But that’s what we all are – just stories. We only exist by how people remember us, by the stories we make of our lives. Without the stories, we’d just fade away.
Charles de Lint, Memory and Dream
This story re-visits one of our favorite memories – my first visit to Miya’s home on Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, which occurred one month after we met. It was anpetu waste (ahn-PAY-tu wash-TAY), a Lakota phrase meaning “a good day.”
When we met, we were two strangers on a train going from Los Angeles, California, to Phoenix, Arizona, on the Sunset Limited railroad line. I was on that train to visit the family of my friend Bobby, who had died that February from bone cancer that spread to his lungs. I was transporting possessions he asked me to give to his family. Bobby was a Cherokee Mexican American man with whom I participated in volunteer social and education programs (no religious affiliations) serving Native Americans in the Southwest and the Great Plains. Miya was on that train to attend powwow celebrations on both tribal and non-tribal lands in the Southwest. She was transporting her own handmade Native art forms to show and sell along with star quilts handstitched by her mother, who had recently died from aggressive cervical cancer. Miya and I connected immediately.
On that two-day southwest train ride, we shared our stories, comforted each other with warmth and affection, and gifted each other a temporary reprieve from sorrow and grief. We parted with a promise to meet again. We were young and believed in those kinds of promises then. When I returned home from that train ride, a knowledge or understanding deep within was telling me to go to South Dakota to be with Miya. I opined that I would be coming home to a part of myself or perhaps the whole of me. In our more than 30-year relationship – one that inevitably shapeshifted as new people came in and out of our lives – we remained significant to each other.
In January, I wrote this memory of my first visit to Pine Ridge and read it to Miya over the phone. The best memories are like favorite songs we will always remember.
Anpetu waste (ahn-PAY-tu wash-TAY) – A good day
Understanding that, for all that they knew so little of each other, there was something deep inside each of them that saw a kindred spirit in the other.
Charles de Lint, Moonheart
Inside the southwest corner of South Dakota, near the Nebraska border, sits a hauntingly beautiful stretch of land with ponderosa pine-dotted ridges, sage-covered rolling hills, prairie grasses, cottonwood-lined creeks, and endless skies, known as Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Looking one way, I see the sun-bleached rock spires and sculpted pinnacles of the majestic Badlands. Looking another way, I see the eerie, dark spurs of the Black Hills.
It is a hot August day in the 1980s. I am here to visit the woman I met just a month ago on a train ride between Los Angeles, California, and Phoenix, Arizona, on the Sunset Limited southwest rail line.
My thoughts turn to how Miya cautioned me about the long and winding rutted roads on the reservation. As I drive over bumps, large rocks, and deep potholes, braking and accelerating, the car pulls to the left and occasionally to the right also. The steering wheel twitches and jerks in my hands as I dodge tumbleweeds and stray dogs. Pausing by the side of the road, waiting for men on horseback to pass by, I feel excited and full of happy anticipation.
Turning off the road, I continue on a dusty, deeply-pitted, half-mile path to Miya’s home. In the distance, I see a woman standing outside a small house. It must be Miya. Her form is familiar, so I keep my eyes on her as I drive. I grin with joyful recognition when I get close enough to see her face – her beautiful face, with its lively smile. She waves to me. Those two days on the rails weren’t a dream after all.
I step out of the car, and we slowly walk to each other. She lifts her arm and holds out her hand to me, the one with the curved pinky finger bones. I’m caught in a momentary daydream because the offer of her hand is familiar: it is the same greeting she extended when we met on the train a month ago. After that brief hesitation, I accept her hand.
“Sweet memory,” she says – she, too, recalling how we met on the Sunset Limited train ride.
Miya smiles at my shyness, and her face becomes soft. She will become accustomed to my drifting. She touches my skin, and my stiffness unravels like loosened ropes on the dirt. With sunlight dousing us both in joy, bathing us in the light of our livingness, we hold each other in a warm and familiar embrace. Our heartbeats and breathing rates sync, and my mild anxiety dissipates. We face each other with mirrored smiles and bright eyes.
Not able to maintain eye contact for long, I look down. My eyes move across the bony ridge on the outside edge of her knobby feet, dip under her high foot arches, travel up her toned legs, up her femininely curved hips, around her flat buttocks, up her slim torso and tanned arms, cresting on her sun-soaked shoulders, until all that is left is for me to raise my head, look at her face, and linger there. Her brown eyes are deeper than poetry.
Something suddenly distracts me. In her hand is a smoldering prairie-sage bundle. Hoping the sweetgrass aroma will enhance my courage and settle me even more, I take a deep breath and hold it in. She catches me staring and gently wafts the cleansing smoke around my hair. It is an intimate and soothing gesture.
“I have some century-old rye whiskey and fry bread,” she says tenderly. “Will that help?”
“Water would be wonderful, please,” I reply politely, the heat and stress drying my mouth to parchment.
With a look of curiosity and puzzlement, she says, “Such simple pleasures. Why do you deny yourself?”
What she cannot possibly know in this moment is my inner dialogue. I try to encourage myself with, ‘Relax. Be confident. Breathe. You can trust her. Say yes.’ My solution to feeling awkward has always been to evade the place, to run away. So, I try to reason with myself, ‘You have just spent 10 hours of total travel time to see this beautiful woman you want to know, so stay and get to know her.’
As a powerful gust of wind blows dust across the yard, I exhale and yield softly with, “Okay. Whiskey and fry bread.”
“Good,” says Miya with a grin. “We can’t hold back the wind.”
I take hold of her hand and we turn to walk into her home. The small white building is undistinguished from many residences I passed on the reservation roads. It appears to be solid, safe, and sanitary, the sides freshly painted and the front with new wood siding to be painted. Looking at it, I recall when, on our train ride last month, Miya told me about the presence of black mold in many buildings, both uninhabited and inhabited, on the reservation, but not in hers. Above the entryway, two light bulbs are small and unimposing. I smile with a sigh, drifting in thought, recalling how grateful Miya sounded to have electricity.
“What?” Miya asks curiously, gently pulling me back. “Electricity,” I say. “I take it for granted. I probably take a lot of things for granted.”
We step inside her home and Miya invites me to look around while she uses the toilet. First, though, she stubs out the sage bundle in a stone bowl by the door, careful not to collapse the bundle, and leaves it there, ready to be reused. I can still smell its sweet aroma.
Miya’s home is warm and cozy, with a lounge chair, a small sofa, a table, and a wood burning stove. A guitar rests against a stool, the seat painted to look like a buffalo head. Three exquisitely decorated drums are balanced against each other in a corner, with several large rose quartz and other unique rocks placed around them. The furniture is made of wood, with cushions and pillows covered in bold color fabric featuring Native American patterns. The wood floor is covered with blankets and rugs woven with tribal symbols, colors, and themes.
In the kitchen area, a circular table of knotty pine has two wooden pallets under it for benches. The bench cushions are covered with repurposed flour sacks. One window has a fringed hide hanging over it, blocking the hot afternoon sun in the west. I make a mental note to ask her about the hide: ‘Is it elk? Antelope? Buffalo?’
Art covers all the walls, which are also lined with what appear to be handwritten quotes. Painted hides, star quilts, framed drawings and photographs, and quilled and beaded garments indicate Miya’s cultural pride. One wall pays homage to her parents, whom I recognize from the photos she showed me on the train. Other photos are of ancient tribal leaders and one of Miya and several women singing.
It appears that everything in her home is built and decorated with local, natural, and tribal elements. Miya interrupts my exploring with, “You look a little lost but observant.” I don’t know how long she’s been standing there.
“I like your home,” I say with calm awe. “I hope you’ll tell me about your art and the people in your photos.”
“And I like you,” she says. “You’re different.” I can tell she’s pondering something.
“I think being different is a quality of ours,” I say matter-of-factly.
Miya walks toward me, stands beside me, and stares intently at a photo of her mother, who recently died. “My mother taught me to believe in my abilities,” she says. After a brief silence, each of us looking at the photo, Miya turns to me and says, “You will teach me to believe in possibilities.”
“Everything is possible,” I say with confidence. I feel right at home and happy. “I’m glad I’m here,” I tell her.
She smiles and says, “Let’s make fry bread.”
In her snug wooden home on her family’s ancestral land on Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, Miya and I sip rye whiskey and make fry bread and wojapi, a thick, paste-like berry sauce made from buffalo berries. The berries are so sweet, we don’t need to add sugar. The flat dough bread, fried to a golden brown in hot oil, fresh from the skillet and dipped into the hot wojapi, is a wonderful taste sensation. Deliciously crispy outside, soft and chewy inside, and served up with the sweet berry sauce, it is happiness in every bite.
The rye whiskey bottle has a long narrow neck, a body squared-off at the top, and sides flat and tapered. It reminds me of a starched tuxedo shirt and collar. The liquid fire has a color like golden straw, a nose of vanilla, caramel, and rich spices, and a palate of orange peel, clove, nutmeg, walnuts, brown sugar, and earthy sweetness.
Each of us tries to one-up the other in identifying the smells and tastes, and describing the slow and fascinating burn, using words like ping, zest, heat, flame, spark, kick, crack, shooting star, and crackling firewood. While the rye whiskey is anything but smooth and easy drinking, being with Miya is just the right amount of sweet, smooth, bold, and easy.
Oh, the chemistry of taste and smell. I feel again like I felt with her on the train. I am a passionate risk-taker, my confidence building, my body relaxing, and my conversation flowing like spring water. Sipping century-old rye whiskey and making traditional fry bread and wojapi together, Miya and I are making memories, the old meeting the new, crafting a timeless, loving relationship. Like a good whiskey, we will need some age to round out our immaturity. I like the start a lot; it’s full of possibility.
Licking the last bits of jam from our fingers, we dash out the door to ride horses through prairie grasses as the sun sets over the Badlands. The light coming from the west, hitting the rocks and ridges with their red stripes – that is when the magic comes out. It is good.