Climbing Bear -
One day, weeks later, I realized there was the feel of spring in the air. Black Horse stood in the cabin doorway, looked around, looked at the sky and said, "Spring is here. We need to get rid of the winter." I didn't know what he meant until he started hauling everything in the cabin outside. The only thing he left in the cabin were the things stored in the loft and the stove. As soon as everything was out, he started cleaning, with my help of course. When everything was replaced, he took plants dried from last summer and spread them on the floor. "Now it smells of spring," he said, and it did.
The next day we went on a long walk, gathering plants, some added to a stew, others eaten raw. They had the taste of spring. A week or so later, spring was definitely with us. There were plants blooming everywhere, we had started bathing in the pond every day and some mornings we didn't bother with a fire until time to cook.
I was becoming very restless and didn't know why. I felt that there was something important I needed to do and couldn't figure out what. I guess Black Horse noticed it, but he said nothing until one day he say, "We have allowed spring to come without a sweat".
We prepared for a sweat, which Black Horse conducted. The only thing unusual which happened during the sweat left me puzzled. When I was seeking guidance, I looked at the stones and saw the image of a bear looking directly at me. He seemed to be waiting for me to do something, but I didn't know what. After the sweat, when Black Horse and I had turned in for the night, he said, "What did you see in the sweat, Climbing Bear?".
When I told him of seeing the bear and that the bear seemed to be waiting for me to do something, he grunted. "Black Horse, I don't know what it means."
"What do you think it means?" He asked.
"I don't know. I have been restless lately and I can't explain that either. It's like I am supposed to be doing something, but I have no idea what. Sometimes I think I need to be looking for something, but when I think about it, I don't know what I am supposed to be looking for, where to look for it, or even how."
Black Horse grunted again and then said, "Well let's sleep on it. Maybe we'll have a vision." With those words, I could hear him turn over and soon I heard snoring. I lay awake for much longer than usual, trying to figure out what was going on with me. Finally I drifted off to sleep. Sometime in the night, I got up and walked outside. The night was very clear and the stars seemed to be so close I could reach out and touch them. As I watched, a shooting star streaked across the sky and seemed to point to the Big Dipper--the Big Bear to most of us Indians. A bear in the sweat lodge, a shooting star pointing the way to the bear. Someone was definitely trying to tell me something, but the message wasn't getting through.
I went back inside, crawled in my sleeping bag and went to sleep. I wasn't sure whether I was awake or dreaming when I found myself in a moonlit glade. I was dressed in a breech cloth, nothing else. I looked around slowly and couldn't recognize where I was. Suddenly I heard the savage roar of a bear. I was very frightened, but unable to move. The underbrush at the edge of the glade directly in front of me parted and an enormous black bear came crashing through, headed directly toward me. I was speechless and paralyzed. The bear was only feet from me when he raised himself on his hind legs, towering above me, his front paws upraised. I expected to be crushed, but he took me into his great arms, turned and approached a very tall pine. Holding me under one arm, he used the other and started climbing the pine. When he reached the top, he turned me around until I was looking out over a vast landscape. I had the definite feeling that somewhere out there was something I needed, but I didn't know what.
While I was trying to discover what I needed and where to find it, I found myself in a place I did know. It was a spot beneath an overhanging rock beside a small stream, a place where I had spent many hours reading, thinking and observing. I was sitting very still, just observing all going on around me. I was at peace. The next thing I knew I was awake. The sun coming in a window had fallen across my face, telling me it was time to be up.
I started a fire and prepared breakfast, then ran to the pond for my morning dip. I hadn't seen Black Horse but that wasn't unusual, he was often gone when I got up. When I got back to the cabin, he was finishing breakfast. When we sat down he asked, "Climbing Bear, did you have a vision last night?".
"Black Horse, I really don't know. I think I might have, but I'm not sure and I don't know what it means if I did." I then told Black Horse about my dreams. All the time I was talking, he was nodding. "So that's it. If I had visions, that's what they were, but I still don't have a clue as to what they are all about."
Black Horse grunted again, then asked, "Why is the place you dreamed about, the overhanging rock, special?".
"I guess it's because it is the one place I can point to where I learn much, so very much. It's kinda like a private classroom."
"Black Horse nodded while I was speaking. When I finished, he said, "We know about the bear. It's your spirit guide."
"Well, I wish he did more guiding and less making riddles."
"Climbing Bear, last spring Wounded Hawk mentioned a vision quest. You know about vision quests?" I nodded. "You were not ready then. Now you are. Your totem animal has called you to it and your special place has called you. Don't think there is a puzzle. It's pretty clear."
"Now that you explain it, it is. So when do I do a vision quest?"
"When you are ready. There'll have to be a sweat, and you need to prepare yourself physically because it is a long fast."
The next few days, Black Horse spent most of our waking hours telling me about Indian ways, having me eat and drink until I was ready to burst, getting the tobacco pouches ready for me to mark my questing place, and telling me stories. One morning he sat looking out across the canyon, his thoughts seemingly far away. Finally he asked, "Climbing Bear, you told me of your parents and grandparents being buried and that is good for that is their way. It is not our way, the Lakota way." He then told me the Lakota custom. A scaffold is erected, the body wrapped in a buffalo robe and placed on top of the scaffold. "Guess you can't do that if you are near other human beings, but it's the Lakota way." He went on to talk about the giving of eagle feathers, the sun dance and all seven of the Lakota ceremonies.
The next morning I told him I was ready to make my vision quest. We prepared the sweat lodge and Black Horse conducted a sweat at noon. When we came out, he handed me the four pouches of tobacco and embraced me. I turned and walked to my questing place.
Black Horse told me to take my buffalo robe with me and I was glad I did. It was still early enough in the spring for the nights to get chilly. The first night I rolled up in the robe and slept--no dreams, no visions. The next day, I was watching the forest around me when I got very sleepy. I curled up on the robe and slept. Still no visions, no dreams I could remember. The second night I was sitting on the robe, looking across the stream, watching the foxfire, strings of light in the darkness. As I watched, I saw a woman walking toward me from across the stream. When she reached me, she smiled and said, "Climbing Bear, my son, I have longed to be with you, to guide you, but I was taken to the spirit world as you came into this world. I have wept for you many days, but now I am filled with joy. You are a man, a proud Ndee, my son." With those words, she reached out and touched my head and my chest. "Be wise my son, be loving." As she spoke those words, she disappeared. I curled up on the robe and slept.
I don't know whether it was the same night or if I had slept all day and woke up the following night, but once again I was sitting looking across the stream. I had been very hungry the last time I was awake, but this time I was not hungry, just thirsty. I debated going to the stream and drinking--it was not forbidden, just seldom done. As I debated with myself, I saw another figure crossing the stream, walking toward me. When it was a few feet in front of me, I still could not recognize it because it has been mutilated, its face all torn and bloody. As it stood in front of me, I was frightened, then felt tremendous pity and heartache. As I did, the figure's wounds began disappearing until the face was whole and it was the face of my dad.
I reached out for him, but I couldn't touch him. "Climbing Bear, my beloved son, I watch over you and I have suffered because you have lacked my guidance and have made some very bad choices. Now you have been healed. Now you are whole. And because you are whole, I am whole. There are many ways to be a warrior in this world. The least worthwhile, the least proud is the way I chose, the way of death. You have not chosen that way, but you will be a mighty warrior and I am proud of you, brave Climbing Bear." I again reached out, trying to embrace my dad, but he was gone.
I slept again, waking up in late afternoon according to the sun. All around me were the sounds of the many creatures sharing my world. As I watched, a mother bear and her two cubs came to the stream, drank and then crossed the stream. The two cubs came to where I was sitting, sniffed me and then started playing. The mother bear watched all three of us and then turned and walked away, followed by her cubs.
As the bears were drinking, I was aware that I was no longer thirsty.
Later, as I watched the sunset through the trees, I thought about what my parents had said to me. I found myself weeping both because of all the shame I had brought to them and my grandparents and because of the love they had made known to me, even from the spirit world.
Long after the sunset, I fell asleep. As I slept, I dreamed. I dreamed of becoming a real man, responsible for myself, and of a great love. I knew the great love of my life was a man, a man who understood me and who loved me in spite of what I had been. He loved me for what I was. I could see his shadow, but not the man himself. My heart swelled with love for someone I did not know and had never known, I knew that. But I was comforted knowing that I would not spend my life alone.
When I awoke, Black Horse was standing beside me, holding out a bowl filled with a liquid. "Drink this," he said and when he did, I started laughing. When I regained control, I said, "I feel like Alice in Wonderland who kept finding things to drink".
Black Horse laughed with me and then said, "Don't think this will make you grow small or tall, but it will make you feel great".
"I feel great already, Black Horse," I said as I drank from the bowl. Black Horse told me I had been gone for five days. I was surprised.
When we got back to the cabin, Black Horse gave me things to drink until he felt I could have solid food. I was weak, but regained my strength quickly.
It was almost time to begin planting and I was surprised when I suggested we get started that Black Horse said, "It can wait". We spent very lazy days walking in the woods, talking and even discussing some of the things I had read. It was a wonderful time. I was really alive, spring had gotten into my blood. I was often as playful as a little boy. When I was, Black Horse watched and smiled.
Two weeks, I guess, after my vision quest, Black Horse said we needed to do a sweat. He let me do all the preparations and conduct the ceremony. That he wanted to do the sweat at noon was kinda strange. We had done one at noon, the sweat before my vision quest, but usually we started at sunset.
During the sweat as I was staring into the glowing rocks, I saw a face, a face I did not know, but one which caused a strange feeling in me. I said nothing to Black Horse about it, without knowing why I chose not to mention it.
When the sweat was over, Black Horse was sitting beside the cabin door and I was romping around in front of him. Finally I settled down and sat at his feet. "It has been a good year, Climbing Bear, a very good year. We are both ready to get on with what we need to do."
"It has been a very good year, indeed, Black Horse. I will never forget it or you, but you are right. It is time I got on with my life and what I need to do." I sat still for a very long time, thinking about the year and about the wise old Indian who put off dying so he could straighten me out. As soon as I had the thought, I looked up at Black Horse. I was not surprised to see his head resting on his chest.
I took Black Horse's body into the cabin and placed it on the table. I took a bucket and went to the stream and brought back fresh water and washed his body. I suspected I knew where I would find what I needed to dress him so I opened his old trunk, the one from which he had taken my birthday clothing. Sure enough, in the bottom of the trunk was another bundle containing leggings, breech cloth and vest. As I lifted the bundle, an envelope fell to the floor. It was addressed to me. I opened it and inside was an eagle feather. It was wrapped in a note which read simply, "For a true warrior, Climbing Bear, from his spirit father, Black Horse". Until I saw that, I had managed to hold back the tears, but no longer.
When I was finally able to contain my grief, I dressed Black Horse, covered him with his buffalo robe and sat beside him. I guess I slept, I'm not sure, but all through the night, spirits came to be with Black Horse for a while. There were many and all spoke to me of their journey into wholeness under the gentle guidance of Black Horse.
As soon as the dawn came, I took an axe and went into the woods where I found saplings strong and straight enough to make a scaffold. It was well past noon when I had finished it. I had chosen to build it at the edge of the forest, overlooking the cabin, the sweat lodge and the pond in the stream. When it was finished, I waited until the sun was setting and then placed Black Horse's body on it. Recalling phrases from the prayers and chants I had heard from Black Horse's lips, I sent his spirit to the spirit world.
I returned to the cabin and started gathering my things together. I wasn't sure why, but I sensed it needed doing. I had just finished, made a pot of coffee and was sitting outside drinking it when I saw lights approaching. In a few minutes, Wounded Hawk's truck pulled up. I put down my coffee and walked toward the truck. Wounded Hawk stepped out of the truck just as I reached it. As soon as I saw him, I started crying again. He embraced me, held me close. He didn't have to ask what was wrong, he knew. As he held me he said, "Rejoice, Climbing Bear. You gave him one of the most wonderful years of his life, a year he would not have had without you."
It took me a while to get control of myself. When I did, we walked to the cabin, I fixed coffee for both of us and we sat at the table talking. I told Wounded Hawk how Black Horse had died, what I had done, and he was very pleased. We talked about my vision quest and my reading and thinking over the winter. I told him I knew I was ready to go and I wasn't surprised that Black Horse had decided it was time for him to go as well. "But I will miss him."
"We all will, but he will be alive and well so long as we are alive and living well." Then, abruptly, he said, "I see you are packed. Are you ready to go?"
"Yes, as soon as I change." I had dressed in my Indian clothes to honor Black Horse's spirit.
"Do you want to go tonight?" Wounded Hawk asked.
I nodded, then said, "If you can drive out of here at night".
"I can. Get dressed."
I took off my Indian dress and, while I was standing naked, Wounded Hawk laughed and said, "I'm into women myself, but you have become one good-looking man".
"Thanks," I replied. "Now if I can just find a man--a real man. He doesn't have to be good-looking though I wouldn't knock that."
As soon as I was dressed, we loaded my things, including two boxes of books I especially wanted, and a couple boxes of carvings. I suggested we leave Black Horse's, but Wounded Hawk said, "No, we'll take them. He did them for you. They will provide some money which you will need once you leave here." When everything was loaded, I got in the truck with Wounded Hawk and didn't look back.
The ride out of the canyon was rough, especially so since I am sure Wounded Hawk was driving more by instinct than sight. We had very little to say until he was back on a paved road and could relax a bit with his driving. I was half-asleep, I guess, when he startled me. "Climbing Bear, you have had a good year getting yourself together, physically--and, as I said, you've done a damn good job of that--mentally, emotionally and spiritually. How do you feel about all of that?"
"Very good. I think I learned my lessons well. Yes, I think I am in great shape."
"Well, it's time to see. You had no alcohol in the Black Hills, you have had the best possible mentor, so now it's time to see if you can live in the white man's world. Maybe a few of us can live the old way, but fewer and fewer I suspect, and I don't think you are one of them. How did your studying and reading go?"
"Very good, I think. There was not a whole lot to do during the winter, so I read a lot. Did the whole Great Books thing. Wish I had someone to discuss them with, although sometimes Black Horse would talk with me about them."
"I think the next step is to get you in a situation where you can get your GED and then decide where you go from there. I have made arrangements for you to live with a good Indian family in Winnemucca, Nevada. The husband has a great Indian name, John Taylor. His wife is Betsy Taylor. They are a middle-aged couple who have never been able to have children, so they take in strays I pick up here and there. Right now they are without and I reserved a place for you. I think you will like them--love them. Can't get you there right away, so you'll have to hang with me a few days."
We got to Denver mid-morning after stopping for breakfast. I found everything too salty or too sweet. Wounded Hawk noticed I wasn't eating much as asked why, then before I could answer, said, "Right, too sweet and too salty. I should have remembered. It takes me a long time to get used to all the salt and sugar when I get back from time in the spirit places." He called the waitress over and ordered fresh fruit for me. It tasted very good.
Wounded Hawk checked my clothes and discovered I had only one pair of jeans and a couple shirts, so he took me shopping. He finally convinced me I would have to learn to wear sneakers and maybe dress shoes. I felt like my feet were in prison. He got me outfitted and then we went to a drugstore for toothbrush, toothpaste, that sort of thing. Thank goodness I didn't need a razor.
Wounded Hawk said we needed to take the carvings to the shop which had always handled them. "They sell only things made by Indians, none of the Chinese-made 'real Indian' crap and they pay a fair price." We took the two boxes of carvings to the shop. The owner, a misplaced Hopi, looked at each piece carefully and wrote a price for it on a pad. "Less than half of these I recognize as Black Horse's. His carvings are always good and command a good price. The rest are definitely good, very fine in fact. I hate to say this, but some are better than Black Horse's. They are really good." Wounded Hawk looked at me and smiled. I blushed.
"You will get no more from Black Horse," Wounded Hawk said. "He died a few days ago. The others are by Climbing Bear, here. He may be able to supply you with a few from time to time."
"I'll buy all you carve," the owner said. "At the very least, promise me first dibs on them."
"Sure. Don't know how many there will be since I'm not sure where I am headed."
"Just promise not to forget us." He took the pad on which he had been writing prices, used a calculator and said, "I get $3,500 for the lot. Do I need to separate them and made two checks?"
"No, Black Horse left them to Climbing Bear," Wounded Hawk said.
The owner made out a check for $3,500 and handed it to me. It was a small fortune. When we left the shop, Wounded Hawk suggested we got to the bank on which the check was drawn, open an account and deposit most of the money. "You won't get your ATM card for a several days and your printed checks will come later. It might be wise to get a couple hundred in cash and about the same amount in travelers checks. You won't need much money, but with traveler's checks, you won't risk losing it all and they are as good as cash most places.
We took care of that and had to wait for the teller to get me a dozen checks printed to last until I got my regular ones. Wounded Hawk had given the teller my address in Winnemucca.
When we finished at the bank, I told Wounded Hawk I would like to get some carving knives. "I have been using a couple of beat-up knives Black Horse gave me, but if I'm going to get the kind of money I just got, I'd like a good set."
Wounded Hawk thought that was a good idea. "If you are going to keep carving--and I don't see why you shouldn't--you need a good set, a very good set." He took me to a fine shop which had all kinds of knives and other craft materials. I looked at the carving sets and saw a good one that would cost me $100. As I continued to look at it, Wounded Hawk said, "Climbing Bear, your carving has made you enough money to get a good start in the white man's world. $100 may look like a lot of money, but remember what it can earn you. I don't think you want to compromise." What he said made sense, but I was a bit floored when he selected a set of knives and proper whit stones, which cost $700. The clerk didn't want to take a newly printed check, especially since it listed a Nevada address. I looked at the knives and hoped I could find such a set where I was headed.
"Is that Indian still manager of this place?" Wounded Hawk asked.
"Yes he is," the clerk answered.
"Is he around?" The clerk nodded. "Get him please," Wounded Hawk said.
It was clear the manager was prepared for a debate, but as soon as he saw Wounded Hawk he said to the clerk, "Why didn't you tell me you had a couple of Indians out here?". It was obvious the clerk didn't know what to do, "What's the problem, Wounded Hawk?" the manager asked, shaking hands with Wounded Hawk.
"We have a problem here. This is Climbing Bear, my godson. He has just sold a bunch of carvings to that Hopi down the street and would like to buy some carving knives. He only has those instant printed kind of checks and your clerk was reluctant to accept one. Can't blame him as Climbing Bear's address is in Nevada. I'll vouch for the check if that helps."
"Sure, no problem, Wounded Hawk. Not much lost if the check's bad," the manager smiled, but the smile disappeared when he saw the check. "Just to keep my scalp, would you put your name and address on the front," he asked with a weak smile. Wounded Hawk did and I got the knives and we left. In the truck, I opened the case they were in and looked at them again. I was pleased that I had bought the best because I knew that they could easily pay for themselves.