In 2001, I made my first trip to South Dakota, and even though I have lived in Connecticut ever since, I have never really come back.
It isn’t only the endless plains that stretch for mile after mile, or the sunsets that don’t end until the entire horizon, devoid of trees and round as a bowl, is dark in every direction; or the outskirts of the Badlands, where it just seems perfectly clear that after dark, spirits rise from rolling velvety green hills.
One recognizes quickly that the land is still alive there. It is not burdened with trucks or telephone poles or too many people. The land can still breathe and sometimes you swear you can see it.
I haven’t been to South Dakota in six years, but lately, South Dakota has come to Connecticut. It came first with the birth of the White Buffalo calf in Goshen, a symbol of goodness and spiritual purity as rich to the Lakota as Christ is to Christians.
Then there was , and never left. Albert stayed in an unmarked grave until Bob Young, President of the Danbury Museum, started to follow up on the young man’s story of how he had died in Danbury Hospital, the only one who perished of food poisoning among all of the others who had gotten sick.
Young had already traveled to South Dakota to convince the Afraid of Hawk family to come, but apparently it wasn’t time. When Young’s calls to the reservation weren’t returned, his agitation grew. I met Bob Young two years ago, and was aware of the hold Albert Afraid of Hawk had on him.
Young was new to the culture, and he couldn’t grasp why the people on the reservation had ignored him. Wendell Deer with Horns, a Connecticut resident from Cheyenne River Reservation, and I helped Bob understand that in Indian Country, things happen when it is time for them to happen, and we can do nothing but wait until the time was right. All of the puzzle pieces had to fall into place, which they finally did last week.
When the Afraid of Hawk family first arrived in Danbury, there was a bit of a culture clash. On the reservation, had a disinterrment occurred, only family, or tiospaye, and perhaps a medicine man, would have attended this most sacred of ceremonies, the removal of bones from a grave.
Instead, the open grave needed to be protected from news sources of every kind. For days, the reporters asked Bob and the family the same questions, one after the next. “They are like magpies,” Richard Red Elk, a relative who drove the family from South Dakota, laughed.
As a photographer, reporter, and someone who spent ten years working with the Lakota, I worried about culture clashes in every direction. But quickly, the reporters began to understand the sacredness of the situation and as days went on, the stories and photos became more sensitive, until it was clear, the reporters had been also struck by the reverence of the event.
In fact, it became an odd kind of family over the five days the Afraid of Hawks were here. On Monday and Tuesday, John, Marlis, and their 84 year-old father Daniel diligently sat by the grave as the first five feet of dirt were removed.
On Wednesday, the Danbury Hospital held a reception, with Mayor Mark Boughton in attendance, and hospital staff presented the Afraid of Hawks with photos of the doctors and nurses who had been present when Albert died. The Afraid of Hawks also visited the garden where once the Men’s Wing of the hospital, where Albert had passed away, had stood as a lovely wooden building.
Later than day, Marlis shed joyful tears when Albert’s skull was discovered intact by the ever growing throng of archeologists. With expectations that the skull would be removed on Thursday, the family held a naming ceremony for those who had participated in the event.
Bob Young was given the name He Who Found Lakota Boy. Cornell Funeral Home director Tania Porta, who had contributed her time and arranged the donated funeral services of many to assure Albert’s careful and safe removal, was given the name She is Always There to Help People. My new name (a happy change from Drags the Hide, which is more honorable than it sounds) is Brings Good News (in Lakota, Wonaho Washte Win).
During the ceremony, the sage burned and Richard drummed and sang a Lakota prayer. Daniel called for all to face north, east, south, west, and the reporters, while taking notes and flashing cameras, also turned to honor the four directions.
What a sight to behold for the hawk that drifted above the ceremonial scene. For the Afraid of Hawk family, the hawk was a sign that their long lost relative was finally free.
The rest of Thursday was spent awaiting the removal of the skull, but it was determined to be yet another day before it would happen.
Marlis, overwhelmed with the abundance of good will offered from everyone they encountered, expressed her gratitude often. Her brother John, the quietest of the four, was charged with keeping the sage burning near the buffalo skull. Daniel became everyone’s adopted grandfather. Richard, Daniel’s full of fun nephew, spoke often to Daniel in their Lakota language, a language that is threatened with extinction with each new generation.
Everyone gathered again on Friday, knowing this would be the last day. The archeologists finally fully exposed Albert’s skull, and to the amazement of everyone, also found hair and beads. State Archeologist Nick Bellantoni announced that the identification of Albert Afraid of Hawk was complete.
All that was needed to put an end to the day was for Daniel to perform the pipe ceremony. John lit the canupa and passed it to each person. Visitors, archeologists, reporters, family, and new friends shared the smoke of peace among each other. Afterwards, Daniel again thanked everyone for their kindness and generosity and shook the hand of each person in the circle. Marlis hugged everyone, and Ed Sarabia, Connecticut’s Indian Affairs Council coordinator, said, “In the end, we are all one people.”
An hour or so later, I sat in my backyard writing, and a hawk circled around my backyard, crying out with his high pitched call. Tears filled my eyes and I called Bob Young. “Albert came to say goodbye,” I said.
Young answered, “The hawk is making its way to everyone’s house.”
I have no doubt that everyone who was involved will see this event as a turning point in their lives, when the axis of the earth shifted just a little bit within them, because I know that once you go to South Dakota, you never come back, even when it comes to Connecticut.