Photo by Michel Dobbs

The riders arrived in late afternoon Saturday.

There were some 6 of them, mostly young people without the proper riding shoes and even, someone pointed out to me, without socks. The day was freezing, with gusts close to 40 mph, and they rode their horses on snow while covering the bottom half of their faces with scarves for protection against the cold. They tied up the horses and brushed them before coming in for a meat soup, some fried chicken, salad, and chocolate chip cookies. Later they would take the horses down to pasture.

Still later, an hours-long talking circle.

During the meal I heard whispers of a young rider living in a van for 2 years, someone else in very mean circumstances in a trailer park. The horses are their salvation. The horses are in their blood. “I did everything in my life,” one man tells me. “I did 12-step programs, psychotherapy, hypnosis. The only thing that helped me were the horses.”

This was a short weekend with our Native American friends at Bear Butte, South Dakota. I got there fast, and got home fast. My travels are usually like that; after doing what I came to do, I rarely stay anywhere an extra day or two to rest, I prefer to get back home as soon as possible. But this was too fast, leaving me not so much tired as confused, carrying in my stomach a rich meal I haven’t yet digested.

We arrived in the aftermath of snow, and while only several inches had fallen, the gusts blew hard all Friday and Saturday. The snow was enough to make travel difficult, especially on the reservations. As a result, only a few people showed up. It was but a momentary disappointment for we sat together with Renee and Manny Ironhawk and a few others, descended from survivors of the Wounded Knee massacre, and the intimacy of the group helped us plunge into stories and discussions. Mostly, I bore witness to how gallant, humble people try to save their culture, language and tradition against so many odds.

My husband, Bernie, felt that we had to awaken to the fact that we’re all one, all one unity. That was as close as he got to a concept of God. Buddhism has the archetype of the Buddha, who sat alone till he had a full experience of this, but Bernie believed that we need others to awaken.

I feel the same. I sit alone or with other meditators practically every day, but my gut tells me that awakening to the deepest essence requires me to meet the Other. And one of those Others (there are many of them) is the Lakota Nation and other Native people who were massacred by white people, whose land was stolen and plundered by white people, whose children were stolen from them and put in boarding schools by white people, and whose strong culture and spiritual traditions were prohibited and taken away by white people. That karma continues to this day.

I, a white woman, has to bear witness to those on the other side of things, people who are minorities in this country by virtue of skin color, religion, gender, or ethnicity. I need this other side to show me things I’ve ignored and am blind to, otherwise what challenges my habitual way of thinking and the assumptions I make, safe in a zone of comfort and entitlement?

Traveling to the Black Hills helps lift the gauze from my eyes. The sky is big, the stars many, and at night the almost-full moon rose behind Bear Butte and shone in the darkness. Buffalo roamed here once. People rode here once, not just a few but many. The earth felt their hooves, and the earth responded.

Joan Halifax wrote: “Start to realize that transformation isn’t an adornment to your existing life, but its complete unraveling.” Back home I study and read books, I gain adornment after adornment till I feel heavy and slow, unable to respond nimbly to life. Out here with the Lakota something begins to unravel.

“Even with all your worries and afflictions,” an elder told the young riders on Saturday evening, “don’t forget your horse. The horse will carry you with everything that you carry.”

photo by Michel Dobbs