My commentary will be in () because to tell a story we are taught not to embellish or change the original story. The parts in () are so translation is not lost to words.
The Simple boy’s Wisdom
There was a man and his wife who had one daughter. Mother and daughter were deeply attached to one another, and when the daughter died the mother was disconsolate. She cut off her hair, cut gashes in her cheeks and sat before the corpse with her robe drawn over her head, mourning for her dead. Nor would she let them touch the body to take it to join the ancestors. She had a knife in her hand, and if anyone offered to come near the body the mother would wail:
“I am weary of life. I do not care to live. I will stab myself with this knife and join my daughter in the land of the spirits.”
Her husband and relatives tried to get the knife from her, but could not. They feared to use force lest she kill herself. They came together to see what they could do.
“We must get the knife away from her,” they said.
At last they called a boy, a kind of simple boy, yet with a good deal of natural shrewdness. He was an orphan and very poor, with no family of his own. His moccasins were out at the sole and he was dressed in wei-zi (coarse buffalo skin, smoked).
(He had nothing new and only what he’d made himself. Most native people wore less course dress that had been tanned and softened with salts and time. The simple boy had no family he had to make his own clothes, catch his own food. The tribe would care for him until he was old enough to care for himself. When he became of age he would care for himself as he was by the time of this story. Normally the family all helped, they hunted, made clothes, and all had a hand in family life.)
“Go to the tepee of the mourning mother,” they told the simple boy, “and in some way contrive to make her laugh and forget her grief. Then try to get the knife away from her.”
The boy went to the tent and sat down at the door as if waiting to be given something. The corpse lay in the place of honor where the dead girl had slept in life. The body was wrapped in a rich robe and wrapped about with ropes. Friends had covered it with rich offerings out of respect to the dead.
(For my people we say rich, we mean new clothing sewn of cotton and brightly colored. The finest skins are used for a vest/dress and moccasins. She would adorn beads and jewelry as well as scented oils.)
As the mother sat on the ground with her head covered she did not at first see the boy, who sat silent. But when his reserve had worn away a little he began at first lightly, then more heavily, to drum on the floor with his hands. (Teepe’s had floors fashioned of wood and covered with skins the hair remaining and facing up to soften the floor) After a while he began to sing a comic song. Louder and louder he sang until carried away with his own singing he sprang up and began to dance, at the same time gesturing and making all manner of contortions with his body, still singing the comic song. As he approached the corpse he waved his hands over it in blessing. The mother put her head out of the blanket and when she saw the poor simple boy with his strange grimaces trying to do honor to the corpse by his solemn waving, and at the same time keeping up his comic song, she burst out laughing. Then she reached over and handed her knife to the simple boy.
“Take this knife,” she said. “You have taught me to forget my grief. If while I mourn for the dead I can still be mirthful, there is no reason for me to despair. I no longer care to die. I will live for my husband.”
The simple boy left the tepee and brought the knife to the astonished husband and relatives.
“How did you get it? Did you force it away from her, or did you steal it?” they said.
“She gave it to me. How could I force it from her or steal it when she held it in her hand, blade uppermost. I sang and danced for her and she burst out laughing. Then she gave it to me,” he answered.
When the old men of the village heard the orphan’s story they were very silent. It was a strange thing for a lad to dance in a tepee where there was mourning. It was stranger that a mother should laugh in a tepee before the corpse of her dead daughter. The old men gathered at last in a council. They sat a long time without saying anything, for they did not want to decide hastily. The pipe was filled and passed many times. At last an old man spoke.
“We have a hard question. A mother has laughed before the corpse of her daughter, and many think she has done foolishly, but I think the woman did wisely. The lad was simple and of no training, and we cannot expect him to know how to do as well as one with good home and parents to teach him. Besides, he did the best that he knew. He danced to make the mother forget her grief, and he tried to honor the corpse by waving over it his hands.”
“The mother did right to laugh, for when one does try to do us good, even if what he does causes us discomfort, we should always remember rather the motive than the deed. And besides, the simple boy’s dancing saved the woman’s life, for she gave up her knife. In this, too, she did well, for it is always better to live for the living than to die for the dead.”
“From this day we shall dance to remember the life of the dead and the joy in living.”
The family adopted the simple boy as their son. He came to know the love of parents and taught them the love of life. He brought much joy to their home and he never lost his simple view of living in joy. Before his new parents past he filled their lives with children for he married and brought them many joyful grandchildren. The dancing and laughing for living joy remained in the home all the days.
(All the days does not cover a single life they cover forever more.)
(Here the speaker is free to add his/her wisdom to the story so everything from here down is me. The above story is translated from my native tongue and some words do not translate as well as others. I did my best to honor the story and make it so you’d understand it.)
The simple boy taught us life is what matters. The dead are not here but the life they left for us is celebratory and cause for celebration. He danced, not for the daughter but for the mother. In the dance she remembered life is for the living and it is worth living. Today we dance for the dead, tell stories of their lives and share the wisdom they passed to us. This is the way of the Lakota and this is why we dance. To remember and honor the dead for the life they shared with us all and the life we will share when it is our time of passing.
Death is the end for the living but the beginning for the dead. We will see them again and the face they remember should be filled with joys they helped make and not sorrows of death. Because death is but a new beginning.
My grandpa mato said to me when he finished the story; “The simple boy taught us the joy in all life, even the life to come. He knew joy because his eyes too were once clouded with death of his parents and sadness. As he grew he remained happy. The elders could not understand for he had no family and yet he was happy. His dance taught them joy comes from life itself. Do you understand now why we dance?”
I was little I didn’t understand so he explained that death is just a beginning like birth. My birth into this world was the beginning I know and my death is my birth into my next season of life. That new life and the life I gave those who remain behind is worthy of celebration. This is why we dance. Not for the dead, but for the living in both seasons.
I never fully understood until many years later. But I know we live now and death begins new life so we live then too. Life in both forms is something great and wonderful and worthy of much joy. Little is more joyful than dancing and singing and telling stories of those that preceded us to the next life.
I still miss grandpa Mato, his wise and stead advice. Much wisdom was shared in his time and many times more love shared. It maybe time to dance again and remember, love and celebrate the life he lived and the life I will meet him again.