The ride of faith
The winds blew dry and hard across the Plains the year I became a man. Harder than I could remember they blew, and killed anything we tried to grow. Most years, only a little rain fell. This year, there was none. The people were getting very worried, for we had not much to store for the winter.
One day I helped my mother dig for roots and gather what we could. That evening, my family and I sat and spoke of our worries for the winter that would soon be approaching. Then we heard Waupee, the leader of our village, singing. It was a song we had never heard but we knew it meant that we should hurry to him, for the song he sang was of the spirits of the mountain.
As we hurried ourselves to his lodge, we saw all had been drawn to the song he sang - young, old, the men and the women. We stood still and listened until he motioned to us to sing with him to the mountain spirits, for when we sang as many we became one. After the singing stopped, all knew that Waupee had something very important to say.
He motioned for the young men of the village to gather in front of him. I was one of those young men. We stood our tallest and gave him the attention he demanded.
''My sons, as I slept last night, the spirits of the mountain came to me,'' Waupee began. ''They know of our troubles and the winds and no rain. They have reminded me that we sometimes forget our way and that when we do this we forget them. This is important to us. The spirits help us in so many ways and we are as one. But we are beginning to forget them.
''They reminded me that we have not been to the mountain where our young men ride down one the steepest of hills to prepare us for our lives. The hill is like life. It has many bumps and choices on how to guide you and your horse to the safety that lies at the foot of the hill. It helps prepare us and teach us that our lives are not always safe like the flat ground we walk upon.
''You know what you must all do. We will all meet at the top of the spirit mountain when the sun shines the brightest. This is a time when you and your horse must become one. Your horse is your feet and you are its heart. You beat as one. The spirits are very strong. Show them that you are strong and worthy to enter its heart. Sleep with your horses tonight. Close your eyes and lay your head on him. Hear his heart and pray that yours and his will beat as one.''
Waupee slowly turned and went to talk to the spirits for their blessing for all of us. We all had fear in our eyes, for this mountain was the highest and at times it looked like the stairway to the spirits above itself. We all agreed we would sleep with our horses and realized we had to become one in order to make the ride of faith.
I had owned my horse since I was strong enough to walk. His name was Dog Man. I can say now that as I fell asleep upon his chest all that was on my mind was that we make the run. But those worries seemed to fade away as I heard his heartbeat strong and steady, like a drum that called out to our ancestors in song. Soon my heart, too, pounded in rhythm with Dog Man's, and we fell asleep as one. As I lay asleep, I dreamt of riding down the hill. I felt my fear leave me and I became the feet of Dog Man and I ran. I ran like the leader. A young man's dreams can sometime give him the courage he needs.
I told my father of my dreams when I woke. He told me that the spirits were talking to me in my dreams, helping me to be strong and have the courage I needed which was soon to be tested. As my father spoke these words, I knew this was a test I did not want to fail. My mother brought me my grandfather's moccasins to wear for the ride. She told me he had worn them when he, as a young man, made this ride. I put them on and they fit like they were made for me. I then went to get Dog Man and joined my brothers at the top of the mountain.
The ride up was a test in itself, but I made it even though there were times when I wanted to turn around. Dog Man would not let me - he would rear his head high and ignore my command to turn. But now as I stood with my brothers and all their horses, I felt like we were all one.
Waupee gave us his blessing and sang a song of courage. The smoke from the burning cedar seemed to surround us like a cloud. As I look back, I lost and found my courage as many times as the moon rises. Then I thought of the spirits of the mountain and I put my heart and trust with them. We all stood in a perfect line atop the hill for that ride of faith. Each man's eyes looked down on what appeared to be the edge of Mother Earth itself, myself included. The winds that had plagued us forever seemed to have stopped. All was still until we heard the drum and Waupee's cry to the spirits to see our courage and our faith in them. All cried out their horses' names, and like lighting we chose our paths to the bottom.
My heart was beating so hard that its song made all my fears leave me. Dog Man, surefooted as a dancer, made it like a dance back and forth around the rocks that appeared out of nowhere. The dust was almost blinding, surrounding us; and when it cleared, I realized I was at the bottom and so were all my brothers.
I jumped off Dog Man and wiped the sweat from his eyes. All I could do was wrap my arms around his neck and whisper in his ear, ''Thank you.'' As he turned his head, I saw my reflection in his eyes. I did not see the boy who rode up that mountain: I saw a man. A man who knew the spirits were always to be remembered and not forgotten, for they are wise, and this is how we learn.
Later that night, we sat around telling our own story of the ride until tiredness set in. In the morning, Waupee had something to tell us: the mountain spirits were happy and we had showed our faith in them. The winds would go away and the rains would come so we could grow what we needed. We all smiled and were proud.
Now that I am a man and have children of my own, I tell them of the spirits and the ride of faith and to honor the spirits in any way they can. For if we forget them, we forget who we are.
Ken ''Rainbow Cougar'' Edwards, from the Colville Indian Reservation in Washington state, is an accomplished painter and storyteller. Edwards is a graduate of the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, N.M., and a longtime cartoonist for Indian Country Today.