Christmas at Upper Cut Meat

Published in Fireweed, 1995.

in memory of Nellie He Dog Black Crow[break] near Rosebud, SD

My father came for Christmas on the Res[break] one year, flew two thousand miles at eighty[break]just to see that I was fine. So Nellie[break] Black Crow made sure that he was treated right,[break]asked us over to Rosebud for Christmas[break] Evening church service at Upper Cut Meat.

A simple white hall, clapboarded by her[break] husband, Roy Black Crow, the first Native[break]lay reader in the Episcopal Mission.[break] The bishops were proud of him; though the land[break]was still Nellie’s, handed down from He Dog,[break]her father, last of the Brule Band chiefs.

Called “Upper Cut Meat,” the best of the beef[break]issue ration, rib eye and top sirloin,[break]just for the headman who signed the treaty[break]when no more bison surged over the plains.[break]Not much here now, cluster of BIA[break]houses, maybe ten, and the Black Crow church,

freshly whitewashed. Inside a tall cedar[break]tree becomes the altar, decked with apples[break]and popcorn, simple as evening service;[break]carols in Lakota, slow hymns, ancient verses.[break]Roy’s dead now; the new lay reader[break]greets my father, “Welcome, Elder Mack!”

Four boys with braids carry in big cardboard[break]symbols: star, cedar, hoop of sage, and cross,[break]Christmas story in Native tradition.[break]First comes the Star, leading the People on.[break]Next the Cedar, tree of life, tree of earth,[break]roots, anchor for the journey, purification.

Then Circle, sage hoop, binding the People[break]to the Sacred Path. Door to the Spirit World,[break]circling wrist, ankle, forehead, keeping[break]all pure. Last, the Cross, Jesus’ sacrifice[break]and suffering; yet Cross laid on Hoop becomes[break]Medicine Wheel, salvation for us all.

Children tie their shining symbols on the tree,[break]Jesus’ life, reincarnate in Upper Cut Meat;[break]all is well. Last, the midnight feast.[break]Under the tree, gifts wrapped for each one here,[break]plus apples, oranges and walnuts for all.

Names are called out, and then it’s “Elder Mack.”[break]”Why, how’d they know I’d be here?” His package[break]thick, heavy — damp? A two-inch slab of steak,[break]raw-red and marbled. “Strange present; won’t keep.”[break]We get Bibles or Tupperware, troll dolls[break]or trucks. But for the guest come two thousand[break]miles, the headman’s honor: upper cut meat.

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