12 October 2012

Mato Paha (Bear Butte)

Mato Paha, 27 September 2012
It rises out of the shelf of land between the Black Hills and the High Plaines of SW South Dakota.  Just five miles northeast of the town of Sturgis, SD...a location made famous by its annual motorcycle rally in August.  The picture to the right is taken from about a mile away -- on the approach road.  From certain angles, this butte does look like a resting bear.  It is why the Cheyenne and Lakota peoples called it Mato (Bear) Paha (Hill/Butte)

The land on this shelf is at about 3400 feet above sea level.  Mato Paha (Ma-toh Pah-hah) rises another 1200 feet above the surrounding plain.  It was formed eons ago by action of subsurface magma pushing upward into the granite.  It pushed these rocks to a probable peak of about 2000 feet, but no volcano was formed, and the magma subsided.  The entire  Black Hills was formed by such action, which is an anomaly of sorts.  The surrounding plains were scraped flat by advancing and retreating ice...the most recent ice age.

To say that Mato Paha is sacred is to understate both its significance and the experience one has when ascending to its peak.  Geologists attest to the unusual electro-magnetic activity here.  Archealogists attest to the fact that it has been sacred to a number of indigenous peoples dating back at least 10,000 years.  In our time, it has been continuously used as a place of pilgrimage, prayer and sacred ceremony by the Cheyenne, Lakota, Arapaho, Crow and other First Nations in the upper plains.  Crazy Horse, the Oglala Lakota war chief, made his home at its base in the 1870s.  The largest ever gathering of First Nations peoples happened here in the 1850s.  Today, prayer flags and ties hang from the scrubby trees and shrubs on the switch back, scree-covered trail that ascends to the summit.  It is one of the four major gathering places for the annual ceremonial procession of the Lakota people (dating back to the 1700s and still being done).

One does not ascend to the summit of Mato Paha and not be transformed in some way...or not meet a challenge within one's soul.  It does have that kind of power.

I departed Sarasota on 24 September -- flying to Kansas City, MO, where I met my dear friend Don Palmer.  We drove his Ford F150 extended cab truck (lovingly called "Big Bertha") the 750 miles from Kansas City to the center of the Black Hills....the Pe Sla (Pay-shlah).  There we spent 12 days at Borderlands Ranch...in a set of two cabins at the rear of the ranch property.  At 6500 feet, it is an area of wonder, beauty and unique features.  It is also a sacred place to the First Nations people.

I had a task -- or series of tasks -- related to the project of writing a book.  In the work I am doing, one does not simply do a lot of reading and technical research and write an opinion.  I began this journey in 2007 with a Vision Quest (Hanblecheya) in the Pe Sla...four days in length with an overnight of vigil at the top of a hill clothed only in a pair of gym shorts and wrapped in a blanket...barefoot and restricted to an area no larger that 6 square feet.  It was one of the most powerful experiences of my life.  And, it defies description.  It must be experienced.

The task with each visit is a pilgrimage to one of the sacred areas.  This puts one in touch with the inner self, God and the earth.  I made my first pilgrimage to the top of Mato Paha also in 2007.  One does not do this pilgrimage unless one feels the compelling invitation from within.  I knew, several weeks before going, that I was called to begin this time in the Black Hills by ascending Mato Paha.   It would be my fifth time in six visits (I was specifically "told" from within not to climb last fall, when I went.  I did not realize at the time that I was getting sick with the infection in my right shoulder...but, obviously, One knew).

The trail up the Mato Paha is a narrow, winding path of scree rock and granite stone that winds and switches back as it skirts two lower peaks and eventually to the top of the main peak.  The path is a little more than two miles, but it is rugged and demanding.  It takes about 1 hr, 45 minutes to ascend and about 1 hr, 15 minutes to descend.  I am always sore for a couple of days afterward....and I prepare well in advance with lower body strength training.  Altitude requires regular intake of water and probably a small power bar at the top to re-energize.

Some people make the trip in "tourist fashion" -- zipping up and back to show their "mastery of the mountain."  It is typical of our culture.  Challenges demand conquest.  Before I made my first ascent, I was carefully advised by my mentors to do so "in a sacred manner."  "Mato Paha speaks to one's spirit, and the resulting internal conversation leads to healing and vision," said my mentor in 2007.  I am here to say that, after five pilgrimage ascents, I have never returned the same person that started.  Something has always shifted.  Just as an example:  I have a genetic coronary diagnosis that included cardiac ischemia.  This is heart tissue that no longer functions ... or functions at severely reduced efficiency.  During my 2008 (2nd) pilgrimage, I had experienced chest pain on the  ascent.  A nuclear cardiac stress/CT study later showed that the ischemia had disappeared.  This simply does not happen -- unless one is healed "in a sacred manner."

As I made this pilgrimage on 27 September, it was our second day in the Black Hills.  I left with concern about my ability to do the project that we have been designing and engaging for almost five years.  Now that I am a year retired, healed from my recent surgeries, moved into our new location and an official father-in-law to a wonderful young man who married our younger daughter in June, it is time to begin this work in earnest.  This time, Mato Paha and I needed to have a conversation.

I will not (and cannot) describe my climb up to the top or my descent.  Suffice it to say, it included a very vivid intuitional conversation with a Lakota medicine man, an encounter with two young prairie rattlesnakes (In my five times of doing this, I had never seen a snake of any kind on the Mato Paha), and a challenge I did not expect to have in the mix of all that.  For the record, snakes and I get along fine.  I have handled a couple of rattlesnakes as a teenage amateur herpetologist (which annoyed my dad immeasurably).  But the appearances and the fact that I encountered them and Don didn't bears sharp note.

In this journey I had tears, laughter, pain, doubt, and peace.  It didn't happen in any order and not just once.  I had things to learn about myself and "charges" (emotional baggage) to engage.  Mato Paha was true to character.  By the time I returned to the parking lot of the  Visitor Center, at the base, I was not the same guy in character that I was when I arrived at the center. Besides it being four hours later and being physically wiped slick, my internal being had been permanently rearranged in important areas.  It totally shaped my next 10 days of work.

There are many ways to encounter and experience the Transforming Spirit of God (Wakan-Tanka, Yahweh, Tankashila).  The Holy One, who created and continues to create within us, is all pervasive.  Our First Nations brothers and sisters never lost that sense as we "westerners" have (in large measure).  It is in our genetics, and our forebearers knew of it.  St. Francis spent his life teaching this...as did the Celtic Christians.  One of my goals is to expand our experience and vision in sharing the experiences I have been so privileged to have over the past five years...as well as what may be ahead of me.

Oh, more on the "iconology" of animals at another time.  I am still processing my experiences from this latest journey -- in a sacred manner.

Blessings in the Love of Jesus,

Silent reflection atop Mato Paha
27 September 2012
Fr. Fred+

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for posting this photo - I found it compelling and inspiring, as I also climbed to the summit in the summer of 2011.

    But what I found, in the right background of the photo also caught my attention. The faded red bandanna was left there, by me, as an offering, among others.

    Wli Bamkanni...