Fire Keepers and our Lakota Elders

Wood Pile on Pine Ridge Indian Reservation

Wood Pile on Pine Ridge Indian Reservation

Guest Commentary

One night years ago I sat outside an Inipi (purification) ceremony. The fire keeper was a young man with not much patience. He was having trouble getting the match to stay lit as it was time to light the fire and heat the rocks. They asked if I could do it and so I moved forward and got the task done. Soon the inipi fire was blazing and the rocks were heating up. I overheard one of the fire keepers say: “He lit the fire with one match”.

I guess some have more trouble than others getting a fire lit, for me being an outdoorsman it was no problem. I remember the sky with many stars that night, some falling and I got to make many wishes. It was the first time I got into an inipi and ever since then I would light the fire at that elder’s sweat lodge. The job was appreciated and it was that appreciation that made me take the job serious. The job of being a fire keeper for the people for me has since drifted into different areas of responsibilities such as fire wood collecting to start a different kind of fire, a fire that warms our elders and children on a cold winter’s night.

This part of winter wood cutting has been tough. Last week we met someone who cares about our Lakota elders as much as we do. The LightShine Organization’s KC Willis called in and asked for help. She needed our wood program with One Spirit to assist them with getting two loads of wood delivered. It was right during that arctic vortex cold front that struck most of the nation. We actually were little low on wood due to one saw breaking down and the other saw with bar and sharpening problems.

Whatever the situation, we weren’t able to just load up and take the wood out to the elder right off. We would have to go out and actually cut it. In the beginning of winter we had a stock pile saved up but at this point we are a bit behind having to cut it as the calls come in. To actually accomplish this help to LightShine and the elder we would dip into our own pile at the ranch. KC called and reported they were totally out of wood and burning boxes and clothes. It would be a call that would get the emergency response crew up and running. We know how tough it can be without wood and we knew that we could always get more for us.

woodpileAfter gathering what wood we had and getting yet another call we were about ready to ask where this elder was located. Sounds a bit slow but under our circumstances we were moving as fast as we could. After we get a call, if we don’t have wood ready to load, it could give us a sleepless night. Sometime during one of these arctic cold spells, just like the propane truck we are moving after dark. The way we look at it, there could be a child in that house and it could be a tough situation and in some of these old beat uphome structures no heat could be a fatality. It was a situation we take seriously and our crews now look at a call as a mission. All said and done, wood in the truck traveling down these long country reservation roads, there are many thoughts that come to mind. It could get you right in the heart after you actually arrive. Most of the time you can see the families are really in need.

The community where the help was needed was Oglala and it would be about a 40 minute drive. I guess I never knew the elder that we were to deliver to and I had to stop at a few houses and ask if anyone knew the guy. It’s a small world and communities know who’s who. I got a tip right off and was pointed in the right direction. Sam Porcupine’s residence would be what we were looking for and it wasn’t long and we were pulling into his drive way. I was on this delivery trip with my youngest son Matt Brewer. We had a good father son talk and he has recently become a new daddy to his first son. We edged in for a look as two gentlemen sat guard duty outside and in front of where they were sitting were two wood post crutches. On those crutches they were sawing wood with a hand saw. I got out of the truck and walked over to them “Hau! We brought you some wood” I said, and you could see smiles come over their faces. They were actually taking a break from hand sawing some wood they collected in the nearby creek area.

“We are here to help you with some wood and were sent by LightShine and One Spirit” I told them. The one guy got up and said: “I’ll go get Sam, he’s in the house”. The guy quickly headed for the house before I could say it’s ok we’re going to unload it wherever you guys want it.

Soon here comes the Old guy Sam Porcupine moving real slow. It would be a touching encounter with an elder that has moved me and my son. A sight of true courage and determination and survival as we noticed he had no fingers on either hand, lost due to frostbite years before during harder times. Sam walked up to me. A frail old guy and he reached out and shook my hand with his stub. He barely had part of a thumb but he sure had the grip of a bull rider. It gave me that lump in my throat and I looked at Matt. He was looking the other way because he knew it was touching and he could tell it was a tough spot for me. Matt climbed in back of the truck and proceeded to unload the wood. I asked if I could take a photo with him and he joked that: “I’m already famous” then he gave us a Hollywood ready pose. We stood around and visited with the three of them for a bit.

There were some good country boys here you could tell, it was a true reservation outback homestead complete with an outhouse and some aluminum beer cans strewn about. Nothing to turn us away as we don’t discriminate and we help everyone we can. I thought it was a great location and I admired the humor of the guys sitting outside. We all had just come out of 20 degrees below zero arctic blast and they were out of fire wood and with the sun shining bright in their faces, they sat with smiles joking and laughing with us.

Lakotafire2We got the unloading done and we said our good byes and jumped back in the truck. It was a nice deed and a good feeling came over us both. Matt talked of wishing to go get our saw and coming back to help them with cutting up that wood they were trying to cut up with that hand saw when we arrived. As we drove down the highway back towards home we were together thinking of what we had just experienced and our thoughts were about old man Sam Porcupine. I know he would be warm tonight but we are a long ways off from this winter being over. After a while you begin thinking about those true Lakota out in the back country of this reservation. Far away from the Indian Health Service, far away from a tribal job, a far cry beyond the “Dances with Wolves” scenes you will find what some are calling that Third World Country. I wondered how he puts wood in the stove but I know just by observing him he can get the job done.

After we got back to the ranch I looked back at a neat day and looked through the photos I had taken. I saw a picture of old man Sam Porcupine and in today’s eye you can see a Lakota struggling to make it in the winter of a new world. In the eyes of the Common man or (Ikceka Wicasa) that can see beyond money and power, I saw a survivor of this new world and all its devastation to our people. I saw a warrior holding on to save our ways. His hands had been worn out trying to hold on to the traditions of the Lakota. An old man with no fingers was in a fight to keep the ways alive. He sees beyond a reservation and on the horizon a buffalo herd calling to him saying “Be strong Lakota warrior, we are proud of you!”

Editor’s Note: This column first appeared on the One Spirit website: 

Used with permission.

One Spirit is a 501(c)3 organization that assists American Indians on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Donations are needed for more wood during these cold wintry days and nights.


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