A PUFF OF WHITE MIST emanates from a vent off my fourth-floor balcony, adding to the ghostly feeling of midwinter. Below me, the icy river wears a soft blanket of new snow. The sun opened a portal into the frozen water over which a bald eagle hovers in flight, dreaming of chilled fish. Eagles carry our prayers to the Creator. The feeling of isolation — prompted by the cold pinkish sky and the frigid leafless branches — now dissipates. I remember that none of us is ever truly alone.
We all have Spirit Helpers. By whatever name — angels, guardians or guides — the essence is the same. They are not “ten zillion light years away,” as in the Stevie Wonder song. Cedric Red Feather teaches that our guides are just above our shoulders, waiting to help. All we have to do is give them permission.
Now my thoughts drift to a precious time when I met a certain Mandan Medicine Man before his transition. He helped me fast, and he shared his knowledge of a beautiful way of life. In time, the seeds he planted sprouted into recognition that aloneness is not a state of involuntary confinement, but an attribute to be cultivated on the Spiritual Road.
A perpetual student, I’ve always been bookish. I was in the medicine man’s kitchen in Twin Buttes, North Dakota. He pointed to a box of books on the floor. “If you want to learn something, throw those away.” I gasped inwardly. Later, I realized his imperative was both literal and symbolic. Sam himself was a brilliant educator who loved and revered knowledge. He had the wisdom to see that the books I had been devouring about Indians were confusing rather than infusing me with wisdom. He knew I would learn only through experience.
We sat together at the table quietly for long intervals. Then, he would blurt something out loud that happened to be exactly what I was thinking. He wasn’t intrusive, yet this “talent” of his was uncanny and a bit unsettling. His small blue frame house overlooked a vast and lonesome grassland. I gazed longingly through kitchen windows at a yellow-orange sun’s gradual descent. Despite the sparseness, I longed to settle on the Dakota prairie. I wanted to live on the Rez and learn from Sam.
“You want concepts? Here. I’ll draw you a diagram.”
His offer woke me from my reverie. Initially, I thought he was mocking my tendency to become too abstract. I felt a tad ridiculous as he pushed the chart across the table to me.
His very act of writing them down was a lesson. Sam came from an oral tradition. Once teachings are recorded, they lose their vitality, their juice. There’s a tendency to systematize, categorize and convert into rules and laws. I can hear The Red Feather Man saying, “You cannot organize spirituality.” Still, for the scholar in me, the written word was wish-fulfillment.
He had drawn a medicine wheel, bisected it twice, and recorded key words in each cardinal direction. These were Ghost* concepts — Unity, Kindness, Individualistic and Aloneness:
- Unity is the apprehension of Oneness. “The Ghost is one thing,” Sam would say simply but profoundly. There is no division, no separation, no hierarchy.
- Kindness means treating others with love and compassion. Wovoka, the Ghost Dance visionary, taught the people, “Harm no one.” Sam carried this notion to the People, as well.
- Individualistic is in adjectival form, since it is a quality or characteristic of those who embrace this way of life. The Ghost accepts that he is totally free to follow his own dreams and visions. The Red Feather Man says it like this: “I have no followers. If I wanted followers, I would have been a duck.”
- Aloneness is the most daunting aspect. Wanagis are often found living a hermetic existence. That quiet — that sanctuary — is necessary for spiritual growth. We need time to hear the voices of the unseen ones and to attain realizations.
Our Spirit helpers long to come closer to us. In time, we will learn to trust them more: to humble ourselves and ask for help and guidance. At that point, our journey will joyously hasten.
* Note: Ghost, or Wanagi, is the way of life I learned from Sam Little Owl and Cedric Red Feather. It means something like seeing the heart or spirit of a person, rather than the outer shell. The Wanagi is one of the Seven Spiritual Realms of the Northern Plains Indians. For more about these realms, see Mandan Dreams, a book by Cedric Red Feather.