Ghost Dancer - Part 1

This is Part 1 of a 3-part story.

Image: video screen capture 

The sun beats down unmercifully on mourners as they slowly follow the horse-pulled travois as it bumps up the hill. A rhythmic tattoo of drums sets a somber tone and the clomping of horse hooves navigating the rocky incline keeps time. He knows he should stay in the moment of this solemn occasion, but he fails. The beat of the drums is hypnotic, echoing times past, and his mind follows.


Black Bear travels alone as he follows the cairn-marked trail through the pine woods clinging to the side of the mountain. For the young Apsáalooke brave, the trek to Medicine Circle high in the Bighorn Mountains, which he calls Iisiaxpúatachee Isawaxaawúua, is an important rite of passage. He walks in the footsteps of his ancestors to the place built before the light came. There he will make a vision quest. Again.

This is not his first vision quest. He has made this journey before, and his days of fasting and prayer at Medicine Circle have shown him nothing but failure. Black Bear hopes that he is at last worthy. When he performed a sweat ceremony to purify himself before leaving, he prayed that this quest would bring to him a vision and awaken in his heart the knowledge of the Maker of All Things Above. When he reaches Medicine Circle, he will spend four days fasting. He will pray again, this time for bravery and strength in battle.

And he will pray for his mother.


Black Bear’s mother, Masákuŭ, Made to Lead, is a strong woman. She is also protective of her only son and worries each time he rides with the warriors of the tribe, something Black Bear believes has been strong medicine shielding him from success. He has fought among the tribe warriors in many battles and has killed the enemy, but he has yet to count coup.

Anyone can kill. That requires little but a swift arrow and a steady hand. But to count coup, to touch the enemy with your coup stick and live to speak of it later? That is the sign of true bravery.

His wife, Wind That Sings, reassures him, but he still feels like a failure. Wind That Sings is the daughter of the chief of the Many Lodges. She and her family agreed readily to their union, but he can’t see how they could view him as anything more than a mere boy. That's how he sees himself.

And he lays all of this at the feet of Made to Lead. He strongly suspects that in her concern for her safety, his mother has interceded and asked her powerful spirit guide to protect him.

Fighting his humiliation, Black Bear had gone to her and pleaded.

“Made to Lead, my mother whom I honor above all women… I am no longer a child. It is my place to be on the battlefield with the other men. It is my time to be a strong warrior. You must put aside your fears, and pray instead that I be victorious.” 

“You are meant for other things, Black Bear,” she’d replied calmly, barely looking up from the beading she was doing on a deerskin shirt. As she sewed one pierced seed after another to the tanned leather, she continued. “I  have prayed. I have asked my spirit guide, and she has spoken.”

What other things, my mother,” he’d asked, exasperated and fighting the teardrops threatening to track down his young cheeks. “What other things could I be meant for other than defending Wind That Sings, you and the rest of my people? What could be more important that preventing the Siksika Blackfoot and Lakota from raiding our camps and stealing our women and horses? What?” 

He’d hated the tone he heard sneaking into his voice. He'd sounded like a girl child begging for a doll. 

“Your way will be made clear, my son.” And with that, she turned all of her attention to her beading and he knew the discussion was over.

Black Bear considered going to his father and asking him to intervene. Fox with Bushy Tail was a great warrior who counted many coups; the sleeve of his war shirt bore the scalps to prove it so to all he met in battle.  But he knew it was useless. When it came to matters of family, the women of the tribe made the decisions. Especially this woman.

And then Wind That Sings became heavy with his child. Black Bear was desperate; his heart filled with angst. It must be that his child be born to a noble warrior. It must.

On a dark, frigid night at the wane of the Wolf Moon, Black Bear visited the medicine lodge where the Council of Elders gathered. 

He paused just inside the entrance to the lodge and stood before the circle of men who sat around the fire in the middle of the large tipi. Each was wrapped in a heavy striped blanket to protect old bones from the bitter cold of the nearly moonless night. One of the men, Runs With Wild Horses, beat a slow tattoo on a small drum made of bison hide stretched over a hollowed out piece of wood cut from the heart of the tall tree, which he held nestled in the crook of his crossed legs. The elders rocked to the drum rhythm as they chanted their prayers.  

Black Bear waited silently until one of old men acknowledged his presence. Then he crept closer to the warmth of the fire, taking the seat the elder had indicated.

Kaheé, Bull Goes Hunting,” he said in greeting to a very old, white-haired Crow seated cross-legged on the opposite side of the fire. 

The old man raised rheumy eyes to Black Bear, and lifted an arthritis-gnarled hand indicating he was welcome.

Kaheé, Seeks the Enemy.” He greeted each of the other elders in turn to show his respect. “Kaheé.”

“Venerable ones, I come for your guidance and wisdom. I beg, hear me. Why have I not proven myself? When will I become a true warrior? When will come the day I bear the name of my ancestor?” he asked the wise elders of the tribe.

Black Bear yearns for the day he will be given the name of a respected ancestor, which can only come after he has counted coup in battle. 

Source: North American Indian
Edward S. Curtis (1907)
 Bull Goes Hunting is the oldest man in the tribe, his face is pleated with age. He spoke softly, forcing Black Bear to lean closer in order to hear his words.

“Young one, I have heard crying in the night as I wander in my sleep. And when I awaken, tears walk my face. There is much danger ahead.” 

As he spoke, Bull Goes Hunting gently moved his hands in illustration.

“Sit down this day; there come many days in which you will show yourself brave. And, my son, though your bravery will at first be rejected by those who most need it, it will be very great in the eyes of He That Knows All. You must persevere.”

While Black Bear pondered the picture of the future that the wizened man -- whom he knew was once fearsome in battle, a man of many coups -- had drawn on the air, the drumbeat began again and the elders chanted affirmation of Bull Goes Hunting’s words. When the drums stopped, the old man spoke again.

“Now you will join us and smoke as we sing to Morning Star to bring you patience.

As the pipe was passed from man to man, the gathered Crow sang the Holy Tobacco Song to the beat of the drum.

“Itsihtsé aáshpami, hu; itsihtsé aáshpami...”

Black Bear shared tobacco with the elders. Then, after thanking them for their wisdom and blessing, he’d left the lodge, more confused than when he’d arrived. If Bull Goes Hunting said it, it must be true. 

Still, Black Bear worries.


On the night of his third sleep at Medicine Circle, Black Bear has eaten nothing for two suns. He prays  earnestly, his voice raised in a wail. 

“He That Always Listens, hear my plea. My teardrops fall to the ground.”

He uses the knife he holds and slices into the first joint of a finger, allowing the blood to soak into the soil of the Medicine Circle.

“Look upon me. My blood enriches the land. Let me vanquish all who threaten my people. May enemies cower beneath my stare."

Black Bear raises his eyes skyward and adds softly, "And may Born To Lead find peace with her warrior son.”

As he sleeps that night, he hears the slow beat of a drum. At first, the drumbeats seem distant, but soon they come close, bringing with them a small herd of bishée. As the drums grow louder, so does the pounding of the bison hooves running past him. But Black Bear has no fear. 

He knows that his soul has been visited by Akbatsivekyáti, Little One That Tells Things, who will call his medicine spirit, his hŭpádhiŭ, to instruct his soul.  Soon, the hŭpádhiŭ comes and speaks to his soul, so softly that even the soul cannot hear. He scarcely believe the words that the spirit has breathed into him, but he knows now what he must do.

Continued in Part 2 


Written for the Tenth Daughter of Memory


  1. you're building this up very nicely, good characterizations

  2. Haha! I'll be back to read this, but I kid you not... just a couple of days ago, I was researching the bio of Jack Wilson/Wovoka.

  3. Oh my gosh, that knife got me.

  4. Your longer stories are consistently good. You obviously do your research very well because you present a truly authentic voice!

  5. There's an effort here that's keeping me in the story, but the names of the characters are bothering me. I'm hoping they're based on actual naming conventions, but given the research I've been doing for a project, they seem "pop-culture Indian" to me.

    Are they real?


Thoughts? I would love to hear from you.