I watched my father from a distance as he sat beneath a tree beside the creek where the wild rice grew. It was early morning and the first rays of the new day were glistening on the waters as they ran over the river rocks in the middle of the silver stream. I had followed him after he had cried his morning prayer to Father Sun. I loved hearing him sing his song to Wakan Tanka.. the Great Spirit… his voice strong and clear as it echoed from the bluff on the opposite side of the stream.
The Lodges of the People were set out on the western banks of the stream, where the sparse woods gave way to the endless plains. Our tipi, like most of them, was simple and unpainted, however a few were decorated with designs depicting animals or pictographs of past battles, great hunts and stories as old as the people,
The smoke from the cooking fires was rising in the crisp air, the People were stirring and a dog barked in the distance, no doubt spying an early-rising rabbit as it came out to feast on the dew festooned grasses.
Father had said that he was making something special, something wakan.. something sacred for me, and I must not see it until it was finished. I needed to keep my distance, and not allow father to see me. Maybe I could get close enough to see what it was that he was working on.
Father had never been so secretive with me before and so, of course, my curiosity was therefore doubly heightened. I had already seen my tenth winter, and soon I would be a man. Maybe even this season I would be able to go on the Wanasa.. the Hunt with the men. Could it be an itazipa.. a real bow?
Soon tatanka.. the buffalo would come, for the spring rains had passed and the grasses had grown. Wanbli Ska.. White Eagle, the chief of our small clan had moved the village to beside the stream in preparation of the Hunt, and my uncle, Mato Ptecela.. Short Bear, the hunt chief, had been having long conversations with the men in the Council Lodge. Maybe it’s a wapaha.. a lance? Maybe I will be going on the hunt.
“Cetan Cika.. Little Hawk I can see you there.” Father didn’t even look in my direction as I tried to crawl towards him unseen in the long grass.
“Hau,” I called. “Até.. Father, I was just—“
“I know what you were doing. I told you to be patient. I told you, you will see it when it’s ready. Not before. My son, a warrior and a hunter both need to learn patience. The time is not yet right, but very soon.” He turned and smiled. “If you go fetch a coal from a fire, it will be ready by the time you return.”
I ran faster than any devil-wind back to our tipi, stopping only briefly to gather up a stick and a cast-away elk hip bone. With my tools I managed to knock a coal from the cooking fire and ease it onto the flat piece of huhu, all the while ignoring my little sister’s persistent questioning. I didn’t have time to answer her silly questions about what I was doing. Couldn’t she see I was getting a coal for my father and I had to get back to the creek bank? My gift was waiting!
I stopped short of the tree under which my father was sitting and waited. I wasn’t going to upset him now!
“Leci u wo.. Come here,” he called and I hurried to him, being careful not to drop the coal. As I sat in front of him I watched entranced as he lifted a hide covering and revealed a mila.. a knife. The most beautiful knife I’d ever seen.
It had a simple bone blade attached to an ash handle that was wound with soft deerskin for grip, with a small hawk wing-tip feather attached by a thong about the bolster. It was beautiful. Lying next to it was a deerhide sheath with a soft hide fringe and seven rows of porcupine quill beading. The perfect sheath for the perfect knife.
My father opened a pouch and took out some sweetgrass which he laid on a flat stone, and taking the coal he lit the sweetgrass. He stood and held out the stone with the smoking sweetgrass towards the sky and with a loud prayer he called for blessings and offered the sweetgrass to the seven directions – the north, south, east, west, above, below and all around. He gestured for me to stand and with an eagle feather he first smudged himself, waving the smoke about him from his feet to head. Then he cleansed me in the same manner before stooping and smudging the knife and sheath.
As he sat down again, he spoke softly to me.
“Little Hawk, soon you will be a man. As you journey towards becoming a warrior, use this, your first knife, wisely. Never unsheathe it in anger against one of the Oyate.. The People. It is a simple knife as befits your current status as a boy on the verge of Manhood. As you grow I will show you how to make another for yourself, maybe from flint or obsidian with an elk antler handle.”
“This knife carries with it my energy,” my father continued. “For He-Who-Created-All-Things created it through my hands, but, as it comes into your possession, soon you will imbue it with your own sicun.. power. Now here take your knife.”
I gently lifted the knife from his outreached palm and turned it about in my hands marveling at the simple beauty. It was now my most precious possession. My first knife! My own knife! Made by my father just for me! It was so hard to contain my joy, and I struggled to say pilamaya to thank my father stoically as I had been taught.
“Now some news for you.” Father said. “The scouts have seen the buffalo approach and tomorrow we will ride out for the first day of the hunt. I have spoken with Short Bear and tomorrow you will join us on the hunt. You will come and hold the horses as the men stalk the buffalo.”
Oh, how I had waited to hear those words. Going with the men on the hunt! But the excitement of having my own true knife outweighed even that long awaited news. My feelings on receiving this gift of the knife, this beautiful thing in my hands, was a greater emotion than I had ever experienced. I silently vowed that, at Wiwanyang Wacipi…the Sun Dance when the summer was full, I would make a skin offering for my father in thanksgiving for his wonderful gift.
I had to tell someone about my great gift and excusing myself I ran to find Tahca Luta.. Red Deer.
Red Deer was my best friend. We were the same age and had grown up together, shared our first oinikaga-tipi.. Sweat Lodge.. together, listened to the Grandfathers’ stories together, chased rabbits and practiced with our “toy” bows and arrows, and swore that we would the bravest warriors, and greatest hunters together.
I found Red Deer on the far side of the village carrying firewood for his mother and called to him. “Red Deer! Red Deer! I have great news!”
He dropped his firewood bundle and ran towards me. “What is it? What is it?”
I slowly withdrew the knife from its sheath and held it towards him.
“My father made it for me. Isn’t it beautiful?”
“Can I hold it?”
“Nanpe nisapela.. your hands are dirty. But look, isn’t it wonderful? Look how the bone has been shaped and sharpened. Look at the handle, such beautiful hide. And the feather! A hawk’s feather! For me! I just can’t believe it! It’s just perfect.”
“It is. It is. You’re so lucky, Little Hawk. I -- I wonder if my father will make a knife for me.”
I looked at his downcast eyes, and reassured him that it must be soon that he would get his first knife, too. As he smiled, I remembered the other news.
“Oh, and the by the way, I’m going on the Hunt tomorrow.”
“What? On the Hunt! Oh, I wish I could come too.”
“I’ll ask my father to ask yours.”
My father did speak with Red Deer’s father and they both spoke with my uncle, the hunt chief, and so, as the mist was still rising the next morning Red Deer and I rode out with the men for the Hunt.
As is the way, as the buffalo grazed some of the men would cover themselves with buffalo robes and approach the animals, waiting for the best time for the kill. The other men would surround the herd and creep up as close as possible. When given a signal by the ones in the skins who had infiltrated the herd, each hunter would choose an animal and throw or lunge with their lance for the kill. They had to be quick and accurate or the buffalo would stampede.
The women would come out with the children to skin and cut the meat, then load it onto their travois to carry it back to the village. As the buffalo moved across the grasses, the village would be moved ahead of the herd, so that the ride out for the hunt wasn’t too far.
We came upon the buffalo at a narrowing of the grassland between some low hills. We rode into a small clearing between a copse of cottonwoods and a rocky outcrop. As the men dismounted father passed me the braided reins of his horse saying “Sungomiciyuspayoy.. Hold my sunkawakan for me.”
I took hold of the horse, and other men also passed their horses to me and to Red Deer.
“Now tether the horses to those branches and wait for us,” my father said as he turned to go. “Hoka hey.. pay attention. Watch the horses.”
Having tended to the horses, I took my knife from its sheath to have yet another of the thousands of close inspections. As the men crept towards the herd, Red Deer and I spoke of the many great hunts we would go on, of the brave battles we would fight with our enemies, and day-dreamed of the day we would become men.
I was daydreaming and looking intently at my knife when the sudden sharp whinnying of the horses broke my musings.
“Mato! Bear!” cried Red Deer.
I looked up to see a huge bear approaching from around the corner of the rocky outcrop. We boys stood transfixed between the bear and the horses.
Red Deer clambered up onto a boulder, and without thinking I rushed towards the bear with my knife raised. The bear rose on its hind legs and I managed to duck as its enormous arm swiped at me, the sharp, dangerous claws just missing me. As it dropped back down onto all fours, Red Deer began yelling and throwing skull-sized rocks at the animal. I stood and lunged at the bear plunging my knife deep into its shoulder… and ran to Red Deer’s boulder.
I managed to climb up just ahead the bear, which although it tried to follow couldn’t get a purchase on the slippery sides as we both continued to throw rocks at him. We were yelling loudly at the bear, the horses were still whinnying and soon we heard the sound of the men returning. They were yelling and screaming “Aiyee!!”
By now though, the bear had had enough of the battering from our rocks, our yelling and the noise of the men scared him off and he trotted out of sight around the corner of the outcrop.
“Boys. Are you alright?” my father called as the men approached.
We climbed down from the boulder and I sat down in the dirt at the feet of my father, still shaking from the encounter.
I could feel the tears about well up in my eyes as I looked up at him and said, “Father. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I’ve lost your knife”.
My father sat beside me and said, “That was a very brave thing you did my son. And you too, Red Deer. You protected the horses like men.”
“But… but the knife is gone. It’s in the back fat of the bear.”
“Little Hawk it’s just a knife. I will make another. There will be many knives for you in the future. Maybe one day as a brave warrior a special knife may be worn around your neck as symbol of your high status among the People. Maybe you’ll have a great knife that you will use in the Hunt, another in battle. Other knives to skin your kill, or to cut the hide as you make something for your son.
“Little Hawk, knives are created by the Great Spirit through the hands of Man as a tool. Yes, they can be imbued with your power. They can be sacred. Some may be used in ceremony, or used simply to eat with.. You know how we say ‘Come slice nose with me’ when we invite someone to eat with us, holding the haunch of deer with one hand, taking a bite and cutting the meat free from the bone with the other.”
He chuckled., “Many a time I have nearly actually sliced my nose.”
I tried to smile, but I just couldn’t, I was too intent on holding back my tears.
“Little Hawk, there are many uses for a knife. Why, knives are even used to create peace. You know that when a peace pact is made with an enemy each warrior must seal the vow by drawing the blade between the lips and touching it with the tongue. If the tongue of each warrior doesn’t touch the knife the pact is not valid.
“So there are many uses for a knife, some noble, some mundane. Some knives have power and are sacred, and some are just knives.”
“But that was my knife.” I said. “The knife you made just for me. Now it’s gone.”
And then unlike the brave warrior I hoped I would one day be, I let the tears flow, and cried and cried like the ten-year boy I was.
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