by Marilyn Youngbird

Article #1
in our series

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Marilyn Youngbird, Chief Woman Among Chiefs, lectures internationally on the Native Way. She is a healthcare practitioner, teacher and workshop facilitator whose message of peace and healing is heartfelt and endearing.

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A  W A Y  O F  L I F E

Whether we are man or women, young or elderly, and no matter what culture, religion or tradition we come from, we can learn to truly understand who we are, to honor the Earth as our Mother, and recapture our sacredness and our oneness with all of creation. We can find our way back to unity and harmony, living with the laws of nature, knowing that we are Nature, knowing the true medicines of life.

To truly know who we are and our oneness with all, we must understand that the absolute true medicines of life are the 1) air-wind, 2) water-rain-moisture, 3) fire-sun-moon-stars, 4) earth-all of her creation, 5) food-from the earth, 6) minerals. These are the medicines that give us life. These are the medicines we cannot live without.

As human beings, we have the opportunity, the responsibility, to know who we are. My parents and grandparents taught me that wisdom comes when we have insight, clarity and understanding of our true selves, and when we use that knowledge to the best of our ability. To tell you who I am, I must first tell you where I was born, who chose to give me birth, the community I was raised in, who my caregivers were. Being mindful of the most influential of my life's experiences has helped to build my self-identity, spiritual-identity and sense of self-worth.

I am the waves of wheat fields, the sea floor of the wind-swept North Dakota prairie, the shimmering turquoise fingers of the Northern Lights that stretch and dance from heaven to earth on a clear crisp summer night. I am the ancient cottonwood trees, the fragrance of the flowering wild rose bushes that line the banks, patiently waiting to greet and wave to the rushing waters of the Missouri River. I am the child that plays in the earth's soft black soil next to Grandpa and Grandma, listening with innocent ears to their Arikara prayers as they plant corn and other vegetables in the early spring. This is the same soil in which they planted my umbilical cord and placenta when I was born.

I am a granddaughter of Son of the Star, Chief of the Arikara Nation. I am a granddaughter of Packs the Antelope, Medicine man of the Hidatsa Nation. I am a child of the Low Cap Clan and Bear Clan, the eighth child born to an Arikara woman and a Hidatsa man.

I am the small child lying between my Grandpa and Grandma, my short fat legs kicking off our blankets when I get too warm. I am the child who, ending up at the foot of their bed, embraces their feet as my sleeping partners; the child standing next to Grandpa and Grandma in the early daybreak hours praying to the rising sun.

I am my mother's smile, her silence, her soft warm hands and body. I am the child, now grown, whose memories are filled with her every move. Mama's words were few, their power laying comfortably in her truth, spoken gently, her harshest words: "Oh My." I still see her deep, dark sparkling eyes that never stop smiling, my world totally safe and free as I watch her laugh shyly behind her hand in appreciation of my father's humor. Every cell of my being revels in her devoted love. I savor all of her. I miss her.

I am my father's piercing green Eagle eyes that speak two very distinct languages: one of softness and gentleness, the other of fury. He tells me, "I should never have to brag, or tell others of your accomplishments. When others come to me and compliment you for your character, your accomplishments, I will know I have fulfilled my responsibility as a parent. I will know I gave you all I could to help you become a compassionate, responsible and productive human being." He gave me permission to see life through his strength, to speak his truth, walk his truth and be his truth. He gave me permission to embrace his compassion as well as his passion for the sacredness of life.

I am the five-year-old standing inside the entrance of our humble abode, feverishly listening, staring into the face of darkness on a sultry August night. Frozen in silence, I listen to my father's mournful cry fill the coulees. Rolling like mist on a foggy night, his tears touch every blade of grass that stands in their path. He cannot distinguish which tears are sorrowful, which are happy, for they are one and the same. He has to surrender them, there was no other plan, for both death and birth have blessed this day: Grandma, Daddy's mother, had taken her last human breath and my mother, his wife, gave birth to his second son. Seven children and miles of rolling hills separate him from participating in two of the most sacred of human events - events no one, no father, no son, would ever want to miss. After a time, he returns, exhausted and spiritually weak. He sits on a chair next to our dining table. I hold his weathered hand and lay my head on his lap. No words in the universe can ease his pain. Eighteen years later, my mournful cry would fill those same coulees, not only for my father, but for my mother, too.

I am the six-year-old preparing for school on a blustery cold winter morning. Mama makes sure we will be warm and safe on the mile-long trek to the school bus stop. She buckles our overshoes, zips up the legs of our snow pants, buttons our coats, and holds our mittens steady as we slip them on. She pulls our caps over our heads and ties the straps securely under our chins. The long wool scarf she wraps around our necks and over our mouths will protect our lungs from the subzero air. After we are bundled, Daddy takes us, one by one, on horseback to the bus stop. Honored to follow instructions, his horse, Silver, does every thing he can to please. He is Daddy's best friend. Spirited and filled with pride, he holds his head high as he dances with and through the five- to six-foot snowdrifts, jumping forward, sinking, jumping forward and sinking again. Pure white puffs of breath shoot from his nostrils until he reaches the bus stop. One by one he brings us there and we wait in the small wooden shelter for the school bus to arrive. Daddy and Silver wait with us until the bus disappears from view.

I am the child sitting on a chair in the middle of a small room next to Father Reinght. I am told I need to go to confession in order to be saved; I need to confess my sins. At age seven I do not know what "sin" is. Sitting on a grown-up's chair, my legs dangling, too short to touch the floor, I mimic what I have heard others say, "Forgive me Father, for I have sinned." I pause, not knowing what I "sinned." I sit there with my head hanging low, staring at the wooden floor, and counting the long skinny strips of wood that lay in front of and underneath my chair. Father says, "What did you do?" My little heart jumps, I know I have to say something. I think and think and then I say, "I took one of my sister's bobby pins and I have it in my hair."

About once a month, a Catholic priest and several nuns come to our village to conduct their Catholic ceremony. My entire family attends this ceremony, which is conducted by the priest in Latin. The rhythmic, poetic sound of the language is pleasant and brings comfort to our questing minds. Some of our relatives also attend the Protestant, Episcopal or Congregational Churches. After the priests and nuns leave our community, Grandma and Grandpa conduct our own sacred traditional Arikara ceremonies.

Even though teachings of Christianity are a foreign way to communicate with Neesaanu NacitakUx, God, our Great Chief, my grandparents and parents found Christianity's basic traditional humanitarian principles to be a common thread of our own ancient culture that teaches self-love, self-respect, honesty, integrity, dignity, self-identity, self-spiritual-identity, and self-worth - all common denominators that were birthed with the creation of our traditional Arikara and Hidatsa way of life. I have been taught that the Creator, Neesaanu NacitakUx, created all, that I am related to all of life, one and the same. I have been taught that every thought I have is my prayer, and my prayer is my reality. I have been taught that the Earth is my true mother, that she is the giver of life - all life. I have been taught that the greatest gift I am given is freedom, that is, freedom to choose my thoughts, my actions and my behavior. I have been taught the importance of keeping my mind and heart connected, that my body is all the elements of the universe. I have been taught that the earth and my own body cells are my spirit, and within my cells is all the knowledge in the universe and all the knowledge from the earth. These teachings help me to see others and myself as sacred and holy beings.

I am the nine-year-old child lying on an examination table in a Western medicine hospital. Following the Western medicine man's orders, I lay in a fetal position as he pushes a four-inch needle into my spine. The spinal tap will help determine only my physical condition. The medicine man tells my parents, "Your daughter has a serious case of rheumatic fever. The statistics are not good." He prepares them for their loss. I lay on the hospital bed, not just motionless, but emotionless, too young to be afraid of anything, let alone the spirit world. Relatives come into my room, stand at the foot of my bed and pray. I lay here listening, watching, my mind wanders. It doesn't matter whether there are any living human relatives my room, there are always relatives with me. Silence has become one of my best friends.

My room is small with my bed placed in the center of the room so the nurses and the Western medicine doctor can have access to both sides of the bed. In the early daybreak hours, the wind swirls and dances by my window. She taps on the glass to make sure I can hear the songs she has for me this day. Her songs are haunting. It almost seems like she is crying, and her dance becomes more determined. The pebbles she taps on the window are larger and more powerful. From my bed I can see her light, transparent dress swirling vigorously as she runs past. Tenths of a second later she is back - swirling, jumping up and peeking into my window. She is the only ballet dancer I have seen perform in my life. When a child's spirit is pure and innocent; there are no boundaries to the vast dimensions of the universe.

The door opens and my Grandma and Grandpa walk in. My Grandma's hair is pulled back tightly into a bun, accentuating her smooth, brown, moon-shaped face. She is tall, with a straight, healthy stature that I have always known. Her cotton print calico dress is nearly covered up by her gray cardigan sweater, and she carries a large bowl of fresh fruit in her hands. I have never seen so many different kinds of fruit at one time before. Grandpa removes his two-inch-brimmed fedora hat and holds it in his hands. He is small-framed and healthy, dressed in his favorite gray flannel shirt that is, as always, buttoned up to his Adam's apple and neatly tucked into this slacks. Grandma smiles openly. Grandpa smiles shyly. I now understand where Mama inherited her shyness.

Grandma takes some cedar, sage and other medicines and smudges my body as well as the room. Grandpa fills a glass full of water and holds it in his hands while Grandma picks up the large bowl of fresh fruit. She holds it high and directly in front of her, as if she is offering it up to the sun, moon, stars, thunder beings, wind, and universe, as well as Neesaanu NacitakUx (God, Great Chief, Creator). She starts her Arikara prayers. As tears stream down their faces, she says, "Neesaanu NacitakUx, God, I bring this offering to you. This is the fruit of life you gave to us. The fruit of my life is laying here before us. I ask for her life. Let your fruit restore her body, mind and spirit, Neessnu NacitakUx, God, give back her life." Grandma says many prayers, but I lose track of what she is saying.

Grandma and Grandpa walk around my bed, praying and crying. I watch them, emotionless; my life force is nowhere to be found. Grandma sets the large bowl of fruit on the nightstand and Grandpa holds the glass of water. Grandma takes a piece of fruit, and picking up my hand, places the fruit in my palm, curling my fingers around it. She lifts my arm and puts my hand to my mouth. I take a bit of the fruit and eat it. Then grandpa takes my hand, and repeats this procedure with the water, bringing the glass to my lips. I drink the water from the glass.

Within the month, I am taking my own baths, washing my own hair, fixing my own bed, and walking down the corridors visiting other patients. Interfacing traditional Native American medicine and Western medicine, I believe, saved my life.

I am the child who, year after year, watches my grandparents and parents working diligently to be self-sufficient. The plowing and planting each spring is not an easy chore. Nor is the harvesting of crops, which seems endless until, at last, the fruits of the harvest are stored as food in our root cellars. Now we wait for the long cold winter days - story telling time. This is the time for Grandpa and Grandma, Mama and Daddy to share our traditional Creation story along with all the other stories that give us our self-identity, spiritual-identity and sense of self-worth.

Later, in the spring, when our food supply is no longer plentiful, when only the vegetable seedlings are left in the beds, and the shelves that once held row upon row of canned meats, fruits, and vegetables are empty, we see the worried looks in the eyes of our parents. My mother prepares meals for us children. We are all seated at the dining table and Daddy sits close to the table, but not up to it. His food and nourishment, during this time, come from his sacred hand drum and the Hidatsa and Arikara medicine songs he sings.

Time and time again this same scenario has occurred in my life. It's hard to feel happy when you are hungry. It's hard to feel safe when you are hungry. It's hard to feel well when you are hungry. These are the times when every one searches deep into their being to choose their words carefully, praying hard to find forgiveness for our oppressors. These are the times when we know there is no promise for tomorrow. But no matter how difficult these times are, when we see the mischievous twinkle in our father's eyes, and we see our mother's eyes smiling, we somehow know we are safe.

Now, I am the thirteen-year-old sitting in a large government school bus waving to my mother and father as they stand, holding onto one another, my father holding back his tears, trying to be strong for my mother whose pain is too great; she cannot hold back her tears. Millions of thoughts run through my mind as I sit in the bus staring out at the rolling hills of the wide, wide prairie. I can hear the laughter of my sisters and brother, the sound of my father's footsteps. I can smell the fresh bread my mother has just prepared, and see my grandma standing in her calico cotton dress instructing us. There is no choice but to send me away; the United States Federal Government has seen to that.

This is a time when prejudice is blatant, when signs hovering over the doors of grocery stores, restaurants, clothing stores, bars and other enterprises read, "NO INDIANS OR DOGS ALLOWED." We are treated like strangers in our own country - we are strangers. I, along with many other Native American Indian children, am being plucked from under the arms of my parents and taken to a government boarding school because the Federal Government decided to build the Garrison Dam and flood the fertile homeland of my people without our knowledge or consent. Even though our school buildings still stand erect along the banks of the Missouri River, and the ghosts of my people remain there, a blanket of water now owns and covers our ancestral land rendering it useless to us.

I bite my lip and pinch my hands desperately trying to hold back my tears as the bus drives off, heading for a boarding school 500 miles away. Nine months will pass before I see my family again. Being away from them for so long gives me an appreciation for the times we have together. Letters come every week. Grandma's packages arrive every month full of cookies, cornballs, fried chicken, and other wonderful surprises I share with my roommates and spirit relatives.

My self-identity and spiritual identity is built and nurtured from and by my traditional cultural values and concepts. My lineage is matriarchal. When my mother and father married, my father left his Hidatsa Shell Creek Village to live with my mother and her people in Nishu, the Arikara Village. My grandma was the first-born child of the Chief and, as such, she became the medicine woman and matriarch of her people. It was right that we lived next to Grandma and Grandpa as the time came when my mother, Grandma's first born, took her place as medicine woman and matriarch.

I am the young lady standing in the center of the community building in Nishu, the building we call the "Round Hall." My mother, father and grandma, stand beside me. The aroma of the buffalo meat, sweet corn, squash and other prepared foods my relatives have brought fill the air and tease the senses of those who are in attendance. In front of us, on the floor, are large bundles of blankets, cotton materials, buckskins, and such - gifts my parents and relatives will give to guests witnessing this sacred event. The festivities are in my honor, for today, I will be given my adult Arikara name.

First, my father speaks in his language, Hidatsa, on my behalf. Our Hidatsa relatives have traveled many miles, by horse and wagon, to witness this event and celebrate with us. My mother and grandmother speak in Arikara, on my behalf, to our relatives. It is the custom for the one who is performing the naming ceremony to talk about the characteristics of the person they are naming. They must tell the responsibility that goes with that name. I will never forget this day. It is destined to be one of the most memorable days of my life. When she speaks, Grandma talks about her life's journey, for this day, Grandma gives me her name: "Chief Woman Among Chiefs."

Many relatives volunteer to speak on behalf of my grandmother, about her important role in the community. After they finish, many of my relatives stand up, walk over to us, and shake Grandma's hand, my parent's hands, and my hand. Some of them also place money in my hand. For a brief moment, I know what it is like to have a fistful of dollars.

When my relatives finish shaking our hands, we proceed to give away every blanket, the cotton materials, buckskin robes, money and other gifts to our special guests and visitors. When that part of the ceremony is over, my relatives rush over to me, hug me, hold me in their arms, kiss me and tell me how proud they are of me.

Years have passed since childhood, and all that I have experienced in those incredible years have shaped my life, molding me into who I am today: I am Chief Woman Among Chiefs.

Marilyn Youngbird
©2002 Marilyn Youngbird
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Editors note:

Marilyn's Pathfinder series offers an opportunity for visitors to understand the roots of the Native Way and to share in experiences gleaned from the life journey of our honored presenter. She looks forward to your questions; they are valued and welcomed.

We wish you well on your journey.

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