Some years ago, Jim decided to further his interest in Native American history and signed up for a class at College of DuPage, our local community college. The class included a field trip out to South Dakota to stay with people who the instructor knew on the Rosebud Reservation (Lakota) in South Dakota. This really whetted his interest and he wound up finishing their Native American Studies certificate program over the next couple of years, and visiting other reservations, both in South Dakota and in Wisconsin.
During the course of all of this, I was pulled into his circle of fellow students and colleagues and found myself participating in talking circles, sweat lodges, and even one curing ceremony. I never did get out to a Sun Dance, although he attended more than one. The experiences were interesting and sometimes even a bit frightening.
Anyone who has ever studied anything about indigenous people knows that all of the them live very close to nature. They understand their environment very well and know so many things that modern western culture is only now catching up to. They also deal with inexplicable things in their everyday life, or so it seems to me. I won't say more about the sweat lodges or the curing ceremony. Some things are best experienced for oneself. But I will say that through all of it, I could sense an undercurrent of power that sometimes felt as strong as the tide coming in, and other times as soft as a breeze. But it was always there, make no mistake.
Some years back, I had the opportunity to attend a writing workshop in Abiquiu, New Mexico, very close to Ghost Ranch. If anyone out there reading this is a Georgia O' Keefe fan, you may recognize that as a place she went to for inspiration and for solitude. The paranormal stories that have circulated about Ghost Ranch include disembodied voices as well as the ghosts of cows. (Go figure. It was a ranch, after all.)
While up in that area I could feel the presence of those who lived there before. Evidence of them is all around: there were scraps of stone from arrowhead flint knapping. Workshop participants got to tour a working excavation of an ancient village high up in the rocks of those mountains. Most of the establishments, both modern and not-so, are decorated with Southwestern flavor that either borrows from the people of the area, or is genuine and hand-made. The evidence of those who were there before is everywhere.
But it is out in the solitude of those mountains and canyons that you can really feel spirit, and I have no other word to use than that. The mountains watch who climbs them. They study and weigh those who come into the canyons to hike, to explore, to photograph, or draw. And they wait. I always felt that, when I was out in the wilds of New Mexico.
The first day, our guide brought us up to the top of a high plateau and had us sit in quiet and solitude to start getting the feel of the area: to note the play of light and shadow on the mountain peaks, to feel the wind that was both soft and dry, to have a chance to look out over the canyons below us. It was an amazing experience and I remember sitting there, cross-legged, looking out over a 5,000 foot drop and wondering if I belonged there. I could feel something watching me, deciding about me. I had my hands open in my lap and thought, if I'm supposed to be here, please let me know. At that instant a small living twig, with bright green leaves still attached, fell from the branch above me directly into my hand. So I knew. And I thanked them.
There are places in nature that I think can never be tamed and I'm glad for it. If you're ever out wandering through any of them, open yourself to the spirits who thrive there, who drift on the clouds or ride the winds. The ones who want to know about all those who come to visit them. They are watchful, but they are also patient and fair. If you're lucky, when you communicate with them, they will answer in their own way. I haven't been back to Abiquiu yet, although I hope to go and bring Jim with me. And I hope the watchers there remember me and don't mind me walking through their spaces again.