The Old Ways

by Annie Heartfield Hartzog


In one of the stars I shall be living. In one of them I shall be laughing. And so it will be as if all the stars were laughing, when you look at the sky at night… You, only you, will have stars that can laugh!

—Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince

Barely audible words came from the man as he began the cedar blessing.

Maheo. Wakanda, I come to you again like this, pitiful,” the man began. “I don’t know what to say, Creator, I don’t know how to say it.”

A ponytail hung down his back—black strands laced with iron-grey, held in place with an elastic band. He bent over the altar, speaking softly, eagle fan in one hand, the other hand touching and arranging objects.

About 60 of us sat in the meeting room of Fellowship Congregational Church. As Clark Inkanish went about his ministrations, papers rustled, throats cleared, and people shifted in their seats. A leader from the Cheyenne-Caddo-Wichita tribes of Oklahoma, Clark wore a traditional wool vest, calling up memories of beautiful old horse blankets. A bolo fashioned of a large, oblong turquoise hung just above his heart, the stone and silver-tipped leather braid rocking forward as he leaned down. The altar he’d built for the ceremony was a wooden box, covered with a vibrant Pendleton: rainbow stripes. He’d once looked in my eyes and said, “Indian people like colorful things. Always remember that.”

A few minutes before people arrived, Clark took me aside and asked me to assist him with the blessing. I explained I’d never done it before, but he waved my protests off, looked me in the eye, and said that the most important part of the job was sincerity. I nodded my agreement, and he handed me a lighter and inclined his head toward the altar with a gesture that let me know to go ahead. I lit the small bowl-shaped puck of black carbon, a tiny basin that, once covered in white ash, hid a red-hot center that became the sprinkling ground. Dried sage, sweetgrass, tobacco, and cedar would be instantly converted to rising smoke, prayers carried up to Creator. Clark checked the disk with the middle finger of his right hand, tapping it a couple of times right in its glowing center. He fanned the smoke with eagle feathers, out, toward the congregation, and up. He lifted a smoldering bundle of cedar greens he’d gathered and neatly bound with colored string, and raised it slowly to the four directions, and then straight up; his eyes and face looked toward the center above him, toward Creator.

I had seen Clark do these things before, but by his side, today, I was close enough, for the first time, to actually hear his words.

“Please guide us like this,” he continued. “And if I left anything or anyone out, forgive me, Creator, and take care of that in a good way.”

I had never heard anyone pray in such a plain, modest, and reverent way. Without agenda. Nothing for God to do. I felt the smoke carry the words up. As he said “pitiful” my right arm and shoulder twitched, and I sensed a pressure behind and between my eyes. The prayer landed in my gut, resonated, then vibrated upwards. Horizontal membranes in my body felt as if they were humming, like a finger thumping on the taut skin of a drum. As he spoke, my heart felt tender and I went shivery in my core, resisting the urge to go down on my knees. I hadn’t felt anything like that since a certain kind of church, a low kind of church, many years ago.

A refugee from the fundamentalist Christianity of my childhood, I had been drawn to philosophies that had taken me beyond Western culture: Buddhism from India, East Asian Taoism, and the mystical Sufi Way. I was enamored of shamanic healing practices, the magico-religious traditions of the ancient Amazonian Yanomami, and wanted to experience the Native American sweat lodge and peyote ceremonies.

“We shall not cease from exploration,” T.S. Eliot wrote toward the end of his poem “Little Gidding.” “And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time.” My weak-kneed experience with Grandfather, as Clark allowed me to call him, was part of a bigger circle, a wheel I had been attempting to turn for some time.

Clark’s blessing lasted only a few moments, yet I ended up with salty streaks down my face and my gut quivering. He finished, and I helped him pack up the artifacts of his ceremony: herbs tucked into antique drawstring bags he’d beaded himself, long ago, tiny red, blue, and green glass slivers neatly sewn into deerskin; a silvery shell for catching ash, black charcoal pucks wrapped in foil to keep them dry; a Bic lighter; the eagle feather fan with its beaded handle. It all went away, back into his attendant “briefcase,” a weathered, slender wooden box with a carrying handle on its side.

After a few minutes of not listening to the next speaker, I spotted Clark watching things from the rear of the room, watching over things, his back to the wall, where he had gone after the ceremonial duties were complete. I wanted to go to him, be near him, ask him to explain what had happened to me, even though I didn’t think he would. He had an uncanny ability to ignore certain kinds of stories and questions, and one should rarely question one’s elder on these things. Sometimes, even after long conversations that involved many queries from those seeking his wisdom, and with very few words coming back their way from him, Clark would end a “dialogue” with two simple words: “We’ll see,” and with that, he would gather his things and rise. He’d often make a joke or say, “Time for a nap,” (even after several cups of strong coffee) before leaving and holler, “See you folks later,” over his shoulder, tossing up a wave of his hand as he turned and walked away. Clark was expedient when it came to saying goodbye.

That day, as we stacked chairs, folded tablecloths, and swept up, Clark came to me and said there would be a sweat out southnext Sunday.

“It would be good for you to be there,” Clark said. “We’ll need your help building the lodge.”

And just like that, the answers, which were no-answers, came in response to my questions, which were no-questions.

“Welcome, relatives! Mitakuye oyasin!”

We were on a hill south of Tulsa, a good-sized blaze burning on top of a pile of chunky, New Mexican volcanic rock. Friends and family circled the morning flames and stood together without speaking, nods for greetings, some holding hands. After his welcome, Clark made a blessing, this time without words: arm, face, and smoke lifted to the four directions.

Our first job involved gathering young willow trees from Polecat Creek, so we piled into the back of someone’s pickup truck for the short ride. The truck trundled through on bumpy terrain next to the creek. We stopped close to a thick stand of green stalks at the water’s edge. It was a bright spring-into-summer day. Sunlight mirrored against the sky, grass, trees, and dirt of northeastern Oklahoma, where our earth is rich and brown—an antediluvian river bottom studded with limestone rock, pockmarked with the imprints of plants and animals from another time. We found young willow trees crowded into a living wall some 20 feet high, waving us over with fluttery arms of translucent green. Clark thanked the river and the tender trees and leaned back, right hand behind hip, face to sky. He confirmed the presence of a bald eagle, which was slowly circling far above, tipping spread wings against current, claws outstretched, head turned, eyeball a glint in the brightness.

“The eagles come to hear us pray for blessings of healing and protection, for all of God’s creation,” Clark said to us. Looking up, he said more loudly, “Welcome, relative! Greetings!” and with that, he headed toward the creek, ready to show us which young saplings would be best for building the lodge.

One woman watched him move toward the water with his machete, marveling at his determination and vigor. All of a sudden, he slipped on the scree of the bank and went down, laughing as he rolled down the hillside, toward the river. She saw him as a little bear in that moment, rascally and frolicsome, part of the earth, constant and robust, and when he stopped rolling, she yelled to him, “You are a bear!”

“Yes,” he replied, “that is what some people call me.”

Bear liked the trees that were strong and straight. We took our time finding the right ones, enjoying the beauty of the clear-lighted day and the coolness of the water. Clark thanked the trees for their sacrifice as he moved among them. He taught us to leave certain young to grow another day, and old ones to show them how. It was important, in everything we did, to be stewards of this earth, to leave behind enough resources to provide for the future. To Clark, the earth was an extension of his own family and loved ones.

“Because of some things it’s been easy for the old ways to get lost. It’s good to keep them alive,” Clark said. “By you knowing them, others will, too. This way the old ways will not be lost forever.”

We cut about 50 or so of the right-sized willows and hauled them back to the lodge site by pickup. We felt lucky to stay out of sight of the local police. (It wouldn’t have been the first time for Clark to have a run-in with the law over his beliefs, over doing things in the old ways.) We slipped in and out, free of restraint, aho!

Back on the hill, we stripped the outer skin from the willows, preparing them to be bent in the shape of the dome that would become our lodge. We learned that sap ran under the willow skin in the spring, like maple syrup, and that it contained medicine—salicin, a precursor to aspirin—for treating arthritis and other maladies. So we rubbed the slick inner bark on the parts of our bodies that needed healing. With Clark as our elder, we worked as a tribe, singing and praying, teasing one another and sharing stories. In this way, we became each other’s relations, family, each person carrying an important gift to contribute to the whole.

After the willows were prepared we continued our work. We created medicine bundles from tiny cubes of red, blue, and yellow cloth that we wrapped around pinches of tobacco, cedar, or sweetgrass, tied like tiny gift boxes. We left the scarlet ribbon long enough to hang in the branches of nearby trees, and to fasten onto the curved poles of the lodge. Clark told us that we were putting our prayers in there, and reminded us that the medicine was for all: “That’s why we say, ‘Mitakuye oyasin.’ ”

We stayed outside after our morning and afternoon work. All throughout the day, the fire burned, fed by seasoned scrub oak that was dry, hard, and dense enough to hold the heat a long time. Sometimes we gathered around the fire and at other times we went to walk the medicine wheel or sit under a tree. We prayed each to our Creator as we moved about the land. We chanted and sang traditional melodies: sweet voices lifting high on Oklahoma breezes, old songs floating up and hanging in the sky. We sipped water (but didn’t eat), shared hugs, sat close, held hands. Clark mostly kept to himself after his lodge-building duties, sometimes sitting near the fire, periodically holding his palms toward the flames, muttering a word or two or just a sound. He strolled the medicine wheel, hands behind his back, eyes at times on the ground, then looking up.

The sun’s retreat west painted the wide sky in bluesy purples; it was finally time. The fire was burning low as we entered the small lodge on hands and knees through an opening in the blankets and tarps that draped its shell. Crawling blindly into the inky interior, we felt for the wall around to the left. The first person crawled all the way around to the other side of the door frame so we could fit, all wedged in closely together. Clark clambered in easily on all fours, settling into his place across from the door, facing east. Flickering light moved across faces and scattered around the lodge’s interior, illuminating the bent hoop frame. Prayer bundles dangled like ornaments from branches, dancing and bobbing in response to our movements. There was no heat yet and the pit at our feet was empty and dry. Men scooted their backs against willow spines, and women tucked our legs up close under our skirts to make room. When the first few rocks came in, Clark doused them with water. Steam rolled into the small space and the soft heat rose.

Clark shepherded us through the sweat, praying, making the rounds to the four directions. Our fire woman responded to his calls for more rocks. Each time the door was thrown open, night air rushed in to mix with the ashen, wet closeness on the inside. Just outside the lodge, with the shadowy light of the waning fire reflected on her face, the fire woman reached into the low flames with the pitchfork and scooped, balancing each blistering hot chunk of lava on the fork’s tines, then carried it our direction: quiet, strong, steady. As she reached in through the low door, she slipped the rock into the pit at our feet.

“Welcome, relative!” Clark said enthusiastically to each new arrival, patting the bright red lava lightly with his hand, “Mitakuye oyasin! Thank you!” As each glowing rock transformed water, sage, tobacco, and sweetgrass into heated steam, smoke, and ash, it faded to black and disappeared. As the stone’s light got smaller, Clark’s shone, a preternatural part of his constitution.

It was hot in the lodge, but not too hot. I’d been in sweats so fierce I scrabbled in the dirt just trying to find one tiny breath of air. But not so with Clark. He led sweats as the gentle patriarch of those in his care, with a refinement I’d not experienced at the hands of other guides. We rested between directions, threw open the door, some climbing out to wander a few steps away, breathing deeply. Someone told a joke. The water bucket with its gourd dipper moved frequently between us, no one going thirsty for long. Clark’s prayers remained simple and we followed his lead, heat rising with the spare words in a way that was agreeably elemental, a baptism in smoke, soot, steam, and sweat. Each person had strength for their journey from neighbors on either side, bodies close, sweat mixing. Songs came, spontaneously, sweet-tempered ardor, and then faded. Sometimes a little suffering was necessary, and the only thing you could do was to lay your face as close to the earth as possible and breathe, hard, with your lips in the mud, your thirsty tongue tasting metallic tang, snot running from your nose and water from your eyes. Conviction causes the heart and mind to submit, submit, let go, love better, for real this time.

We remained in our prayers for a long time, finally crawling out of the lodge into the small hours, a tiny haze of pale purpley-blue way off in the east, the first inklings of this day’s new colors. Covered in salty ashes and redolent with smoke, we laughed, reveling in hilarity’s release. We were energized by the night, radiant and hungry after a day of fasting, and ready to feast.

That day, Bear called me Granddaughter, one of the great honors of my life. He became my Grandfather, earthly and spiritual, an act made possible because of who he was, and simply because I was there, willing and desirous of practicing these old, kindly ways.

Clark was raised by his maternal grandmother, Mary Little Bear Inkanish, whose own mother was a Mah-hee-yuna, a Sacred Woman of the Sun Dance of the Southern Cheyenne. It is his lineage, and part of his legacy, that some of the old ways will be practiced and not forgotten. Because he lived them, he showed us how. Because he believed that the teachings of the medicine hoop were given for all people, it allowed me to let go of my need to understand why I was drawn to them, and only turn in practice toward these ways, doing them wholeheartedly for one reason and one reason alone: to enter the presence of our Creator. There were times I observed Grandfather walk away from the frantic productions of human process and stand tranquilly outside, in any weather, gazing up, face impassive, eyes on the sky, or beyond. I made up a story that he had gone away from all our efforts, gone to be more intimate with God. In those hushed moments, I took something from watching him just be. In those moments he was, for me, quintessentially spirit, essence, élan vital. All meaning, intention, understanding, and analysis were carried up and away with the smoke. For that and so many other things he showed me, I am grateful.

Clark’s nephew Jason Caddo is a fireman and can run a sweat. He has always known the old ways, as taught to him by Clark and others, and acknowledges that it can be tricky to connect these ancient practices to 21st century life. In his youth, Jason learned them like instructions in a textbook, and now he sometimes longs for a more visceral connection to the traditions. I asked him, is it possible that it only matters to do these old ways, and not to understand?

When Clark’s dear friend and spiritual brother Luis Carlos Sanchez was ordained to the Christian ministry the midst of a thunderous Oklahoma storm, he heard these words from Clark: “That thunder is the great Spirit, clearing the tracks, so that new ones may be made.” Luis Carlos saw the hard, slanting rain and the lightning, and he saw that they were all parts of the whole—like that day Clark was settled comfortably in my tipi and a big spark flew from the fire, spit sideways and landed somewhere on or near him. Unshaken, he said, “Thank you for that confirmation.” I had no idea for what; I was learning not to ask.

“I knew Clark Inkanish, and it was sweet,” Luis Carlos told me. “He just went along, like Johnny Appleseed, spreading the seeds, blessing this life as he went by.”

We buried Clark’s body on December 3, 2015, when his spirit was gone long enough from flesh that we could share stories of messages and mischief from that far side. It turned out quite a few of us had heard from Clark in the days since his death. In the chapel, people came to the front of the room and stood at the lectern to share:

“Clark saved my life. I would not be here if it were not for that man there.”

“When he was mischievous, I knew I had a
lesson coming.”

“Bear helped me remember we are one with our environment, inseparable.”

“This man lived beyond the limitations of mind
and body.”

“Head on home, brother.”

A man with a lilting, sonorous voice sang the old Wichita-Caddo hymns. People standing in a long line to approach Grandfather’s coffin took sharp inward breaths at the sight of him: so lively, so knowing, and now laying so still.

At the Broken Arrow burial ground with family and friends, we witnessed his body lowered into a deep hole in the earth and made our offerings of tobacco and other gifts to go with our elder on that good journey. Reverend Anne Clement commented, “Well, the granddaughters picked the right spot, here by the road, where he
can wave at all the people passing by,” and we laughed, again, through the sadness of our goodbye. We knew that would have been just where he wanted to be, right in the middle of everything. She said, “Clark’s just hanging around, mischievously, saying, ‘Finally, now you guys are getting it!’ ”

Later, as we drove away from the place we’d laid his body, I called out to him. I wondered out loud
when, and where, we would be with him next, and I distinctly heard the sound of his voice in response. Immediately, I heard that constant and true expression. In an undimmed voice laced with the gently swinging rhythm of his barely suppressed grin, I heard Grandfather say: “We shall see…”

Originally published in This Land: Summer 2016