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Ho Chunk Meeting

Ho Chunk is the name of the Native American people also known as Winnebago. However, Winnebago is a name that was given to them; among themselves, they are the Ho Chunk.

"Man-ka," which means "earth-vein," is their name for peyote: the teacher, healer, friend, and comforter; God's gift of life to humankind.

A few words about some Native American Church beliefs, because they are intimately connected to the way in which the Ho Chunk use man-ka and what it is used for. The Native American Church is a Christian church, but it also has deep roots in the Native American world view. The earth is a physical world and a living being. It has veins which carry its blood, its life, put there by the Creator to nourish it. If we drink from these veins, then we also are guaranteed life and good health. Man-ka, as an earth-vein, is a source of life and good health--it is therefore a medicine and a food. It was put there by the Creator to heal us and nourish us, physically and spiritually. Man-ka is a physical form and its special powers are a reflection of its physical nature. But because it is physical, its powers are limited. A dead person, for example, cannot benefit from man-ka simply because man-ka needs to be physically swallowed to work and a dead person cannot swallow. There is also a very real spirit world. Jesus Christ originates in this spirit world and also came into our physical world in human form. His powers are therefore much greater than those of man-ka: Jesus Christ could raise the dead, man-ka cannot. So although Jesus Christ and man-ka are both from the Creator, they are different in their natures yet somewhat complementary. The Native American Church may have the best of both worlds.

Some names have been changed in the following story.

We pulled into the driveway at Wonk-shik-mau and up to the permanently mounted mobile home that was my friend's place. There were already a number of cars there, and quite a few people were walking around or talking in small groups. It was not yet dark and as I looked over to my right I saw the tipi, surrounded on three sides by tall trees. The tipi was huge! I had never seen one before (except in movies), and I always thought they were rather small, cramped structures. This one was around 20 feet or so in diameter, and the supporting poles projected out through the top. The supporting poles were actually trees that had been debarked and smoothed, and the tipi must have been 25 or 30 feet tall in the center. I was very impress ed by the "wings" that opened up near the top, apparently to allow smoke and hot air to escape as through a chimney. The "caboose" was not up yet, and we would assemble it before the meeting officially began.

My companion and I got out of the car and walked around looking for our friend, who was the sponsor of this meeting. I didn't know most of the people there, but my companion seemed to know a few here and there. Finally I did see someone I knew, and we chatted for awhile about things I don't remember now. "There's Parr now!" she said, as our host approached. He gave me a bear-hug and his face was all smiles as we enjoyed our company. "This meeting is a Memorial meeting, to honor daga Matt, who died last year," he said. "But we still have some work to do. Will you help us put up the caboose?"

I walked over to the tipi and joined a group of men who were there to put up the caboose. They were all strangers, but my host introduced me, "This is my friend Nick, he's here to help us put up the caboose." They looked at me suspiciously, my skin color and physical features setting me apart from them. I felt OK, but I hoped that these people would come to accept my presence in a more communal way, and I hoped that my sincere desire to share in meeting and prayer would overcome any prejudices they (and I) might have. We began to build the caboose, a secondary structure attatched to the entrance of the tipi to allow more people access to the space within the tipi. The caboose itself is box-like, in contrast to the smooth cone shape of the tipi itself. It can accomodate about 40 people or so, while the tipi proper can accomodate about 50 people, seated in multiple rings around the central fire. I walked into the tipi to check it out. Again, I was very impressed with the size of the space inside, much larger than I had imagined. The bare earth was smooth, probably from many other meetings in this spot. When I looked up, I had that sense of awe and yearning that I sometimes get when I go into a large church or cathedral. The top of the tipi seemed to draw me upwards. It took my breath away.

We gathered around the fire in the center of the tipi. I noticed that a bible had been placed nearby, on one of the rocks surrounding the fire. Our host removed his "Chief" from a small decorated box and placed it in front of him. The Chief is an exceptionally large man-ka, having at least thirteen ribbed divisions. A thirteen-ribbed man-ka is a very old man-ka indeed. The Chief is selected as a green cactus top and as it dries, the center tuft is slowly pushed out from underneath with the fingers. The drying process may take ten days or two weeks, and each day the tuft is pushed up from underneath with the fingertips. The plant remains pliable until near the end of the drying process. When the Chief is completely dried, the tuft is "unfurled" and looks like a white fibrous flower. Each meeting leader has his own Chief, and when a meeting is hosted, that man's Chief occupies the place of honor in front of the fire.

Some dried powdered man-ka was mixed with some water, and when it reached a somewhat pasty consistency, it was rolled into little balls. Medicine balls. "This is strong medicine," said our host, "and one does not take it lightly. Pray that God will look favorably upon us, and that we may benefit from using this man-ka".

Cedar and sage were put on the fire, and the space filled with smoke and perfume.

Opening prayers were said, reminding everyone of the purpose of our gathering, and asking God to hear our prayers. One's mind is never to be focused on oneself, but should be focused on the purpose of the meeting. Also, every meeting has a specific purpose; man-ka is never used "to see what happens when I take this stuff." This was a Memorial meeting, so our focus would be on the person who had passed on, their accomplishments and contributions to the tribe: stories would be told about when this person had helped another, or sometimes a good joke involving the person would send the entire gathering into laughter.

The man-ka balls were passed around, and each participant took one to eat. The balls went around several times (I don't remember how many), interspersed with prayer. I figured I ate the equivalent of about 22 dried medium sized (about 1 1/2 to 2 inches in diameter) man-ka after the balls went around for a time. I'm sure I was the only one counting.

"I'm not so good at praying, so I ask You to hear my heart if my words don't come out the way I mean them to. Thank You for letting us all be together to use this good medicine which You gave us. This messenger makes it easier to talk with You, and helps us remember what is important when we get out of touch. We are here tonight to honor daga Matt, our relative and friend. Daga Matt isn't with us tonight, and we really miss him. We all benefitted at one time or another from his actions. I remember when he cheered me up one time when I was really sick. He made me laugh, made me forget I was sick. He was especially helpful to the children, his nieces and nephews, the young ones, trying to show them the right way, not to hurt anybody, try to help out if you can. He wanted them to grow up to be good, honest people, helping the tribe and this great country we live in. Teaching to respect the elders, to take care of the earth which nourishes us, gives us life. He had some hard times, but he always came through, didn't let it hold him down or become selfish. You know that we all have had some hard times ourselves and we'll probably have some more, but we ask You to guide us, letting us remember what daga Matt would do, how he would handle it, so we can make it through too. We know that we make a lot of mistakes, but if we can remember some of the ways that daga Matt avoided making a mistake, that will help us out."

The drumming: a powerful and simple beat--mostly like a bass drum keeping the pace with no embellishments or flourishes. No, this drumming was meant to be the background and impetus for the singing. And wild sometimes too!

Boom-boom-boom-boom-boom-boom-boom, about two beats per second.

"Hae-anna-hae-anna-nana-hae-anna. Hae-anna-hae-anna-nana-hae-anna.


Something like that, with the "hae" or "owee" sung high, and the "anna" sung low. Then the next go-around, maybe some of the "hae's" were low and some of the "anna's" were high, they changed. I didn't understand it, but it felt good, and I added my voice to those around me.

Unbelievable!! 60-70 people, singing, drumming, praying, feeling good together! No suspicious glances, no self-directed psychoanalysis, no problems. People smiling, singing, thinking of others instead of themselves. What had I been missing all these years?! I thought I had known "the proper way" to use these substances. The right dose, the right music, the right incense, the right concerts, the right hiking trails, the right company. I had it down to a science. Now my self-limitations became clear and my eyes were opened once again.

We built a sweat lodge, a worthy endeavor. We dug a hole in the ground, about two feet in diameter and three feet deep. This would be the fire-pit. Then, in a cross-shape around this hole, we bored eight smaller holes, only a couple inches in diameter and maybe eight inches deep, and about four feet away from the central pit:

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. . . . . . . .OOOOO. . . . . . . . 
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GIF image of the sweat lodge

We felled eight trees about ten feet tall and with thin trunks that would fit into the small, peripheral holes. These would be support poles and needed to be pliable so we could bend them. We put one tree into each small hole, then bent opposing poles toward each other, then lashed them together with rope. When this was completed, we had a dome-shaped skeleton, about four feet high in the center, surrounding the central pit. The structural skeleton was covered with blankets and tarps, lots of them, held down by their own weight. We left a flap area loose so we could get in and out on the north side of the sweat lodge. A pyre was set up nearby and on top of the pyre was placed a number of large rocks. The pyre was soon torched and we talked and joked while we waited for the rocks to heat up. At this point, I was still 'yoted up pretty good, and the combination of doing some work, and joking around with my new friends made for a most excellent time. I think an hour or so passed, the rocks in the bonfire were nice and hot.

Someone used a pitchfork to scoop up some rocks and put them into the central pit in the sweat lodge. Then we let it get nice and toasty inside, before we went in. We filed in on our hands and knees one at a time. Only about six to eight people could fit inside the sweat lodge at a time, and I got to go in with the first shift because of my efforts at building it. The place was hot! Of course, you couldn't wear anything heavier than a pair of briefs or a towel.

I took a place around the pit, and as one could not stand up in here, we all remained on our knees facing the pit in a circle. There was one who led the first prayer. A little cedar was sprinkled into the rocks. Wow! It was REALLY HOT! Soon I was dripping wet, every pore wide open. I listened to the prayer, totally focused on the voice in the dark, grunting my agreement from time to time. Water was splashed on the rocks filling the place with steam. Another person offered a prayer, anyone who was so inclined. I basically lost track of time in there, the intensity of the heat and steam were the background against which to pray, a good motivator, let me tell you! But that became trivial and then I got into it and it felt really good. I kind of just drifted off, carried along by the droning voices and the all-pervasive heat. I did not offer a vocal prayer myself, but was in harmony with the thoughts and feelings of my Ho Chunk friends.

We stayed in the sweat lodge about 45 minutes, and then we crawled out. I felt totally renewed. It was wonderful, I was very happy. The people who were waiting for us outside could see the happiness in my eyes. They seemed to be smiling and nodding knowingly; I was glowing.

Later, we ate food together. There were probably about a hundred people or so around, from little kids to elders. The eating was the last communal thing we did, and even then, some had started to drift off to take care of other things.

I've been to several meetings now, but I don't participate with any regularity. The man who led the meeting that I've written about told me that he needs to eat man-ka at least once a month, otherwise he feels out-of-balance.

The last I heard, the sweat lodge was still up.

Nicholas V. Cozzi
November 1994
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