Each morning, armed with an incense stick, I go to the back to have a talk with Kwan-yin, the Asian goddess of compassion. I’ve done my meditation, fed Aussie; now it’s Kwan-yin’s turn. I used to chant for years, reciting the names of people who were ill or just needed help. Now, I pray.
Rather, I should say that I lean into my heart to find what’s there. There are people I pray for, words don’t necessarily do the trick. Instead, I quietly stand before her and lean inside, listening rather than speaking my request. Listening to Henry breathing softly at my feet (he loves to accompany me to Kwan-yin with his ball), the bird calls, creak of trees with their drenched roots, but behind all those is silence. No requester, no requestee, stillness bigger than anything. Sometimes I find words, sometimes I don’t.
Still, a message is sent. A message is received.
In the winter of 2014, Bernie and I flew out to South Dakota to prepare for the big Native American retreat due to take place the following summer. Genro Gauntt, who had dreamed of and pushed for such a retreat for years, only to see it postponed again and again, met us at the Rapid City airport. We picked up a Lakota friend, Tuffy Sierra, drove to the Black Hills, and stayed the night in Deadwood.
The next day we drove around the Black Hills, the most gorgeous area I’d ever seen in the US mainland. After that, on to the Pine Ridge Reservation and, for the first time, saw Wounded Knee in a freezing twilight, guided by a boy wearing only a sweater and sneakers, more holes than fabric.
The next day we met Birgil Kills Straight, traditional leader and medicine man of the Oglala Lakota, in Kyle. Birgil had known about the retreat for a long time, but he was cantankerous that day, by turns ambivalent and sometimes truculent, berating the wasicu—us—for various things, broken promises from the past to now.
Given Genro’s insistence that we get Birgil’s blessing for the retreat, the meeting wasn’t auspicious. We were looking to lock things up, invite many people, arrange to build some retreat infrastructure at a secluded site in the Black Hills, and Birgil refused to say anything positive, his foot tapping the floor, his knuckle tapping the table. It didn’t help that his hearing wasn’t good.
As we left, somewhat discouraged, he invited us to a sweat lodge ceremony at his home. Sweats are used for purification, helping us sweat out bad toxins and energies, restoring stability and balance. We were exhausted after cramming so much into a few days and were flying home early the next morning, but Genro said that we can’t refuse.
Birgil had a small sweat lodge outside his home. I put on a skirt, but the only top I had with me was a burgundy-colored, long-sleeved turtleneck. By the time we’d arrived, a small group of men had already heated up the stones in the firepit. Birgil invited us in. As the only woman there, I sat to the very side of the circle.
The door was shut, Birgil said prayers, water was poured on the rocks, the steam rose. In minutes my body was wet through, the turtleneck top drenched. Perspiration doused my face. I’d been sitting for a number of years by then, but not like this. What am I doing here, I wondered.
Birgil said a prayer and the door was opened, mercifully cooling us. He said another prayer, then barked: “Marko!”
I looked up, not understanding what was expected.
“Just say a prayer,” Genro whispered.
Me? Not Bernie, our great leader? Without thinking much, I did so. I have no memory of what I said. Birgil then nodded towards Bernie, who did the same, followed by Genro, who gave a longer prayer than either of us.
The door was closed, more water was poured on the hot stones in the firepit, and even more steam and smoke arose than before. If I had thought the first round was hot, I couldn’t summon the words to describe how I felt now. My clothes clung to my skin, which felt like it was burning. My eyes began to tear. I settled down, and now, for the first time, settled in.
Inside hot, outside dripping wet, unmoving. Eventually, there was a silence behind the heat and the wetness. Tried to stay with it, all the time feeling like I was burning up, almost disappearing.
The round ended, the door was flung open to blessedly cool air. Birgil muttered some words in Lakota, then “Marko!” Again me? By now I knew what I had to do, so again I offered up a prayer, this time for thanks. Again, he asked Bernie to follow, then Genro.
The doors shut, more water was poured on even hotter stones, and we began the third round. I’d been told that when wasicu joined the Indians for a sweat, the Indians took pity on us and didn’t heat it up as strongly as they did for themselves. But for me this was practically intolerable. The breath seemed to stay in my lungs, as if I could no longer exhale, burning my insides. My eyes were so filled with tears that I closed them, feeling hot eyelids.
But for some reason I went deep inside more quickly this time, smoke in my nostrils. My stomach felt deflated, as if withdrawing from the heat, but something else was there that had nothing to do with heat or cold. And from there, words emerged.
At the end of this last round the doors opened, and once again Birgil Kills Straight, after intoning his prayer in Lakota, barked: “Marko!” And this time I expressed the prayer for the summer’s retreat, for the healing of the Black Hills and the Lakota people, and for opening the hearts of everyone who would be attending.
When we left the sweat lodge, the sky was black and clear, holding up many stars. My clothes were soggy even in the freeze outside. I felt like I’d lost half my body.
“Why did he call on me first?” I said to Genro. “Why didn’t he call on Bernie? Not to mention that I’m a woman.”
“Maybe he forgot his name,” Genro said with a laugh.
We flew home the next day, uncertain about whether the retreat will happen or not. But the morning after we arrived in Massachusetts I took our two dogs into the woods, and though the dogs were nowhere to be seen, a stag ran towards me from deep inside the forest, running by me with just feet to spare.
The retreat took place that summer, with Birgil in attendance, and has continued every year, including this summer.
Birgil Kills Straight died in the winter of 2019. Deep respect and appreciation to him.