“Lots of lives depend on me”. It had been my only thought for the past four days. When I felt exhausted after a whole day walking through the Rocky Mountains, crossing woods and mountains, through fertile valleys and wide rivers, I repeated to myself those words. “Lots of lives depend on me”.
I stopped for a while, feeling really hungry. My food (deer and rabbit meat and a bit of bread), was finished long ago. For the moment I was surviving on strawberries, blueberries, pine nuts and whatever I could find easily without needing to cook it. I was impatient, as I felt the time was almost over…
As I crossed a 10m wide river (thank goodness it was summer, as in winter it would have been at least double sized), I began to doubt I was really experiencing all this. It was almost like a nightmare. I remembered the day I received the letter where I was accepted for a volunteering job helping the Lakota tribes in South Dakota. I was so excited! It was like a dream coming true: I would be able to live with them for three months, learn Lakota, get to know their costumes and traditions from inside. Nobody knew I would experience the hardest quest of my life.
The children were my assignment, almost all of them, from 2 to 16 years old. I was to teach them Mathematics and Science. I wasn’t at all satisfied with my duty, though. Was it so important, when all I could see was poverty and desolation? Scarce food and clothing, too many elder people without medicine… I was desolate on my first night.
A month passed so quickly I didn’t realize I was almost a part of the tribe at that time. I could manage myself in Lakota, and was invited to my first storytelling night, when I heard for the first time of the tribe’s history and legends. A traditional dance followed. The men danced first, with their animal masks on and even one or two tomahawks. Then it was the women’s turn. Taka grabbed her two-year-old boy (with no name for the moment, as the tradition within the tribe established), and danced with him for a while, jumping, turning, twisting… I was beginning to understand the dance when the boy gave a sudden cry, and the music stopped.
He was in agony. Something he had eaten. Nobody knew what it could be. I rushed in my car to the Indian agency, looking for a doctor. He didn’t know what the cause was, and did nothing. No, we couldn’t take him to a hospital. It was far away and they needed to pay in advance. He then left, leaving a whole tribe completely wretched.
By that time three more children were in the same state. Twenty more followed the next morning. The Indian chief wanted to talk with me. He was calm, in great contrast to the rest of the tribe. He told me the Medicine woman was almost dying. Nevertheless, she managed to describe the flower I had to find to save them (something like a daisy, but with an orange centre and white and green leaves). It could be found at the West, far away from the reservation. They were not allowed to abandon the reservation, so it was my turn. I swallowed hard. It was a great responsibility, but I was there and they needed me.
Four days later I hadn’t remotely found the flower, and I desperately needed to get back. Was Taka’s boy dead? Or the other children? What about the Medicine woman? What if I found the incorrect flower?
I was thinking about this when I suddenly felt how my feet lost the ground… I began to fall… I tried to grasp anything, a branch, a rock… No way. I had reached the edge of a precipice without noticing… Then I heard the water, water falling at considerable speed. It was more than a precipice. It was a gorge and I was falling to the river… As I entered the water I saw them: a bunch of flowers as the Medicine woman had told me. But it was too late. Before being aware of what was happening I fell through the waterfall… and forgot about myself.
The sun gleamed through the leaves above my head and gave me a sense of peace and joy I had never experienced before. I opened my eyes. A deer was grazing close by. It stopped, looked at me, and ran away. It was a signal. I stood up and followed it. A few minutes after I realized I was at the edge of the gorge where I fell who knows how long ago. How did I get there? I knew I had fallen through the waterfall, so I should have ended at least half a day from walking from where I was. And there was no one except for me… and the deer.
A path from the edge of the gorge was heading downwards. It was probably human-made, as Indians always managed to reach the water from almost everywhere. I began to follow it, aware that I could fall again. But this time I knew what my aim was: the bunch of green and white flowers almost at the river bank. I saw the signals of my fall: torn branches, a rock out of its place… And finally I saw them, right where I knew they were.
Then I knew it. I knew I would never be able to explain what had happened, how I had appeared at the same point where I had fallen, how my bruised knees were intact… I had experienced more of the Indian’s way of life than what I thought possible. Suddenly I realized I would get on time to the reservation. I would play again with Taka’s boy, I would continue with my lessons and I would finally understand that legend I heard about the sacred deer.
Tatiana Maria Goded