Resurrection of Indian ceremonies part of a peace process
BIGFORK - Pat Kennedy was floating in a haze of feverish pain, oblivious to the hospital bed beneath him, when his brother Joe came to visit.
"Joe came and he said, 'You forgot about the Jump Dance. You forgot about the Horse Dance. You forgot about the Prairie Chicken Dance. You forgot about the Ghost Dance.' "
Strange things for Joe to tell his ailing brother. Stranger still because Joe had been dead for two years.
Strangest of all, perhaps, because they were not strange in the least to Pat Kennedy. The Chippewa-Cree medicine man has been guided by visions for three-quarters of a century, and the visit from Joe was only the latest signpost along his path.
That 1996 vision launched Kennedy on a four-year journey to resurrect nearly forgotten American Indian ceremonies and to help heal the rift between white and Indian cultures. Next weekend marks the end of that journey, with Kennedy's fourth and final annual "peace encampment."
For four days beginning Sunday, hundreds of Indians and non-Indians will gather on the Continental Divide west of Helena, coming from Browning and Heart Butte, Germany and Switzerland. Anyone and everyone is welcome to join in, to sweat and pray and sing and dance or just to watch and wonder.
There, beneath the vast ceiling of blue that shelters people of all cultures, they will remember the Jump Dance. They will remember the Horse Dance. They will remember the Prairie Chicken Dance. They will remember the Ghost Dance.
Just like Joe said.
"These dances can heal the people," the 74-year-old medicine man said. "If we pull these people together we can heal together. People all over the world are angry. Mother Earth is angry. Creator is angry. We need to teach each other to find the words to reach the creator, the words to pray for peace, the words to reach the spirits. If we don't have the spirits to work with, we have nothing."
The words, he said, are simple words, gentle words, kind, honest, respectful, understandable words - the kinds of words you shouldn't have to teach, but you do. These words are a prayer, in any language.
But teaching people to find the words is no easy task, Kennedy said, as most of the teachers are gone.
Kennedy's first teachers didn't know the words - they feared the words - but without those teachers he would not have embarked on the path of medicine man.
At age 9, Kennedy said, he was kidnapped from his eastern Montana reservation and taken to a government missionary school. On his first day there he was beaten with a cast-iron fire poker for speaking Cree. That night, he and another young Indian boy ran away, moving by moonlight and hiding by day until they were found by a Blackfeet scouting party.
Kennedy spent the winter of his ninth year living with the Blackfeet, learning their language and ceremonies. The following summer, his family was reunited with him at a Blackfeet Sun Dance ceremony.
His homecoming, however, was short-lived.
Fearing he would again be kidnapped, his parents sent him away from the reservation to live hidden with the "Old Ones" in the Sweetgrass Hills. It was among those hills that Kennedy learned the ancient ways of healing, the outlawed rituals, songs and prayers of his people. He also learned seven Indian languages (although he still does not read or write English.)
Among the "Old Ones" Kennedy was given the task of caring for four uncles, all medicine men and all, he said, struck blind by the white man's liquor. He became their eyes, helping them to prepare for and perform the sacred ceremonies outlawed back on the reservation.
And so, almost by accident, his schooling as a medicine man began. Throughout his life, Kennedy has received visions, often of whites and Indians living together happily. They have come to him during ceremony, unbidden, and at death's door.
In 1996, the vision came to him in a Conrad hospital.
Kennedy had been performing a "giveaway" ceremony - four days of gift-giving, dancing and singing to ask the spirits for help enduring the dark nights of winter - when he collapsed to the floor. By the time he was admitted into the Conrad hospital three days later, he was delirious, unable even to crawl. He sang centuries-old songs to find the strength to stand up for a chest X-ray.
A systemic staph infection - a leftover from an old back operation - had festered, resulting in fulminating pneumonia. For more than a week, Kennedy lingered in unconsciousness, nearly slipping away on several occasions.
"Then I received my vision from my oldest brother, Joe."
Joe had grown up on the reservation, under the watchful gaze of the government's Indian agent, and had known little or nothing of the traditional ways. And yet here he was, Kennedy said, dead two years and standing there reminding Kennedy of forgotten dances.
As Joe left, Kennedy recognized a man sitting quietly not far off. It was Simon Sapp, a medicine man from Canada.
"And so I wondered," Kennedy said, "I wondered what all this meant. And then I began to hear. I began to hear people from far away. The next day I heard the people closer. The third day I could hear them plain. Closer, on the fourth day, I could hear people right next to me - I could hear the nurses talking."
For the next 10 weeks, as he dragged his I.V. of antibiotics along behind, Kennedy wondered why Joe had come.
Finally, he went to find Simon Sapp.
"He said, 'Joe wants you to do these dances,' " Kennedy said, "and that's the start of it all."
One after another, tribal elders advised Kennedy to resurrect the forgotten dances.
"They said, 'You'll put yourself in a healing position if you do these things. You'll bring the people together.' "
Bring what people together?, Kennedy wondered.
"I finally decided to bring two societies together," he said. "White and Indian. I thought, what would happen if I could bring these societies together? Now, it turned out like it was supposed to."
With the help of friends, Kennedy found two ranchers near Helena who were willing to share their land for four days a year, four years in a row.
Kennedy cobbled together the first encampment using award money he had received for his spiritual work from the Institute for Noetic Sciences. Because he has taken a vow of poverty, he could use the money only for healing work.
People brought gifts of blankets, pipes, equipment and time. Kennedy, in turn, passed gifts along to elders throughout the country and Canada, encouraging them to join his encampment.
And when they danced the Horse Dance in 1997, he said it was the first time in decades those steps had been seen. In fact, that dance hadn't been performed in this country more than twice during the last century, he said, and was on the brink of being lost forever. Now, it is a regular on the dance schedule.
It is a rebirth that came just in time, as this is the last of Kennedy's encampments on the Divide. After four years, he has fulfilled the task given him by brother Joe.
And next year? Who knows. Kennedy hasn't had that vision yet, and he won't budge until the spirit moves him.
"We have to be careful and thoughtful about what we say and what we do," he said. "We have to have a reason for our actions. If we pray together, we'll find what we're supposed to do."
If you're going
All are welcome on the Continental Divide for four days of healing and prayer ceremonies. Sunday will feature the Jump Dance, with the Horse, Prairie Chicken and Ghost dances on subsequent days through Wednesday, July 26.
Participants and those just coming to watch should be prepared with lots of water, food, bug spray, and cooking utensils. No dogs or pets are allowed.
Organizers ask that no alcohol or drugs be brought to the site, and that all garbage be packed back out. Photographs of the encampment are allowed, but not during prayer ceremonies.
To get there, take Highway 12 east toward Helena. Pass Avon, a small town just west of McDonald Pass. Proceed approximately 11.3 miles east (depending on your odometer) past Avon on Highway 12. There will be a small green sign on the left that reads "Mullen Pass." Immediately past this sign is a dirt road to the left. Turn left onto this road and go approximately 4.6 miles to the "Priest Pass" sign. At the sign, turn right onto another dirt road and drive approximately 1.4 miles to a sign on the left that says "Private Rd - Do Not Enter." Turn left here onto the two wheel track. It is a narrow track and may be a little bouncy but is accessible for most vehicles. From there, signs and flagging will direct you to the encampment.