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Prayer and Smoke

Posted on September 22, 2010 at 11:20 PM

A hush fell over the carefully constructed circle of family members we created in the basement as the ceremony started. The Medicine Man sat in the middle. He filled the tiny wooden bowl with consecrated tobacco hand- picked by one of the daughters as is customary. All soft conversations hushed as he slowly stood raising the pipe to the East, to the South, West and finally to the North. Each time he sang a song with a powerful voice that belied his age and stature.


Then he faced the Elderly couple sitting side by side on comfortable chairs and sang another song of prayer. It was filled with such emotion in his voice that he choked back a few notes. My Dad lowered his head, he knew why the sudden show of emotion.

 He was dying

My Dad was dying of cancer, and this ceremony was to call home his ancestors, our ancestors to help him to pass on his most beloved possessions. His dancing regalia was to be passed on to his Grandsons,each and everyone of them had made him so proud that tears stood out in his eyes whenever they lined up to dance beside him during the summer months.


The long dark wooden pipe was his to pass on as well, given to him in his youth by an ancient Medicine Man in South Dakota long before his children were born. Now at 73, it was my Dad's turn to pass it on and keep the pipe's bowl glowing with tobacco and sending smoke with prayers upwards.


 The Medicine Man now lit the pipe and ceremoniously passed in a circle over my Dad's head and then to his lips. My Dad inhaled and lowered his head, allowing the pipe to pass to my Mother. As it touched my Mother's shoulders each in turn she whispered "Mitakuye Sin" meaning all my relatives. The smoke rose from my Dad's mouth and he held my mother's hand as the pipe made it's way around the circle, stopping at the males and touching the shoulders of all the females present.


The vision of my Dad sitting there unseeing with one hand on his rosary and the other holding my mother's hand tightly, was heartwrenching. He loved and worshipped both religions, both were God, and the Great Spirits ways of hearing. The smoke he blew from his mouth with his head lowered washed over the rosary in his hand then billowed upward taking both prayers to heaven in a cloud of grief and prayers of strength for what was to come.


 When the pipe made it's way back to my Dad, the circle was completed and it was time to begin the rituals that would call home our long gone ancestors for direction.

 Throughout it all the smoke rose from the four larger bowls that sat in front of the Medicine Man burning crushed and dried sweetgrass and being relit from time to time by the fire keeper who would come in from outside bringing hot coals from the fire he kept burning high into the night.


My eyes were drawn to the smoke and to the pipe that softly simmered and sent all my hopes and wishes for my Dads health upward I glanced around and all eyes were on the man in the middle seated cross legged on his robes surrounded by his holy items arranged so that he may complete the ceremony with grace and in the order they were needed.


Six months later, a similiar cermony was held in the middle of the floor of the hall where my Dad's body lay in waiting for his final journey . This time the people who sat in a circle around the Medicine Man were men of the community, friends, relatives, leaders and people who held my Dad in highest regard for his work with the youth of our community.  The women sat in chairs pushed against the walls and watched in silent grief, awe and respect .


The smoke in this cermony seemingly rose more quietly and slowly as it took with it our prayers, cries and goodbyes to the man who lay with his arms crossed on his chest holding an eagle feather and his beloved rosary.

Categories: Short Story, Elaine McArthur

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Reply Phil Neale
6:30 AM on September 23, 2010 
How beautifully this was written.

I felt a lump in my throat as I made my way through it.
Reply o
2:52 PM on September 23, 2010 
Wonderful images, as usual. You have a way of presenting your people so the reader can see them. I don't think I've ever read that a native American practiced both the old beliefs and an organized religion, like Catholicism. '...an eagle feather and his beloved rosary.' I found that remarkable, and touching. Great read.
Reply C.M. Marcum
7:03 PM on September 23, 2010 
Ah, a sentimental piece with a decidedly feminine touch. I sometimes wish I could write with such emotion, but it never comes out that way.

...ceremoniously passed (it) in a circle
...for my Dad(')s