Short Story: Wakan Tanka
The wind was merciless, my hands cold as the steel of my Henry rifle, if such a thing were possible. At any rate, I could not feel them anymore: they were someone else’s hands. My wool coat felt like a thin shirt soaked in ice water.
The Sioux Indian opened the flap to his tepee with the resignation of a man admitting fate into his life.
For a long moment we faced each other by his door, such as it was, which itself faced east. I remember noting that detail specifically, checking my bearings against Polaris as if this tidbit were of great import.
The tepee’s buffalo skins, practically translucent, allowed a great deal of light to bleed through. Four or five dogs had barked in the dark as we approached; now I saw them moving in and out of the shadows. I smelled horses nearby. I had heard their low nickering as the Indian led me to the teepee glowing blue in the distance.
He stood still, holding the door flap open, a bent old man waiting for me. I thought of my father, so many miles away, hopefully in peaceful sleep. I felt deathly tired. Finally, I stepped inside with the necessary bow.
The tepee was much larger than it looked. A fire burned at its center. Two women about as wrecked as the old man sat on either side of the entrance. One wore light robes, the other dark. I could not make out the colors — yellow and red, perhaps. Both women lowered their heads in greeting, I supposed, but their eyes were on me as I came in. Only much later did I learn it was impolite for Sioux women to look at strangers as these women were looking at me. Perhaps impolite is not the word.
The old man touched my back lightly at the center of my shoulder blades, ushering me to the far side of the tepee, past the woman in the light robes, who motioned to a spot across from the entrance. The old man sat to my right. The woman wearing the dark robes threw something on the fire and the flames leapt to the very top of the conical roof where the tepee poles formed an opening for the smoke to escape. By her feet, I could see buffalo chips to be used as fuel. She was wearing leather high shoes. The fire had no smell I could detect.
We sat on cotton blankets and animal skins. Around us, boxes and bundles made a backrest of sorts. I knew it took the skins of 15 to 20 buffalo to make a tepee, that cows were preferred, that women would bleach the skins with buffalo brains and urine to clean and soften them. I knew much about the Indians, but I had never been inside a tepee before. The smoke and flickering light, the odd colors of the robes and blankets, the faces of the three Sioux weathered as leather, all of it — everything — was a world new to me.
The woman in the light robes offered me a metal cup. She made a showing of sprinkling a white powder in it. Unsure, I took the cup, careful not to let my numb hands drop it. Despite the fire, I was still cold to the bone. Remembering my manners, I bowed my head in thanks. The cup was almost full of a dark liquid I could not smell. I drank slowly. It had no taste I could detect. I was so cold I didn’t even feel the drink going down my throat, though the cup was steaming. I admit the thought the drink might be poisoned crossed my mind, but only after I had drank a good deal of it. I reassured myself these people killed you in battle or, if they captured you, tortured you to death on the spot. Being taken alive by Indians was not a pleasant prospect. But poisoning was not their way.
“Listen. We have buffalo meat,” the woman in the light robes said in English, startling me. “We have coffee. We have sugar. We have tobacco. Welcome.”
She said this looking at the fire, her face away from me. She sat to my right, between the old man and the door flap. She spoke very good English, though slowly and carefully. I could understand her every word.
“You speak English,” I said. She did not respond. I tried to settle into my buttocks, but felt nothing underneath them.
I pressed my point: “Where did you learn to speak English?”
“I do not know English,” she said, in English.
“You are speaking English to me,” I said. “The language of my people, the language of the Mniaskan.”
“I can not speak the language of the Mniaskan,” she said, still staring at the fire. “And if I could, I would not.”
Throughout this exchange, the old man had been loading a pipe. He then lit it with a small twig dipped into the fire. After a few inhalations, he passed the pipe to me. The tobacco must have been very mild — I couldn’t taste or smell it.
“We are Sihasapa of the Lakota,” the woman in the light robes said, still not looking at me. “Long ago, we lived to the east of here. The fathers of the fathers of our fathers fought the Sotaeoo and the Tsitsistas for these lands. We drove them west and north. We were many and strong then. We followed the path of the Wakan Tanka. Now the Mniaskan are here, following after us. They kill the buffalo. They kill the land. They do not know the Wakan Tanka, yet they are strong.”
She spoke deliberately, haltingly. I was not sure what she expected of me. I was a lieutenant in the 18th Infantry, United States Army. I was a Mniaskan, an enemy of her people. Suddenly, fright took me: I knew I was safe in their tepee — they had invited me in and had offered me hospitality. But come morning, I could hardly stay with them. And then I would be in a precarious position, separated from my command, amongst hostiles, miles from the nearest help. Another thought struck me roughly at this time: I had noticed their tepee stood by itself, away from the rest of the Indian camp, which I had not even glimpsed — their fires would have been visible from a long way away. I had no idea where I was or how many warriors were in the immediate area.
“Listen,” the woman in the dark robes said. She had not spoken before, but somehow I was not surprised she too spoke English. She was sitting to my left. “Listen. In the Moon of Red Cherries, two winters ago, I camped with one of my brothers, his two wives, and his five children by the Wapisica. Without warning, your people came across the river. My brother rode off to defend the camp. Only a few warriors came back, bloodied and beaten. They said my brother was dead. Then your people rode in and burned our tepees. The soldiers shot children and old men as they ran here and there trying to hide. I saw women thrown to the ground and taken and killed. I heard babies wailing for their mothers. I ran through the trees, crying.”
There was a long pause. The fire crackled.
“I cried for days. I have not seen my brother’s wives or children since. I do not know what has become of them, but certainly they are dead. I know they are dead. In my heart I know they are dead.”
The last phrases had been uttered as a sort of wail, rising in pitch until the sound became painful. Silence followed her words, broken only by the popping of the fire and the sudden risings of the flames. I deliberated whether to speak. I did not know what I would say. Slowly, a great weight built upon my chest, as if I were being commanded by a force greater than reason. And then something more pressing than my fear took hold, and I found myself speaking, head lowered, in the tone one uses to adress the inevitable.
“My people are many,” I said. “To the west, we hold lands a thousand times larger then your hunting grounds. We raise crops. We work metal. We make guns and sabers. We breed horses uncountable as grains of dirt on the plain. To the east of here, across the Mississippi River, my people hold even more land. Beyond those lands, there are other rivers, and beyond those rivers we hold even more lands, the size of which you can not imagine.”
“To the East, further on, on the shores of the Great Sea, we have enormous villages and we sail the waters and hunt for giant fish the size of forty or fifty buffalo.”
“Our people number in the thousands, in the hundreds of thousands, in the millions: not one or two million but ten, twenty, thirty million. And we all, all of us Mniaskan, we are all one people. We are sworn to obey the Great Chief in Washington. When he commands, we obey. And our Great Chief commands us to take this land and help you learn the ways of civilization so that you may prosper as we have. You can not stop the Mniaskan. Brave as you are, you are a handful of stones and we an endless chain of mountains. Your salvation lies in learning our ways and coming under our protection.”
When I was done, the old man tried to hand me the pipe again. In truth, I could not smoke from it this time, now that I had more of my wits about me. I understood the pipe to be offered in peace, and I knew too well that I could not smoke it with a clear conscience. I refused it, politely, I hoped. The old man simply nodded and took to smoking.
I was still shivering, cold even after being by the fire for so long. The woman in the dark robes again threw something in the fire, and the flames leapt up the full length of the tepee illuminating everything as if lightning had struck. I could see the three old people, their shadows flickering against the tepee skins. I could see, for the first time, a line tied from one pole to another from which clothes were hanging, empty as ghosts. The flames subsided, and the relative gloom returned.
“My people do not understand,” the old man said, emotionless after I had refused his pipe, his face sharp as rock against the flickering fire. I was not surprised he too spoke English. “My people do not understand the way of the Wakan Tanka, and so they do not understand the way of this new world. But the Wakan Tanka have spoken to me. I have seen them in dreams. I have understood their words. I have tried to tell my people what the Wakan Tanka have said to me, but they close their ears. The youn will listen to no one now. The old never listened.”
“Many winters ago, our people learned the way of the horse from the Sotaeoo and the Tsitsistas, who had learned it from you, the Mniaskan. We learned the way of the rifle too. We used that knowledge to drive the Sotaeoo and the Tsitstas and the Arapaho from these lands. We were many then. We carried our strength before us.
“We thought we were clever, taking the things of the Mniaskan to make ourselves strong. But this was against the will of the Wakan Tanka. Now the Sotaeoo and the Tsitstas and the Arapaho join us in fighting you, who are many and sweep our people aside. We fight you with your own weapons, yet we can not win, for we have gone against the will of the Wakan Tanka. In going against their will we poisoned ourselves with your things, though we did not know it.”
“Great sickness took my people with the coming of the Mniaskan. Very many died, so many they could not be counted. My people thought the Mniaskan were poisoning the waters and the land and the air. But we ourselves were doing our own poisoning. We turned our backs on the true way of the Wakan Tanka, and when ruin came upon us, we chose not to understand. Some chose to think life made no sense, that it was a passing riddle of the world. Some chose to believe the Wakan Tanka would give us victory in the end. No one dared say the Wakan Tanka had turned their backs on us because we had turned our backs on them first. No. It is not that they did not dare say it. It was that they could not conceive of it. There is no protection for us in the things of the Mniaskan. And here is no protection for us in your promises.”
The old man was nodding, as if fighting off sleep. His voice had dropped to just above a whisper. I had to strain to hear him. He then held silent, staring at the fire. The two women stared at the fire too. I fancied they looked within it at something visible to them but not to me.
“We are not afraid,” the old man said at last in a low voice. “The wind blows in one direction in the morning and then turns and blows back in the afternoon. Your pride will not allow you to look to the Wakan Tanka, as our pride has led us to disobey them. My people will stop dying long before yours do. When I see my dead lying in scaffolds, it is your dead I see.”
As he spoke, I became aware of a fire burning at the small of my back, the first sensation I’d had for hours. I felt, or became aware I felt, dizzy, perhaps from the smoke in such a confined space. With a sickening feeling in the pit of my stomach, I realized the world was slipping from me: I was losing consciousness, inexorably. I stared at the old man as a fish stares through water at a shadow on the surface it does not recognize. His face was grim, unmoved.
“You can go,” he said. “You know all we know.”
I came to on my back, face up. The sky was deep blue and so bright it burned my eyes to tears and I had to close them again. My left side and back seemed to be on fire. Squinting, I could see a figure looming above me, no more than a shadow. I could make out a trooper’s blue coat. I blinked a few times and tried to focus my vision. The figure bent over me. I couldn’t focus on his face in all the glare, but he had a bean-pole frame. He said something, but I couldn’t hear him, though I saw his lips move.
Someone’s shadow was now blocking the sun from my eyes and I could see a little better. Other figures gathered around. Two more, then three. They were clearly troopers, though I did not recognize them. I am not sure how long I laid there while they leaned over me, talking, gesturing. Then I began to hear words.
“I don’t see any wounds,” one of the voices said.
“Give him some room. Let him breathe,” another one said.
“Is he ill with something?” the first voice asked.
“Don’t be stupid, Madson,” the one to my left said. “He was just knocked unconscious, likely.”
“By God,” a new voice to my left said. “Lucky son of a gun.”