An abandoned home on the Great Plains. Image © Saxon Henry.

The Soul of Great Leaders

Norwalk showroom Native American vignette
A soulful vignette in the Norwalk Showroom featuring one of the great leaders of America’s natives.

Whenever I see a photograph of a Native American, I can’t help but think of Crazy Horse, and I’ve seen a fair number of them in my lifetime given the years I spent in the mission field, traveling to and from the Sioux and Athapaskan reservations in South Dakota and Alaska. During one late autumn trip to the Yankton Reservation when the sun was still strong enough to make it comfortable to sit outside and read, I devoured Ian Frazier’s Great Plains. He is one of my favorite New Yorker writers and authors because of his sense of humor and his natural style of storytelling, and he gave me one of my favorite Sioux stories written about the chief, one of the tribe’s great leaders.

Iron Nation Church South Dakota
The church at Iron Nation, a desolate village named for one of the Sioux’s great leaders, is surrounded by a sea of green prairie. Image © Saxon Henry.

The Soul of Great Leaders

My favorite anecdote from Frazier’s book is his retelling of a conversation Crazy Horse had with Dr. Valentine T. McGillycuddy, a surgeon who was treating the Sioux warrior’s wife, Black Shawl, for tuberculosis. The incident recounts Crazy Horse’s refusal to have his photograph taken: “Eventually, he [McGillycuddy] got to know Crazy Horse perhaps better than any other white man did. He thought Crazy Horse was ‘the greatest leader of his people in modern times.’ He asked several times to take his photograph, but Crazy Horse always refused.” He would say to the doctor, “‘My friend, why should you wish to shorten my life by taking from me my shadow?’”

Frazier also writes that D. F. Barry, a well-known photographer of Indian life, said he often tried to bribe Crazy Horse to sit for a photograph without success. I’ve always loved this story because it illustrates the quirky soulfulness I would encounter every time I was “on the rez.”

Buffalo Stew by Saxon Henry
Buffalo stew bubbles in a large caldron on the Cheyenne River Reservation. Image © Saxon Henry.

The Crazy Horse story came rushing back to me as I stood in the Norwalk Furniture showroom during High Point Market several weeks ago, admiring the vignette featuring a sprinkling of indigenous-inspired fabrics and a large portrait of an Indian chief in a Plains Tribal headdress. Norwalk’s president Caroline Hipple was walking me through the company’s new introductions, her comment that his visage struck her as soulful reflecting exactly what I was thinking in that moment.

Some of Norwalk’s new fabric introductions including indigenous prints
Some of Norwalk’s new fabric introductions for Spring 2016.

I enjoyed seeing Norwalk’s new releases and talking with Caroline, who shares a love of photography with me and calls herself a fabric nerd because she is so enamored with beautiful textiles! I enjoyed our conversation about what gives a business soul and how it is necessary for a company’s culture to have it from the top down in order for soulfulness to flourish. I walked away from my visit thinking about those times all those years ago when I read great authors like Frazier and dreamed of leaving a legacy by publishing books about my life experiences, a feat I accomplished last year when Stranded on the Road to Promise came out.

Stranded on the Road to Promise

The book is a memoir recounting my struggles with the realities I saw on the reservations and how to make sense of the sad state to which the Native Americans in our country have been reduced. I’m holding a giveaway of the book today, directions to enter spelled out at the end of this entry. To provide you with a taste of what you will find between its covers, I’m sharing this essay I carved from it titled “A Prayer for John Charging Whirlwind”:

The clouds clawed their way through a metallic sky as I pushed west from Sioux Falls, advancing deeper into the Great Plains. All too soon, I was back in Lower Brulé, attempting to navigate the abrupt transition from hope to disillusionment that never failed to surface in me as the grassy fields rolling toward the Missouri River slid noiselessly by.

An abandoned home on the Great Plains. Image © Saxon Henry.
An abandoned home on the Great Plains. Image © Saxon Henry.

Within minutes of my arrival, John Charging Whirlwind knocks on the door of the rectory and asks for something to eat. He is intoxicated and Barbara, the deacon assigned to the church, is uncertain whether letting him through the door is wise. Her empathetic heart overrides her cautionary mind and she acquiesces, offering him a sandwich and a cup of coffee, which he finishes quickly and quietly in the shadows on the stairwell.

The overgrown cemetery at Iron Nation by Saxon Henry
The overgrown cemetery at Iron Nation. Image © Saxon Henry.

Her concern that the two of us are alone with an inebriated man abates somewhat when he hands her his empty cup and asks her to pray for him. Gripping the chipped mug so firmly her knuckles blanch, she prays that he will be given peace and strength. When she ends her entreaty with a softly spoken, “Amen,” he sits silently for a moment with his head bowed. “I would like to pray now,” he finally responds.

Though he has consistently stumbled through the English words he’s spoken, he never once falters in his native tongue. His prayer in Lakota is rhythmically elegant and sure; his voice deep and husky, like the scrape of a hardwood plank being dragged across rough cement. His resonant words produce a halting music, and I feel as if I have been given a blessing like none I’ve ever received in a church.

The church at Iron Nation is one of many that have fallen silent on the Great Plains, the chief one of the great leaders of the Sioux
The church at Iron Nation is one of many that have fallen silent on the Great Plains. Image © Saxon Henry.

Once he falls silent, the pause lingers so long that Barbara and I exchange glances, worried about what to do with the man who is now slumped forward on the steps with his eyes closed. She clears her throat, causing him to start. He struggles from the spot on the stairs, thanks us for our kindness and makes his way toward the door, a little steadier than when he’d arrived. As he stoops to clear the doorframe and enter the harsh July sunlight, the ragged piece of faded red cloth binding the ebony braid bisecting his back burns into my memory. I wanted to call him back, to hear him pray again, but I was frozen—incapable of doing more than standing in an awed silence in the doorway as he limped along Crazy Horse Street, never once looking back to see our stunned expressions.

An owl perches on a fencepost on the Great Plains
An owl perches on a fencepost on the Great Plains. Image © Saxon Henry.

Book Giveaway Details

This giveaway is open to residents of the United States only. To enter, leave a comment on this post telling me whether the Native Americans of this country ever cross your mind. I’m asking because I am curious to know just how invisible they are in this instant when the “busy-ness” of our world leaves scant time for reflection. Everyone who writes a comment will be mailed a book. The deadline for making comments that qualify is Tuesday, May 3, 2016, at 8 a.m. ET. Once the deadline has passed, comments will still be enabled but none will be considered as an entry in the giveaway.

As a side note, if you want to be truly blown away by some of the most soulful and luscious photography I’ve ever seen, visit Caroline Hipple’s Instagram feed. I promise it is one click-through that will be worth the effort. And if you are compiling your summer reading list, I do recommend Frazier’s book as a strong contender. The Great Plains images I took that accompany this post were all snapped on the Lower Brulé Reservation.

Stranded on the Road to Promise Cover

The Modern Salonnière and this entry, The Soul of Great Leaders, © Saxon Henry, all rights reserved. Saxon is an author, poet and SEO strategist. Her books include Anywhere But Here, Stranded on the Road to Promise and Four Florida Moderns.

14 Replies to “The Soul of Great Leaders”

  1. My late husband, Mike Sajna, was an author who published 6 booksvefore his death from leukemia at 49. His last was a scholarly biography of Crazy Horse “Crazy Horse: The Life Behind the Legend.” When publisher Wiley & Sons showed us the handsome cover art, a photograph of a full war bonnet, Mike said “Crazy Horse always wore one single feather” and wanted to veto the cover art as misrepresenting Crazy Horse. The publisher argued that the cover art sold the book, so we gave in, grudgingly, although the cover is beautiful. I think about Mike and his deep respect of the Lakota culture every day. I have many friends among the eastern tribes here in Virginia due to my work with a museum.

  2. What a poignant story, Lisa. It must have been so difficult to lose your husband at such a young age. I’ll buy his book and put it on my summer reading list. It will feel wonderful to read now that I have a personal connection to it. The publishing industry can be so irksome at times and this is one of those examples. I, too, often think of the Native Americans I came to know; their views on life made a tremendous impact on me. I’ll send your book out. I’d appreciate it if you’d let me know (honestly) what you think after you’ve had a chance to read it. Will you do that for me?

  3. What a heartfelt post. I have been reading a history of Maine, Lobster Coast, to elders at a care facility near my home.
    We are immersed in the 17th century as the English tried to ‘settle’ this rugged land.
    My mind goes to Crazy Horse’s squaw, Black Shawl & the fact that her illness was caused by the white man.
    We ruined a place that I know was paradise.

  4. You are so right, Zina. I make this point in the book. The way Edith Eudora Kohl describes the Plains when she and other whites settled it (in her book “Land of the Burnt Thigh”) proves that point so poignantly. Thanks for taking the time to comment. I’ll bring a book for you when I come up in June. Give Iggy a smooch for me and tell him his girlfriend is coming to town! #SassyDachshund #LordBacon

  5. Over the years I have encountered a number of Native American & Native Canadians.

    Unfortunately, my general opinion is not that positive.

    While there are some who have taken advantage of their position to create Casinos which do benefit their tribe and local Communities, many others are not without a significant amount of theft and scandal.

    Visiting tribal lands in the West, and some of the most amazing places on earth – Havasupai for example, I have witnessed a general disrespect for the planet and animals.

    I believe that the problem is one of education where they are confined to a system which is not current or progressive in the least.

    While I sympathize I am troubled at best.

  6. I have met quite a few people who feel that way, Lance, but I do believe the situation has to be seen through the lens of history, including what was done “to them” by the government and western religions. That’s the point I make in my book. I would like to know if your opinion changes after reading it. I will email you for your address so I can send you a copy. Thanks for sharing your opinions and for taking the time to comment.

  7. Such poetry in your words. I was told, once, I have Lenape blood and so the plight of native peoples often crosses my mind. I know for certain I have Sámi blood and plan, one day, to live among them to understand what it means. Here in Florida, the Seminole and Miccosukee have done relatively well for themselves in modern times, thanks to their monopoly on gaming. But the blood shed in the past hangs heavy across the Florida landscape.

  8. I agree that the bloodshed hangs heavy in many locales in the US, Sandra. I recently moved back to Chattanooga, Tennessee, where I grew up from nearly two decades in New York City and it was surprising for me to notice that the Trail of Tears snakes along the downtown area two blocks from my condo. I had never noticed it in all the years I was growing up here so I think it’s a testament to how invisible they can be. Thanks for taking the time to comment. I will email you now for your address.

  9. Actually, I think of indigenous people more often than I thought. Our seaside community was founded on the soil first populated by the Chumash and named Carpinteria after their industrious workshop where they built beautiful, sea-worthy “tomols” a canoe-type long boat, that they journeyed to our channel islands with. My morning walk takes me through the rubble of their village camp fires, the broken shells, the darkened soil. There aren’t any true Chumash left, just blended descendants who live on the reservation near here and operate an enormous casino. I often wonder, what if the Spanish hadn’t brought their diseases and killed them all off? What would our little corner of the world be like.

  10. What a lovely description that took me on your walk with you, Kathleen! There are no traces of the indigenous people near me, either, and, unlike your beautiful slice of the coast, few signs that they ever existed. Thanks for sharing your experience. I’ll email you now to get your address so I can send a book out to you.

  11. Lovely piece! I do think often about the legacy of theft in the US: our founders stole people and land to make this country. We’re suffering from our own injustices even today.

  12. It’s so true, Renee. Thanks for taking the time to comment and for the compliment on my work. It’s what keeps me going! The giveaway ended at 8am but you are too close for me not to send you a book. I will email you for your address now.

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