A few years back, I stood on a hilltop with the sacred cottonwood trees far below me alongside Wounded Knee Creek, South Dakota. It was a sunny day and there was a tranquil warm breeze on my face. I was standing alone before a grave marked "Lost Bird" with tears streaming down my face. Our Guide, Serle Chapman had told us, with care and respect, the story of the Wounded Knee Massacre before we arrived there but he couldn't have prepared us for the emotions we would feel at the top of that hill, overlooking the river where so many men, women and children were slaughtered.
All the emotions I felt on that day returned to me when I started to read "Lost Bird of Wounded Knee" by Renee Sansom Flood. Renee has a foot in each camp, so to speak, as she is a white woman married to a Dakota man and has an Indian child. She has spent years researching Lost Bird's story and her book is the haunting account of the young Indian girl's short tragic life.
Lost Bird was found as an infant, after a four-day blizzard, under the frozen body of her dead mother at Wounded Knee. She was kidnapped by a man who was to become the future Assistant Attorney General of the United States, Leonard Colby, who then adopted her as a "living curio" and exploited her in order to attract prominent tribes as clients of his law practice. Renee Sansom Flood traces the short life of Lost Bird, who was only 29 when she died and tracks down her sad, sunken grave to a place in California. Her description of the scene at Lost Bird's exhumation in California and subsequent re-burial at Wounded Knee is heart-wrenching yet tender, as Chief Arvol Looking Horse and The Wounded Knee Survivor's Association painstakingly bring Lost Bird back to her homeland, to be buried with her relatives.
It was all the more poignant for me because I had the honour of being invited with my companions to meet Chief Arvol Looking Horse, so as the scene unfolds around the graveside, I can 'see' clearly Arvol's huge frame, tenderly taking care of the things that needed to be done in the Lakota way to bring Lost Bird home.
Arvol is the 19th Generation Keeper of the Sacred White Buffalo Pipe of the Lakota, Dakota & Nakota Great Sioux Nation. To be invited to visit him in his home was a huge privilege and only possible because of the great respect held by the Lakota people for our tour guide, Award-winning writer, photographer and historian Serle Chapman. Arvol was given the heavy responsibility of the C'anupa (the Sacred Pipe) at the age of 12 and has spent his life working towards World Peace. His home is a humble caravan set amidst green meadows heavy with the smell of sweet meadow grass and wild sage, silent except for the sweet song of the meadowlarks and the neighing of the horses as they play freely together. All his visitors are received here in this over-crowded caravan which has an 'extension' to provide extra room. We were warmly welcomed by Arvol who offered us coffee before we sat down to listen to his words.
He spoke with us about how people misuse their energy instead of putting it to good use. He spoke about the sacredness of their ceremonies and implored us to pray for all humanity and practice forgiveness and "letting go". He spoke about the importance of loving others even though they do wrong. I don't have the vocabulary to describe how deeply that visit to his small, cramped caravan affected us all. I knew that as Keeper of the Sacred White Buffalo Calf Pipe, Arvol carries the heavy responsibility of travelling the world promoting peace, so it seemed unreal that we were sitting here on the floor of his caravan, drinking coffee with him, hoping to remember every word he quietly spoke.
As our visit was coming to an end, a group of students arrived for their appointment with him. Instead of ushering us out, we were invited to shake hands with one another and sit together, wherever we could find a small space, on chairs and on the floor so he could proudly show us a video about the Legend of the White Buffalo Calf Woman.
So as I read Renee Sansom Flood's account of Lost Birds' return to her homeland, I can picture clearly in my mind's eye Arvol's huge frame and feel his gentle words in my heart..............