Along the Way. . .
Experiences, Insights & Humor on the “Long Road Home”
By Steven Maisenbacher
It’s always amazing to me how I can manage to learn all the songs I do, especially in different Native languages, as well as their translations. How glad I am to end the year 2021, my last full year of incarceration, with a most special story.
Umo-ho or Omaha, as the first whites interpreted it, means “Against the Current,” or “The people who live there on the rivers and must travel against the current to visit the relatives and neighboring tribes.” The Omaha are a proud people, known for their beautiful women and fierce tactics in battle. They are a people quick to give all they have to a friend and by the same hand, death to enemies.
Those fierce days are over, but the Omaha are still the proud and beautiful people they always were. Now they are better known for their pow-wow every year, in fact the oldest continuing pow-wow in the nation. You might want to go check it out, right there on the Nebraska-Iowa line, and eat some fry bread for me.
Now, I want to tell you something as a man who has spent the last several decades trying to learn and live in a way that reflects my American Indian values and beliefs while here in these iron houses. This I know, songs are sacred. Not only that, but songs given to another are gifts of the highest honor. If a song has been gifted to you it means you have been given a piece of that person to carry throughout your life and to be with them every time you sing the song or even think the words.
Songs are powerful medicine, they reach out to us and make us move in fluid harmony with their very beat and rhythms. They make us feel things and think things, and most of all they lift our hearts to a level of “one-ness” with all that share the sounds. Songs give us balance, emotion, messages and power. Songs are prayers for the most part. Any true Native will tell you their songs are prayers. Each song is for different things or different reasons, but all are prayers. This is what makes them so very powerful.
Now I want to tell you about Ty, an Omaha brother I had the honor to meet. Ty and G., were cellmates for a time while both were in quarantine. G. had just returned from a hospital stay and Ty had just arrived with only the clothes on his back.
G. told Ty to look me up when he got to the yard and sent word to me to be on the lookout for him and set him up with the basic necessities from the “kitty” he will need to start doing his time. Providing a supply of personal care items, bowls and spoons, shower shoes etc. is something brothers try to do for one another everywhere. So I put together a bag of stuff and we met in the chow hall where Ty had managed to get a job.
During this time the entire compound was under code “red” operations due to the Covid restrictions. All the units were isolated pretty much, and there was no meeting in the yard, so seeing someone you didn’t live or work with was a pretty good cause for celebration. So Ty and I become friends of a sort thru my daily trips to work and breakfast on the way. Sometimes he would come out to visit a minute at lunch meals so we were able to talk in a very limited way.
Months went by until finally restrictions at the prison began to relax at times allowing people from different units to mix so Ty and I were able to meet on the yard in the evenings. We would sit at a table and go over the songs and things that bind us together. I knew it was getting close to the time Ty would be leaving to go home and just the other day he tells me to come out that night, that he’s got some stuff for the “kitty” and something for me.
So out I go and here comes Ty out to the table at recreation. I’m astonished when he gifts me with a handmade wooden box to hold my medicine bag when I am not wearing it. Inside the box I see a folded piece of paper and Ty says, “And I want to gift you with this song.”
On the paper is his song written both in the Omaha language and English translation:
Come watch us dance, Great Spirit, come watch us dance.
the Omaha people will stand,
Come watch us dance…
What could I say? This is one of the highest honors any of the brothers I have met along the way has ever bestowed on me. This is the way our people pass along everything of a cultural nature, as a gift to honor the receiver as well as the giver. This custom is as old as the first sunrise and will be going on at the last sunset.
This is the embodiment of Native honor, to give a song is to give a prayer to be sung and shared with others by the person who receives it.
This particular song Ty tells me was written by his uncle, Mike, a spiritual man, a leader of sweat lodges, a practitioner of these sacred ways, a man of honor, who passed his song on to a man of honor – his nephew, Ty – who passed it on to a man he wished to honor – me. Yes, I am very honored and will continue to be honored every time I sing this song, a song from a proud and wonderful people.
We were able to meet a time or two afterward so Ty could help me learn the proper tempo and pronunciation. Shortly after we were granted the opportunity to hold the first sweat lodge ceremony at the prison since the pandemic struck nearly two years ago. This was a joyful time and for the brothers, singing our songs and prayers together in the Inipi, the “Breath of Spirit,” was good medicine for us all.
I may not get to see Ty again after he leaves, but he will always be with me, thought of as a friend, a brother and one warrior who honored another warrior with a song, a prayer, a piece of himself. This I believe is more powerful than anything I can think of. What honor!
Steven “Walks On The Grass” Maisenbacher, December 2021
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