Interview with Wapiye Phillip Downey, Lakota  – “Man in the Middle”
By Christopher Nyerges

It was past ten on a moonless night. A dozen of us were sitting on patio chairs in a suburban backyard, dimly lit by a patio light. Some chatted, some sat silent in thought. A few doors away we heard the sounds of a mariachi band intermittently blaring into the otherwise quiet neighborhood on the fringes of the San Fernando Valley.

The event was to begin sometime “after 9,” Indian-time. As each new guest arrived, they were greeted as family. Finally, it was close to midnight as we each entered the room — a converted garage — and we all sat around the edges. In the middle was a large colorful quilt-work blanket, with an assortment of objects arranged around it.

At the corners of the “altar” (as I learned it was called), and directly north, were five rods, forked at the top, with colorful cloths hung upon them. Around the altar were drums, rattles, herbs, colored cloth, animal parts, and other natural objects. The room had been cleared for the ceremony, and doors and windows were sealed shut. Anything loose had been covered over or taped down.

After awhile, Ernie Whitecloud welcomed us all, and explained what we were about to do. Phillip Downey would be leading the evening’s event. He was “the man in the middle.” He told us this is the way he prays, and though he might laugh or even make a joke, this was a most serious event. His grandmother, Morningstar Meyers, spoke for awhile, and then there was singing and playing of drums. Downey’s chants, and the drums, filled the air.

Soon, the light was turned off and the next two hours were spent in complete blackness. There was the constant singing by Downey and his assistants, and everyone joined in as best they could. The drums and rattles and whistles added to the songs. There was a sense of timelessness that began to permeate the atmosphere.

Though there was constant chanting and singing and drums and rattles, there was an obvious order to the ceremony. One song would segue into another and my mind was riding upon the song-wave that seemed to be leading us somewhere.

Occasionally, there were shining blue globes of light that would spark alive for a fraction of a second, then disappear. They were about the size of a grapefruit, and would appear generally above the altar but close to the ceiling. They seemed to occur in greater frequency at the height of each crescendo of singing and drums. How, I wondered, did Downey and his assistants create such a spectacular effect?

At one point, I felt drops of water, which I assumed Downey or his assistants splashed about the room, as is often done in sweat lodges. Later, there was the sensation that there was no roof to the room, and it seemed that we could feel the open air. Then there were the sounds of a great flock of birds, rapidly swooping close over our heads. Incredible, I thought. How could such a remarkable effect have been created? Is everyone else experiencing what I am experiencing?

Eventually, after what could have been just an hour — or six — a light was turned on. Timelessness and infinity were over, and we were back to “normal reality.” The best analogy is that we had taken a flight somewhere, and we were now just “landing.”  A few more prayers were said, and a drink and dried cherries were passed around the room. We then exited out into the cool night, and shared a meal that somehow seemed more delicious than possible. It was nearly 3 a.m.

Phillip Downey, the “man in the middle,” the Wapiye, is a relatively young man of 35. I met with Downey a week later to delve more into his background, and to learn more about the ceremony, properly known as “Lo-wampi” or “sing.”

Downey, who is from Southern California, began spending summers in South Dakota with his uncles, just trying to stay out of trouble as a boy. His uncles followed the traditional ways, but never pushed him to follow those ways. Downey was originally attracted to the music. He assisted various “medicine men” in their ceremonies. Then, while living in Southern California, he was asked to lead a Lowampi for a Navajo friend of the family.

“He was going to court the next day to find out if he had to go to jail,” says Downey. “He asked our family to sing for him. We stayed up all night in that Lowampi, and the spirits said he was only going to have community service and probation. They also said he would get off early. He was sure happy when he heard that. His case turned out just as the spirits said it would.”

Are all ceremonies conducted the same? Downey said that as a singer for different medicine men, he learned the format in which to conduct the ceremonies. “But the spirits tell me more and more about the altar all the time,” says Downey, referring to his particular way of conducting the Lo-wampi.

He adds, “Every tiospaye (extended family) has a Wapiye. However, nowadays some will tell you there is only one “true” medicine-man. I was taught by several good, and not so good, medicine people who were taught by many other healers.

They say the original Yuwipi doctor was Horn Chips. My uncle told me that it goes back even further than Horn Chips, but in different forms. There are different types of medicine people. Some do their doctoring with the stones and get tied up in a blanket. That ceremony is a Yuwipi. A Lowampi is much like Yuwipi, except the “man in the middle” doesn’t get tied up. Regardless of these differences, all medicine people are bound to the influence of the wakan oyate, the holy people or spirits.”

Downey tells that when he was just a boy,  he  dreamed two beautiful women gave him two dried grayish buffalo hearts. One had yellow paint on it. He saw a Lightning-Backed Butterfly fly. He stepped through a hoop into a lodge. A spider and those two women were there as well as a man with red paint on his hands, face and feet. He was doctoring a woman.

Downey points out that each element of this dream — which he did not fully understand at the time — was rich with the symbolism of what his life was to be. When he was 16, a medicine man told him he was also going to be one. It was not until he was 32, says Downey, that the spirits called him in a Yuwipi ceremony being conducted by his uncle, Lessert Moore. “After that, my life has changed a bit,” said Downey smiling.

I had been wanting to ask Downey about the ceremony.

“I was very impressed with the blue lights and the effect of birds during the Lowampi,” I told him. “How was that accomplished?”

Downey laughed, and almost pretended not to hear the question. I could see that he was considering how to respond. We sat in silence for a few moments at a park table under the oak trees as the wind played with Downey’s long hair. He finally said, “It is by the influence of the spirits that brought you to our place to pray, and it is by their influence that you experienced what you did. Each person has a unique experience.”

“So then, what does the Lowampi mean to you?,” I asked.

“It’s our way of praying. And a song sure goes good with a lot of things. It goes good with work, with play, with every emotion. Maybe our medical doctors can learn from us Indians. I can just hear them singing and wooping it up!! That would be great! Sometimes singing is all you’ve got.”

Downey then added, “As a culture fades into a diversity, we seem to care less for what is old in many ways. This new culture moves at such a high speed that it is impossible to have well-developed relationships. In our language we say “Mitakuye oyasin.”  This means “all my relations.”  This a commitment to the time it takes to develop a relation. If you don’t take the time for a relation, it won’t likely be there. Our ceremonies are a re-enactment of first creation. We are all a part of that mysterious web of creation and life.”  

It is this commitment to the Old Ways that Downey — the Wapiye, the medicine man in the city — has devoted himself.

Downey also works as a naturalist and teacher with the Pasadena, California School District and the Armory Center for the Arts in a program called CIE (Children Investigate the Environment). “The children always remind me to experience all creation with awe and wonder,” says Downey.

Readers who wish to contact Phillip Downey may do so via Christopher Nyerges, Box 41834, Eagle Rock, CA 90041.

Nyerges is the editor of “Wilderness Way” magazine, and the author of “Enter the Forest, Guide to Wild Foods,” and other books. He is the co-director of the School of Selfreliance, Box 41834, Eagle Rock, CA 90041. See website, or e-mail  

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