The Way It All Began
by Hollis Melton
The way it all began was when Bear Boy and his nephew, Theron, came to the NY Dance For All People in 2001. Roberta asked me if they could stay at my loft. I said “sure”. Then I got all nervous, Bear Boy being a diabetic and all. Clyde was so kind and said everything would be fine, just ask them what they want to eat, ask them what they want to do, etc. That seemed pretty simple. At that time everyone here in New York was very sad and wounded by 9/11, everything was so serious, and I was doubly sad because my beloved spiritual teacher, Roger, died just before the Dance that year.
Bear Boy and Theron flew in for the NY December Dance 2001 on a Jet Blue flight at 6 am. I picked them up and we went to eat at The Floridian, our NY Dance favorite diner in Brooklyn. As we were waiting to get our food they were fooling around with the juke box, and Bear said to me “What do you think about all the Indians that were killed by your people?” I took a sip of my coffee and told him that I felt really bad about that, that I was sorry his people suffered so much. We played some tunes on the juke box and ate our breakfast and then I drove them to Manhattan. We drove through Chinatown; he came to like watching the people who did Tai Chi in the mornings in Columbus Park on Mulberry Street. We drove up to Times Square where they got out and looked around. They loved the City.
We came back to the loft and they dropped off their stuff and we made a plan to go to Kinkos and xerox his art work, got picture frames at Kmart, things like that. As the day wore on we talked, laughed a lot. Bear and Theron were big teases and they liked teasing me. One of their favorite lines was “Weak!” (drawing it out like a song). I would say something and they would say “Weak!” and we’d all laugh. It felt so good to laugh again. Being with them was like being with 2 little boys.
We drove to the Dance up in Port Jervis with Jeanne Chen. Bear Boy was in a lot of pain, but he just soldiered through it. At the Dance he was awesome. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the sound of him and Theron singing. It felt like they would just burst into song at the right moment. They were so generous to us when he blessed all of us with the water while the Mohawks had their feast. His blessing was so powerful. Later he told me that he didn’t want people to feel left out, so he and Theron stayed there and offered us all a blessing. His pipe ceremony was the best!
We came back from the Dance, and they stayed a couple of days after that. They would go out on the town at night, and during the day we went shopping, cruised around Chinatown, and Times Square. We also went to the Museum of the American Indian where they were received like princes. It was fun to have them stay with us. Jonas, my ex-husband, liked them, too. He and Bear Boy were very close.
As we drove to the airport, Bear told me that he’d like to start teaching again. I told him that he could stay with us and teach in the loft. On that drive to the airport they asked me what they were going to do with all that tobacco and red cloth that people gave them at the Dance. “Can we make a shirt with those little pieces of red cloth? Can we go to Burger King with all that tobacco and ask for a burger?” We all started laughing, cracking up over the idea of going to Burger King with tobacco wrapped up in red cloth and asking for a burger. I got the point, understood in a very humorous way, that they needed more than tobacco wrapped in red cloth to survive.
A couple of months later Bear Boy called and said he was ready to teach. We set a date, and 19 people came. The first class was about the pipe, ceremony, tobacco offerings, and he taught us a beautiful water blessing (that many of us who were there, do every day). He was an awesome teacher. Lucy West, took some notes from that class, which are a very beautiful record of Bear’s words, his wisdom. We all agreed that he should come back, and set a date a few months away where we made hand drums.
We also did a rattle-making workshop, followed by a song workshop which was a two-part class. In the first class he had us singing his song with him, and then he told us to sing on our own without him. He was so patient with us in spite of the fact that most of us were wounded singers. We meandered through his song, lost without his voice, and out of that meandering, he pulled the melody of the vocables for the song we created with him. He said it was our song: it had a bird, a tree, all the things of this world. He taught us about the structure of a song. We spent the whole weekend trying to master it.
When he came back a few months later we sang our song, and then he said we should add English words, because English was our language. After we had smoked the pipe, were sitting in circle, talking. He had us write down a few key words that were important to us. Then we shared our words and he divided us into groups according to our words. There were animal people, celebration people, prayer and spirit people, and water people. He told us to create a song together, using our words. He took all of that, tweaked it up and we had a song of four verses, surrounded by the vocables. Robin Kissinger made up a melody for the English words for two of the verses and the other two are sung to the melody of the vocables. The words to the song were an expression of the things we had talked about in circle, and were also an expression of the harmony and beauty of life, celebration, gratitude and prayer. We named the song Family Fire. I was always amazed at the risks Bear took, his kindness and patience with us. He was always right there with us, helping us, guiding us, empowering us.
It was really hard for us to make the song, but those of us who were there bonded very deeply. We felt like we were part of the family fire that Bear always talked about. Later we continued to get together once a month, did a pipe, the water blessing, sang our song and shared food.
Over a period of time we had two more workshops. In one class we made shields, and in the last class we made medicine pouches. That was a complex adventure, not everyone, including me finished their pouch, but we learned a lot, and in our hearts, I think all of us who didn’t complete them, dream of completing our medi- cine pouches.
When he was sick in the hospital we held weekly pipe ceremonies for him. We did the water blessing, sang our Family Fire song, and prayed for him. After he died, I made the commitment to hold a weekly pipe ceremony open to anyone who wants to come, remembering all he brought to us. When we were making things with him, he always said, “don’t be too holy, what if it breaks while you’re making it, or something goes wrong… wait until it is complete and then bless it with the cedar.”
His coming to NY to teach brought us closer together, changed us, and changed him. He got mellower, started teaching people in Washington state, and would have gone many other places to teach and do ceremony if his health had held. He wanted to make ghost shirts and ghost dance dresses with us. He wanted it to be a process that was linked to the Dance. For him there was a teaching in everything he did. He told us to look at everything 16 different ways. On our drums that we made with him we had 16 different holes to loop our rope through. For him everything connected to everything; he was a very creative teacher. All the things he taught us to make were beautiful and brought us closer to his way of life. I feel very blessed to have been his student and his friend. He was the most fun person I’ve ever met and his teachings were profound. He taught us well.