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Our hunting party was returning triumphant. It was a good hunt. The village would not starve this winter. While still four days out from the village, the Hunting Chief dispatched our two fastest warriors to deliver the news. One of them was Glick-hican. Tall Feathers. A day and a half later they were back, having run both ways. I saw them running toward us on the trail. Everyone saw them. Something dreadful had clearly happened. Dropping our loads, we gathered around the Hunting Chief and the two runners. He gave them each a gourd of fresh water. They nodded their thanks but did not drink. Instead they looked at the Chief and told him the news. “The Yangwe have burned our village and destroyed the food,” Tall Feathers began. He was angry. “Four of our elders are dead. They are Elk Stream, The Wanderer, Three Weasel, and Calling Owl.” He stopped to let the news sink in. I felt as though someone had kicked me hard in the stomach. Calling Owl dead? How was that possible? Did I hear it wrong? At that moment I was standing toward the outside of the circle, straining to hear every word. The Hunting Chief turned to me and nodded a doleful nod, then looked around the gathering and nodded to each close family member of the dead. “What of the others?” Hunting Chief asked Tall Feathers. “Four are badly hurt. Two are children,” he replied. “Most of the others hid in the forest when the Yangwe came through. They are now tending the injured and building shelter, away from the village.” “When did this happen?” The second runner answered. “We came upon the village while it was still burning. We first saw the smoke from Kit-a-tinny mountain. We watched the Yangwe run off. When we got to the village, we gathered the dead and the injured and carried them away, to Mahon-hanne.” Around the gathering of men and boys, there was only silence. Every one of us was related to those dead and wounded. “Where did the Yangwe go?” the Hunting Chief asked. “Toward the rising sun. I followed them for some distance. I counted thirty men,” Tall Feathers responded, using the Lenape finger counting system to give the number. “They were
going very fast. Five in back were on horses. The rest were running. By now they are inside the Yangwe fort.” The Hunting Chief heard all this with little change in his expression, as was his custom. But also as was his custom, he was making a plan. “You have done well, my warriors,” he told the two men. “Drink quickly. Then return with us to the village.” Slowly he turned a complete circle, looking at each of us in turn. We young men were on the outer circle. The men closest to him were the sub-chiefs and the best hunters. They began talking among themselves. Not quietly, but quickly. Plans were made in the blink of an eye. With a fierce nod, Hunting Chief dropped his food bundle. Most of the hunters and warriors did the same. Thus lightened of their loads, they began a fast, deliberate pace down the trail in the direction of our damaged village. A few sub-chiefs and all of us younger hunters gathered up the dropped loads. The decision had been made for us to bring along the foodstuffs as fast as we could. The food was too valuable – and necessary -- to leave behind. What before was a reasonable load was now a heavy load for each of us. No matter; we hoisted our loads and began a quick pace behind the first group, which had already disappeared through the woods. For me, neither the load nor the pace could blot out the grief I felt for Crying Owl. Or the anger I felt toward those Whites who could destroy so many lives. I slipped in right behind Water Moon. Often we had run together in this fashion, but never before with such urgency. As I ran, my resolve began to strengthen. The tiredness drained from my body. I ran with an increasing awareness of every thing around me: clouds overhead, tree spirits, a frightened mouse running along a branch above, the determined sounds of others running, the feel of the ground through my moccasins, a flash of Blackbird far in the distance through the trees, my own quick breath. Long before we reached the village we saw smoke blackening the sky. When at last I caught sight of the village, it was more dreadful than I had imagined. Every one of the longhouses, our homes, were burned and blackened. Flames still jumped from the embers and acrid black smoke rolled skyward. I saw in a glance that our winter food supply in the longhouses was gone. Our winter clothing and extra blankets, gone. A breeze picked up and my nostrils were filled with the awful stench of burned flesh, burned blankets, and burned provisions. Pools of blood dotted the campsite. A ripped blouse waved from a still-standing pole, one of the stray dogs was nosing through the ruins of the medicine lodge. Keening wails of family members filled the air, a high-pitched, haunting cry I had never heard before. I stopped and dropped my load. My grief was so intense I could barely breathe. My friends, my family, had been hacked and butchered and burned right here. Blood and tattered clothing in front of the remains of the longhouse that I called Home told where Calling Owl died. Water Moon came up beside me; we both looked forlornly at the gruesome scene. Some of the tribe were poking through the remains looking for anything left undamaged. I looked for Father but did not see him at first. “Kistalwa?” I asked one of the warriors as he ran by
The warrior nodded his head toward the ridge and said, “Mahon-hanne. He is badly hurt. The women are tending to him. You should go to him now. Go quickly.” Mahon-hanne, or Saltlick Creek, was less than an hour’s run up and over the ridge and into the valley beyond. Several others already were heading off in that direction at a fast run, with Mud Turtle running after them as fast as he was able. I joined them, having gathered up my load of dried meat. No one spoke as we ran. There would be time enough for that later. Water Moon was already catching up with the front runners. With great effort I slipped back in behind him. It was really tough scrambling up to the ridge top. Cresting the ridge, the group of us spread out while going down the rocky slope to minimize our tracks and avoid sending rocks down onto those below. We ran into the valley, jumping over small streams and under low-hanging trees. Finally I realized where we were headed. We were running straight into a dense stand of loblolly pines. Well into the trees we would find the entrance to a steep-walled side canyon. Smiling Beaver and I once discovered this place on a hunting trip. We found it quite by accident when the badger we were chasing ran into these woods. Even back then we thought the canyon would make a good hide-out: hard to find, easy to defend, with fresh (albeit somewhat salty) water, and game nearby. Without so much as a pause, Water Moon sent out the call of the Raven. Lookouts hidden on the hillsides answered his call, telling us to come on in. And suddenly, there before us, a hastily built camp materialized out of the trees. Injury and death were everywhere. Possessions were scattered about; tents had not yet been raised. An eerie quietness settled over the camp, not silence so much as focused attention. Immediately I spotted Kistalwa, lying on a blanket with several people attending him. His eyes were open. Water Moon and I ran up to him, dropped down on our knees and gently took his hands. He looked at us both. “He is not well, your father,” one of the attending women said somberly. “A Yangwe soldier shot him in the leg. We carried him here.” Another women applied a poultice of some type to Father’s leg just above his right knee. I saw the blood he had already lost, darkening the ground beneath him. Water Moon saw it, too. “Oh, I am well now, my sons,” Kistalwa said slowly. He was in great pain. “I believe I will soon cross over the bridge to the Sky World. I think I have lived well. Now I think I will die well. My journey is almost over.” Father lapsed into silence. He closed his eyes and leaned back into the blankets. I saw sadness there, a great, knowing sadness. In that instant I realized that he knew Calling Owl, his wife of many years, had already crossed the great sky bridge ahead of him. Instantly grief stabbed my gut. I doubled over, trying to breathe, trying not to cry. In that I was unsuccessful; I burst into tears. It was very un-Lenape-like. Father opened his eyes and motioned for water. Immediately the woman closest handed him of gourd of fresh water. He took a small sip, then closed his eyes and learned back again . Even as he kept his eyes closed, he began talking slowly and clearly, pausing frequently to catch his breath. Everyone close by strained to hear his weakening voice. “Water Moon, you will soon . . . have a great vision . . . and become a leader . . . of this tribe . . . And you, Racer . . . the longest road . . . you will have to walk . . . is from here [weakly, he pointed to his head] . . . to here [pointing to his heart] . . . but you cannot speak to the people .
. . as a leader . . . unless you have made the return journey . . . from the heart back to the head . . . and I know you will.” There was an audible gasp around the circle, not the least by Water Moon and me. Kistalwa was widely known for seeing into the future. He often foretold illness and large events, and was usually right. (Although not always. We all remember when he predicted an early winter and heavy snow, but it turned out to be one of the latest, mildest winters anyone could recall.) I did not fully understand at the time what he said to me, but I fully realized what he said to my brother, Water Moon. He would become a leader, a chief. My first thought was, of course he will be a chief. Perhaps I had always known it. My second thought was, he will be a good chief. But, dear reader, to my everlasting grief, I did not get to see that happen. I watched Father breathe slowly and laboriously. I raised my view and looked around the circle of family and friends pressed in about us. Chiwendota, Smiling Beaver, Two Faces, Blue Raven, and many others, all well known to me. I raised my view further. I looked to the tops of the stately green pine trees, the steep hills beyond, a covey of jays wheeling overhead. Then, somewhere in the distance, I heard a loon call out, sounding like the wild laughter of a demented person. Father heard the loon, too. Everyone did. Among the Lenape, the loon is a respected friend who calls out the name of those about to cross over the great bridge in the sky. Father smiled, as if he was greeting an old friend. He breathed his last soon after. For a long time, Water Moon and I sat holding Father’s hand. I was reluctant to let him go. In a moment of panic, my mind flashed back to that time, so many winters ago, when I held another dying father’s hand. I did not cry this time. Perhaps I was empty of tears. The men and women around us sat silently also, a few rocking gently back and forth, lost in their own thoughts. I sensed that Water Moon, though outwardly unmoved, was just as deeply affected as I, maybe more so. Kistalwa and Calling Owl. Teunis DeCorsa and Petrus and Balthus. All dead now. My mind drifted back and forth, from that time when I looked upon the dead body of my first Father, to now, looking at the dead body of my second father. So many deaths. So much hurt. So much misunderstanding. I wondered, as I had many times before and many times since, how the Great Spirit can permit such things to happen. How is it, if He loves us so much, that He can let us die such heavy deaths? How can we who survive stand the loss? What are we to learn from this? Such questions were interrupted by a gentle hand on my shoulder. “Racer and Water Moon, will you help prepare your Father for his journey?” It was Spotted Eagle, one of the village elders. It was not really a question. Of course we would help. It would be an honor. And it was required. The soul does not quit the body immediately after death, but descends with the body into the grave, where they remain together for some time.
With Spotted Eagle’s guidance, we laid Kistalwa out on a blanket under a nearby tree. Carefully we undressed him, then thoroughly washed his body with soft wet ferns and sweet grasses provided by the women. Spotted Eagle worked with an amazing gentleness. His every movement was deliberate, loving, and prayerful. While he worked, he spoke softly, almost silently to Kistalwa. I could not make out many words, but I knew he was praying for a peaceful journey for his old friend. “He seems to be just sleeping,” Water Moon noted as we worked. And it was true. Father’s eyes were shut, his body still retained some of its softness. “I will miss him.” “Your Father has faithfully accomplished all his obligations here on earth,” Spotted Eagle said at length. “Now it is our obligation to paint him and adorn his body for his journey.” We all knew the journey could be a dangerous one, traversing the long bridge which leads to the island of happiness. Kistalwa would need all the protection we could provide to ease his passage. Spotted Eagle motioned me to paint Father’s face and Water Moon to paint his chest. This was a great honor for each of us. Using damp red euchre, black coal, and blue river clay, I created a special design on my father’s face. I let the two middle fingers of my right hand do the painting for me. I did not design it, so much as I simply let it come out of me. It was truly a loving caress of my Father’s face, my last goodbye to him. Somehow the very act of painting him eased my pain a little. When we were finished, Spotted Eagle laid a blanket over Father. “Now we will prepare Calling Owl,” Spotted Eagle announced. Now that startled me. I assumed her body had already been prepared for the hereafter. I was wrong. Water Moon and I followed Spotted Eagle over to a group of women huddled on the ground. In the center lay the body of Calling Owl. They had lovingly cleaned and anointed her body. The many gashes and wounds were clearly visible; I gasped when I saw how badly mauled she was. Her arms, especially, showed the angry marks of a hatchet, perhaps as she tried to protect herself from the onslaught. Spotted Eagle must have seen me blanch, for he said, “She has no need of this damaged body now. We will adorn it with paint and feathers, for Waka-Tanka has called for her. Water Moon and Racer, bring us fresh paints.” While we watched, Spotted Eagle and four women decorated Calling Owl’s entire body. Their’s was a loving gift to the Old Mother, an elder revered by all. When they were done, the women gently laid a blanket over my Mother, lifted her up, and laid her next to her husband, over by the tree. That evening, as the sun slowly descended beyond the canyon wall, the tribe performed the death ceremony for our four fallen family members. We laid them into the ground in a ritual of condolence the Lenape call the Cry Ceremony. I had seen this ritual a few times before, but never felt so connected to it as I did this night. Sitting in a half circle before a large fire, six drummers began a mournful cadence on their water drums. This ushered in the Cry Singers, who gracefully danced into the space between the drummers and the fire. The Cry Singers sang and danced the story of the lives of the four who had died. Between songs, people would stand and tell stories about the dead.
The power, the beauty, the solemnity of the ritual spoke to the hurt I felt so deeply. On an impulse, I stood and danced with the Cry Singers. Now I must tell you that young people did not generally participate in these dances, but this time I felt I needed to. I needed to dance away my own grief and at the same time celebrate the lives of my Lenape Mother and Father and the two others so well known to me now. For the rest of the night we danced and sang and told stories. This was the story I told: “When I was a boy I was torn from the only world I knew and loved, the world of the Yangwe. I passed through a period of great fear and solitude before being brought here, where I was taken in by you, Calling Owl and Runner of the Mountain Path. I did not know Lenape talk; you taught me. I did not know Lenape ways; you showed me. I did not know Lenape songs; you sang to me. Now I sing to you, to send you on your journey.” And this is the song I sang to them, a song they had taught me early on: “The Wolf band comes from children, Whom a she-wolf nursed with care, And thus restored the children Who were giv’n up in despair. Her wailing brought the hunters To the babies where they lay; So a band among the people Is the Wolf Clan of today.”
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