Bill McDavid - So The People Will Live

Growing up all Bill McDavid ever wanted was to be an Indian. Many of his decisions were made based on this dream. He learns something very important about himself after participating in his first Sun Dance.

Bill McDavid once convinced his father to buy him a pet duck because if he thought he wouldn't have any interesting stories to tell without a duck. Bill McDavid is a photographer who grew up in Alabama. He moved to Montana for its beauty and photographs it every day. His photographs have appeared in or on:

  • The BBC
  • The Wall Street Journal
  • The Robb Report
  • Centro y Sur
  • Montana Fly Fishing
  • Northwest Fly Fishing
  • The Land Report
  • Open Fences

You can learn more about Bill and see some of his photographs at billmcdavid.com.

Check out an interview with him over at National Geographic.

This episode of Tell Us Something was recorded in front of a live audience on December 8th, 2015, at The Wilma in Missoula, MT. 8 storytellers shared their story based on the theme “Illumination/Revelation”.

Today’s podcast comes to us from Bill McDavid and is titled "So The People Will Live".  Thank you for listening.

TRANSCRIPTION

You guys can't tell I just peed in my pants a little bit, right? I know you're thinking what's this guy wearing. It's a little bit of the story.
 
We dance so the people will live. That is the answer I got when I asked the Crow Indians why they danced the sun dance about twenty-five years ago. I was raised in Alabama and we--[Clapping] alright, that's a surprise--we really had no Indians around in Alabama, but I was fascinated with them. I saw them in photographs, and in history books, and in movies. And if you grew up in the 70's you remember the Keep America Beautiful campaign there was that Indian that the tear came down his cheek as he watched all of us white people pollute his mother earth. And man, I really wanted to be an Indian.
 
And that fascination stayed with me until I was a preteen and at that point hormones took over, and girls, guitars, a few other things got in the way of that. And then some years later I was in law school and I went to see a film with my aunt, and it was the first time I had ever seen Dances with Wolves. And when Kicking Bird came out I leaned over to my aunt and I said, "I'm going to make and I'm going to wear clothes like that someday."

So the next day I went to the library and I checked out a whole bunch of books, and they were all the wrong books. So I started ordering books from obscure publishers that nobody's ever heard of and they were on things like how to brain tan buckskin, and how to do bead work, and make bows and arrows out of wood. And pretty soon I had a whole wardrobe, leggings, moccasins, war shield, everything, but you just didn't wear that sort of thing in Alabama.
 
So it was about maybe a year or two later after graduation I moved to Montana. And I moved into a teepee on the banks of Rock Creek, out here east of Missoula. And I wore those clothes almost every day while I studied for the Bar exam under the light of a Coleman lantern. And I was also looking for a job, right. Every fresh grad needs a job. So I saw posted at the law school it said, "Crow Tribal Prosecutor." That seemed like a dream come true, right. So I sent them a resume, and I got an interview. That interview was a whole other story in of itself, but suffice to say I got the job.

I accepted and I had no clue what I was in for. So I moved to Crow Agency. My first day a woman came up to me in the tribal court. She was a clerk. She looked pissed off, and she started poking me in the chest, and her jaw began to quiver as she spoke to me. "I just want you to know I don't trust none of you white people! I never have and I never will!"

Custer Died for your Sins, that's a great book. It's one of many that I read leading up to this that gave me some understanding as to why there might be a little bit of legitimate resentment. So I tried to let it slide off. Fortunately, there were a lot of others on the Res who saw my sincerity, and my desire to become an Indian. And so they started inviting me to all of these things that I could've only dreamed about. Sweat Lodge Ceremonies, two or three times a week, I was going to Bundles Ceremonies, I was going to dances in the middle of winter when there were certainly no tourists around. I learned how to play hand games. I stayed up until four in the morning nights on end playing in these tournaments. I was living a modern day Dances With with Wolves, and it was a dream come true.
 
But at every one of these events or almost everyone there was somebody there, often times it was this woman who poked me in the chest, that went out of their way to really make me feel uncomfortable, and they succeeded. But I succeeded, because I'm stubborn, so I stayed.
 
And one night I was in the Sweat Lodge with my--I had a family that had adopted me there--and I was invited to dance the Sun Dance the following summer. And that was a great honor, and needless to say I accepted immediately, because if you're going to be an Indian you have to dance the Sun Dance, right? But honestly, I did so with a lot of trepidation inside. If you've seen a "A Man Called Horse" you know why. Maybe you've seen it in other depictions. I had, and I knew that it always involved a lot of blood, piercing of the chest, and of the back. And I'd seen the scars in the Sweat Lodge. There was--you know--they would drag buffalo skulls around the lodge. They would even hang from the pole until their flesh broke. And that did not sound very appealing to me, but I was going to be an Indian.

So over the many months of preparation, you can imagine the relief that I felt when I came to find out that this particular dance that I would be dancing was going to be a non-piercing ceremony. I can handle this! Well, so what was it then? Well, it was three and a half days of dancing and fasting. And fasting to the Indians is serious business. There is no food and there is no water the whole time. By the second day, I had no concern for food whatsoever. All I could think about was water. Just one drop to get me through another hour, maybe another day. I remember looking up at the stars in the middle of the night wondering what would happen if I were to drink the saline solution that I had been allowed to bring in to manage my contact lenses. Obviously, that would've been a mistake so I didn't do that. So I just kept dancing and all the while I'm dancing, I'm floating above this scene, and I'm looking down at myself with a great deal of scorn and ridicule. Who do you think you are, man?! Look at you! You look ridiculous! So I clenched that eagle bone whistle in my teeth and I held my eagle feathers and I just kept dancing.
 
And the final day came and it was only after what seemed like an excessive and unnecessary amount of ritual and prayer and ceremony, that they brought in the water -- that the water ladies had gone up to the Bighorn Mountains and gotten out of a spring. And they brought it in these big, metal containers that were sweating because it was blisteringly hot. This was August, and my body was not sweating anymore at this point because you lose everything. And this is a time that my white privilege did not put me at the front of the line. I had to wait my turn for the water. And then it was my turn, and I got a little cup. And I remember pouring it into my body, and feeling instantaneously that it was penetrating every cell of my body with life. I swear I could feel it in my fingernails. 
After that, we filed out of the lodge, and there were all of these people there to greet us. They had been there all along to help us with things that we needed. And among them was this woman who poked me in the chest that first day. But as she approached me her face looked very different. And she held out her hands briefly and took mine, just quickly. And she said, "Thank you."
 
And things started to come into focus at that moment. So I left, and I went home. Only after, mind you, that I went to Pizza Hut. I had been told repeatedly that you should have some crackers and some soup, and take it easy, but...pepperoni! So I went home and I sat on the couch and looked out my window. I didn't live in a teepee at this point. And I watched the most beautiful sunset you could imagine. And I started to bawl like a baby with this revelation that I had failed at becoming an Indian. I didn't dance the Sun Dance so that people will live. I danced out of some sense of spiritual materialism, and we white people are good at that. Like I was going pack it all up into a little box, and tuck it under my arm, and go home, and use it up for me. And that's why I was so angry with myself while I was dancing. And that is not how you become an Indian. “A-ho” (this is “thank you” in the Crow language)