When my alarm went off at 6 a.m. on a Saturday, everything inside me silently screamed, Nooooo! But somehow I managed to get my weary body out of bed and begin getting ready for the day. Why did I agree to do this again? My busy schedule means I relish Saturdays when I can sleep in a little. I felt the resistance building inside me and wondered what I was thinking when I had made a speaking commitment for that day.
I had agreed to tell Emily’s story to members of the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate Tribe on the Lake Traverse Reservation in northeastern South Dakota, approximately 2.5 hours away from my home. Fortunately, my husband, Jeff, was going along so I wouldn’t have to make the trip alone. Once we hit the road, I got a phone call informing me that none of the audio-visual equipment I needed for my presentation would be available. I realized I had to let go of my expectations for myself in this case and just tell the story. I didn’t have any other choice.
We arrived at the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate Memorial Park, just a few miles from the town of Sisseton, a little before I was scheduled to speak. The park is quite beautiful and there were several tipis set up for the event. I was greeted warmly by the organizers and members of the tribe. Several Native American men had formed a circle next to the stage and were beating drums with their hands. A woman brought me over for introductions and I complemented the man leading the drummers on his beaded bird pendant. “That’s magnificent!” I told him. He smiled with pride and thanked me.
I took the stage with several other people and a tribal leader began with a prayer in the native Lakota language. Then a blessing took place with burning sage and a young native man waved eagle feathers in the air. The man took the burning sage to each speaker and they used their hands to push the smoke toward their face. Then he touched their shoulders with the feathers. When he brought the burning sage to me, I copied what I had seen those before me do. I got up to speak and much to my amazement, I had no trouble filling more than an hour, even without my videos and photos. I told them the story of Emily’s untimely death and what I have learned about the opioid crisis and fentanyl in the drug supply. I also told them what I had experienced with grief and love in the process. Shortly before taking the stage, one of the organizers told me that four people had overdosed on fentanyl and died in the community within the last two months.
Following my talk, my husband Jeff and I were asked to walk over to three chairs set up in front of one of the tipis. The middle one would remain empty to represent Emily. We were invited to take part in the traditional Lakota ceremony called “Washigila,” or Wiping of the Tears. The same young Native American man who had brought the burning sage up onto the stage before I spoke, placed a shell filled with burning sage on the empty chair. Native Americans believe that Wiping of the Tears releases the spirits of the dead and heals the grieving.
Then one by one, everyone who had gathered at the park that morning got in a circle and walked up to me and then to Jeff to express their condolences. I began to cry as the significance of that empty chair between us hit me. I looked over at Jeff, who was also wiping away tears. I’m usually not fond of having my personal space invaded with hugs from strangers. But I received several hugs, mostly from the women, which were respectful and kind. I was surprised by how comforting they were. Some of the women placed small gifts in my lap as they walked by. The young man moved around us. I felt the eagle feathers touch my shoulders and I began to cry in earnest. Then an elderly woman came up to the empty chair. She said silent prayers and raised her hands to the sky. She hugged me and she hugged Jeff. She said, “If you’re happy, she’s happy! She repeated, “If you’re happy, she’s happy!”
We were then invited to take part in the Circle Dance, which represents the circle of life. We held hands and walked to the beat of the drums, first in one direction and then in the other. Several people let out shrill calling sounds. I was a white woman — a complete outsider here — other than the fact I came into their living rooms on TV on a nightly basis. But I never felt more accepted or at peace with any group of strangers in my life; strangers who are now friends.
The entire ceremony didn’t take long, but it was incredibly moving and I felt something shift inside me. Maybe this is what healing feels like. An older Native American man said that our relatives are with us and that Emily is always by my side. They believe their ancestors are present in the wind. The next day, when I went to go visit Emily’s cremains in the mausoleum, the doors were open. The wind picked up and tousled my hair. I could feel her with me, in my heart.
The Circle Dance ended, but the outpouring of love did not. One woman presented me with a traditional Lakota ribbon skirt and another with a floral applique skirt. I also received beautifully beaded earrings and a beaded lanyard. A group of men told me they were taking on the role of husbands and fathers who are leaders in their community and presented me with a “Sober Savages” shirt. I was overwhelmed by their generosity.
Just as I was about to leave, the leader of the drum circle came up to me and put the beaded bird pendant in my hand. “Oh my!” I exclaimed, “I can’t take this!” A man standing next to me said, “You must take it. To not take it would be an insult.” I reluctantly took the drum leader’s beaded bird necklace, which clearly took someone hours of painstaking work to make. I didn’t deserve it and he looked so dignified wearing it; but I did not want to offend him.
I will treasure all the gifts I received, but most of all, I will treasure this experience. I started off the day with a poor attitude, ignorant of the blessings that were in store. I will hold all the love, acceptance and healing in my heart. I was given so much by people who have so little when it comes to the material world. But they are rich in spirit and that’s what counts.
Faith, Hope & Courage,