The willows cried that day.
It was a cold, windless day. No one heard the willows’ sigh. No one that is, except me, and maybe Hank Hollowhorn. But he would never tell. They cried for him as I shoveled the frozen clumps of earth onto the crude homemade pine box which cradled his body in the red clay dirt. They cried for me as I filled the gaping hole and patted the newborn mound with the back of my shovel. They knew I was alone again. Alone for the first time since Hank Hollowhorn entered my life twenty years ago. I was somewhere around two at the time; Hank had just turned seventy-five.
The old-timers on the reservation referred to that year as the worst winter in memory. Storm after storm sentenced the prairie to record temperatures falling way below zero. It was on such a night that Hank Hollowhorn discovered a baby wrapped snugly in a worn star quilt on the backseat of an abandoned ’64 Pontiac on a two-lane reservation highway. The car sat motionless, a mechanical victim of the cruel sub-zero night. Hank carefully followed two sets of tracks which led across the road toward the light of a farmhouse barely visible in the distance. The footsteps meandered aimlessly through drifting snow. A few hundred yards from the Pontiac he discovered the frozen bodies of a young couple in their early twenties.
An investigation by the Cherry Creek tribal police turned up little information. The car had no registration papers and sported a stolen South Dakota license plate. Eventually, the license plate was traced to a junkyard in Belle Fourche, a small South Dakota town, near the Wyoming state line. The owner convincingly denied any knowledge of the car or its inhabitants. Fingerprints of the couple added no facts to the case. Several missing persons’ reports provided only false leads for the authorities. The personal effects found in the car rendered even less information. Aside from a few dollars and a black and white photograph of the trio in happier times; there was nothing to assist in determining the identity of the unfortunate pair or the baby.
A description of the car and the threesome was distributed to tribal police offices throughout Montana, Wyoming and North and South Dakota. A reporter from the Rapid City Journal wrote a feature story on the couple and the baby, which was picked up on the AP wire service and circulated in newspapers throughout the country; yet no one came forth and spoke for me. No one, that is, except Hank Hollowhorn.
I lived with Hank Hollowhorn after that ill-fated night. His right to me was questioned only by some ladies from the Southern Baptist Church in Hope, a small dusty farm town near the reservation border. They showed up one day at Hank’s ranch, headed by Henrietta Henderson, the wife of a displaced Georgia preacher, intent on saving the souls of his red Lakota Sioux brothers. Henrietta demanded that she and her friends be allowed to take me to a Baptist home for orphaned Indian children somewhere in Oklahoma. When Hank refused, several non-pious words were exchanged with threats of returning with their husbands and the police. Hank calmly picked up an old pump action 12 gauge shotgun and began cleaning it. They apparently got his message. They never returned.
When I grew older I learned of Hank’s distrust for preachers in general. “Always beware of a man who promises to save your soul, my boy. Only you can save your soul. A man, who speaks with such authority about hell, needs to be looking after himself and not you.” It was later that I discovered that as a boy, Hank regularly attended the local Catholic Church. He even served as an altar boy at the urging of his mother. At the age of fifteen he joined his elders in the sacred Sun Dance ceremony of the Lakota, much to the chagrin of the local priest. Afterward, he was ordered to confession to atone for his participation in what the priest called a “paganistic tribal ritual.” Hank never set foot in a church again, except for funerals, and yet he was the most godly man I ever knew.
Hank called me Chaske meaning “first born” in the Lakota language. “Seems right calling you Chaske. You are my first born, so Chaske it is, until your Indian name comes to me. An Indian name must not be chosen too hastily, my boy.” He further explained, “A name can be both a gift and a burden. When the time comes, I will know.” I never questioned Hank’s wisdom. Chaske was as good as any other name.
Under Hank’s guidance, growing up was both an adventure and a responsibility. He taught me to respect the wild creatures, to survive on the plains as his father taught him, and to use medicine plants to heal both the body and spirit. I learned to communicate with the spirit world and to follow the messages of the heart. He taught me the virtue of both hard work and play. He thoroughly schooled me in the language and traditions of the Lakota, yet, he insisted I get a good education in the white man’s school. When I resisted he countered by asking me, “If you don’t learn to read in that school, who is going to teach me? I don’t want to die not knowing how to read.”
And so, I became his teacher too. Each evening after the supper dishes were sparkling in the blue plastic drainer, Hank and I practiced reading. I will always credit Hank and Miss Jane Hopkins, my fourth grade teacher, for my love of books. Hank, because he made me practice reading by teaching him, and Miss Hopkins, who shared her personal library of several hundred books with me.
“It is good that you have learned the white man’s way and the red man’s way,” Hank said to me one hot July evening. We sat on the porch enjoying the magnificent colors of the closing day. “You will be called, Itazipco Hokshila. It is the right name for you, ‘Boy Without Bow’. You will grow to be a man, who will never need a bow…a weapon…to survive in the world. You will live both in the white man’s world and the red man’s world with equal ease. You will walk among people of all cultures and feel at home. You will call many places home and many people your people. It is a rare individual who is chosen for this path. It is not an easy one. It is much easier to be an angry man and to blame others for your misfortunes.”
Hank paused. The dying sun streaked a glittering path across the western sky. “It is easy to hate and accuse others for the conditions of our people. The Lakota were a great people…are a great people. We must never forget that. In your small way you will help. You will be a man who will demonstrate the greatness of our people through his work and his actions.” I listened quietly as Hank explained the significance of my name. I was in my twelfth year at the time.
Afterwards, Hank treated me as a man. I was no longer a child to him, although he continued to be my teacher for the rest of his life. Two years later, Hank guided me through my first hanblecha. As we climbed the sacred Bear Butte he reverently spoke of the importance of my vision quest. “The hanblecha has been used throughout time by our people for guidance. It is a personal experience of great meaning to the future. Open your heart, your spirit and your soul, my son. You will see, as other Lakota who have gone before you, the path you must follow.”
For three days and nights, my body exposed to the cold of the night and the heat of the day, I fasted and prayed on Bear Butte. On the third night, two gigantic eagles swooped down and perched in a lifeless tree nearby. One was as black as the ebony night. The other as white as virgin snow. I saw the end of Hank Hollowhorn’s life and the beginning of mine. I understood the significance of my name and the path I must follow.
Hank and I spoke for many hours about my vision. “It is a powerful dream, my son,” he began, “and one that cannot be accomplished without hard work and sacrifice. You must prepare yourself for many successes and failures along the way. It is a good dream. You will have many teachers who will guide you toward your destiny. Take heed and make your choices with care and wisdom.”
A year later, Hank camped near the powwow grounds at Red Buttes as I sun danced. He vicariously suffered with me as the eagle claws pierced my flesh, leaving trails of dark red blood upon my skin. He nodded knowingly as I suffered the pain in silence. I was fifteen, just as Hank had been fifteen, when he danced in sacrifice for his people. I prayed for my people as the scorching sun baked my bare skin and the claws tortured my chest. I prayed for guidance in a world without Hank Hollowhorn.
I patted the ground firmly on the mound just as a slight rain moved in from the north. I drove the crude cross into the lifeless frozen ground. I firmly tied the colors of the four directions onto the stakes marking the grave at each corner. The red, black, yellow and white cloth hung silently in place. I quietly reflected on the precious possessions Hank had instructed me to place with him. Beside him I laid the pair of beaded moccasins I was wearing the night he found me, his sacred pipe, a braid of sweetgrass, a medicine bag, a faded, wrinkled photograph of a young woman who met an untimely death before she and Hank could marry and a lock of my hair. To those special treasures, I added a number of school photographs depicting the face of a curious boy, his self-assured image in a high school graduation picture, my university degrees, and a crucifix tucked between the yellowed pages of a worn Bible.
As I stood lost in thoughts of the finality of my day’s effort, Hank’s horse, Red Willow, whinnied a low soulful moan, adding to the solemnity of the cold, misty afternoon. I picked up the old pump action12 gauge and slowly walked toward him. I carefully released his tether from among the willows and silently guided him to Hank’s grave. My arms embraced his head gently as I smothered my face into his long, auburn mane. Hot tears ran unyieldingly down my cheeks. Red Willow nudged me approvingly. There in the stillness of the cold day, I pulled the trigger and completed my mission. Hank Hollowhorn now had Red Willow to ride in his next life.
As my final task, I dug a long narrow trench. Into it I placed the 22 rifle. I took great care to conceal its resting place. As Hank had counseled, I had no need for a weapon.
After I said my prayers, I gathered my meager belongings, packed in a tattered, olive green duffel bag labeled, Property of Pfc. H. Hollowhorn. Thus, began my journey from the reservation. In some ways my life was almost as uncertain now as it had been twenty years ago when Hank Hollowhorn opened his heart to a homeless baby boy. But this time I was not alone.
I would walk the red man’s path in the white man’s world and Hank Hollowhorn would walk it with me.