(June 26 to August 7, 2010)
Somehow I feel more lonely than I usually do, somehow the blue sky is a little less blue than usual, somehow the sunlight is fainter than it is supposed to be, somehow I don’t find pleasure in stuff I used to enjoy. Withdrawal. Missing the people, missing the rez.
While any other would say that the journey sucked bad: neither we got to see the Southwest and “old” West, nor even the much closer sites, it’s the memories, what I will cherish the most. It’s still fun to give. And I learned that my best friend needed my company as much as I needed his. I have seen with my eyes the fragility of traditional ways, balancing between good of all and one’s own comfort. I’ve seen the desperation, I witnessed the sacrifice, I shared the uncertainty… but while there were things still unresolved and bothering me when I was leaving, I was sure that if there was anything I could say and do to help, it was done.
Our plans were big: we were to make the most ambitious trip to date – nearly 6000 miles, at least ten days on the road with all the family, through Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Wyoming. Since November 2009 already Gene (especially) and I have been researching possible route. Beside that, we sketched a shorter journey to Fort Robinson and Fort Laramie, with a short “detour” to Badlands and Bear Butte on the way back – this time just for Gene, our friend Dana and me. As the day of my arrival drew near, it’s became clear our plan needed revising. Not that I wouldn’t have money, nor we wouldn’t have a suitable transportation. The impossible has happened – Gene was about to get a full-time job, and thus there would be no way to have two weeks leave for him so immediately. We’re then trying to pick the best spots to try over the weekends of my stay – the longest one to date, 6 weeks exactly.
Unfortunately for us, more problems (that I have neither freedom, nor will, to describe) arose and it has become obvious my stay was going to be much different from the ones before. It wasn’t just Gene’s misfortune: there was something dark and sinister creeping over the reservation. There were many deaths – in accidents and suicides, as well as many valuable people have passed away. It was happening to Eugene’s family as well. While regretting not taking off and have Gene’s kids see a lot more of United States, I actually welcomed the idea of helping my friends in need. I was afraid, however, that I’d be overstepping the bounds of our friendship and trespassing onto their private lives. As it would later turn out, I couldn’t be more wrong.
The week before my flight Gene’s sister Gina sent me a disturbing message: he is in bigger trouble now. I’m not even sure if there will be anybody to pick me up from the airport and thinking about canceling the flight. Fortunately Gene was quick to contact me that he’ll be there for me. And in deed he was, as was the whole family, even despite my flight arriving in the late night. As promised, I bought eight ushankas for the kids and Judi (three black, three white, navy blue and gray) – often I could see somebody wear theirs.
Because of the circumstances, Gene couldn’t spend most of his time at home, so we lived at his friend Vincent’s, who was his instructor at the 2008 sundance. It wasn’t bad except for one thing: he made us do stuff around the house, like mowing the lawn, cleaning, crushing the soda cans (and since Montana summers have been hot recently, you can imagine the quantities of them) etc. Jokes aside though, our presence was good for him as well – he’s lost his son not a long time before and needed somebody to keep him company. We occasionally slept in a big camper trailer belonging to Gene’s brother Joe. Often though there was a way to get back and spend the rest of the day home. To fight boredom, but also to improve the environment they live in, I offered to tide up the yard around the house: Gene welcomes the idea. After three days our work was finally done: all the bushes have been removed, grass trimmed, all the unused appliances and toys stacked nicely and everything broken was taken away along with the trash. The change was amazing!
If the time allowed we made short trips around the reservation. I’ve enjoyed seeing the familiar places and views again, but also a few completely new to me. The most memorable escapade was to Crazy Head Springs, where we came across a big meadow… full of prairie dogs! Imagine dozens of these rodents squawking from left and right – eerie! These tiny buggers are very difficult to stalk though – this, combined with my still broken zoom lens, resulted in no usable photos. We often went to the Tongue River to let the kids swim, but all the fun was usually shattered by enormous amounts of mosquitoes biting painfully. Of course, I’m chipping in for the fuel, realizing a stumbling revelation – although my ATM card works in nearly all pump stations in the country, the money I spend on refueling is drawn from my bank account only after a few days, sometimes even a week: that will come to haunt me in the end…
I’m hesitantly encouraging Gene to hike – not long after my arrival he grants me my wish and we climb on a hill behind Vincent’s house. It was a short walk, during which dark storm clouds started to gather, but I didn’t mind. It wasn’t anything profound, just two friends having good time…
My other suggestion was a trip Bear Butte. I believed that, in such difficult time, it was what he would need – a way to reconcile and strengthen his spiritual bond with this place and everything it symbolizes for a Cheyenne. His parents were in fact to go there and camp for a weekend, but unfortunately Gene ultimately couldn’t go and thus I was unwilling to, despite encouragement. It was the time that he decided to show me how to pray and make pipe offering. We went in to the surrounding hills and Gene found a suitable place to make an altar. Unfortunately, no matter how he would try, his pipe would not light. As he started praying with more and more trembling voice, my heart was breaking. He wasn’t without his faults – nobody is – but I couldn’t understand how a good person could be tried so hard. He didn’t deserve the suffering, nothing would convince me he would – it is unfair. After finishing his own prayer, he showed me how I should do it. It was embarrassing – I was clumsy and erratic. But on the other hand, it was so real and honest – as true as it could be. After the prayer, Gene personally (as opposed to our chats online) accepted me as his nisimaha (brother-friend) for all the help and support I could give him and his family throughout last year.
Finally, that day came: Gene’s work started. With that in mind I switched to self-sufficient mode and begun exploring the reservation on my own. First it was Lame Deer, then longer distances, limited only by timing: Gene’s lunchtime hour and him finishing work. Obviously I photographed a lot, now being free to go and stop by places as I pleased, only to respectfully avoid private property. Finally I was able to document the look of the city from the nearby hills. Later I started exploring the nearby trails, unfortunately I couldn’t really find any that wouldn’t end in front of somebody’s house… That had its price: my presence drew curiosity of people, yet there was no sign of hostility, but very straight-forward interest in my person – that’s how welcoming and friendly most of the Cheyennes are. It feels good, when someone you don’t even know stops by to chat, give you directions or simply offers you a lift. To that comes Cheyenne generosity: people were offering me little gifts of their own, just so I could “come back home with something” – I got nice “Cheyenne Tribe” badges and two t-shirts from “The War on Meth” event from earlier that year – one unfortunately will disappear from my baggage during the flight home. Gene’s friends and coworkers were noticing me as well, and joked about my little “conquests”.
The netbook came in handy again, I could quickly edit and upload new photographs not long after they were taken. In deed, this year was the most fruitful as photos go. Along with countryside and landscapes, the topics covered were pretty similar to previous trips: Animal life (this year, for the lack of buffalo, was a “year of the horse”, but I found many insects unknown to me as well), plants, weather phenomena (mostly thunderstorms) and cars (especially semi-trucks). In the nights, as tradition dictates, I’d go in front of the house to photograph moths – this year is also different, while there weren’t any spectacular specimens like the Io Moths last year, the range of species I was able to photograph was astonishing. If not taking photos, I’d sit on the grass in front of Chief Dull Knife College’s library or Eugene’s cubicle, connect to the Internet and share the news in mail or my pages. The Internet connection at home is as messed up as it could ever be – with the subtle difference from last year: now it works only when the phone is on! Rufus says that everybody that has the same provider is experiencing the same problems. The 3G modem turned to be unusable, though – in fact, later I lost it…
A special mention goes to the mountain lions: at night they could come really close to Joe’s land and, when chased away by dogs, they were shrieking – and how! I knew that pumas can do a variety of different and weird noises, but that was just incredible to hear it myself.
Not long after my arrival we got news that Eugene’s father will go through piercing ceremony – literally offering his flesh for the good of his family. I’ll be helping in setting the camp, fixing the gravel road washed away after recent heavy rains, then finally assisting in looking for a suitable place for the ceremony to take place. With other young men from the family we clean up and prepare the spot as per “grandpa’s” instructions. After that, we gather and prepare sage for the ceremony. As soon as the sun goes down, the wait is over and the rite begins. Although I’m trying to stay on the side, Gene requests I go and observe, then wants me participating with his own sons. When it’s done, we leave to let grandpa stay and pray for the night.
Back in the camp Joe finds one big gray Geolycosa wolf spider, the same species as the we encountered two years ago during the sundance – this one was slightly smaller, though. Gene’s mom (“Grandma”) doesn’t like spiders – she wants me to keep it outside the camp, yet I still managed to get a nice photo of it, after which… it ran into campfire… ouch! Also, the “Earth baby”, or Jerusalem Cricket creeps nearby – a big orange-brown, scary looking, but completely harmless insect similar to mole cricket, with tiny brown eyes on shiny “bald” head reminding of a toddler – hence the name.
Late in the night, I’m becoming a “runner” – with other men we’ll gather wood for the fireplace and prepare the sweat lodge. The going gets tougher – the storm, that was until now keeping its distance, now rages with fury. The firewood gets all wet and doesn’t burn, while Alex and I are desperately trying to cover the sweat framework with sheets and blankets. Finally the morning comes and the sweat is ready. Gene, unfortunately, won’t be attending. It is a really hot one, but as Joe explained – it was meant to, to share suffering their dad went through. Knowing that, I’m switching to such mode – taking the heat sitting straight, refusing to take water, “standing” for Eugene – being strong for him.
Just a day after, Gene had to leave for, as it turned out, three days – as Judi wasn’t comfortable with me staying as the only man in the house and we didn’t want to bother Vincent, I had a choice of living in Joe’s trailer or with grandma and Gina. Being a “herd animal”, I chose the latter. It was enjoyable, I learned that Gene’s mom is actually a Trekkie (I know what she gets for her next birthday from me)! She is kind and humble person, she can be strict, but I never heard her raising voice or saying anything bad about a person. In return for hospitality I eagerly supported her with all the means I could.
During that time I hiked a lot through the countryside: the longest walk was 12 miles along Logging Creek in a difficult terrain full of hills, valleys, cliffs and paths used only by wild horses and cattle. I imagined how it would be with Gene, how he would like that. Honestly speaking: I missed him, as a friend and a brother. When at home I’ve barely eaten anything – his mom felt bad about that, but she understood my intentions – it was my way of sharing his misfortune.
Before we went to pick up Gene, we stood witness sentencing of Sky, Gina’s son. He was lucky: even the prosecutor was aware of the toxic, yes – toxic, environment of growing up on the Indian reservation. Lack of clear role models makes youth turn to bastardized images of being cool and popular through drug and alcohol – commonly ending with abuse. Others, while raised well and in loving family, get overwhelmed and blend in. This, connected with lack of employment and thus money, leads to extremes: violence and crime and depression and suicidal thoughts. In fact, Gene’s daughter Tempest was beaten up by older girl just several days before, during the Chiefs Pow Wow. Sky went through all of this but, fortunately for him, his case was run by people, who offered him a chance to leave it behind – something, which many won’t be given. He’s getting a treatment and also works hard to get his General Educational Development certification, so he could get skilled work and give stability to his life. From grandma I also learned about proven corruption of law enforcement officers dealing with Natives off the reservation – even unlawfully using firearms, that is being covered up and swept under the carpet by authorities.
While driving back home, for the first time Gene openly suggested leaving the rez and moving to Billings, or even further away. He doesn’t want his children, nor any children in the family to grow in such environment. In his own words, the law enforcement system thrives on high crime rate among Native Americans – there’s federal money going to departments to subsidize the expenses, but nobody controls how it’s spent – so that leads to extreme mismanagement often including exaggerated charges. While it was sad to hear him saying the words, it was difficult not to agree – it was actually the major reason that I was not eager to sponsor Cheyenne Epic this year. People who should learn and make example from the past won’t do it anyway – it’s like wasting one’s breath – they will ignore it, on the other hand people who wanted to attend don’t need it – and in a few cases they’d strip the meaning of its message. It doesn’t work on a larger scale, either – as the tribe’s president, Eugene was trying to incorporate traditional models of government, culture and language to modern life on the reservation – often being rewarded with open mockery, opposition or even aggression. What’s the point of trying to salvage something, that others will destroy by ignorance? Wouldn’t it be more logical to preserve all the tradition and best values in small scope of a family, so the children can pass it on?
Things become slowly-paced and uneventful after we get back. Gene tries to spend as much time after work as possible at home – new lifestyle (getting up early, staying up late) is exhausting, but he’s happy: new job means more money to support his family. While wishing I could convince him to go and hike with me a little, I’m offering my support as well, in form of expertise and skills. We’re setting up a volleyball net and the family plays matches against Gene. I’m helping him with the tasks like putting Northern Cheyenne Housing newsletter online or diagnosing computers he is assigned to fix. In the weekends we make shopping trips to Billings, I’m buying humble gifts for the kids. Also I’m able to get a replacement PSU for kids’ netbook, they’re very happy to have it running again after nearly half year of it being “dormant”. When we’re at Vincents house, I’m optimizing his computer – it’s a fine machine, but kind of low-specs for the tasks it serves, we make recommendations how to enhance it. I’m hoping that Gene’s fate finally turned towards the good fortune…
…but it’s just an illusion…
Gene is getting a call: his dad is in ER, heart problems – they will loose and bring him back three times – including one time Gene witnessing that – before finally getting transported by helicopter to Billings Clinic for coronary artery surgery. Next day all the family arrives to the hospital – grandpa is going to be OK, but his lifestyle has to change: no smoking (doctors say that 90% of his problems come from smoking), more movement, less stress… Easy for them to say – especially in his case – he just likes to worry, and can be temperamental.
Things slow down after that, Gene tries to spend as much time as he can with his dad – watching over him and convincing him to stay determined on changing his hectic life. One evening I finally have courage to comfort him, let out my feelings of sadness towards injustice happening to him. Over the last few weeks Gene’s gone through so much, that nobody should through one’s entire life. If I could, I’d trade all my wellbeing for his misfortune. Replying, Gene shared to me that he needed my presence – if it wasn’t for me, the loneliness and all the bad fate would be much more difficult to go through. Obviously there was Vincent, but he had problems of his own as well. Its been so long I waited to hear that from him – promising myself something profound, but when shared with me, it was so obvious and natural – just what any good friends would do. Gene also announces that he pledged sponsoring a sundance as a thanks for his father’s return to good health.
The following days will usually go along the unchanging scheme: Gene’s work, staying at home until late evening and sleeping at Vincent’s or in the trailer. Gene also invites me to a sweat lodge made for his coworkers. Too bad we can’t go and take the kids anywhere – both the pickup trucks are immobilized. One has broken ignition and the brakes of another are unsafe. The only driving car now is the Achieva, a sedan – not only unsuitable for driving in the hills, but developing problems on its own as well. I’m quietly angry at Elijah, Gene’s oldest son – when borrowing the sedan after his own car broke, he really misuses it – and eventually breaks it, puncturing cooling system. But it’s between him and Gene – so I’m staying out, not saying anything.
One day I decide to participate in the family’s volleyball match – with fatal consequences: I run into a tree! A twig goes straight into my right eye and, because the pain doesn’t wear off the next day, I ask Vincent to take me to Colstrip Clinic for check-up. It turns out I have corneal abrasion – basically a scratched eyeball, it should heal within a few days. I’m being signed for a check-up in two days – which confirms everything is healing fine. The eye will hurt for a few days, but in deed gets back to normal within next week.
On Eugene’s suggestion, Vincent agrees to take me to Fort Robinson and future Northern Cheyenne Outbreak Memorial site in Nebraska. It’s a long ride – nearly 6 hours in one direction, we depart in early morning, 3:30 AM, arriving at 9. Being honest, the fort alone is rather disappointing place to see – from a Cheyennes perspective at least. The houses and barrack were meticulously restored, but everything somehow feels like a theme park instead of place of a great historic significance. There, on January 9th, 1879, a group of Cheyenne people led by Dull Knife, primarily elders, women, and children, broke out attempting to return to their traditional homeland. These people were kept imprisoned under guard in a small wooden barrack with no food and accommodation despite freezing temperatures, pending their forced return to reservation in Oklahoma – from where they fled due to constant shortage of food and medicine. The military sought the escapees for the next 13 days until last ones were either captured or killed. The other infamous event in history of this fort is death of Crazy Horse, a Lakota Oglala leader on September 5th, 1877.
After me taking photos, we quickly depart to the site where the Northern Cheyenne Tribe is planning to create a memorial. For now there’s only unfinished monument there, but the view alone is worth the journey. The site is overlooking a vast area of land on the south and in front of rock formations commonly called the Cheyenne Bluff. In the near future a trail and interpretative center with harbor and pow-wow ground will be established. I’m taking the photographs, also for Vincent – to document possible locations for parts of the Memorial, while he stops for a short prayer near the monument. After that, we’re ready to go back.
I’m asking if we could stop by Bear Butte – Vincent agrees. When there, he takes his pipe and goes uphill to pray, while I’m staying close to visitors’ area. I find the courage to pray, stand for Eugene and suggest a bargain, that I mentioned to him. I’m praying in a very chaotic manner, but I hope my intentions are pure enough to make up for lack of discipline. After a short while Vincent also comes back – emotional, thankful to be here and being able to pray. We exchange friendly hug and head towards home.
Back in the rez, I’m renewing suggestion for the trip to Bear Butte together with Gene, which he welcomes. Unfortunately, I’m reminded that, while my bargain might be noble intention – I might not be so ready for the stakes as I really hoped: Eugene ultimately finds out he can’t go, and a little bag containing my cell phone, passport and wallet with money and card just disappears without a trace. My mood worsens from one minute to the next in desperation, but finally I come to the terms with the loss the next day and accept the fate – preparing to handle the situation and announce it to Gene. After that, I find the bag in a matter of minutes in a place I distinctively remember never putting it in or ever be.
After that day, however, all the trouble seem to be somehow more distant – Eugene even gets to spend more time at home, and I take the opportunity to make more distant walks deep into the reservation land. The fruits of it are really beautiful landscapes, a vulture in flight and unexpected find of, though quite common in the US, an unknown to me butterfly: Variegated Fritillary. Eugene still wants us to go and see something new, like Medicine Rocks State Park near Ekalaka, though there’s always something that comes in the way. I don’t mind though. The stay is different now, warmer, family-like. I’m enjoying our all-day long trips to Billings, and finally suggest sponsoring a new carpet for the living room – the current one was worn off already. I’m gathering all the money and gift it to Eugene, Judi chooses one in her favorite color and we order it.
Unfortunately, I overlooked something: the earlier mentioned payments for the fuel accumulated and I’m eventually left with overdrawn account and 70 dollars in cash. To add insult to injury: we receive bill from the clinic for my check-ups: 217 dollars! Obviously that will be returned by my travel insurance, but only after I pay it in person. After a short turmoil, it turns out not that bad as it looks: the clinic will accept payment in installments, Gene’s got paid and he gifted me 100, and grandma agrees to pay the rest as the money becomes available.
As the end of my stay nears, Gene suggests another trip: Deer Medicine Rocks, close to Ashland. For many tribes it is a place of great power – people were coming there to fast and receive guidance. Crazy Horse supposedly carved the vision of his death on one of the rocks there and Sitting Bull received warning of impending Little Bighorn encounter with Custer’s regiment. We would also visit Bighorn Canyon. The date is set to one day before I leave back to Poland – so Gene would take all the family to Billings, for a “meal of my choice” after that, spend the night with relatives and say farewell at the airport in the morning. For the trip we will use grandma’s van and grandpa will be driving – this will be a way to let him distance out of everything and enjoy himself. The day before, we plan a going-away sweat and meal – I assist grandma in buying the ingredients.
Obviously, something had to happen: in the afternoon Gene’s dad started to feel sleepy and anxious – with no hesitation he was brought back to ER and his heart was monitored. Meanwhile I voiced my anger to Gene – it was just unfair, after all everybody went through. Fortunately, “grandpa was just scaring us”: combination of medicine he was taking after the surgery and hot, dry weather made his blood pressure lower than it should be – he’s soon released, but, being himself, he immediately tries to advise Gene, when noticing the Achieva is leaking coolant. Grandma puts an end to it quickly – “he is old enough, he’s a man enough, you don’t have to worry about anything”.
In the evening, while women prepare the meal back at home, we prepare the sweat. After everyone arrives, we can begin. In expressing themselves everyone speaks with one voice: through my experience, sharing the pain and uncertainty and dealing with what the Cheyenne have to deal every day, I’ve become one of them. I’m no longer a friend of the family, now I’m a member of the family. Joe even goes as far as announcing that I’ll no longer be Gene’s friend to him, he will call me his brother. We also pray for others as well, for everyone, all the Cheyenne – so they will not have to go through what we did. I join others in singing – something that Gene will tell me also was good to notice. After the sweat we go back to grandma’s house for humble, but enjoyable, meal. I’m suggesting that, because of grandpa’s shape, we might postpone the trip but I’m quickly overruled by grandma: They’ll be there!
The next day I’m waiting for the lift at Eugene’s workplace. We’ll leave with a delay – grandpa resisted and finally didn’t go, we will go with grandma, Gina, her man Howie, Alex and little Ben. Deer Medicine Rocks will have to wait, after short visit to Colstrip we take a gravel road to Hardin, passing by all the coal mines. We stop shortly midway to look and explore incredible sandstone formation that have been shaped and perforated – probably by wind and water – into fanciful shapes. If one used imagination, looking from one side, it looked like one half of a giant skull. After a short stop in Hardin we’re off to Fort Smith, and from there the Yellowtail hill overlooking Bighorn Canyon, the Yellowtail Dam and power plant, to stop at recreation area.
After letting the boys (Howie counted as “boy”) wade in the water of Bighorn River, we go back. Grandma decides to go to Billings and do shopping and errands. I’m slightly disappointed, knowing that it would prevent Gene from taking Judi and little ones for a meal. As we turn to the highway, a storm warning is issued over radio – there’s a violent one building over Billings, with winds forecast at 60 mph. Luckily for us, the storm calms down and splits in two parts – we’re passing through the calm zone between them. When we leave it’s already past sundown.
Just after Hardin, we are going over something, that was on the road. Grandma knows: it was a deer, it was still alive – she could feel it, she can feel pain of animals. Somehow I know what to do: I started gathering sage, and grandma prepared to say the prayers – ask the animal for forgiveness for the pain inflicted. Unfortunately we had trouble lighting the sage, it took several minutes until we met someone who could give us a lighter. It will take some time for us to regain good mood. We arrive shortly after ten, Gene’s plan is now that we’ll move out at 4 AM. I’m quickly collecting all the things I can find, pack, and after that we take a short nap and get ready to leave. Unfortunately something comes up and Gene can’t go with us. It catches me off-guard so the farewell feels awkward and dry – I’m sure that Gene realized, that it wasn’t meant like that though. Shortly after five I’m exchanging hugs with Judi and kids and stepping through the terminal door.
So that’s one road I’ve not taken, but not regretting to: it was fruitful and enjoyable trip, despite all the negative things happening throughout. In fact, over three thousand photos, among them 300 good ones I published in my gallery online speak for themselves – it’s the most I’ve taken so far. I was able to explore the reservation on my own and always met with friendship and hospitality. I saw the everyday’s life on the reservation to its fullest extent, with it’s quirks and dark side. “Be careful what you wish for, it may come true” – I joked: I wanted to know how is it to be a Cheyenne, and got the full package.
Yet, there is another road I’m happy and proud that I didn’t take: I did not follow the idealized and interpreted image of a “noble savage”, created by various people. It was tempting, but being myself and a loyal friend proved much more rewarding. I got a lot from it – not materially but as experience. In fact, what I got back was what I wished at the beginning of my journey and friendship with Eugene – with one big difference: the priorities changed. What was then a thing of importance (like having an Indian name, being adopted by Cheyenne, having a traditional clothing, exploring traditional life and ceremonies), now is, sometimes a tongue-in-cheek (hey, I’ll be getting a true Cheyenne breech cloth!), sometimes very serious and real, addition to what’s became truly important: to be there for them, when in need. Not because of some higher purpose, but because it’s the right thing to do for friends – and now a family.