By Dan & Jill O'Brien
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 butchers/meat cutters we've 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 onlooking 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 incongruent 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 one 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 'em hell. Never give up.”
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, which 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