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“Your words are strong. You must be careful of what you say.”
Her reply was not what he expected. He believed she would either retract what she said or quietly leave.
“I stand by my words.” She gently placed a hand on her full belly.
She was a powerful member of the village and he knew her words and counsel had been accurate many times in the past. That is why she wore white in her hair.
He did not want to believe her. He now was in a quandary as to what to do. He had wanted her to take back her words. She was like a granddaughter to him and he did not want her prophecy to come true. Yet he knew that she could not un-speak a vision. And if he did what she advised it could put the welfare of the entire village in jeopardy.
If they did nothing, the prophecy would come true sooner rather than later. If they followed her council, then it may not come true for many years, but to do anything this winter, which they were just entering, would put the entire village in peril, especially those who were sick, elderly or pregnant, as she was. It was inevitable that it would come true if she was as accurate now as she had been previously. It was only a matter of time. Or perhaps, he thought again, there was a way to prevent the prophecy from coming true.
The prophecy was that the vision would come true upon the death of the village seer who had seen this particular vision. The Chief wondered if he could prevent the prophecy by banishing her from the village. But he would miss her and her family would leave with her. She was a vital part of the community. Banishment would not do.
Perhaps if he removed her from the position as village seer and named another, this would prevent the prophecy from coming true. Or, he thought, at least it would put her in less jeopardy.
“Whiteraven,” the Chief began, “you leave me no choice. I forbid you from ever wearing white again.” He motioned her forward and pulled out a knife. She knelt down at his feet and slowly tucked down her chin. He would miss her wise counsel. Now he would be needing it, even sooner than he realized. Determined to move forward with his decision he swiftly sheared her of her white lock.
She gave him a silent nod and left. Her white hair lay lifeless on the floor. She knew at once that she must never let her white ever shine again.
It would not be easy, but being the tribe’s medicine woman and seer was no easy position. She had not sought these roles, but had been born into them. She would remain the tribe’s medicine woman, but she would never be able to speak what the dream world communicated to her. Nor would her council ever be sought. She would now be known simply as Raven.
We were taking a hike through the woods on one of my favorite trails. A raven had just flown over us, as it normally does this time of the afternoon.
“Craawk, craawk,” it squawked at us as we neared one of its food caches. There is a raven’s roost a short distance away. Many times I have seen a raven nearby trying to hide a chunk of meat or other treasure for “later.” The behavior of ravens was new to Russ as was the legend of why ravens are black. Russ only knew ravens as a large cousin of crows.
“Did you ever hear this one?” He then proceeded without letting me respond.
“I was talking outside with a chap one day, when all of a sudden a black bird swooped down and snatched the apple he was eating. It took it right out of his hand!”
“Did you see that?” the man cried. “That crow stole my apple.”
“That was no crow, that was a raven.”
“Are you sure? I once heard that crows have five pinion feathers and ravens have four. So it is all a matter of a ‘pinion.”
“Aargh…” I said shaking my head. Russ’s joke was definitely a groaner.
After walking a little further I asked him if he knew why ravens were all black.
“No, but I bet you’re gonna tell me, whether I want you to or not.” He had me pegged from the first day we met as a through and through nature and animal lover.
But this story was a little different. It was not just some ornithological facts, it was also a bit personal. We’d been together eight months and were very serious about each other. We had fallen in love almost at first sight and cared deeply about one another. Thus far, everything had felt right with Russ, in all we did and talked about. I hoped that relating this story to him would not change that.
Russ acted as if he suffered through my nature musings, but sometimes he really enjoyed them. How would he feel about us if I told him the legend of Whiteraven?
We still had a ways to go before we’d get home. We had the time, so with some reticence I began. This is the story as I was told it:
I’m not exactly sure how many years ago it was; some time in the 1700s. There was a woman of the Ojibwe Indian tribe (although they didn’t call themselves Indians). She was known as Whiteraven. When she was born she was given an infant name, as all children were. She was known as “Soft Breeze in the Birches.”
When children came of age they sometimes kept their infant name and sometimes were given a new name; one that reflects who they are, what their position is to be or some feat they achieved. When it was time for Soft Breeze to be given her new name, it was of no surprise to the Chief nor any of the tribe’s elders. Her destiny was clearly evident and had been for nearly two years. Although she was only fourteen, she had a thick streak of white in her jet black hair.
Soft Breeze sat in the lodge at the edge of the small semicircle formed by those who were to receive new names. As she waited to be called forth, her thoughts drifted with the smokey wisps from the lodge fire. Thinking about what her new name might be, she recalled how initially she had only had one or two white hairs.
When they first showed two years earlier, she pulled them out, thinking it was a sign of getting old. Soft Breeze did not want to be flabby and wrinkled like the elders. She thought she could remain young and soft, and prevent getting old by getting rid of those pesky white hairs. One day her grandmother saw her sorting and pulling out the white.
“My dear, Soft Breeze,” she beckoned, “come sit with me.”
Once seated, Soft Breeze picked up an edge of the deer hide her grandmother was carefully scraping hair off of and began working.
“Your ancestors are wise men, Soft Breeze,” Grandmother began.
Soft Breeze nodded.
“Some are wise from experience and tests and trials. Others,” she paused, “like your grandfather Whitefeather were born that way.”
“Do you know,” Grandmother continued, “why your grandfather is this tribe’s medicine man and seer?”
“Because he learned all about the animals and weather and plants?”
“No young one,” Grandmother said, “he was born that way.”
“I do not understand.”
“Of course you don’t, and you are old enough now to be told. And you should be told.” Grandmother continued working but was quiet for a while.
Thirteen year old Soft Breeze knew this was one of those times when she must practice to learn patience and respect. She knew it would do no good to hurry along, or at least try to, Grandmother’s story. As long as she was seen working with Grandmother, she would not be called away. She did not want to be called away. She enjoyed her times spent with Grandmother. And she really wanted to hear the story about Grandfather.
“When your grandfather was young, before I noticed him, he had strong, clear dreams. Sometimes he would remember them in the mornings.”
“Like I sometimes do,” Soft Breeze interrupted.
“I’m sorry Grandmother, I’ll be quiet.” Grandmother’s admonishing words made the lightness of the doe skin feel heavy on her lap.
“Yes, Soft Breeze, like your dreams.” Grandmother patted Soft Breeze’s leg. “Your grandfather also had dreams that he did not remember but made him feel very agitated all day. Soon after having one of these dreams, sometimes a few hours or a day or two, he would remember his dream. Someone would say something, a word or two or Grandfather would see something that triggered part of his dream state. When the dream was triggered he would start thinking it out and often realized that it had just occurred in the waking life.
“With the help of his tribe’s seer he learned how to read and work with his visions. Your grandfather, as a boy, was understandably uncomfortable and often afraid of his visions. Over time he learned how to fly between the dream world and the waking world.”
Soft Breeze attentively listened, as much Grandmother spoke about was true about her dreams, but she had not told anyone as women were not usually seers.
Grandmother continued, “When it came time for his naming ceremony it was obvious what he was to be called.
“The Chief and the Seer called him forth.
“‘As your white lock and your dreams have told us, you are now to be known as Whitefeather.’ They said.
“From that day on he studied with the elder women learning herbs and common medicines. With the elder men he learned how to read animals and weather. Eventually Whitefeather’s time was completely spent with two men of the tribe — the medicine man and the seer, for he was to eventually take on the responsibilities of both. This was an honor of the highest and an undertaking and burden of the greatest magnitude. He had not sough out either position, he was born into them. Born into it, just as he was born with a white lock of hair.”
“But I only have a few strands,“ Soft Breeze blurted out the moment Grandmother paused.
“Yes, I know,“ Grandmother said.
“I pull them out because I don’t want to become old and rough skinned and wrinkly,” Soft Breeze impatiently spoke. “I’m sorry Grandmother, I didn’t mean that you were old and ugly.”
“You speak the truth and be careful,” Grandmother paused. “Yes, I am old, and wrinkly.”
Grandmother knew it best to let her granddaughter exhale all that she was keeping inside.
“I have dreams, Grandmother. Some I remember, some that come again and again, and some,” Soft Breeze said hesitantly, “some that happen, unpleasant things.”
“I’ve watched and listened, as have your mother and Grandfather. We knew the time would come to start teaching you, just as your grandfather was taught. We knew,” she continued, “also that you would have a white lock, even though it did not appear at birth.”
Soft Breeze’s hands stopped working on the hide. She could only sit there and breathe. Her grandmother’s words were vibrating in her soul. She had much to think about.
Would it be as tenuous as Grandmother said it was for Grandfather, to be both medicine woman and seer? Would she even one day become both? There were so many questions she now had for both Grandmother and Grandfather. Where was she to begin? What was she to do? What would her new name be? She would have her naming ceremony in seven months. Who would she study with? There was a lot to learn, just to do simple herbal administrations. Would she be able to learn it all?
Even though it was an honor to be a medicine woman or seer, did she really want this? She knew that it was not a choice for her to make. What Grandmother was telling her was that she had been born to it.
As if Grandmother could hear all Soft Breeze’s thoughts, Grandmother patted Soft Breeze’s leg and brought her back to the work at hand.
“Your work will begin here, with this doe skin. We must make it supple and smooth, without a wrinkle, for it will be yours to protect you, hopefully for a very long time.”
“What was it that she said?” asked Russ.
We had walked quite a few miles and were close to my parent’s house. A small snack would be appropriate before telling him the rest.
Resting under a stand of birch trees, the sun peeked through their leaves. As we munched on cheese, apples and pretzels I continued with the story:
A handful of years later, the honor of being seer was gone. She was forbidden to wear white. She was now, simply, Raven. Even though the Chief had cut out the white lock, she knew she would have to cut out or dye the lock that she had years before pulled out strand by strand. She knew this would not stop her visions. As her Grandmother had said, she was born into it, it was part of her soul. Perhaps one day her child or her child’s child would wear her and her grandfather’s white lock, even if it meant carrying the same burden as seer and medicine woman.
Her discussion with the Chief that night was no different. She knew he fully understood. She knew he knew what must be done, even if it effected the entire tribe. He did the only thing he could do and this she also knew. Was it enough?
“I stand by my words,” was what she had told him. The late fall wind bit hard and drove the implications inward. The doe skin wrapped around her was not enough to keep a shiver from running deep into her veins and soul. Was there anything else she could have said? Was there any other way she could have interpreted the dream vision she had continually received? As these questions crossed her mind she felt a kick and roll. Soon would be her birthing day.
“Let’s start walking again and I’ll continue,” I said to Russ when we finished our snack and tossed our apple cores for the squirrels.
“Grandmother, I don’t want to do this,” Raven said. She squeezed her grandmother’s hand as each contraction got stronger.
“I don’t want to do this. I don’t want to die.” These were not uncommon words for a new soon-to-be mother. Even though this was her first birthing, Raven knew that her visions still did not deceive her. “Something’s not right…”
Grandmother stroked her granddaughter’s hair. The white lock was clearly visible to all in the lodge. The delivery was at the stage where it was truly in Nature’s hands. Waiting was all anyone could do.
“Aaargh!” Raven arched her back trying to fight the contraction’s pain. Grandmother’s frail hand was clenched in Raven’s death grip.
“It’s time to push, my child,” Grandmother said.
The baby’s cry could be heard amidst Raven’s women.
A message was finally sent to Grandfather and spread through the village. “There is a beautiful little girl for you to bless. You now have a great granddaughter.”
“Go there quickly,” the messenger added softly but clearly for only Grandfather to hear before she promptly bore the same message to the Chief.
The Chief knelt by Raven’s side and held her hand. He glanced at the beautiful baby girl being held in Grandmother’s arms, but it was Raven’s weak and and ashen face that kept his attention.
In a feeble voice Raven said to her Chief, “I am sorry.”
It was all she could manage.
“I’m sorry too,” he replied. She had been like a granddaughter to him. He had done what he could.
“I am sorry too, Whiteraven,” he said softly as a tear quietly appeared.
There was nothing more either needed to say.
“Now wait a minute,” Russ said excitedly, despite the gravity of the story. He stopped walking and turned me around. A flash of white glinted in the sunlight as Russ parted the hair just above the back of my ear. “So do you mean to say…?”
I nodded. I had told him about some of my dreams when I would wake unsettled.
“So she was your great, great, great, great…?” he tried to ask. The furrow in his brow confirmed how confused he was.
“Yes she, Whiteraven, was my too-many-greats-to-count grandmother.”
“Whew. I guess that explains a lot,” Russ said.
I was not sure what that meant.
He inhaled deeply and was quiet.
I let him ponder the implications of what I had just told him.
He was quiet for only a moment. His response implied that he was okay with the fact his girlfriend was more than just a nature lover, “So what was it that Whiteraven told the Chief to cause him to be so upset?”
We were close to the house and the breeze was beginning to have a chill to it. The answer to his question deserved more time than we had. For now a simple answer would suffice, “Whiteraven had told the Chief, ‘The white man is going to break his promise. He is coming. You must move the tribe westward. My death will foretell his imminent arrival.’”