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August 14, 2018

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In Memory Of Daron White Eagle

By Dan & Jill O'Brien

Dan:

Just after the fourth of July Chris White Eagle came into my office and shut the door. He had worked for us, on and off, for six years. Recently, he’d been off – way off. The year before he had gotten mixed up with things that led him down a dangerous path. Chris is one of the best butcher’s/meat cutters we have ever had: a big Lakota man with a butcher’s build and a knack for setting a blistering pace in the cutting room. The last time we were in my office alone he was lean and mean. He had gone through a year of deteriorating attendance, mental lapses, and broken promises. When he was last in my office, he claimed he needed and wanted the job. He wanted to borrow money, and pledged to come into work the next Monday. But when Monday came, he didn’t show. His two hundred and thirty pounds had dwindled to perhaps one eighty; his eyes were sunken into a face that had once been round and jolly. I thought that meeting might be the last time I ever saw him.

Chris let his wife and kids down, he fought in bars, and to be honest, I was a little afraid to be in my office alone with him. That was the year before. When he shut the door behind him in July I was not frightened. He had made amends to his wife and children, put the weight back on, and worked his way back into our employ. He hadn’t missed a day’s work for a month. After the door was closed he turned to me with the smile that I had almost forgotten. It was easy to see that he was nervous and I flashed back to the times he’d lied to me repeatedly. Though I could not keep skepticism out of my brain, I knew that this day was different. He stood up straight and tall. “I’m dancing in two weeks,” he said.

I knew exactly what he was talking about. His father, Daron White Eagle, who I had known for years had been in the week before and bought fourteen buffalo skulls for a Sun Dance he was helping organize. He was a religious, traditional man with a shaky past that was not unlike the one his son had been creating. But he had found a way through his difficult life and now, though tired and nearly worn out, he proudly stood as tall as his battered body would allow. With the skulls in tow, he left with his almost toothless grin.  

“You’re going to dance,” I said to Chris. It was not a question. It was a proclamation. He nodded. “Yup. For my family and the people I hurt. I’d like you to come.”

He drew a map that was nothing but a line on a white sheet of paper with an X at each end. “It’s way out there,” he said. “No GPS. No On-Star. Just off that road going south out of Rocky Ford heading to Manderson.” I knew the road he was talking about. It bisected the northwest quadrant of the Pine Ridge Reservation. The road heading south from Rocky Ford was just the place to begin. The line on the paper was “all dirt. Four or five miles,” he said. “Maybe even fifteen.” Sun Dances seem, invariably, to be held on remote pieces of ground. I imagine the reason is that sightseers and tourists are discouraged. White guys like me are not usually invited. To be invited by one of the dancers is an honor and with our relationship I was touched as if by a bit of fire. I’d find that Sun Dance ground one way or the other.

I left the ranch early and drove through the soft prairie light until I found a well-worn track angling off the dirt road to the northwest. The western wheat grass and blue grama were laid flat by the bald tires of the participants and the families on their way to support the dancers. This was a sacred event. A High Mass that transcends the symbolic. Barbaric and brutal – it is a sacrifice for on looking relatives. It is tangible and real. Redemption is the goal and Chris had finally come to the realization that he must dance away the demons, be pierced at the shoulder blades, and dance hard in the hot sun until he was purified. Leather thongs would connect him and the fourteen buffalo skulls his father had procured for the celebration, and he would drag those skulls in the prairie dust until the chokecherry pegs pulled through the piercings and the flesh gave way. Only then would he be freed of his burden. Bloody redemption and I was there to bear witness.

When I arrived they had already been dancing in the Dakota sun for days. There were perhaps a dozen other dancers, decked out in feathers and incongruence cargo pants in place of loin clothes. The sacred circle was seventy or eighty feet across and a twenty-foot-tall cottonwood tree stood in the center. They danced around this Great Plains icon. Long leather thongs were tied to the top and dangled down to the ground. Chris’s brother, Clay (another of our employees) was dancing beside him. No doubt their father had inspired him to sacrifice too. The dancers pounded the dusty Dakota soil with bare feet while a group of men sitting outside the circle around a huge drum sent an eerie Lakota anthem upward. The words were unknowable to a middle class, Middle American white guy, but, it was easy to understand that the eroding hills that surrounded us had witnessed all of this many times before. The wives of our two employees came to me and asked if I would accept the pipe from within the circle. I froze in place. I had no idea what that meant, but one of the wives who I had gotten to know leaned over and whispered, “Don’t worry. Just do what we tell you.”

I stood at one of the portals to the sacred circle that were marked out by vertical stakes and waited as the dancers whirled not three feet away. A man dancing backward with his face painted black spun in front of me, then stopped and leaned in my direction. “Don’t look at him,” one of the wives said. “He can hurt you. He is heyoka, not what he seems.” I felt the man staring at me but I did not look until he backed away in prefect step with the drumming. Then came an old woman with a pipe and a branch of sage. “Let her offer it three times before you take it,” came the whisper. One, the drum beats. Two, the drum beats. Three and she settled it into my hands. The women backed away from the portal and I could feel the tears running down my face.

Then the older men began to pierce the dancers. Two slits above each breast and the chokecherry pegs pushed through. They danced away from the sacred tree until the thongs went tight. Blood trickled down their bare chests and onto their bellies. When they leaned back the skin stretched and the men looked up to the sky. I heard one man calling out the names of his family. They pulled and bounced. They ran backwards to break the bonds. The families had gathered at the periphery of the circle and called encouragement to their heroes. One by one they succeeded in breaking free. I stood transfixed beside a cedar post set to hold up the bows that gave us shade. This was no dumbass church revival. This was as close as a human can get to the forces that shaped him.

Then Chris stepped to the center of the circle. The dancers had laid out sage branches for him to lie on while the elders cut his back. He stretched out in that hot sun, splayed forward with his face pressed tight against Mother Earth. His pegs were longer, stouter. He was bleeding when he stood but he looked straight ahead as if he were looking into the distant past. This was not the pitiful employee from the year before, whose words meant nothing. He strode to the line of fourteen buffalo sculls like a colossus. And, when the thongs were attached and the signal was given he exploded like a raging bull. He roared and leaned forward with all his might, until the train of buffalo sculls began to move. With another roar and legs churning like a NFL linebacker, the train sped up. By the time he got to the first of the four portals my cheeks were soaked with tears. His family moving with him, shouting encouragement, eyes raised to the Dakota sun, praying to give him strength. By the time he got to the last portal I was clinging to the cedar post for support. I focused on the chokecherry pegs as he passed and willed them to tear loose. The train was still moving forward and a nephew jumped on one of the skulls to help his uncle break free. The legs still churned and the roar continued to come from deep inside this man that I had thought I knew. In that roar I heard the rage, sorrow, and shame of years belching out like a gout of blood. More children piled onto the sculls and finally the skin gave way and everything stopped. Chris stood still, panting like a draft horse. The family stood around him and the children, still straddling the buffalo skulls, sat stock still. I fumbled in my shirt pocket for a pair of sunglasses that would hide my eyes. The cedar post held me up until I was able to turn and stumble toward my pickup.

Seated in the pickup I could see the dancers and their families clustered around the base of the sacred cottonwood. They pressed inward until, in my blurry vision, they appeared to be a solid mass of humanity. Then I raised my eyes and was awed by the size of the land that surrounded them. They were dwarfed but there was an aura of power emanating from that tree. “Good for you,” I thought. “Give’m hell. Never give up.”

Jill:

On the morning of July 20th, 2018, Daron White Eagle danced with his sons at the opening piercing ceremony of “Sun Dance”. Later that morning he wasn’t feeling well, so he left for his home in Rapid City, took his medicine for his many health issues (that he rarely took), laid down on the sofa to rest, and never woke up.

Daron White Eagle was the father of five sons, three of which have worked at Wild Idea Buffalo Co. I had only met Daron twice, and recalled him being overweight, disheveled, and funny.

If you judged a book by its cover, you would never guess that this man started a traditional native dance and drum group for youth. It was after a Vision Quest that Daron realized his new mission; to work with children and teach them their Lakota traditions, keeping them busy and away from the temptations that falsely glistened within their reach.

The initial group of a few, gathered in a church basement, where they learned to dance, drum and how to make their own traditional regalia. But it wasn’t long before other kids and their parents wanted to join too. The growing troupe outgrew their space twice before finally moving to the local Boy’s Club gym. Years later, this growing dance group would become the foundation of the annual, New Year’s Invitational Pow Wow, that brings Native dancers from all over the country.

Since we took the meat cutting part of the business into our control seven years ago, I've been the default plant manager. I've had the privilege of working alongside the White Eagle boys and to really get to know them. They have always stepped up and had my back, for which I will forever be grateful for. Although their meat cutting skills are second to none, perhaps their greatest gift is their humor. This includes when a Native person dies. There are days and days and days of grieving and celebrating. When a request for time off would be needed, I would lovingly joke with them, something like: “Oh no – who died now? How many quilts do you guys have to sew? Will you be back by next month?” The cutting room would explode with laughter. 

For Daron White Eagle there would be two wakes (the boys wanted 4) one in Rapid City and the second in Eagle Butte. This would be followed by a funeral on the following day. I attended the wake in Rapid City, which was held at the Mother Butler Center; a large gymnasium sized room with a high ceiling. The wake was to start at 3:00pm and go until 10:00pm. I pulled into the full parking lot littered with Native dancers changing into their regalia, just before three. Inside, the center was filling up too. Children ran and played, babies cried and adults visited, catching up with each other and showing pictures of their families on their phones. The room hummed with chaos. I noticed another co-worker, Tim Pickner and gave him a wave. He motioned for me to come and join him, which I thankfully did.

If there was order for this wake, I was oblivious to it. But, when the first drum beat sounded everyone rose to their feet. The White Eagle boys along with Daron’s brothers carried in the casket, which was followed by over a hundred dancers, varying in age from 5 to 70. The chaotic chatter quieted and the space was filled with Native song and the jingle of bells as the dancers moved. The drumming and shrilling cries filled the space, my heart and my eyes with tears. 

The procession circled the entire room and moved in-between the rows of tables before stopping in front of a backdrop that was draped with star quilts. Chris fastidiously fused over the quilts until they hung just so. A spiritual leader spoke along with others, none of which many could hear. Another leader moved through the crowd with a sage bundle, stopping in front of those to wave the smoke over their heads with their hands. I followed suite. 

Attendees moved gently to the music in a light bouncing fashion as they formed a circle to view Daron and give condolences to the family. I made my way in the long processional as the drumming, singing and dancing continued. I viewed Daron in photo memorabilia before finding myself in front of his casket. He was dressed in full regalia too, complete with a headband with a circular porcupine quill medallion in the center. I paused just long enough to reach out and touch his cold hand and to let him know that I had his boy’s backs. I gave Chris and his wife a big bear hug and told them to call for anything.

Clay (aka Snoop Dog because of his cornrow braids) was not able to attend as he was in Eagle Butte, fighting for custody of his oldest daughter (which he won). When I saw him the next week, he too received a big bear hug, but the braids were gone, his hair now cut short, a sign of grieving and love for his father.  

Daron White Eagle’s son’s broke free at the Sun Dance, which gave him the assurance that his sons could lead their families into the future. And, it gave him great joy and permission to break free too.

I slipped out after giving my condolences, with the drumming and song heavy in my bones.

During the wake many people were taking photos and video. I did not feel like I had that right, but asked permission to record the music.  A primal calling that resonates in all. A reminder that we are all one and that we are each other’s keeper. Have a listen.

Daron Louis White Eagle: Born, September 3, 1963 / Entered the Spirit World, July 20th, 2018

 


Comments

Allison Anders

August 15, 2018

Beautiful tribute. Thank you for sharing the White Eagles with us.

Linda Lay

August 15, 2018

That was a lovely tribute. Thank you for sharing.

Christine

August 15, 2018

Thank you for sharing.

Teresa Knight

August 15, 2018

This story brought joy to my heart. Thank you for sharing.

George & Susan Then

August 15, 2018

Thanks for sharing

Dan Cohen

August 15, 2018

Thank you two and all your family for what you have created. It is an honor to read and weep with you all.

Dolly Willer

August 15, 2018

what an honor and privilege to experience these events. Thank you for sharing. Peace to all

Jane Burns

August 15, 2018

So moving. Thanks for sharing these stories. Xo

Mary Flaherty

August 15, 2018

Thank you for sharing. I liked to read about it.
Peace.

Amy Wendling

August 15, 2018

Thank you so much for sharing this story.

Jim Rudolph

August 15, 2018

What an honor to be invited to this ritual. He trusted you. No greater compliment from his community.

Alan lazar

August 15, 2018

Great story! I wish I could write like you!!!

I worked in Yellowstone a few summers ago and wish I had met you and Jill, I am a culinary arts instructor and s butcher aldo. Love. Bison meat.

Love the story

Jo Ann Hajek

August 15, 2018

What a beautiful tribute. What a privilege to be allowed to witness the ceremony, and to testify as to the mystery that surrounds it all. Can’t imagine what it was like to see Daniel dance and heal, what the impact was to family, and all his family that witnessed. you remind us just how profound and timeless ceremony is within the backdrop of the Great Plains

Tricia King

August 15, 2018

Thank you for sharing. What an honor to be asked to both ceremonies. He was way to young to cross over. Blessings to all of you.

Tricia

Robert Torkelson

August 15, 2018

Wonderful for you to share with us.

Liz Aicher

August 15, 2018

Love and community – makes the world a better place, doesn’t it? Thanks for sharing.

Gina O'Brien

August 15, 2018

Godspeed and thank you, Daron Louis White Eagle.

Rich Borquist

August 15, 2018

Beautifully done tributes. Thank you for sharing them with us.

Santana Tamarak

August 15, 2018

excellent! tears today as well.

Charles Springs

August 15, 2018

Thank you for sharing the White Eagles.

Bob Watland

August 15, 2018

Loved the story. Have a great day and may God bless you all!!

Eric Bataille

August 15, 2018

Thank you for sharing this

Eric Bataille

August 15, 2018

Thank you for sharing this

Janice Hatten

August 15, 2018

Thank you, so much, for sharing your story and awesome tribute to Daron White Eagle.
Your description of the sundance is so precise that I could almost feel I was there. I miss this most sacred season.

Jean-Charles Neel

August 15, 2018

A very moving tribute. Thank you from France for sharing. Peace.

Theresa L Anderson

August 15, 2018

Wakan Tankan Kici un! Prayers rising in the smoke of the sacred pipe …Grandmother Hummingbird

Vonda L Little

August 15, 2018

I loved my time in Rapid City. this is such a beautiful tribute. I am so thankful I got to share in this closure..

David Fleming

August 15, 2018

Tears of sorrow and joy here for Daron White Eagle and your tributes to him and his family. I especially appreciate Jill’s closing words, “…we are all one and that we are each other’s keeper.”

Michael MacLean

August 15, 2018

Thank you so much for sharing. Peace to you and his family.

Larry Delgado

August 15, 2018

Native American people have a beautiful way of honering their dead. Thank for shareing you experience. That was very moving.

Rhetta Walter

August 15, 2018

Such a beautiful tribute to your friendship with him and his family. He would be honored to call you his friend.

Norman Provencial

August 15, 2018

I met Daron in 1981. We worked at the Rushmore Meat Plant. It was before he was married and had children. We have been friends since then. I was dancing at another sundance, when he passed on. I only recently found this out. I hadn’t seen him in a few years, and was amazed at how he turned his life around. Daron I wish you a continued good journey….

Rebecca

August 15, 2018

I continue to be grateful for the peace and love I feel when you and your own “tribe” of people write to remind of us the real world, the way we were meant to be

Jill Kokesh

August 15, 2018

Both accounts were very moving. Rest In peace Daron.

Jerry and Norma Reynolds

August 15, 2018

It is so special that both of you were invited into that amazing circle about which so few of us know but are intrigued by and wish to get that glimpse. I am glad that you both felt the wonder of those moments with these beautiful people and that you honor this tradition, giving your love and friendship freely. Thank you for letting us know of your working relationship with these young men. When we are enjoying the bison, we will be reminded of whose hands probably helped prepare it for us. Thank you for sharing the music and the story of that evening with us.

Kris Dilworth

August 15, 2018

I feel like I have a personal connection with you and Dad from reading your books, eating your buffalo, and through your videos and sharing of moments such as this. I know I am not alone in feeling that way. You ARE powerful, and you ARE making a difference.

Les Teixeira

August 16, 2018

Pilamaye I found this so heartwarming yet so sad wasicu has not been kind

Vernon Cross

August 16, 2018

Not since I read the late Peter Matthiessen’s Indian Country and In the Spirit of Crazy Horse have I come to such a deep sense of wonder at the greatness of your story. Though you already have the fullest of lives you share so freely, I can’t help but realize the growth and humble gratitude you process inwardly. Those of us who truly appreciate the telling of your awesome tale will grow stronger because of it and the prayers that go into the bison you harvest. Should there be one may your next book, if it be the voice of the Lakota, include a chapter from Leonard Pelletier through his son, or however such timely medicine might flood your spirit. With moistened eyes I resolve to wait, listen, and see. My thanks.

Barb

August 16, 2018

It’s astounding to realize there are, still today, ancient rituals handed down by the first North Americans being held. How fortunate you both are to be able to experience things most of us believe to be ancient history.
Barb

Bruce Tuxhorn

August 16, 2018

I come from a background of ranching, being a horseback, trailing cattle in the dusty climes of far West Texas. This was in my youth and early adult life for nearly 40 plus years. This was a time in my Life of being grounded, in and with Mother Earth. Most recently, the Universe has made me aware of the great book, “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee”. This book moved me to the core of my Soul! I could not have known when reading and experiencing this book that I would have the opportunity to meet Dan and Jill, who are so closely grounded with Mother Earth on the Cheyenne River Ranch, adjacent to the Battle of Wounded Knee and Table Rock, where the last Ghost Dancers danced, where the Buffalo have indeed returned to this great prairie. Riding with Dan in an ATV, we stopped on a bluff overlooking the Cheyenne River and gazed upon these sacred places stretching out before us. It is a most moving ethereal experience. To read of Dan’s and Jill’s personal experience describing this ceremony and wake, is also truly life changing. Not since my days of stepping down out of my saddle, planting my worn out boots solidly upon Mother Earth, have I known such a Peace and comfort deep within my Soul as when I was upon that South Dakota prairie. Through these readings, I share a connection to this place and peoples. Thank you Dan and Jill!

Fely Arnold

August 16, 2018

Thank you, it it always good to learn about other people’s tradition, culture and way of life. I would have loved to have been there to witness it.

Bobbe Ruch Moeglich

August 16, 2018

Hello,
Thank you for your story. This past summer I purchased a Buffalo Heart from your business, Wild Idea Buffalo, for the Sun Dance in South Dakota that I’ve been attending and dancing at for the last 15 years! It arrived perfectly and made the Ceremony possible, so thank you so much!!!
I appreciate how you honor your workers and how you honored the Sun Dance you attended.
May good things come to you and your family,
Bobbe

Georgia Clark

August 16, 2018

Thank you so much for sharing the beautiful story of your friends.

Kathy & Rob

August 16, 2018

Thank you for bringing this into our lives!

Alan Anderson

August 16, 2018

Daron and his accomplishments are worthy of remembering. I think your descriptions of Daron, his family, tribe and culture help to do that as well as giving us all an insight into a culture few get to see. I’m sure Daron’s family appreciates this remembrance very much. I know I do. Regards.

Peter Bauman

August 16, 2018

Thank you for sharing your experience in the sacred ways of the Lakota people and the White Eagles. You have blessed and enriched us all.

Bill Baugh

August 16, 2018

I appreciate you sharing this moving story. Not many of us get the privilege of being welcome by others of different faiths and cultures. Obviously you folks have a bond that is unique and will last beyond a lifetime for all involved.
This is what living is all about.
Many thanks and much appreciated!

Donna Fisher

August 16, 2018

Touching our hearts and inviting us to feel and share our common humanity. Thank you, Dan and Jill, for the blessing you are with food for only for bodies but souls.

Carrie Wilson

August 16, 2018

Thank you. It was an honor to read about the White Eagle family. I am so deeply moved and grateful to have the opportunity to feel the sacred power of this Lakota tradition through your experience.

Virginia

August 16, 2018

Thank you for sharing. Beautiful people.

Diane Thill

August 16, 2018

What a moving and beautiful tribute, Dan. What an honor and privilege it must have been to have been invited to such a sacred ceremony as the Sun Dance. And likewise, to have joined the White Eagle family to mourn and celebrate the life of their patriarch. I can’t imagine anyone who has read this to have finished it with dry eyes. Thank you for sharing.

Roxanne Fox

August 16, 2018

Amazing glance into an honored tradition carried on by a proud people. I love your accounts, it is like visiting another’s dreams.

Blake Bachman

August 17, 2018

…Like visiting a dream… I think Roxanne said it perfectly. Thank you for sharing these deep traditions and spirits with such Grace. Bless

Kathy Antonen

August 17, 2018

Oh, yes.
Thanks for sharing.

marlène dati

August 17, 2018

Thanks for sharing, a moving story of a smashed and dignified life.

Cathleen

August 17, 2018

Thank you for sharing with us. What an honor to be able to witness such a sacred ritual. I feel honored to have read about the White Eagle family. The Lakota are a proud, strong people and I have the utmost reverence for sacred traditions and rituals like the Sun Dance. Again, thank you.

Brigitte from France

August 18, 2018

Very moving accounts of Lakota culture. Some comments were very interesting to read too. We are waiting for your next book and hope to hear from you in François Busnel TV literary program

Deb Lux

August 18, 2018

Beautiful. I am always in awe of the ceremony and tradition of the First People.
Thank you for sharing this man’s final dance.

Keith

August 18, 2018

Humbled to my core. Thank you.

Lynn de la Torre

August 19, 2018

Truly a heartwarming tribute to your friend and his family. Makes one wish we all would’ve had the honor to meet this gentleman.
Thank you for sharing your incredible memories!

Lisa Janis

August 19, 2018

Prayers for the boys. What a beautiful tribute..
Pilamaye

Cheves Leland

August 19, 2018

Thank you. What a tribute and honor. We have so much to learn and share with each other.

Brenda Schussman

August 20, 2018

Dan and Jill,
Thank you for sharing these experiences, full of love, understanding, and compassion for Daron White Eagle, his family and their culture. Beautiful!

FW Dustin

August 20, 2018

What a sacred tribute to a man that fought the demons that the white civilization has cast upon The People,
A great man deserving of the tribute given to him and his work with young ones of the culture. Rest my Brother
Ride the wind
A’ho Neache Mohawk descendent Colorado

Peg Detmers

August 20, 2018

Powerful, beautiful, and enduring.

Jon Ziarnik

August 21, 2018

Thank you so much for sharing this story and memory!

Dallas Poitra Love

August 21, 2018

Very beautiful and loving story. I have Cheyenne River children I was a part of the community that was not the most important but the people I met made me feel a big part of their lives. Bless you all from all directions and all the blessings a person can receive from one Tribe to another.

Georgia Rosen

August 24, 2018

What a beautiful tribute, to a family that you respect and love . Your writing was very powerful. I felt as if I were right there. Thank you

Georgia Rosen

August 24, 2018

What a beautiful tribute, to a family that you respect and love . Your writing was very powerful. I felt as if I were right there. Thank you

BLAKE O'QUINN

August 24, 2018

thank you for displaying the power lived in a triumphant awakening of Chris and Daron White Eagle, a healing which was sought and received in their time-honored ceremony. and thank you for sharing in consideration the reverence of life, that at our core we are all the same.

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