Forty years ago, while paging through a book sent as an unexpected gift from a friend, Roger Welsch came across a curious reference to stones that were round, “like the sun and moon.” According to Tatonka-ohitka, Brave Buffalo (Sioux), these stones were sacred. “I make my request of the stones and they are my intercessors,” Brave Buffalo explained. Moments later, another friend appeared at Welsch’s door bearing yet another unusual gift: a perfectly round white stone found on top of a mesa in Colorado. So began Welsch’s lesson from stones, gifts that always presented themselves unexpectedly: during a walk, set aside in an antique store, and in the mail from complete strangers.
The Reluctant Pilgrim shares a skeptic’s spiritual journey from his Lutheran upbringing to the Native sensibilities of his adoptive families in both the Omaha and Pawnee tribes. Beginning with those round stones, increasing encounters during his life prompted Welsch to confront a new way of learning and teaching as he was drawn inexorably into another world. Confronting mainstream contemporary culture’s tendency to dismiss the magical, mystical, and unexplained, Welsch shares his personal experiences and celebrates the fact that even in our scientific world, “Something Is Going On,” just beyond our ken.
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The Reluctant Pilgrim
A Skeptic's Journey into Native Mysteries
By Roger Welsch
UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESSCopyright © 2015 Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska
All rights reserved.
A Lesson from Stones
Sunday mornings have always been a lazy time around my home, a time to read, to drink some coffee, to watch news interview shows. That was as true forty years ago as it is today. And the first story I'm about to tell you happened that long ago. I was a lot younger then, but nonetheless I felt pretty weary one Sunday because I had spent the good part of the previous day helping my friend John pack up his household for a move out of state. I was happy to help him even though I was not happy to see him go. He was ... probably still is ... a really good guy. I haven't seen him since that weekend. No particular reason why. The opportunity to get together with him again simply hasn't come up.
Even though we had finished loading his household goods into a moving van and had said our good-byes already, it turned out that I hadn't seen the last of him that weekend. Still in my pajamas, I was lounging around my home the next morning, thumbing through a book that I had received in the mail as a gift from another friend the day before ... T. C. McLuhan's Touch the Earth: A Self-Portrait of Indian Existence. My friend sent it to me with a note saying that for some reason, after she had read the book, she had the strange feeling that I should see it too. I had been deeply interested in Native American issues for twenty years up to that point, had been adopted by a nearby Native American tribe as a family member and friend, and had even published some essays about Native American culture. The arrival of the book, though, was a curiosity because this friend had no real reason to send me any book, let alone this book—a collection of statements from Indian speakers. But there it was. It seemed interesting enough, and that morning seemed a good time to begin reading it, if for no other reason than so that I could acknowledge the gift.
I had read only a dozen pages before I was brought to a dead stop, chilled by what I was reading. In her introduction to a short text from the Sioux Tatonkaohitka (Brave Buffalo), McLuhan described Frances Densmore's discussion of the Sioux term for "God," or Wakan Tonka. It's not a particularly dramatic passage in either McLuhan's text or Brave Buffalo's speech, but for some reason it hit me and hit me hard. Simply put, the Lakota phrase is composed of two adjectives—wakan meaning "mysterious" and tonka meaning "great." Great Mysterious. No nouns. Just adjectives.
Of course. That was it. This simple, declarative definition hit me as an epiphany. God is not a noun; God is adjectives. We white folks in the mainstream have it wrong, and we've had it wrong for centuries, perhaps millennia. How much clearer it all is when you understand that simple and small truth: God is adjectives, not nouns!
Still sitting in my chair with the book in my hands, reeling from that utterly unexpected revelation ... not at all what I had been looking for on that quiet, warm Sunday morning, after all! ... but with a lingering confusion from this explosion in my head, I read on through McLuhan's few lines of introduction and into Brave Buffalo's text itself as taken from Densmore's Teton Sioux Music (Bulletin 61, Bureau of American Ethnology, 1918). Maybe I was flailing around for a twig to grab in this emotional, intellectual, spiritual maelstrom in which I suddenly found myself struggling for breath. (Adjectives! ... Not nouns!) But this was not going to be a day of emotional tranquility for me.
For the moment, however, there was some peace in my confusion. What Brave Buffalo said, after all, seemed to have nothing to do with me. It was, if anything, utterly inconsequential. I read,
It is significant that certain stones are not found buried in the earth, but are on the top of high buttes. They are round, like the sun and moon, and we know that all things which are round are related to each other, and these stones have lain there a long time, looking at the sun.... The Thunderbird is said to be related to these stones.... In all my life I have been faithful to the sacred stones. I have lived according to their requirements, and they have helped me in all my troubles. I have tried to qualify myself as well as possible to handle these sacred stones, yet I know I am not worthy to speak to Wakan Tonka. I make my request of the stones and they are my intercessors. (17)
I paused in my reading. It's a striking passage. What does Brave Buffalo mean by his words "I have lived according to their requirements"? What requirements would round rocks demand? And how would round rocks help someone like Brave Buffalo? "I have tried to qualify myself ... to handle these sacred stones"? How does one "qualify" oneself? And how do you decide which round stone is sacred and which is just another round stone?
Well, you know those crazy Indians! They have strange ways. Strange ideas. Strange beliefs. I knew something of that. I had spent many, many days among the Native people in the city where I lived at that time and on the Omaha reservation a couple hours north of the city. I had participated in Native American religious ceremonies. I had been adopted as a brother by a dear tribal friend who served as the tribe's chairman, Alfred "Buddy" Gilpin Jr., a few years earlier and already had hints of things I didn't understand but that my Native friends did. Big things. Lots of things. This meaningful association with the round stones seemed to be one of those things. Perhaps I would ask my Lakota and Omaha friends. Maybe they could tell me something about this thing with round stones. Maybe I would do more reading about it. Maybe I would come to understand more about it later on. Maybe. As an academic and scholar, my natural bent was to investigate. As I would soon learn, however, there are other ways of learning and teaching than the ones I had come to know and expect.
I was sitting that day with the McCluhan book on my lap, open to that page, thinking about Brave Buffalo's words, when the doorbell rang. I closed the book, got up, and walked to the door. To my surprise ... even a bit of confusion ... there was my friend John. I thought he had left a couple hours earlier for his new home in Illinois, I think it was. It's been a long time, and I don't recall that detail now. That, after all, was the least important part of the avalanche that was about to sweep over me and had already started rushing by me even before I could realize what was happening. I sputtered my surprise to John: "I thought you were long gone! Is there a problem, John? What's up?"
"Well, Rog," he said, "I'm not sure what's up. To tell you the truth, I'm not even sure why I'm here." I could see by his expression that he was as confused at that moment as I was. It wasn't some kind of rhetorical device; he really did not know why he was there. "You're going to think this is really stupid, but I have something for you. We were just pulling out of the garage with the car all loaded up a couple minutes ago when I spotted something."
He held out to me a perfectly round white stone, about ten inches across. "My aunt found this on top of a mesa in Colorado thirty or forty years ago and gave it to me. She says it was a grindstone the Indians used for milling grain and seeds. I put it out in the garage and have used it to hold open the door the last couple years. For some reason, as we were pulling out of the garage, I noticed the stone, and the instant I saw it I had this overwhelming feeling that I should bring it right over to you before we left town. As silly as it sounds, I got the feeling I didn't really have any choice in the matter. So ... well ... here's a round rock."
He handed me the round stone ... one that had lain for years on top of a mesa looking at the sun. I wish I could see now what my face must have looked like. I was so stunned, I was disoriented. John excused himself and rushed out to the moving van, where his wife was impatiently waiting to get on the road for their long drive. That was okay. I wouldn't have known what to say to him, because to this day I don't know what to say. John couldn't possibly have known about the McCluhan book or that I was reading it at that very moment or what Brave Buffalo had said so long ago about round stones.
John is a researcher and teacher in the sciences. How could I ever explain to him something so utterly unscientific as the coincidence that had just sucker punched me? I went back to my chair, McLuhan's book, and my confusion. I have no idea what I did the rest of that day. Nothing, I suspect. I know I read Brave Buffalo's text several more times and looked at that round stone, expecting some sort of answer. What had just happened to me was not simply unlikely or stunning ... it was impossible. What are the odds of such a coincidence? There are no odds. The coincidence of a friend reading this book, thinking of me, and sending it to me just in time to be read on that morning and of my friend John having his own peculiar intuition while I was reading Brave Buffalo's passage at the very moment he brought me, of all things, a round stone from a mesa top ... the string of coincidences around the McCluhan book, the Brave Buffalo text, and this rock is not just impossible ... it's absurdly impossible. No logical explanation could possibly account for it.
As I came later to understand, that was precisely the meaning and message of this gift of a round stone. No explanation is possible. There is no explanation. That is the lesson: there is no explanation. Not even the stone could give me an answer because the questions of its sudden appearance were the answer. Its insertion into my life in the most impossible of all circumstances is precisely the point, insofar as there is a point that I (or anyone else) can understand. The lesson is the mystery. My confusion is the clarity. The possibility of the impossible was the conclusion. The only thing that can be said of this is ... Something's Going On. Something beyond our understanding. Something beyond our control. Something, well, mystic.
At least that's what I thought. I suppose the first and most human reaction to such a stunning experience is to share it with others, to share the wonder, to ask if they think it's as insanely unlikely as I found it to be. Meanwhile, there is also the enormous danger of being judged utterly loony when telling such stories. This is the kind of evidence involuntary sanity hearings and commitments to an asylum are made of! I don't recall if I told even my children or wife what had just happened, at least not that same day. It didn't take mere potential embarrassment to silence me; I was having enough trouble sorting out this whole thing in my mind without trying to report this curious set of events to someone else.
As I have since learned, however, while experiences like this one are ambiguous in the telling and maybe even in the initial experiencing, they do not long remain ambiguous for the person who receives the gift. Okay, yes ... as preposterous as it might seem, perhaps it was just an enormously unlikely coincidence—if that is what you prefer to believe. Unthinkably unlikely ... but, okay, just a coincidence. I mean, what else could it be but coincidence? You can't imagine, and yet deep in your psyche you know that as impossible as the reality is, the notion that it is mere coincidence borders on sheer lunacy. The concept of "coincidence," after all, stretches only so far. If there was an element of madness in the issue, however, it was not in the utter impossibility of the events or in seeing them as some sort of pattern but rather in denying the obvious rationality of them. As it turns out, Wakan Tonka was not done with me and this whole matter of round stones.
About the same time in my life as when my friend John brought me the gift of the round stone, I had purchased a piece of land on a quiet river about a hundred miles away from my former city home in Lincoln, Nebraska. I had stumbled on the beautiful piece of ground and have since come to love it with all my heart. I hadn't owned it a whole year yet when I walked to the top of a bluff overlooking my river bottom ground, the future site of my home, where I would write this chapter. As I stood there, I noticed something on the ground at my feet. Just as when I had found John standing at my front door with the round, white stone in his hands, I again felt my knees buckle. There at my feet was ... a round stone ... this time a reddish stone, perfectly round, about four inches across and two inches thick, lying on the ground, looking at the sun, just as Brave Buffalo had said. I later learned from an archaeologist friend that the fist-sized stone is a dimpled mano, or a hand grindstone. It was a gift to me from people whose names I could never know and used by people of a tribe many centuries removed from this entire region, probably pre-Pawnee, from a time eight hundred years ago, ... and of a tribe whose descendants I would come to know personally, even intimately at a later time.
Okay, one round stone could be a coincidence ... perhaps. But two? Weeks later I was in an antique store I frequented when the proprietor approached me and said, "I know this is silly, Roger, but I picked this up in a box of miscellaneous junk I bid on at an auction last week, and for some reason I thought I should pass it along to you. No charge. It's not worth anything. A dumb idea, I guess." Of course. A black, round rock ... obviously (to me, at least) another grindstone. Please know this and believe me, I wasn't advertising that I was in the market for round stones! Not only had I not mentioned this curious attraction I seemed to have for round rocks to the people who were handing them to me, but also I hadn't told this nutty sequence of coincidences to anyone. If even close friends who know me and my ferocious skepticism about such things had been told all this, they would have laughed me out of town. Tell this story to total strangers then? No way was I about to pass along my confusion and growing suspicions to anyone about what seemed to be going on around me. Suspicions? About what? Increasingly I felt I knew "what." Increasingly the only conclusion possible was also becoming completely unavoidable: Something Was Going On.
Again not long after these events, I was in Wyoming on a research project, interviewing a taxidermist near Casper. It had nothing to do with Indians or rocks or anything of the sort, when out of the blue the man I was talking with reached under his workbench and said, "Here ... I think this is something you should have." A perfectly round, pure white, Native grindstone, about two inches thick and ten inches across. By this time I was not so much amazed as I was amused. Another round stone. Not exactly a subtle message, huh?
It didn't stop. It seemed as if all at once everyone had a round stone for me. In the mail I received a small box from someone I'd never heard of before and haven't met since. It was a small, perfectly round black stone. She'd found it in a riverbed in the eastern part of our state and knew my name from somewhere or another and thought she'd send it to me. No reason. She just thought she'd send it to me, and so she did. I had never seen a rock quite like it, and I am an inveterate rock picker-upper. It is about an inch and a half in diameter, black, smooth, and as round as a marble.
When was the last time you sent someone a round rock? Someone you had never met. With no particular motivation. Why would anyone do that? I am seventy-eight years old now, and I don't believe I have ever given anyone a round stone for no particular reason. A remarkable coincidence, wouldn't you say? But that's not the way such things work in the world of the Great Mysterious, as the Lakotas call God. Points are not made subtly. They are hammer fisted home as if to make the message clear beyond mistake ... even if the message itself is indecipherable.
My Lakota brother Charles Trimble decided about forty years after I had received this gift of the round black "marble" to entrust me with his vision bundle, the package that had been assembled for him in preparation and interpretation of his own vision quest many years before. He encouraged me to open it, refresh it, and contemplate it. He noted it was missing an eagle talon he had long ago passed to someone else, but there was a pipestone pipe and stem, a sage bundle, a few other objects meaningful only to him, and ... a small, perfectly round, smooth, black rock, a bit smaller than the first black one I had been given but still uncannily the same. Gulp. I had not told Charles about the earlier gift of the round black rock; he had no reason to know of its existence. Even if he had, he wouldn't have had a way to obtain and pass along a rock like it since, as I said, I had never seen another like it. (For those of you who might be venturing guesses, it is not an Apache tear, Moqui marble—not even close!—or any other geological specimen I have ever heard of or seen.)
How does one explain something like this? What I had assumed was a single astonishing and unique item, a perfectly round, small black rock, suddenly had a double. Now I was really at sea. But not done, apparently. Only three years later a man approached me at a social gathering and said he had something he thought I would be interested in, something he felt he wanted to pass along to me before he was too old to get it done. You guessed it: a third, even smaller, perfectly round, black, smooth rock like a marble. Of course I was amazed, but now I was no longer taken totally aback. I took it as a message. But from whom or from what? And what is the message? And what is its meaning? And are the signals now at an end? (I very much doubt it but am obviously in no position to know.)
Excerpted from The Reluctant Pilgrim by Roger Welsch. Copyright © 2015 Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
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Table of Contents
1. A Lesson from Stones,
2. Lessons from People Who Know,
3. A Lesson from Elders,
4. Early Lessons,
5. Definitions and Distinctions,
6. The Lesson of the Skulls,
7. Resistance to the Irresistible,
8. The Lesson of the Dolmen,
9. A Lesson from the Pipe,
10. The Lesson of the Feather,
11. The Dubious Eye of Coyote,
12. A Lesson from Poop,
13. The Pilgrim,
14. Establishing a Cosmic Buffer Zone,
15. A Lesson from Touching the Fire,
16. Lessons from the Zealot,
17. Lessons from Real Shock and Awe,
18. Lessons of Hubris,
19. Lessons from Mother Corn and Father Buffalo,
20. Lessons from the Nahurac,
21. Where Lessons Are Lost,
22. Lessons of Place,
23. Lessons from Lines,
24. Lessons from the Fourth Hill,
25. Lessons from Lessons,
26. Lessons from the Muse,
27. Lessons from the Power,
28. A Lesson from Prayer,
29. Still More Lessons from Lessons,
30. Lessons in Brief,
The Lessons of Others: A Selected and Annotated Bibliography,