Wambli Sina Win: Into forever, the last footsteps of holy people

The Red Road has led me down many paths, through the mountains and valleys and what Christians would call the “Valley of Death.” It has been a gift to share this walk with some Heyoka holy men during my lifetime, Chief Frank Fools Crow, Chief Lame Deer (Tahca Uste), Joe Eagle Elk, his father George Eagle Elk, Pete Catches, Sr., Frank Arrow Sight as well as others. I mourn their absence as an Indian who is living the cultural extinction of being Indian. Do you not look today and shed a tear for those who remain in yesterday, who and what will never be again in tomorrow?

Many of the holy men were also Heyoka (sacred clowns). Long ago tribes had more of these Heyoka among their people. Today, the Heyoka are all but extinct with the exception of my son, Wiconi, and maybe two or so from the Southwest who live among the Hopi and the Dine. Although the traditional Lakota may have laughed at the antics of a sacred clown, they also feared and respected the Heyoka for the supernatural power they possessed. It was often the Heyoka who fearlessly stood between the people and the enemy either as a defensive shield or an offensive weapon. The Heyoka were foremost among all “Chiefs,” known for their perfect faith and fearlessness. First to go into battle, they were prepared to give up their lives for their people without a second thought.

Among the Lakota, three Heyoka Chiefs fought and helped win the greatest victory of our people over the United States military at the Battle of Little Big Horn in 1876. Those chiefs were: Chief Sitting Bull (Hunkpapa), Chief Rain-in-the-Face (Hunkpapa/Shaheyela) and Chief Crazy Horse (Oglala). Each Heyoka Chief contributed to this great victory in their own way. Chief Sitting Bull, the statesman and shield for his people, fasted, prayed and sacrificed over one hundred pieces of his own flesh at a Sun Dance. He had a vision of soldiers falling out of the sky. During the Battle of the Little Big Horn, Chief Sitting Bull, suffering from wounds of his flesh offering sacrifice, prayed speaking his vision for victory and as weak as he was, managed to doctor a few warriors.

Another Chief, Crazy Horse, the powerful offensive weapon of the Oglala, was a brilliant military strategist. At the Battle of the Little Big Horn, Chief Crazy Horse led many fearless charges into the heat of the battle, inspiring the young warriors to take heart and fight to the death. Chief Rain-in-the-Face, both a shield and a weapon for his people, is known as the Chief who counted coup on Long Hair, Custer, and wiped him out.

It’s been 136 years since the Battle of the Little Big Horn. Since that time, the white man has continued to force acculturation upon our people and to systematically destroy what is left of our sacred ceremonies and spirituality. Yet the Heyoka, an endangered species, has not completely disappeared. After all these years, very little is known or understood about the mysterious Heyoka, born with the supernatural gift of prophesy, the ability to call the spirits, handle hot stones without being burned, and the gift to heal. Chief Sitting Bull is an example of one who had the power to heal but whose primary calling was not to be a healer.

A true Heyoka is chosen before birth by Wakan Tanka, and the Thunder Birds. Even though many might aspire to become a Heyoka, it is not possible unless you are born a Heyoka. Who in their right mind would ever be envious of a Heyoka if they knew all that was involved? Who would seek a life of sacrifice and loss? No Lakota parent who understood the heavy burden would wish the life of a Heyoka for their own child. A child marked by the Thunder Beings could not run from or escape their vision. Wise elders were fearful for they knew that the great vision from the West would make a stranger of their loved one for the child now belonged to his spiritual creator, the Thunder Bird.

Consider the aforementioned Chiefs- Sitting Bull, Rain-in-the-Face, Crazy Horse, Frank Fools Crow, Lame Deer, and the other holy people, Joe and George Eagle Elk, Pete Catches, Sr., and Frank Arrow Sight. What set them apart from ordinary men? None were perfect, yet each undeniably had supernatural powers. They were Heyoka and holy men. Holy people can do exceptional things and holiness shows itself. Every holy man is a Heyoka but not every Heyoka is a holy man. Holiness is a mystery unto itself but as a mother to part of this mystery, I have seen what many would call “miracles.”

Have you ever seen a person who could command the clouds and part them with a prayer? Have you ever seen a sacrifice where a person has given part of his life for another? Have you ever been present when a person with terminal cancer has been healed or impossible circumstances changed? Which is the greater miracle? The Oglala and Eastern Shawnee may not realize it but they have among their people one of the last genuine Heyoka, a living treasure, my son Wiconi.

During a sweat lodge ceremony in the spring of 2006 at Green Grass, SD, Arvol Looking Horse, Keeper of the White Buffalo Calf Pipe, Arvol talked condescendingly to my son Wiconi as if he were a child, instead of the Heyoka holy man that he is. Since my son sat by the door, Arvol told him to go get his lighter. Instead of getting Arvol’s lighter, my son walked over to the fire pit, stuck his hand into the fire pit and picked up a hot coal with his bare hands. My son handed it to Arvol who could not hold it. Arvol asked him to put the coal on top of the pipe.

Inside the lodge, my son handled and moved the hot stones in the center, again with his bare hands. I did not understand why Arvol was so fearful because I had seen my son do this many times. Strangely, after he saw this, Arvol and his brother would not smoke Arvol’s own pipe. Later I heard my son tell Arvol that the Grandfathers (Thunder Being spirits) instructed him to tell Arvol that they were watching him.

The Eastern Shawnee Ceremonial Chief, Shawn King, asked my Heyoka son to build him a sweat lodge and I was there when he constructed it in May of 2009. Strange mysterious things happened on that day. In an interview on June 1, 2012, Chief King stated, “On the day the sweat lodge was blessed, there were about twenty of us there, mostly tribal members. I remember it was a warm day. The sun was out and the skies were clear. As Wiconi faced the West and prayed, I noticed a tear rolling down his cheek. There was a black cloud moving fast from the west. The cloud moved counterclockwise, to the south, east, north and then back to the west. The wind picked up. Right over us, it thundered and there was lightning. I felt the rain drops and saw it rain on the sweat lodge and over those of us standing there. Never saw anything like that!”

Since that time, my Heyoka son has been invited to Seneca, Missouri many times to conduct sweat lodge ceremonies and I have gone with him on all of his trips. My Heyoka son speaks of his vision and charges the fire, slinging the fire off the stones in the Heyoka fashion and handles the hot stones. But sadly among the acculturated Eastern Shawnee Tribe, there is very little understanding, respect or appreciation for my son and the help he has given.

The traditional way is to pray for the people first. And then to pray for things that money cannot buy such as peace, health or happiness. If a person has an individual request, there is a protocol and a way to make this request. If the prayer is granted, the person should honor the Grandfathers (spirits) first with a thanksgiving and also the holy man or spiritual person.

In one ceremony, an Eastern Shawnee tribal member, a young man, either out of ignorance or selfishness, or both, completely ignored the protocol. He prayed only for himself and his family. He wanted his mother healed from cancer and he wanted a woman. I heard my son say “Ho hetchetu welo” so it shall be.

The young man’s prayers were answered but he never gave a thanksgiving to the Grandfathers (spirits) or to my son. Not so much as an eagle feather. There is no “free lunch” and what was granted can also be taken back by the Grandfathers. When one does not appreciate or have a grateful heart for what was given, the Grandfathers may become angry for the lack of respect to themselves and to the holy person and the consequences can be harsh.

Chief King recalled that my son has made prophesies which have all come true. He told me about a particular one. Two days prior to an April 2010 Business Committee meeting, my son told him that the meeting would be contentious as a Resolution to name Chief King as the Ceremonial Chief was going to be voted on but my son promised to be there to help.

As it turns out on that day, something came up which prevented my son from attending. He called Chief King and told him to pray, to look upwards to the skies and he would see clouds from the West. Chief King called back and said the skies were clear. My son told Chief King to have faith and know that he would be with him in spirit. Chief King said he did as he was told, he prayed hard and as the meeting was getting started, he felt the wind pick up.

According to Chief King, “A dark cloud came over the Blue Jacket Building from the West. There was thunder and lightning and a sprinkle of rain. Mysteriously, everyone settled down and the Resolution naming me Chief passed as Wiconi had predicted it would.”

Another time in October 2010, at a sweat lodge ceremony in Keys, OK., Chief King recalled that as we waited to go into a sweat lodge ceremony to be run by my son, “It was a full moon and Wiconi said to look up towards the West. Do you remember the head of a buffalo that appeared over the moon? It was like a man but it was a buffalo. It was kind of illuminated and really eerie.” This is part of the holiness and great mystery of the Heyoka.

Recently in May of 2012, I was present at a meeting of one of the last of the traditional Southern Cheyenne pipe makers, Frank Sheridan, and my son, one of the last Heyoka. Ironically both share the same fate of extinction. Long ago, among traditional Shaheyela, pipe makers such as Frank were highly respected and honored. Interestingly, their last Heyoka, Wesley White Man passed away thirty or forty years ago.

As a holy man, you would expect that my Heyoka son would sit while Frank would kneel but I saw my Heyoka son do the opposite. He kneeled on one knee and took Frank’s hand while he listened to Frank speak of his troubles. My son then prayed as he spoke. I saw a transformation in my son that I and others have seen before many times. The clouds from the West moved overhead to directly above us.

My son called out to the Thunder Beings in prayer. I saw a tear run down his cheek as he spoke of his vision. A gentle rain began to fall upon us though it was not raining anywhere else. Part of my son’s sacred prayer was this: “Though my life and those of my Brothers have not made a great difference to this world and my face will soon be no more within the living world and the Thunder Bird Nation will not speak with man or ever be close to a living man again, I am the last of my kind and alone, but I know you Thunder Bird Nation will hear your sparrow’s call for the people.”

Then my son raised his hand to the sky. He said “Hiya” (no more), waved his hand and rain stopped. I will remember this day and all the holy things I saw forever. As I reminisce about the days past and spend time with my son, I know that all too quickly, he too will be walking into forever.

Wambli Sina Win is an Associate Professor and Director of the Bacone College Criminal Justice Studies Dept. in Muskogee, OK. Her grandfather was John Fire, Chief Lame Deer, Tahca Uste, a well known Lakota Holy Man from the Rosebud Sioux Indian Reservation in SD. One of her sons is a Heyoka (Thunder Dreamer). She has served as a Tribal Judge for the Oglala Sioux Tribal Court, as an Assistant U.S. Attorney, a Tribal Judge, a Tribal Attorney and as a Legal Instructor for the U.S. Indian Police Academy at Artesia, NM. You may contact Wambli Sina Win at wamblisinaw@gmail.com.

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