The Vision Keepers Excerpts

Book Overview

Here's an excerpt from The Vision Keepers, in which a group participating in the cross-continental Walk For the Earth, which Doug coordinated, attended a "Throwing the Ball" ceremony on the Pine Ridge Lakota Reservation in South Dakota, a ritual that hadn't been observed in several years:

FIrst Day Walk for the Earth

Final Day - Walk for the Earth

After walking twelve miles, we shuttled off the route to meet Charlotte Black Elk, whom the other scouts and I had met earlier at Wounded Knee . Charlotte had invited us to an occasion where two ceremonies were to take place - "Releasing the Spirit" and "Throwing the Ball." They were to be held in an open, grassy field surrounded by forested hills. The elder Black Elk had lived in the area. We walkers were the first to arrive. Buzzards soared lazily over distant treetops on a warm, sunny afternoon.

Slowly, on "Indian time," Lakota people began to appear, about two hundred in all. As we did not see Charlotte , we were feeling out of place. But soon Zach showed up in an old sedan, smiling and nodding when he saw us. Then Charlotte and others drove in, pulling a long horse trailer. Our excitement started building.

Zach motioned for everyone to make a wide circle. Sage was burned. With its purifying smoke permeating the air, Charlotte handed out copies of Black Elk's descriptions of the two ceremonies. Few would have known them otherwise, as these rituals are not often observed in modern times.

Zach slowly stepped into the circle's center. Praying aloud in Lakota, he first raised a pipe to the sky, followed by a huge, painted buffalo skull. Then he raised a buckskin bag and a painted box. The bag, which had been kept in the box, contained some hair of Charlotte 's father, Black Elk's son, who had died a year before. By this means, her father's soul was believed to have been contained in the box, so that it could be purified in preparation for meeting Wakan-Tanka, a collective term for the spirits of all beings, or The Great Spirit. According to Black Elk's teachings, the soul had to be kept this way for a year in a pure place by one who led a clean lifestyle - by a person, that is, with good thoughts, prayers, and deeds. In return for this help, the rest of the people gained knowledge from the purifying soul. Hence, all life on earth benefited in the process.

In a type of communion service, a glowing pipe was passed around the circle, followed by buffalo meat and chokecherry juice that represented the body and blood of the man. Then, the box was opened and the soul released. Several onlookers wept for joy. The soul was now free to travel the spirit path to the Milky Way, attaining union with Wakan-Tanka. The entire spirit world was supposed to rejoice, and, by the tingling I felt, I believed it to be true.

So unusual was this ceremony to missionaries that it was outlawed by the United States government in 1890; a date was set whereby all souls had to be released.

Personally, I liked the ritual of releasing a soul better than that of burying a body. The mood was different than at most funerals, as there seemed to be an understanding and appreciation of the spirit world and of the two-way benefits that can occur.

For the next ceremony, Charlotte's four-year-old daughter was brought to the circle's center. Zach handed her a red-and-blue buffalo skin ball, about the size of a child's fist. According to Black Elk's written description, the red represented the world and the blue the heavens; thus, heaven and earth were united in the ball. The young girl symbolized the beginning stage of life, the first of four, and she also represented the Mother Earth and the generations to come. She was to throw the ball to all four directions and then straight up - to Wakan-Tanka. Only a few in the crowd would be able to catch the ball. They represented the few people in life - though many strive for it - who reach a special closeness with Wakan-Tanka and achieve wahupa, enlightenment.

With the painted buffalo skull, Zach gently nudged the girl toward the crowd gathering in the west. With help from her older sister, she raised her arm and threw the ball. A mad scramble ensued. The ball was batted down; it rolled across the ground. People dove and jostled for it as if it were a winning home-run ball hit into the bleachers. Finally, a young man gave a yelp and emerged from the clutch. He held out the ball toward the four directions, and then to the sky and earth, before returning it to the girl. Charlotte brought the smiling young man a gift—a pony! Now I understood: There were more than spiritual riches to be gained.

When the ball was thrown to the north, I tried hard to catch it. It whizzed by like prairie winds. If the ball represented enlightenment, then enlightenment surely could be fleeting. As Black Elk said in The Sacred Pipe: "The game as it is played today represents the course of a man's life, which should be spent in trying to get the ball, for the ball represents Wakan-Tanka, or the universe. . . . In the game today it is very difficult to get the ball, for the odds - which represents ignorance - are against you."

Soon a lucky woman held up the north ball. Many in the crowd gave a big yelp. A few moaned. She, too, acknowledged the directions and received a pony.

Next the girl threw the ball to the east, the direction from where the hairy Europeans first emerged onto the continent. It popped from one person's hand to another. No one could grasp it. At last, the ball just fell into the hands of John Montrose, one of our walkers. He hadn't been scrambling for it; he had simply been standing nearby.

Sometimes, enlightenment comes when we are not attached to the outcome.

When a colt was brought to John, we were all smiles. "Hey, John, now you can ride all the way to the East Coast!" I teased.

A young Lakota girl was standing nearby. John handed her the reins. "Here, it is yours," he said to her. The look on the girl's face was one of surprise and disbelief. Onlookers nodded their heads, approving.

There are certain moments that you know at the time you will cherish for the remainder of your life. They may be fleeting - faces, feelings, words, actions - but they can permanently impact who you are and how you relate to the world. When John won that pony - and promptly gave it away - I knew I was in one of those moments. His selfless act reflected positively on us all.

The south direction was next, and another pony was soon given away.

Then the girl threw the ball for the fifth and last time. She threw it straight up, representing the center of the universe. Black Elk said, "It is a little girl, and not an older person, who stands at the center and who throws the ball. This is as it should be, for just as Wakan-Tanka is eternally youthful and pure, so is this little one, who has just come from Wakan-Tanka, pure and without any darkness. Just as the ball is thrown from the center to the four quarters, so Wakan-Tanka is at every direction and is everywhere in the world; and as the ball descends upon the people, so does His power."

Without Black Elk's book, perhaps the ceremony - and its important symbolism - would have been lost.

After the ritual came a feast of corn, chokecherry cobbler, buffalo meat, and buffalo tripe, nearly the entire animal being used to show proper respect. Then Charlotte spoke to us. She wore a striking, black dress adorned with elk teeth and beaded bear-paw designs. "When I was growing up," she began, "I did some of these seven sacred rites of the Sioux with my family, such as the puberty rites. I thought everyone did them, but I later learned that we were about the only ones.

"This ceremony takes the commitment of a whole family. For instance, my daughter has been reared in a special way to prepare her for the ball throwing ritual. Now, I have held all seven of the sacred Sioux ceremonies that my grandfather described. I am finished, but others have now seen them, and so they will continue. We haven't been conducting these ceremonies much because we need a buffalo for them, and the buffalo have been almost extinct. But now they are coming back!"

After we helped Charlotte clean up, she asked if we could give a Lakota grandmother a ride home. "No problem," we replied.

The elderly woman was gentle and had a sweet smile. We helped her climb into Mikel's van, one of our support vehicles; she pointed the way to her house. Her voice was soft and youthful. "I haven't attended this ceremony since I was four years old," she said wistfully. "Then I was the little girl throwing the ball."

Walking in the Sierras

Walk Map

Three chapters that covered the European segment of the Walk for the Earth, which embarked from Stonehenge and ended in Delphi in 1985, didn't make it into the book. Click here to read them.

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