When we entered Tom and Loretta's house in Chadron, Lupe', in the commanding and authoritative manner of the bailiff, said to the nine men gathered there, "All rise."
Everybody laughed. We needed a laugh. It had been two weeks since Ernest's stroke, and he still remained at the VA hospital in Hot Springs, slowly recovering his speech and movement on the right side of his body. Can't swallow. They took him to Fort Mead and had a tube installed to his stomach for direct feeding. Nothing around the kitchen was the same, and the air hung with a palatable sadness.
The daughter of Chet Stoneman was brain-dead after the car wreck, they said, so they pulled the plug. Another cousin was diagnosed with cancer, and somebody else associated with the family up and died of a heart attack at 30-some years old. And then the daughter of "Grandma Celeste" also died of a heart attack.
Our only teenage sundancer, Jack Red Cloud, pulled out onto the highway coming out of Cheyenne Creek and got hit head-on by some high-schoolers, and he ended up in the hospital in Rapid City all smashed up.
Then just before all this, Loretta's back went out, leaving her in excruciating enough pain for an emergency run to Rapid City, and Beatrice was in and out of the hospital just days before for some kind of a thing that was going wrong with her arteries, they thought, but turned out to be a herniated something or other. And Poncho just now called and said another granny had died.
"Something is hitting this family hard," Aloysius said here the other night.
Accordingly, in Indian country, there's all sorts of unsolicited speculation from most everyone about the cause-effect relationship attributed to the occurrence of anything negative. This spirit did this, and that spirit did that, and this happened because that person didn't do something just right, or somebody's grandmother seven generations ago forgot to put something out, or that person from the grave is putting some kind of mojo on us.
It's bewildering at times, and one wonders how all these various opinions can be right. "Well, if it's that spirit of that guy who died along the creek ten or 15 years ago, then what about ignoring a doctor's advice to stop smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee?" And what about a lifetime of commodities, fry bread and tanega?
The car wrecks? That's a whole 'nuther thing. I don't know.
So now, people are praying for the old man. "The doctors are doing what they can do, but we've got to try our Indian medicine, too," Aloysius said. So Al has been over to doctor Ernest three times now, using a spirit medicine and "Indian Doctoring." Tonight, he used it, with Beatrice and Loretta and I there in the room. The old man responded to it. We were encouraged.
"The white man has his ways of healing that he believes in, and we have ours," Al said.
So it seems everybody is running back and forth between hospitals, ceremonies, and cemeteries.
So there in the kitchen at Tom's house, we all needed something to laugh about.
Coming in from the districts, all the tractor drivers were gathered around the table, strewn with time sheets, looking to get paid since Tom just got back from Hawaii, where he and Loretta went for a week to see their kids.
Uncle Joe was also there, along with Johnson Bear Robe, his son, Johnson, and Gooksie Red Bear, and Mike Red Bear, and Whatshisname from Oglala. Duane Locke and Clayton Dempsey were there from Porcupine. About eight or nine guys in the house, chatting, drinking coffee, messing with the cat. Loretta was with her mom over in Hot Springs, seeing Ernest. The phone kept ringing. Incoming. Felt almost like a siege. More people arriving at the door. Fix another pot of coffee.
All the heavy stuff came down just when Tom and Loretta left, diving under the radar for a week before returning to deal with the intensity of where they left off, and the upcoming sun dance, now a month away. "It was good to take a break," Loretta said at the hospital. "We needed to get away."
In Ernest's absence, Uncle Joe ran sweat, a little bit awkwardly and cool enough for the boys to ask him to turn it up on high next time. Aloysius put up peyote meeting for Mother's Day and Beatrice's 75th birthday, calling on Darrell and Rusty Red Cloud to prep the ceremony and trying to pull everything together right up to the last minute.
He pulled it off and ran the ceremony himself after his "roadman" got bogged down, broke down over in Rosebud, and his backup, Alfred Red Cloud, was sick. Uncle Emerson Spider showed up, along with Kurt Fool Bull, some Navajos, and enough local relatives for a full tipi, and a big crowd turned out the next day for the feed, including me and Grant, a dancer from Colorado who was up for the weekend, but declined on taking in the meeting.
"I not sure I can handle that peyote right now," he said. "And if I'm not sure, then I probably shouldn't go in."
High Times editor Malcolm MacKinnon, who was here from New York to shoot the annual horse races up at Alex White Plume's, said pretty much the same thing when Aloysius invited him to "take in" and shoot the meeting for the record. He was all excited about shooting the meeting, but changed his mind at the last minute and headed back to the East Coast.
And the "Kentucky Boys," Craig Lee and "Red," were here, hanging around with Henry and going up to Manderson to see Alex about hemp-related business, I think, but they too headed out suddenly, declining on Aloysius' invite to take in the meeting. Well, like they say, it isn't for everybody.
Grant and I walked over the hill, where the meeting was being held on the grounds outside of Beatrice's "Old Place." It was 10:30 p.m., the sun long down. No drum. No fire. Where was everybody? We came back over the hill.
Sometime, I guess around midnight Saturday, everybody showed up, and they sang throughout the night and well into the next morning. After preparing the sweat fire and putting on two hours worth of ash wood, Grant and I went over for the first breakfast of water, corn, meat, and chokecherry wasna. Everyone was all "peyoted up" and glowing goodness, including Bryan Lockwood, a high-school friend from Massachusetts, taking in his first peyote meeting.
"I got sick and finally threw up," he said. "After that, I was okay."
Yeah. That's what they say.
Raymondo Eagle Bear, our eleven-year-old sundancer who danced the full four years over in the canyon, also attended the meeting with his Fool Bull relatives from Rosebud Reservation and came with us back over the hill, riding in the back of "La Roja," La Roja Grande, our big red five-ton dump truck. Raymondo brought good cheer to the gathering here as he shot baskets in the kitchen with a nerf ball and laughed with the carefree glee of a kid at ease around grownups.
He said he got good grades this year and passed on to the seventh grade. He said he'd be dancing with us again next month.
About a dozen men came over the hill to a good hot sweat that Aloysius ran, then we all went back over for the main meal of chicken, turkey, hamburgers, hot dogs, potato salad, macaroni salad, fry bread, candy salad, coffee, kool aid, lemonade, beef soup, dried meat soup, and a couple other serious-looking vats of tanega, or tripe, or tub-of-stroke that the people all love, and that they know is killing them, but they can't get enough of.
"You relatives take this food home," Aloysius announced. "Don't leave anything. Take it with you. Share it around. We don't want to take anything back inside."
Out came the watecha (take home) buckets. Tupperware, coffee cans, all sorts of containers.
There was ice cream and cake, too. About five or six different cakes, and the old lady had a really nice birthday. Five or six people shot photos. Jack Red Cloud showed up, too, out of the hospital and moving reeeeeally slow.
It's amazing how fast a crowd breaks up after they've been fed.
Tipi came down, the women cleaned up, and people headed for their cars.
"I'm thinking about a hot shower and a bed," said Bryan, clearly dragging ass, just like everybody else who took in meeting. He didn't feel like taking in another sweat with the regular Sunday night crowd. Calling an east phone friend, he said, "Life is good here, but it's really HARD."
"None of the peyote people are going to make it," I said to Uncle Joe as we watched the sun set, sort of waiting for Ernest to come driving up. "We might as well go ahead on in."
Ernest has been difficult to understand, and isn't talking much, but last week he said in English, "Continue ... my ... prayer."
There were another dozen people here for the Sunday evening sweat lodge, including three youngsters. Uncle Joe brought his invalid son Timmy to sweat for one last time before turning him over to a state boarding school. He'd been talking about it for some time, and the time had finally arrived. Timmy is seventeen now, and Joe has raised him since he was about two.
"I hate to do it," Joe said. "But he's getting too much for me to handle. I'm getting too old."
Joe must have been thinking about Ernest, and his own mortality. "If something happens to me, then who's going to take care of him?" he asked. "It's probably better this way," he said.
The next day, Joe called the house. "It sure is quiet over here," he said with a laugh that betrayed his sudden loneliness. "I went into the next room, but he's not there."
Victor Glover, a Native writer, lives on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota.