Animals Talk, We Should Listen
by Napecincala (Little Paws)
The early autumn air lay cold and damp around me as I tried to find a comfortable spot in my blanket. I had been in this pit for two days with no food and no water, but no vision came despite hours of singing and praying. I leand up against the wall and rested my back. I was tired and hungry and very thirsty, but I remained standing and stared at one of the fruit wood poles that my prayer ties were hung on. A little black spider started to spin a web between the pole and the string of my ties. It worked very quickly. I watched the operation, entranced by the beauty of the design and the opalescent colors that danced off the thread in the early morning light. It was beautiful when it was done. Then she crawled up the web and waited at the place where it was attached to the pole.
I stared up at the sky, and as the morning progressed the air warmed the dirt around me. The pit transformed from a cool retreat to an earthen oven. I pulled my star blanket over my head to keep off the biting deer flies. Only my blanket-clad head could be seen above ground by the helpers who periodically came to check on me. They did not speak to me, and I supposed they just came up to make sure I was still breathing.
Every once in a while I would look down at the web, but the spider had not caught any breakfast that I could see. A rabbit, unaware of my presence within a circle of prayer ties, hopped out from behind a rock and started to nibble on the fruit I left for the spirits. Crows called to each other, and butterflies, attracted by the bright colors of the prayer ties, would light on the string, searching futilely for the way in to the nectar of this strange, red cloth flower.
A large vulture soared on the warm updrafts above until it spotted a potential meal and disappeared over my diminished horizon. An hour or so later he was circling above me again. I kept thinking he was just waiting for me to die so I could be the next blue plate special. I held my pipe in my hands and sang prayer songs one after another in a high keening voice, begging for a vision.
As evening approached, bats performed amazing acrobatics above my head, hunting the wretched mosquitoes that had plagued me for nearly four days. I welcomed them and watched them dance in the gloaming. Even with all the mosquitoes in the air, the little spider still waited at the end of its web for a meal.
Stars lit up the prairie sky one at a time as darkness descended. I heard the scuffle of some ground animal behind me, though I never saw the passing porcupine. Only her tracks in the dust attested to the visit.
I woke that morning to a vision of diamonds suspended from the spider’s web. Morning dew and gray light formed a beautiful sculpture. Still the spider waited, and nothing disturbed the perfect form of the web. When the helpers came to take me out of the pit, I was weak with hunger and angry. In four days I had not been granted a vision. During the sweat lodge afterward the medicine person asked me what I had seen.
“Nothing,” I replied.
I could hear the smile in his voice as he asked, “So you were sleeping with your eyes open?”
“No, grandfather, what I meant to say was that I didn’t have a vision.”
“Oh,” he said across the darkness, “So you did see something while you were up there.”
Then I talked about the spider and the crows, the rabbit and the porcupine, the butterflies on the line. I described in detail how I felt and what I was thinking about, but I am sure he could hear the bitterness and disappointment in my voice. I had prayed and fasted for four days for a vision and spirit helpers, and it felt like it was all for nothing.
“Did the spider ever catch anything?” he asked.
“No.” I replied. It was the only part of my time “On the hill” that he asked about.
When we were all done and I was readying to leave, a woman helper came up and said that it takes a long time for most human beings to understand why things happen the way they do.
“We don’t really live in a fast food world, you know.”
Months later I began to understand that my time on the hill had given me everything I asked for.
The above story is a parable, pure fantasy, a modern re-telling of an old Lakota story designed to teach something about the error of expectation and the need for patience when seekers are trying to learn from the natural world.
The reason I chose to write this parable in this way is because most white people walking the red road (learning about Native American spiritual beliefs) have a similar experience when they start out. I certainly did. More importantly, speaking in detail about personal visions and spirit helpers is a little like talking in detail about your sex life. It is usually more information than anyone has the right to know about you, or wants to know.
Like most people raised in a Christian culture, I came to the ceremony of “hanblecia,” crying for a vision, with all kinds of preconceived notions about what a vision was and how it would come to me. My pagan ideas also came into play, as I imagined animal spirit helpers as more like familiars that I could command than teachers I could learn from. Perhaps the most limiting expectation that I had was that I would be given an “important” animal spirit, like an eagle or a wolf or a bear. So, when my spirit helpers showed themselves to me, I didn’t see them, because I was not looking for them in the context in which they appeared.
My day-to-day world is bound by “clock time,” which is faster than Nature’s time, and “computer time,” which is so fast that I can’t even perceive it. As I contemplated my own hanblecia I began to see that time is a key to being able to listen to the animals. Lots of questions came to mind in the weeks following. Does a stone live on the same time as a hummingbird? Do daytime animals perceive time in the same way that nocturnal animals, like bats and porcupine, do? Why is it that most vision seeking ceremonies impose such difficult physical demands? What the Elder lady was trying to say, at the end of my story, was that Unci Maka (Grandmother Earth) has no respect for human concepts of time. We do not really live in a fast food world, and a real connection to Nature’s spirits requires that the human being accommodate them, by slowing down and focusing.
As in the Christian tradition, Lakota stories say than humans were the last thing to be created. But rather than being superior to everything, man was decidedly inferior. All the animals stood around First Man and First Woman and laughed and cried at how pitiful these naked things were. They had no fur to keep them warm, no teeth and no claws to feed themselves and they had nothing to offer the other animals in return for knowledge. Coyote laughed so hard at the sight of them that he died of it. Almost by accident, First Woman stepped over his prostrate body and brought him back to life. In his gratitude, Coyote begged the Great Mystery to do something to help these pitiful creatures. He thought that if they just died it would be better than the miserable short existence that they were in for.
Wakantanka had another idea. He created a plant, tobacco, and gave it exclusively to human beings. He also made the every spirit in nature long for the taste and smell of it, but the only way they could get it was if human beings offered it to them. So it was that human beings learned from animal spirits and other spirits in the world how to live.
I love this story because it clearly says that we needed the spirits in order to live. They did not need us. It is only with offerings of tobacco and a certain amount of humility that they are willing to reveal themselves to us. This was the purpose of the hundreds of red prayer ties I made in preparation for my ceremony.
In my fable, though, I did not have a vision in the way I expected. Rather the actual animals appeared in my world and demonstrated through their actions what I needed in order to live. The spider demonstrated careful construction and patience. The rabbit showed a certain amount of courage to come out into the open when it knew predators were still around, that there is a certain risk involved in really living. The porcupine taught me that I could figure out what was going on around me by simply opening my eyes and seeing the evidence. The vulture spoke to me of the opportunities to grow and change that death sometimes represents. The crows talked to each other and helped each other by sharing information. The butterfly reminded me that there is beauty in persistence. Even when it won’t get you what you want, it makes you stronger. The bats taught me flexibility and the immense power of listening carefully.
None of this interpretation came out of a book and the holy person who was assisting me did not even attempt to interpret what happened to me on the hill. He did stress, by his silences and later his questions, that while I could not control the things that happened, I certainly did control what they meant. It was my responsibility to find the meaning in the ceremony, not his. On reflection, I could tease out the lessons that all these helpers had given me. None of them were glamorous or particularly powerful medicine, but each brought me a lesson I needed at that time.
He also brought the spider back into my awareness with his question. “Did the spider ever catch anything?” When I thought about it later, I came to understand that just because I had done all the ceremony in the right way, at the right time and with the right materials, it did not guarantee that I would “catch” anything. And in another way, my answer had been wrong. The spider did catch something. It caught my attention. In those few minutes that it was spinning its trap, I was transported. I felt no hunger and no thirst. Time stopped as I gazed in awe at the beauty of the thing. I was listening and they were speaking in the language of symbols. Those moments, when time was suspended — that was my vision.