I met Tom in the Black Hills of South Dakota. He was staying at my friends’ tipi camp. My friends are Bavarian and like many Germans, Austrians and Bavarians are crazy about the Lakota. These Tipi camps are all over the Black Hills and are swarmed by thousands of Germanic people every summer.
Tom was different though. He wasn’t a tourist and he already knew a great deal about the Lakota for a young man of twenty six. Tom owned a store in Hamburg called Tate Topa or The Four Winds, where he sold Lakota goods in the middle of the big city.
Tipi camps are odd places where you can see dozens of white older men in full war bonnet regalia playing Indian along with natives who are paid to hang out and play drums, shoot bows, lead hunts or smoke their pipe but this wasn’t why Tom Gold had come here. He didn’t wear costumes or join the activities set up for the others. He came because he knew that my friends were friends with the four men who were the care takers of Bear Butte.
Bear Butte is one of the sacred spots on the Lakota Medicine Wheel that is the Black Hills and it is where one goes to seek a vision. This was Tom’s dream. Hanbleceya. His sleeping dream and his waking dream. If Life is the Dream of the Spirit, his Spirit wanted to go to a dusty little bump on the edge of the plains by a town known more for bikers than being a holy place.
I accompanied Tom and my friend to Bear Butte a few weeks after the medicine man who had been given tobacco had talked to the other three and they had prayed to see if Tom would be allowed to visit. This had taken weeks and Tom had patiently stayed until he was asked to come up.
The encampment was a few trailers and a couple of old canvas tipis with a ragtag collection of cars. Some looked like they ran. Others, not so much. As we approached we were surrounded by children who knew that cars that approached Bear Butte would invariably be bringing chocolate, the customary offering left on the hill since a man in a movie called Pow Wow Highway had left a Hershey bar when he had no tobacco.
We had brought plenty of chocolate, tobacco, firewood, stones and coca cola. Tom was greeted warily and a sweat lodge fire was already cooking rocks when we arrived. No time was wasted and four pipes were on the altar. I knew from my own hazing that this was intended to make the newby sick. In Lakota tradition, you smoke every pipe offered and all smoke till each pipe is totally gone.
We sat around the small fire with our backs to the bonfire blazing behind us on a day that was already in the nineties and smoked pipe after pipe as young Akicitas (warrior society men) brought their pipes to the circle and left making six of us to smoke eight pipes. When we were done the old men looked at Tom who just said, ‘Washte in’t?’ It is good isn’t it? They laughed and we stripped down to go into the lodge.
When we were all in there the oldest man went in last and he pulled two buckets in with him. A sign that this would be hot. We needed no signs as the tiny lodge had already been loaded with white hot rocks as if it were a winter lodge. The old man signaled for the flap to be closed and admonished the dog soldiers to sit on the flap so know light could come in. Or get out. The old men laughed as the word for ‘light’ and ‘white’ were the same.
The old medicine man began feeding water to the rocks making it unbearably hot even before we prayed. He sang the customary song and suddenly his voice faltered. He was silent. Even before the second direction had been sung.
‘I am being told that I am being rude to our guest.’ The only sound was the shifting of the other men who were not sure what was happening. The old man continued. ‘I am being told to sing a different song to our friend. A song so old we only know the first four directions and even my grandfather had never learned the other directions. It is that old.’
With this he began to sing. The other two Lakota medicine men joined in and the Cheyenne Heyoka seated next to me was quiet. Neither of us had heard this song. The others sang all of the four directions and then they fell silent.
Out of that darkness a clear young voice began to sing. It was Tom Gold and he proceeded to sing the other three directions. When he had finished it was more silent than ever. The silence was broken by the Heyoka’s laugh and soon they were all laughing. “Washte young kola… How do you know our song?’
‘I grew up in Germany on the border with France and when I was young I was adopted by our neighbors on the French side. Their large farm had been started by a Lakota who had come through with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West a hundred years before. He had fallen in love with a French girl and they settled in what was then a part of Germany. They spoke French, German and Lakota and they also sang this song. He was a Ghost dancer and his great grandson still has his Ghost Shirt.’
We all had said our prayers and ended up staying four days at he little encampment as the old men drummed and smoked, singing every song they knew and learning many more from a young German who knew many songs they had never heard. At one point they had driven into town to buy a small cassette recorder and (against their own rules) they recorded the songs. Often stopping to ask Tom what certain words were as most of them were from the old language.
Many weeks later, Tom was invited back for his Hanbleceya and vision quest and when he came down off the mountain, the old men did something they had never done before. They asked a white man, a foreigner, to Sun Dance.
The Sun Dance was to be held on a barren butte in Wyoming, not far from where I lived. Tom would be allowed to be pierced but no one was allowed to help him or touch him as he had no family there. Tom accepted this and made no expression as the wooden stakes were pierced into his chest and poked out again as was the old custom.
Tom and twenty or so other men danced and by the third day all but two remained as the others had been torn away by their families or had collapsed and been removed by the Sundance head man and his medicine men. Only Tom and a young Lakota remained. They were opposite each other and neither had eaten or had water for four days. Tom Gold was sunburned and his lips were a ghostly cracked white against his burned and peeling face.
It was in the afternoon that we first heard the thunder. Long before we saw the clouds we heard them. By three they were a giant wall of gray seen from the butte and by five lightning was visible all along its length. People talked as the West wind was blowing hard in front of this storm and it was now moving faster then ever.
Families were quickly breaking down their camps and by six, only the Sundance Arbor and a lone Tipi remained. All others were huddled in cars and campers tat had been circled to brace against the summer storm. Storms like these often sped unimpeded across the plains but would suddenly arise and dump down heavily when they encounterd the large Black Hills. We were on the edge and the side were that dumping happened.
As the rain started the men in the lone Tipi set extra poles against the wind and debated about what to do about the two remaining men. By seven, the dog soldiers had taken down the tipi as it was not a good idea to leave a tall structure on a tall butte in a lightning storm.
The medicine men had decided that they would wait as long as possible to see if the two remaining men could tear themselves from the tree. The young Lakota man had waived off his family in an effort to not be bested by a Wasicu, a white man and his family stood bravely in the rain waiting to pull him to safety. They were all aware that the lone forty foot tall tree that had been erected on this butte was the tallest thing for as far as the eye could see and the tallest thing in the path of a storm that was now directly overhead raining hail, water and lightning everywhere.
When a bolt of lightning hit so close that it seemed to shake the butte, the medicine men ran towards Tom Gold as the family ran to the young Lakota. The men in the family quickly grabbed his arms and pulled him ripping his rope thongs right out of his chest muscles. His screams were of humiliation as much as it was of the pain.
The old men never made it to Tom Gold. A second after the young Lakota had been dragged to safety; lightning hit the tree in a series of strikes that seemed to come from every direction. One strike seemed to bounce off the tree and hit Tom Gold in the face. He flew back tearing the thongs out of his chest and into the arms of the old men who seemed to have caught him.
Others rushed in to drag the old men and Tom to safety and they were all huddled behind a camper over the body of Tom Gold. One of his wounds was bleeding profusely, the other was not having been burned shut by the lightning. A doctor was moving everyone aside while putting pressure on the wound. As he arose to his knees to begin CPR something happened that startled the circle and everyone, including the doctor jumped back.
Tom Gold blinked.
He blinked again and coughed a little. He tried to sit up and the doctor held him down. He struggled groggily and said a word. Bitte. Please. The doctor let him up and Tom sat quietly. He felt his nose gingerly. The bruises under his eyes were already showing that his nose was broken but other than that. Tom Gold was okay. His second words were ‘Washte’. Good.
Days later I was on Bear Butte and I asked the medicine man there what he thought of this and what had happened to Tom. He was one of the medicine men at the Sundance and he thought a long time before he spoke.
“Many years ago there was a prophet named Wovoka.” He began, “The people were dying, the buffalo was gone. This Crow Talker or Paiute man dreamed of a dance and said that if we whoever would do this dance would come back on the day that the Buffalo returned.
“If you imagine hundreds of thousands of Lakotas who had become Ghost Dancers out there as Spirits waiting to come into a body these days of the last pipe, than you will see that there is only a hundred thousand or so bodies to go into.
“We as Lakotas are suffering. Maybe rightly so if you imagine the suffering we caused when the Horse was brought. It is like the Buddhist Kharma in’t. Many people laugh at the way the Germans want to be Lakotas and I suppose that we are kindred in spirit.
“Tom Gold is Bavarian and his people are a tribe. Like us they call themselves the Eagle Nation. Like us they have a pipe and prophecies. Like us they have lost their way and have caused pain on the neighboring tribes. We share the belief that we come from the Star Maiden. We also share Kharma. If you were NDN would you want to be a spirit in a man like Tom Gold? A man who knows the language, the songs and walks the road like we all used to? Or would you go to the res to be reborn?
‘Wovoka was raised by the Wasicu priests and his vision wasn’t like any other native vision. He said we were all medicine men. We all can have visions. We all can dream. It gave us hope. That was new. Or maybe so old it was new again, like the song.”
He thought a moment and laughed. “I chose this old broken down body, living in a trailer on a desert bump that burns down every time it storms. I should have chosen a body that lives in a warm sandy beach where the shaman drink out of coconuts and dream of fishing. All is Mystery, in’t…