The Path Back to Embodiment: A Journey through the Washita Massacre

When I was a seeker and then after in a state of transcendent awakeness, I embraced the analogy that life was like a movie and that we were both audience and projectionist. That “truth” was seeing life as mere image from which we are or can be completely detached.

I remember as a teen watching the film Little Big Man, a devastating depiction of the massacre at Washita where Custer and his troops ambushed and murdered an encampment of Cheyenne who had been turned away from shelter at Fort Cobb. I embarrassed my cousins by wailing uncontrollably during the scene of the attack. It was, after all, only a movie.

Tonight, 45 years later, the trauma I experienced as a 15 year old was reawakened by another reenactment of the Washita massacre, this time on the small screen. For all its contrivances, the 1993-1998 series, Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, invested a great deal into its depiction of the lives of the Cheyenne people and other plains tribes during the time of their persecution, dispersal and diaspora late in the 19th century. Over the first three seasons, the lives of Cheyenne characters were lovingly cultivated, including Chief Black Kettle who signed two government treaties and who despite regular deception by the white government thought that the cavalry would not attack his people without provocation. In a two hour episode, the show depicted the events leading to and the devastating aftermath of the Washita massacre. Among the men, women and children shot dead by Custer’s men were characters including Black Kettle and his wife who over time felt known to me, blossomed into three dimensional beings by actors who captured their essence and by Cheyenne advisors who made sure that the depictions were authentic.

There was no wailing this time, only a deep heartache brought on by the smoldering tipis and the bodies of the dead. Watching the characters of Dr. Quinn, her fiancé Sully and his Cheyenne “brother” Cloud Dancing wander like wraiths through the desecration was excruciating. It was not “just a movie.” It was as real on an emotional level as anything I’ve lived in this present life of heartache and suffering.

In the 45 years since my tender initiation into the truth of how the west was won, the lives, histories and survival plight of our native people have drawn me to my own known truth. Life is full of suffering, dehumanization, institutional racism and genocide. Human fear, greed and self-service have wounded the life force of all beings. Alongside beauty is always horror.

What purpose is served by attempting to transcend this fact? Inasmuch as life is a grand illusion “signifying nothing,” it is also a lived experience of these bodies that are born, that are highly sensitive and vulnerable to the caresses and buffets of the world, the crucible in which we are annealed, refined and stripped down to our essence. For myself, I far prefer my ability to feel the truth of image, the reality of perception, than to sit back at a safe, untouchable remove, like, as Sylvia Plath called them, “the peanut crunching crowd” of transcendence.

Tonight, my whole body heart is broken open by man’s unkindness to man and by the awareness that I am both perpetrator and victim, both the beneficiary and the loser in the epic history of the rise and fall of life on Earth. There is no more enlightening knowing than that.

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