Making Relatives

“How can you mend a broken heart?” -The Bee Gees

The body in the front room was still there, laying peacefully in the favorite chair. The air was still and the picture frames stubbornly holding witness with no crookedness. Everything stayed the same, heavy air feeling like it’s not even there -like nothing existed anymore.

But after almost fifty years, if it hadn’t moved by now, it wouldn’t. And the six year old boy in me had stopped screaming, and left, and ran, and crawled from home to home, love to love, since I’d found my father there. The world had given me a tribe instead of a father, I don’t complain. My fiery mother, already distant, would come get us and take us away, to the reservation. But to say a truth, on that morning with the mountain sun shining through wind kissed cedars, all I wanted was for him to take me with him.

I am always empty when wondering where to start a ritual. I’m vaguely aware of what I want, sadly unaware of what the tribe, or the circle of practitioners, needs. But, I’m learning that the process of opening up is the first thing (maybe the only thing). Clearing out, sensing down, to let an intention or desire be revealed.

Sometimes, oftentimes, it’s in the past.

1969, before the hard times.

Oglala Joe’s Clydesdales stood guard over my eight year old world.

in the sixties, at number 4 on the highway from Pine Ridge, Joe lived across the potato field from us. I would wonder down the boundary road, more a trail, lined by bushes and the buzz of bees, to visit him -he and his towering horses.

My older brothers, in years past, had ridden with, on his wagon into town, to pick up his lease check and get supplies. But by the time I met Joe he had stopped doing that. He would welcome me in and offer a cup of coffee, a magical forbidden elixir to a boy seeking big medicine. Age was sitting on him, and outside the clydesdales rested easy in their retirement. They looked down on me with shoulders and wise heads like living cathedrals. But one morning they watched me in the field from a different vantage point.

Pine Ridge clay stretches past the badlands, to the Black Hills and out to the mighty rivers, but that moment had me only concerned with the inches on and under my face. Inches of dry freshly tilled soil framed my face and body.

No stronger connection would I have than that, face down in the softness, the horses hoof on my back pressing me down momentarily, clearing me from the danger of the race passing inches above my head.

Surprised at the dirt in my mouth, I looked up at the horses and ponies rushing away, no wound from the step of the horse and rider that, moments before, had been behind me; leaving me wondering what had plucked me from my pony and left me grounded while my friends laughed and rode away to finish the race.

It wouldn’t be my first run in with a ferocious girl; my sister switched from her friend’s horse, where she’d grabbed me from behind as they pulled up to me in the field. I hadn’t even seen her there. From that perch she moved over to mount my pony.

Her horse, green broke and not ready for the herd, left behind in the pasture; I hadn’t let her ride all day. This was her way of telling me it was time. This was our way. Ride the reservation. Ride together.

I’ve been surrounded by warrior girls and women my entire life. I’ve been surrounded and cradled by a mighty tribe. The reservation welcomed me home. The joy at the air, the touch of my ponies mouth eating from my hand or when I’d lean into her, chest to chest, and let her match my beating heart was everything. There, in that field of galloping ponies and laughing children, I found healing.

Moments that sit like broken lenses in our lives are like this. My child self spread eagled in the reservation soil, watching my pony run away with my friends. The towering sky arching over Oglala Joe’s clydesdales at my back, down the road the mission where my generations had schooled, the graveyard where my ancestors lay, and the town where my great grandfather lived. This was my magical life.

Even in the solitude of riding alone into the hills, my pony carried me. There we’d found tribal members living where no roads led. And no harm could come, even to my reckless child self.

For my grandpa Joe lived in the town, and from a child, I learned to recite the lineage “I’m Thelma’s son, Jesse Richardson’s grandson and Joe Adams is my great grandfather.”

My Great Grandfather’s house was in Pine Ridge. Grandpa Joe was in his eighties when I met him, a man of the tribe. I stayed with him the summer I arrived at the reservation. It can be hard to pull up such young and tender memories, but it is needed. Grandpa Joe was hard and leathery on the outside, but he moved with the litheness of the young. He was slow and attentive. He lived by himself, drove himself, and took care of me and a developmentally handicapped adult male of our family. This was his heart. This was his example, to care for others; and in those days, we were a pair. He’d been a small boy at the time of Wounded Knee and I was a child of the sixties.

That summer, the annual Sundance was coming up and I was in his front yard pouting. My older siblings were working with beads and leather, bells and sheepskins, getting ready to dance. I, figured too young, had been left behind. He took the time to come and sit with me under the summer sun, and talk. He told me the story of a young boy who had nothing. The boy had gone to the dance, and unashamed of his near nakedness and unadorned self, had entered the circle and danced anyway. He danced so hard he lost himself in his dance and the whole tribe was amazed at the child. They decided, that year, that he was the best dancer among the entire tribe.

“Do you know why?” he asked me, while I still sat, head down, staring at the dust.

“No”, my sad voice replied.

“Because he danced with his heart.”

My grandpa Joe would have a story for each child.

My mother, the tribal judge, danced with her heart her entire life, raising nine kids, losing another, loving three men, driving and singing across the west. Her songs went on long after she’d become deaf. They still ring sweet in my ears. In the years we lived in the city she led a house not only full of her children, but other tribe and extended family, all colors, anyone that needed help, and every exile she could fit. Sometimes we partitioned the rooms with plywood to give everybody some privacy. When she wasn’t there my aunts were.

Aunt Jackie, my first second mother, taught me Lakota prayers, to stand up straight and wash my hands when I’d finally come in from play. She taught me the pride that I would search so long to find again as an adult. And as a 42 year old man, returning again from my beloved Salish sea, she taught me to pray again, to honor my mother’s passing.

Aunt Donna, my soul brother’s (and my next) mother, gave me humor and the sound of long passed relatives still arguing, even from her death bed, with my mom’s ghost, over some Lakota or Dakota inflection of a word. My cousin and I stood by her bedside and I thought my heart would burst with love.

But only grandmother Jesse’s Lakota voice trickles down the sensory stream at my back, and underneath me like a song to call me home.

Somewhere between my two Joes and the tenderness of the grandfather’s teachings, between the windows of the souls of my mother’s house -overflowing with exiles, and my Aunts voices, I found myself again. I would come back to my birthplace in Seattle and the cradling mountains to step into manhood. But somewhere, the bonds of tribe and family were woven so gently as to let a child grow, in those riches I know, are not only mine, but all our souls and hearts. It is the nest we make for each other out of the songs and stories, the gestures and smiles, we call home.

It’s hard to put your hands around culture; it’s not copyrighted equations but simple rituals of the soul, passing so gently in every moment.

These are the things that cannot be taken, only given. In grasping for them, hands close on ashes and fleeing shadows of our true desire. We’ve evilly been taught the insistence of the consuming masses, our minds paled over by the merchants of anything but ourselves. Why do we stumble over something so hurtful as cultural appropriation? Why do the warriors mumble? Painting and feigning and acting out do not welcome us in, and in the attempt to take, we crush even more the thing we want … the thing that is real. Our souls, their souls, our hearts, those hearts of the peoples of the land that loves them. Appropriation only diminishes the stories and the tribes of our being.

It isn’t just the indigenous, but every band who is grounded, that seems to call to us. Even the wandering tribes, slaves and exiles, know connection. We desire what they have, not knowing why.

Forgetting this: to her dying day, the land will always love us. On whatever inch of soil our feet touch she welcomes us to continue telling her the stories that are sweet to her ears.

These are the things that cannot be taken. Only given.

We hunger for the gift of tribe, long for home and are left empty mouthed with heart beats that seek to be brought back, seeking the words to only, just, ask.

And this is the request. The first part of the ritual. My puppy diving to ground, his front paws splayed out in welcome, trying to get so far below me that I only float from his honoring of me, as he looks up with twinkling eyes that say “let’s go!”

And in the documented rituals and passed on formal ceremonies, yes even in the ones we are making today, I hope and pray that this will always be that heart, never stolen, never able to be stolen, and in the beginning of each tome will be that puppy, bowing down, asking simply …

to play.