I’ve been distracted for the past week by a death in the family. Yes, she had big loving blue eyes, four legs and a tail, and a compulsion for cookies. Kayla was a beagle-husky-whatever mix, rescued from a shelter on the last day before euthanasia. That was ten years ago. Last week her cancer became so bad that the long-delayed needle could be delayed no longer.
All the way back to the story of the dog that sacrificed his life to warn his human family of the coming great flood, we Cherokees have always held a deep love for dogs. We’re told that when we cross the River of Death (the Milky Way) to enter Heaven, we will be met on the other shore by all the dogs we have befriended or rescued in this life. If our right to enter Heaven is questioned, they will testify on our behalf.
To this day, some observant Cherokees are buried with dog biscuits so they can give treats to their long-lost friends who will come to escort them, who will greet them even before their ancestors.
Are there dogs in Heaven? God’s a dog person! We say that when God painted the sky, his dog licked up some of the drips, and has blue spots on his tongue to this day. Cherokee/Carolina dogs, bears, and some wolves share this trait.
The word for dog is gitli (GEE-tlee), sometimes pronounced gihli (GEE-hlee) or even gikli (GEE-klee) depending on the community. But at one time they were called “burden-carrier”: soquili. When Europeans came, that word was gradually applied to the magical creature they brought, the horse, and dogs were used less and less as pack animals.
Today, the burden dogs carry is their devotion to us. They will risk their lives for us without hesitation; they will share our hardship as well as happiness, they will love unconditionally and forgive unremittingly.
Even on her way to the vet for the last time, Kayla continued the role that had become her main duty in later years; showing none of the pain that was devouring her, she was the jester entertaining every one of her crying human family right up to the end.
Years ago, a well-known Lakota traditionalist asked why I’m Christian.
“Because I believe in the healing power of love, of forgiveness, and I believe that these were woven into the fabric of the universe at the creation,” I answered.
He sneered, “There is no forgiveness in nature.”
All I could think of was, poor guy – he never had a dog. But I suddenly understood Pine Ridge a little better.
Don’t know what my future holds or the number of my days, but there will be plenty of cookies and dog treats in my coffin. That will be a small burden to carry.
After all, you can’t disappoint your best friends.