Trudging through a tiny, mostly empty South Dakota airport terminal, it’s very quiet as people silently shuffle along to make their flights to faraway places. I feel like I’m in the twilight zone. I’m almost to my gate when I notice an oddly-matched couple of guys, one young and big, the other old and small, exchanging niceties. The conversation suddenly shatters the silence when the big guy, who is seated, starts to yell at the standing little guy who is considerably older. Both men are waving canes around when the small standing man wobbles as he steps back and begins to shake his store-bought staff as a warning. I immediately worry that the fragile little old guy might fall over as he waves off the big man and I stop to keep an eye on the situation.
“Why are you talking to me, calling me “brother” as if you know me?” demands the seated man, who I guess to be at least 20 years junior to the unsteady elder. “There’s a white man there, over there and right here, go talk to them. They are your people. Why are you even over here talking to me? Don’t you know I’m Indian?” The seated man with the long black braids pronounces the word “Endan” and his entire chest shakes as he indignantly spits the word at the little old white man.
“Well, I talk to all men. Does it matter if we’re yellow, black, white, brown or red? I never broke it down into colors or categories like that. I just thought we were all brothers. Sorry, dude!” comes the rebuttal from the frustrated old guy as his voice cracks in anger. The frail senior probably weighs about a buck fifty including his boots, cane and pocket change; the Indian would easily tilt the scales with at least twice that.
“Well, yeah?” comes the Endan defense. “Nobody talks to an Endan unless they want something. True fact, dude. An’ know what? I got nuthin’ left to take. Except my pride, and I ain’t giving that to no white man! I’ll fight to the death, dude!” The seated man grapples to his feet and unfolds his full height; he’s easily three feet taller than the poor old man who was just trying to make a friend. The little guy leans against his cane to peer sideways up at the irate man because his body is bent and crooked, so he’s incapable of twisting up to see the Indian’s impressive frame tower above him. Suddenly the Indian plants his feet and with fists clenched, breaks into a loud chant. The deep, soulful tones filter through the airport and everyone goes silent as they stop to stare. He pounds his wooden stick against the ground to keep cadence with the rhythmic rise, fall and octave of his melodious wailing. The music casts a spell over the busy travelers and everyone is frozen in their tracks. Like the haunting Gregorian chants of the Benedictine monks echoing through a monastery, the sound fills the terminal and stirs the soul like a religious ritual. It gave me chills as tears welled up and an emotional ache crept from the pit of my stomach as I imagined the generations that have passed down the tradition behind the chants woven deep inside the Native as he calls to his gods.
The music is mesmerizingly beautiful. The little man’s mouth falls open and he plops down in a chair in order to watch the face of the man who sings his heritage as we are suspended in time and space. All of a sudden the Indian’s mellifluous song goes silent and he raises his intricately carved stick to the heavens. The chant is replaced by a shrill war whoop. He shakes his cane at the sky and bellows loudly, “I am Sioux!” The declaration reverberates through the building as an indisputable fact of his blood-red heritage. Still, it’s as if everyone is collectively holding their breath and nobody moves. Indian looks around at the awestruck crowd and laughs, which seems to shatter the spell cast over the entire airport. “Now, if anybody wants to talk to me, I’ll be in the bar,” he shrugs and looks the old man in the eye. “And if you follow me, you better be prepared to buy me a beer!” The little man claps his hands and says he’d be happy to join his new friend and sponsor his thirst, but he’s going to need a little help getting out of the chair he’s sunken into as he struggles to extract himself. Indian looks down and lets go of a loud belly laugh.
“OK, grandfather, I guess we can talk shit over a beer. I think we can be friends, yeah? You’re buying, right?” He reaches down to gently extract the tiny man from his seat while bracing himself against the furniture with his foot. It was then that I noticed the beautifully beaded moccasins on his feet and wondered about the journey this man must be on. He could have easily just stepped through the web of time travel, visiting us from an H.G. Wells epoch, and I imagine an airport would be a convenient place for such a transfer. The odd couple hobbles off to find common ground over hops and barley as I shake off the spell and try to process all of what I’d just witnessed.