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  • My Path to the River
  • Michael Farrell

It is spring 1975.

It is just coming on dawn at Crow Dog’s place on the Little White River. I am trying to get some sleep after being up for the last two nights. I am lying on the frosty grass, wrapped in a sleeping bag, half tucked in under my Chevrolet Vega—but the sounds from the river are keeping me awake. The river is talking. And it seems to be talking to me . . . but I don’t understand.

Just then the young Lakota man is at my side, who through the night had been sitting next to me on the dirt floor of the cabin where the ceremony was being held. He is poking me. “He says you have to come back in. We can’t finish without you.”

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Figure 1.

The Platte River near the Plum Creek Massacre site, east of Lexington, Nebraska, February 1992.

I growl about having to drive us home on no sleep, after having driven all night from Lincoln to get us up to the Rosebud—ostensibly to talk about making a film about the Lakota after the Wounded Knee II trials—and then staying awake all through the next night to participate in the Native American Church ceremony, but I get up and walk back in.

There, at my empty place in the circle waiting for me, sit the water drum, gourd rattle, and eagle feather fan. I don’t know any of the songs or even any words in Lakota, which had been painfully clear all through [End Page 107] the night, as the ceremony had progressed round and round the circle. I had been an altar boy growing up and this seemed quite a bit like the ritual of the Mass, so I knew that I should be respectful—but I also knew I didn’t really belong here.

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Figure 2.

Kingsley Dam and Lake C. W. McConaughy on the North Platte River, Nebraska, 1994.

And now, after I pass the paraphernalia to my left, the last round of drumming and singing is complete. The ritual items come to rest back at the crescent-shaped fireplace altar. Then the communion-like morning meal makes the rounds. Chunks of boiled meat, followed by corn and fruit, with a bucket of water and a dipper coming last.

I take a dipperful and look into the bowl. The water is most definitely alive and the entire world is present in that little aluminum cupful. I know then that the real ceremony is about to begin . . . What I learned on that crisp spring morning set my life’s direction for years to come. I couldn’t really expect to be able to tell other peoples’ stories well if I was clueless about my own. A couple of years from then I took off a year from my job. To explore family history, Katherine Anne and I, took our son, one-year-old Sean Patrick, and traveled back to Indiana where I was born and raised. Then we went to Ireland to try to find out who we were before we became Americans and what our ancestors’ paths had been to this continent.

I saw how the weather worked in the west of Ireland on the Dingle Peninsula where my mother Eileen Margaret Scanlon Farrell’s people had come from. There, periods of sunshine were frequently punctuated by surprise rainstorms that blew in from the ocean. Then just as suddenly, all returned to calm. This unpredictable [End Page 108] cycle of sun and storm seemed to mirror or perhaps even gave rise to the Irish personality and it revealed to me a new understanding about how I navigated the world emotionally—and that my tendency to volatility perhaps had ancient roots.

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Figure 3.

The North Platte Valley from the Narcissa Whitman Overlook, east of Chimney Rock, Nebraska, 1993.

And I learned that the Irish Celts once practiced a nature-based religion before adopting Christianity. They erected standing stones in places of natural beauty and spiritual significance...


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