Deep in the mountains above Lion Lake, in a clearing on the Coram Experimental Forest near Hungry Horse, Diane Queen-Miller beats on a drum as her partner John Gisselbrecht prepares a nearby altar mound for a Wakinyan ceremony. Singing, Queen-Miller’s voice is as gentle as the breeze stirring the trees around her. Her song welcomes the grandmothers, the ancestors, to join the people gathered for the ceremony, which is intended to honor and welcome the Thunder Beings and celebrate the Indian New Year. By her side, Gisselbrecht lines the ceremonial altar with pouches, rattles, a wooden ladle, feathers, tobacco, sacred paints and a bull skull. Rocks, sage and braided sweet grass top a buffalo-hide blanket and four wooden sticks are arranged around the perimeter of the altar, one pointing in each of the four cardinal directions, each with a cloth tied to it—one red, one yellow, one black and one white.
“Everything here has meaning,” Queen-Miller says of the altar. “Nothing here is haphazard.” The colors, for example, represent the four races.
As preparations continue, Queen-Miller braids her own long auburn hair and the hair of the other women who have made the hike to the remote clearing. Before the Thunder Honoring begins, she changes into a long, loose dress. Gisselbrecht removes his shirt and covers himself in red clay. He burns sage in a pit at the base of the altar and paints his face. He dons a breach cloth and a headdress of mostly black feathers.
Emerging from the breach cloth, Gisselbrecht’s legs are almost ghostly pale, revealing the genetic heritage of a blonde-haired, blue-eyed American of mostly German descent. It’s not the complexion one expects from a Sioux pipe carrier. But John Gisselbrecht is used to defying expectations about his identity—Indian and mainstream American expectations both.
As an example, he recounts the story, six or seven years old, of a Kalispell screening of the documentary Homeland, about South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Gisselbrecht was accompanied at the screening by a friend and student who looked like the textbook definition of Indian: brown skin, black hair and dark eyes.
“The people there,” Gisselbrecht begins—speaking a colloquial English he picked up during his reservation days, wherein “there” phonetically becomes “dere”—“The people there wanted to learn Indian ways. But they wanted this guy to teach them. He told them, ‘I was raised in New York City in a Polish neighborhood by adoptive parents. I have no concept of anything native. I met John two weeks ago and he’s been showing me some of these ways.’”
“They would not accept ‘no’ for an answer from him,” Gisselbrecht says. “No matter how much this guy said, ‘I’ve traveled with [Gisselbrecht], he lives part-time on the reservation, he follows the ways, he can give you what you’re asking,’ the more they said, ‘But he’s not Indian.’ ‘Well, yes he is,’” Gisselbrecht says, replaying the conversation. “Well no, but he doesn’t look like one.”
“They just couldn’t get it into their minds. Even this group that was professing tolerance and open-mindedness absolutely had these stereotypical racial views that are embedded into us as children. We don’t realize how deep it is until we inadvertently stumble across something that makes it so obvious.”
John Gisselbrecht may be that stumbling block. He says that skin color does not an Indian make—a message that obviously resonates with the dozen ceremony attendees gathered in the forest, almost all of whom, as it turns out, are white.
“The Creator doesn’t say, ‘You can’t pray to me. You’re the wrong color,’” Gisselbrecht says. “The Creator is not a racist.”
Gisselbrecht goes so far as to say that some full-bloods without the benefit of Native teachings are actually less Indian than some white people he knows who “walk that red road.”
“Some people will say to me, ‘Isn’t it kind of obstinate to be saying what you’re saying when you’ve got blonde hair and blue eyes and we’ve got people who look like Indians saying the opposite?’”
One such person saying the opposite is Tom Escarcega, a Sioux tribal member on the Fort Peck Reservation in Poplar, home to both Sioux and Assiniboine tribes.
“That pipe he’s carrying is supposed to be for the Indian people,” Escarcega says, “and we classify him as non-Indian. He’s basically a non-Indian trying to impose his way that he’s an Indian.”
The idea that Indian identity is a religious path more than an ethnicity is, without doubt, controversial, but it’s a controversy from which Gisselbrecht doesn’t shy.
“The problem that we run into over race is when people get to thinking that a person has to have a specific look or blood quantum,” Gisselbrecht says. “That’s the same thing Germany had [under Nazi rule]. ‘You can’t be a good German unless you have a specific blood quantum.’ And I can’t endorse anybody or anything that would push for that type of belief system.”
And if those words arouse more controversy, Gisselbrecht takes that as a sign that he’s doing a good job: “Let me name two other controversial pipe carriers,” he says. “How about Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse?” In fact, Gisselbrecht says, he can trace the heritage of his Native knowledge back through a long line of controversial Indian leaders. Crazy Horse taught Black Elk. Black Elk taught Frank Fools Crow. Frank Fools Crow taught Floyd Youngman. And Floyd Youngman—well, he taught John Gisselbrecht.
Finding the red road
The day before the Wakinyan ceremony, John Gisselbrecht stood in a Kalispell field near a sweat lodge covered with old carpet, adjacent to an altar mound. He filled a wooden dish with water, set it on the altar and placed beef jerky on a separate plate.
“The grandpas like beef jerky,” he said.
Soon, the air smelled of sage.
“Whenever we talk about things that are sacred, we light sage.”
Gisselbrecht, 45, was raised near Chicago’s American Indian Center, where American Indians were sent to work on high-rise buildings in the early 1900s. Gisselbrecht’s grandfather had arrived at the vocational training center in the 1920s and was given a job, $28 and an alarm clock. In Chicago, Gisselbrecht’s maternal grandfather, whom he says was a full-blooded Oglala Sioux, met Gisselbrecht’s German maternal grandmother; Gisselbrecht’s mother’s blood quantum, he says, was therefore one-half Sioux, and Gisselbrecht’s own is one-quarter (just enough to qualify as an “official” Sioux).
The neighborhood surrounding the Indian Center was mostly Native, and Gisselbrecht says he was raised mainly by his grandmother and a man named Bill whom he called “grandpa.” Gisselbrecht says he wasn’t taught traditional Sioux ways early in life, mainly, he suspects, because bigotry was very much a fact of life for American Indians in the area.
“They figured it was better to keep it hush-hush that my mother wasn’t white,” Gisselbrecht says.
Gisselbrecht says he discovered his heritage inadvertently in a shoe box.
“It was big, more of a boot box, actually,” he says. “Growing up, I thought [Bill] was my grandfather, and he was German…So I found this shoe box and I opened it up and there was a yellow rattle in there. It had a red sun on it that was all done in triangles, and I can remember the center being hollow…And there was a knife that was all beaded, and there was a bone on there—it turned out to be a finger bone. So I asked my grandmother what this stuff was and if I could play with it. And she said, ‘No, no. That stuff belonged to your grandpa.’ So I went to Bill and I said, ‘Grandpa, what’s in the box?’ And that’s how I found out that he wasn’t my grandpa. He said, ‘It’s not mine.’ ‘Grandma says it is,’ I said. ‘No, that was her first husband’s.’ I said, ‘Oh…What first husband?’”
Around the time of Gisselbrecht’s discovery, his grandmother and Bill began taking him out to Montana, often introducing him to elder tribal members who spoke no English.
“At this time, I was mostly interested in military stuff, but also some Indian stuff—but mostly the hunting and the Hollywood version of it,” he says. Around the age of 13, he spent many afternoons on the Native American exhibit floor of The Field Museum in Chicago.
After graduating from high school, Gisselbrecht did a short stint in the U.S. military. He eventually moved to Kalispell in 1991, to learn Native ways from people “dabbling” in the Indian way—people he now says merely wanted to “play Indian.” Through this group, however, Gisselbrecht heard about others who were not just playing; he met Floyd Youngman, a Sioux pipe carrier, and Melvin Grey Bear, a Sioux Holy Man, in 1992.
“I drove over to Fort Peck and offered tobacco to Floyd,” Gisselbrecht says of his first meeting with Youngman, who would soon become his mentor. “He wouldn’t take it. He said, ‘There’s no charge for talking. You’re turning tobacco into currency, and that’s disrespecting it. Don’t do that. You want to talk to me, you talk. That’s what we do. We’re human beings.’”
At the time, Gisselbrecht was struggling with alcohol problems, so he and Youngman spent several days in a sweat lodge, and after a Yuwipi ceremony (in which plants and prayer are used for healing), Gisselbrecht felt called to travel “the red road.”
“But you’re not just you,” Youngman said, according to Gisselbrecht. “You also have a wife involved here.”
That wife is Diane Queen-Miller, who claims Blackfeet bloodlines and works as a receptionist and copywriter at KOFI radio in Kalispell. The two originally met in the early 1990s, and together they now run Ikceya Wicasa (“Common People”), otherwise known as the non-profit Native American Resource, Research and Cultural Center in Kalispell—which doubles as their home. They “walk together,” which doesn’t involve a legal certificate, Gisselbrecht says.
As Youngman taught Gisselbrecht, so too did he teach Queen-Miller, who is also now a pipe carrier.
“I was brought up a very strong Christian for most of my life,” says Queen-Miller, who was raised in Randolph, Mass. “But I always questioned why we had to go into walled buildings to pray….Once we went to the traditional sweat lodge, we knew that was it.”
Queen-Miller supported the couple financially with her Kalispell job while Gisselbrecht spent much of his time with Youngman, supplementing the couple’s income with seasonal work as a wildlands firefighter and Search and Rescue crew coordinator—work that both continue today.
“It’s not like a school room,” Queen-Miller says of Youngman’s teaching. “You commit a decade to someone, you travel with them and learn how they respond to situations.”
Youngman and his brother-in-law, Melvin Grey Bear, reintroduced the Sun Dance ceremony in Chelsea and functioned as Sundance leaders for 19 years. Youngman also served as the chairman of the Fort Peck Sioux General Counsel before “passing on to the spirit world” last July on the Fort Peck Reservation, where he lived. His death came within a few days of that of Melvin Grey Bear, and Fort Peck’s Wotanin Wowapi newspaper noted that “hundreds of family, friends, sun dancers and supporters” gathered to mourn their passing. Today, Gisselbrecht acts as a surrogate grandfather to Youngman’s eight grandchildren on the Fort Peck Reservation. Gisselbrecht says Youngman taught him the two most important things he knows: “How to live and how to pray.”
“He put me out in the mountains until I got it,” Gisselbrecht says. “Eventually, lack of food, lack of water and lots of days in the sun with no clothes—you’re going to get what’s important.”
Gisselbrecht’s education was strictly doctrinal, he says, because Youngman was concerned that some of the old ways would die out. Consequently, Gisselbrecht now knows over 200 ceremonial Sioux songs.
And it is from Youngman, Gisselbrecht says, that he learned that being Indian has nothing to do with skin color.
Early in his teachings, Gisselbrecht adds, Youngman asked him if he was embarking on the red road “because of who my grandfather was or because of who I am.”
It’s a question that had a profound impact on the pipe carrier, who warns that Native peoples should not become overly reliant on their ancestors when it comes to self-definition.
Rebel without a card
To Gisselbrecht, race and religion are separate things entirely. But that belief is considered radical by some Native Americans. Escarcega says Gisselbrecht’s role as a pipe carrier amounts to “a mockery” of the Sioux religion.
“For us, to be one of those leaders like that, you have to be Native American,” Escarcega says. “You have to be born into it, I guess. And we believe that he wasn’t. We’ve asked him previously if he can prove his ancestory, and he won’t prove it to us.”
Because he doesn’t live on a reservation and doesn’t seek government aid, Gisselbrecht says, he doesn’t carry a card officially identifying himself as a Sioux in the eyes of the U.S. government, and he scoffs at the notion of getting such a card simply to prove to others that he’s “legit.”
He prefers to address the issue with a t-shirt that reads, “I’m part white but I can’t prove it.”
“I don’t need to be catalogued,” he says. “When the Creator asks me for a card stating my race, I’ll get one. Until then, I’m just going to continue praying.”
That explanation doesn’t appease Escarcega, however.
“We have no qualms about anybody following the ways, but we believe that he’s not Indian and we believe that these canupas [pipes] were given to the Indian people, so [he shouldn’t have them] unless he proves he’s Indian and shows us his enrollment card,” Escarcega says. “My tone is very adamant against this gentleman because I think he’s defrauding us.”
Escarcega says Gisselbrecht is “not welcome here on the reservation anymore” because, he claims, Gisselbrecht stole pipes that belonged to Floyd Youngman. Escarcega suggested the Independent talk to Youngman’s daughter, Andrea Youngman, about his claim.
But contacted for comment, Andrea Youngman, a Sioux tribal member also living on the Fort Peck reservation, failed to corroborate Escarcega’s allegation.
When Floyd Youngman passed, says Andrea, “I was there and so was my son. John helped my son wrap things up and put them away for the year. I’ve known John for quite a while, and he’s not like that. He was a big help to me and my family in helping us do things that were proper” after her father’s passing.
Andrea Youngman says that she still has her father’s pipes, and her son, Loren Youngman, says that he has one as well. The pipes have been stored away for the year to honor Floyd’s passing, and both say that John did not take any. Gisselbrecht says the pipes he and Queen-Miller carry were made for them by hand by Floyd Youngman, who gave them the pipes two years into their training as pipe carriers, approximately eight years ago.
Escarcega also alleges that Gisselbrecht has insulted Sioux tradition by charging money for sweat lodges and other ceremonial functions, a charge he says he’s heard from “Sundance relations all the way from California to Colorado to Montana.”
“Just rumors flying back and forth,” according to Andrea Youngman.
Vicky Hannon, a Kalispell resident who has been attending sweat lodges led by Gisselbrecht for the past year and a half, says he has never asked for any form of compensation.
Youngman says she thinks allegations against Gisselbrecht may be motivated by jealousy.
“My father was John’s teacher, and my father really stuck to the traditional ways,” she says. “All I can say is that John is legitimate. He knows the ways. The other ones, they want power—or notoriety, but not John.”
Floyd Youngman’s grandson, Loren Youngman, 20, spoke with the Independent from the Kicking Horse Job Corps in Ronan.
“A lot of people wanted to be around my grandfather, Floyd, but the only person he really did teach was John, and a lot of people didn’t like that,” Loren Youngman says.
It’s only natural that some tribal members would be skeptical of a man carrying a pipe handed down by Floyd Youngman when that man looks very much like the white ancestors who brought Native culture to the brink of destruction. But whether Gisselbrecht is one-quarter Sioux, as he claims, or just an interloper, as Escarcega says, a question remains: Why would a Sun-dance leader such as Floyd Youngman choose to pass on his knowledge to a man with light skin rather than, say, a full-blood on the Fort Peck Reservation?
The answer is strikingly simple, according to Loren Youngman: “He asked.”
Loren Youngman, who has known Gisselbrecht since age eight and now calls him “uncle,” says, “All it took was just to ask, but a lot of people were too afraid to ask him. The only one that asked was John.”
The way of the
As the sun begins to fade behind the mountains, John Gisselbrecht stands at the center of a circle of 12 people for the Wakinyan ceremony, banging a drum painted with a black bird, its beak open to accept a lightening bolt.
“The drum is a heartbeat,” says Queen-Miller. “So many don’t have a drum in their life.”
As the group dances softly around him, Gisselbrecht leads several spiritual songs. The first is for the four directions of the Earth, the second for the pipe that, when smoked, serves as “a cell phone to the Creator.” Next come spirit-calling songs and prayer songs, followed by healing songs and finally songs of thanks. Some of those gathered know some of the songs from time spent in the sweat lodge with Gisselbrecht; others don’t know any. At the ceremony’s conclusion, attendant Shirley Creech will head out into the forest for the night without food or water. She’s on a 24-hour fast and hopes it will bring her some clarity. Creech was raised “on the Rez” in Washington and met Gisselbrecht at a sweat in Whitefish in 1995. She says she battled cancer for two years and emerged victorious, a feat she credits to finding Native religion.
“After my first Sundance, I felt so good one day that I didn’t need my medication anymore,” Creech says.
“That’s between her and the Creator,” Gisselbrecht says. “I just learned the ceremonies to help you do what you want to do.”
The pipe carrier does not have “powers,” or even rights, Gisselbrecht explains, which means that if he’s called upon for help through prayer, he’s obligated to drop what he’s doing, day or night, and pray. He and Queen-Miller must fill the canupa wakan oyate, “the sacred pipe of the people,” every morning and night to pray for the people.
In attaining their role, pipe carriers must undergo many years of training—for Gisselbrecht, it was over a decade—and complete four Hanblecheya Api, or vision quests, and four Wiwang Wachipi, or Sundances, both of which require four days and nights without food or water.
Among the Sioux, the pipe carrier is also a guardian and water-carrier of the sacred ways handed down to the people from Ptechincala San Win, the White Buffalo Cow Woman, at what is now known as Devil’s Tower, Wyo. (Gisselbrecht says that if one cares to find a spot that’s sacred to Native peoples, one can just look for places with the word “devil” in their English name.) These ways, it is said, were given by Wakan-Tanka, the Creator, or “the Big Mystery.”
“It was told to us that whatever we needed would be given to us if we kept the pipe sacred,” says Gisselbrecht. “Pipe carriers don’t own the pipes. They are keepers of it. We fill the pipe with tobacco, or Cha Sha Sha, mixed by hand. That’s like a battery; once the two are put together and engaged, we have direct access to the Creator.”
Though Gisselbrecht is clearly open to persons of any color or background inquiring about the traditional ways, his attitude is far from accomodating when it comes to keeping the pipe sacred.
“The ceremonies that were given by the White Buffalo Cow Woman are like a combination lock,” Gisselbrecht says. “But we often see that people change things. They add things like crystals that don’t come from the original ceremony. If you change one number, that lock won’t open.”
Seekers and swindlers
Those who don’t remain true to the sacred ways can be dangerous, according to Gisselbrecht, particularly when they lure unsuspecting seekers into their net; Gisselbrecht recently found fliers in the Flathead advertising a “non-ceremonial sweat” (which he says is like saying, “we’re going to have a church service on Sunday but it’s non-religious”).
“People who do this tend to target abused women and make money off of them,” Gisselbrecht says. “This one tried to charge $85. There’s never a charge for a real sweat lodge. These things are given to the people on loan from the Creator. We don’t charge anyway, anyhow. I don’t accept gifts or cash. These people have no access to this. It’s a very long process. It’s not something where you can go to the library and pick up a half-dozen books.”
To this day, Gisselbrecht says, the Native ways are threatened by those with good intentions but a wish to mold tradition to fit their own agenda.
“We’ll often have people show up on the reservations who want to do a documentary, but what they’re usually looking for is people to agree with them or people to act for them,” Gisselbrecht says. They’ll say, ‘We want to do a documentary on the Indian people. Here’s the script.’”
In part because of this, according to Gisselbrecht, much of what mainstream culture learns of Native culture is determined by who looks the part and who’s willing to read the script.
That script is now being written yet again in South Dakota, where the Crazy Horse Memorial cliff sculpture currently underway serves to illustrate the kind of well-intentioned but poorly executed “preservation” of Indian culture Gisselbrecht decries.
The Associated Press reported last week that a national fund-raising drive has been launched in hopes of finishing the monument, and that once finished, the sculpture will be “taller than the Washington Monument, and so large that the four presidential heads on Mount Rushmore, 17 miles away, would fit in the nine-story-high warrior’s head.” The article goes on to state that the memorial will feature lighting from “three of the world’s largest slide projectors.” Gisselbrecht laughs sadly at the thought.
“To Tasunka Witko, the one they call Crazy Horse, the Black Hills were the most sacred place in the world to our people,” Gisselbrecht says. “There are resources to be used by the people so long as it’s done in a good way. But when you go and you take a mountain that this person held in the highest regard for its sacredness, and then blow the crap out of it to put his likeness on there, it would have disgusted him. He would have killed the people that are doing this. That was his mother. That’s all of our mother, and what they’re doing to it, in Dakotah [Sioux] belief, is criminal.”
Gisselbrecht thinks the monument to the leader to whom he traces his teachings may have another purpose aside from the educational. That purpose? “Come pay your $10 to see Crazy Horse.”
As the Wakinyan ceremony draws toward its conclusion, a fire is started. Shooting stars grace the night sky. Each member of the circle takes time to pray before the altar, where the sacred pipe of the people—the canupa wakan oyate—lies. The breeze has picked up and the larch and fir dance wildly. The air is cold, but there are enough blankets to go around. In the darkness, it’s harder to tell that all the faces in the circle are light-skinned.
As Gisselbrecht sings prayers, occasionally lubricating his vocal chords with a swig of water from a plastic gallon container, the dancers circle around him, moving slowly from one foot to the other, back and forth, like buoys on the ocean.
Inside the circle the Hannon family dances—father Tim, mother Vicky and two young children, Jessica and Timmy. Jessica already knows more of the Sioux language than most Sioux, according to Gisselbrecht. Both she and her brother attend to the pipe carriers as they pray over the canupa, learning the ancient ways so that they may one day help keep them alive—if they so choose. Vicky says the traditional ways have brought her Kalispell family closer together and helped them through hard times.
Near the Hannon family dances Jamie Butkovich, a Bigfork resident with long salt-and-pepper hair and a broad smile. She is training with Gisselbrecht to become a pipe carrier, and like the vast majority here, she’s white.
Though traditional cultures—American and Native American both—may not be ready to accept the practices of pipe carriers who don’t look the part, those in the circle don’t seem to mind.
One member of that circle, Shirley Creech, will soon be sent off for the night to fast and pray.
Before she goes, I ask Creech, whose skin is darker than most of the others, if she is, in fact, Indian.
“I tell my little boy we have a little bit” of Native blood, she says, her voice raspy from cigarettes, her eyes wide and brown. “But I also ask him, ‘What do you feel in your heart? Do you feel full-blood in your heart?’ He says that he does,” she says. “It’s how you feel in your heart that matters.”