April 25th, 2018

“Nuk nu’waat!”

That was one of Bobby’s favorite phrases. It roughly translates to: “It’s done!” Chief Bobby would use those words to end a circle ceremony. Up until Bobby said, “Nuk nu’waat”, members of the circle could speak their minds (at least in theory). After Bobby said that phrase, nobody was allowed to make any further comments. Bobby told us that it was important for us, as a group, to follow this protocol. Otherwise, he said, “We will not look strong.”

“Nuk nu’waat” encapsulates Bobby’s style of leadership. He ran everything. He was The Man. For the most part, I was okay with that. Bobby could do whatever he wanted to do. I was just along for the ride (or walk). I have spent most of my life being in charge of something, so I was good with somebody else handling everything. I slipped back into my old Army mode, and just waited for somebody to tell me what to do. I didn’t need to know all the details of the operation, and Bobby certainly had no intention of discussing them with me.

This “walk” was very different from other walks I have done. By rights, it should been called “The Longest Drive”, because that is what we mostly did. This journey was also different in other ways. I remember with previous walks that, at the end of the day, we would all gather together and discuss the events of the day, and talk about what we might change or do better. That never happened on the Longest Walk. We might gather up in a circle at the day’s end, but it was usually only Bobby that spoke. The rest of us were there mostly to listen.

Bobby often made plans and then changed them, sometimes without telling other people about the changes. For instance, on the day before Easter Sunday, Bobby had told us that we were going to attend the Christian religious services on the rez the next morning to talk to the congregations about the walk. We were sleeping at the Lodgepole High School that night. We got up early and hung around the high school until noon on Easter, but we never went to any of the church services. Why? I don’t know. Nobody knew. Apparently, Bobby decided that he didn’t want to attend the services, so none of us did. Instead we went to the Easter egg hunt in the afternoon. That was actually fun. The kids were madly running around in a field full of snow and horse manure to find eggs that would win them bicycles. There was also a rumor that two of the eggs contained $100 bills. That motivated people.

As I mentioned earlier, I was usually fine going with the flow. As long as somebody had some kind of a plan, I was willing to follow. I was satisfied to observe and learn from others. Then things got weird.

We drove in a snowstorm from Billing, Montana south into Wyoming. The plan, as I understood it, was for us drive all day and then camp out some place near Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota. The roads sucked. Everything was snow-covered and slick. Our gypsy caravan crawled along I-25. The trailer that Tony was pulling behind the F-250 had an unfortunate tendency to fishtail in the wind and the snow. Gilbert burned a little sage and cedar in our car, in the vain hope that it would keep on rolling.

Bobby and Chief Kindness pulled into a rest stop just inside the northern boundary of Wyoming. The rest of us followed them into the stop. We gathered around their camper. Bobby brought out an object wrapped in a scarlet cloth. It was a chanupa, a peace pipe. We stood in the wind and the weather to listen to Bobby. The following is not an exact quote of what he said, but it is close.

Bobby told us all, “We are not going to Pine Ridge. We are going further to Illinois. We have to keep this quiet. I don’t want anybody posting our whereabouts on Facebook. If you can’t stay off Facebook, then you can be left off at the bus station in Casper. This is for your own safety. Anybody want out?”

Nobody wanted out. Bobby lit up the chanupa and we passed it around the circle. We all took a hit, and then we moved on.

Bobby never told us where we were going in Illinois. We were all just following him. It was a journey of three days. We drove through freezing rain and snow. The Nissan died in western Nebraska, and we abandoned it there. We slept in rest areas and redneck truck stops. After the Nissan quit, I was seriously considering going with the bus stop idea. Bobby convinced me to keep riding along. I’m glad that he did that.

I don’t like secrecy. I never have. I grew up in a family where everything was a deep, dark secret. I didn’t mind so much that our group of walkers was driving across the country on an open-ended road trip. It did bother me that we seemed to be hiding from someone, and that Bobby seemed to be hiding things from the rest of us. The talk about this change in plan being for our “own safety” made me very uneasy. I felt like I had joined a cult.

When we arrived at Greg’s place in southern Illinois, everyone rested and relaxed. It was a wonderful place to be. However, the secrecy continued. Bobby never told us how long we would be staying with Greg, or where we we were going afterward. Everybody just kind of shrugged and hung out, waiting for Bobby to make some kind of decision.

The obvious question would be: “Why didn’t I just ask bobby what was going on?” That is hard to explain. Part of it goes back to my time in the Service, when I got used to not asking questions. Also, at least for me, it was difficult to feel relaxed around Bobby. I felt a distance between us. It wasn’t anybody’s fault. It was just there.

I went home from the campsite in Illinois. I had a medical issue, and my wife drove seven hours to get me. I’m not sure that I would have stayed with the group even if I had remained healthy. The dynamics in the group itself did not seem healthy.

Bobby was admirable in many ways. He was extremely dedicated. He truly cared about the people in the group. When I was in the Army, there was a saying: “Mission first, men always.” Bobby exemplified that. I am convinced that he cared about me, as a person. I still care about him.

I never discovered if Bobby’s style of leadership was typical for a Native American, or if  it was just how Bobby rolled. Maybe that is how a chief runs his tribe. Maybe Bobby’s way of handling things was normal. Maybe that is how it had to be. I don’t know. All I know is that, because of the secrecy, I eventually stopped trusting him.

After Karin brought me home and I had the medical problem checked out, I looked on Facebook to see where the Longest Walk was. They had gone from Illinois directly to Washington, D.C.  The show was over.

Nuk nu’waat.





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