It was one of those Sundays when Little Bear has sweats scheduled, and on those days people from all over the place show up, lots of people, all kinds of people—Cherokees, Creeks, white people, black people, Mexicans. They come from all around the Cherokee country of northeast Oklahoma, and they come from outside: Oklahoma City; Dallas, Texas; Fort Smith, Arkansas; other places as well. So I went prepared to sweat, and I waited my turn. Finally, Little Bear’s assistant, Frank, motioned to me. I followed him with the others out to the sweat lodge. It was a cold day in February.
Delaying as long as possible, I at last stripped off to a pair of cutoff jeans, and when Frank called us into the lodge, I went in and took my place. Frank dipped the medicine (water in which certain herbs have been boiled) out of the bucket with a gourd dipper and poured it over the hot rocks. Almost instantly, the lodge was filled with hot steam. I did all right in there, but I experienced chills, and I actually shivered there in the incredible heat. At the same time, I was sweating profusely.
Following the sweat, I went back to the house to wait for Little Bear. It was getting into evening by then, and I had been there since about one o’clock the afternoon. Little Bear’s wife passed by me once and said, “Little Bear’s waiting till everyone else is done, so he can have you by yourself.” At last he called me, and I went back to his room where he was waiting.
“Mr. Conley,” he said, “you’re drinking way too much. I been watching you. I want you to cut way back. I seen your liver, and it has a white line around it.”
“Little Bear,” I said, ‘I trust you, and when you tell me something, I believe you, but it’s weird to think about you watching me at my house.”
He laughed, and then he told me that he watches everyone he makes medicine for. I told him I would follow his advice. At home later, I told my wife, Evelyn, what had transpired. I went into my bar and looked wistfully at the nearly full bottle of Wild Turkey there. I had enjoyed only one evening out of it. I left it alone. Two nights later, I still had not touched the bottle. I was sitting with a cup of coffee watching television when I saw a shadow move across the window outside in the darkness.
“Little Bear,” I shouted, “is that you? Goddamn it, I’m drinking coffee.”
Perhaps a half hour later, Evelyn came home from our daughter‘s house. She said that a big bird had flown right in front of her. She thought it was an owl.
“Hell,” I said, “it was Little Bear.”
I was grumbling over my new situation. It did not enter my mind to ignore Little Bear’s advice, but that did not mean I had to like it. At sixty years old, I did not need another mother, I told myself. Then I asked myself, just how did I get into this situation in the first place? How did it come about that I have a medicine man watching over me, sending for me instead of waiting until I go see him with some kind of complaint? I’ve been thinking about that for a couple of weeks now, two weeks in which I have not touched the Wild Turkey bottle in my bar, and perhaps I can begin to answer the question by going back to when I first met Little Bear.
I like to say that I met Little Bear in jail. That’s not even quite a half-truth though. I actually first met him in a building in Tulsa, Oklahoma, owned by the Tulsa Police Department. I don’t know what it’s used for normally, but the Tulsa police had given Clu Gulager permission to use it for a get-together for his film crew. Clu, a Cherokee film actor, had moved back to Oklahoma from Los Angeles with the intention of producing a film locally. Clu and I had become acquainted some years earlier, and he had asked me if I would like to appear in his film. I had agreed.
I went to Tulsa for the meeting Clu had called, and Little Bear was one of the other actors there. During a break, we went outside to smoke, and we got pretty well acquainted with one another. I discovered that Little Bear was quite a linguist, speaking not just English and Cherokee but also Creek and Choctaw. I recognized his family name, because his grandmother was a well-known Cherokee medicine woman in the area. I had never met her, but I had certainly heard of her. She was known far and wide, and for good reason.
I saw Little Bear next on the day of the actual filming. Clu had gotten permission to shoot a scene in the jail. They had cleaned out one cell for us and loaned us some inmate clothing. Little Bear and I and some other actors were playing prisoners. Clu had asked me to shave my mustache and my head, and he was contrasting me in the picture with Little Bear, who was wearing a full beard at the time. He shot some scenes of the two of us with our heads together talking in hushed tones. We spent a long day in that jail cell and wound up on the cutting room floor.
Over the next several weeks, maybe months, I saw Little Bear occasionally in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, usually in a parking lot somewhere. He would drive into town with his wife, park the van, and wait in it while she went inside some store to do some shopping. We would chat for a few minutes there at his van, talking about our jailhouse episode or asking one another for any news from Clu. Clu had gone back to Los Angeles by then. Little Bear and I were casual acquaintances with a shared experience and a common friend who happened to be a celebrity.
Then sometime later, I was going through some hard times, not an unusual situation for a writer to be in. Contracts were slow, and checks were even slower. I had received some awards, and I was being asked fairly often to make appearances at college campuses and bookstores from Los Angeles to Cherokee, North Carolina, but things just weren’t quite right. I couldn’t put a finger on it, but I felt at loose ends.
I had driven to the supermarket in Tahlequah to do some shopping. I parked the car and was walking across the parking lot when I heard someone call my name. I looked around to see Little Bear sitting in his van. I walked over to say hello, and we chatted for a bit. Then Little Bear said to me, “I’ve started practicing. You ought to come and see me sometime.” I said, “Oh. Okay,” sort of casually, and went on my way. Later at home, I told Evelyn what Little Bear had said.
“When someone like that tells you to come and see him,” she said to me, “you’d better do it.”
Little Bear’s house sits on top of Stick Ross Mountain just outside of Tahlequah. It’s on a turn off the main road onto a dirt road. His grandmother’s house is located just where the dirt road meets the paved road, and the next turn is the drive up to Little Bear’s house. It’s rural, quiet, and peaceful. I found Little Bear at home, and we sat in his living room, smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee.
“Mr. Conley,” he said, “the reason I hollered at you the other day is that I seen you walking across that parking lot, and there was part of you walking along ten feet behind you.”
I was amazed. He had expressed exactly the way I had been feeling, although I would never have been able to put it in those words. I told him what had been going on in my life, and he sent me out to buy some nonfilter cigarettes and bring them back to him. I did that, and he sent me away again to give him time to work with the cigarettes, to put the medicine in them. When I returned again, he told me how to use them. I followed his instructions, and things did get better. After that, I went to see Little Bear often, and I began going to the Sunday sweats. One day while we were talking casually, Little Bear told me that he wanted me to write a book about him and about the medicine, to let people know “what Indian medicine is really about.” He told some of the people who came to him with their problems to talk to me freely, assuring them that their names would not be used. I agreed, and I started taking notes, but I did not have a handle on the shape or form of the book. Things stayed that way for a time, and then I got the messages that Little Bear wanted to see me, and I got his advice about my drinking.
In the pages that follow, I’ll introduce Little Bear and let him tell his story and the story of the medicine. In addition, I’ll present some of the tales that were told to me by others, people who came to Little Bear for help. You’ll learn what their problems were, why they went to Little Bear with those problems, and how he helped them. In short, you’ll find out just what Little Bear, Cherokee medicine man, does “for the people.” What you will not find here are recipes, formulae, or how-to instructions of any kind. Those are secret. They are only for the trained medicine person, and dabbling in Indian medicine can be a very dangerous thing to do. This book is intended only to give the reader a basic understanding of the nature and purpose of Indian medicine. That is all. In order to understand the story of Little Bear, it is necessary first to take a step backward and examine the culture and myths of the Cherokee people and the history of Cherokee medicine