Emory Report
July 6, 2009
Volume 61, Number 34


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July 6, 2009
‘Journeys’ in sacred circles

Gary Hauk is vice president and deputy to the president.

I sit in darkness so complete that I cannot see my fingers in front of my face. Heat envelops me; sweat pours down my face and off my elbows like water from a faucet. I wonder whether I can tolerate the claustrophobia for more than 10 minutes. So far I have been sitting here, Indian-style, maybe two. The schedule calls for two hours.

“Here” is a Cheyenne sweat lodge in a field beside the Tongue River in southeastern Montana. Shaped like an igloo 4 feet high and 10 feet across, the willow-branch frame is draped by layers of canvas staked to the ground to keep light out and heat in. On this May morning I have crawled into this artificial cave with nine other men and women for a ritual of the Native American Church.

Seven of us are from Emory, unbaptized into these mysteries, on a “Journey” sponsored by the Office of Religious Life. The other three are brothers surnamed Medicine Bull, college-educated teachers from the Northern Cheyenne nation. This morning they are our priests, our guides through two hours of chanting, ablutions, alternating darkness and light. And much sweating.

In these circumstances — heat, blindness, confinement— I become conscious of two claims on my attention. First is my own state of being — my breathing; sweat dripping off my chin; the condition of my soul. Seven years have passed since my last journey to “Indian country,” and that trip preceded by two months the death of my 16-year-old son. In the week since our group landed in Billings, his spirit has been as fiercely present to me as an old shaman.

I am also aware of the others in the darkness with me, friends with whom I’ve made this pilgrimage. Students, alumni and staff members, we have spent six days meeting with professionals in the Indian Health Service and the Bureau of Indian Affairs, law enforcement officers, and Indian artists, educators and legislators. We have aimed to understand the different cultures that mix and overlap and sometimes clash here.

What stands out is the great paradox of Native American life in the 21st century: tribal affiliation is as much as ever a source of pride and rootedness, while economic realities erode the individual’s connection to that source. Wanting to live among their own people, Indians may have no choice but to leave the reservation to make a living, thereby putting at risk their sense of belonging. On the reservations in Montana, unemployment ranges as high as 65 percent; if at all possible, Indians stay. During the past 40 years the American Indian Movement, greater awareness of whites about injustice to Native Americans, and the federal government’s recognition of tribal sovereignty all have reaffirmed the power and value of the tribe.

Inside the sweat lodge I feel that power coming through the chanted prayers of Burt Medicine Bull and his brothers. During one period of light, as the door flap is raised and drinking water is passed around the circle, Burt invites us each to “express yourself” — say what deep need or calling moves us — and then, when darkness falls again with the door flap, to offer a prayer as he and his brothers chant in Cheyenne. The Cheyenne chants on top of the words being prayed — male voices, gourd rattles — transform the prayers into an ancient appeal from the depth of the heart that blends with the darkness around us.

The Native American Church and other forms of spiritual discipline clearly ground tribal members with strength and verity. Such resources of spiritual renewal are vital to people facing stark choices.

At the end of our sweat, we crawl out of the lodge and recover in sunshine. We still have one more pilgrim’s journey to make on this last day of our trip.

The sandstone monolith called Deer Medicine Rocks rises from the valley floor along Rosebud Creek. Here Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, and some 15,000 Sioux and Cheyenne men, women and children paused for a week before moving to the banks of the Little Bighorn and their fated meeting with Custer— “fated,” because Sitting Bull himself had seen a vision of soldiers tumbling headfirst into his camp, their ears missing because they refused to use them.

The site now is part of the ranch owned by Jack Bailey, whose family has owned this land since 1883. Bailey has brought his friend Phillip Whiteman to interpret the signs on the rock. A chief of the Northern Cheyenne Council of Forty-Four, Whiteman has led us in our vehicles from Bailey’s ranch house up the half-mile dirt track to the monolith.

Before us the rock face rises 30 to 40 feet. We see a jagged blue streak, the scar from an ancient lightning
strike. Petroglyphs spread across the rock.

“All of life,” Whiteman says, “travels within a circle. Everything is connected within that circle. In my tradition we call that circle the Medicine Wheel. You are not here by accident, just as Sitting Bull did not come here by accident. It was meant to happen this way.”

I ponder the images, carved from Sitting Bull’s vision, of men falling to their doom because they would not listen. The Emory motto, Cor prudentis possidebit scientiam, is the first half of Proverbs 18:15 and is often translated, “The wise heart seeks knowledge.” The other half of the verse reads, “The ears of the wise seek it out.” We are wise to use our ears, but I wonder what we are not hearing.

My ears seemed most acute as I sat in the dark of the sweat lodge, listening to the sound of my breathing and to the presence of those who, for centuries, have found their way to the same sacred circle.

See the upcoming summer issue of Emory Magazine for a full report from the Montana “Journeys.”