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When A Ghost Seeks Forgiveness

Lois Red Elk shares a free-verse poem, one of our favorites, about a 19th-century Cavalry solider trying to find peace at old Fort Union
By Lois Red Elk | June 7, 2024


EDITOR’S NOTE: Lois Red Elk sends her greetings from Fort Peck where she is finishing up her next book of poetry expected to be out in the fall. Her son is helping her finalize a cover for the long-awaited volume. For now, she and her husband, Dennis, and their extended family members are savoring summer on the prairie. When the poem below first appeared in an earlier collection, Why I Return to Makoce, it caught our attention. Moving and provocative, we know you’ll find it worth sharing again. What does it mean to offer forgiveness and what does it mean to accept it? —Todd Wilkinson, Yellowstonian co-founder

   Encounter at the Fort

by Lois Red Elk

One year my sister and I were invited to sell our arts and crafts 

at a place called Ft. Union, which is on the border of MT. and 

N.D.  It was a full day of selling, bartering and discussion with 

so many people earnestly wanting to know where their Indian 

heritage came from and how they could find out the true meaning 

of certain words—biases they heard and grew up with.  My sister 

and I were tired, we had a good meal with our generous hosts, 

but needed to sit down, rest our feet and contemplate events of 

the day.  We were offered a place to sleep over night so we 

agreed and were shown to our quarters which turned out to be in 

one of the Fort bastions.  We both had no idea about the rumored 

ghosts that haunted the building but would soon find out.  The 

room we stayed in had no electricity as the Park Service wanted 

to maintain the ambiance of the house.  The park ranger offered us

buffalo robes to sleep on which turned out to be very comfortable 

for our tired bodies.  We were also given some old time candle 

holders and candles.  We thought we would just read until the 

candles went out.  It was a good decision that we decided to bring

flashlights with our luggage.  We both fell asleep before all the 

candles burned down.  During the night my sister grew restless, 

turned over and thought I was sitting in the chair next to her cot.  

She raised her head and wondered why I decided to sit up and 

read.  She looked again because the light was growing dimmer 

and realized the person sitting next to her was not me.  It was a 

soldier from another era.

“I am going to sit here for awhile, in the candle light.  It is 

quiet and composed.  I feel a peaceful spirit floating through 

the years to this moment.  It has been a long time since I saw 

women busy and liking their work.  I just want to enjoy the 

easy light rising and to clear my place in this atmosphere.  

You have guessed who I am.  I was sent here to serve after 

the Indian wars.  I never liked the hurt we brought here—to 

the people and the land.  I know you love this place and now 

that I am here I too understand that love.  It was the killing 

coming at me so fast.   I didn’t have time to protect myself.  

Now I wander this place trying to get home.  You are good 

people and know what to do.  Please pray for me.”

Early the next morning, sister and I lit sage and sweet grass and

prayed the spirit return home.  As Lakota people we know about

spirit-like images that haunt different places, but never thought we

would encounter one of them.  We were both glad to send out prayers.

©Lois Red Elk


  • Lois Red Elk

    Lois Red Elk-Reed is a poet who calls the high plains home. She is Yellowstonian's poet in residence. She lives on the Fort Peck Reservation in Montana. Red Elk is working on a new volume of poetry and other observations. The name of her column— inyan zi—means “yellow stone” in Lakota.

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