In my branch of the Aske Tiospaye, we have a story that was passed down to us from the days before colonization. This relative is listed as having ultimately died in 1891 and this is the story as it was told to me by my parents.
Okte Sica (Hard to Kill) was a daring person in life, he would tease bison into coming after him and find ways to survive without getting trampled. He would hide in tree stumps, running up into trees or run the bison off the edge of a high hill.
When his time came, the family and the encampment were saddened to lose such a relative who faced fear and won. As is our tradition, they mourned him for four days and four nights while his spirit made the journey into the next world. We also burn the possessions of the dead so that they can make their journey without having any physical ties to this world. But as they began burning his otter skin braid coverings, he came back to life.
He told our relatives what he had seen. He walked and walked and walked for four days to the west until he saw a high ridgeline where the sun set. He began climbing the ridge and when he got to the top, as far as he could see, there were camps of people stretching on forever. Some lived in tipis, some lived in smaller dwellings and some lived in “boxes.” He was ready to join them when he heard otters screaming from behind him. When he realized it was his favorite pair of otter skin braid coverings, he woke up in this world.
He would go on to live for several more years before passing away, again, after passing his story of what he’d seen onto us.
What I think of when I remember this story is all the questions I had for my parents. How much longer did he live? How did he walk for four days without getting hungry? How could he tell it was four days? Did the sun ever rise? Were the “boxes” that he saw houses? How high was the ridge? How could he hear otter skins crying if they were already dead?
My parents, patient as they could be, smiled and spoke the truth, “I don’t know. This is the story that was told to us by Okte Sica. That is all we get to know.”
I think as a child, I craved the certainty of knowing what comes next, at every step in life. What will they think about me at school? What college will I get into? What will I study? Will I be a success? Will I be a failure? Will anyone care what I do? Why do I do this to myself? How can I stay true to my values? How do I provide for my family? Can I do this? It is human to have questions and to find comfort in answers, it shields our fragile psyches from the unpredictability of the world and the universe as a whole, if even for a moment.
Most times, we simply require an assurance and witness to our concern and fear, to know that we’re not alone in our uncertainty. It’s why Okte Sica reminds me that there are keen insights into the next stage of life but they are few and far between. And rather than interrogate them for veracity and quantifiable data points—because that’s simply another expression of the existential angst of not knowing—my challenge is to accept the gift of witness, to receive and believe what has been handed down to me without being impertinent, shaking the box and asking how much it cost.
The comfort I take from this story is also the concept that no matter how alone we think we are, someone has gone ahead to make a path for us whichever way we travel. Where I find inspiration and hope in the end of this life is what I do not know, in my own unknowing. What does happen when we climb down the other side of that ridge to join the camps of our relatives?
As an Aske of the Sicangu Lakota Oyate of the Oceti Sakowin, I think back to all the stories, histories and traditions of my people and I know we’re received by songs, cries and trills of celebration. It used to be said that when two friends or relatives were separated across time or distance, when they saw each other again, they would simply place their hands on each other’s hearts to express their joy at seeing one another again.
I think of an entire, infinite camp of relatives and ancestors who have been watching us and taking care of us and I think of how many hands will be extended to us when we see them again. How many trills will be given? How many whoops will be cried? How many songs will be sung? How many beats of the drum will guide our feet?
Like my parents, I do not know. But I suspect that it is enough to sustain a spirit in this world and the next. That hope is what is undying.