Monday, July 11, 2005

Watonga: Part One

We arrived in Watonga at about 6 o'clock Tuesday evening. We checked in at the Couch Inn, then drove east on Highway 33 to the future site of the St. Oakerhater Whirlwind Mission. Deacon Jim and Kent had set up a tent shelter/lodge, and most of us could gather in the shade as the sun started pulling the blue back to the west. A number of women from the Mission made us Indian Tacos, which were wonderful.

My mind was only partly on the food and good conversation. About half-way to Watonga, I realized I had left my shaving kit back at home. Most of the things in it could be replaced at a local store. But not my heart medicine - I take verapamil to control a heart murmur. So, I had to decide whether it was worth driving back to OKC for the medicine. I have skipped one or two days in the past without any ill effects, but this stay was three days long, and it was possible I would be participating in a sweat on Thursday. As I was eating, I tried to formulate a plan.

Happily, there were two RNs on the trip with us, one of whom was the official medical person for the trip. So, I determined I would I ask one of them for their opinion.

Vacation Bible School (VBS) was being held in the Indian Missionary Baptist Church, as it had been last year. After dinner, we went there to set things up for the next morning - the first official day of VBS. The official medical person was in the kitchen. I was in the parish hall, working with the other volunteers to set up craft projects for the kids. Jani (the other RN) was close at hand, so I asked her. Her initial opinion was I should try to get pills for the next few days rather than go without. But, she wanted to ask the official camp nurse's opinion.

Marilynn confirmed this opinion. In fact, Marilynn takes the same medication, and was willing to share. Unfortunately, I couldn't remember how many milligrams were in my dosage. My options were to call my doc or pharmacy to learn what my dosage was, or drive home. I decided to drive home Wednesday afternoon; on the whole it seemed less hassle.

The consequence of this decision was I would miss the historic tour of the original Whirlwind Mission site and the cemetary where St. Oakerhater is buried. See, Deacon Jim believes the ministry of this week is two-fold - the kids get the Vacation Bible School (and their care-givers get a break), and we urban dwellers get to experience Native American culture in ways we might not otherwise.

I was sad to miss to miss the tour, but I had seen it the year before. So, I drove back to OKC, got the shaving kit, gave myself an hour to rest, then drove back to Watonga (about an hour twenty minutes each way).

I got back to the Coach Inn about five o'clock, which was coincidentally the same time the others were returning from the historic tour. I got a chance to visit with my roommate. As it turned out, several folk came back with ticks - including my roomie - so I may have chosen the better part anyway.

Deacon Jim was going to serve brisket at the future mission site ("The Land") at 7, so we just had a couple of hours to kill. John, my roommate, took a nap while I read and also napped. We left the motel right at 7:00.

You've heard about "Indian Time"? I'm here to tell you it's an actual phenomenon. Things start whenever the time is right, and if you're the kind of person who gets stressed about things starting "on time", then being part of this mission team is not for you. As for me, I perceive time to be a handy fiction at best, so I left my watch at home - and my chronos-oriented anxieties with it.

There is a Greek term, kairos, that more or less means "the proper time" or "when the time is right". That's how things work in "Indian Time".

Anyway, we got to The Land just as Gordon Yellowman was beginning his presentation. This was to serve Deacon Jim's goal of teaching us about Cheyenne Culture. Gordon is a holy man of his people, and a Cheyenne Peace Chief. As Peace Chief, he not only negotiates peace, and works to maintain peace, but he has vowed to remain radically non-violent during his tenure.
Gordon's presentation began with a description of the Cheyene cardinal directions. I'll use the English names for these directions, keeping in mind these are not the names Gordon used.

Each of the cardinal directions is a dwelling place of a spirit.
  • The Sun spirit rests in the southeast. The Sundance, which takes place sometime in the first two weeks of July, honors this spirit which gives the people life.
  • In the southwest is the wind, who brought the people to this place. This spirit reminds the people of its strength through the tornado. When the people pray to the spirit, it goes around their camp. In this way, they respect the wind. They also build their camp on bluffs, which are not troubled by tornados.
  • The spirits of the four old men dwell in the northwest. For some tribes, these have always been spirits. For Gordon's tribe, they are actual warriors who once led the people and went to dwell in the stars.
  • In the northeast is the turtle spirit, who brought the earth from the flood. Just a patch of soil survived on the turtle's back, but the elders restored the earth from that remnant. The turtle reminds us to take things slow. When you know your goal, you can take your time. You can be assured you will arrive there in good time.
Gordon also talked of the power of fire and water. Fire is related to the sun, but also reminds people of its power in grass fires or house fires.

Water reminds us of its power in floods, and most recently in the tsunami. The point is these elements are friends to the people - they are necessary for life - but if the elements are not respected properly, their power becomes destructive.

He spoke of Sweet Medicine, who was a prophet of the Cheyenne. Sweet Medicine predicted the coming of the white man with a long beard, who would be carrying a large book; this man would tempt the people to leave their native ways. This was a prediction of the coming of Christianity. He also predicted the loss of the buffalo, but promised they would be fed by a new animal - cattle. However, this animal would cause sickness among the people (Diabetes, heart disease).

Chief Yellowman told another story of Sweet Medicine. Once, before the buffalo were all gone, the people were very hungry. They had not killed any buffalo for a long time. Sweet Medicine said he would transform himself into a buffalo and drive the buffalo into a canyon were the people could easily kill them. The hunters were afraid that they might kill Sweet Medicine by mistake, and asked how they would know which buffalo he was. "When you see a buffalo calf flapping its right ear and dancing in circles, that will be me."

Today, whenever Gordon Yellowman sees a buffalo calf playfully dancing in circles, he thinks of Sweet Medicine.
[Note: portions of this entry may be re-written as I gather information from others who listened to Gordon's presentation. Tomorrow — the Sundance.]

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