A tradition among powwow singers is a mourning period following the death of a loved one. Typically a singer will excuse themselves from the singing circle for a season of time in accordance with this tradition. It has been a year and a half since the passing of my beloved mother Mary Begay Neskahi. As I write this, it is approaching the Winter Holiday season and once again my thoughts frequently turn to many wonderful memories of her on this Mother Earth.
My mother died after a long struggle with diabetes, so we could see the gradual loss of her to this disease over the years. It was very painful for our family, and especially for our father who cared for her till her last breath. I prepared myself for the time of her passing and pledged silently to honor her with a mourning period. I traveled with other members of my family to her bedside at the hospital to be with her during her final days. It was very hard, as big and strong as I was from all those pregame steaks mom cooked for me in high school, to be powerless to take this disease from her body. She lay still and almost lifeless there, her limbs being destroyed by the lack of circulation. I thought, what can I do for my mother... I decided to go to our Northern Sacred Mountain, Diben-tsa, and gather some medicine roots for her, one more time. Before she left this world, I wanted her to smell and taste the beautiful medicine of our people, and carry that memory with her on her next journey.
So I left and went to Diben-tsa. There was a definite sense of urgency but I knew it was right. Arriving at the medicine fields high, just below timberline, the day was exceptionally beautiful. The medicine plants, brother and sister, were standing so proud under the bright sun. Their beautiful hair waved gently in the clean, fresh breezes...and all life was wonderful to behold! I looked down over the valley below and far off in the distance could see the mesa that was just above our family home. The lakes sparkled, and the clouds padded the turquoise sky like comfy sofa pillows. And the land shone, it beamed...and I saw the next world. Beauty all around, everything in it's place, water, birds, trees, mountains, sky and flowers, flowers, flowers, everywhere. I said, "mom is going to a beautiful place..." I prepared to gather the roots, making my offerings. I sang to them, and finally asked them to come with me to say good-bye to my mom. To let her feel their goodness once more and taste their spirits so pure, once more. I thanked them for all they had shared with our family over the years, for I had been many times to gather roots with my mother at this very spot... They came with me and I returned down from that holy place to the hospital.
The time had come. We all knew, and our mother, tougher than any of her 9 boys ever thought they were on the athletic fields, was ready to go. We gathered round her bed and I took the roots and gave them to mom, put some on her tongue and blessed her body with the chewed pieces just like the old men showed me. And I sang for her, I sang the Four Sacred Mountain song, the verse that says I am going home to where all is beauty, everything I need to live in happiness is there, and the Old Age, Everlasting Road of Beauty I travel home. This was the first, and at that time, the only ancient sacred song of my people that I knew and I sang my mother to that place that I had seen high at timberline. I told her then, right by her ear,
"I've seen where you are going mom and it's beautiful! Everything is bright, the medicine is all around, tall and strong. The bluebird flies there and the aspen sing songs in the wind."
Then my father and other family members who were there talked to her. Many beautiful words were spoken there over my mom that day as we let her go. And all this time my dear brother-in-law, Dennis Coan, one of the finest singers that I know, sang over us, songs of prayer and blessing, songs of victory and triumph. Each one who was there has their own stories to tell of the miracles we witnessed by her side. Then my mother, who had not been able to talk for several days, shed a tear, and slipped away... as soft as an eagle plume moving to the slightest breeze...she slipped away. If my mother deserved anything for all that she had given in this life, it was to be loved till her final breath and to walk over in peace and security. My mother taught me how to walk, how to talk, how to care for others, how to work for what you want, how to love your family, no matter what they do, and now she had shown me how to leave this world and journey on.
My mother's funeral was a wonderful event. Many, many people came to say their good-byes and express their love for this wonderful woman. I must tell you a little about my mom here. She had been raised in a christian boarding school. At the tender age of six she was sent there to be educated. What she found was some of the cruelest, spiritual, emotional and cultural abuse anyone could dream up. She was told many lies. About how our traditions were evil, how the only way to heaven was through christianity, that medicine people were praying to satan and worshipping evil spirits. Lies, lies, lies... She was not allowed to speak her language of birth, for that she was punished and humiliated. I often wonder?? Where did these people come from who thought they had the right to perpetrate this deceit and dirty, dirty work. My mother and the other children were defenseless, only five and six years old. What planet did these people come from? I still to this day cannot fathom the level of insanity and inhumanity that they dealt out, all in the name of some god. The longterm result was that my mother was torn to the very core of her heart about what she should believe. Should she follow the way of the church? Should she join with her family and relatives in the traditional prayer and blessing ceremonies? Should she allow a medicine man to treat her as her body succumbed to this disease? Always a hesitation...always a doubt...
One of the cruelest things my mother ever endured was later in her life, after she had lost three of her sons. Two of my brothers died as a result of their alcoholism, and another because of a freak accident where he was hit by a car that went out of control. Some say the greatest tragedy is when a mother outlives her own children. My mother endured tremendous grief.
She was then visited by some christians from our reservation. Mind you these were fellow people of our tribe! And she was told by them that the reason her boys were dying was that god was punishing her for going to powwows and other traditional gatherings and no longer going to church!
Later, as my mother told me the story about this cruel visit, I could see the deep sadness and disappointment in her eyes. I watched her wrestle again with the doubt and fear. My mother never recovered from that betrayal. All her life all she ever did was help others, care for children who needed a home and let them live with us, pray for those that were sick, in sorrow, or fearful. She was a deeply Spiritual Woman. It was a very confusing life for my mother, and her spirit was always torn and agonized.
But looking back something was very clear. My mother's grandfather was a medicine man you see. Though, she never knew too much about that because nobody ever talked about it. I didn't find out till after she died. But deep in her spirit she knew and understood the sacred role of the Songcarrier. My mother always respected the singers, the men and women who kept the songs and sacred music of our people. There was always a place at her table and a place to rest for the singers. There was no confusion about that. She loved them and cared for them. And now as I think back to my childhood I remember when she used to scold my brothers and I for mocking an old singer who used to come visit my parents. I was about lO years old and he was very, very old, and as I was later to learn from my family, once a very powerful and good medicine man. That was until he joined the christians and they made him leave those things.
But they could never take away his songs! I know, his name was Lightning Anderson, and when I knew him he was almost blind and could barely walk. Everywhere he went there was music on his breath and his lips, half-silent whistles that carried the melodies of songs too old to forget, too old to leave behind, too sacred to not be sung---. I know, when the missionaries were not around, the Sacred Songs breathed in him again. My brothers and I, in our ignorance, would sneak up behind him as he puttered around our yard, and hunch our backs, falter our steps and try to whistle along to his songs. I don't know to this day if he ever knew. I bet he did and in his kindness let us follow after and be blessed by his sacred path of Holy Songs. I pray now that he blessed me...
Dear Lightning, I pray that the songs you cherished will live on through myself and others who had the chance to hear them. And I pray that you are singing again in freedom and light. Lightning, will you please sing a song about the Turquoise Boy and Corn Pollen Girl, about the Rainbow and the Female Rain for my mom. I want you both to be happy and free now together. Free forever. Hozho naahaasdlii… Beauty Returns...
And so as little boys, we would tease the old man, my mother would see us and scold us and tell us if we kept it up we would be just like him when we grew up! She would be very angry and she began an important education for me that would last to her final wishes. That was, to teach me to respect the singers and their songs, as she did. But, we would laugh, my brothers and I, and think, "Yeah right, someday we would be like this old geezer, mom? Yeah, right..."
About a month before her death, mom went with my dad to one of the funerals he officiated for a Ute friend of theirs who had passed away. While there she saw how they set up the casket of their loved one for final viewing. They had a tipi set up and put the casket inside, keeping cedar smudge going throughout the ceremony. Mom loved that and she told my dad, "That was a beautiful thing they did for her." She went on and talked about when she went inside the tipi to say good-bye to her friend, as she looked up into the intertwined poles of the lodge, they seemed to point straight to heaven. She said to dad, "When I go, do that for me."
My mother also had another final wish. She told my father, "When you do my funeral, I want only singing, no talking." And my father, one of the great spiritual leaders and orators of Native North America asked, "Honey, you don’t even want me to talk?" And she replied with conviction, "No, I've already heard all that you have to say, only singing. I only want people to sing for me when I am gone." There was no doubt for my mom on this issue, music was sacred, music was beyond any dogma, any law, any evil, beyond separation, and with clarity and boldness, my mother asked for music at her funeral. And so it was.
To officiate, we asked one of the greatest singers that I know, Howard Badhand, of the Lakota Nation. A songkeeper from the Red Leaf community in South Dakota, he maintains with his brothers and uncles generations of song and sacred music. Also from the neighboring Ute tribe, who shared so much with my family over the years, from introducing me to the powwow singing world, to giving my parents grandchildren and great-grandchildren; the Allen Canyon Singers. And from our own Dine' Nation, my brother-in-law Dennis Coan, and the group he leads, the Southern Medicine Singers.
The people assembled at our family home, the hearse arrived, then my nephews and my son, eight of my mother's grandchildren, carried her body into the tipi on our front lawn, just like she asked. All was ready and the family went inside to begin the service, Howard began with a few short words of introduction, and honoring her request began to sing song after song, sacred powerful prayer songs for my mother, our family, and all our relations. Outside a chorus had formed, sundancers from Big Mountain stood together with Dennis and the other singers. Led by members of the Keeswood family, who had composed over the last three years many Dine' sundance songs, men and women together stood outside the tipi and sang. The air was full of music, sacred prayer music that my mother loved! I cried, I prayed, I remembered, I listened. I was deeply honored. And so was my mom. There was a sundance song that in the last times I saw my mom well, she would sing. Softly this song would come from her lips, everywhere I saw her, she would be humming or singing this song, sewing, cooking, resting, as her body slowly wasted away...
Shi Tah Diyin, shil honi
lo, awey ya, way yay ah way yay..
It was a most beautiful ceremony and my mother taught again of the power and healing of our sacred music. Then all the people came through and said their goodbyes. All the while the singers never stopped, the drum, the voices, continued till it was time to go to the cemetery.
I hadn't sung since being at my mother's bedside before her last breath at the hospital. And later standing at the open grave as we let her down into Mother Earth, I sang for her one more time, a church song in the Navajo language. It was to show respect for all music, like my mother had taught me, to let her know I would take from our lives together all that was good and spiritual. And then, my brother's partner, Tannis, new to our family, stepped forward and sang a song for my mother. It was an old Spiritual.
won't you please drive real slow,
She told me later that she never sang, ever, in public before…our family was honored.
I honored the pledge I made for my mother not to sing for a season. I learned many things as a singer during those months. I remember trying to explain to my son when he asked me why singers do that, when someone close to them dies. I said in my humblest wisdom, it is like when the Death of Winter comes over the land, the birds go away and take with them their Songs. Then later when life springs anew they return with their Music again to fill the land. I told him, it won't be long, and when I come back I'm gonna sing like a spring bird, you just wait and see. And I asked him to pray for that for me, and he did...
I also learned.
I learned that if we stop singing, the Music will go on. It is a living, breathing Spirit that flows in ourselves and our other Relations. Mother Earth and all her Children carry the Music.
I miss the song of my mother's sleeping breath, the slow warm rhythm of life, lying next to her safe and warm as a little boy... I hear it now in the waves of Mother Ocean, and if you spend any time with me, any time at all, you will hear me whistle. Softly, sometimes just barely loud enough to hear... No, my hair is not white yet, my back not yet stooped, but my mother smiles at me now, I can still hear her say, "when you get older you're gonna be just like that...", and she was right. And I carry Old Man Lightning's blessing of air and song...
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