The first thing I notice is the rushing sound, like a dozen jetplanes using my ears as a runway, and the wind whips at my temples, threatening to take off my head. Heat and light surround me, and I look down, past my feet at the blue-green orb of Gaia rushing up to meet me.
I plummet through space in a shimmering field of white fire, the atmosphere parts to admit me and catches aflame as I rush past. North America grows to fill my vision, and I fall North towards the NAN states, the ancestral Lakota lands and current home to the Sioux nations.
I hit the ground with the force of a bomb, a crater blasts out around me and a great cloud of dust fills the air. I stand, unharmed and clad in a fine doeskin dress, and look out across a wide open plain dotted with roving herds of buffalo, spooked by my violent arrival. The sun is setting behind me, and a line of trees in the distance appears to be moving; squinting my eyes, I can make out a large group of people making their way out from the cover of the forest towards me. They are running, and as the first draws closer I can see his braided, black hair framing broad, bronze features. Feathers are woven into his braids and a tomahawk hangs at his belt; his strong chest is bare but horse-leather leggings cover his legs to the knees.
I wonder what to say to these people when they arrive. The whispers of an old legend appear to me, and I know what I have to do.
I stand on the smoldering earth, unsure of what to do with myself. I have never been in such a place, never been further from Chicago than the suburbs which surround it. As I descended in flames, I saw the Sioux nation rise up to meet me. Could I truly be here, the land of my ancestors, the home of the parents I have never known? Cat had told me to go West—I had thought she meant Tir Tairngire, or maybe some other opportunity yet unknown. Did She mean this West, to the Dakota prairie? Or perhaps She even meant West here, relative to the Sioux nation, as in the Lakota, westernmost of the three Sioux tribes, fiercest in battle, most cunning on the hunt.
As I gaze across the fertile fields, the abundant herds of buffalo, and the braves coming nearer, armed with tomahawks and bows, a more pertinent question surfaces in my thoughts. When am I? Cat granted me visions of the Lakota lands, of her life before she came to me. But the prairie she had known was more barren, the buffalo nearly extinct, the gaiasphere maintained through ritual enchantment, not the natural bounty of Nature herself. Her people had fought with composite bows and night-vision goggles. So who are these people, rushing with stone and sinew weapons to meet the arrival of a woman come down on a comet?
It dawns on me then, so obvious when I see it for myself. I am Wophe, delivered in fire to bring the teachings to her people. She had shown them how to pass the pipe, to create peace with the Dakota and the other First Nations. She had shown them how to speak to Wakantanka, the Great Mystery, to commune with the spirit world. She had shown them the Ghost Dance, to invoke Gaia’s wrath and bring wind and fire down upon the pale of skin when they threatened the Sioux.
As I watch the Lakota people come closer, stress rises in my chest, my cheeks flush with anxiety. I am not Wophe. I cannot be Wophe. She is everything righteous about my people, careful in diplomacy, replete with knowledge of the astral plane, patient and caring, all-powerful and invulnerable in war. And what am I? Reclusive, selfish, unrepentant, savage and thieving. I cannot do this.
As if on cue, the admonitions of the great White Buffalo which had swallowed me on the beginning of my quest rings out in my mind, reminding me of the pledge I had made to Wophe, to Cat, the Great White Buffalo and Wakantanka. To learn the teachings of my people, to overcome what is deficient in myself. These memories remind me that I am on an astral journey, that the earth beneath my feet is not real, although it feels more present than anything I have ever felt before.
Determined, if nothing else, to make my totem proud, I recall the fire-circle myths of Wophe, the White Buffalo Calf Woman. She had waited at her place of impact for Running Water, the Lakota shaman who had seen her coming in a vision. What had happened then? He had said the first words to her, as she stood above them to deliver her teachings.
I step back onto the raised mound behind me, square my shoulders, smooth my doeskin dress, lift my chin, and wait for the shaman to address me.
Sunlight bursts from between the clouds behind me and I am shielded in radiant light. The last rays of evening paint the clouds with gold leaf and rust, and then dye the entire firmament with the autumnal palette of dusk. I stand underneath the awesome majesty of Nature and feel the center of the world pulse beneath my feet as if standing on the head of Gaia herself. Mana flows in this place, runs free as the birds, more wild than the stallions and more violent than bison, bear or bull. I reach out to grasp this power; no sooner do I touch it but it fills me, its strength writhes in my hands like a serpent, and I feel as if I could call down thunder from the heavens, or stop the world from turning. I feel like a god.
The children of the comet pelt their brown legs and arrive at my feet, panting and out of breath, perhaps 50 or 60 in all. They stand, awestruck and silent at the lip of my crater, looking up at me with eyes the color of the earth. One of them, the first to arrive, drops his rough-hewn axe and speaks with somnolent tongue, sloughing off syllables and vowels with alien lethargy: “Taŋyáŋ yahí, wakȟáŋ tȟáŋka. Tukténitaŋhaŋ he? Tókhel Lakȟótiya ehápi? [ Welcome, divine one. Are you from my dreams? What have you to teach the Lakota people? ]” By my own magic, the meanings of the words are wrought in my mind, and I am able to reply in turn.
The man’s speech strikes my ear strangely, his Lakota accent foreign, thick, almost primitive to my ear. Perhaps the language has changed in the great expanse of time between my world and his, shifting in tone and meaning as the white man’s nations rise and and fall around the Sioux nations.
I hesitate at his question, still unsure of myself. Wophe would respond with kindness and benevolence, gently guiding her fledgling people to civilization and harmony. My totem, too, could respond easily, Her role as healer translating naturally to the task before me. But I cannot feel her influence here, without my mask fetish to channel her spirit. I feel the acute absence of it on my forehead, as if I were missing an organ or limb. I am alone here, standing atop this mound, the eyes of my people weighing upon me as they wait for me to act.
Yet I am powerful. Gaia’s breath flows through me, imbuing me with the strength I always knew I deserved. I do not need to be Wophe or Cat. I am Awele Claws-the-Moon, huntress of the Sioux people. Although I lack the nurturing sentiment necessary to lead as Wophe would lead, I can fill this void with my fierce pride of the Lakota, with my zealous faith in Gaia’s supremacy and the divine imperative delivered unto her people. I will not stand by and let my ancestors succumb to the will of the white man.
I respond in Lakota, my voice backed by a force which could only be the energies of the White Buffalo Calf. “People of the Lakota, I am Wophe, sent to you by the Great Mystery to teach you the ways of the Sioux. I am divinity; I am providence. I bring teachings—the way of alliance and the language of the spirit world. I bring prophecy—of prosperity and nation-building, followed by doom and invasion from a race beyond the great salt sea, a man white and godless, who will take our lands and kill our herds. But there will be redemption, for the Earth Mother does not abandon her children. Magic will return to our world, and the Sioux will dance the Ghost Dance and drive the paleskin from our home with burning mountain and twisting gyre. I will teach you to dance with the Great Mystery, so we will know it, and teach it to our sons and daughters, and be ready to take what is ours when Gaia awakens once more. And when the Sioux nation is strong again, and magic runs through the world, and fire lizards rule the lands of men, I will come again on a comet to lead our people once more to greatness.”
I step down and place my hand on the man’s shoulder. “Running Water, you alone among the Lakota have been blessed with visions of my coming. You will gather six tribes to us—the Bdewákaŋthuŋwaŋ, Waȟpéthuŋwaŋ, Waȟpékhute, Sisíthuŋwaŋ, Iháŋkthuŋwaŋ, and Iháŋkthuŋwaŋna—and together we will pass the pipe and form Očhéthi Šakówiŋ, the Seven Council Fires. Gather them to our great hearth, and I will teach you to become the Sioux.”
I finish speaking and I feel my tenuous hold on the reality of this place slip. Like waking from a pleasant dream, I try to remain asleep, but the realization is already upon me that this is not real and the knowledge pulls me away. A great wind blows from the West and brings with it a fog, which covers the eyes of the assembled and dissolves my real body. When it clears, my presence on the material plane has been swept away like so much dust, but my spirit remains to watch over my ancestors’ ancestors.
Running Water, truly named, turns to his fellow Lakota and speaks, relaying my words and issuing his orders. He commands a group of young riders to journey to the far tribes—Bdewákaŋthuŋwaŋ, Waȟpéthuŋwaŋ, Waȟpékhute, Sisíthuŋwaŋ, Iháŋkthuŋwaŋ, and Iháŋkthuŋwaŋna—and they leave immediately. He sends runners to the rest of the Sioux people, and their quick bare feet carry word of her coming across the plains.
Four nights pass. Time has no dominion over my presence here, so I linger on in the plains for the duration, watching the foreign tribes trickle in. The trickles eventually become a flood, and by the end of the third day, the village has swelled to over 5000 strong, where once was not even 500. Teepees go up amongst the trees and overflow into the plains, and the smell of cookfires and tanning leather drift downwind for miles.
On one of these days, I become the Eastern Wind, and from its soaring heights I watch a party of my braves stalk and trap a pair of does in the woods. They kill with yew bows and bone knives and consecrate their kills to the Earth, according to sacred custom. I notice something strange in the hearts of my warriors during the moment of the kill: there is no anger or bloodlust in them, nor joy in the act of taking the animal’s life. When they close the deers’ brown eyes and haul the carcasses away, there is no disturbance in the ether or sign that any killing had ever taken place there.
I begin to see this harmony with Nature in pronounced fashion, as the numbers of my people increase and the land becomes more inhabited. In the Awakened world of my time, the presence of humans is inimical to the flow of Gaia’s energy. She is stifled and subdued by the cities of modern man, and her power is naught where their pavement and godlessness have scoured her from the earth. But this is a different place, these a different kind of people. Where the tribes draw close to make their camps, Gaia is strengthened and the flow of mana increases, and when they dance in their hearth circles at night, they are joined by spirits on the other plane: unseen nymphs and dryads of the forest twist and gyrate in pantomime of the human auras, and field spirits flit about like moths to the flame.
Even with the enormity of my power in this place, I can’t help but be impressed, and feel proud that I have descended from a people so in tune with magic. From the beginning of the epoch known as the Sixth World, Native American tribes had always displayed a natural predilection for sorcery, and intuitive understanding of magic. This must be the reason.
On the night of the fourth day, after the whole of the Sioux host had joined the outriders from the far tribes, Running Water gathers them in the middle of the greatest clearing in the woods. Man, woman and child, they all sit in a huge circle, so wide around that a man sitting could not see the person opposite him. The forest stretches its canopy far overhead, the great arms of oaks and elms, and ash trees as stout as staves. A medicine woman, bent and haggard, stokes a bonfire in the middle of the circle. She adds certain herbs and grasses to the blaze and a great cloud of smoke emerges; rich with mana energy it is, and the smell of it lingers even on the astral.
The leaves all around rustle, I feel the warm East Wind at my back and know my test has begun.
Wind tugs at me, capricious as ever, drawing me along towards the central fire, to my ka and the next trial. Yet I hold back, leaning against the elemental force’s buffeting indifference. I struggle to reconcile my understanding of nature with what is playing out before me. Only now do I realize how narrow my conception of the human spirit had been, how limited the ways of man had become in the absence of such an embryonic relationship with the Earth Mother. Although I am supposedly here to teach them, I can feel the limits of my own mind stretching as I work to integrate this new understanding with my own.
I appear from the shadows to approach the great hearth. The highest chiefs push to the front of their respective families, adjusting their fine feather headdresses and waiting quietly for me to act. A silence descends as news of my presence ripples outwards through the assembled thousands, and my people gather upon the nearby hills as murmurs of “wakȟáŋ tȟáŋka” flit about like ghosts.
I sit at the place of honor, a stone seat at the apex of the fire circle, piled with buffalo pelts and talismans from the Seven Peoples. I don a headdress of onyx falcon feathers and gesture to Running Water, who has prepared the Sioux’s first pipe to my specifications. Its stem is wrought from buffalo horn, its graceful curves carved with images of the great mentor spirits. At my request, a black panther’s tail traded up from the trappers of Apalachee dangles from the bend. The pipe’s wide bowl is piled high with the medicine woman’s trade—peyotes, mescals, devil-grass and psilocybins. The stuff of visions, the soil of knowledge.
I snap my fingers, and there is light. I take a heady draw from the pipe, the tangy burn searing my throat, then pass the relic to my right. I sit, stroking a pelt as the smoke ruminates within me. Then I begin. "My people, I come to you tonight with teachings. Yet in the beginning I learned from you. You share a bond with Nature which does not exist in my time, a closeness I had not thought possible. You exist in man’s nature state—this is good.
“But it cannot last. A new danger is coming to your land, greater than the hoarfrost of the West wind or the horn of a charging bull. The white man comes, with fire and steel, and to meet him we must become more. Like the wolf or deer, you know the voice of Gaia. This is good, but not enough, for in Man’s nature there is more than simple harmony. In us is the capacity to build, not just with pole and pelt, but with words and thoughts, for as man we carry the gift of language. We must be also like the noble ant, working together to build something greater than the individual. We must be fastidious, selfless, and organized. In this way we will form the great Sioux nation and light the seven council fires. In this way we will find the strength to stand against the paleskin.
“For a time, they will win, for while we hear the voice of Gaia, they know only of taking and hoarding, of iron and slaves. While the Earth Mother’s energy wanes, they will drive us back. But when Her influence returns, as the tide upon the shore, we will know victory, for the paleskin has forgotten the face of his Mother.
“Rise now, great chiefs of the seven fires, and pass the pipe in turn. Let it always remind you of the peace you have forged between each other. Then take each the ceremonial knife, score your palm, and clasp arms so you may never forget that we are one blood, one people, united as Sioux.”
The chiefs solemnly pass the pipe from one until the other, until it returns to me. Not a one coughs or flinches, and I watch the haze of the wakȟáŋ herbs take their minds one by one. I pass an obsidian dagger to my right and they each score themselves, then link palm-to-forearm, solidifying the Sioux identity as one people. A ragged cheer rises from the gathered families and they leave my presence with diagonal crimson lines on their arms to signify their oath.
Our dance lasts long into the night. The pipe leaves my hand and travels the circle twice, taking many hours, during which time I call the spirits to attention as well as the minds of man. I gather the spirits together at the edge of the clearing: great spirits and small ones, spirits of the forest, air and hearth. A great stag stands at the edge of the circle, a pair of ash trees in place of its antlers. As the pipe passes, it leaps gracefully through the mescal smoke, becoming as real as the men around and trees above and Earth underneath. The eyes of many grow with wonder, but I fill the air with a sorcery which soothes their hearts until the devil-grass and peyotl can take them. More and more spirits leap into the center and gather around the fire: dryads, nymphs, spirits of the animals, great ghostly bison and stallions black as coal. Although remaining out of the sight of men, I spy the greater spirits lingering at the edge of my vision: dark shapes big as houses drifting in and out amongst the huge trees, some ghastly and horrible, others airy and beneficent, but each powerful enough to destroy any of the lesser spirits in the circle with a single spell.
When they are all gathered, the spirits begin to dance the first Ghost Dance. The steps are meditative and practiced at first, each taking its place in the circle as if at rehearsal. They begin by swaying, and the wind in the trees sways with them and the fire roars its approval. Then, all semblance of organization breaks and the spirits run wild, some leaping amongst the assembled mortals, others twisting and gyrating in lockstep with each other, still others change shape and slash the air with great claws and gnash terrible teeth. One man goes mad with fear, but those the peyotl has seized begin to dance among the spirit host, and then it is a madness, as man and spirit intertwine and lose themselves to the flow of a music which is drummed into the air by the forest itself.
The mana! I look down and it swirls and gathers at the feet of the dancers like a low tide, rising steadily as fog. It pours in from the plains and swamps, through forests, over mountains and islands, rushing in from the leylines to fill this place. It lifts the spirits from the ground and they are consumed by it, and some give in and vanish forever, but others drink deep of the power therein and grow in size and energy. The stag grows and the ash trees on its head split and twist into great old trees which brush the sky with their leaves.
By now the rising mana tide has reached the top of my seat atop the pelts, and I cannot stop it as it picks me up as well, so that I soar over the assembled mortals. Fingers point and eyes are raised to see me, and for a moment I can see myself in these people, my once-and-future ancestors, brothers, sisters, mothers and fathers. I wave sadly, knowing that it is not my place to stay, and they wave back, the knowledge of the Awakening bright in their minds, for now at least. I look up and the winds swirl around me, dissolving my physical self once again. The moonlight and the stars above pierce my eyes and I see nothing.