Mato Paha
Photo: davepalugyay

After attending a long and exciting conference in South Dakota on American Indian education, I was invited to join a group of people traveling north to Bear Butte. Called Mato Paha by the Lakota, it is revered by many tribes in the region as a sacred place for prayer and fasting. The Cheyenne refer to it as “the heart of everything that is.”

Time for prayer in the quiet solitude of a sacred place sounded mighty tempting.

Like so many working mothers, quiet time is tough to come by in my life. My big girl, Rosa, is 10, a gifted, funny autistic with many obsessions and quirks. My son Danny, 4, is an exuberant, scrappy guy who struggles mightily with impulse control. Proving to be as self-absorbed as their mother, my children both want my full attention at all times. Consequently, I felt like I really needed to get some alone time with the Creator, and here was my chance.

Our little caravan arrived at Mato Paha in the late afternoon. Members of the group quickly dispersed to begin their climbs. With surprise I noted an older Lakota gentleman spryly hiking up a trail. Clearly focused on his destination, he disappeared quickly.

Finding myself alone, I began my ascent. Soon, I was reminded of the often-delayed promises to myself to get back into a regular exercise program. I puffed along, cursing the extra pounds of Ojibwe woman that remained stubbornly aboard for the ride.

Unable to concentrate on anything other than the pain and effort of the climb, I was a little startled by a young Lakota woman and her two children who seemed to appear out of nowhere.

Like most Indian women who meet on the road, we joined forces easily. Her young son found me a sturdy walking stick and her little girl, chattering non-stop, took my hand. As we walked and visited, the little girl dawdled and picked up rocks and sticks, forming baby dolls and stubbornly engaging me in all sorts of make believe. I found myself getting a little annoyed with them. Her antics prevented me from focusing inward, from getting my reward, my great big spiritual message from Mato Paha that was meant just for me.

Now at the top, we realized that there wasn’t much daylight left. If we didn’t want to make the steep descent in the dark, we couldn’t linger at the panoramic view. I felt disappointed as we started back down. By this time, the little girl was calling me “Auntie.” Indian kids typically refer to adults within their extended family sphere as relatives. I was pleasantly touched that she now considered me part of her circle.

As we continued, I noted something familiar about the young mother. Although she was not thin in a fashionable sense, she exuded strength and health. Gradually, I realized she reminded me a little of myself as a young woman.

I marveled at her ability to continue talking as she scrambled downhill over rocks. Her breathless dialogue never stopped during the entire journey down the mountain. She spoke of the challenges of being a single mom, the lack of support from the children’s father, the bad influences from her community that conspired to deter her from her life’s mission. Her mission, I soon learned, was a determination to instill her children with healthy physical and spiritual habits by personal example.

From the top of Mato Paha, or Bear Butte.

It was dark when we reached the bottom of the mountain. As is our way, we thanked Mato Paha with a gift of tobacco. After brief goodbyes, we headed off in our separate directions.

Sweating and spent from the climb, I felt a bit cheated as I drove back to my hotel in Rapid City. Wistfully, I wondered, what would have happened if I had been allowed some personal time at Mato Paha. Disappointed but exhausted, I slept soundly that night.

For me, the moments after waking are filled with power. My self-driven mind has not yet formed the daily agenda and I am more open to life and what it has to tell me. During that still, South Dakota morning, my mind came to rest on my Indian name, Babaaqwaniqwat, Clearing Sky. It occurred to me that it was a name that spoke of change and of action.

It was then that the message of Mato Paha dawned on me. It wasn’t a message meant to comfort and be received passively. It was a powerful message, a directive for life and self care if I were humble enough to heed it. “Duh, ” I thought. (or as my daughter would say, “Double duh, mom.”) It was there the whole time!

The longer I am on this earth, I see that prayers are not always answered on my terms or in accordance with my agenda. I am learning that a healthy physical and spiritual life must be led in community with others rather than in the safety of isolation; it demands a leap of faith and acceptance that I am not alone in this journey and above all that I am not in control. Being present in my family’s lives and mine is risky work for me since it is so deeply imbedded in trust, trust that we are where we need to be. Making time to care for myself means that I’m a genuine participant in life’s journey.

Unfortunately, we are not rewarded in American culture for choosing to walk this path. We are rewarded for participating in the constant, mad search for “more.” And that feeds the illusion that we may somehow outrun life’s vicissitudes if only we go fast enough and accumulate enough.

To have courage to walk a path of physical and spiritual health is one of the greatest gifts I can give my children. It is the gift “that is the heart of everything that is.”

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