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Red Willow Spirit: A Color Song, A Fire Dance, and the Warriors of Autumn

Autumn Warriors 1 Resized

October runs headlong into winter now, like a warrior into battle. For some, it will be a war: a fight literally to the death, just to survive. For others, it will be only the annual skirmish with dormancy and small decay, a temporary surrender to the white flag of winter, before rising anew from earth and ashes in the spring.

It’s a fitting metaphor: In many cultures, elderhood is referred to as “the autumn of one’s years”; equally apt is the phrase “the golden years,” particularly in places like this at this time of year. Here at Red Willow, all of our seasons are filled with color and light, but only autumn is consistently, unmistakably golden, with the aspens and cottonwoods engaging in one last dance of sunlit fire before the long cold pale sleep of winter. And while for most of them, it’s only the small artificial death of dormancy, for many of our peoples, death is much the same, less a permanent state of being than a rite of passage leading us across the threshold between worlds.

Some of our warriors are gone.

We lose a few more every year, these elders who know what it is to fight, who know capture and escape, who know what it takes to survive and what is required to save others. Here at Red Willow, one of the few remaining World War II veterans walked on earlier this year. In Navajoland, they lost one of the few remaining Code Talkers a scant two weeks ago; media photos invariably showed him dressed in his traditional bright gold shirt, the color of their group, one that matched the dress of the aspens this time of year.

Our peoples always lose more elders in the colder months; so many still live traditionally, and the deep chill that inhabits this altitude with us is hard not only on aging joints, but on lungs and hearts, as well.

The same holds true for the aging warriors of the natural world.

Along the highway heading out north of town, the fields that lie at the feet of the peaks have long been home to stands large and small of old cottonwoods interspersed here and there with aspens, large gatherings of the clan and small family groupings alike. In a few places, they have long been guarded by a select few sturdy old warriors, groupings of individual trees that stand together to form both a small windbreak and a seeming row of sentries.

Many of these individual trees have long been something well past “old”: In the dominant culture’s way of understanding existence, they are “dead.”

But our peoples have always known that dead is not always dead.

Examples about in the natural world: A shellfish’s lifespan comes to an end, and a new sea creature swims to occupy its shell, the beneficiary of a newly safe space. In some cases, it’s not even a “living creature” that moves in to make a new home for itself; sometimes it’s a collection of minerals, combined with heat and water and pressure and time, filling a once-living gap to form a literal gem.

And sometimes it’s a tree, trunk and branches dry like bone, that turns its literal self over to smaller spirits: insects, birds, perhaps the occasional fox or coyote who finds shelter beneath its body.

Autumn Warriors 2 Resized

The most ancient sentinels in these fields have long been what the rest of the world regards as dead, but their bodies teem with life. The upper reaches of their branches are often held by other warriors, too: the hawks who once flew with the Thunderbirds; the bald eagles who represent ceremony and medicine; even the golden eagle like the one who visited us overhead today, what my own people call the War Eagle.

Of course, those warriors whose spirits have walked on slowly fall, bits and pieces crumbling under the weight of time and weather. After every storm, skeletal branches litter the ground anew, although once in a while, what falls to earth and what catches fire beneath it will birth new growth.

Mostly, though, we are losing them as surely as we are losing our own elders.

Autuman Warriors 3 Resized

Not so man years ago — fewer than ten, certainly — all four of these old cottonwood warriors stood tall and strong, four trees filled with spirit and power even though science would tell you their own spirits were long-departed.

A spring windstorm felled the first; monsoons claimed the second and third. Slowly, the trunks have been cut into logs and carted off to provide firewood, or perhaps a trendy tabletop. Now only the fourth remains, and a few bits and pieces of one of his brothers. It hurts my heart every time I pass, the great haunting gap in the line they held for so long. And yet, the fourth still stands as tall as age and the elements permit, refusing to give up or give in, demanding, as his clan brothers did, that he continue to stand watch until the role is taken from him by a force to great for him to fight.

Perhaps he’ll still be standing after the winter to come.

They, too, are soldiers, even those who now stand only in this image .

The light grows short and the air cold. Winter will be here much sooner than any of us has fully realized, and once it arrives, the fall flames will be gone for another year. Some flames will burn out in the intervening months, never to return.

But for now, even where some live on only in film, memory, and a world beyond our own, we have a few more days remaining: days to celebrate a color song, a fire dance, and the warriors of autumn.

~ Aji




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