Part One of a Longer Black Hills Story
The rotund Gordy Hamilton began sweating the moment he shut off the engine and stepped out of his air-conditioned Honda CRV into the Badlands sun. In minutes rivulets of perspiration were flowing off his face, dampening his shirt.
He and Doris had just finished that painfully boring drive across the prairie from Sioux Falls to Wall Drug on their way to a vacation in the Black Hills. They initially found all those billboards amusing: “201 Miles Wall Drug” and “25 Minutes Wall Drug”and “Cowboy Up.” As they drew near the only thing on their minds was finding a restroom.
After a meal Gordy took out his camera for a few photos. They were standing on a small platform in front of the wax museum. He forced Doris to stand next to a rustic-looking doorway while he framed up a shot. Squinting, he made adjustments, then stepped back a half foot — a bad mistake because his heel had no support so that he lost his balance.
Though only a small drop, it’s a hard fall when a 340-pound mass keels backwards head first onto asphalt. By the time Doris reached him his eyes had rolled back into his skull, his white sausage-like arms quivering, a gutteral k-k-sk-ka-ska-k-k clucking from his throat. She screamed.
It took five men to lift him into the ambulance. At the hospital he was placed in intensive care, unresponsive and semi-comatose.
A Step Back In Time
In the spring semester of his freshman year in college Gordon Hamilton had taken a class titled Philosophy of Mind. The first essay students had been assigned dealt with the problem of identity. Imagine waking up one day to find that your brain was in the body of a woman in England and her brain was in your body. Which one would be you? What would your experience be?
Gordon had no idea that one day he would experience this problem in real life.
He didn’t know when or where he was, but when he opened his eyes he felt as if he had been in an elaborate dream. He had no recollection of his having fallen and cracked his skull. He did, however, remember his former life growing up in Chicago, then moving to Minneapolis and settling in Mankato. He suffered from a metabolism disorder so that his weight had been a burden much of his life, so it was an immediate shock when he lifted his hand to scratch his nose and saw that it was a scrawny, skinny thing that had no mass at all.
The room he found himself in made no sense. He seemed to be lying on his back inside some kind of cone-shaped tent. Perhaps this, too was a dream.
A flap opened and two native women entered, black hair braided and pulled away from their faces, speaking a language he could not understand. They approached and bent over him. When he himself attempted to speak, he found that no sound would come out. The women became excited and the older immediately left the tipi as the other bent over him and held his face in her hands.
He could hear a commotion outside the tent, then a man burst in. The woman released his face and Gordy sat up. The man, another native with swarthy skin and a small cut markings on his neck, placed his hand under Gordy’s chin and lifted his face, studying him with a keen, intense expression.
Gordy stared at the reflection of himself in the man’s black eyes, a perilous revelation coming over him. He was no longer a big, heavy white man but a Native youth, a scrawny little kid with eyes opened wide.
If he could understand what they were saying it would be a lot easier. They began calling him by a name, Coyote With Broken Mouth, but the words had no meaning to him.
The women told him to get up but he remained unresponsive. They motioned for him to come outside, and he figured out the gist of it, but beyond that he was at a total loss of how to communicate.
Gordy did not know that he was in the body of a boy who was born with defective vocal chords. This boy, whose body he now occupied, had been mute since birth ten years earlier. And now, his Native family believed something had happened to his hearing as well.
He had been unconscious for three days after a high fever and chills. He’d been unable to keep food down before going under, and seemed at the point of death. When he awoke there was much excitement, but even this was subdued by the awareness that something was wrong. The boy could not understand their words.
Nor did Gordy know that this couple, Standing Rock and Little Flower, had adopted him after his parents died, or that the second woman was Standing Rock’s sister Running Deer. He would learn this and many other things only later. The three of them ushered Gordy to Old White Owl, the medicine man, who listened to their account with a grave expression.
Gordy kept repeating to himself, “This is only a dream. I will wake up. This is only a dream.” But he didn’t wake and it was not a dream.
As days yielded to weeks he began to understand the nature of his predicament. His initial denial of what he was experiencing was followed by waves of anger and frustration, which seemed impossible to properly express. This experience fell outside all his preconceived notions of what a life should be. He did not know what year it was or where nor how to learn these things, and he became sullen at all the other unknowns.
In the moon of falling leaves he began to recognize all the preparations being made for the upcoming winter. The man in whose tipi he lived invited him to go on a buffalo hunt, but he did not feel comfortable on the horse and he made gestures to indicate his fear of falling off and hitting his head.
Standing Rock’s face brightened. He picked the boy up and plopped him on the back of a spotted palomino. Together they trotted in a circle around the encampment. Everywhere he looked he saw the smiling faces of other members of the tribe. There was much happiness that he had been restored to health.
Although Gordy didn’t know that his name had been Coyote With Broken Mouth, in time he recognized the sound of his name and would look whenever it was repeated. This caused much excitement, for it indicated that his hearing was still good despite his inability to comprehend what they were saying. An old man hobbled by a bad hip after a fall was assigned the task of giving Coyote With Broken Mouth a rudimentary introduction to the Lakota vocabulary.
Coyote With Broken Mouth also discovered something else. In the body he once lived in, his entire youth was spent avoiding sports and activities that revealed how clumsy he was. He was the slowest kid in the class in running games and teased for it. He learned early how cruel others can be. Now, however, he found himself quite fleet of foot. In fact, he imagined that he could even outrun the horses and enjoyed chasing ponies to see if he could catch them. As a result, Little Flower considered having his name changed to Runs With Horses.
Standing Rock disapproved, saying that it was too early to give the boy a new name. “In time we will know that name as he grows into it.
Over time Coyote With Broken Mouth did indeed learn the language of the Lakota, as well as the life of The People, as they referred to themselves. He thought much about the collision course that lay ahead between these people whom he was now a part of and the Europeans who had landed or would land on the Eastern Seaboard. He frequently wished he knew what year it was.
One day a band of Cheyennes rode into the camp. With great excitement they told of a band of white men who were mapping the West and seeking a path to the Great Ocean over the mountains. Coyote With Broken Mouth heard names mentioned, one of them named Clark.
How he wished he’d paid more attention in history class. He knew that the Lewis and Clark expedition took place after the Louisiana Purchase, so they must be in the early part of the 19th century. After the Cheyennes had spoken, the chiefs considered the meaning of these things. Coyote With Broken Mouth now wished to speak more than ever.
The boy grabbed a pointed stick and smoothed some dirt so he could make a drawing. He scratched a map of North America onto the ground and then waved his arms to get the elders’ attention. Several came over to see including Deep River and Red Eagle.
“What is this?” Deep River exclaimed.
Several others came and circled the map to watch as Coyote With Broken Mouth drew lines from East to West across the map. He then drew stick figures of people walking.
The elders drew back, then returned to the circle with the Cheyenne. One of them said something to Standing Rock and the youth could hear his step-father say, “We shall see.”
Two or three years passed and the boy continued to grow stronger, learning much from his new tribe. But he could not forget this visit from the Cheyenne. He wondered how to prepare his people for the future desecration of their way of life. If he could but alter the history he’d so inadequately learned in school… If only.
TO BE CONTINUED
Lewis and Clark expedition, 1804–1806 .
Coyote With Broken Mouth is 12 years old. Born in 1794.
When he turns 29 in 1823 he will meet Jedidiah Smith.
Abraham Lincoln will turn 14 that year.
Feedback welcome. Thanks for reading.