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The Dakota/Lakota Don't Wait For Godot, Instead They Have Hawks

Poet Lois Red Elk Writes About Avian Messengers

Photo courtesy Mike Baird
Photo courtesy Mike Baird
A year ago, the high plains panoramically unfolding from Lois Red Elk's viewshed of Fort Peck were about to encounter a "flash drought" in which dry, warm conditions erased the moisture accumulation of winter.  So far in 2018 a very different kind of weather pattern has set in. 

"What a chilly Spring we've had, but It's all good," Red Elk writes in a note accompanying a pair of poems.  "Don't want to complain too much. All the birds that return to this part of the country have arrived, despite the snow and sleet."

In honor of the winged ones, Lois offers a brand new poem and an older one. "My childhood was filled with stories about all the wamakaska (beings of the earth) or animals," she notes.

 "My father or grandmothers would always 
begin their stories with a fun and light hearted message, then end with the moral of the story.  As I matured, the grandmothers would often retell a story to fit my needs, in an ever exciting and sometimes harsh life, and how I could learn to apply the lesson for today."

Red Elk says that the hawk in Dakota/Lakota culture pays visits carrying messages. "The messages tell us that we are going to be asked for help.  The hawk also is curious and wants to know what's going on."  Those who savor literature references will smile at Red Elk's recent work, When Hawks Cry, We Don't Look for Godot.  The second piece is titled The Eagle and Hawks Catch a Ride, taken from her acclaimed volume, Why I Return to Makoce (2015 Many Voices Press). 

Photo courtesy Tony Hisgett
Photo courtesy Tony Hisgett

When Hawks Cry, We Don’t Look for Godot

Driving down 3rdAvenue South I thought I saw four 
men standing under the trees near the bridge. I had to 
take a quick second look.  That’s when I briefly saw them -
four spirits.  Their silhouettes resembled someone I knew, 
or was related to, like an uncle or a cousin. Just passing 
through the underpass I decided to do a U-turn. Two of 
the men reminded me of someone from a long time ago 
who lost themselves in an untimely event, but they still 
claimed their right to be, to occupy a space with minimal 
energy.  Of course they had been seen there many times
before.  I had to make sure it was real.  You know, like 
when eyes betray or when a drifting mind does not 
synchronize with vision.  But, yes, there were four of them, 
but not spirits just the local street people, all looking off
in the distance.  I quickly searched the direction they were 
facing.  There was no one.  But yet it seemed like there 
was an energy heading their way, coming to satisfy a thirst 
that needed to be quenched sooner than later. The air was 
filled with drifting breath caught by the frost forming on 
their upturned collars and caps, a little bit of evidence of 
life spilling from their still forms.  I didn’t want to think 
any further about their day, their life, their future.  It was 
my urgent decision for my own day, so much work to do.  
But mine wasn’t enough.  I had to pray, had to send some 
words to our common spirits, had to remember the blood 
and birthright we shared.  Just as quick as I opened my 
mouth to utter a quiet word, I heard the whistle of a hawk.  
Why on such a cold day, why right in the middle of town.  
I circled the block to try and catch a glimpse of the red-tail 
in flight.  As I rounded the corner I saw others searching
the sky for the unusual site.  All of a sudden it came to me, 
the story my father shared.  When hawks cry someone will 
be asking us for help.  I decided to stop and pulled my car 
into the nearby parking lot.  Just as I opened my door, a 
cousin walked over and asked if I heard that hawk. I said I 
had and was going to park and look.  He said, so you thought 
we were all looking for Godot? I broke out in laughter at 
his intelligent wit.  He said, sometimes we are looking for 
Godot, but when hawks cry we know someone is asking for 
help.  I paused a long time searching his face then asked, so 
who is asking for help?  He said we are always in need of 
help.  Another car pulled up with coffee and rolls from the 
casino across the street.  It was a local minister who stopped 
and asked if he could pray with them.  One of the group shied 
away but the others agreed.  While they prayed I heard off in 
the distance one more cry from the hawk.  

                                                               ©Lois Red Elk
Photo courtesy Wikimedia user Totodu74
Photo courtesy Wikimedia user Totodu74

The Eagle and Hawks Catch a Ride

Grandma Lois was outside shaking out her car rug when a flock 
of birds flew over.  They looked down and said, I bet she’s going 
somewhere.  She always cleans her car when she’s getting ready 
to go shopping.  Grandma looked up and watched the birds head 
toward the river.  She thought she better hurry and get going.

She and grandpa got ready, loaded the car with water and a blanket 
to sit on. The sky was clearing.  It would be a good day to travel.  
Grandma called her sisters and told them she and grandpa would be 
on the road all day in case they were wondering. They went to the 
gas station first, then headed east, down the highway.
Just as they reached the top of the ridge they saw a large bird sitting 
on a telephone pole.  All of a sudden it took flight and landed right 
in the middle of the road in front of them. Grandma said, “Look at 
the size of that bird, it looks like a little child.”  Grandpa slowed 
down, then came to a full stop.  The bird, a large Eagle, just sat there 
then motioned grandpa to pull the car over.  By this time, Grandma 
Lois was getting upset, because this was the fourth time they were 
stopped by this Eagle.  The Eagle waddled to the side of the car and 
asked grandma if he could catch a ride to the next town.  Grandma 
said, “Why”?  Eagle put his head down in embarrassment and said, 
“I hear Jar-Mart has some real tasty salmon for sale.”  Grandma 
shook her head then agreed and let Eagle get in the car.  As they 
went on down the road, grandma was thinking how silly it was to 
have an Eagle sitting in the backseat.  What would people think?  

As they approached the next valley, they were surprised to see two 
hawks flying alongside the car.  “Oh no, what next!” said grandma.  
She didn’t want to look, but finally gave in and rolled down the 
window an inch.  One of the hawks said, “Stop the car!”  Grandma 
angrily rolled the window all the way down and asked, “Why?”  
“We need a ride to Jar-Mart, we hear they have some real thin strips 
of wood there.”  Grandpa started to laugh and said, “See, I told you, 
once you give them rides, they will keep wanting to go with you!”
So, there they went, grandpa and grandma, with Eagle and the two 
hawks sitting in the back seat of the car.  All the way over there, 
the birds kept whispering.  Finally, Grandma turned around and 
asked what they were whispering about.  The hawks said they were 
trying to figure out how they were going to get into the store without 
everyone causing a panic.  Finally, Eagle said he had a solution.

When they arrived at Jar-Mart, Grandma and Grandpa got out and 
went into the store.  They shopped for about half an hour when all 
of a sudden Grandma noticed a short person walk by with a blanket 
over their shoulders that looked just like hers. She thought that was 
strange.  After they finished shopping, Grandma and Grandpa took 
all their shopping bags to the car, but the birds were nowhere in sight.  
Just then she heard a squawking behind her, so she turned around 
and there were the birds, under her blanket. She pulled the blanket 
off and saw that one hawk was sitting on the other hawks shoulders 
and that hawk was sitting on the shoulders of Eagle.  All of them 
had their bags, and the bags were full of salmon and strips of wood.

Grandma looked at them for a moment, sighed, and said, “Get in the 
car!”  All the way home she wondered how they paid for all their 
stuff, but she was to weary to even ask them.

                                                                   ©Lois Red Elk
Lois Red Elk-Reed
About Lois Red Elk-Reed

Lois Red Elk-Reed is a poet who calls the high plains home. She is Mountain Journal's poet in residence.
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