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Fall 1995, Volume 12.3

Essay

 

Richard F. Fleck

Homage to a Shoshone Elder


Richard F. Fleck (Ph.D., University of New Mexico) is currently Dean of Arts & Humanities at the Community College of Denver. His essays have appeared in
American Indian Quarterly, American Notes & Queries, Appalachia, Boston Review, and elsewhere. His most recent book, Critical Perspectives on Native American Fiction, was published by Three Continents Press in 1993.

 

Rupert Weeks (1918-1983) was a mirthful Shoshone elder from Wind River Indian Reservation in upstate Wyoming. He had an infectious laugh—from high to very low pitch, and always ending in a raucous note. That's not to say he didn't get angry and sullen; he had those moods too. But he was an uncle to me, a teacher, and a friend. He was born in Garland, Utah, in 1918 and attended a government industrial school there during the 1920s. Describing his experience there, he commented that the school rules were strict. If he was caught speaking Shoshone once, his hand was smacked with a ruler—twice and he was told to stand in a corner—thrice, and he was denied a Christmas holiday with his parents. He remembers going to the Friday night silent movies and cheering for the U.S. Cavalry and booing at the "savages." "Eeh gads," Rupert once exclaimed, "I wasn't so much brainwashed as I was white-washed."

In 1933 he moved to the reservation in Wyoming where he remained (except for military service) until his death in September, 1983. Rupert fought in World War II during the Normandy invasion and served under General Patton with the 80th Blue Ridge Division as a cannoneer in the 319th infantry from France to Belgium, Luxemburg, and southern Bavaria. He learned to speak German with daring fluency and met some good and friendly people in Germany and Austria who continued to correspond with him through the years.

After the war Rupert took up painting mountainscapes and wildlife; his paintings have a mystical air to them—some can be seen at the Museum of the Great Plains Indian Life at Browning, Montana. He taught school in Wyoming Indian School at Ethete and became an adept storyteller (in Shoshone and English) for which he is best known. I had the privilege of helping him see to press his story of a maturing Shoshone youth, Pachee Goyo (1981), his only book. Many a grand evening did my wife Maura and I have talking with him in our Laramie home.

For several years during the 1970s he taught a class in Shoshone culture at the University of Wyoming where I first met him as a sit-in student. Previous to my meeting Rupert, the only Native Americans I had known were from the pages of books. Both university students and school pupils enjoyed his teaching because of his marvelous sense of humor characterized by a twinkle in his eye and that raucous laugh. But his seriousness of purpose in teaching language, custom, and folklore never failed to surface. Pachee Goyo poetically exhibits all of these qualities; young Pachee Goyo, for instance, must travel through dark woodlands where purple flowers shoot out beams of light in the evening sky, and he must fly on the back of a giant owl to return home after many moons of separation from his people.

It is one thing to sit in a classroom and listen to stories and facts about the mountain tribe of Shoshones, but quite another to leave the confines of the university and travel up to the Wind River Mountains of Wyoming and ramble about with Rupert as your guide. He invited me to his "abode" for the first time in 1974. I have since journeyed up there a dozen times, sometimes alone, sometimes with family, or sometimes with as many as twenty-five students. My respect for this man grew steadily through the years. He was closer to me than any uncles of mine.

Willa Cather's personage Gaston Cleric in My Ántonia discusses the Virgilian notion of patria as "not a nation or even a province, but the little neighborhood with ... fields sloping down the river and to old beech trees with broken tops." Rupert had such a concept of patria, namely the beloved "udadye" (warm valley) nestled beneath the dark slopes of the Wind River Mountains laced with distant seemingly floating snowfields and glaciers.

In late August1974, I left Laramie at sunrise for the reservation. Cobblestone clouds cast circular shadows on the rolling prairies with half moon crescents of rock gleaming in the rising sun—a perfect Charlie Russell painting. The Snowy Range looked as if you could reach out and touch it. Everything had a mystic air about it, and I was in a perfect mood for my first visit to Wyoming's Indian lands. The Wind River Mountains are Wyoming's highest with Gannett Peak just shy of 14,000 feet. They dominate the entire reservation; even if one is in the lowest of cottonwood hollows, one cannot help but look up "unto the mountains." As I pulled up to Rupert's modest home amid cottonwood trees beside a little stream, I didn't take long to sense my Indian friend's love for his land; Virgil himself couldn't have loved his patria any more.

"What ya think of this country?" he asked.

"Beautiful. It's so clear you can see a thousand miles."

"And then some," he chuckled.

After a tasty lunch of Shoshone frybread, chokeberry gravy, and elk stew, we drove out of his homestead toward Washakie Park just below the rugged Saint Lawrence Basin.

"See yonder ridge? About a hundred years ago some Shoshone Indians saw antelope up there. But one didn't look right. He acted funny. After a closer look they saw it was a Blackfeet Indian hunting antelope dressed up like one. They gave him chase and, see that rock over there? That's where he was killed. They must have had damn fine eyesight in those days," he said with a chuckle.

When we reached the base of a rugged canyon, he pointed out an old wagon trail made seventy-five years earlier for getting firewood. And beyond that rose a burial mound with the remains of some of his ancestors. In fact, somewhere (he wouldn't say just where, of course) were the remains of Jean Baptiste Charbonneau, son of Sacajawea (whose name in Shoshone means one who throws the boat ashore). Sacajawea had given him the gold medal she received from Lewis and Clark as a token of appreciation for her help in guiding them through the Rocky Mountains on the way to the Pacific Northwest. Jean Baptiste was buried with that medal along with his strangled horse so that he would have it to ride into the afterworld.

"How do you view Sacajawea," Rupert asked, "as a heroine or traitor? We see her as a traitor. White men like you wouldn't be standing here if it hadn't been for her," he said pausing in silence and then letting out a loud raucous laugh.

"That medal of hers," he said. "She used it for barter—but not barter in the usual way. If she needed supplies, she'd say to the storekeeper, I don't have any money, but you can have President Jefferson's medal. The storekeeper would say that he wouldn't take a thing so precious and let her have her flour and spuds."

Not since Ireland had I experienced a land so steeped in legend and tradition. Driving above rattlesnake country into the pine forests, we stopped to feast on wild gooseberries, tart and refreshing. The chokecherries were still green, but , once ripened, they would be picked for another year's supply of chokecherry gravy (made by adding flour to chokecherry syrup).

"Now this road gets a bit steep. You think your car will make it?… she seems to be going okay," he mused. Rocks and stones flew out of the back of my spinning tires and the car lurched up a sixty degree slope of an old CCC road winding in and out of switchbacks.

"See that truck in the brushes there? It was going for firewood when its brakes gave way."

I breathed easily again once we arrived at a level surface where a cool wind blew steadily in our faces after we got out of the overheated, exhausted car; we walked out into peaceful Washakie Park (at 8,000 feet) just below the jagged, snowy Saint Lawrence Basin. As we sauntered to the other end of this valley, Rupert's eyes gleamed with pride once he knew I took to his country.

"You know the legend about Chief Washakie killing a Crow Chief out yonder at Crowheart Butte and eating his heart? That's not a historical legend at all. It's a Wyoming Hysterical Society Legend. Some old Indian really pulled the leg of a white historian. The butte is a tough thing to climb, let alone have a fight on top of it. And we Shoshone people were never really enemies with the Crows—we intermarried you know. An other thing—that butte in Shoshone is called Hi Ham BeRaven Butte, not crow (meaning Crow Indian). No Indian should climb it, or bad things will happen to his relations, and still to this day you can hear frightened bird cries at nighttime near Raven Butte. Now Chief Washakie knew the difference between a raven and a Crow Indian! But why the Crow people haven't denied the legend I don't know; unless Chief Washakie did eat Crow chief's heart." Again a raucous laugh.

He pointed out in the far distance the dark Owl Creek Mountains and said his people never go back there. There are bad doings in there—bad spirits. No, if you go back in there, you never come out the same person. Rupert remained silent for quite some time. Had he known someone that had something bad happen back in those mountains? A.B. Guthrie's characterization (in The Big Sky) of a crazy tumble of Montana hills with tales of strange doings hit home. I asked him about the Bighorn Mountains and the famed medicine wheel and whether or not the Shoshone people had anything to do with it. This medicine wheel (about thirty yards in diameter) is just one of a series in northern Wyoming and southern Montana. It has twenty-eight rock spokes representing the twenty eight lunar days, and during the equinoxes the setting sun and rising moon form a perfect right angle within the spokes of the wheel (so my friend Victor Flach and I discovered one September 22nd). Rupert explained that all tribes used it sort of like the United Nations. It was simply a giant sundial which warned the old-time Indians when to get out of the high country and not be trapped by an autumnal blizzard while hunting bighorn sheep above treeline.

We walked back to the car past looming white cliffs looking like giant Indian chiefs and eased down that winding snake of a road. Rupert guessed my thoughts and brought up the topic of rattlers. He said on certain full moons, he had seen a couple dozen of them reared up out of their coils with their heads held high in the sky. He said it was an eerie sight. Almost back in "udadaye," my friend pointed out a round sandstone cliff full of petroglyphs on its far side. He seemed perplexed as to how his ancestors could have created them so high up the sides of sheer cliffs.

"Next time you come, we'll go have a look."

"You betcha," I said.

Four of the shortest hours of my life had sprinted past me and it was time for me to leave this land, this patria of Indian legend. The mountain tribe of Shoshone people may have their troubles in an age which has only begun to appreciate their life style, but they have a vital contact with a power no one can deny, the LAND.

Later that fall Greg Bean, a graduate student of mine, and I went up to see Rupert. He knew what we came for—the petroglyphs, but he didn't call them that—he preferred "spirit drawings." He was anxious to see them himself as he hadn't hiked back in there in years. After hopping out of the car far above a roaring stream tumbling out of the Wind River Mountains, we began our hike over several miles of sagebrush terrain with numerous yucca plants sticking up between the rocks here and there. Rupert told us to be on our guard for rattlers, especially hidden in sagebrush, but I didn't see any that entire afternoon. I remember once when I was a student, I brought a volume of John Steinbeck out on the prairie to read. It was too hot to wear my jacket, so I tossed it aside. Out of the corner of my eye, as I sat there reading, I saw a black and yellow rattler slithering up to my jacket where he coiled himself. The only way I could recover my jacket, not having any weapons, was to throw dust in his lidless eyes until he slithered away. I don't remember much of what I read of Steinbeck that day…Approaching the edge of a high sandstone cliff, we angled down along a narrow trail imprinted in orange sand. By sundown we had made it to the most impressive wall of "rock art" I had seen. Countless hundreds of figures were carved into the sandstone; some looked like von Däniken's creatures from outer space; others looked like animals and humanoids. We sensed a sacred aura in this area high above the Little Wind River. It bordered on being eerie.

As the sun set, Greg asked Rupert if he would care to share his thoughts with us. He remained silent several moments before speaking. His voice seemed distant as though he was in another world; he explained that all these spirit drawings on the cliff were not made by humans because they change, they grow. He said that one figure in particular used to have four fingers on each hand and now had five. He paused again for several moments. I had never seen him so deeply reflective.

"If you want to seek medicine," he said, "you must fast for three days—no water and no food. Then you come here at the base of this spirit drawing cliff above the Little Wind. Come just about this time of day wearing only a loin cloth. When you sit down with crossed legs, you will hear voices—you'll think they're animal voices from far away in the mountains, but actually they're right here. You've both heard buzzing and humming mosquitoes nearby and sheep or cattle in the distance? Sometimes it's hard to tell which is which, especially when everything else is so silent,"

Greg and I felt a bit apprehensive but we remained quiet as Rupert continued. "The sun will go down and the voices will continue to haunt you, speak to you. You will understand what they're saying. Hear that coyote? He's saying something right now.... When you lose consciousness, the whole under-earth will be seen. You'll see red, green, blue, and yellow veins (as though the earth were flesh) leading up to plant roots. Each of those colors is power—power to overcome disease, illness, even mental illness and paranoia. Take note of the plants the colors lead to. With that plant you will have good medicine. But," he interjected forcefully, "if you come here for a lark thinking it's all a big joke, the joke will be on you—you'll wake up tumbled down the river. If you have come with a sincere purpose, you'll wake up at sunrise (seemingly only minutes after sunset) with a feather in your lap. That feather is what will tell you Duma Upa (the Great Spirit ) has spoken with you. Some have come here with a sincere purpose but have later misused that power…. You know why we Shoshone people now don't live too long? All of us are dying, it seems, in our late sixties or earlier. Some of us have misused that power."

I asked Rupert how they have misused it, and he explained that they simply used it for their own personal benefit, not for the good of all the people. Greg suddenly lurched with fright in his eyes. He pointed to a frog skin at the very base of a frog-creature carved in sandstone. We two non-Indians felt a bit uneasy and asked if we could leave as it was getting dark and we might not find our way back.

As we three hoofed over the open terrain toward the car under a brilliant array of stars slightly illuminating the snowy crags of the Wind River Mountains, I asked Rupert if he felt that yonder mountains were sacred.

"You know that on evenings such as this, little lights rise and fall over those mountains. Some people think they're UFOs, but they're wrong. They are the spirits of my ancestors; they're speaking to me telling me of things to come like a great wind which will last one year, strong enough to blow down buildings. Even the western meadow lark, who has added an extra note to his song, tells me that."

We arrived at our car and slowly proceeded down a bouncy, bumpy road until we reached his comfortable little mountain home with smoke curling out of its chimney up to the stars. As I crawled into my sleeping bag that night I reflected how incorrect some writers are who, like Edward Abbey (in Beyond the Wall), assert that petroglyphs mean little or nothing to the modern-day pickup truck Indian. I had the feeling that Rupert gave us just the tip of the iceberg that evening down in the sandstone hollow. How much our streets, buildings, asphalt, and dead concrete pavements have hardened our spirits to a living planet which throbs with undeciphered meaning. Were the Greeks right about the "music of the spheres"? I'd like to think so.

About a year later Rupert invited my entire Native American literature class up to the reservation. We met Rupert by the tribal complex where he began to teach and guide my class. We went to the "Soldiers' Graveyard" where Chief Washakie lies buried. "See over yonder? Look at the great and wise chief's grave," Rupert said a bit sarcastically. "You know, Washakie was only a camp-moving chief when our tribe held council with the white generals as to what land we should live on. Chief Grey Hunchback was our leader, and he did most of the talking and drove hard bargains. Washakie sat in the back row as he was only a camp-moving chief. But the generals spotted him and pronounced him chief of all the Wind River Mountain Shoshones. He naturally cooperated fully with any land compromises that had to be made, especially concerning the area of Thermopolis." Rupert chuckled to himself and said, "that's why they called him a great and wise chief."

"When did all this happen?" one of the students asked.

"Way back in 1868," Rupert responded.

Those rugged Wind Rivers rose up high in the distance laced with big white snowfields glaring in the strong autumnal sun. Crickets hummed around us emphasizing our thoughtful silence as we trekked out of the graveyard single file. One black student from Pittsburgh asked Rupert why he kept an eagle feather in his pickup truck. All he said was that it was a great deal more than an eagle feather.

A half hour later, we stood along the shores of Bull Lake north of Fort Washakie. From here we could see far into the high country of the Wind Rivers mirrored on the surface of the calm lake. Chokecherry bushes and sagebrush lined the shore below us as we picked boulders to sit on to listen to Rupert tell stories and mythic tales of his people. He told us of the legend of Bull Lake: in ancient times two warriors came to hunt and fish and rode horseback past many pools and small lakes. One started to fish while the other gathered firewood. At dark they saw some buffaloes and so got their bow and arrows and shot one, giving no thanks to Duma Upa. One warrior was so hungry he started eating raw meat with blood running down his chin. The other said that they should cook the meat first, but the hungry one kept eating and eating. That night he didn't feel too good and felt strange hooves forming on his feet, and fur started growing up his legs and chest. By the next day he had turned into a buffalo with tears in his eyes. He told his human friend not to worry, but to go home to the village and tell the people what happened. Meanwhile he roared like the sound of ice breaking up—wush whooh! Rupert clapped his hands and let out a whoop. And to this day you can still hear the sound of that buffalo roaring, especially when the ice cracks and booms on Bull Lake. Rupert smiled and took a puff on his cigarette.

As we slowly paced along the shoreline of Bull Lake, one of the students asked Rupert how he got the name "Weeks."

"Ha, let me tell you. In the old days when we 'savages' were being enrolled by Army agents on this reservation, two brothers (my great uncles) stood in line. 'What's yer name,' a soldier asked one of them. 'Wayaks,' he said. 'Okay, let's make it Weeks.' 'You,' another soldier said to the other brother, 'What's yer name?' 'Tho-ap.' 'Thorpe will be your name.' So two brothers wound up with different last names. Now I ask you, who's the 'savage'?" With a sun lowering over the Wind River Mountains, we bade farewell to our Indian guide. I can still see him standing there smoking a cigarette and waving good-bye.

A number of years later Rupert invited some graduate students and me to attend (as silent observers) the great Shoshone Sundance. The Indians had very kindly set up two tepees for us, perhaps a hundred yards away from the ceremonial dance site. It was a fiercely hot July afternoon when we arrived, our minds in a daze. After a meal of hot dogs and beans, we ambled over to the ceremonial site to watch the intricate construction of the Sundance lodge around a sacredly selected cottonwood tree marked with dried willow branches lashed half way up the trunk.

While the Indians worked at construction, I couldn't help noticing those white Wind River Mountains which contrasted so sharply with dark lower canyons. Twelve forked pine logs (representing the twelve moons) were secured in an upright position circling around the cottonwood tree or tree of life, as it is called. Then, large pine branches were placed from the fork of the pine log into the crotch of the central cottonwood. They then wove willow branches between each of the twelve pine branches to form a circular roof. Leafed cottonwood branches were placed all around the outer circle to enclose the lodge except for an eastward entrance. I noticed a buffalo skull placed up on the cottonwood trunk facing west. The structure was completed by dusk; it simply looked beautiful—a living circle of vegetation.

Around midnight the medicine man appeared leading his sundancers slowly to the beat of drums sounding like a steam locomotive. They proceeded around the lodge twice before entering, and after doing so sat in a semi-circle all night to be ready to greet the rising sun with eaglebone whistles. As they sat there, an amazing thing happened up in the starlit sky. A silver cloud formed in the exact shape of a charging buffalo!

It was difficult to sleep that night; we were all too anxious for the rising sun. I thought of Rupert, my friend through the years. I remembered his tragic loss of his daughter and the "give-away" he had in her honor. He and his wife had gathered all their belongings and placed them within a circle. He cashed in his modest bank account and placed dollar bills in a pile on the table. Once a dance had been performed, the saddest I have witnessed, all of his relatives were given dressers, towels, bedding, or even cash, and then were given a feast in remembrance of his daughter. Of what value are couches, chairs, furniture, when you have lost a loved one? It is Shoshone philosophy to begin anew, however difficult that may be. But Rupert, as sad as he was, had a tremendous resilience of spirit, and it was that spirit that got him through ugly boarding school years, the Normandy Invasion, and the tragic loss of his daughter….And what of the Sundance? As he explained to me, a Sundance is a revival dance. Participants sacrifice their energies, their time, their sweat, their spirits for the benefit of the tribe, for the human race itself. They will dance (in relief teams) for three days without taking food and only sipping water at night. And back in the nineteenth century the U.S. Government had these once-a-year ceremonies outlawed. Why? Ostensibly because it was "savage," but I wonder if it wasn't the communal aspects of this important ceremony that disturbed Washington. The government most surely preferred individualized farming Indians to collectively organized Indians; they were easier to manage. Some administrations in Washington, even recent ones, have advocated "termination" or the break-up of reservations.

The Wind River Mountains had the faintest tinge of pink as we rolled out of our sleeping bags. Amazingly, we could see our breath it was so chilly, and yet by noon it would be in the upper eighties. A few quick swills of hot coffee and some bites of frybread, and we left our tepees to race over to the sunlodge. One of my students, a tall bearded fellow, saw a shorter line of people on the other side of the east entrance and crossed over to it. As he did so, he realized his serious mistake of casting his shadow made by the rising sun into the sunlodge itself. He smacked himself on the forehead mumbling to himself, "Whitey does it again!" The Shoshone people simply chuckled with no offense taken. That semi-circle of seated dancers all blew on their piercing eaglebone whistles to greet the rising sun. The sound of these penetrating whistles remains part of my spirit.

The first small group of dances began, constantly blowing their eaglebone whistles as they moved back and forth toward (but never touching) the sacred cottonwood at the earth center. The cottonwood, with its star-shaped cambium layer and its rustling leaves, is indeed a sacred tree; all living things should and must be considered as such. Who made them?

Only after teams of dancers had danced for three exhausting days and nights, could they dare touch the tree of life. It was then that it was finished, and its life, the dancers' life, became ours. Dumpa Upa would grant his blessings which, though they may not be seen, will be felt inside. As we drove back to Laramie after thanking our Indian friends, we continued to hear those eaglebone whistles and see those dancers dancing to touch life's own tree. In September 1983, Rupert's tree of life ended and so did a branch of my own tree.

 

WORK CITED

Weeks, Rupert, Pachee Goyo: History and Legends from the Shoshone. Laramie, WY: Jelm Mountain Press, 1981.

 

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