As an extremely small boy, when the question “What does Dickie want to be when he grows up?” was posed by doting adults, I was ready with the answer.
“Either a fireman or an Indian.”
I reserved the right to decide later.
What you’ll find here is a cherished but still vivid memory of an event that happened in the mid-70s. If not the strangest evening of my life, it has few competitors. Certain aspects of it remain with me.
If that sounds spooky, it is.
What happened was a strange adventure. I still don’t fully understand it.
From early childhood, when The Omaha World-Herald ran weekly full-page photographic portraits by Frank Rinehart of the great chiefs and warriors, I was hooked on the Plains Indians. Reading about the mysterious Yuwipi ceremony intrigued me particularly, so I leapt at this opportunity to attend one.
I was glad that my old Sioux friend, the above-mentioned medicine man and spiritual figure Leonard Crow Dog — from the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota — was presiding. I had known Leonard for some years, having bailed him out of jail a few times back when the feds were wiretapping and bugging him and all “active” Indians.
The ceremony took place in what you would hardly call a romantic Western setting like, say, a darkened medicine lodge out on the wind-swept prairies of the Great Plains.
It all happened in an apartment on West End Avenue in New York City. It was the time of what was then called “Wounded Knee #2”, the Marlon Brando one where Indians and government forces clashed as they had in the tragic Wounded Knee of 1890. And, as with the original “Knee,” people again died on both sides.
My adventure was on a hot night in midsummer in a living room properly prepared for the ceremony. The apartment belonged to a woman whose name I recall only as Mary, who back then ran the shop in the old Museum of the American Indian, since moved to the Battery. Mary was white, amusingly feisty, and clearly an old hand at dealing with Indians.
Our group, apart from Crow Dog and me, was made up of Mary; Richard Erdoes, the great Indian authority and author; and four or five young male Sioux who had come with Crow Dog from the Rosebud reservation.
All windows were sealed shut and covered with black paper. The spirits brook no light, no outside noise, no disturbance of any kind. It was dead summer and the temperature outside was flirting with 100 degrees. Unhappily for us participants, the spirits are vehemently averse to air-conditioning. The room was soon a sauna.
First, Leonard, standing, had a thick and heavy star blanket thrown over his head, hanging to the floor on all sides. It was then tightly bound with cord at the chest, the waist and the ankles. In that heat and lack of moving air it looked to me like a recipe for murder. I recall thinking that had I been Leonard’s parent, I would be shrieking, “Get him out of there!”
Trussed up in that suffocating cocoon he was laid flat, his head on the altar. The altar was a dark cloth spread out flat on the floor. Arranged on it were items essential to the ceremony. I recall bundles of sweet grass, rattles, a sacred pipe, small tied bags of tobacco, an eagle feather fan and a snake skin.
We sat on the floor in the deep dark silence. The drumming and singing of sacred songs began, with the familiar, “HAY-YA, hay-ay, hay-ay, hay-ay…” that I’ve known from Indian events in my childhood.
But time passed and nothing else happened. I wondered if my wasichu (white man) presence might be causing us to draw a blank, spirit-wise. Time crawled on.
And then it began.
A rattle on the altar became restless, began to spin and then — like a frantic bird caught indoors — flew across the room, smacking the wall. All was quiet again. More time went by.
Then they began to appear. The lights.
They appeared gradually and up high, looking like light-blue ghosts of snowballs, drifting dreamily about in the air above. Each one’s appearance was announced by what sounded like billiard balls colliding. Though sweating, I got a chill.
And an irreverent thought.
While wanting to believe, I couldn’t suppress the thought of what might happen if someone wickedly switched on a lamp. Would we see someone manipulating some kind of lights on a stick? Fooling whitey is not unheard-of in the Indian world.
Time seemed to stand still. The singing went on. The eerie lights gradually fadedand returned to whatever whence from which they came
Nobody moved. I sat there in the dark, feeling what I can only describe as a sort of diminuendo of the senses.
And then, what may be the strangest part of all happened. As we sat there in the dark and the brain-numbing heat, suddenly a gentle, welcome, cool zephyr passed through the room. And was gone.
I must ask Penn or Teller, can you fake a cool breeze in a silent, sealed room? With all appliances off?
Finally, it was over. And I was sorry. Nobody else seemed to find what had happened at all remarkable.
Where had I traveled? And what had I seen?
Lights of the more mundane sort were turned on and what I feared might be the still-warm remains of young Crow Dog were unwrapped. He was alive, looking a bit worse for wear.
The traditional feast followed. The entree was beef and more beef with some corn on the side. Mary had advised me that “when feeding Indians, meat is the thing. You don’t bother with salads, fruits and veggies. You’ll get them all back for your refrigerator.”
Bidding a reluctant goodbye to my Lakota brothers (I’m proudly an adopted Sioux) I tossed in all the money I had with me, to help cover bills in diners, flat tires and much gasoline on the long voyage home by car.
Oh, how the Indian wannabe in me yearned to be in that car with those would-have-been Sioux warriors, hearing them chat in their native tongue, rolling across half of America to South Dakota. Back to the rez.
Luckily I had mastered enough Lakota back then to glow warmly when one of them, shaking my hand, said, “Wichasha lela waste.” (“Mighty fine fellow.”)
Beats an Emmy anytime.
After thanking everyone again, and not wanting to jar the mood any sooner than necessary, I elected to walk quietly home across dark Central Park, hoping perhaps that some lingering spirit-protection might shield me from muggers.
I thought of my friend, the prolific Nebraska author Roger Welsch, several of whose fine books treat such Indian matters expertly and entertainingly.
Roger is known widely for his overalls-clad appearances for years on “CBS Sunday Morning” with his “Postcard From Nebraska.” He and his wife, Linda, a first-rate painter, live in Dannebrog, Neb. He’s deeply involved in Indian life. He confesses to wondering what might be fraud and what real.
Roger’s never been at a Yuwipi, but reports cases of skeptics who have gone to them, armed and determined to unmask and expose the supposed “tricks” once and for all. All have failed.
Roger says, regarding “those things,” that his ancient Sioux friend Richard Fool Bull “insisted that those things are common, happen to everyone, palefaces and redskins alike, but that we have been educated out of it and into embracing what is really the white man’s religious leap of faith — coincidence.”
He talks of “truths we may not have gotten to ourselves,” knowing that things that are not apparent to white men’s eyes are repeatedly visible to his Pawnee and Omaha brothers.
“There’s no lack of examples, Dick,” he says. “Ghosts! It only takes one or two witnesses to send an accused killer to death row, but thousands upon thousands of accounts of ghosts are dismissed with a giggle.”
Some years after the Yuwipi ceremony I attended Crow Fair, an annual celebration held at Hardin, Mont., on the Crow reservation. I’m also an adopted Crow, which presents a certain social problem. My Sioux friend, the venerable Fool Bull, said that among his proudest accomplishments was “that I have never shaken hands with a Crow.” The Crows were mercenaries for Custer.
I stood on a high hill with an elder of the tribe, overlooking the Custer battlefield.
I felt kind of silly admitting to him that I had once, without telling anybody, stood there at night alone, hoping to catch a ghostly, spirit-glimpse of the bloody action there in 1876 that sent the impetuous Custer and all his men to a different if not better place.
The elder laughed, paused for a moment, then echoing Fool Bull’s thoughts to Roger, said, “Those things are always there. It’s just that you have learned not to see them.”
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