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Native Indian Lore
Opening Encampment Prayer, 1943
Ponca Concept of Prayer [L-S-2]


Ponca Concept of Prayer As the earliest rays of dawn walked slowly but deliberately across the Ponca's tribal encampment there was the usual sounds of the people when they began the day. The children were just beginning to awaken to the sounds of the open air. If they were still lethargic from their night and the heavy sleep brought to them from active outdoor play it would be only at this early morning time. Of course, children are forever curious and, especially so if there is a difference in regular routine.

The youngest girl's attention was caught by the sight of an extremely elderly woman walking across an open space toward the middle of the temporary village which had arisen for this brief few days of "pow-wow." The little girl set up higher on her bed and watched, looking intently as if she knew there was something interesting about to transpire. The old woman walked slowly. Her long gray hair was hanging in a rough unaccustomed way. It was uncombed and seemed so very disheveled, uncharacteristic of the always neat orderly way hair was to be worn, smooth and braided. "Smooth your hair," the girl had been told even though very young. "They dance around the hair you pull out with a comb, so dispose of that properly." The advise was given. Old one was carrying something. Whatever she held was all wrapped in a white cloth so that it could not be seen.

At this time the old woman's lonely trailing across the space toward the middle of the camp was beginning to make a statement to all who were around and about. She reached an area where there was a break in the over head trees showing blue morning sky above her and she gently, ever so carefully placed the bundle she held on the ground as delicately as though it might have been a baby. From her pocket she pulled a comb. By this time the little girl who watched was so intent on the activities of this solitary old grandmother there was nothing or no one who could have pulled her away from the curiosity of it. Before all who watched the elder pulled the comb through her hair. She didn't hurry and it was a ritual it seemed. Carefully she parted her very long hair in the middle and pulled the strands together. There was a smooth, orderly look to her appearance now, rather than the loose looking way of only a moment before.

As this ritual was complete she picked up the swaddled bundle and raised it along with her withered slender arms to the sky. Softy the ancient spoken language of the ancestors fell and rose with the urgency in the woman's voice as if nothing else was of any greater importance. Even if the language was not understood there still was a great meaning to the expression of it. Here was nothing around the woman. No trappings of garments, objects, podium or pew interfered with the strength of the pleading. The peace pipe was there but, it was wrapped, as the little girl would over the years learn it would always be. No eye could fall upon it. The sacredness of the object was not to be a thing of worship in itself. After this last daughter of the chief would pass away it would disappear, to be buried and forever remain apart from the tribe. Great discipline as to disposing of it was taken very seriously. No one, not any, wanted the object in their presence for fear of great calamity to come upon the entire tribe. Years later when the little girl became an elder herself she could not walk into a museum where the pipes were displayed without respectfully taking her eyes away from them and, indeed, backing away from them, so deep was her understanding of her old one's beliefs as to absolutely no idolatry or worshiping of something seen and not in spirit.

The child in her youth always watched her mother pray at the same time of the morning, but, somehow, this was different. The encampment gave new meaning to this part of their life. Now she turned her head way over to one side and looked up through the opening of the trees. Of course, there was nothing there. At this time no one had to tell her to be silent and quiet. Because everyone around had stopped their activities while they listened and watched the frail little women at the center, and slightly to the side of the encampment, the little one knew it was imperative she not be rowdy and noisy. She had many questions but they would have to wait.


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