The sign read “Welcome to the Black Hills Powwow”. I could already hear drum beats in the distance and they seemed to call out to me. I had hoped to arrive early, wanting to get some good photos of the “hills” and surrounding landscape, but the tourists were already out in full force, which made it more difficult to get a pure image. If it wasn’t the Hills they wanted to see, it was nearby Mount Rushmore. I could see the dark hills in the distance and knew they were considered sacred by several different tribes, most especially the Lakota, who considered this land their home.
I took a deep cleansing breath and felt a tight knot in my chest loosen some. A wave of anxiety swept over me. I was finally here, after driving over a thousand miles. For some reason, I had a feeling of déjà vu when I looked around me, which was odd, but I believed this was the place I was meant to be. I just didn’t know why.
I’d always felt an affinity for the Native Americans. I had their blood running through my veins, in the distant past, but it was still there. Learning more about my heritage had been a priority. Some in my family would say to me, “Lexi, there isn’t enough native blood in your veins to even claim to be part native.” I hadn’t cared. My research had led me on a path of self-discovery and here I was.
As I walked, the rhythm of the drum beats changed and I could feel them echo inside myself. They seemed to beat in time with my heart. I had been to many powwows before, but this one felt…different. Being here filled a void inside me I hadn’t known was there. I felt a tug on my hair and a soft, gentle breeze whispered across my skin. Confused, I turned my head. The breeze had almost felt like a touch, yet there was no one even near me.
The closer to the entrance I walked the louder the beat of the drums. I saw the entrance ahead and my step felt lighter as I crossed the threshold to the circle. I stopped and just looked around, surveying the nearly perfect circle of vendors who would sell their handmade crafts and jewelry. The others with their Native American fry bread and buffalo burgers. Breathing in deeply I could smell the scent of sweetgrass and the lingering smell of tobacco and sage, which were used for smudging, along with the smell of food.
Nearing the East Gate, after completely walking the full circle, the drum beats continued, but at a faster pace. I stopped and stood at the edge of the gate. Not really a physical gate, but an entrance, the only entrance to the inner circle or dance circle. Gazing around the perfect circle, I felt the drum beats in my chest and felt at home. I looked over and two of the drums had men sitting around them. The powwow would begin soon. I turned around, took a seat on one of the hay bales that circled the area, prepared my camera, and then waited.
Watching the other visitors and the regalia-clad participants, I thought back to the first time I felt the pull, the need to be here. Thinking at first it was just the need to be around the people and the culture, I went to every native event I could. Researching the past only brought about a greater interest. It was when I visited the National Museum of the American Indian in New York that I knew I had been only been temporarily covering up the feeling of wanting to belong, needing to belong.
The artifacts and photos from this area touched me and I felt a familiarity I didn’t understand. Why would a little girl’s handmade doll look familiar? Or a pair of men’s moccasins that were so intricately beaded you knew that whoever had beaded them had lovingly created them for that man. Figuring I had seen similar photos when I was researching on the internet, I had pushed the feeling aside and vowed I would come here at least once. The feelings and pull kept persisting after my visit to the museum until I finally planned a trip for my thirtieth birthday. The powwow was an added bonus when I arrived. Now, here I was and I knew it would be hard to leave when the time came.
Just then the first voice rose above the drum beats and I caught my breath. When the other voices joined in I felt a stirring inside me, almost like a soft touch brushing my skin. It felt odd, yet comforting in a way. I never ceased to be amazed at how the music and voices stirred my soul. The dancers were called and I watched as they began to filter into the outer circle and line up at the East Gate.
Turning my head I looked across the circle at the drummers. I watched as one man lifted his drumstick and then brought it down onto the hide of the drum, others followed and then they began to sing. I was so caught up in the thump of the drum and the harmony of voices I didn’t notice the dancers at first. Turning my head I saw swirls of color and watched as young girls of all ages dance into the circle, shawls extended, moving from one foot to the other, and then spinning in circles. The brightly colored handmade shawls shimmered in the sun, the long ribbons attached to the edges flying out behind the girls. I heard the tinkle of bells and watched as the girls with jingle dresses enter. Then some women, men, and boys in their respective regalia. The beautiful display touched me and the beating of the drums called to me even more. I raised my camera and focused, and then became lost in my craft.
I did realize I had moved several times during the powwow, to get a better photo and to stretch my legs. The sun had shifted in the sky, so I knew the powwow was winding down. The MC announced the last dance was for men only. I knew I’d captured some wonderful images, but when I pushed the button for each one I just didn’t get that spark of…something stupendous, something…that touched my soul.
I slowly walked to the edge of the circle. At this time of day, near the end, there aren’t as many participants. They wear themselves out dancing in the heat and heavy, stifling regalia they wear. There are, however, a few brave souls who will last until the end. They dance their heart out, they dance for their ancestors and that force of will conveys strength and determination that lends the culture and the man, much respect.
The drummers began again, this time the drumming was hypnotic, entrancing, pulling me in. I felt the stir of the breeze, the almost touch once again. With it came a smell, a sensory memory, one I felt, but could not remember. Then he walked into the ring and began to dance and I lost my breath. He was the only one I saw, yet I knew there were others. His raven hair was thick and long, falling around him in a curtain as he moved to the beat of the drum. In his hair was a lone eagle feather that also moved with him. I felt a familiarity and was enchanted with just the sight of him. His body was perfect, tall, strong, and muscled, obvious from the way his ancient buckskin regalia hugged his body, as did the moccasins that encased his feet. It was like the two of us were in our own world and I felt lost in his presence. I was brought back to reality with the sharp note of a flute and realized I hadn’t once lifted my camera.
I snapped a few shots of the other men dancing, but kept my eye on Him. I wanted him to get closer again, I wanted to see his face. He finally circled closer and I lifted my camera, catching him with his head thrown back, eyes closed, and hair trailing down his back in a waterfall of darkness. Taking another deep breath I focused, this was it. That spark was there. I had set my shutter speed to capture every step of the dance. Focusing on his dance, taking his picture, and watching through the viewfinder as he went by, my eyes trained on his face. His eyes opened and he looked right at me. His gaze seemed to see straight through me. That feeling I’d had earlier in the day swept through me again, like fingertips brushing my skin…a breeze that wasn’t there.
I moved the camera away from my face, my arms dropping as I looked into his face. His eyes captured mine for a second more and then they again closed and he moved past. I let out a sigh, raised my camera back up, took a few more, and then decided to head back to my hotel. As I walked back to my car I relived the moment his eyes met mine and wondered if it was just my imagination his dark eyes had stared back at me. All I had to do was flip through the images on my camera to find out, but I wanted to wait until I could sort through them on a larger screen.
I don’t remember much of the trip back to where I was staying. Surprisingly, I found my way back without the GPS. I felt tired from the long day, yet I was alert. Setting my camera bag next to my computer, I resisted the urge to sit down and upload my pictures. I forced myself to take a shower and eat something before beginning. Sitting down in front of my computer I inserted the SD card I had retrieved from my camera and opened the window. Letting out the breath I was holding, I began to slowly go through the images when what I really wanted to do was start at the end first. I had taken nearly two hundred pictures, which for me wasn’t unusual since I wanted to make sure I didn’t miss anything.
There were many good ones. I smiled at the little girls and boys dancing, trying to mimic the parents who were with them. Scrolling through the shots of the Women’s Traditional, the Shawl, Jingle Dress, and Grass Dance, and all the others that had filled my day until I finally reached the first image of the last dance. I frowned as I clicked past several of the ones I knew I had taken at the end, but I didn’t see Him. I picked out the other dancers who were with him in the circle, but he wasn’t there. How could that be?
I went to the last photo and clicked on it and started going through them in reverse. There were the other dancers, but where was he? I was clicking through them so fast they were blurring. My heartbeat had sped up and I placed a hand to my chest, taking a deep, slow breath to calm myself. I took my hand off the mouse and placed it in my lap. Closing my eyes I took another deep breath. Why was I panicking? It was just a picture…wasn’t it? But I could still see his face when I closed my eyes. I could see his dark eyes staring at me, calling to me as the drumbeat in time with my heart.
Opening my eyes again I stared at the screen in front of me, willing him to appear. I didn’t think I was going crazy. Had he really been there? Had the long day and sun blinded me to what was happening around me? This had never happened to me before, ever. Others had seen him right? I closed my eyes for a minute more, rubbing at my temples, then I opened them and starting at the beginning again, I went through them again…slowly. I even took the time to pick out those I would print out and moved them to another folder on my computer. The closer I got to the end I felt my heartbeat speed up again and a feeling of anxiousness set in. I fought it down by deep breathing to calm myself.
Reminding myself I hadn’t started shooting until he had danced the circle and started coming toward me a second time. I also reminded myself I had been caught up in his beauty and had totally ignored the camera that had been ready to take his picture until he had already danced by. I calmed myself to a degree and one by one, I slowly scrolled through them again. I saw the other dancers, frozen in time with the push of a button. From one click to the next, there He was. I frowned in confusion, but then was caught again in his eyes. This specific picture was the one where he had opened his eyes and looked into mine. Where were all the others? The ones leading up to this one?
The screen and his visage had me spellbound and I couldn’t look away, even if I had wanted to. He called to me, those eyes and the emotion in them had me frozen in the chair. I once again felt the breeze touch me, fingertips brushing my skin. Goosebumps rose on my skin at the familiar touch. My hand lifted and moved toward the screen. I kept my eyes locked on his in the picture as my fingers hesitated a half-inch from his frozen image. Feeling a strange pulling sensation had me closing the distance and softly placing my fingertips on his face in the picture. I felt dizziness that took my breath away, but I didn’t close my eyes or drop my hand until darkness took me over.
I don’t know if it was waking exactly, but when I opened my eyes and looked around I wasn’t where I was supposed to be, or where I thought I should be. A breeze brushed me that held a coolness to it. Taking a breath, I looked around and could smell the grass, horses, and the smell of campfires. I closed my eyes and breathed deeply again, picturing my hotel room, my computer, even the too-firm bed, where I probably was sleeping right now. When I felt the breeze on my skin again I re-opened my eyes slowly and the same scene stood in front of me. I took a step forward and looked down at myself when I felt a softness against my skin I had never felt before.
I was dressed in a soft buckskin dress with fringe at the hem and the sleeves. On my feet were moccasins and the hide was so soft it felt like a soft touch on my skin. Reaching up a hand to feel my hair I found it in a long braid that trailed down my back. I told myself I wasn’t going to panic. This was just a dream from an overactive imagination and from seeing a gorgeous native man looking at me like I was the answer to a prayer. I was going to wake up in my bed when I woke up.
Looking around me again I noticed women and children were packing up their belongings on sleds. Others were tearing down the tepees to be transported and I knew they were moving their camp. The coolness of the breeze said winter would come soon and they had to make their way to their winter camp before the snow fell. I swallowed, took a breath, and began walking. I walked by a woman stirring a pot over the fire and another woman tying down some items to her small sled. Neither woman looked my way as I passed them so I figured I was dreaming. Then a little girl with a doll under one arm came running toward me. She stopped directly in front of me, looked up, and smiled, holding out her hand. I smiled back and slowly took her hand. She began walking so I followed. Her hand felt real in mine. Her skin was soft and warm and I gave it a light squeeze. She looked at me over her shoulder and gave me another huge smile.
I surveyed my surroundings as I followed her. There were a few tepees still standing, flaps closed against the coolness of the day. The hides that had been sewn together to create them were a dark tan, the smoke hole at the very top, edged in soot from the fire’s smoke escaping. A couple of the tepees had symbols painted on them, the paint faded from the elements. I glanced back down at the girl when she said something and pointed off in the direction we were heading. I didn’t see anything or anyone there, but what I did see made me stop. The Black Hills, in all their glory, were rising in the distance. I was closer to them now than when I’d been at the powwow.
The sound of horses and the whoops of men’s voices came to me. I didn’t see anyone, but I heard them. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a couple of women pause in their work and walk our way. I fixed my eyes on the tall grasses that surrounded the village and the horizon, but still didn’t see anyone, then…there they were. The horses’ hooves created a thunder-like sound against the hard ground as they raced toward the place we stood. I quickly glanced around and saw many of the women standing at my side. None of them looked at me. I felt my hand being squeezed and I looked down at the little girl. She wasn’t looking at me, but the horses drew ever nearer. She started jumping up and down and laughing, waving a hand at the riders.
My eyes scanned the faces I could see as they started to reign in their horses, slowing as the women started to walk out among them. The little girl let go of my hand and ran out to meet one of the men. He slipped from his horse and grabbed her up, lifting her high into the air and spinning her around. I could hear her shrieks of laughter as she hugged him around the neck and I smiled at her when she looked over at me. I felt an odd sensation, nearly identical to the one I felt before I touched my computer screen. If I was having that feeling, this must be a dream I thought. I must be getting ready to wake up and I didn’t want to now. I wanted to stay.
I closed my eyes and stood still, breathing in the scents around me, feeling the cool breeze on my skin and the sun on my face, listening to the wind rustle the tall grass. Just then a shadow blocked the sun and the breeze and I opened my eyes to a horse standing a few feet in front of me. My eyes traveled up over the body of the horse to the man riding it and I felt my eyes widen in shock. It was Him, he was here. I really hoped this wasn’t a dream. I looked up into his eyes and his held surprise for an instant and then relief and joy. I watched as he slid from the horse, dropped the reins, and slowly walked to me, his eyes never leaving mine. I vaguely noticed he wasn’t wearing a shirt, just leggings, a loincloth, and moccasins which were intricately beaded. My heart started to beat a little faster again. When he stood inches from me he lifted a hand and softly brushed my cheek, the touch familiar. His fingertips tracing my jawline as I watched his eyes search every inch of my face. When his eyes met mine again he took that last step closer, ours bodies brushing.
I slowly raised my hands and hesitantly rested them on his waist. His breath hitched when I touched his skin and my heart leaped again. A stronger, cooler wind chose that moment to whip past us, sending his long hair dancing around us. His head leaned ever closer to mine and his hair slipped past my face. I breathed in and could smell sage and sweetgrass. I closed my eyes, wanting to hold onto this moment forever. He spoke in a whisper and I opened my eyes again, looking up into the liquid depths of his. My eyes went to his lips and then to his eyes again in question. I saw his lips form into a breathtaking smile before his forehead touched mine briefly before I felt his mouth at my ear.
“Niye yuha hi,” he whispered.
You have come, he had whispered. I was where I belonged.