Essay written by White Deer of Autumn (Gabriel Horn)
Who are we? Where are we going? Why are we here? Imagine if more people searched the Mystery of their lives for the answers to these questions. Imagine if more people understood the passion of the Lakota war cry: “It’s a good day to die!” or the feelings of a man like Henry David Thoreau when he said that he would hate to face his death knowing that he had not lived. Imagine if the hearts of more people became like theirs… and the land became mother… and that which they share all things with became the Great Holy Mystery. Imagine…
I was a young man alone on my first vision quest. It was dawn. A strong salty breeze swept across the turquoise sea. It caused Gulf waters to ripple and the waves to swell and break into cool white crystals of foam that carried in the tide. I sat on the shore on my turquoise mat within a circle I had drawn in the bone-white sand. Golden sea oats and tall sea grass swayed near me. They cast shadows around a stone I had placed on the ground. The small stone was about the size of a marble. It had been painted with a sacred red ochre by an Arapaho medicine man. Only he and one other Arapaho man knew where this sacred paint could be found. I knew only that it was a journey which took him deep into the Wind River Mountains of Wyoming.
I can remember the night he returned with the paint and held the small stone with the fingers of one hand while he placed the fingers of his other into a small deerskin pouch, how he moved them around inside until they emerged glistening in dark crimson, how he rolled the small round stone between his fingers, mixing it with the paint until the stone turned red too.
A few days before my first vision quest, I had fallen into my old uncle’s arms and cried, for I’d just been fired from my first teaching position at an Indian high school. My marriage was falling apart. I had lost any sense of purpose and direction. These things conspired to make the long trip from Wyoming to my home in Florida even longer. Crossing such a distance seemed only to give my emotions more time to well up inside of me, so when I finally arrived at Uncle Nip’s, I was a storm ready to release itself. And I did. It was as if all I had worked for in college and whatever semblance of identity I had struggled for was suddenly torn asunder. I was a broken man whose ideals were as scattered as a flock of frightened gulls. I seemed lost and afraid. I felt alone. And I cried in my old uncle’s arms.
“Go for a vision”, Nippawanock said, his wrinkled hands on my shoulders, his starry eyes penetrating my darkness. “It’s time. If you are to walk the path of heart, then it is time…” Take your red stone with you to a place where you can be close to nature… a place where people won’t disturb you. Use your medicine stone as your intercessor. Speak through it to the Mystery. Go from surnrise as long as you can but no more than four days. Don’t eat, and don’t drink. Concentrate on that part of you that is all things. Concentrate on the Mystery. Meditate.
“I did what Uncle Nip advised and headed for the Island-Where-The-Great-Turtles-Nest. For days and nights I sat on my turquoise mat within the circle I had drawn in the sand as I called out into the Mystery for some understanding to my life. I wept for all the things I’d lost and for all those I had loved. Sometimes I shivered in terror at night, at having to face my own fears. Sometimes I lay silent, staring up at the stars. I remember how the sun rose each morning regardless of my state of mind and how the sudden emergence of dolphons made me feel light-headed and happy. I remember how the sun rose hot and lingered long and lasting… how it burned as I faced my own anger. And although I received great insight that time years ago when I was a young man seeking a vision, no vision came to me.
“The vision will come when you are ready” said Unlce Nip. “It will come at that special moment when time transcends reality and the Mystery of life reveals itself to you”. Unexpectedly, that would happen a year or so later on a cold wintry night in Minnesota. I had been teaching Indian children all day in the housing projects where the American Indian Movement school, Heart of the Earth, was located. And at night I had taught Indian adults in the basement of the Minneapolis Public Library. I had done this for days at a time, and living alone, I had no one to insist that I take time enough to eat or even to sleep.
I can remember the circle of elms and the snowy, sloping hills across the street from Powderhorn Park, where I lived. I can still recall standing outside under one of the great elms and gazing up at the glistening stars… how many more there seemed to be that night… how some of them seemed so big and close. So big and close I could touch them if I reached out my hand. Instead, the stars reached out to me, and a Being robed in red appeared before me. His eyes were large and shaped like almonds as black as the stone of Apache tears. He motioned for me to look, and I saw the spirit-breath of my people fading.
Then he motioned again, and I saw a woman as old as the Earth. She spoke about lies and half-truths, about ambiguities and manipulations of words. When I turned away, the Being robed in red held in his hands a book of stars. He pointed to a certain place among them, and then the book of stars became the pipe that I would one day keep and protect with my life. The vision I was given that night under the stars at Powderhorn, a thousand miles from the island where I first cried for one, became the guiding force and anchor of my life.
Whenever I need to know whether or not I am doing the right thing for the People and the land, I recall my vision. If whatever I contemplate on doing is connected to that moment of Vision, then I know it’s the right thing to do. And though time and experience and living in the Wheel has provided me dreams and ceremony, nothing has ever been like the Vision. It has kept me on the path of heart. It is the one thing that I know can never be taken away from me.
As I travel through the autumn of my life, I find myself wondering about things more than I used to. I wonder how we can ever have a planet where people live in peace if people don’t seek out their place in the Mystery. I wonder how we can ever have peace in this world if people no longer feel their connectedness, their oneness with all things living together in the Great Holy Mystery. I wonder if we live in a land that will someday be called A-Place-Without-Vision.
I try to understand how it must feel not to be connected to everything in some magical, mysterious way? What would it be like not to live within the Wheel? What would it be like not to feel that the Earth is our Mother? What would it be like not to recognize that all Earth’s creatures are our relatives?
Is that why people can slaughter dolphins and whales and each other?
Is that why they can destroy forests, poison rivers, and pollute oceans?
Is that why they can dump toxic waste into the land - because they do not regard it as their mother?
Is it like being fragmented and not whole?
Is it an act of rage?
I recall a time when I was young that someone stood among the ferns outside our house and asked me how much Indian I was. He insisted that I couldn’t be a full-blood becasue of the green tint to my brown eyes. He also told me that he had studied Indians a lot in college and had learned that there were hardly any full-bloods left.
For some reason, I told him I was half. My uncle had heard me. When I went inside, old Nip asked me which half of me was Indian and which half of me wasn’t. I felt foolish. Then he told me to close my eyes and ask my heart what I was. My heart never hesitated. I was Indian. That night Uncle Nip handed me a necklace, one I’d seen him working on for several days. Before he placed it around my neck, he told me that the turquoise was Persian and the beads were European. He said that only the deer antlers were from America. A steel wire connected everything.
“Our people don’t come in parts,” Uncle Nip explained. “Either you are an Indian, or you are not.” Then he placed the necklace around my neck. As I studied it, he said, “Dissimilar things wre fitted together to make something beautiful and whole”. How many children who identify as Indians can withstand the daily challenges: How much Indian are you? Why is your skin so light? Why is it so dark? Why is your hair brown? Why is it curly? You can’t be all Indian - your eyes are blue. What’s your tribal number? How many children can withstand such challenges to their identiy without learning the importance of a vision.
Without a vision, they may grow up allowing others to tell them who they are. They may even think that being an Indian is someting defined by a government. But when they have a vision, they know who they are. They know how much Indian they are. I can remember gazing up at he stars the night of my vision. I can remember feeling like I wanted to touch them. I felt so close to them… I felt a part of them.
I remember watching dolphins the time I cried for a vision and how good they made me feel. I felt a part of them. I remember putting the ashes of my Uncle Nip into the Earth and thanking her for sustaining his life. And I felt a part of the land. “In some mysterious and wonderful way you are part of everything, Nephew. And in that same mysterious and wonderful way, everything is a part of you. That is the Great Holy Mystery. It always was and always will be.”
It is with such an awareness that I’ve traveled in the Wheel. Twenty years after I first sought a vision, I sit again near my Florida home on the shore of the Gulf waters, and I wonder. The warm salty breeze blows across my mind, and the sunlight shimmering on the surface of the sea helps reality to transcend… And I can imagine!