The smoke ascends into the darkness. It will become night-doves, fluttering, then rising away from the ashes of the fire. I am smoking three pipes tonight, and watching the sky to the east.
Howasah Nodahga is my name. I am a hunter, and my people are the Shawnee, of the Rabbit Clan, Petakine’thi. The elders call me Blackfeather because they knew my father’s father’s father. But, I am Howasah Nodahga, and the meaning of my name is hidden.
It is the smoking and the smoke that matter, and this pipe is for the creature, to make peace. So, I watch the smoke, and I remember . . .
I was talking with the elders when a white man came into our camp from the trees by the stream. One elder spoke the white language and he said something to the man. White turned to me and said, “How are you?”
The same. I am Shawnee.
“No, I mean how are you doing? Maybe, how are you feeling?”
“But compared to another time, say yesterday, how are you?”
Yesterday it rained. I am the same as that time, but I am dry. White laughed, and the one elder made a sign to me so that I would laugh too. With the white man and the elders, I laughed. But when I am alone, I laugh at the white man with his questions about doing and feeling and about other times and this and that and always something else. Never what is. The white man cannot find the thing he holds in his hand.
After the laughter it became quiet, and I walked to the edge of the camp. This was when I first learned of the creature, at the very edge of the camp and after talking with the elders and the white man. It is more free there at that edge, at a place between the prairie and the trees and the stream. In the quiet, I heard a sound, a difference in the air, and my ears moved toward it. This difference was like the first song bird at the light of dawn. Delightful. I smiled, knowing it was a new day and a song bird was calling. My eyes followed my ears, and then I saw it . . . the creature.
It was alone, on a gentle slope of earth, making a sound like a song itself. The sound of the creature was music and poetry and I stood there in wonder, until the sound grew softer and went into somewhere away.
I left the camp at next light and went hunting alone. I bring meat home twice before every big moon, but there was plenty, so I wandered with no care. Up a hill, away from the stream and to the east, I saw movement. I reached for my bow and slowly crouched to the ground. And then I saw it again, the creature.
I stood carefully and moved closer. The creature seemed to be looking at me, but did not move away, so I continued, stepping lightly. My feet were with every stone, every twig, even the grains of sand. I moved with my eyes closed letting Mother guide me as I walked with no fear. Then I stopped, and slowly raised my head, opened my eyes. It was unlike anything I had ever seen, this creature that stood there. It looked directly at me, and I tilted my head to the north and then to the south, and squinted my eyes to see more deeply.
It seemed to be a she-creature. If a deer, it was a doe. If a fox, it was a vixen. If a sheep, it was a ewe. If a bear . . . no it was not a bear. A wolf, a she-wolf? It was none of these and all of them. Different. Unique. Beautiful! My heart raced and I planted my feet to the earth, roots going deep. I could not move, and I only wanted to watch and perhaps to listen. Yes, to see while lying on a slab of slate in the sun, or to sit on the ground, gazing from the grass–I could do this and smile from a sun to a moon.
Who is this creature? There is nothing in my camp like her, and no white man can know of her. I will call her Nethaawe, and I put my bow over my shoulder and began to follow.
The smoke from the first pipe hovers over me in a sacred cloud as it becomes my peace offering.
I have seen Nethaawe many times from a distance and sometimes closer. Nethaawe has made sounds for me, and three times I have angered her or frightened her with them. I know this now. The sounds were gifts, not to be shared. But, sharing is the Shawnee way! I laugh again, thinking of the white people as they buy and sell and try to possess. It seems wrong and it is wrong. The Great Spirit is All, and he gives all. The Shawnee trade and borrow and share. I trade a hunt for a basket of tree nuts. Or, I may trade skins to the white man for something I cannot make. He thinks that a thing is his, and he wants a thing that has been given to me for a time, and he supposes that a trade makes one thing his own. But we can only borrow, only return, and then we move on. That is why the Shawnee camp. We settle, borrow what we can, give more in return, and then move to another camp. There is one thing good: the white man has excellent knives, and I have traded many hunts for just one of them. I now have traded for many knives, each one for a purpose. When I grow younger and die, they will be for others. I will not need them where I am going.
So, the sounds from Nethaawe, I have repeated back to her. First, I thought it would honor Nethaawe to hear her sounds. That was my intent every time. But the sounds must have been profaned in return. Twice more, I tried, and she sighed and threw a hot breath into the cold air and ran away. I think I may have angered her, so I am learning to be careful. And I feel pain because of her anger. Caution belongs in the Wind, but care is good.
For many suns I believed I was of the Turtle Clan, Ka’kile. I even told someone, and I spoke to them of slow deliberation, strength, a hard shell for protection. But then my father spoke to me, first in a doubt vision, and then from a P’sikthi skin turned yellow with age. I had forgotten these words, written in his blood, and they now told me I had been mistaken. “My son, you are of the Rabbit Clan, Petakine’thi, swift and quiet. You stop, and you listen, and then you move without fear. Nothing can hunt you, unless it comes from above, beyond your sight.”
And that is my way. I ask the Great Spirit for this, that Nethaawe will come to believe it and trust it, for I cannot change. I am Shawnee, Petakine’thi, and my name is Howasah Nodahga.
The second pipe is for the Great Spirit, to recognize beauty. The smoke rises as another night-dove, and I look into the darkness and I think . . .
Great Spirit, you know all creatures because you made us all, each a one, and only one, and all of each one. And, every large and small thing that we borrow is yours. And I, Howasah Nodahga, am yours, and you smile when you watch me hunt. Nethaawe is yours, and her beauty is from you, and she must never be hunted.
I ask the Great Spirit how can this be? I close my eyes, looking deep and very far, and I shake my head . . . then, I make laugh-words and ask the Great Spirit how can the white man, with his wrong and foolish ways, make knives that are so fine? And then he trades them to me for skins that I only receive from a hunt that you gave to me, Great Spirit! I laugh into the night.
I nod my head once and put my left hand over the coals until my flesh burns, and I grow serious. Why is Nethaawe’s sound a song to my soul? And he tells me it is his gift. And he tells me that I am to be a gift also. And that I know nothing of trust, but must learn it. And along the path that he makes I must follow him anyway. And he tells me to remember the dream words he sends, and the vision he gave to me, and the signs he places. And, he tells me that I must be careful, but never afraid. He tells me I am Shawnee, and must remain true to the hunt and to wander freely, and that I am Petakine’thi and to move as a rabbit, and that I am Howasah Nodahga, and that he will come from above and carry me until my name is hidden no longer . . .
I look again into the darkness and see the smoke of the two pipes become one and slowly rise.
I think in Shawnee and tell the Great Spirit that I will do all of this. I pause, and look at the earth, and then at the dying embers of the fire, and then I look to the east. I look at my left hand and I look within . . . then carefully I look to the sky. And, aloud, I say two words: “N’Yah-Weh”.
The third pipe is for myself, to increase honor.
I clear my mind of all thought and each memory and I taste the bitterness of the smoke. I reach above me into the darkness and touch the smoke from two pipes, and my honor smoke becomes sweeter. I close my eyes again, and allow thought and memory to return as gifts, and I smile. My breathing slows with my heart rhythm and I feel it, deeply throughout my body. The pipe becomes a drum-smoke, low and steady, and I open my eyes and watch the beats rise on the back of another dove.
The fingers of the sun are just reaching over the earth’s edge now, as I face the east. Without fear I look up into the fading darkness and see the smoke of the three pipes rise together into the beyond.
And in the distance, I hear the call of the first song bird at the light of dawn . . .
Photograph and text © 2017 Timothy Waugh