Han Powletan, after the great thaw, near the Sushutny village of Paupeck
Walks with Spirits stood on a short rise overlooking the clear, shallow flow of the Sushutny River on a soft day where rings of fog hugged the mountains near their bases, an expanse of clouds above drifted onto the highest peaks, and moisture seeped from the air in tiny intermittent droplets. She liked days such as this when the waters above mingled with the waters below reminding her how everything was connected: the grandmothers and grandfathers of the past to generations yet unborn; the people to the animals, plants, rivers, mountains, and sky; the sun, moon, and stars. This was not merely a teaching of shamans and Old Ones; Spirits could feel it in the core of her being. She was inexplicably linked to the universe, and the all of it dwelt within her soul-essence. Energy hummed all around, from the birds on their wings to the breeze bending tall grasses. Even the stones that lined the riverbed were living things; they just moved so slowly no human eye could detect it.
She placed her palm to the bark of a favorite willow, its long, slender leaves and drooping branches sheltering her from the gentle sprinkle of rain. Closing her eyes, Spirits drew in a slow, deep breath of fresh, fragrant air and relaxed into a meditative state, her mind clear of meddlesome thoughts. She could sense the vibrations from the tree’s trunk tingle up her arm toward her beating heart and allowed her lifeforce to flow back to the tree. She couldn’t understand what the tree was saying, nor did she suspect it comprehended her intentions, but she often perceived glimpses, waves of emotions such as well-being or distress. Today, the willow was at peace.
Spirits opened her eyes and cast her gaze across the green valley spotted with yellow and orange as the deciduous leaves had burst into colors. It was Dog Salmon Time, the time when the leaves fall, the season of soft rains and cooling temperatures, when cranberries, crabapples, hazelnuts, and wapatos were gathered, and when hunting season began in earnest. The deer, elk, beaver, groundhog, bear, and mountain goat would be fat from the abundance of summer, and most of their young would be weaned. She would soon join her cousins and others from her village of Nutaula on a hunting trip into the high meadows, but not to do the women’s work of scraping and tanning hides or smoking the meat; Spirits was a hunter.
A whiff of wind fluttered through her long, black strands only bound by a leather headband as was worn by many of the men. While she may braid or tie it back with a band in the heat of summer, she preferred to let her hair hang loose. She wore buckskin leggings and tunic with a cedar cape to keep dry, but reserved her woven hat for actual rainy or bright, sunny days. Spirits didn’t mind a little wetness.
Stepping out from the shelter of the willow, she took a short walk up the trail to check her traps. Her heart was filled with warmth to visit her home village of Paupeck, a quarter-sun’s walk from her present home. She looked forward to seeing Black Bear and Rainbow, her adoptive parents, and her other friends, but she was especially eager to spend time with Laughing Brook. Black Bear, who was honored by receiving the spirit name of the Sushutny’s prestigious ancestor, was house chief and village shaman, a most Worthy person. Spirits loved and revered the man who took her in as an orphan, and taught and mentored her with great wisdom and patience, but her heart was forever bound to his daughter. She brought Brook’s face into her mind’s eye and smiled. Soon she will be ready to marry, she considered. I only hope Black Bear finds me worthy enough.
Spirits’ snares were fruitful, bearing four fine rabbits. She expected to bring back a bountiful hunt from their upcoming trek into the mountains, collecting many furs to give as gifts, but she did not wish to enter the home of her childhood empty handed. Before retrieving her game, the young woman who had seen nineteen summers, lifted her head and her arms toward the sky. “Creator Spirit, I raise my hands to you,” she said aloud while feeling genuine gratitude. “I give thanks to you and to Rabbit Spirit for providing food and skins for the people.” For many hunters, this was a ritual, words recited out of tradition, but Spirits had gained understanding at the feet of Black Bear. She saw with spirit eyes what others could not perceive; she listened to the forest, to the voices of the ancestors, to the still, small voice within her own being. Gratitude was essential to living a good life. While yet being young, she had much to learn; this wisdom she already discerned.
The woman hunter gathered her rabbits and tied their feet together in pairs with leather thongs, then struck out for Paupeck with a song of praise on her lips. The drizzle ceased, allowing the leaves of the trees to join her song as the wind blew through them; the birds sang along as well. Fog continued to circle the mountains, skirting them in modest white, while one persistent ray of sunlight peeked between the overhead clouds. It was a good sign.
As she approached the village of her childhood nestled along the banks of the Sushutny River, Spirits was enveloped with strong emotion. The Powshinti nation included all the people of the River of Rivers, the Powshin that flowed from beyond the canyon all the way to the great ocean, carrying in its bosom the fish that were the people’s mainstay of life. The river provided clean water and a swift means of transportation through the valley as well. All who lived in its watershed, the land called Han Powletan, spoke the same language of Powletaw, though dialects differed from upriver to downriver and to the coastal lands and islands. The Powshinti were not ruled by a human lord pretending to be all important barking out orders to others, but were divided into semi-independent regions based on their tributaries, while all the people of the River of Rivers shared a common language, culture, and rights to the great Powshin and its bounty. They were bound to each other through marriages and relations and enjoyed friendly visits and trading between their divisions. (Although at times various groups of warriors would set out on raids to steal provisions and take slaves from their neighbors.)
Spirits’ tribe was the Sushutny, all the Powshinti who lived along the Sushutny River and the basin between it and the Powshin, but even they were not under one leader. A council of house chiefs, men and women who were the heads of their extended households, governed each village. Decisions that affected the house were made by its chief and issues that involved the entire community would be determined by consensus of the council. No one person dictated to all as they understood the benefits of listening and compromise. The Sushutny did not consider the strongest and the loudest to be the worthiest; rather, the one who could resolve differences in a calm and peaceful manner was highly esteemed.
The village bustled with activity as moisture evaporated into the mists above. Some of the men were gathered in an open-sided shed-roofed workhouse engaging in such trades as flint napping, weapon making, and the crafting of a new canoe. A few village dogs lazed in the spot of sun they could find or trotted behind scampering children in hopes of a treat. Women mostly conducted their industry within their longhouses, but Spirits spotted Firefly and Sweetwater returning with baskets of berries and nuts. Sweetwater was great with child and the Worthy and low status people of Paupeck had laid wagers as to what day the baby would arrive.
Spirits turned her eyes to the center plank-house in a long, connected row facing the river. The lodgings were constructed of red cedar, the most noble and valuable tree of Han Powletan. Overlapping planed boards the width of a man’s forearm served as siding, while more like them spanned the backward-sloping roofs. Each house was squeezed up to the one on either side for protection from attacks as it seemed every tribe and their brothers wished to raid Paupeck and abscond with a portion of its wealth. When Spirits was a small girl and still went by her child name of Happy Fortune, the town was protected by a palisade wall, but it had burned down a few years ago and with a lull in raids, the men had not gotten around to rebuilding it.
A contented feeling of belonging swelled in Spirits’ soul as she turned her attention up the trail to the river’s edge to gaze on the town’s welcome figures. Though she beheld them from behind, she could picture the life-sized carved statues she had spent ages staring at as a little girl. They stood at either side of the path, the man on one side with his right arm outstretched, palm facing up in greeting, and the woman across from him with both hands held out in a gesture of peace. He wore a tanned-hide tunic and leggings with a woven cedar hat while she was depicted in a shammy dress with decorative fringe and wooden buttons, also topped by a rain hat. The valley overflowed with an abundance of food sources, in part because of the vast quantity of rain that fell, and the Powshinti people had created effective wet-weather gear. However, some people also wore the hats to protect from the sun’s rays and simply to be fashionable.
The cedar statues held strong significance for the Sushutny people and other tribes along the Powshin River and differed in size, design, and purpose from the totems erected by coastal tribes. Disputes may arise between individuals and groups, as is a common flaw in human beings, but the ancestors taught the value and virtue of peace. Everyone wins when they get along with their neighbors. Each village posted welcome figures as markers to greet visitors to their territories, often with outreaching arms for peace or hands raised in gratitude. When the artist completed them, the shaman would hold a blessing ceremony which was an ancient tradition passed down through the generations. Seeing them always warmed Spirits’ heart.
Each house in the row had a tall, wide front door and a smaller back door. Some residents hung skins or furs as flaps over the doors, while others covered theirs with mats woven in a design unique to that house. All kept large rectangular boards inside the door to shove over it when there were storms or attacks. But in recent memory, both events had been rare.
White Dove, Brook’s younger sister, and her cousin Precious Flower, bounded over to Spirits amid a whirlwind of giggles. Falling Rain, the family’s slave girl, scurried behind them, her arms loaded with firewood.
“It is good to see you!” White Dove bubbled and held out her hands to Spirits.
“It is good to see you.” Spirits reciprocated the greeting. She took White Dove’s hands and leaned down to place her cheek to the side of the girl’s.
White Dove was about a year younger and several inches shorter than Precious Flower and bore a strong resemblance to her older sister Brook. White Dove’s hair was arranged in two braids that fell over each shoulder across the light fabric of her woven cedar dress. A hat plait from a mixing of yellow and red cedar to give it an exclusive design rested on her head adding the appearance of a bit more height.
Precious Flower wore a dress sewn of soft, worked skins protected by a cedar cape similar to Spirits’. Her hair hung down her back in a single braid and her reed hat, as always for her namesake, was adorned with several fresh wildflowers.
“And good to see you also, Precious Flower,” Spirits added to her adopted cousin. “White Dove, that is a nice, new hat I see. Did you make it?”
Her lips covered her gleaming white teeth as she shook her head. “Laughing Brook made it. I am learning to weave, but I’m not as good as her yet.”
“You will be soon, I’m certain.” Spirits smiled at the girls, then acknowledged Falling Rain with a nod. The slave was older than White Dove and Precious Flower, probably Brook’s age. Spirits recalled how she had come to live with them:
Coming up on four winters ago, they were all snug around the hearth in their longhouse. Walks with Spirits had been playing a guessing game with Laughing Brook and her sister while their parents teased each other. “You make so much work for me, Black Bear,” Rainbow was complaining in jest. “You spend all cold time sitting here eating and I will have to make you new clothes big enough to cover your fat belly.”
“Ha!” he retorted with a smile in his eyes. “Do you know how long I must beseech the spirits each day on your behalf? Your complaining is enough to deafen the ears of Owl every night. Wolf’s howl cannot outdo it. Raven and Coyote argue over which one gets to play the next trick on you.”
Rainbow shook her head, covering a smile as she tried to keep a stern face. It was evident to all how much they adored each other. As Spirits recalled the fateful night, she could feel the atmosphere of love that always permeated their hearth as though she was there. Gray Wolf and Snowbird, Black Bear’s parents, sat nearest the fire to warm their old bones. Both of them were wrinkled with age, their gray hair going white. Snowbird had lost a chewing tooth but Gray Wolf still had all his; however, his knees were plagued with arthritis. Gray Wolf was a keeper of knowledge, one who knew about everything. He taught the histories of the Sushutny people to the younger generations, to those who would hear. Spirits, soaked up his stories like a sponge at the seashore. Snowbird was a quiet Old One, but when she spoke, everyone listened.
Their reverie was interrupted by a runner at the plank-house door who announced Rainbow and Black Bear were desperately needed by a couple in Susmataw, the village across the river. The young wife of a very Worthy family was in labor but the baby could not be born. Their shaman and midwife had done all they could but their medicine was not strong enough to coax the baby to enter the physical world. Black Bear and Rainbow had strong reputations among the Sushutny and the family beseeched them to come and work their magic.
At once, they began gathering their herbs, incense, and supplies. Brook, who had not decided which parent’s calling extended to her, wished to come to help and observe, but they chose to take Spirits along as a helper because she was older. Even then, Black Bear saw the spark in her and wished to teach her the ways of the shaman. So Spirits carried a large leather bag crafted of soft, waterproof seal hide loaded with herbs, a cedar cup, and a basket with Black Bear’s medicine supplies as they followed the runner in all haste to Susmataw.
The atmosphere inside the plank-house was grave and worry permeated the air as thick as fog. Black Bear put on the intricately carved and painted mask that had passed to him from the former shaman, lit some sage, and begin his slow cleansing song and dance around the entire dwelling. Spirits always admired his mask crafted from the limb of an elder cedar whose trunk had supplied three house posts. It represented Bear Spirit and was painted with black, red, and white dyes. He hadn’t time to wear a costume, but Black Bear was not so impressed by theatrics as some shamans were.
This plank-house was even larger than the one they lived in at home. Spirits’ eyes wanted to inspect and observe, to memorize the carvings, to examine the woven mat designs, to gaze at all the new people, but Rainbow needed her help.
Spirits was at her side when Rainbow found the woman covered in sweat exhausted from a night and day of hard labor lying on mats and furs on the soft dirt floor. Two older women tended her while her husband and the men paced in a corner casting hopeful glances at the famed healer, Rainbow. Upon examination, Rainbow found the fetus to be positioned wrong. “The baby cannot come forth feet first,” she explained. “We must turn it around.”
Rainbow selected a blend of herbs which included chamomile, powdered blueberry, willow bark, crushed and dried dandelion flowers, and devil’s club to relax the muscles and ease pain, then poured water into a coiled hard-basket used for cooking small portions. Using the wooden tongs set near the fire rocks, she dropped two in to heat the water to a near boil. Next she sprinkled in the herbs and stirred them. The aroma and Black Bear’s song seemed to sooth the tensions in the room, returning the air to a state of neutrality.
The expectant mother’s women helpers raised her head and shoulders so Rainbow could pour the healing liquid into her mouth. She was able to swallow it before being overcome with another round of contractions.
“I will die and go to the ancestors,” she moaned. “I will never know my child, but you can save him. You can cut him out; I will die, but he will live.”
“Do not give up so easily,” Rainbow chided in a tender tone. “Black Bear and I are here to see that you will live to raise your child.”
But the young, sweating woman with a sallow look to her face grabbed Rainbow’s arm. “Please do not let my baby die. He grows weaker, even as I do; I can tell. He no longer struggles to get free.”
“Here,” Rainbow said to Spirits. “Help me with her.”
Spirits was strong from running, climbing, hunting, and engaging in all the activities young men participated in, so it was no problem for her to lift the woman in labor and follow Rainbow’s positioning instructions.
“Hold her on her hands and knees. Now, her head should be down on the floor with her hips high in the air.” Spirits helped adjust the woman’s stance while she whimpered, moaned, and cried. Then Rainbow began to manipulate the woman’s belly in a motion that mimicked a massage. She pushed on the fetus to turn it, but the going was slow and tedious because of the infant’s size.
“I want you to help,” Rainbow said to the mother-to-be. “Rock your hips like this,” she said, guiding the woman’s pelvis in a swaying motion. “Keep this end up and your head down and rock back and forth. We will turn your baby and he will come out just fine. You are a strong and Worthy woman. You are young and flexible. I know you are tired, but just think of holding your infant in your arms, how happy you and the whole village will be. Think of the smile on your husband’s face when you present him with a healthy son or daughter.”
The first glimmer of hope Spirits had seen lit the woman’s eyes, and she followed Rainbow’s instructions. The exercise was interrupted by contractions several times and the baby had moved, but now instead of feet first, he seemed to be sideways, putting a tremendous strain on the mother’s abdomen. Spirits discerned she must be in great pain.
“Walks with Spirits,” Rainbow instructed. “Go outside and get a basket of snow while I warm a cloth in some steaming water.”
Despite being puzzled, Spirits did as she was told and retrieved the snow. Black Bear continued his song of thanks, declaring mother and child would live long, productive lives. He called on Spirit of Rabbit, who had no trouble bearing children, and the ancestral Bear Spirit for help. The shaman accompanied his song by shaking a decoratively carved rattle stick, whose rattles were made of goat hooves from sacred Misu Mountain. Spirits was supposed to be learning from him, but she was too busy assisting Rainbow with what she considered the real healing work.
With the woman in labor now resting in an upright, slanted posture, Rainbow pressed snow to the skin surrounding the baby’s head and the hot cloth where its rear protruded. “Walks with Spirits, you push the baby now. He will want his head to move away from the cold. Push it downward. You have greater physical strength than I.”
Spirits pushed the baby’s head toward the birth canal. At first it did not budge, but then, all at once, it slid into place. Joy leaped in her heart like a salmon jumping up a falls.
Afterward, the birthing proceeded normally, but still with some difficulty as her water had broken the night before. Once the head emerged, the mother passed out from exhaustion, but woke soon after to hold her washed and wrapped infant for the first time. Her husband, face a glow with astonishment, had cut the cord with his sharp flint knife. The longhouse overflowed with joy and thankful praise. The girl’s parents, who were quite wealthy, gave Falling Rain to Black Bear and Rainbow in appreciation for saving their daughter and grandchild. They accepted graciously as was proper to do; they had retained the girl’s service because they needed help with menial chores as their careers kept them busy most of the time serving members of their community.
Spirits looked on Falling Rain with kindness because she was an asset to the household. She was not abused, and she did not complain. She held the lowest status in Black Bear’s house, but Spirits considered it a great privilege to be a member of his household at all. If a free man were to observe what a good, productive, cheerful woman Falling Rain had become and look on her with favor, he could ask Black Bear to marry her and she would no longer be a slave. Status mattered for the community’s ability to regulate and distribute resources. No one wished for a low status person to squander and waste the food or lazily sleep through harvesting season or kill more than could be smoked and dried or make bad trades out of ignorance. No one desired low status ones to make poor decisions that would harm or inconvenience everyone. Some people felt pride in their high status or wallowed in resigned paltry self-esteem because of their low status, but Spirits understood every soul had value and worth. If Falling Rain did not collect the firewood, fetch water from the river, or empty the wastebaskets, another member of the household would be drawn away from work that requires more skill and wisdom, thus wasting their time. Therefore, she greatly appreciated Falling Rain.
“Laughing Brook will be so happy to see you,” White Dove gushed. “Everyone will. You do not visit often enough.”
“Are you going on the hunt into the mountains tomorrow?” Precious Flower asked.
“Ooooh!” Precious Flower shuddered. “How can you do that? I would be so afraid to be out there with the wolves and the bears. And it will be cold in the mountains. There is already snow on the peaks.”
White Dove turned to her cousin and replied in Spirits’ stead. “Walks with Spirits is not afraid of any wild animal. She says the wolves and bears are her brothers and sisters. At least it will be too cold for snakes to be out. They are tricky because you almost never see them… until they bite you.”
Spirits smiled at the girls, then lifted her gaze toward the open door of Black Bear’s house. At last count, nearly thirty people lived in the spacious lodging of the shaman and his healer wife, at least half of them relatives, but there was only one person her soul longed to see—Laughing Brook.