Fri May 24th, 2019
The last warm days of Indian Summer were ending, with the rabbit brush in full bloom and a chilled wind blowing from the north. Winter is coming, and community members of Sagebrush Forest have migrated or are readying themselves for hibernation. Badger is stocked up with his staple of dried prairie dogs.
As for me and kaquchi (grandmother) we prepared for the long cold nights with an ample amount of wood. Many provisions were hanging in the rafters and in the wooden cupboard were dried meat, berries, wild vegetables and rations from people who knew that we were there. Every morning during the winter was the sound of horses approaching. I would hear the crunch of frozen snow with each horse’s step. One of the relatives would come by in the early morning and would look for smoke coming from the chimney. Usually, we would let the fire die out in the early morning. It was a welcome sight to see relatives as they could start the fire in grandma’s wood burning stove and would bring more wood in for the day. As long as we stayed by the stove, we could remain warm.
I was to become mesmerized by the sound of fire and at night watched its reflection shadow dancing on the paper wall. On the coldest nights we slept by the stove and heard the howling north wind that made its appearance to the Sagebrush Forest. Only the well-conditioned could survive in such times and those who burrowed into the ground were safe and warm.
I came out on the brightest morning, to be greeted by the warm rays of sun alongside the wind which is dying down. The Sagebrush Forest began to drink in the melting frost and snow. The days were getting longer and community members returned one by one and soon the whole air was alive with their singing. They took up their own residence from generations before. However, Badger and Jack would emerge from their burrows on days especially like today. I would wave to them from the porch, I couldn’t walk out to them in my moccasins for they would get wet and you had to wear them until they dried. Hey, I could smell salt pork cooking on grandmother’s wood burning cook stove.
My impatience was controlled by others of authority and experience. Such was my relationship with Badger and often I would be told of past stories and events. How does this apply to me and when can I search for those forgotten voices? Maybe, I should learn from One Who Speaks to Spirits. For I have this yearning inside of me, a powerful curiosity to find answers of those who are wandering in limbo. A lifetime journey lies ahead for each one of us, though the path may be easy or difficult, nevertheless it remains worn into the face of time.
Badger would say, “You speak as if you lived many generations ago. I dare say my young friend, that you have a long way to go, best you listen for now until at least you can fend for yourself.”
With that the warmer days were rapidly approaching, and this is what everyone needed. Soon the insects arrived and not far behind were the family of birds. All sorts of birds came and busied themselves with making a home. This breath of life was refreshing and was beneficial to others. Often, in spring came rain storms and at times water drops formed clouds that hugged the Sagebrush Forest. This, much needed moisture, was a blessing to all those who came and stayed.
One morning after a thunderstorm rolled through the Sagebrush Forest, a tiny voice I could hear. Following the cheeping voice of distress and there on the ground was a tiny ball of fluff. I held the little bird in my hand and began to look for the concerned parents. No one came and thus began my unique relationship with nature. From watching other nesting birds, I knew how to construct a small nest and most importantly feed the little bird. This task was up to me and it became my mission to find many insects, worms and grasshoppers. I had to crush up the bugs to a delicious pulp and with a little split, a gourmet meal for my bird cousin. Surprisingly, the little fluff turned into a black bird and every morning I could hear my bird cousin singing. The blackbird and many, many others would sing in the first light of day. There is a feeling of calm and being connected to all the living things around me. Eventually, the once ball of fluff began to fly a little further every day, till a gust of wind came along and lifted the black bird into the air. I can imagine how excited and looking at the land high up, I would continue to see things anew. I was standing on the old wooden porch and felt a kinship with this life that disappeared over the Sagebrush Forest. Good to finally meet the family of birds was my thought. The black bird was on the mindset to find those who were singing back. To find a partner and participate in the continuum of their species and life cycle.
One day Badger popped up in the morning and told me of a dream he had. He said, “My dream of last night greatly disturbed me.”
Sitting on the old wooden porch and soaking in the rays. I said to myself that I feel concerned about his tone and that something was profoundly different than his usual self.
I ask, “What seems to be the problem, and does it concern the Sagebrush Forest?” I could see that this dream was of importance. His gaze left me in doubt and this was new to me. I wondered what had gotten into my old friend and teacher. He would clasp his hands together and shook uncontrollably.
Badger regained his composure and said, “Forgive my actions for I had this terrible vision. I have seen many tomorrows and I fear for our little community. But, I saw you in what might become your spiritual envelope and that you will breathe in fire. A most horrible sight of you turning into a ball of fire. How can I comprehend the thought of my dreams coming true and how might I be seeing you in this that I know? You live among us in this place and how your emotions will certainly draw you to strike out. Certain things are inevitable and only in events that is within your power. Listen young Orra-ra-cheech and do not let your inside overtake to what is meant to be. I have felt the ground shaking and this strange cadence of something unnatural approaching. It is a matter of time and I do believe we have more than enough to sample some of grandma’s biscuits. I have become quite fond of bread and especially with buffalo berry jam. See how much I have gained weight with this new food and wonder if those who continue to eat the white flour will stay healthy? I think we with face that in the future as well.”
I told Badger that the biscuits were cooking and that I had a couple of rock-hard biscuits under my bedding. Badger finds the tasty hard biscuit most beneficial to cleaning his teeth. I ask, “When is this going to happen, and do you think I should run away. Maybe I can ask Moe and Moe to ride me on their backs to the Ocean? What will happen to kaquchi (grandma) if I run away and even more what happen if she sees me turn into fire.
Badger said, “I don’t know when that day will be, but I can tell you that the adults will fool you. Their deception is to protect you, but do not question their reasoning. You are still a child and full of wonder with an abundance of curiosity. Remember, to follow your mother’s side of the family and all those old grandmother’s that will protect you in their spirit form. Prepare yourself young Orra-ra-cheech for your future and destiny will be tested again.”
As a young nuucaapa (Ute boy) I was learning and enjoyed being with those in the Sagebrush Forest. I did not know what the outside world would do to me and I did not care for it seemed far away.
One morning kaquchi (grandma) said to me, “We are going to the end of the dirt road and we were going to ride a greyhound bus. We will get off in the next town to shop for a new coat and pick up something good to eat.”
This was new to me and I was full of questions on the inside. We had to leave early the next day. Walking in the morning and with every step to find the intersection of the highway. Soon the bus arrived and off we went.
The different sounds were deafening mixed with the smells of the city. People were everywhere, and it seemed a maze in a different kind of canyon. As we walked about I was trying to remember my way here, in case I got separated from kaquchi (grandma). I thought it strange though how the adults would protect their children as I was walking towards them. It seemed that they were afraid of me and I did not know why? There were those who saw me from a way off, and they would purposely usher into the nearest door. I will have to ask Badger about this behavior and reasons of why I was given a way through, while everyone was standing about. From that moment on I realized that I was different. Following grandma through unfamiliar surroundings and unbelievable smells, sounds, in a lake full of faces, I found myself in a department store with a service representative, who would select a new coat for me to try on. This was a first for me and I was granted a choice to pick it out and that it had to be extra big so that I would grow into it.
I would find out later in my life that there existed another challenge and acceptance to change. The person inside was always curious to see what was around the next corner, to follow your nose. Nevertheless, I was getting ready.
Around the next corner in the alley was this incredible smell of the town bakery. I was taken in by the display of pastries, cakes and cookies. By their presence alone, I could tell was a most delicious treat and unforgettable taste. A baker’s dozen was put into the white paper bag and tucked away till we got home.
In the afternoon came the bus which was going back to the west. They could deliver us to the same intersection that picked us up. The day was closing and soon the gentle ride on the bus put kaquchi (grandma) to sleep. I discovered a paper bag of cream puffs that slipped out and temptation was to great. I had to try and taste for myself, a double hand cream puff. I don’t know what got into me, but I couldn’t stop eating until there was none left. Needless to say, when grandma woke up, she knew exactly what happen. All over my face and the front of my shirt was evidence of powdered sugar, flakes and whipped cream. As soon as the bus stopped I shot out of there and could see the open road ahead.
To this very day, I can still see my hands picking up a silver object and throwing it into the fire. An instant explosion and my inner spirit connected with my outer physical self.
Somehow, I couldn’t help but feel an entity was watching over me, and knew the Creator was watching over all of us. However, this presence I felt was much closer to me spiritually. This development occurred when I couldn’t comprehend the destruction of nature by humans. Gone was a lifetime and generations before, even in one day.
I ask kaquchi (grandma) what the two men were talking about. She said, “They want to scrape the Sagebrush Forest off the earth.”
They didn’t know of my friends and relatives who lived there. I gathered myself together and asked kaquchi (grandma) for any leftover bread. “What are you going to do?” she asked. “I’m going to visit my friends and share some bread with them. Are you going to tell them, what you heard?”
“Yes,” I said.
With that she unfolded the towel on the table and broke off a piece of oven bread. Then she took out the canvas sack that had dried deer meat. “Here take this piece to Badger, I know how much he loves dried deer meat. Get the water basket and take some water to those who are thirsty”
I stuck the dried meat and bread in my pocket, got some water from the metal milk can and took a big drink for myself. The water basket always tasted of pitch but those who need a drink usually didn’t complain. I left straight away for Badger’s burrow and found him lounging under the biggest sagebrush.
“Bet you thought I was sleeping, well I was and what brings you out here, on this beautiful day. Say, I can smell dried deer meat in your pocket. Come sit down and let me know, how I may help you or do you wish to hear another story? I have lived for a long time now and my face certainly shows it.”
I have found a calm feeling and comfort while listening and talking with Badger, sitting there in the middle of the Sagebrush Forest. Soon, the red-winged blackbird who I found and took care of flew, to my shoulder.
In an instant I thought back and remembered, the strong winds that pushed him out of the nest and fate brought us together one morning. The blackbird was all beak and a tiny ball of fluff. I remember gathering the little soul in my hands and made a nest out of an old moccasin. I watched others who were finding worms, insects, crunched up grasshoppers and throwing up food into the mouths of the babies. I certainly wasn’t going to eat bird food and spit into the open beak. Instead I just crunched up the insects with my fingers and give it to the little bird. They were a lot of insects in the spring and with that my feeding the blackbird became a chore. A chore with great interest and satisfying feeling that I helped this forgotten life. With lots of food the little bird grew almost overnight and, in the mornings, I would watch. Fluff was replaced by feathers and soon the noticeable red mark on the wings. A male red-winged blackbird was what he became and with that he found his singing voice. One morning after a hearty breakfast he was practicing flying and when the rhythm was strong he lifted higher than ever before. In his efforts and with determination he eventually flew away. I felt sad to see him go, but it was good to see him fly to the smell of water.
The morning would bring a real change for that day. Standing on the porch I could sense vibrations in the air and something was coming. There were distance sounds of black smoke with a cadence of metal striking ground. A crescendo of the approaching tractor on tracks. A metal cable that pulled the blade upward stood out most and was holding high only to be lowered and scrape the land of all those memories. The smell of diesel permeated the air with the distinct tone of just turned earth. I stood on the porch to witness the annihilation of the Sagebrush Forest and all those who lived there. Soon, all that I remember would be piled high and the sagebrush only existed to become fire. The fire had to breath, the fire that roared as it got hotter. The fire was alive and turned everything into ash, promptly shrinking to a small fire and deep within a glow of red.
Walk with me as I head over to see fire. Can you smell the earth mixed with diesel? I saw myself reaching down to pick up a shiny object and I threw it into the fire. Immediately, an explosion of heat and the breath of the fire surrounded me. The taste of metal fire I have always kept in memory. As well as the ether mask, that blanked out time and erased the days in the time of healing that seemed to be endless.
I closed my eyes and awoke in another place, sitting there on a single rope swing. Holding the rope as I bent over backwards to see and breath into the branches of the Elm Trees. The heavy rope was tied to a strong branch that held me to reach into the canopy of the trees. It was there on a summer day, I would remember again, I was reborn and starting anew across Hwy 160 from the Rainbow Service Station. In the background I became aware of the sound of trees as the Pine River was rushing clear and cold on its way to Navajo Lake. Twin bridges straddle the river as cottonwood trees hid the view of a small town born to the foothills of the Rockies, in the Uncompahgre’s original homeland. So, begins a lifelong adventure and far removed from Little Chicago.
Ron Yellowbird is an author and storyteller from the Uncompahgre, Mouache, Capote Band of Ute Indians.