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Rated: E · Short Story · Young Adult · #2310957
A young Lakota girl wants to save her grandfather's house.

The Sprit Owl

"It's not fair, Gaka!" Kala said, with tears in her eyes. Her gaka (grandfather) just smiled at her from his favorite chair.

"The Lakota people have known for a long time that things aren't fair," he replied. "This is nothing new."

"But this is your home! You've lived here your whole life, and they just want to tear it down!"

They were in his living room, with the walls still decorated with the bear and eagle carvings her late Unci (grandmother) had made. Outside the window she could see the old hollow oak she had climbed when she was younger. Ever since her father had died when she was ten, she had spent a lot of time with her grandparents while her mother travelled for her work, as she was currently doing. This had practically been her home too for the last five years.

It was a low-income neighborhood of modest homes, but the neighbors were, well, neighborly. For the annual summer block party, Mrs. Ortega across the street would always make her delicious beef enchiladas, and the Hernandez's would bring their burritos, although in Kala's opinion none of it compared to her grandfather's wohanpi soup. Her best friend Maria lived just two doors down, and she used to play soccer with her, her older brother Ramon, and the other neighborhood kids. Although lately Kala got the impression that Ramon had developed a crush on her, which was making things kind of weird. Really, the guy was practically her brother too. They were all practically family, and now...

"To build a hospital. At least the white people have a good reason this time."

"Oh please, they could build that hospital anywhere. They just want this land because they can get it cheap. Nobody lives in this neighborhood except Native Americans and mostly undocumented Mexican immigrants. It's not like they could put up a fight."

"It wouldn't matter if they did," her grandfather said. "We did, and it got us nowhere."

"Yeah, we tried hiring a lawyer," Kala thought. "For all the good that did."

Although to be fair she knew the lawyer had tried, and probably hadn't charged them as much as he could. There was also a lot of public support for Native Americans these days, as white people tried to make amends for past sins. However, eminent domain was still eminent domain, and it was hard to fight against a new hospital. The judge had been seemingly sympathetic, but firm. This would be good for society as a whole, all would benefit, blah, blah, blah.

"So now you have thirty days to leave everything and go somewhere else," she said, still staring out the window. "What will you do?"

"I'll be fine, little Red Bird," he said, using her Lakota name. "But you have more important things to think about. Your vision quest is tomorrow."

Her shoulders slumped. She had hoped her grandfather had forgotten.

"Oh come on, Gaka, you know I don't believe in that stuff," she said, turning towards him with pleading eyes. "Do I really need to get all sweaty and gross and sit on a hard patch of ground all night?"

"Yes, you do," her grandfather said, his voice getting sharper. "You may not believe in it, but it is a tradition of our people. The Lakota have been seeking guidance through vision quests for centuries."

"Fat lot of good that "guidance" did, since we all got stuck on reservations," she thought. Aloud she said, "But I've got a biology project to work on, and an essay in English that's due next week, and..."

"And friends you need to text with, yes I know," he said in a dry tone. "It's amazing how devoted you get to your schoolwork when you have something you want to do even less. This is a part of our culture, Zitkala-Sa, and something your grandmother and me always wanted for you."

"No!" Kala said, shaking her head. "You can't use my Unci on me! That is so not fair!"

"Things aren't fair, as I said before. Now I'll hear no more about it," he said as he stood, his voice taking on the cadence he had used as a Marine Corps sergeant years before. "Everything is set with Jason on the reservation. You will be there first thing in the morning." Kala knew there was no arguing with her grandfather when he used that tone.

"Fine, I'll do it," she said with a heavy sigh. "But unless this vision quest thing can help us keep the house, I don't see what good it is."

"Some things are good in and of themselves. And you never know about the house," her grandfather said, with a twinkle in his eye. "Wakan Tanka works in mysterious ways."


Early the next morning, her grandfather drove her out to the reservation to meet with the holy man, Jason Strong Hawk. He was standing outside the sweat lodge with two of her mother's friends as they pulled up.

"Jason my friend, it is good to see you," her grandfather said as he got out of the truck and embraced the holy man.

"It is good to see you too, Tall Horse," Strong Hawk responded. Then he turned to Kala. "And here is our little Red Bird. Are you ready for your journey?"

"I am," Kala said, managing not to sound resigned. She was wearing a simple ankle-length light dress, brown with white crosshatching on the hem, her long hair pulled back in a ponytail. The first part of the ceremony was the sweat, and she was not looking forward to the effect it would have on her hair.

"Good, good. I think you know Evening Song and Wind Whisper," he said, indicating the two women. "They'll be assisting us today. Everything is ready. We can begin immediately."

Kala hugged her grandfather. "Fly high, Red Bird," he whispered in her ear. Kala felt a sob welling up in her throat but managed to choke it down. "I'll try, Gaka ," she whispered back.

After her grandfather left, the ceremony began. The sweat lodge was a domed structure constructed with wooden poles and covered with blankets. The door faced towards the rising sun. There was an alter directly in front of the door, with a fire already burning to heat the stones. They gathered facing the alter and lodge, with the two women flanking Kala and Strong Hawk in front of them facing the alter.

The alter was a simple wooden platform covered with antlers, a bear skull and bundles of sage. The sage would be used for smudging - burned to purify them and ward off outside influences. Prayer ties - bits of colored cloth tied with white yarn - festooned the alter. The colors, all of which were important to Lakota culture, were black for honor and adulthood, red for perseverance and pureness, yellow for light and understanding, and white for life and intellect. Jason filled the chanupa pipe with the sacred tobacco, lifted it and began to pray.

Kala tried to keep her mind on the ceremony but kept thinking back to a history paper she had written the prior year about tobacco, and how it was unknown to white people until they came to the New World. Her point was that the cancers and emphysema caused by tobacco were the natives' true revenge against the white settlers. She had thought it was kind of funny, but for some reason her teacher wasn't amused.

When the prayers were done, they all walked to the lodge, careful to avoid walking on the path between the alter and the door, as that was sacred. They got down on their hands and knees and crawled through in a clockwise direction, each saying Mitakuye-Oyasin (To All my Relations), as they entered, a prayer signifying that all are one. They would crawl out the same way, and Kala knew that was supposed to symbolize rebirth, but all she could think about were skinned knees.

Once they were inside, Evening Song went out and used a set of deer antlers to bring in the heated rocks, which were arranged in the center fire pit in a prescribed manner. Jason prayed over them and blessed them with sage, and its aroma quickly filled the hut. Then Evening Song tucked in the blanket around the door and poured the sacred water onto the rocks, filling the lodge with steam. Wind Whisper began to beat a rhythm on a drum and the singing began.

Kala tried to relax and let herself be part of the ceremony. She wanted to at least make an effort for her grandfather's sake, and really relaxing wasn't all that hard. The heat of the steam loosened her muscles, and the sage infused air combined with the drumming lulled her into a sense of contentment. The songs called on the spirits of land and sky to help her on her quest, and she felt herself floating along, almost hearing the drumming hoof beats of the buffalo, or the cry of the eagle.

After the sweat they emerged and hiked to the spot that had been chosen for her quest. It was a good two mile trek into a remote part of the reservation, and Kala was sweating even more by the time they got there. A rectangular section of the ground, about six feet by eight, had been cleared, with poles at the four compass points and a taller one in the center, all hung with tobacco offerings. There was a bed of sage spread near the center pole on which she could rest. Wind Whisper placed a buffalo robe on her shoulders, and Jason solemnly handed her the pipe. As she had been instructed, Kala held the pipe before her and walked towards the center pole, praying for guidance and knowledge. When she got to the center pole, she turned and went to the west pole, then to the other compass point in turn, repeating the prayers at each. When she paused and looked around, she saw she was alone.

"So, now I'm just supposed to wait until some kind of vision comes," she thought. "Because I guess I have literally nothing better to do."

Kala sighed and repeated the circuit. Well, she had told her grandfather she would try, so she would. She tried to put aside other distractions: school, friends, the house, and the cell phone she'd been forced to leave behind. It was a toss-up as to whether the house or the phone was the hardest to ignore.

Hours went by. Sometimes she prayed. Sometimes she sat on the sage and meditated. Evening began to fall, but it was a pleasant May night, and the buffalo robe was exceptionally warm. She was hungry and thirsty, but fasting was part of the ritual, and so she kept going, waiting for the impossible.

Kala was flying.

She wasn't sure how that happened, but she was flying over the plains. It appeared to be early evening, and she could see buffalo running below her. If it was a dream, it was the most vivid she'd ever had. She could feel the wind in her face, the beat of her wings...wait, she had wings? She looked to each side, and yes, her arms had turned into wings, covered with red feathers. Then she saw the owl by her side.

It appeared to be about twice her size, brown with white highlights on its wing tips. Its eyes glowed golden as it glanced at her, then looked ahead.

It was happening. She was actually having a vision. She fought down a sudden surge of panic.

"Okay Kala, you've got this," she told herself. After all, this was her heritage. She would deal with it. She glanced at the owl again. It was probably her spirit guide, but she wasn't really sure what to do. She tried talking to it.

"So, are you like my, um, spirit guide?" she asked. It seemed she could still talk in bird form, or whatever form this was. "Do I just, you know, follow you?"

The owl ignored her. They flew on, crossing rivers, lakes and forests. There was no sign of any human habitation. Then they started to descend, and she saw something moving in the grass below her.

It was a pair of coyotes, with three cubs following behind. The adults were stalking through the grass, and the cubs were trying to imitate them. They flew on, and she saw a mother fox with three kits. It was a similar situation; the mother was stalking and the kits were imitating her. They flew down to a tree, and she landed on a branch beside the owl. There was a meadow in front of them, and a mother deer with her fawn. The fawn started to bite down on a plant that Kala recognized as hemlock, but the mother nosed it away to something safer.

Kala thought about all this. The common theme seemed to be teaching the young. So, was she supposed to be a teacher? It was a career she'd considered, and it looked like the spirits were agreeing.

"Okay, so I'm supposed to be a teacher," she said. "That's cool, but look, can't you do something about my grandfather's house?" The owl just stared at her.

"He's going to lose it. They're going to tear it down and he pretends it's okay, but I know it's not. Can't you fix it, somehow?"

"I am your spirit guide, not his."

"Whoa, it talks!" Kala thought. But then, why not? The owl's voice was deep, almost like thunder, but slower and melodious.

"Okay," she said. "But it's kind of my house too. I mean, you're a spirit and all, don't you have some pull with Wakan Tanka, or Maka, or one of those other gods?"

"That is not how this works."

Kala lost it. It was all too much. The house, the fasting, and now this owl giving her attitude.

"Well, make it work!" she screamed. "Do something useful for a change! He's a good man, he served his country, he practically raised me, and he deserves better! Just help him, just help, somehow," she began to sob. "Just help him, please..."

Kala was sitting on the ground, still crying. She looked up. She was back in the real world, sitting on the bed of sage. Night had fallen, and there was not an owl to be seen.


"You argued with your spirit guide?"

Her grandfather was driving her back to his house. She had finished her quest and related the details to Strong Hawk. He had seemed shocked. Her grandfather was past shocked and well into flabbergasted.

"Well, yeah, kinda," she said, looking down at her nails, avoiding her grandfather's eyes. "I just wanted him to help us."

"Kala, Kala, Kala," her grandfather said, shaking his head. "That is not what the vision quest is about. It is about your spiritual journey, your destiny, not solving our problems."

"You're starting to sound like that owl."

"Well that's...oh never mind," he said, laughing. "I guess there's no harm done. At least you did get a vision."

"For all the good that did."

Her grandfather seemed about to reply, then apparently changed his mind. They pulled into the driveway and got out of the truck. As they walked to the house, she glanced at the tree in the front yard. Her spirit guide stared back at her.

Kala stopped dead, her mouth dropping open. Okay, it wasn't her sprit guide, since its eyes weren't glowing, but there was definitely an owl sitting on a branch. There was another one in the hollow space in the tree trunk, and both were looking at her.

"Gaka," she said, in a small voice. "Have we ever had owls before?"

"No," her grandfather said in a wondering tone, coming up to stand beside her. "Never in all the years I've lived here."

They stared at the owls. The owls stared back. As Kala looked closer, she could see they were brown like her sprit guide, but these owls had white spots throughout their feathers. She could swear she'd seen a picture of owls like this somewhere before...

"No," she breathed. "No way."

She pulled out her cell phone and looked up a specific species of owl. She showed the picture to her grandfather and they both looked at each other. Then she called his lawyer.

Eminent domain gives a city or town the right to take private property for the betterment of the community. There is however a force more powerful, and that is the Endangered Species Act, and when someone has a breeding pair of endangered Northern Spotted Owls living in their tree, all development comes to a screeching halt. The federal government declared the whole neighborhood to be a protected area, and that was that. The real estate developers could scream all they wanted, but they would have to build their hospital somewhere else.

Naturalists and scientists came from miles around to study the owls. They marveled at how the birds could have come so far from their natural habitat. They speculated on the cause, from habitat loss to climate change to fluctuations in the Earth's magnetic field. Kala and her grandfather just smiled and agreed it was all very strange. The owls looked on.

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