April 24th, 2018

I asked Gilbert, “So, what is the big deal with an eagle feather?”

“What do you mean?” he asked me with a quizzical look on his face.

I shot an anxious glance at the low oil light that was glaring red on the dashboard, and then I refocused and said, “Well, for instance, Bobby has an eagle feather staff, and it is really important to him. Why?”

Gilbert took a drag on his cigarette and thought for a moment. He courteously blew the smoke out of the car window. Then he replied,

“Eagles fly closest to our Father, the Sun. Because of that they are sacred. That makes their feathers sacred.”

Gilbert actively looked for eagles while I was driving with him. He was also excited about seeing hawks. These birds were almost magical for him. While we drove through Wyoming and Nebraska, Gilbert would get excited if he saw a hawk anywhere nearby.

“Oh, look! Did you you see that hawk?!”

I would look up from the snow-covered road, and quietly say, “No.”

Gilbert would go on, “It was flying up so high! It was beautiful!”

I checked the engine temperature on the nearly-dead Nissan, and said, “Yeah, cool.”

At one point on the journey across Nebraska, we all stopped on the shoulder of the freeway because Bobby thought he saw an eagle carcass lying on the grassy median. He had to investigate.

There were so many things that I will never understand.

Another time, I asked Gilbert about the different herbs that the Native Americans use as medicines: sweet grass, tobacco, sage, and cedar. I wanted to know what they do, and why the Indians use them. I already had a lot of experience with sage. They used that for smudging, and they used a lot of it. It seemed like nearly everybody smoked, so tobacco was also frequently burned. The sweet grass and the cedar were more exotic, and I didn’t know how or why they were utilized. For instance, in the 2005 Nissan with the 214K miles on it, the portion of the dashboard nearest to the windshield was covered with sage, cedar, and sweet grass. Why?

Gilbert gave me answer that was short and insufficient. He told me,

“Sage attracts good energy and cleanses people and things from bad energy. Sweet grass attracts all energy, so it should only be burned when sage is being burned. Cedar is used as a blessing. Tobacco is used as an offering. When we harvest bits of cedar from a tree, then we offer tobacco to the spirits of that tree.”

When the Nissan finally gave up the ghost, and we blew the engine out at some desolate truck stop fifteen miles west of North Platte, our people emptied the derelict vehicle of everything of value. I remember Bobby saying in frustration,

“Just leave the sage in there! It didn’t work!”

I’m still confused.

While we were camping out on Greg’s property in Illinois, Bobby had Gilbert braid long blades of sweet grass. Gilbert burned sage as he carefully wove the strands of grass together. He told me that he needed to be in constant prayer as he braided the sweet grass.

At the same place, Bobby took out his eagle staff to repair it. He asked me to help. Somebody had attached colored fringes to ends of the eagle feathers using a nasty sort of glue. Bobby and I tried to remove the material and the glue without damaging the feathers. That proved to be impossible. Despite our painstaking care, we still tore away bits of the original feathers. Every tiny bit of feather that was stripped away was also a bit of Bobby’s heart that was torn apart. The staff had been given to Bobby by Dennis Banks. It was a parting gift from Bobby’s friend and mentor. The feathers were not just feathers.

Bobby has his own private shrine. There are things on it that I can’t recognize. I know that he has a buffalo skull as part of the altar. Why? I have no idea. He never talked about it.

Feathers, sage, a buffalo skull… what do all these things mean?

I don’t know, and I will probably never know. Even if the Indians explained it all to me, I still wouldn’t know. Each of these physical objects has a meaning that is multi-layered. The meaning goes deeper than words can go.

As a Catholic, I go to Mass and I receive Communion. How would I adequately explain the value of standing in line to get a cracker and a sip of wine? I wouldn’t be able to explain the experience. Some things cannot be learned vicariously.

I can only understand the value of burning sage by burning sage.



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