chanting. The smell of burning sage drifted back to me and I watched as they prepared to enter the lodge.


My work now would begin because I was in charge of the door and brushing off the stones. The pail of water was heavy as I pulled it to the entrance of the lodge and prepared to take my place. No one had eaten all day and we had only water and coffee to drink. I put the last grape soda on hold until the ceremony was over.


The men stood naked to the waist with towels and blankets wrapped around their hips. I turned my eyes down and away as they knelt to enter the lodge. It would be considered immodest to look at anyone entering the lodge, especially for a young girl of my age.


The sun was just slipping into the sky when the lodge started. The chanting and opening of the door melted into one long dream. It was as though I went into some quiet place, far away from the Earth, to sit while this all took place.


After the men had eaten and gone to sleep I put the rest of the food in the old ice chest we had brought with us. This kept the wild animals from smelling it and the ants from invading it in the night.


We all slept  well that night and in the morning the young thin man was taken up to the Butte path to sit and wait for his vision. The walk up  to the top is almost two mile all on narrow paths that  wind up around the sides of  the Butte.


For the next two days we sat and kept the fire going low. At night, we built it up higher and it was never left unattended. Some times there was singing and drumming so that the young man could hear he was being prayed for and not alone.


Someone was always sitting and praying or chanting by the fire. Nearby the fire sat a small, blanket-wrapped bundle that was constantly being offered food and water. Tobacco was placed on it, and sage, to help the young man on the Butte and to protect his spirit from flying away. Every few hours one of the men would go to the bundle and, with an eagle feather, they would brush sage smoke over it and pray. The time drifted like the smoke from the sage as the days slipped in and out of the sky.


One morning my father said, “Ok, make some more food now.” I did as I was told and fried bacon in the old iron skillet; next I put in the potatoes and onions. In another covered skillet I made fry bread and put that up on   the tailgate of the truck. There was canned milk for the coffee and for the fry bread we had  berry jam, butter and syrup. Hot boiled coffee finished the feast and Dad brought out a bag of oranges.


Two of the men went up and brought down the young man. I, for the first time, saw his face and eyes. He looked like he was dreaming and had not woken up yet. His thin high cheeks and sharp hooked nose gave him a hawk-like appearance.


I turned my eyes back to my fire and finished the scrambled eggs that now had started to firm up in the hot skillet. Dad came over and lifted up the heavy iron pans and put them on the tailgate. I put out the metal plates and forks and stepped back against the truck wheel to sit down again.


The men prayed and ate in silence and no one looked at the young man now sitting near me on a blanket. When the men finished eating, I took the pans and plates and scrubbed them with sand, then wiped them off with an old cloth. Dumping out the coffee grounds, I set up another pot to boil and placed the left-over fry bread in a paper bag. The remains of the chili and the stew were once again put near the embers of the fire to heat. I took a plate of food to the tent where the young man was resting and offered him a jar of water.


The day passed and the camp was quiet, every one in their own thoughts. The sun started its slip into the earth and the men built up the lodge fire again. All was the same as the last lodge, with me sitting near the entrance to hear the call when the door needed to be opened and dusting off the stones as they entered the lodge. There was much low rumbling, talking, singing and drumming coming from the lodge. I stayed just out of the sound area where I might be able to understand the words. It would not do me good to be listening to someone else's lodge.


The young man came out of the lodge and crawled to his blanket, wrapping it around him. He slept all night right where he lay. In the morning I looked out the window of the truck and the old car,  the blanket, and young man were gone. The other men were loading the trucks, eating some dry, cold fry bread and sipping black hot coffee from the metal cups. I kept still that morning as the men broke the camp, I stayed curled-up in my blanket and thought of that young man. I did not get out of the truck until my Father told me to put the food and pans away.  I prayed that he had found his reconnection to the Earth and that some healing had taken place in the lodges.


I was to meet him later on with his wife and little boy at yet another camp but did not speak to him. He looked rested but still that distant look in his eyes left me feeling sad in some way. I later saw this in my own brothers’ eyes, and in many of the young men who returned from Vietnam. My father said that they had walked in the spirit world and that many had left a piece of their own spirits there to help those who did not come home.


In later years we called this Post Traumatic Stress Disorder but in those days it was called Shell Shock. Many families were affected after the war by this and many young men left their spirits in the battlefield to dance with the spirits of the ghost dancers.


Once again my heart and mind are brought back to Bear Butte. It now is the final resting place for my good friend Lynn Yellow Buffalo Freng.  Many thanks to his brother warriors and their wives who took his ashes there; I pray that his spirit will find peace.


Blessings Waynonaha

Copyright © 2006 by Waynonaha Two Worlds
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