Thank Heavens for a certain wise Mandan. I opened this month’s column with some very pedantic health tips. I read the initial draft to Cedric Red Feather, and he graciously reminded me to invoke the wisdom I’ve gained over years of involvement with the spiritual. In sharing this perspective, I’m not writing a how-to or positing rules for anyone. This way of life works for me; each must find his/her own way.
Long ago, Cedric reminds me, everything Native people needed was readily available in Nature. The Original People were natural herbalists. Like Grandma in The Education of Little Tree, they had their “medicinals.” They knew which plants offered what relief, so there was no need to medicate with anything toxic to the body. They had their plants, herbs and natural foods like nuts, berries, buffalo meat and venison.
When thirsty, they drank pure, clear water that came down from the mountains. They did not need alcohol. “If you don’t take in alcohol, you’re a lot better off. There’s no real need for it. It’s toxic for people. The Indians didn’t have anything like that to put them out of balance.” These words ring true, having been uttered by The Red Feather Man, a man clean and sober for 30 years.
Before learning all of this, I had instinctively given up alcohol in 1990 when I began dancing at powwows. I thought, the last thing Indians need is someone drinking around them. Later, I would learn there’s a spiritual reason for abstention from alcohol — we know from our guides that they do not like the smell. As Cedric put it so aptly, “When people drink, the Spirits don’t like being around them. Those who drink a lot look dumb and empty, because the Spirits won’t come to them. It’s better to drink water, which is natural, or peppermint tea, a favorite beverage of the Mandans.”
The Mandans I have met practice very natural means of maintaining peak physical condition during their earthly stay. The sweatlodge, for them, is instrumental in addressing all four parts of the person: mind, body, emotions and spirit. I recall many times having entered the quiet, dark, dome-covered space of the sweatlodge. I would feel anxious and poisoned from toxic foods and unbalanced people. As water was poured over the heated rocks in the pit, all negativities were sluiced away. Occasionally, I’d sense the gentle touch of healing Spirits inside the lodge. After four doors of beautiful songs and intense steam, I’d emerge cleansed, calmed and spiritually centered.
The Mandans had great regard for the health of each person, especially during an individual’s later years. The Mandans, Cedric informed me, are the only tribe that reserved a distinct village for elders. As a sign of respect, tribal members would bring the elders tobacco they had grown in their own gardens. They would regularly bring them buffalo meat, fish and venison; in turn, the elders would tell stories.
For Mandans, care and “greening” of the body was a matter of lifelong devotion. “The body is born healthy; it gets old, and it dies. How you treat it in death is just as important as how you treat it in life,” Cedric instructs. “They would wash and wrap the body, place it upon a scaffold, and offer food for the journey.” Natural elements worked on it until it decayed and became one again with the river banks.
Traditional People remember these things. Fortunately, some are generous enough to share a way of life they had sacrificed for and fought to preserve. Although Cedric and I are best friends, I have never forgotten that he is a Traditional person; so I still engage in the formal gesture of bringing him tobacco. It is in recognition of his role in fulfilling the prophecies, and an acknowledgment of his having spilled his blood so the people may live.
I have gained much on my own from going in the sweatlodge; fasting upon the hill; dancing at a Sundance in North Dakota; and singing the sacred songs when asked to in various ceremonies. I have never forgotten, however, Cedric’s immeasurable contribution toward my living a more natural, more spiritually connected and independent way of life.