Thunder Dog’s Last Ghost Dance

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Thunder Dog—mad man of the Blue Mesa—had not been seen in seven days. When on the morning after the eighth night he stumbled into town, the people of Pueblo Blue took notice. Dragging a buffalo hide behind him he sent red dust rising, the trailing pelt masking his foot prints with the tracks of its wide sweeping folds. As he walked towards the village well, Thunder Dog sucked his empty gums, his blind eyes fixed on the cloudless sky. His feet alone felt for the worn path to water. Thunder Dog had been born in the rainy season in the year of the bad snow but he could no longer put a date to the event and thus had lost his age. With his tangled silver braids hanging down his bony sides, his age, some thought, could lay anywhere between 70 and 100 years.

Thunder Dog was half man, half ghost: the only undeniable evidence of his continued existence was his strong voice and distinctive scent. When he spoke the people of the mesa listened, and when the wind caught his tall thin form it lofted the scent of long ago camp fires, crushed sage, and faraway grasslands. He wore a red Hopi shirt, a gift from the village, and an ancient pair of buckskin breaches with the symbols of his tribe stitched into the legs. His feet were bare and callused to the thickness of a hoof. Besides his tattered appearance and fragrant scent, Thunder Dog had a gift: he was a story teller. The moment he had quenched his thirst at the village well he lifted his hands for peace, his voice calling out to anyone who would listen.

“I am a Human Being come from across the world and I have seen many strange and terrible things,” he began, stepping backward onto his old buffalo hide like an itinerant preacher stepping onto his soapbox. “I am Thunder Dog, called Many Horses in the Sioux Nation, and I have fought the devils in many lands.” He paused here in respect to his declaration. Little feet came to listen. Thunder Dog folded his long legs beneath himself and sat upon the hide. “I was born in the year of the great snow. I saw Conquering Bear fall, I fought Custer at Little Big Horn, I learned the Ghost Dance from Kicking Bear and Short Bull, and saw the killing at Wounded Knee. I knew the land when the Buffalo were many.”

By now Thunder Dog could hear the movement of children sneaking close to touch the buffalo hide. Such a huge brown beast had not been seen near the high plateaus in many decades. Thunder Dog felt the shadow of a form pass between himself and the sun and raised his hands again to speak.

“In the times before evil we ate the buffalo, we made our clothes from the buffalo and we covered our teepees with their thick hides. What is a teepee you will ask? It is not a pueblo made of mud and planted like a tree upon the earth. No, it is a moveable home of hide and pine that smells of sweet grass, earth, and the scent of roasting buffalo meat. That was how we lived then. The teepee and the grass lands were our home.” Thunder Dog looked again in the direction of the sky and was quiet. He felt a tug on his braid, heard a giggle, but said nothing.

Behind shuttered windows women passed shuttles through looms, ground maize to meal, and poured water from jar to pot as they listened. Whether they listened out of interest or respect did not matter. What mattered was that the stories were told, that his people were remembered. Another child pulled his braid.

“You have lived here for all my life Sioux Uncle. Why don’t you cut your hair like a Hopi man?” The child asked, coming to sit beside him. Thunder Dog raised his hands for peace and answered only when the giggling stopped.

“How would Wakan Tanka know me as a Human Being cast as I am among Corn Mother’s people? How would he hear my words? How would he hear my prayers? If I forget myself I will forget my people. If I let their stories die, they die with me.”

“Sioux Nation is still strong in the north, Uncle. You should go home maybe?” A boy shouldered his hoe and walked towards the maize field.

“My village is dead,” Thunder Dog called after him, “and I will die among strangers. Believe me, I am the last Sioux of the Piney Wood and I will tell you my stories.”

Thunder Dog’s stories grew and changed like the seasons. Sometimes his friends were ambushed by monsters, sometimes they fought in the open like braves. Sometimes they fought Custer, and sometimes they fell at Wounded Knee. Either way the children listened, grew quiet, and saw what the blind man had seen.

“How did an old Sioux warrior come to live on the pueblo?” Father Francis of the Church of the Immaculate Heart asked, his eyes fixed on the old man. The young priest had come to buy blankets to sell in the mission shop but was more interested in the old man’s talk.

“Some kind of mix up at the Bureau of Indian Affairs,” Mildred Corn Daughter told him, folding a blanket as she spoke. “Bad papers can get an Indian in a lot of trouble.” The priest only nodded.

The people of Pueblo Blue had accepted the old Sioux with his bad papers but his shifting stories of war, monsters and devils were far harder to accept. For one thing he could not be old enough to remember the first battle of the Sioux Wars. So they made up their own stories of how Thunder Dog had come to be among them. Some told tales of how he was prospecting for gold in the Superstition Mountains when he was caught off his rez. Others said he was a scout left for dead in the desert by a band of robbers. One man claimed he was a runaway rebel chief hiding from government agents. Whatever he was, he was stuck in Arizona. The pueblo was small and poor but they had enough food for an old mouth. Besides, the villagers were grateful to Thunder Dog, for his roving blind eyes and wild hair kept the Spanish and the government men away. As the tallest and loudest madman on the pueblo, Thunder Dog had a reputation in the other villages for a dark kind of magic that only the truly mad can know. Because he was feared, no sheep or burro were stolen by Navajo and there was peace among neighbors.

The priest continued to watch Thunder Dog with interest. He’d been warned to watch out for the crazed Sioux, but being Catholic he had a vested interest in devils. “Thunder Dog’s mind is a mess of spider webs. Follow one thread and you’ll find a thousand others, all wandering, lost, wandering like his stories,” Mildred Corn Daughter added, bringing a new pile of blankets to the table. The priest nodded, but asked no more.

In the red dirt of the village center Thunder Dog sat, his face turned to the sun, his mind at ease. He had told the story of his brother’s death in the Mormon Cow War. No one would forget that story and so his brother’s memory would live on. Thunder Dog ran his fingers rhythmically over the thinning fleece of the buffalo hide. Here and there a shadow passed across his skin, stopping the sun’s warmth for only a moment. When one shadow lingered long, Thunder Dog raised his hands, smelling a bowl of rabbit, beans, and corn meal.

“Eat, Uncle,” Maria Walks Far said. Her shadow, broad and womanly, cast a coolness Thunder Dog could not mistake.

“You are like Yellow Feather, my last wife: generous, thoughtful and round as a summer woman.” He reached out a hand towards her but caught only the breeze from the hem of her skirt.

“I thought your wife was called Annie Red Moon,” A boy asked, rolling a small stone through a pattern cut into the dirt. Thunder Dog shook his head and frowned. Setting his bowl in his lap he raised his hands for silence though only the boy remained in attendance.

“Annie Red Moon was my first wife. She was lean like a hard winter but bore many sons. Annie Red Moon was a gift wife from a northern tribe. She could cut down a hundred lodge pole pines, raise a village of teepees and bear two sons all between sunrise and sunset. And though she ate and ate she never grew fat like Yellow Feather. No, never has such a woman walked the earth before or since.” Thunder Dog shook his head, his matted braids swinging into his bowl. His old hands rose again, this time to cover his face. “I see them as they were. Though they are no more than dust now, they live on in here.” Thunder Dog struck his bony chest, the force of the blow making a hollow thumping sound. “But who will remember?”

“I will remember.” The boy struck his chest as Thunder Dog had. “I will remember their names.” Thunder Dog nodded his thanks, memorizing the soft pitch of the boy’s voice, the sweet scent of youth rising up around him.

When Thunder Dog raised his bowl again it was spiced with the peppery flavor of black ants. Thunder Dog smiled to himself. The boy would remember and the others as well. Yellow Feather and Annie Red Moon would live on in their memories, be woven into their stories, and would not die the second death of the forgotten.

The wind shifted as the day grew cool with coming night. Father Francis loaded the last of the blankets onto his mule, glancing occasionally at the Sioux. Thunder Dog lifted his eyes and stared blindly at him. The scent on the breeze troubled Thunder Dog. It wasn’t of corn or sweat or dust, but of a sweet smoke, more rich with oil than a desert flower. When the scent became a shadow, Thunder Dog reached for his knife.

“What are you?” he asked the shadow who came to sit on a low adobe wall beside him.

“Don’t you know me?” The shadow asked in Father Francis’s voice. “I come here to buy blankets.”

“What is that scent?” Thunder dog pointed at the shadow. It laughed.

“Incense I suppose. But never mind that. I heard you say you have fought many devils! Tell me, are your devils red and scaled or do they wear white skin and uniforms?”
Thunder Dog did not relax his grip on the knife. Though he’d lost his blade in the great surrender he felt the shadow of the weapon where it hung heavily at his side.

“I have no story for the likes of you. You are not a Human Being.”

“But I am as much a human being as you are.”

“Then you are half ghost. My stories are for the living.”

“How did you come to live among the Hopi?” The priest persisted. Thunder Dog rose to his feet, towering over the incense scented shadow. He drew his great knife and held it out before him. In his mind’s eye he saw late summer sun glint off the blade.

“I have spoken white man. Be warned.”

The priest laughed at Thunder Dog, his rolling laughter echoing off the pueblo into the distant canyons. “Your hand is as empty as your stories, old man,” the priest said. “You have fought no devils.”

Long after the priest had gone and the sun had set Thunder Dog remained in the village center. He listened as windows were covered, fires crackled, and people spoke in hushed tones, yet he did not seek shelter. In the seven days spent in the desert, Thunder Dog had eaten very little. He’d walked night and day praying for a vision that would help all Human Beings. The vision Wakan Tanka sent was of Grey Fox crying in a lightning storm. Grey Fox was wise. He was a messenger sent from Wakan Tanka and yet Thunder Dog felt his faith slip. Was he still a Human Being? Did Wakan Tanka hear his prayers? Had he dreamed up Grey Fox in his madness or had he really had a vision? A deep well of grief overtook him. He had fought so many battles, protected so many villages, and yet the white men still came, still took, only now they also laughed. Thunder Dog felt his age hanging on his bones, the cold chill of the night stealing into his chest, rattling his soul. I have lived so long and come so far but for what? Raising his blind eyes starward he prayed again for a way to help all Human Beings find peace.

Short Bull and Kicking Bear had brought the Ghost Dance to the Lakota Sioux in the belief that it would cover the white people with earth, raising the Human Beings high above the world. Lost brothers and sisters from all tribes would live again and the buffalo would return to the plains. Thunder Dog, once called Many Horses, had danced the Ghost Dance. He’d prayed to Wakan Tanka for the unity of all Human Beings but the white man still came and the tribes were divided.

Thunder Dog rose stiffly from his buffalo hide. He shook the dust from its well-worn folds and swung it over his shoulders. Lifting his hands palm up, he prayed to Wakan Tanka for answers. A slow shivering chill ran up his legs, numbing his connection with Maja Earth Mother. I need more time to understand, he prayed, stomping his feet to restore feeling. In his heart he heard the battle song of Crazy Horse rise until it was a whisper on his lips. Wakan Tanka, the great mystery is unfathomable, unknowable; who am I to question my vision? And yet doubt remained. Slowly and with great respect he let the song rise from his lips into a chant, the words moving his feet into a rhythmic dance.

As his voice grew, Pueblo Blue listened. Doors opened and the people watched the lone dancer singing in his native tongue. One man got his drum, another his flute. Thunder Dog, once called Many Horses, was dancing and his voice called to them all. They came with masks and with rattles, ankle bells, trumpets, and rasps. They danced and sang with Sioux Uncle late into the night.

When Thunder Dog’s legs could no longer hold him, when his hands could no longer grasp the buffalo hide he wore across his shoulders, the old Sioux leaned against the adobe wall of Pueblo Blue, and listened to Corn Mother’s people. They chanted Crazy Horse’s song even though they did not know the language. They did it for Thunder Dog, for his lost people, and because no Human Being should dance alone. As they danced the air grew thick with clouds. When the first rain drops fell Corn Mother’s children rejoiced with loud cries of gratitude, for the summer had been long and dry. The dancing grew wilder, more energetic, more filled with life. In the rumble of the coming storm, Thunder Dog heard a young brave call out in the voice of Grey Fox, screeching the, “HOWWW. . . HOWWW. . . HOWWW,” of the silver dog. Thunder Dog raised his hands to Wakan Tanka in gratitude as rain drops, like salty tears, washed down his face.

“I have seen the vision, Wakan Tanka. Grey Fox leads me into the storm. I will follow him. I will not die among strangers. Here, all my story will be told.” Thunder Dog pulled the buffalo hide closer around his shoulders, and with the last of his fading strength he rejoined the dance.

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