By Steven “Walks On The Grass” Maisenbacher
As Bad as it was…
It could always be worse. After 5 months in the hole in Florida I was finally transferred to Yazoo Mississippi. I knew from the moment I stepped into the R&D for intake processing that I wasn’t going to like it much and it sure wasn’t going to be anything like Coleman Low. That chance for a little peace in a good place had been washed up by an idiot with a big mouth and little brain – Chains, you were wrong for doing that.
But, I digress… Funny, I never in my life thought I would use a word like “digress” and I just used it! So thanks for letting me get that one off…
Anyway, it was December and cold, even for Mississippi. They did the usual hoopla and I got the B.S. lecture from the lieutenant. They always come to look me over like I’m some sort of circus animal. He strips me down to look at my tattoos, to see the ones that brand me with my belief system and affiliation and all that. Yeah, I’ve got the great big A.I.M. (American Indian Movement) patch on my right outer calf and the medicine wheel patch in the middle of my chest. I’ve also got the Dancing Eagles Society patch on my right chest. These are the tats the feds use to identify me as me – and I was dumb enough to get decades ago that caused all the ensuing mess since then.
So after that, I’m freezing on my way to the block. When I get there, not a single person in the block is a Native. They tell me where most of the natives live, but I get put right into a cube and start getting settled in. A guy named Rex comes and asks if I knew his brother in Coleman. I did and said so. Then Rex mentioned that I am Native and said he had a bandana that one of his friends left here and asked if I wanted to use it. I’m thinking, Ummm, Yes. The bandana will make me feel complete and centered in the circle representing the hoop and my place within it, as in my beliefs.
Now by this time I had already been gifted a pipe by White Panther and Mountain Heart, both chiefs and pipe carriers that had come into the facility at Gilmore, West Virginia to consecrate the sweat lodge grounds after they found out I had fought so hard to get it. (Chapter 2).
So I get dug in for the evening and I’m planning to catch up with the pipe carrier in the joint to announce my presence and see what the deal is. The very next morning I’m in the chow hall and several Natives come up and sit down at the table. We go thru the usual rounds of introductions and “where ya been and who ya know stuff.” They tell me the pipe carrier is a guy named Iron Rope. Only later I’m to find out this guy is quite a scoundrel and not at all what he is purported to be.
So I finally meet Iron Rope. All’s well and I’m to go to a sweat ceremony that coming Wednesday. Perfect! This will give me a chance to cleanse and get the traveling off me, and get some prayers in. So here comes the sweat; I get out to the area and I see guys laughing and joking. Normally, that’s a good thing, but then I start to notice a lot of profanity and disrespectful behavior to and within an area that is supposed to be sacred. There were candy wrappers scattered around and I see a couple men actually spit on the grounds.
Finally we enter the lodge and I continue taking in all the behaviors I see while trying to get a handle on how they conduct their ceremonies. I’m astounded when I see them bring in several rocks on a shovel; this is not at all done according to the proscribed traditional manner I was taught. When done correctly, the first 7 rocks are brought in one at a time – 7 being the Creator’s number for earth, sky, the four directions and finally for the Creator above.
I’m just a guest at this point. I have not yet asked to be allowed to serve 4 fires to show humility and a willingness to serve the circle and Creator.
So the first door comes down with 20-some rocks and this guy Iron Rope says, “OK, I wanna welcome this new brother and you all know what to do, pray for whatever you need to pray for.”
I’m just amazed that this guy who claims to be a spiritual mentor and pipe carrier would be so cavalier with a sacred ceremony, so un-leading and nonchalant in his directions. At this point, I’m quiet, just going to see how it goes, not going to make waves. And then someone speaks out loud, “Can someone play the drum?”
So then I hear the drum start, no invitation song, no four directions song, just some vocable chanting that didn’t even sound like a real song. As soon as this was over I asked permission to speak to the sweat leader.
“Oh, go ahead,” he says.
“If I may I would like to play a song or two.”
“Please do, brother.”
So I sing the Four Directions Song, then ask if I may play another, the Spirit Calling Song.
After that, he calls for the door. Now I’m thinking it’s strange to do only 2 songs, but again I don’t say anything. Now the 2nd door, or round two of the ceremony begins. This time the sweat leader asks if I have any more songs I could share.
By now it’s obvious that these guys are neither Native nor believers in the medicine teachings. It seemed to me they were just there because their workout buddy was Iron Rope and he was using the lodge like an exclusive club that not just anyone could go to.
So I take off since this guy has offered no direction or explanation to these guys. I briefly explain that since the 2nd door is predominantly for the South, the warmth of the sun the nurturing of creation, it is a round usually dedicated to the women and children. Therefore, I sang a Women And Children’s Song, and as I closed, I asked permission to sing another song. It was of course a Children’s Lullaby sung in Cherokee, to help comfort a disturbed child, soothe them into tranquility with a loving tone and words.
As I closed this song someone spoke right out, “Sing more, sing more.”
I responded that I would love to sing and share more songs with the group; maybe with the sweat leaders permission I could sing a couple more next round.
I think that was the right thing to do and after the sweat was over I said my thanks and appreciation for the brothers allowing me to share some prayers and songs with them. After that, some of the guys asked why I didn’t just sing all the songs since they only knew maybe 3 songs amongst the group.
Then I had to explain that traditionally it is the sweat leader’s position to sing the songs for each round if no one else can or offers and that there are really supposed to be 16 songs per sweat. I explained the whole thing about being a sweat leader or “Hollow Bone” is that you are supposed to be facilitating the spiritual opportunity for the brothers in the lodge. Now I said this in a respectful, diplomatic way so as not to alienate any one, primarily this guy, Iron Rope.
From that moment on some of the brothers would come to me privately wanting to learn songs and ask questions about the traditional ways, so as much as I grew to hate that miserable joint, I also came to understand the Creator needed me there. Two men in particular stand out in my mind.
One was “Walker” an Omaha Indian from Nebraska. He was raised in the inner city, really more white than Native if this is possible for a full-blooded Native American man. Basically, Walker had never been exposed to his culture or the beliefs and practices of his culture until he got to prison and found out about the lodge.
For months, in every spare minute at work, Walker would be beating on a piece of cardboard with a pencil, going over again and again the songs he wanted to learn. As often as not he would be waiting outside my unit in the evenings or at lunch and on weekends. He would say, “Hey bro, can we go eat and then work on this song?”
I knew Walker was a good guy; he just got caught up in the inner-city hustle and the feds got him for what often is just a means of survival to these people anyway. About a year later, Walker left to go to a camp. I would not see him again, but the last thing he said to me before he left would stay in my heart and mind forever.
“Walks,” he said, “I can never repay you, but I want to thank you for giving me back my culture. You taught me about who I am and who my people are and were, and for this I thank you.”
EXACTLY i have been anger, i have been hate, i have been exactly what you meant to create... i have been oppressed, i have been shamed , i have been exactly what it is you would blame... i have been beaten , i have been tazed, i have been left to rot in a prison cage... i have grown strong, i have learned to read, i have done exactly what it was that i’d need... i have a smile, i have light in my eyes, i am no longer exactly what the system despised... i have felt anger, i have felt rage, i put that behind me and that’s exactly where it will stay... now what? exactly..... Exactly © October 2019, Steven W. Maisenbacher (Walks On The Grass)