Darkness. All was darkness. Pitch black hot darkness.
The prayer songs of the Wicassa Wakan were hypnotic, but rather than being entranced, the boy’s senses felt strangely heightened. He smelt the sweet scent of the sage. Then, slowly, as he cleared the sweat from his eyes, he began to perceive the faint red glow of the rocks.
The old man paused in the song and poured water over the stones. As the steam rose, the old man again intoned his call to the Ancient Ones.
The boy stared into the blackness. The old man began to gently shake a seed-filled gourd rattle and the boy’s body began to sway gently to its rhythm. The old man’s song became louder and the beat of the rattle faster.
Suddenly the blackness turned a deep purple and the walls and covering of the sweat lodge seemed to fall away. As if through a fog he could discern the edge of the woods and his grandfather’s cabin nestled in the clearing.
And then the wolf came from the shadows of the trees.
He could smell the wolf’s breath as the animal padded towards him. It sat in front of him. He knew he should be scared, but a great calmness washed over him as he stared into the wolf’s eyes.
Then the wolf vanished, and the blackness returned as though he was suddenly blinded. In the incredible heat of the darkness he shivered.
The old man called out “Oho, mitakuye oyasin” and opened the flap to the sweat lodge.
The late afternoon light crept into the sweat lodge and the old man smiled at the boy. “Well, Joseph, my grandson, so ends your first inipi… your first sweat lodge purification. Toniktuka hwo?…How are you?”
“Matanyan yelo… I’m fine. But I have many questions.”
“Ecani kin… soon. But first we must plunge in the river. It renews you, and as you break the surface you must call a warrior’s cry. If one doesn’t’ release the energy of the inipi you will have a headache and be too sick to go on your hanblecheyapi… your vision quest.”
“I think I’ve already had my vision, Grandfather.” Joseph mumbled, still somewhat shaken by the clarity of his vision.
Together they eased their naked bodies from the sweat lodge. As they stood, Joseph noticed that his grandfather had an erection. He looked down and realized that his penis was erect as well. Embarrassed he tried to cover himself with his hands. His grandfather laughed.
“Do not be concerned, Joseph. It’s natural to emerge from the oinikaga-tipi with your manhood standing. It’s the energy of the inipi. When one enters the world of Spirit there is great energy about. This energy fills our physical. Those fetishes in the white man’s museums that they say are fertility idols are more likely to be little statues of a Wicassa Wakan, a medicine man, a shaman. An erect penis is a condition that’s not unusual during trance states when one communes with the Ancestors, when your nagi enters into the spirit world.
“And as I told you, you don’t go into the oinikaga-tipi with your underwear on, those underwear shorts with little hearts on them. You go in naked. The sweat lodge is where we return to the womb of Maka Ina, Mother Earth, in order to purify ourselves. It’s a form of the death and re-birth cycle. Man is born naked, and you should be reborn naked. And you must allow the energy to flow through you and around you. Come now to the river.”
* * *
Later as the sun was setting behind the pines, they sat around the small campfire the old man had set outside his cabin. The old man stood to face the setting sun and sung a prayer of thanksgiving to Father Sun acknowledging the blessings He had brought forth this day.
“You are old for your first inipi, Joseph.” The old man began as he sat once more on the log before the fire. “You are nearing eighteen. It is a rite of passage through which you should have passed when half the age you are now. But I am so glad you have come back to your People. I have prayed long for a safe journey for your father to the spirit world, and I prayed long for you to return. When your mother died at your birth and your father took you to the East, I feared I would never see you again.”
“Yes, when father was killed in the auto accident, I realized that I no longer belonged in the white man’s world and needed to come back to the rez.”
“Back to the People, Joseph. Back to the People. Now, tell me of this vision you think you had in the sweat lodge.”
Joseph began hesitantly, but soon was passionately engaged in telling of his vision of the wolf.
The old man slapped his thigh and exclaimed, “I knew it! Sunkmanitu tanka!… Wolf! I hoped you would be the one!”
“What are you talking about, Tunkasila?” asked Joseph.
“Let me tell you the story from the beginning.” He settled himself more comfortably on the log and looked intently into the fire, as though it was there, in the flames, that the memory lived…
“Many, many seasons ago”, the old man began. “Long before my father’s father’s father. Long before the white man came to Turtle Island, a Stranger came to the People. The Stranger told of coming from a people who lived far, far to the South. With him he brought a crystal skull, a rock crystal carved into the shape of a human skull.
“The Stranger told of how his people were dying, and Maka Ina... Mother Earth… would also die one day unless all the brother peoples of the earth again became one.
“He said that there were four skulls, and one had been sent with a messenger to ends of the world to each of the races of Man. One was brought us, the Red Man, One to the white people, one to the yellow, one to the black. One day near the end of the counting of days They-Who-Will-Come-from-the-Sky will seek out all four skulls, and when they are brought together in ceremony the skulls will become one, and so will the People of the Mother again become one.
“The Stranger told how the wise men of his people had looked to the stars and were told by the spirits of the number of days. They carved the numbers into a great round stone. Until They-Who-Will-Come-from-the-Sky come to seek the skulls, the skulls must be hidden and protected, for there will be Others who will want the skulls for themselves to ensure that the races of man stay separated. That way The Others can maintain their power over the people, believing that they can cheat the Counting-of-Days.
“The skull, that called Natahu, given to our ancestors was wrapped in a bundle and hidden in the hills. But with the coming of the white man and the loss of the old ways, those with the knowledge of the skull’s hiding place passed. Now it is lost and none among the People knows where it is.
“It needs to be found and protected until the time that will come. And you, Joseph, have been chosen by Sunkmanitu tanka, the Wolf. The wolf is your Totem. It came to you in the sweat lodge. The Spirit of Wolf is the Pathfinder. Wolf will help you find the Path that will lead to the skull. But more than that, I will teach to you to use wolf medicine to become a wolf.”
Joseph looked at his Grandfather in disbelief. “Become a wolf?” he cried.
“Yes, my Grandson,” the old man replied. “Become a wolf. I am called in our language ‘Soto’, ‘Smoke’, that is to say I have the qualities of smoke rising from the fire, the wispy fog that changes shape and disappears. I am a Wiccasa Wakan, what the whites call a ‘medicine man’. What they don’t understand is that the word they translate as ‘medicine’ means in its original sense ‘power’ or ‘holy’. Through the sacred herbs, the prayers, the ancient ways and the medicine of a power animal, a totem, one can change one’s shape. One can become an animal.”
“You’re kidding me,” Joseph was incredulous. “This is just an old story, right Grandfather?”
“No, Joseph, it’s true. Let me show you.”
The sun had set, the sky was darkening but the rising moon was full and bright. The old man stood and stripped naked. He stood aside from the fire and in the soft glowing moonlight he raised his arms and cried a loud prayer to the night sky.
Joseph watched transfixed. He wasn’t sure whether it was the smoke from the campfire or the shadows falling on the moonlit clearing, but all about seemed to become hazy and indistinct. Except for one thing. His grandfather was growing taller, bigger… and…
Suddenly his grandfather changed, and in his place there was a huge grizzly bear. The bear was standing on its hind legs, towering over Joseph.
Joseph froze, paralyzed with fear. And then the bear sat on its haunches and slowly its shape dissolved and again his grandfather was sitting on the ground before him.
Joseph was still shaking as his grandfather calmly told him, “My totem is Mato, the Bear. Matohota, the Grizzly Bear. I was taught to use bear medicine when I was young. Until now I have had no one to pass the knowledge of shape-shifting to. I will teach you to become Wolf, to use the medicine of the Spirit of Wolf to find Natahu. This you must do, my Grandson.”
The old man rose, gathered his clothes and went into the cabin. He returned dressed only in a breechcloth with a simple deerskin medicine bag strung by a leather thong around his neck. From a deerskin bundle he produced a rattle, a pipe, a leather pouch and small blackened pot.
“Joseph,” he said softly. “The plan tonight was for you to begin your hanblecheyapi. But I do not believe you need to go on your Vision Quest at this time. Your vision has already been shown to you. One day you will go to the high place for another vision quest. Maybe before you choose to do a Sun Dance. For now I know it’s more important for you to learn the ways of a shape-shifter, to learn to become Wolf, so that you may search out a path and guide Those-Who-Will-Come-From-The-Sky to the skull. Firstly I will brew the herbs.”
He opened the leather pouch, took out some herbs and placed them in the pot. He added water from the canteen resting beside the log, and placed the pot on the fire.
“The black tea will clear your mind, and prepare your body. Now let us begin.”
* * *
They spoke long into the night. The old man told many stories of the People; stories of the beginning of the People and of the Ways shown to the People by He-Who-Created-All-Things, Wakan Tanka, the Great Mystery. He spoke of the Seven Sacred Teachings, the Seven Arrows, which should pierce a man’s heart and lead him to become a real man. The seven arrows being bravery, honesty, truth, respect, wisdom, humility and love. He spoke of the seven sacred streams that flow to create the world: matter, life, energy, time, motion, dimension and spirit.
Occasionally they paused to smoke the sacred pipe, offering the tobacco to the seven directions. The old man taught the boy the chants and the sacred, secret prayers to bring about the change from human to animal. The boy practiced the prayers over and over, making sure he had every word and every inflection perfect, for the old man had said that only the most perfect beseechment to Spirit-of-the-Animal would enable the taking on of a new form.
The sky to the east was slowly brightening when the old man rose from the log. He kicked a smoldering log from the dying fire and a last wisp of smoke rose into the crisp morning air.
“Ah, “ he said. “The smoke rises, the people rise, our prayers rise, the sun rises and the world is born anew!”
He led the boy towards the edge of the clearing. He turned to face the rising sun and cried a Morning Prayer. Then he turned to face the boy.
“It is time, Joseph. Remove your clothes, face Father Sun and speak the words of the prayer.”
Joseph stripped away his clothes, stood and began to sing the sacred prayer.
* * *
The bright morning sun dimmed and he shuddered as he completed the final words. Then he screamed.
The pain was unbearable and he thought he would collapse from the agony. He faintly heard his grandfather’s voice, soft and gentle, “It gets easier each time, my grandson.”
Hot, searing pain was all that his brain could register. He didn’t notice the changing shape of his shadow upon the ground. He stoically endured the intense pain as bone and sinew, organs and flesh, rearranged themselves… and then, in seconds that felt like eternity, it was over.
As Joseph’s senses returned from the blaze of pain he knew he was different. He felt stronger, even powerful. His vision had changed; the bright colors had changed to incredibly different shades of gray. Could there be so many variations in a palette of black and white? And sharp. Every twig, every leaf of the trees about clearing was distinct and sharply defined.
A smell assaulted his nostrils. He raised his snout and sniffed. He turned and found that the almost unbearable smell came from his grandfather. It was the smell of a two-legged one.
Joseph realized that his grandfather now towered over him. He looked down at his feet. Paws! Fur covered paws!
He looked up again and tried to speak, startling himself with the yelp that come from deep within his throat.
“You are sunkmanitu tanka now, my grandson.” Said the old man. “You are wolf. I shall call you Canku which means Path for you must find the path to the skull. Go now. Let the instincts and the spirit of wolf guide you.”
Joseph felt unsteady on his feet. His mind didn’t feel any different, but the body certainly was. It was going to take some time to get used to it, he thought.
The old man watched the wolf trot unsteadily into the woods.
* * *
By the time the sun was once more low in the sky Canku had traveled far into the hills. Snow was falling lightly as he stopped to rest under the shade of the pines. The more he had traveled the more responsive his new body became. He had practiced running and marveled at the speed he could attain. He found that a lope was effortless for hours and discovered through painful experience how to cross snow and ice patches on stony ground. He had learned how distinct smells emanated from the different trees, from different soil, and even from the rocks. He had smelled the scent marking of others wolves, but although somehow familiar he could not comprehend the meaning. And he realized he could discern the smell of rabbit long before he came across one, but the rabbits all scurried away at his approach.
Now he was beginning to feel quite hungry, and thought of the rabbit stew that his grandfather would probably be eating now for his evening meal.
Suddenly he heard a twig snap behind him.
He stood, turned and there, a bare ten yards away, stood a wolf. He knew instinctively that it was a young female.
She was small, with a narrower muzzle and forehead than his; and with shorter, smoother furred legs. Her shoulders were not as big as his and he thought he’d never seen anything more beautiful in his whole life.
She pulled back her ears and narrowed her eyes.
“Who are you?” she said.
He felt her question with his whole body and heard her almost inaudible low growl within his mind. The movements of her eyes and ears, her stance, and the position of her tail, combined with her soft vocalizations, all meant that he could understand her as clearly as if she was using human speech.
How he knew he couldn’t fathom, but he knew he needed to lower his body, draw his lips and ears back, and assume a submissive position.
He whimpered, “I’m… I’m Jo--, er, I am called Canku.”
“Stand up you idiot,” she said. “I’m a female. You’re one of those wolves that have been with the two-leggeds aren’t you? One of the ones they spoil, then send back out into the woods. They don’t last long, you know. They‘ve forgotten how to be a wolf. They don’t even how to hunt. Are you one of those, Canku? Are you going to survive?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know how to be a wolf. I need someone to teach me.”
“Teach you?” she looked at him quizzically. Her tail wagged and then drooped low. He understood that she had relaxed and was now comfortable in his presence. He, too, was now becoming more relaxed and stood and padded towards her.
“Yes, teach me to be a wolf”, he said.
“That will be a matter for Itancan…Leader… he’s not far away with the rest of the pack. There’s a fresh kill. Maybe Itancan will allow you to eat, too. Come.”
“Wait”, Canku cried. “I don’t even know your name.”
“I am called Cikala… Small… Now come.”
Canku followed her through the deepening snow. As they traveled, Cikala explained, “We’re a breeding pack. There’s seven of us in the pack. Itancan’s mate died in the spring. She was caught by her front leg in the Jaws-In-The-Ground. We had to leave her as a two-legged was nearby. I saw him point his Noise Stick at her, and with the thunder-sound ringing in my ears, I saw her die.
“I think Itancan will choose me as his mate for the breeding season when the winter is further along. He’s become more attentive to me recently, almost affectionate, although he’s become meaner to the others since his mate died. I warn you, the tension in the pack is rising as the mating season is drawing closer. Be careful, let me do the talking, and maybe you can tag along with us. Lone wolves don’t survive long.”
They entered a clearing where Canku saw the wolf pack around the carcass of an elk. He hesitated as the wolves turned to look at him. But Cikala continued towards the pack.
Cikala approached the only wolf that was feeding. Canku thought the big, almost black, wolf must have weighed about 80 pounds and stood nearly three foot tall at the shoulders.
Even though the black wolf was already so much bigger than he was, Canku tried to make himself look even smaller and less conspicuous. He flattened his ears against his head and tucked his tail between his legs.
He watched as the wolf devoured the elk’s heart and liver. As the large wolf finished, the other wolves began to tear apart the carcass for their share. From his position, distant from the pack, he could see Cikala and the large wolf communicating. Although he could understand some of the body language, he couldn’t catch all the meanings.
Just as Canku was thinking that maybe he should take the safe option and leave, Cikala called to him.
“Come here, Canku, and meet Itancan.”
Canku approached Itancan cautiously, and when he was close he assumed the submissive position, rolling on his back and exposing his vulnerable throat and underbelly.
“I must be accepted by this pack,” he thought. “I must learn to be a true wolf, because if I don’t learn the Ways of the Pathfinder Wolf, I’ll never be able to find the skull”
Itancan stood stiff legged and tall with his ears erect and hackles slightly raised as he spoke gruffly.
“So, Cikala tells me that you need to learn to be a wolf. Many seasons ago our pack and a few others traveled to these hills to get away from the two-leggeds and their Noise Sticks., but the two-leggeds still come.” He faltered, but then continued in a softer tone. “There are still not many packs in these hills, so the competition is less, but the winter is becoming harder and game is scarce. To survive we need another hunter. If you think you can learn to hunt, you can stay.”
Canku thanked the Leader as Cikala called to him to take a share of the elk.
* * *
Over the next few weeks Canku learned the Ways-of-The-Wolf. He learned how to distinguish the smells of different animals, read their spores and other subtle markings of their passing.
One younger male, who called himself Kola, helped with his tracking, and soon he knew the trails throughout the pack’s territory, and his instincts for discovering the whereabouts of game were sharpened.
He learned that the females were faster in the chase, but the males more powerful in bringing down the elk, deer and moose once the females had caught them.
He learned to conceal himself as he approached his prey, choosing to wait for the prey to graze, and then attacking when it was distracted.
He improved his wolf language, practicing the small barks, growls and howls. He carefully studied the body language of his pack to better understand the small subtleties in body movements which added depth to their communication He came to understand that all wolves shared the one spirit, the Spirit-of-Wolf, so that often wolves simply spoke with each other telepathically.
And always Cikala was by his side, teaching, encouraging, and praising.
* * *
The blizzard was easing but Canku and Cikala stayed huddled together in their hollow. He gently nuzzled her neck just behind her ears. She wagged her tail as her tongue lolled from her mouth.
“What are you two doing!” Itancan stood over the hollow, his lips drawn back and his fur bristling. “Cikala come with me. You are to be my mate. I have smelt your scent, it’s time! “
Canku rose from the hollow to face Itancan, he tried to stand tall and dominant despite his lowly position in the pack. “What if she doesn’t want to be your mate?”
Itancan snarled, “I am the leader. I am the alpha. It is my choice, not hers! And certainly not yours!”
“Well, maybe things need to change!” Canku found the courage to say.
Itancan crouched low, snarled, and then sprung at Canku.
Canku managed to drop and spin from the first thrust, and the two wolves rolled locked together in the snow. Canku felt the stronger wolf’s incisors slash his flank and quickly gathered himself to his feet again and retreated a short distance.
Itancan laughed. “You might look like a wolf, but you don’t fight like one.” And launched himself once more at Canku.
This time though rather than ducking, Canku sprung towards Itancan. As the two crashed together Canku managed to get a hold of Itancan’s nape as they landed heavily on their sides. They rolled towards the edge of a small ravine as Itancan tried to break Kanko’s hold.
The snow at the edge of the ravine gave way and the two tumbled down the steep slope, each still trying to sink their teeth into the other. They landed violently on the boulders at the bottom of the gulch, knocking the breath from both of them.
Canku was the first to recover and quickly sprung at the stirring Itancan. He grabbed the larger wolf by the throat, feeling his jaws fastening tighter and tighter, his teeth tearing deeply into Itancan’s flesh.
Itancan struggled briefly but couldn’t break Canku powerful hold. The larger wolf shuddered and then lay motionless. With blood dripping from his jowls and his chest matted and red, Canku moved away from the dead wolf and howled.
An answering howl came from the top of the ravine, and another from part way down the slop. The pack were finding a trail down to the bottom.
Canku sniffed the air. “Ah,” he thought. “Dead wolf. How obvious! No, wait, it’s not fresh dead. It’s not Itancan. It’s long dead.”
He turned his head, raised his snout and sniffed again. The scent on the air was as clear as a wide well-formed path. He followed the scent to the far side of the gulch and began to dig in the snow between two exposed boulders.
Soon he had cleared away enough of the drift to expose a dark opening and tentatively he entered the cave. His eyes slowly adjusted to the dim light and he could just make out a pile of stones heaped in the far reaches of the cave. The scent was stronger as he pawed at the stones. Beneath the stones he found a wolf-hide bundle tied with leather thong. His sharp teeth easily parted the thong, and as he tore off the covering hide, the crystal skull rolled onto the dirt floor of the cave.
“Natahu!” he exclaimed. “I’ve found Natahu! I’ve got to go and tell Grandfather.”
Quickly he draped the wolf hide over the skull, covered it all with the stones and made his way from the cave.
Outside the cave he found the pack all with their bodies lowered, lips and ears drawn back, and backs arched in the submission pose. Their muzzles all pointed up at Canku.
Kola spoke first, “Canku, my friend, you have learned much about being a wolf and now you have defeated Itancan. The Spirit has given strength. It must surely also give you the wisdom. You must now be our leader.”
“No, no,” Canku cried. “I have to leave you. I have to return to where I came from.”
“Canku, don’t leave us,” Cikala spoke up. “Stay with us. Stay with me.”
“You must stay, Canku, “ Kola said. “The snow is too deep for you to travel. You must at least stay until the melt.”
“Alright, I will stay until at least then.” Canku conceded.
The wolves rallied about him with tails wagging, muzzle-licking him and emitting a high pitched wail of happiness.
Cikala whispered into Canku’s ear, and together they trotted away from the rest of the pack.
* * *
Two moons later as the snow was melting, the pups were born. Canku had never been happier. He nuzzled Cikala, “What beautiful pups they are, darling. Just like their mother.”
The days passed as the pups grew stronger and the flowers appeared on the underbrush. And after another moon passed, Canku took Cikala aside from the pack.”
“It must be done, Cikala,” he told her. “I must return to where I came from. I just cannot stay. I can’t stay a wolf. I have to return to my own kind.”
‘Your own kind? What do you mean your own kind? You’re a wolf.”
“I can’t really explain it to you, Cikala. I love you. You’re my mate. We’re the breeding pair for the pack, but I must go. Kola is ready to be Leader. He’s wise, he’s a good hunter, and the pack will accept him. I must go.”
Canku nuzzled the small female, turned and trotted into the woods. As he found his way on the wolf trail leading down from the hills he heard a distant howl from far behind him. He whimpered as his heart broke.
* * *
The pack had moved further from Joseph’s Grandfather’s cabin during the thaw and it was three full days before Canku reached the clearing.
It was a clear bright night under the full moon in the Moon of Strawberries as Canku approached the cabin. The shadows of the trees were sharp and dark, casting an eerie pattern upon the spring grass in the clearing. He scratched at the door, and bayed.
As the old man opened the door, Canku howled the sacred prayer. He felt the familiar pain, but the agony eased within moments, and Joseph was kneeling naked in the brilliant moonlight at the feet of his Grandfather.
“I’ve found it, Grandfather,” he exclaimed, his voice hoarse. “I’ve found Natahu!”
“That’s wonderful news, Joseph. So when the time comes you’ll be able to lead They-Who-Will-Come-from-the-Sky to it?”
“Yes, Grandfather. But I’ll tell you where it...“
The old man cut him off, “Lila makujelo… I am very sick. I don’t think I’ll be around for much longer, my Grandson. I’m old and soon I’ll be walking to the West to join the Ancestors. It’s enough that you know, and you’ll be here to lead them.”
The baying of a wolf echoed from the hills. It was joined by the howls of more wolves and the sound rolled and eddied around Joseph as he stood before his Grandfather in the brilliant moonlight. Joseph turned at a slight noise behind him and spotted a small wolf sitting quietly on the edge of the clearing.
The old man said gently, ‘You know Joseph, one can show the path to They-Who-Will-Come-from-the-Sky as easily as a wolf as a man.” Then he smiled, “Maybe more easily.”
“But I can’t leave you Grandfather. Not now, not if you haven’t got long to live.”
“My Grandson, I say this to you, go! And I say it not for myself, but for the People.”
After a long moment of warm silence between the two, Joseph wiped a tear from his eye, raised his arms towards Sister Moon, and began to softly recite the sacred prayer.
The human cry merged to a wolf howl as Joseph’s human form blurred and fashioned it’s wolf’s being.
Canku looked up at the old two-legged, turned and bounded towards the small wolf which now began to run towards him.
The old man called out, “Wakan Tanka nici un… May the Great Spirit go with you” He lifted his face to the night sky and cried in trembling voice, “Not for myself, but for the People.”
The wolves disappeared into the shadows…
Author’s Note: Although in my mind I set this story around South Dakota, thus the Lakota traditions, as at the time of writing, no wolf packs exist in that state. However one pack was verified in 2002, but has since disappeared. Occasionally stray wolves do enter the state, both from Minnesota and Montana. Last year, 2009, a wolf was genetically traced to packs in Montana. A hunter shot that wolf. In Montana in 2009 the wolf population growth slowed to give a count of 525 wolves, the slowest growth rate since their re-introduction to the Rockies. 75 were shot by hunters.
I thank my Spiritual Grandfather, Capa Tanka, for his Teachings I must also thank Alicia (Ariel) for the inspiration for this story. The story flowed when she sent me a link to sign an on-line petition to save the Gray Wolf.
If this little story touched you in any way, maybe you’d like to sign the petition as well. You can find it at http://www.thepetitionsite.com/2/save-gray-wolves