I was disappointed Tuesday that I didn’t have the strength to climb down to see the bottom part of the Mina Sauk Falls–water falling in three tiers, like a wedding cake, 132 feet below. Even more disappointed that I couldn’t continue along the Ozark Trail another mile past the falls to see the Devil’s Tollgate, which was the real destination for my trip.
The Devil’s Tollgate is a rocky path, 8 feet wide between walls made of volcanic rock over thirty feet tall. I have found one photo of the formation, here in a web page that describes a hike along the Ozark Trail from Taum Sauk to Johnson Shut-Ins. The Tollgate doesn’t look that much from the picture — interesting to see the rocks jut out like that, and even more interesting that the path goes cleanly between. Other than that, though–it’s a path, it’s rocks.
Ah, but the Devil’s Tollgate is more than just a geological oddity–it’s also haunted.
I first ran across the legends surrounding the Tollgate while exploring for interesting hikes. One person, more adventuresome than most, actually walked the trail in the moonlight from Taum Sauk but it was when he was going through the Tollgate that he felt …an unseen presence and could hear the echo of footsteps not his own. It unnerved him so much he turned around, returning to the Falls.
A little more research dug up a rumor of a “demon” of the Piankashaw, a tribe that was forced out of Missouri by early settlers. This demon is supposed to trap and misdirect the unwary traveler, and it is true that the stretch of trail between Taum Sauk and Johnson’s has had more than its fair share of lost and hurt hikers — even a scouting troop getting lost and stranded because of sudden flooding.
However, more research turned up the fact that the “demon” is really an Indian princess, daughter to the Chief of the Piankashaw. According to the Missouri DNR (Department of Natural Resources):
…it is said that Taum Sauk, the chief of the tribe, had a daughter, Mina, who was in love with a warrior from the hostile Osage tribe. The falls were formed when Mina threw herself off the mountain to her death after her people had killed her Osage lover in a similar manner. The Great Spirit sent a bolt of lightning which split the mountain top, and a stream of water flowed over the ledges, washing away the blood of the lovers. You can still see blood-red flowers, known as Indian Pinks, that grow along the banks of the stream each spring.
I did spot the flowers on my walk, though not close enough to take photos of–pure red flowers, dainty and delicate among the rough red rocks on the path and the bright green of the foliage. I had to make do with the purple and yellow ones closest to the paths.
I could almost believe in the power of the legend when I reached the falls Tuesday. I was exhausted and my muscles were stressed from the climb, but the weather was cool and I had plenty of liquids–I shouldn’t have been as impacted as I was. I was taken surprise by the dizziness and disorientation I felt.
Was I just feeling the effects of too many days in my dish, and too little walking this last winter? Or was I experiencing the power of the princess?
Legends aside, I would be surprised to meet an Indian spirit at Taum Sauk, considering that the area is in the middle of the largest deposit of iron in the world and iron has traditionally been an inimical element to the fay. Of course, that could be the European fay–fairies and brownies and such. Perhaps indigenous spirits, all spirits for that matter, are drawn to iron rather than repulsed by it. Isn’t iron an essential element in our blood, and aren’t all spirits attracted to the living?
Going beyond the physical, there’s something inherently bound up with belief in this area, and sometimes I wonder if the attraction of iron goes beyond just parlor tricks with a nail and a magnet. I once said that Missouri was a lodestone for religion in the country; I didn’t know at the time how literal that statement was.
If this is true, and there is a spirit of a long dead indigenous maiden haunting Mina Sauk, we would be right to be cautious of the area and wary of trickery; she would have to be an angry spirit considering how much that aforementioned religion has adversely impacted her people.
The destruction of the indian way of life started with the settlers, who believed themselves the blessed of God and therefore having the right to claim the land for their own. Then the first Catholic missionaries took children away from their parents and homes to a ’school’, where they would be forbidden both their culture and their language.
In later years, whites again converged on the indigenous people, but this time rather than take away their land or faith, we wanted to become a part of it. What the early Christians started, the later day new agers continued and though the intent was seemingly positive, the effect was just as negative. An absolutely brilliant piece on Indian religion written by George Tinker, an Osage at the Lliff School of Theology, states:
Some would argue that the so-called vision quest is evidence of the quintessential individualism of Plains Indian peoples. However, just the opposite can be argued, because in Plains cultures the individual is always in symbiotic relationship with the community. This ceremony involves personal sacrifice: rigorous fasting (no food or liquids) and prayer over several days (typically four to seven) in a location removed from the rest of the community. Yet in a typical rite of vigil or vision quest, the community or some part of the community assists the individual in preparing for the ceremony and then prays constantly on behalf of the individual throughout the ceremony. Thus by engaging in this ceremony, the individual acts on behalf of and for the good of the whole community. Even when an individual seeks personal power or assistance through such a ceremony, he or she is doing so for the ultimate benefit of the community.
Unfortunately, the traditional symbiotic relationship between the individual and the community, exemplified in ceremonies such as the vision quest, has become severely distorted as a shift in Euro-American cultural values has begun to encourage the adoption and practice of Indian spirituality by the general population no matter how disruptive this may be to Indian communities. The resulting incursion of Euro-American practitioners, who are not a part of the community in which the ceremony has traditionally been practiced, brings a Western, individualistic frame of reference to the ceremony that violates the communitarian cultural values of Indian peoples. The key concern for Indian people in preserving the authenticity and healthy functioning of the relationship between the individual and the community is the question of accountability: one must be able to identify what spiritual and sociopolitical community can rightly make claims on one’s spiritual strength. In the Indian worldview, this community–this legitimate source of identity–is intimately linked to, and derives directly from, the significance of spatiality, of space and place.
To the indigenous people, the community is what mattered and what each individual did was an act to benefit the community, regardless of the nature of the act. They assumed that no matter how individualist the act, or self-serving, it must benefit the folk as a whole because a member of the community couldn’t act in any way other than to benefit the community. Therefore if the group at large had to adjust to the individual’s actions it would, because this, too, was ultimately of benefit to the community.
However, to those who follow the New Age movement, looking at this from the outside, it would seem that each person followed a lonely path to enlightenment and that the actions of the whole were focused on allowing each person a chance to express themselves individually. They could never understand that spirituality, in the Indian sense of the term, was based less on inward journeys of enlightenment and ceremonies, than on being in a specific place and time and among a specific group of people, a community, where the very act of existing is a celebration of the spirit.
White people can achieve spirituality but never achieve true Indian spirituality. Why? Because they aren’t Indian. There is no such thing as a ‘convert’ in indigenous languages or cultures.
If the New Age movement continued the work of the early Catholics, it is the third contamination of the Indian way of life that has caused the most damage, as many of the plains Indians have begun to adopt the religions of the dominant race: contamination amply demonstrated with recent votes against gay marriage by tribal council, first among the Cherokee, and last week the Navajo; votes that for these tribes and many others don’t violate the individual’s freedoms as much as they do the sense of community that forms the basis for the Indian spirituality
After all, if no individual could act contrary to community, then how an individual acts must be to the benefit of the community, and this includes the acts of those who are gay, or berdache–an increasingly obsolete European term that literally means the “two-spirit people”, conveying the concept of one body sharing both a female and male spirit.
The two-spirit people were not only accepted by many tribes, they frequently played a unique role in the ceremonies that were such an important characteristic of Indian life. To the Navajo, the two-spirit people or nádleehí were considered matchmakers, as well as lucky to have around; to the Illinois, the ikouta were manitou or holy.
In fact, it is thought that one reason some tribes don’t mention an account of two-spirit people among their communities is because they are wary of the spiritual power that is supposed to reside in those of “third or fourth gender”. To discuss those with power is to attract those with power and among the Indian folk, attracting power is all too often a chancy thing.
To go from this to votes to deny rights to gays demonstrates, sadly, the decline of the Indian way of life; spirituality worn down and giving way to the religion of the churches–the Southern Baptist, the Children of God–that have sprung up in the lands of their birth. Churches formed by those attracted to this land like metal shavings to a magnet. Or perhaps a better analogy is like rust to steel.
With this vote, those who are two-spirit are deemed to no longer be acting for the good of the community–but how can this be when the very nature of Indian spirituality is based on the concept that the individual is the community, and therefore could not act contrary to the community?
(Not all indigenous people share this new ‘modern’ viewpoint: as the comic, Sherman Alexi, a man who grew up on a reservation not 60 miles away from my home town, scathingly quipped: “If you’re against gay marriage, you know how much you have in common with Osama bin Laden? Aren’t you proud of that?”)
But to return to my trip Tuesday, luckily the path back to the parking lot was easier than the one going down, or I may still be there today. What’s odd about the path, too, is how deceptive it is in the beginning–starting out with a paved sidewalk that gives way to grass and dirt, to smaller rocks, and then eventually a rugged and barely discernable trail filled with volcanic rock where the slightest mistep could cause a badly sprained ankle or fall.
I could walk down the paved sidewalk without once paying attention to my footing or the direction I was taking, and the way was very easy. There was no particular skill needed to follow the path, as long as I was willing to stay within its borders.
On the rocks, though, especially as I got nearer the Falls, I had to watch every step I made and carefully pick my course–sometimes even having to backtrack several feet when the way I chose turned out to be the wrong path. I used my entire body while walking, digging in with my pole to provide strength to tired legs, or maneuvering my torso in such a way to provide better balance. Every once in a while I would see the faint imprint of a boot stuck in the soft mud from an earlier walker and I noticed that we all seemed to find our own best course, though we would all start and end in the same place.
Along the rocky path, the going was difficult and challenged me with each step–I had to make a conscious effort to continue and not turn back (and I would regret this decision more than once during the four hour hike). Yet every once in a while the ground would flatten out for a moment and I would feel the cool breezes from the Arcadia Valley, as I looked out over rounded green hills; or I would see a lizard among the pink granite, or a wolf spider hauling along its egg sac; discover another small, delicate spring flower among last years dead leaves.
And by the Falls when I sat on the rock and wondered whether I would have the strength to make it back to the top, I somehow found the strength, even though I had to stop every few hundred feet to rest–taking my backpack off to push a little ways in front of me because I could no longer breath with it on my back.
At the top, back on the sidewalk again, I passed two young couples heading down the trail, and was glad that I hadn’t met them at the bottom near the Falls because I would have asked them for help; I wouldn’t discover that I had the strength in me to make it back on my own. It was a gift of coincidence, and one I could appreciate knowing that I was only, according to the sign, 930 feet away from the parking lot and my car. I even mustered up enough energy to smile and assume a jauntiness in my step and a cheery “Hello, great day for a hike, isn’t it?” before they passed from view and I could resume my pained, barely noticeable shuffling of feet as I inched–ever so slowly– towards my car and ultimate salvation.
As I sit in my chair writing this, with my right leg still elevated and knee still swollen, contemplating the phone call from my roommate that today is ‘free laundry’ day at the apartments where we live and balancing an inability to move against the impetus of the word ‘free’, I think about the two topics that come to mind: the path I walked and the religion that seems to, lately, dominate so much of our culture and politics.
After all, we speak of religion as following a path: to enlightenment, to heaven, to some goal that supposedly makes the sacrifices required of the religion worthwhile. If this is true than I can’t help feel that for religion to have any worth at all, it should follow the rocky way: each person following the path has to accept and reaffirm the cost of their belief with every step they make; and with each step, the path is made anew.
Unfortunately, though, religion is too often like the paved road, where the people follow a way that is set for them, and the only decision they make for themselves is not to make decisions for themselves.
But what do I know? I’m a godless heathen.
I am going back someday to the mountains of Taum Sauk and the Falls of Mina Sauk and the way built of rocks and water and when I do I will make it all the way to the Devil’s Tollgate. Then I will see for myself if a restless spirit lives in the rocks, waiting to trick the traveler into changing direction; forcing the unwary on to new paths.
It should be fun.