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Crow Dog and the Drought of 1988

18 Jul

The summer of 1988 was the summer people used “gray water,” the water left after a shower or a bath, to give their plants a chance at life. The leaves on the maple trees began a premature autumn, turning brown and brittle before tiny stems finally broke free of the branch and they floated to the ground. People lined up over the Ballville Bridge because, for the first time, they could see the riverbed, striped black with drying silt, a few white rocks poking through the thick mud. It was the summer the kids ran across the hot blacktop driveways with bare feet, the sun burning the soft pink skin on their soles, because they couldn’t stand walking in the sharp blades of grass. Like the rest of the country, they chose to burn while old songs about hard times hung in the air, too thick to move. Newborn babies that summer stuck miserably to their mothers between salty layers of sweat. It was the summer that the people in Clyde, Ohio called on Crow Dog for a rain dance.

The entire United States was experiencing the worst drought since the Dust Bowl in the 1930s and it was evident in the dying fields. Lyle Alexander of the National Weather Service said, “We’re not looking forward to a great deal of shower activity.” A high-pressure ridge made any rain unlikely. Crops were merely surviving on the moisture left in the soil. Corn and soybeans reached a two-year high commodity price and livestock were being sent to slaughter early. There was nowhere to graze or drink. According to TIME in partnership with CNN, ships in the Great Lakes were carrying 5% lighter loads to account for the drop in the water levels.

Fires broke out across the west; more than 80 fires were caused by lightning in the eastern Sierra Nevada. Eighty-seven Wisconsin fires burned 250 acres. Barbecues and cigarette smoking were banned in rural areas. The people were becoming more desperate, and Secretary of Agriculture, Richard E. Lyng told TIME that he recommended “appealing to a higher authority.”

“The best thing for us to do,” he said, “is pray for rain.” But people had already realized this in Ohio. A priest south of Toledo sprinkled holy water on the crops and blessed the fields. Church services were held in Marysville and surrounding areas. All the attention, however, was focused on Clifford Doebel’s efforts to bring Crow Dog to town to perform a rain dance.

Doebel was a meek older man with unruly blonde hair and circular glasses. He owned a flower shop and green house in Clyde, a town of 5,500. Doebel was known for some of his strange antics. He admitted in an interview, “I’ve done some weird things in the past, [b]ut I’ve been pleased with the success rate of those ideas.”

The town of Clyde was as receptive as ever. After seeing the destruction caused by the drought, Doebel made numerous phone calls and finally contacted Leonard Crow Dog who was living on the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota. He was a fourth generation Sioux medicine man who gained recognition in the late 1970s when he led a protest walk from South Dakota to Washington, D.C. concerning the treatment of Indians by the U.S. government. He became a spiritual leader and a renowned medicine man among Native Americans and led the American Indian Movement. At the Rosebud Reservation, he represented 89 different tribes. Crow Dog married Mary Brave Bird who followed him to the stand-off at the grave site of Wounded Knee. He had nine children, but only three belonged to Mary. He was a pudgy 49-year-old and the only job he held was performing pipe ceremonies to produce rain, but he took good care of his family.

Since 1953, he had done 127 rain dances in 32 different states and not one of them had failed to at least bring a little bit of rain.

Doebel heard about the rain-dancing track record and took it upon himself to pay for Crow Dog and his entourage of seven other Indians to come to Clyde for a four day ceremony beginning on Sunday, June 19, 1988. It cost him over $2000 to bring the eight men to Ohio, but donations were sought to offset the high price for spiritual intervention.

The event was publicized and people were encouraged to come watch the ceremonies, which would take place three to four times a day, because participation produced unity and the more people that were there to pray, the better. Some people brought their children so that they’d be given the chance to see real Indians. Some came because big events rarely happened in Ohio. Suzanne Morley, the director of the Sandusky Chamber of Commerce, agreed that the rain dance was “the best thing to happen to this town of 5,500 since a native son, Sherwood Anderson, wrote Winesburg, Ohio in 1919.” Most of the people there, although they may not have admitted it, were there out of sheer desperation. The National Weather Service predicted that it needed to rain within the next two weeks or the crops would be ruined.

The morning of the first ceremony drew in most of the people of Clyde, but also surrounding areas. Around 11:00 a.m. on Sunday, three hours before the ceremony, people gathered on the field between Doebel’s Flowers and the Winesburg Inn on McPherson Highway. The grass had turned brown. Shade was sparse, but 2,000 to 3,000 people packed around the sacred circle that was roped off by Crow Dog and his crew. Under the nearly cloudless sky, mothers and fathers hoisted their children to their shoulders. In the 90 degree weather, others climbed the nearby trees to escape the sun and see over the crowd as Leonard Crow Dog, wearing Lee jeans and red shirt with a yellow sash crossed the 350-foot circle.

His hip-length black hair was tied into a ponytail and he held a sacred pipe and an eagle bone whistle. Raising them both above his head, Crow Dog turned in a circle pointing North, East, South, and then West to direct the clouds and winds to bring rain. The people surrounding the circle raised their hands, too, participating with the unfamiliar dances and chants. Crow Dog welcomed their participation and said that the “key lies in bringing together the pipe and the tobacco of the red willow bark.” His companion, Windy White, explained that the whistle was the call, and that the pipe carried the message. As Crow Dog stood on the crisp, brown grass between Doebel’s Flowers and the Winesburg Inn after performing the ceremony, he said, “The creator knows, the thunder beam knows when the land needs water. Four days from now it will thunder and lightning and rain. And it will rain again and again.” After about forty minutes, Crow Dog disappeared to a forty-foot teepee to pray and smoke the pipe by himself.

“Rain dance” is a white man’s term. Sioux Indian Leonard Crow Dog explained that “rain dance” is not used by the Indians, but instead, they called it a pipe ceremony, a sacred religious rite. It is performed by men and women which, according to Native-languages.org, is a symbol “that rain is important to all of civilization, both male and female.” The Indian chief often wears goat hair in his headdress and the clothing expresses unique patterns. Turquoise is often used in jewelry and on clothing. Instead of dancing in circle, like many other tribal dances, the men and women move back and forth in a zigzag pattern. They also use a pipe filled with red willow bark after a call with the eagle bone whistle and a prayer to Father Sky and Mother Earth. Some pipe ceremonies involve burning sweet grass and using feathers to push it in all of the compass directions. These ceremonies in all tribes represent a unity with the land and recognition of a higher power, but also a willingness to comply with current conditions. Most importantly, though, as Crow Dog pointed out to the people of Clyde, the pipe ceremony can only be performed by a holy medicine man with sacred objects. According to a local newspaper, Crow Dog said that Indians are the best ones to call to the cycles of the lands because white men have 11,036 cells, whereas Indians have 12,028 cells. “We are not part of Adam and Eve,” he insisted. “We are part of Adam, but not Eve.” Already, the differences between the Indians and the people from Clyde were becoming evident.

Windy White stepped up performed a traditional Indian folk dance with a few other dancers. The ceremonies took a different turn when he began to talk. According to Sioux belief, the “reason the area [had] been stricken with a drought [was] that we abuse the land we sometimes forget there is a greater force than human beings.” Windy White repeatedly told the people to “ask for forgiveness for abusing the land.” Crow Dog had said during a press conference, “There must be something wrong here. It’s supposed to rain. [If it doesn’t] it’s because the land was disturbed and Mother Earth has been taken.” Crow Dog quickly blamed the big corporations for disturbing the land and that was why the drought was country-wide.

Some of the people of Clyde must have been offended by Windy’s command to ask for forgiveness, but there was truth in his statement. The Whirlpool Corporation sat in the heart of Clyde, just down the road from the field where Crow Dog danced. They were the leading producers of washing machines, and everyone who wasn’t a farmer stood on the line next to their neighbors. They were guilty in some aspect, but they were also helpless. Whirlpool was a means of survival just like farming was, and those who worked there were only trying to survive. The drought was proving just that. As the men and women stood around the circle and listened to Windy White tell them to ask for forgiveness, they must have felt a little guilty. A machine was something they could control, though, and something that they could count on, at least more than the weather, and at that point, machines were more reliable than rain. There was technique to farming, but fields were always at the mercy of the natural world. People cannot force a front to travel across the plains, bringing rain and thunder. They cannot slice open the sky for liquid or prevent an early frost. All they could do was pray. The farmers were suffering from the drought that brought Crow Dog his only form of business: his pipe ceremonies.

Windy White and the rest of the Indians realized that they were going to be misunderstood. Cliff Doebel also understood that there would be some suspicions about the ceremonies: “He’s not a chief, but a medicine man who has strong belief in his religion and we have to keep this in perspective…  He’s not a showman or a circus performer and he’s not coming to sell things. Crow Dog wants people to attend the ceremonies and wants the power of the people to join him in bringing the rain to the area.”  Windy took initiative in explaining the differences in the beliefs of the white man and the Native Americans. He said that Christians “believe this guy was born and put on this earth to take away all our sins. But we never believe in anything like that. We believe our creator is here, all around, where we’re sitting. That’s why we take care of our land.” Before Sunday’s ceremony, Windy explained that the drum is round because the sun and moon are round and by pounding the drum, he represents the “heartbeat of the nation.”

Most of the people were simple, conservative, Christian farmers who just wanted a decent harvest. Some of the skeptical ones raised their eyebrows at the men dancing in a circle with feathers in their hair, but there was never an upheaval. There had to be hope that Crow Dog could control the weather. The meteorologists no longer calmed fears. At night, covered in light sheets with fans blowing across their skin, people couldn’t bare to look at the radar map on the local news another day and see a blank set of counties with no fronts, no cloud cover, and no chance of precipitation. Their prayers seemed to fall on deaf ears, or at least into the hands of a very busy Lord. With nowhere else to turn, they obeyed Windy White and asked for forgiveness.

The next ceremony began at 9:30 that night, but only 1,000 people showed up as the sun began to dip behind the horizon and quickly disappeared. Perhaps they had already seen what they needed to see. Maybe they were relaxing in their living rooms, or maybe they were put off by the aggressive blame game Windy White played. The ceremonies continued into the beginning of the week, but fewer spectators showed up due to work or other commitments. Doebel had lunch with Crow Dog and showed him around town. Between the ceremonies, the Indians talked to the people of Clyde, answered questions.

Gene Slotto, owner of Gene’s Drive-Thru and Carry Out on County Road 185, said Crow Dog came through his store in the early evening, shortly after supper time. The man driving the car told Gene that the man in the backseat was Crow Dog, the medicine man who had come to bring rain. Gene had heard about his arrival in Clyde, but was unable to attend the ceremonies because he was tending to his business. Crow Dog and the men in the car with him bought beer, handed the money to Gene and drove off. Later on that night, Crow Dog was seen at the Arrow Café on Main Street downtown drinking with the locals. While the rest of the town looked high in the sky for a dark cloud, or even a white cloud, Crow Dog looked into the bottom of an upturned glass, set it on the bar, and ordered another. While the fields and the lawns begged for clear liquid, Crow Dog retreated to amber yellow beer in dim lights. No one really knew if the Sioux medicine man drank like this on a regular basis, but some assumed that maybe he, too, was skeptical of his rain dance in this drought. It was, after all, the worst and driest in fifty years. Maybe he had never faced such terrible odds as he spun the glass around in his hands and stared into the beer. Maybe he was just out for a good time, but it’s nice to think that maybe he realized that there are some things that not even a medicine man can control.

On Tuesday afternoon, after having only been in Clyde two full days, Crow Dog left the ceremonies to travel to Dallas, Texas to stand on trial for a man who supposedly stole sacred Indian artifacts. Crow Dog believed he was innocent and came to his aid. Windy White, with permission from Crow Dog, took over the ceremonies. That night after the ceremonies, the people were invited into the sacred circle to file past the medicine staff and to touch the sacred objects. Hundreds lined up, the last of them waiting nearly an hour to get to the middle. Windy White invited them to pray as they warmed their hands on the coals from the ceremonial fire and ran their fingers over the eagle feather, leather pouch, and pipe which were at the altar in the center of the circle. He said, “If you do not know what to pray for when you go out, then you pray for the sick, the institutionalized, the old people in the homes…and for the rain…and to the Thunder Spirit and Lightning Spirit, ask for forgiveness for abusing the land.”

Teresa Dixon Murray, a staff writer of Fremont’s News-Messenger, said that during this ceremony, she finally felt the need to put away the pen and pray with the rest of the people: “[W]hen walking back toward the ceremony, an undefinable wave of emotion and energy rushed through me. I can’t really describe the force among the people, but others said they felt it, too. It was scary and it was real.” She made her way into the circle and realized that these were the people who really believed the pipe ceremonies could work. Those who disappeared had been there for the experience, for the sights and sounds of the Indians and Crow Dog, but those who touched the objects and prayed in the circle were the ones bringing the force. Crow Dog had promised rain on Thursday and their prayers for relief remained constant.

On Wednesday night, Windy White performed the final ceremony around 9:00. Dixon Murray wrote in the News-Messenger, “Winds kicked up, signaling stormy weather, as he shook burning sweetgrass at the winds’ four compass directions. Indians Alex Allcorn and Rex Sully softly beat tomtoms on a drum. White then blew an eagle bone whistle in the four directions.” It was characteristic of all the other ceremonies, but it lasted longer. Windy White grew hoarse. “The four days I got to spend here on this land, I have felt more good feelings from people than I have ever felt in my life…it puts a big lump in my throat. I wish I could take all of you with me. My prayers will stay here with you and I will be part of this land and I will be part of that sky. When I leave this circle, when I leave this town…my spirit will always be here with you.” Windy White and the rest of the Indians left Clyde, Ohio to return home.

The National Weather Service forecasted showers or thundershowers for Wednesday, Thursday, and Saturday, just as Crow Dog had promised. On Wednesday, .22 inches fell in Fremont, a neighboring city. It wasn’t much, but it was the second measurable rain in the area since May 19. Milan reported .08 of an inch and Elmore, .10 of an inch. The New York Times reported, however, that Clyde may have received about a quarter of an inch, more than any of the surrounding areas.

The sign outside of the Winesburg Inn read, “A miracle happened here. Thanks Crow Dog.” Clifford Doebel received phone calls from people all over, including nearby states. They thanked him for the rain they received. On the Wednesday that Windy White and the rest of the Indians left town, a woman called Doebel from Chicago to thank him for thunderstorms, and a man from Columbus left him a message: “Thanks for the rain.” People in Clyde began talking about their Indian heritage, bickering about who was the most Indian. A group of women compared the height of their cheek bones and the darkness of their skin. Dixon Murray told Windy White that he should notify Leonard Crow Dog that it rained. “I have,” he said. Dixon Murray asked if he called him in Texas and Windy White said, “We don’t talk like that. It’s up here.” He pointed to his brain.

Many believed that Crow Dog’s dances certainly had something to do with the rain. Just when the patience was gone, Crow Dog had asked the people to wait for four more days, and it paid off. The rain came and the newspapers were still referencing Crow Dog’s dance into July and August. It’s hard to forget, though, the image of Crow Dog at the Arrow Café drinking a beer, waiting for the rain to come with his coaxing or on its own behalf. His word remained true, and he taught those in Clyde how to be more open-minded to different methods. Dixon Murray wrote, “The Indians showed us how to unite, how to pray together regardless of our various religious beliefs. They taught us that we can overcome racial barriers and work toward something together. We are all children of this land,‟ White said.  “Our blood is all the same—it is red.” The words are inspiring enough, but Crow Dog taught the people to be patient. He showed them what it was to be at the mercy of the world.

The truth was that we are all at the mercy of the world. Some things we just have to ride out. Others, we have to involve ourselves in.

 

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Posted by on July 18, 2012 in Daily Happenings

 

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