Native Americans Speak Out on Sacred Healing and Transformational Rituals
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According to Lakota [Sioux] lore, a long time ago, during a time of famine, a woman appeared, wearing white buffalo skin, and carrying a sacred pipe. She explained that the wooden stem was for the trees, and everything growing on earth, the red bowl symbolized the flesh and blood of all people, and the smoke was the breath of their prayers going to Wakan Tanka, the Creator. The woman showed the people the pipe ceremony, where offerings were made to the four directions, while drums were played, and sacred songs were sung. The people learned of the connection between the sky and the earth and the unity of all life. They learned that offering thanks to Wakan Tanka with the pipe would yield many blessings here on earth. Before leaving, the woman said that she would return when the time was ripe. Then she turned into a buffalo, changing colors several times. Finally, she changed into a white buffalo calf, and disappeared into the distance. The people followed her teachings and were hungry no more.
In the summer of 1994, her promise of return was fulfilled with the birth of a white buffalo in Jamesville, Wisconsin. White buffalos are rare, but this one is unique because, as prophesied, the white buffalo has changed its colors since birth, going from white to black to red to yellow and back to white. Since each color represents one of the four directions--north being white, black representing west, red symbolizing south, and yellow depicting east--this buffalo has great symbolic significance to Native American tribes, who respond to it as a Christian would respond to the second coming of Christ. It signifies a time of profound change upon the planet and a new level of responsibility for mankind. One Native visionary interpreted the birth of the white buffalo calf to mean that the four energies--the black, white, yellow, and red--will realize that there is only one race, the human race, and join together in peace.
Not many people outside of Native American culture understand the significance of the white buffalo. In fact, very few people know much about Native Americans, their customs and traditions. Historically, theirs has been an oral heritage, causing white historians to mistakenly imply that Native Americans have nothing to say. Today, most people still have stereotypical images of Indians, the result of movies, television programs and history texts. A further lack of understanding stems from a different view of the world. Native Americans believe nature is divine; they are only a part of nature, and not here to dominate it. Their ceremonies are for the regeneration of Mother Earth, a direct contrast to western beliefs and policies. What knowledge Native Americans have to offer is therefore disregarded or silenced through government segregation and control. In fact, Native American ceremonies were prohibited by law before the passage of the Indian Freedom Act in 1978. In addition, many Americanized Indians have long forgotten the traditions of their past, and the few who still remember tend to be secretive about their customs, which they have been forced to hide so long from the dominant culture.
Never before has the world been in such dire need of these understandings. As the twenty-first century approaches, our natural resources dwindle, and diseases brought on by technology rise. Many are beginning to realize that another way of life is essential for survival and well-being on a personal and global level. As one Lakota medicine man, George Amiotte, notes, "The general population are starting to wake up to that fact that we, as human beings, have a responsibility, not only to our own societies, but also to the earth."
We look to the continentís first inhabitants, as they have been able to live harmoniously with nature for thousands of years. As an alternative to self-destruction, we offer an insight into Native American sacred practices, and the visions they offer.
NATIVE AMERICAN CEREMONIES
The Ghost Dance
The ghost dance is a ceremony for the regeneration of the earth, and, subsequently, the restoration of the earthís caretakers to their former life of bliss. Not surprisingly, the religion experienced its height of popularity during the late 19th century, when devastation to the buffalo, the land, and its Native American guardians was at its peak. Between 1888 and 1990, various tribes sent emissaries to a man named Wovoka, who claimed to be a visionary, and who was hailed as a Messiah by many desperate Indian nations. Wovoka maintained that Spirits had shown him certain movements and songs after he had died for a short period of time. In a manner reminiscent of Christ, Wovoka preached non-violence, and most tribes abandoned their war-like ways in preparation for future happiness.
The dance quickly spread to various American Indian nations, and as it spread, it took on additional meanings. While performing the ghost dance, it was believed that you could visit relatives who had left their bodies. As so many Native Americans had lost friends and relatives, this aspect of the ceremony was particularly healing. The Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho expanded its meaning further after being told in dreams that wearing certain designs on clothing would protect them in battle. These beliefs served to ward off fears of imminent danger from suspicious and sometimes hostile white onlookers, but proved futile in the end.
The ghost dance unified Indian people, even tribes with a tradition of conflict. The solidarity of these groups frightened government officials, whose worst fears were realized years earlier when the Arapahoes, Cheyennes and Sioux came together to defeat Custer. As mentioned earlier, most ghost dancers did not embrace warlike behavior. Yet, the government reacted to this outburst of Indian behavior by gunning down ghost dancers at Wounded Knee during a peaceful ceremony. Even women and children were shot in the back as they were trying to escape. Many say this was in retaliation for the massacre at Little Big Horn, since the seventh cavalry was again involved.
Perhaps the government was also frightened of the danceís spiritual power. According to a historian of that time, James Mooney, during one investigation of the ghost dance, U.S. troops reported seeing approximately 125 people at the beginning of the dance, and twice that number at the end, with no one new coming into the circle.
The ghost dance is indeed magical, according to Gabriel Horn, author of Native Heart: An American Indian Odyssey. Horn, also known as White Deer of Autumn, says the spirits of ghost dancers are ever present: "The Minneapolis Institute of Art put on the first and only exhibit of ghost dance shirts and dresses worn by men, women, and children. The room was black and the clothes were suspended in two circles. You could even see the bullet holes and the blood stains on the shirts from the slaughter of ghost dancers at Wounded Knee under the orders of the government.
"Several Native Americans went to the exhibit, elders as well as young people. The museum would keep it open at night, just for us. We would sit in a circle, surrounded by these ghost dance shirts and dresses, and pass a sacred pipe. We were listening to hear what we could hear, and watching to see what we could see. We wanted to get in touch with those people, those spirits, those ghosts of the past, to reconnect, and to show them that we still carry this love for the earth.
"I will never forget the night that an elderly Ojibwa, Old Man Bill, said to me, ĎThere were only 14 of us when we went in to sit among the ghost dance shirts and dresses. Look at all the people now.í I looked up and saw what he meant. An hour later, we were sitting down at a table, looking at each other. Who were all those other people? It became very crowded.
"Another time a student of mine came to the exhibit. She was crying by a ghost dance shirt. I looked in the shirt to tell her its story because each one told a story. The shirt wearerís last name was there, and it turned out to be the shirt of her grandfather. There was no way she could have known that when she went in."
The ghost dance is practiced today, but privately. "It is performed for the same reasons," White Deer of Autumn says, "because we are losing a lot of our relatives to cancer and alcohol, and the earth is in dire need of healing."
The Pipe Ceremony
The pipe ceremony is a sacred ritual for connecting physical and spiritual worlds. "The pipe is a link between the earth and the sky," explains White Deer of Autumn. "Nothing is more sacred. The pipe is our prayers in physical form. Smoke becomes our words; it goes out, touches everything, and becomes a part of all there is. The fire in the pipe is the same fire in the sun, which is the source of life." The reason why tobacco is used to connect the worlds is that the plantís roots go deep into the earth, and its smoke rises high into the heavens.
There are different kinds of pipes and different uses for them. There are personal pipes and family pipes as well as pipes for large ceremonies. The particular stone used depends upon the tribeís location, and various symbols are added to attract certain spiritual energies. Also, the type of tobacco used depends on tribal custom. But despite these differences, there are certain important similarities: The ceremony invokes a relationship with the energies of the universe, and ultimately the Creator, and the bond made between earthly and spiritual realms is not to be broken.
Ed McGaa (Eagle Man), an Ogalala Sioux, and author of Mother Earth Spirituality: Native American Paths to Healing Ourselves and Our World, says that most pipe ceremonies have the same intention: to call upon and thank the six energies: "All of our Sioux ceremonies beseech to the four directions, the earth and sky, and ultimately the Great Spirit. We see our Creator through nature, and we try to emulate what the Creator has made. This has worked out well, as you can see from the track record of Native American people. The old time Indians were honest, ethical people, and they had an unblemished environmental record. When the Pilgrims first landed, they kept them alive, and they took in black slaves. They were extremely humanistic. Thatís one of the main reasons that I believe in the natural way."
Eagle Man begins a ceremony by beseeching the West power, while thinking about the life giving rains and the ever present spirit world. Next, he beseeches the north power, the source of endurance, strength, truthfulness, and honesty, which are qualities needed to walk down a good path in life. Then, he will look to the east power. The east is where the sun rises, and the sun brings us knowledge, the essence of spirituality. Without knowledge, we become ignorant and cause harm to ourselves and others. The fourth energy is the south power, which brings us bounty, medicine, and growth. Next to be acknowledged is the earth spirit. Eagle Man touches the pipe to the ground, and says, "Mother Earth, I seek to protect you." Since Mother Earth depends on the sunís life giving energy, the pipe is then held up towards the sky. Lastly, the pipe is held straight up to the Great Spirit, the Great Mystery, the unexplainable source of all life. These words are then spoken: "Oh Great Spirit, I thank you for the six powers of the universe." Unlike many westerners, Eagle Man explains that the person reaching out to the spirit world has no fear: "Most of us are not afraid of the Great Spirit. We donít fear something that has given us our life."
It is unimaginable for an Indian to break his word after smoking the pipe. In the past, the signing of treaties was always accompanied by pipe ceremonies because Indians believed that smoking the pipe would secure the arrangement. No one would be foolish enough to lie or go back on their word once the pipe was smoked because the pipe was the vehicle for carrying their word up to the Creator. And in return, a blessing would descend from the Creator to the individuals smoking it.
Of course, we all know that the United States government did not share in these understandings, and sent representatives to the Indians to use the pipe as a means of deception. As White Deer of Autumn explains: "Youíve heard of the peace pipe. There is no such thing, in a sense, because that came about when the government sent emissaries to the Native Americans. At that time, we were still the lords of the land; we still held the power. The U.S. government had to deal with that. They understood that the pipe would allow peaceful transactions because no Indian would ever lie once spoken on the pipe."
By dishonoring the meaning of this sacred practice, treaties were broken and land was taken but the benefits were short-lived, as White Deer of Autumn explains, "When the Europeans started to use tobacco, they saw it as a market, and thus corrupted its function. Now it is being misused, and you see what happens when a gift that has been given is misused."
Yet, to those who understand its true significance, the pipe ceremony holds great power, White Deer of Autumn continues, "When a stem and bowl are disconnected, you have two sacred objects. When a stem and bowl are connected, you have a living being. And the pipe is addressed as a living, breathing being. A Catholic priest traveling down the Mississippi observed men laying down their arms in conflict before the pipe. They would not fight in its presence. He said that by carrying the pipe you could pass from one end of this land to the other, without being harmed. A great holy man, named Lame Deer, said that as long as one Indian holds the pipe and prays to the Great Mystery, we will live. Thatís how powerful it is."
The Purification Ceremony
The purification ceremony is commonly referred to as the sweat lodge, but this is a misnomer, says William J. Walk Sacred, a Cree medicine man: "When you come out of a purification lodge, you donít feel the same as when you come out of a sauna. The ceremony is a rebirthing process. Thereís something that happens in a spiritual sense that is powerful and uplifting."
The Indian word for the purification ceremony is oenikika, which means the breath of life. It is a process of renewal through the integration of the spiritual and physical. Walk Sacred explains, "Just think of this as a marriage ceremony that takes place within yourself. The ceremonial leader is the medicine man. He is a representative of the spirits, who works within the invisible realm, in order for you to become aware of the healing process within yourself."
The lodge itself is made of branches, usually willow saplings, but varying according to whatís available in the region. Blankets or tarps are used as coverings to hold in heat. The circular shape of the lodge is often described as being like a womb or a protective bubble.
The nature of the ceremony differs from tribe to tribe; Walk Sacred explains the many facets of preparing for a Cree ceremony: "When you want to begin, you find a medicine man, and you offer a pouch of tobacco. Tobacco represents a personís Spirit. Offering tobacco is how you ask the medicine man to work on your behalf in the spiritual world. Itís not like a payment of money; this is his obligation. Once you have taken upon yourself the role of medicine man, it is incumbent upon you to do this healing work when someone comes to you with this offering. So, you bring tobacco to the medicine man. You also come to him with your specific desire. You tell him if itís a broken leg you want worked on, or if itís an alcohol or drug problem, or something in the non-physical world. You bring your request to the medicine man.
"At this point, he will give you your responsibilities; he will tell you how to set up the ceremony and what you need to do. You might have to prepare food. Once you ask for a ceremony, anyone who knows about it can come and request a specific healing within the ceremonial function. You never know how many people are going to be there, so you have to prepare food for 30 or 40 people, depending upon the size of the medicine manís lodge. You might be asked to prepare a specific type of food, like buffalo soup. The people who work in the spiritual world tell the medicine man what they need. This is an offering, and it represents the humbling of our spirit.
"Then the medicine man will give you specific amounts and colors of what we call tobacco ties. These are little pieces of cloth representing the six directions, white being north, yellow being south, red being east, black being west, above being blue, and the earth mother being green. He may tell you that you need 75 yellow ties and 50 blue ones. The colors represent who he is working with in the nonphysical world, and the number of ties represent a specific amount of prayers that are requested by the spirits in order for them to come in and work with you. You prepare a pouch with tobacco, and you direct your prayers into each one before closing them with a tie. Your prayers carry the gift of your heart to the spirits so they know what youíre looking for and they can see the sincerity of the heart. Thatís where they look because they know the truth is there."
The beginning of the ceremony is a time of prayer and contemplation. Walk Sacred explains, "The medicine man begins by setting up an alter. Usually, the alter has some type of antler to hold his pipe. Then he sends up sacred herbs in the four directions. There are four sacred herbs in the Native culture. One is sage, which purifies a room of negative energies. Another is sweet grass. A medicine man told me, ĎThis is what brings in the heavy guys.í Sweet grass brings in big, powerful beings from the other side to heal you. The third is cedar. Cedar is for purification. It sets up an atmosphere for the spirits to work. Itís a sweetness they like and itís attractive to the energies of the invisible world. The fourth is tobacco, which has always been sacred to Native culture. It is used in ceremonies of smoking the pipe. It is used to bless the earth. Whenever we harvest herbs or cut barks off of trees, we always offer tobacco to the four directions and to the sky father and earth mother. And we plant tobacco as an honoring of that plant, tree, or substance that is giving its life, or part of its life, to help our life."
Specific types of rocks, called grandfather rocks, are gathered and placed in a pile. Primarily lava stones from volcanos are used, because ordinary river rocks could explode. A fire is built, and the stones are heated. When the stones are white hot, they are brought into the lodge.
"We honor our relations as we enter the Ďwombí and again as we leave," Walk Sacred continues. "We crawl around until we form a circle around the center. The center of the center is where a little pit is dug for the grandfather rocks. These are brought in, one at a time, and the first four are placed in the north, south, east, and west directions. They theyíre sprinkled with a little sage and sweet grass and whatever the medicine man might be using. The medicine man offers prayers to each of the four directions, to honor his ancestors, and to honor those in the nonphysical as well as the physical worlds. This is a sacred time. It is a time of prayer, introspection, and healing.
"When the water hits the rock, it goes up in steam, fills the air, and unifies everyone within the Ďwomb.í Everything is united, as we say, all of my relations. At that moment we are connecting ourselves to the basic elements of life, and that brings out the greatest good in people. We are connecting to the movement that is all around us, that we are part of, and never separate from.
"As we sit in the circle, we each go around, one at a time, and we offer prayers of thanksgiving and praise for the Almighty, the great spirits, the great mystery, the sky father, and the earth mother. The medicine man sits by the entrance, and is the first to offer his prayers. Each person then takes a turn. Eventually you come to the end and the medicine man blends all the prayers. Itís kind of like weaving a tapestry. Itís a mystical, magical process, an altered state that goes beyond the physical form. It takes you into the reality of the nonphysical world, where the real healing takes place."
After the purification ceremony is the wopela, which, broadly interpreted, means giving thanks: "Now, we bring in the soup and foods and the gifts for the medicine man," continues Walk Sacred. "It might be a blanket, whatever your spirit leads you to bring the medicine man or to offer directly to the mystery. People sit around the medicine man in a circle. Once everyone is in, the windows are closed up. The medicine manís blanket is laid out on the floor, in the center of the lodge. On top of that is a mat of freshly cut, beautiful sage. The medicine man covers himself with a blanket, and goes into a prayerful state. He takes the prayer ties and sets them up in the north end of the center in a specific fashion. They are laid down on a special type of earth, on top of the sage, which carries the great aroma energy up to the Great Spirit. The prayers are carried up in a good way, so that the Great Spirit will receive them and hear the pitiful cries of his children. After the prayers, the candles are blown out, and it is pitch dark.
"There are specific songs that are sung for bringing in spirits, for talking to spirits, for constantly giving praise and gratitude, for constantly giving acknowledgment to the great mystery for all the gifts of life. This includes the pain and suffering as well as the good times, recognizing that all things flow from the one source, and all things return back to that one source. Itís an acknowledgment. Very holy and sacred songs might be sung for an hour. It depends. Itís all under the direction of the medicine man, although he might not speak a word. A lot of it is done telepathically, through the communication of energy waves.
"We go around to each individual, just like we did in the purification ceremony, and we give prayers and thanks and ask for specific healing. Now is the time to verbalize our requests. After everyone has given their prayers, the medicine man calls the spirits in. The medicine man is in the center. This isnít just the center of the lodge; it is the center of the universe. It represents the center of life. And that center exists within each of us. Honoring that center brings the nonphysical world into the physical one. So, the medicine man represents the spirit of the God source, and by so doing, he creates an energy that allows the nonphysical world to interact with the physical world.
"Amazing things happen. I went for healing because I was struck by lightning. While I was standing there, all of a sudden, this rattle came out of the air and started pounding me on the chest, hitting me all over the chest and head. Then eagle feathers were all over my face. There was stomping on the floor that sounded as if it came from beings 20 feet high. And you could see lights and colors."
While these experiences are phenomenal in that they shift our perception of reality, Walk Sacred reminds us that the essence of healing is in the work of each participant: "The medicine man helps us remove the veils that prevent us from seeing life as it really is: unified and sacred. His approach is to help individuals resolve problems by the work they do themselves. They prepare food, make prayer ties, sing, chant, and drum. These remove blocks within the physical structure so that the person is receptive to impulses from the non-physical world."
Working with spiritual energies is a sacred and powerful process when performed for the right reasons by an experienced person. Unfortunately, the purification lodge has become trendy in recent years, and the right atmosphere is not always present. Native Americans, therefore, warn people to take certain precautions before entering into a purification ceremony: First, if a person is charging money, people need to think about the type of energy this will attract and the effects it will have on the people in the lodge. This is a Gift from the spiritual world that cannot be compensated for by material gifts. Someone who charges for the purification ceremony is not working in the traditional way of the pipe. Second, one must look into the character of the person leading the rite. White Deer of Autumn suggests, "Look into a medicine manís background the way you would approach finding any new doctor. Find out the personís track record. Who are they? What are their experiences? And understand your responsibilities of going into the ceremonial process. Then the blessings received will be beyond your wildest imagination."
Today an increasing number of Indians are victims of cancer and other diseases of the modern world. Native Americans tend not to rely solely on western medicine for help. However, White Deer of Autumn notes that since traditional medicine is best at curing diseases brought on by nature, and since new sicknesses are brought on by technology, some technological medicine may be required. Here White Deer of Autumn talks about his wifeís quest for healing through a combination of old and new medicine:
White Deer of Autumn on Spiritual Healing through Purification
"When my wife found out that she had breast cancer, and a doctor, without any sensitivity, told her that she needed to have her breasts cut off, she immediately rejected this approach. She knew it was unnatural for her body to deal with radiation. Instead, my wife went through a process of cleansing through sweat lodges and meditation. She returned her body to a more natural form that brought her closer to the earth, and that healed her spirit, which had been hurt as a child through molestation, boarding school, and racism.
"My wife took chemotherapy at the end, and it did prolong her life for a few months. But she reacted horribly to the chemotherapy. Of course she would. Sheís a native woman, a natural woman. Putting something so unnatural into her body is going to cause her to react in that way.
"While taking chemotherapy, my wife continued to attend our ceremonies where she would sit in the center surrounded by loved ones. We would offer the pipe, and use rattles and drums and sing for her, trying to create peace and healing.
"She died just after Motherís Day. I will never forget how she invited the children onto her bed and asked for the pipe. The last act on this earth that she wanted to do was to smoke the pipe with her children. Even though the cancer destroyed her physical body, the healing of her Spirit allowed my wife to make a remarkable, wondrous transition into the next world."
The Vision Quest
Those of us on a spiritual path believe that we are put on this earth for a special reason, but that reason is not always clear to us. We want to know what we need to accomplish in life for our highest benefit, and, in turn, the benefit of the world. The vision quest can reveal our lifeís purpose, but it is an arduous journey into the core of our being that we should only embark upon with sincerity. William Walk Sacred cautions, "Itís very important for people to realize that this is not fun and games. Going into the spiritual world is very serious. If the intent isnít clear, the spirits will not give the vision. The most important thing is being clear in your heart as to what you are seeking for yourself and the people of the world."
How to embark on a vision quest varies greatly from tribe to tribe. Walk Sacredís experience, as a Cree Indian, involved a long period of preparation, which he says is designed, in part, to weed out all but the most committed. Walk Sacred describes this procedure in great detail:
William Walk Sacredís Vision Quest
"The first thing a person must do is to pray. Sometimes we do this for months or a year. I prayed for a year and a half before my vision quest to make peace with the beings who had touched me with lightning. One of the most powerful prayers we say is, ĎThe most important thing is my relationship and my dependence upon the Creator and the spirits. Everything they show me is for my spiritual growth and the peoplesí welfare. I know that with the help of the spirits I can do and I will do. Oh, Grandfather, I am so weak and pitiful. Help me for the sake of your people.í
"There are certain items a person needs in order to present themselves to the medicine man properly. The most important is the pipe. If you think of a pipe stem, it is hollow. Itís a representation of us being hollow, to allow that breath of God, that vibration, that force, to move through us without any restrictions. Our prayers through the pipe are carried on the wings of the spirit directly to the source, the Great Mystery, to be heard properly. This isnít a pipe you can buy in a pipe store. It is something that you are given or that you make yourself. It is holy and sacred.
"Once you have your pipe, you find a medicine man, the person who is to be connected to you spiritually. This person is responsible for you. Though not in your presence physically, the medicine man will be with you when you are up on the hill. You take your pipe to the medicine man, and you offer it to the four directions. You point it to the north, south, east, and west. Then you direct it to the sky father above and the earth mother below. If the medicine man is willing to accept it, he will extend his hands. Normally, the pipe is presented four times. You present it once, touch his hands, and then bring it back prayerfully. If he accepts it the fourth time, he is accepting the responsibility for your going in to talk to these spiritual beings.
"After he accepts the pipe, he will give you specific directions on what needs to be done. Normally a person needs prayer flags, and a piece of flannel cloth for making the altar. Then you have to cut choke cherry. If choke cherry is unavailable, any fruit tree will do. But normally we use choke cherries because they represent the bittersweet nature of life. They are the blood of life, the blood that ties us together and unifies the world family. The cherry itself actually represents the pituitary gland, which allows us to go from the physical into the spiritual world, and back to the physical world, so that we can walk in a good way, so that we can help bring peace into our heart, and help everyone on this planet.
"You also have to prepare tobacco ties on a continuous string using specific colors in a special order. Exact instructions are given to you by the medicine man after the spirits tell him exactly what they want. A lot of people want things, but they donít want to do what they need to do in order to get them. So, itís a very strong commitment. I was asked to make 405 ties, and it took me eight hours to do this.
"You also need an eagle feather, a peace of a conch shell that is cut in a specific fashion, and a blanket. In Native culture, the eagle is the one who carries our prayers and soars to the highest heaven, who can see great distances, and who can communicate between the physical and spiritual worlds. The conch shell represents the ocean, which is the salt of life, our beginnings. The blanket is for your protection. When you go to the hill, all you have is your nakedness and the blanket to protect you. You are presenting yourself before the Great Spirit and saying, ĎHere I am. I am pitiful. I am naked.í Itís just like when you were born. You are saying, ĎEverything I have is yours. I am nothing without you. Without you I have no breath; I donít even exist. Without you, I am nothing but the mere dust of the earth. Now I am coming back to you in a good way, in a humble way. I am not perfect. I am not the best. But I am coming in the best way that I know how. And I am asking for these blessings today.í
"Once you gather all these things that you will need, you go back to the medicine man. Before sunset, they put seven stones in a fire. You gather seven large stones and on each one you make a circle with a special type of clay paint. The circle represents the hoop of life; it has no beginning or end. The circle is the beginning of cellular consciousness. It represents the light that enters into that cell. There are many meanings to the circle. Those stones are placed in the fire, and the fire burns the whole time youíre on the hill. It represents all the elements: the earth, fire, water and air.
"When the stones are heated, you go into the purification lodge. This is the beginning of the quest. Once inside, you smoke with the medicine man, and everything is good. You go out and come back with your pipe again, but now it is empty, except for a little sage. You always keep a little sage in your pipe so that nothing gets into it, physically or spiritually. The medicine man has the lodge ready, and he has helpers that are going to sit in the lodge with you. Everyone is tied together, moving in one direction. The person going on the quest always sits on the west end of the lodge, opposite the medicine man. The west represents the spirits, the thunder beings who control the wind, the rain, the lightning, the thunder. These are being of great power, and especially important in my case because of being hit by lightning. Prayers are said in the lodge. You are there in complete darkness, with the fire, the water, the rocks and the air. All the elements are there so that all the spirits can enter.
"When you come out of the lodge, you do not speak or look at people. The medicine man takes you to the position of power that he is seeking for you so that you can have the quest you are looking for. Medicine men have many different sacred spots. He is directly connected to the Great Spirit and he knows what people can handle. Some people can handle 12 volts, others can handle 24. He puts you in a specific area that is strong enough for you as you face the spirits and go naked before God.
"Then you get to the hill. He takes out the prayer flags that you prepared ahead of time, and puts one in each direction. Then he takes the tobacco ties and puts you in the center of these four flags. He starts unwinding these along the ground. Itís a protected area. We know that once we are in the center, nothing can come into the center in a bad way. Only good things can come in there. You might see all kinds of horrific things dancing around you, but nothing can come into the center except the good things from the Great Spirit.
"Once you are in the center, he finishes the ties, sets up your alter with the choke cherry branch and the red flannel, the conch shell and the eagle feather. The medicine man tells you to remain in the center for one, two, or three days, and sometimes longer, whatever is necessary. In my case, I was told to pray hard for my life on the first night, and to pray for my direction on the second. So, I was up there two days and two nights. This is all done as the sun is starting to set. You are holding your pipe the whole time with all your might because this represents the Great Mystery. You never let it down, never let it come apart. You pray and pray and pray. You pray until it hurts.
"During this period of time, you have no food or water. You have nothing but your nakedness, your blanket, your pipe, and your prayers. Youíre down to the nitty gritty of who you are.
"At this time, you will get direction in your life. The spirits will come and talk to you. In my case, they taught me dances, and they taught me ways of communicating with the thunder beings for helping with lightning, for helping with rain, for helping with specific directions. They taught me ghost medicine and gave me specific knowledge because as a doctor, medicine man, sun dancer, pipe carrier, my direction is in healing.
"You cannot go off the path at that point because you are now owned by the spirits. They watch you continuously. There is no hiding. Someone once said to me that people live their lives as if God canít see around corners. God can see around corners. We donít get away with anything, especially once weíve made a commitment in our hearts. Thatís why before going on a quest, itís important to pray for months, sometimes a year or longer, to make sure that youíre clear in your heart about the direction youíre seeking.
"I sat there and I prayed all night and all day. I stood there, and faced the eagle feather and the conch shell on the alter, and I prayed and prayed and prayed, and asked for direction. The spirits came as sparks of light, and they came as beings that I have known before. My father, who had died, came to me at one point. There is no way to know they are coming. But if you pray in a good way, they will come and give you direction. They will tell you what it is you are seeking, and what you need to do to become an active participant in your own life. It is up to you to be able to do that.
"Once the helpers and the medicine man leave the hill, they go back to where the sacred fire is burning, and they pray for you, continually. They are up on the hill with you, so to speak, experiencing everything that you are experiencing. The fire is kept burning the whole time you are up there. Even if your quest is for four days, the fire is keep going 24 hours a day. It represents the fire of life that carries your prayers up to heaven.
"After you have been up there for a specific amount of time, the medicine man and the helpers come for you. This is rough. When you are standing there for two, three, or four days, your joints are stiff, and you are feeling pain, hunger, and thirst. You have endured 100 degree weather during the day and freezing cold at night. The experience takes you beyond the physical. It isnít trying to see how much torture you can endure. It takes you to the point of realizing your potential, of seeing what you can do, what you can go through, and still come out in a good way, with your heart and mind clear, and your body still able to function. The power of the experience is difficult to communicate in words.
"As they gather up the tobacco ties, the prayer flags, and the alter, your head remains downcast and you continue to pray because you are still in ceremony. Then you come down the hill and go back to the sacred fire. You re-enter the lodge, where you pray and sing sacred songs. Again, you are sitting opposite the medicine man on the west side with your back to the center. You share the vision that has been revealed to you, and what you share is not allowed to leave the lodge. In my case, I was given gifts of vision for each person there.
"To conclude, you participate in the wopela, which is a way of saying thank you. This is an honoring time. It is a time of giving things away. You give a gift to the medicine man and to the helpers. You give gifts to the children. Thereís always play and laughter. Usually, the blanket youíve worn is given away to someone who has been a great helper to you. This is a time of great celebration as the Great Spirit has allowed you to come back into this world. Thereís a big feast where a traditional buffalo soup is made. Unfortunately, the person who has been on the hill canít eat to much. The body is kind of stiff and you have to get used to it. Itís like birthing again. Youíre learning how to reuse the body, and how to assimilate food into your system. Itís good to take gentle things into the system, maybe some broth and fluid with a little lemon.
"For a period of time after that, you begin to integrate all this wonderful knowledge that has been given to you. This is a time to be prayerful, to allow all the information to come in, to integrate it, in order to help you on your path. This is also a time to readjust. You are getting used to a whole different vibratory rate, so to speak. Youíve been in this spiritual way, and all of a sudden youíre coming back into the physical world. The medicine man will talk with you and say, ĎAs you come back into this world, you will see hate and jealousy in peopleís eyes, and all sorts of things. Remember your commitment. Remember what you have done in your heart. Your mind can trick you into saying anything. But your heart knows the truth. You cannot lie when you go into your heart of hearts. When youíre in that center, you will know what is truth. You will look at these people and know that we are all pitiful creature. Just pray for them. When somebody comes at you with anger, hatred, prejudice, and all these things, look at it and say that everything is in control of the spirits. Just as when you were in that center, and nothing of a negative nature could hurt you, you can enter that center again. Know that you are walking in a good way. Whatever the Great Spirit brings you is coming in a good way."
Sometimes going on a vision quest is not as elaborate or detailed in terms of preparation. Still the experience can be a powerful one when the intention for a vision is strong. Eagle Man, an Ogalala Sioux, shares what his immersion into nature taught him, although he says the experience is too powerful to fully express in words:
Eagle Manís Vision Quest
"One time, I had a medicine person put me up on the hill. Another time, I had two very powerful medicine people as my mentors. They simply said, ĎGo up on this place, and vision quest.í They never accompanied me, nor did they have a sweat lodge waiting for me. They just took me up on the hill and placed me. They told me to do it and I just did it.
"I went to the mountain, and I parked my car down below. I took my peace pipe, and I simply walked up to the top of the mountain. In those days, believe it or not, when you went to Bear View Mountain, there was nobody there. Now itís quite crowded because Native spirituality has become so popular. But when I used to go there, I would be the only one on the whole mountain. So, Iíd walk way up there and Iíd fast. Iíd drink no water. Iíd simply take four little flags--red, white, black, and yellow--and place them around me, in a square. Iíd stay in the square. If I had to go to the bathroom, Iíd go away, of course, and then come back. But thatís it. Iíd sit in my square, and watch the sun come up in the morning, and set at night. Iíd see the moon come up, and Iíd see all the phases of the earth. When youíre fasting, your mind becomes more alert. You simply contemplate your life. And when you fall asleep, your dreams become more vivid.
"As each day goes by, the phases of life go through their cycles. At night, the stars come out. Pilades will actually dance for you if youíre a vision quester. They light up, almost like a neon sign. I know people find that hard to believe, but thatís just the mystery of the ceremony. An eagle will hover right over you knowing that youíre in ceremony. Thunder and lightning come by, and you just endure it. Itís no problem. Lightning can be flashing all around you, and youíll laugh. The Great Spirit is not going to take your life up there while you are vision questing. And if it does, who cares? Youíre in a good state. But you donít fear nature or God. The Great Spirit made you. Why should you fear it? You become more confident once you follow this natural road.
"So, this is a vision quest. Itís performed by you and itís for yourself. You donít have to go through anybody. You can communicate to the Great Spirit through observation. Of course, itís nice to have a medicine person there to help you interpret the experience. When I came down from the mountain, the medicine man asked me, ĎWhat did you see?í I said that I didnít see too much. ĎThis eagle just came and hovered over me, and lightning cracked close to me.í ĎWere you afraid?í he asked? ĎNo, I wasnít afraid. In fact, I laughed. And I saw four horses before I went up the mountain. But they were real, live horses.í ĎWhat color were they?í he wanted to know. He was even interested in these pre-vision quest scenes, as well as my dreams."
Eagle Man suggests that most people attempting a vision quest go into the mountains for one or two days at most, as the majority arenít stronger to go up for long periods of time. Also people should take their medication, and drink water, if this is a necessity.
Oliver Pahdopony - Healed on a Vision Quest
Oliver Pahdopony was the last medicine man of the Comanches. Between 1980 and 1985, a graduate anthropology student, by the name of Robert Vetter, was doing his field work in the southern plains, and had the good fortune of being taken into Pahdoponyís family, where he developed a close relationship with his adopted grandfather. Vetter was interested in religion, spirituality, and healing, and learned much from a Native American perspective, which he shared with me.
Ten years before their meeting, Pahdopony was very ill and hospitalized. The doctors exhausted all their tests and treatments, and finally told their patient that they could do nothing more for him but ease his pain. Pahdopony had terminal cancer.
Pahdopony discussed his situation with his wife and son, and they decided that since the doctors could do nothing, he would heal himself in the tradition of his elders. He would fast and go into the hills on a vision quest. Pahdopony went into the Wichita mountains on the night of a new moon, and brought along an eagle feather, a blanket, and some tobacco. This was the fall when it was just starting to get cold.
Pahdopony reached his spot, a rise facing Mount Scott, one of the taller peaks in the Wichita mountains, he sat down and waited. For a long time, nothing happened. Then, near morning, he could hear the rustling of leaves from out in the distance. Looking up, he saw something that appeared to be a flame. Whatever it was started getting closer and closer. Then he realized that this was a creature spitting fire out of his mouth, and it was getting closer to him. Pahdopony, who referred to this creature as a visitor, soon realized that it was coming after him. Pahdopony sat frozen, unable to move, and the visitor, directly in his path, shot a flame at him. Now Pahdopony couldnít move, talk, or breathe. His heart completely stopped and he was totally helpless.
Then the visitor spoke, and Pahdopony returned to normal. He could move, breathe, and talk again. The visitor said in Comanche, "Son, what are you doing here?" And Pahdopony replied that he was sick. "Thereís nothing the matter with you," the visitor replied. "Youíre going to be alright. But they sent me to take care of a man whoís real bad off." With that, this visitor started to take off to the west. But just before disappearing, he turned around to Pahdopony and said, "Son, did you know that this whole world that we live in comes to a complete standstill for a short time, just before morning? Thatís the time when things like me can enter into this world."
With that, the visitor disappeared into the west, which is often considered to be the direction of death.
Some time later, his son came back for him. Running up to his father, he asked, "How did you make it through the cold night? Pahdopony replied, "What do you mean? Where I was, it was like springtime." Leaving the rise, everywhere had frost on the ground, everywhere but where Pahdopony had been.
Pahdopony returned home, his cancer now gone. He never had problems with that again. But he knew something else had happened as well, and he really didnít know what to do about it until sometime later. In a nearby town, an old Comanche lady walked up to him and asked, "Son, what happened to you?" Pahdopony asked the old lady what she meant and she told him that something changed about him. He explained the story of his vision quest, and she said, "Something like that doesnít happen to you without your receiving a gift. Youíve got a gift, and you donít yet know what it is, but some time soon, youíre going to find out. Whatever healed you is going to give you the power to heal other people."
Pahdopony started to think about what had happened to him on the hill. Putting it all together, he began to remember the traditional medicine people of his childhood. And he had remembered some of the ways they had doctored people.
Word about what had happened to Pahdopony got out in the Indian communities of Oklahoma. And people from the different tribes started coming to him for help. Pahdopony began to realize what he was supposed to be doing and how he was supposed to do it.
Since fire had healed him, Pahdopony used this element to treat other people. He would build a fire, and let it burn until the coals in it were red hot. Then he would take a piece of the hot coal out of the fire with his fingers, and place it into his mouth. This would activate the power to heal others. Pahdopony saw sickness as fire, and would say that you have to fight fire with fire. But you have to understand what that fire is, or else it will burn you.
Different medicine men and women specialize in treating different illnesses. Pahdoponyís specialty was Bellís palsy, a facial paralysis where one half of the face become paralyzed. He had the ability to take the personís face in his hands, and reshape it the way that it was supposed to be. Pahdopony would explain that it was like taking wet cement. You could move it around any way you wanted. But once it was dry, it would stay in one position.
The Sun Dance
The sun dance is the predominant tribal ceremony of Great Plains Indians, although it is practiced by numerous tribes today as a prayer for life, world renewal and thanksgiving. On a personal level, someone may dance to pray for a relative or friend, or to determine their place in the universe, while on a larger scale, the sun dance serves the tribe and the earth. Indigenous people believe that unless the sun dance is performed each year, the earth will lose touch with the creative power of the universe, thereby losing its ability to regenerate.
The sun dance was outlawed in the latter part of the nineteenth century, partly because certain tribes inflicted self-torture as part of the ceremony, which settlers found gruesome, and partially as part of a grand attempt to westernize Indians by forbidding them to engage in their ceremonies and speak their language. Sometimes the dance was performed when reservation agents were lax and chose to look the other way. But as a rule, younger generations were not being introduced to the sun dance and other sacred rituals, and a rich cultural heritage was becoming extinct.
Then, in the 1930's, the sun dance was relearned and practiced once again. Michael Fitzgerald, an adopted member of the Yellow Tail family of the Crow tribe, and author of Yellow Tail Crow Medicine Man and Sun Dance Chief related this amazing story to me. A man by the name of John Trojillo was walking in the mountains while on a vision quest when he was struck by lightning. At that moment, the Spirit of the mountain came to Trojillo and carefully explained to him different healing ceremonies and medicines.
Three days later, Trojillo noticed himself walking through a rock, and then saw himself lying on the floor of the cave. He laid down in his body and awoke, realizing that he had been in his Spirit all this time, not his physical body.
Trojillo was given explicit instructions to follow for a yearís time. He was told to pray, to go on vision quests, and not to practice his medicine power. Afterwards, Trojillo was able to call upon the Spirits of the medicine fathers, whenever someone was in need of help, and was the vehicle for many miraculous healings. The first healing was especially dramatic, involving a man who had been shot twice, just above the heart. The doctors of this time were not skillful enough to perform such a delicate operation, but Trujillo prayed for the man, and sprinkled the wound with a sacred powder, called lightning root. The next day, the bullets worked themselves out and were lying beneath the man. The patient fully recovered and lived many more healthy years. While the herbs played a role, Trujillo credited the manís survival to the Spirits who had responded to his prayers.
Trujillo became prominent in his tribe as a result of this incident and was asked to reinstate the sun dance on the Shoshoni reservation. Then in 1941, he was invited to the Crow reservation to teach the sun dance, which had also been lost due to generations of U.S. government Indian policy. Since this new version differed from the original dance, the Crows called the ceremony the Crow Shoshoni sun dance.
The tribes learned that the sun dance consisted of various elements. There was the ritual of the sacred pipe, the purification ceremony, monthly prayer ceremonies, and a yearly ritual. The sun dance chief offers the prayers from the sacred pipe to the four directions, as well as the earth and sky, on a daily basis. The purification ceremony is performed before the sun dance and again afterwards. Monthly sun dance prayer ceremonies take place 12 times a year, at the time of the full moon. During this ceremony, two medicine bundles are opened, and ritual objects are taken out and placed on an elkís skin in the middle of the floor. Heated coals are brought into the lodge, incense is placed on the fire, and special songs are sung to help carry the prayers of the smoke to a subtler world.
At the end of the ceremony, people in the audience come forth to be healed. Animal instruments, such as eagle feathers and otter skins, are used. Fitzgerald notes that a great spiritual leader, Yellow Tail, used a hollowed out horn of a spiked horn elk as his primary method of healing. Blowing on a patientís back with the horn created a terribly shrill sound, but resulted in many miraculous cures and protection against danger. In one instance, a prominent American Indian was sent to Viet Nam and shot at close range by the Viet Cong. Although the bullet tore through his tee shirt, it did not penetrate him.
During the healings, the medicine man prays over the patient, touching him or her with the animal instrument. The bad spirits are taken into the prop, and then cast into the wind. Sometimes herbs are given to the patient to alleviate simple symptoms, but as mentioned earlier, the essential cure is through prayer. The medicine man calls forth spiritual entities to enter the physical world in order to cure the patient.
In addition to the 12 monthly ceremonies, there is a three to four day sun dance that takes place each summer, usually in July. The preparation is too detailed to describe here, but involves building a lodge from a large cottonwood tree, with a forked branch in the middle. Twelve upright poles are placed about 13 paces from the center pole in a circular fashion, with rafter poles connecting the outside of the circle to the inner pole. From an aerial view, this appears as a wagon wheel with a hub in its center. This symbolizes the tribe (on the outside of the circle) trying to find their way straight to the center.
Fitzgerald told me about the preparations for the Crow sun dance, where the dancers greet each sunrise with sacred songs. Then the medicine man prays on behalf of the tribe, the world, and all creation. Throughout the day, 100 or more tribe members may dance to a drum beat, which represents the heart of the universe. The dancers fast for the duration of the ceremony. All their time is spent praying to the Creator and dancing toward and away from the center pole. The ceremony is brutal and causes many dancers to collapse, what Indians call taking a fall. This is followed by a vision, similar to what happens on a vision quest, only here many people are given guidance for the good of the tribe. In a sense, this is a community vision quest to renew the people and the bioregion.
On the second day, spectators from the tribe enter the lodge to be healed, bearing gifts of tobacco and incense. This is exactly the same process that takes place during the monthly prayer sun dance ceremonies, where harmful spiritual and physical manifestations are taken into an animal instrument and cast off to the wind, while prayers are said to heal the person.
Sun dance ceremonies typically end with a purification ceremony so that tribe members can re-enter the world refreshed and regenerated. Fitzgerald notes that this ritual is as concrete as it is symbolic, and related to me a time when he was in a purification lodge with Yellow Tail. While praying, Yellow Tail suddenly threw a scoop of water onto the very hot volcanic rocks. The force of the 212 degree steam knocked Fitzgerald down. He equated the feeling to that of an egg that sizzles when dropped onto a skillet. Yellow Tail continued to pray, and then asked Fitzgerald if he was alright. Fitzgerald leaned up onto his elbow to assure Yellow Tail that he was fine, feeling too embarrassed to admit that he was thrown onto the ground. At that moment, Fitzgerald realized that this was more than a symbolic death; there was an element of pure suffering accompanying this ceremony of death and renewal.
The dual meaning of this ritual is also expressed by Yellow Tail, who says, "When water is thrown onto the rocks, the heat does not merely cleanse us from the outside. It also goes all the way into our hearts. We know that we must suffer the ordeal of the heat in order to purify ourselves. In that way, we re-emerge from the sweat lodge at the end of the ceremony as new men who have been shown the light of the wisdom of our spiritual heritage for the first time. This allows us to participate in all of our daily tasks with the fresh remembrance of our position on earth, and our continuous obligation to walk on this earth in accordance with the sacred ways."
Sandra Frazier - Healed Through the Sun Dance
Sandra Frazier, from the Cheyenne River Reservation attributes her recovery from cancer to the power of traditional ceremonies: "In 1990, the doctors told me that I had female cancer. By the time it was diagnosed, the doctors thought that it had spread, and they scheduled me for surgery.
"I have a good friend, named Dorothy, living at Standing Rock Reservation. She asked me if she could sponsor, a sweat lodge ceremony for me, and I said that she could. So, she had a sweat lodge ceremony and prayed for me.
"Right after that, there was to be a sun dance on the Standing Rock reservation. Dorothy asked the sun dance leader if I could be taken to the tree. He said that I could, since my bleeding was not from a regular menstrual period. So, I went to the sun dance, and they took me up to the tree, where I prayed for my health. I prayed that I would be able to raise my children, and not be taken from them. I prayed that I would be able to be with my grandchildren.
"Afterwards, I went through the surgery, and there were no problems at all, absolutely none. I really believe it was because I had gone to the sweat lodge and that I had gone to the sun dance where the sun dancers prayed with me.
"A year later, I went back to the sun dance and did what we call a wopela, a thanksgiving. What I did was feed the people with traditional food.
"The next year, my youngest daughter was pregnant. She had a normal pregnancy, and delivered a baby girl. But the next day she had terrible, terrible pain in her chest, and was taken to a hospital, where she was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer. The placenta cells traveled and grew in her body cavity, her female parts, and her lungs, but fortunately, they hadnít grown in her brain. She immediately started on chemotherapy.
"As soon as the cancer was diagnosed, I contacted my family, and they immediately went into ceremony. All the time that she had cancer, there were ceremonies for her. At the same time, there were prayers all around the world for my daughter. I sincerely believe that my daughter was cured of that cancer because of prayer and medicine. I sincerely believe in these ways. I know they work."
The Naming Ceremony
Legal names are given, but Native American names are earned. Gabriel Horn gives a personal account of why and how his Indian name was chosen: "By the time I graduated from college, I had already done my battles for the people. I had protested against stereotypes of Native Americans, I had fought for a Native American literature course on campus, and I had asked for participation in the United Nations. My immediate family believed that I had earned a name. The name came to my uncle, a traditional Cherokee man, who had a vision of a white deer coming to him and singing my name. He knew it was to be White Deer.
"My godmother, my uncle, and some close friends attended the ceremony. A pipe was filled with tobacco, and offered to each direction, as they called out my name. They called it out to the east, the south, the west, and the north. They called it out to the sky and to the earth. They called it out to the plants. They called it out to the animals. In other words, I was introduced to the universe as White Deer. That was my rebirth. In a sense, I was a born again Indian at that point." Receiving a new name was a healing experience. I was now completely comfortable with my Indian identity, whereas before I felt fragmented, not totally in touch with who I was."
Name changes can be physically as well as psychologically healing. Some time later, White Deer became ill, and a longer name was the solution: "I had gotten very sick, and was near death. A very old Ojibwa medicine man from Canada came down to Minnesota. I believe he was over 100 years old, and he didnít speak any English. During the ceremony of healing for me, a manifestation appeared in the room. At that point, the medicine man said that the entity wanted me to also be called Autumn. I was now White Deer of Autumn. The ceremony ended, and my sickness was healed.
"The name, of course, bestows certain powers and responsibilities. The power of the deer is its awareness, its keenness, and its protective nature. The white is purity, purity of heart, mind, and words. Autumn, I was told, is a time when change is most visible. Itís a time when change is at its most powerful. And so, I was named for that season."
Indian names can be passed down, as western names often are. The distinction is that you are not stuck with one name all your life. This represents different beliefs about human potential, says White Deer of Autumn: "Crazy Horse passed on his name to his son, who took the name Worm as he got older. So, we can pass on names, too. The idea is that youíre not stuck with the name you were given at birth. In western society, itís almost as if you canít change; you canít evolve; you canít grow. From a native perspective, your name reflects who you are. White Deer of Autumn reflects what Iíve done. But as I go on in life, I may want to let go of that and take another name. I have that right. So, naming is the ability to evolve and change in your identity. I think this is healing, both physically and emotionally."
Smudging is a common practice among Native Americans for the cleansing of energy through the burning of sage, tobacco, and sweet grass. John Joseph says these substances emit certain smells that are pleasing to the Great Spirit: "Sweet grass grows high in the Rocky Mountains, and is known as the grass that never dies. It is a gift from the Creator, and one of the great smells for reminding us of the mountains and the open air. Sage is the cleanest smell of the desert, and is also given to us by the Creator. Tobacco is yet another gift. Our thoughts and prayers are carried on its smoke. It is a visual representation of our thoughts and prayers being carried, more so because it carries the two great smells of the mountain and desert."
The smudging itself is performed by mixing the sweet grass, sage, and tobacco in a bowl, usually an abalone shell, burning the ingredients, and then blowing or fanning the smoke over a person. Often, an eagle feather fan is used, as Native Americans believe that the prayers and thoughts contained in the smoke are carried to the Creator on the wings of eagles, which fly the highest and are in direct communication with the Creator.
Smudging plays a central role in traditional healing ceremonies because it is believed that once negative energies are cleared out, a sense of peace and relaxation take over, putting spiritual difficulties to rest. Joseph explains why this aspect of healing is so important: "Western medicine primarily looks at physical causes, and often does not consider the spiritual well being of the individual. You have to understand that thereís a big difference between healing and curing. Curing is a quick fix and will only be long-term if the spiritual site is fixed." Smudging is often combined with other modalities that get to the root of illness, such as talking to a shaman, taking long walks, fasting, praying, and engaging in purification ceremonies.
The Winter Dance
The winter dance is a ceremony for the renewal of the earth that is performed by the Salish people on the Colville Reservation, north of Spokane, Washington. John Grim, a religious historian, an adopted member of a Crow Indian family, and the author of The Shaman Patterns of Religious Healing Among the Ojibway Indians, attends the winter dance each year, and explained the ritual to me. Grim states that the dance for renewal is not an abstract notion. Rather, it is performed to invoke heavy rains so that root crops will grow to provide sustenance for humans, and to keep animals alive for man to hunt.
The winter dance is performed for four days, from eight in the evening until nine the next morning. The first day of the winter dance is usually for family. Then intimate friends of the family are invited. It grows from there, and by the fourth day, there may be as many people as s 100 or 150 people in attendance. The location of the ceremony is chosen by a Shaman. It is held in a single room; the windows are covered, and there is a pole made of pine in the middle of the room that extends from the floor to the ceiling. This pole is referred to as the old man, and is a symbol for our relationship with the Spirits that created and gave meaning to this world.
During the winter dance itself, Spirits call out in the form of songs. Those who can hear the songs will sing them. This exchange between the Spirits and human beings is called Samish in the Salish language, a word which implies that a special sound is being imparted to a person by the creative presence of the world. No one touches the pine pole except for the singers, who begin to sing very slowly, one at a time. There is no set order regarding who will sing when. The singers are believed to be in trance, although this word doesnít fully capture the experience of what actually takes place. A translator is usually present to give the English interpretation, or if the words are already in English, to project the message loud and clear for everyone in the room to hear. These are personal statements about ethical and moral life, about community, about Spirit presence, and about the origin of the song. The singer begins to sing at a much faster pace, and people get up to dance.
The four day ceremony attracts wet heavy snow, then a frost and a cold spell, followed by more snow to get moisture down into the root crops. Grim notes how each time he attends the winter dance, it snows.
The Rites of Passage Ceremony
George Amiotte, an Ogalala Lakota from Pine Ride, explains that the Rites of Passage ceremony is performed for young people, about 14 or 15 years of age, who are traveling from adolescence into young adulthood. The Indian word for this ritual is hablacia which means crying for a vision. During the ceremony, a young person will leave behind the mundane problems of life, and contemplate on his place in the universe. Similar to a vision quest, the individual will sit for four days and four nights, without food or water, and contemplate the whys of his existence. A person will ask, "Who am I?" "What am I doing here?" "What is my purpose?" Basically, this ceremony helps a person get in touch with their spiritual being. In other words, they ask the spiritual part of themselves to come to life, so that they may fulfill their part in the Divine Plan.
The Salmon Spirit Ceremony
The Salmon Spirit Ceremony is performed by the Skokomish people in order to thank the earth for its supply of food. When salmon start to appear, the people hold a ceremony where they sing songs and offer the first salmon caught that year back to the river. This ceremony is similar to saying a prayer before eating.
The Uweepe Ceremony
This is a little known healing ceremony performed by only a few medicine people in South Dakota. During the uweepe ceremony, the leader will travel into a spiritual dimension where the past, present, and future are available to him or her. When working with a sick individual, this allows the medicine person to make a diagnosis, and to see what needs to be done.
The Making of Relations Ceremony
Loneliness is one of the worst feelings we can experience, and, unfortunately, a common theme of modern times. Native Americans use the Making of Relations Ceremony to overcome alienation, and to create a sense of community and continuity among people. Ben First Eagle, a Watatome and Choctaw Indian from the Black Hills of South Dakota explains how and why the ceremony is performed: "This is a ritual that we have for making a new relation. To Native Americans, the worst thing that you can call a person is an orphan. It means that the person is disconnected, that they have no relations, that they have no blood line. These things happened in the past. The mother and father would be killed or disease would take them. And they happen today.
"In this ceremony, another family or group takes in a young person who has been left alone. Or it can be a middle-aged person or someone older. Age doesnít matter. Anyone who loses their relatives can partake in this ritual. Another family will say, ĎThis one is pitiful. We need to help. So, letís make this one our aunt, our brother, our sister, nephew, niece, grandson, or granddaughter.í The Making of Relations Ceremony insures that no one is an orphan, no one is alone.
"In this ritual, we use the pipe, we use blankets, and, these days, we use a chair. They used to just sit people on sage and cover them with the blanket. Songs are sung. An eagle feather is tied in the personís hair, complete with a medicine wheel, that could be made of rawhide and painted, or made of porcupine quills. Thatís done to symbolize their connection to the four directions, and to the hoop of life. Hair represents the personís life because it grows. It contains a personís wisdom, and it contains their connection to the past."
Ben First Eagle says the Making of Relations Ceremony insures that no one is left to feel alone in the universe, and that this is vital as we are social beings who depend upon each other. "A person is taken in as a relative. That relative system is as strong as blood. It must be, because the welfare of the group can sometimes hinge upon one individual. And if that person is feeling disconnected, he or she may fail you."
Due to the rising numbers of death due to alcoholism among Native Americans, the Making of Relations ritual is being conducted more and more today.
The (sounds like Aduha) Ceremony
This is a ceremony for giving away possessions of a loved one who has recently died. When a husband, wife, or other close family member passes on, the living relative gathers together the departedís belongings, and decides who can use what. This process takes approximately a year, and is done with the help of others. At the end of this time, friends and relatives gather together for the actual giving away of belongings. If a woman survives her husband, she may give away her husbandís fishing pole or gun to a nephew or brother-in-law who always admired that possession, and who can use it. She will also give away items to the people who helped her gather these belongings together.
Eagle Man explains that giving is a natural part of an Indianís nature: "In the old, old days, Indians would always give things away. When we were out in the plains, hunting buffalo, we had everything we needed, and we considered ourselves wealthy. Of course, wealth is just a matter of how you see it. We thought you were quite wealthy if you were well fed and free, with a good horse underneath you. If you were able to provide for your offspring and mates, you were wealthy.
"In modern times, many Indians live in houses and accumulate certain things. They feel that they can give these things away when a person dies. When you learn to live with less, you donít have to worry about it. You learn to be unburdened with all the excess trinkets that are totally irrelevant to living in this world."
Eagle Man adds that the (sounds like Aduha) ceremony has important psychological benefits for the person in mourning, as gathering items occupies the personís mind, and gives the individual something to do. Then, on the day of the actual giving away, the person who died is brought to life in the sense that people get together and reminisce about the past. Usually, a hall is rented where close friends and family of the departed gather together. A picture of the couple in their earlier days may be there and people will comment on that. Then, when items are given away to loved ones, each person will recall a memory about it. Say a widow gives her husbandís friend a fishing pole, he may remember a time he spent time with her husbandís fishing in a stream. The woman hears good things about her husband and this is healing.
The Earth Day Ceremony
According to Eagle Man, the Sioux nation take Earth Day very seriously and performs a powerful ceremony in its honor. The ceremony is held outdoors, where the four directions are invoked, as well as the powers of the earth and sky, to let these energies know that the people are giving Mother Earth their full support and respect.
Acknowledging the directions is a common part of Native ceremonies, but here they are connected to environmental talk. Eagle Man explains: "We talk about life giving rains coming out of the west. We talk about clean waters. And we ask, ĎHow can we help make the water clean?í We talk about less wasting of water. Also, we talk about fighting for the non-pollution of water. Then we turned to the north and appreciate cleanliness and purity. We know that we have an uphill battle, as most environmentalists have. But we beseech upon the north power to fortify us and give us great strength to endure in our venture into environmentalism. We beseech the east power and talk about knowledge, about educating children. We see that more today. Kids are less apt to throw trash out of their cars windows. I just had three occupants in my car. One dumped his water out from his paper cut, but he wouldnít think of throwing that paper cup out there on the grass. Had he thrown out the paper cup, I would have stopped the car, turned around, admonished him, and made him pick up the paper cup. It doesnít sound like much, but it all adds up. So, we talk about knowledge. We go to the south power, and we beseech for bounty to be taken away from these people that are wasting. All business executives care about is making more and more money. They donít care about taking their bounty and applying it to Mother Earthís needs. We beseech for the bounty to be distributed to people who will make use of it for the Earth Mother, and for projects that will generate a myriad of environmental items that can cause less pollution."
Ultimately, addressing the directions leads to communion with the Creator. But Indians do not focus directly on the all-seeing Great Mystery. Rather, they speak to His Creation as manifested in nature, represented by each direction.
The Medaweewan Ceremony
This sacred and secret ceremony is central to the (sounds Anishanobway) people of Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Michigan. Non-Native people have never participated in this ritual. It is a ceremony they preserve for themselves and it is integral to their identity as a people. In earlier times, the ceremony was practiced by other groups, such as the Ojibway and Chippewa, but due to oppression and persecution it became extinct in these cultures.
The purpose of the four or five day ceremony is to build institutional support and to bring different shamans together to transmit the mythical understandings and symbol systems of the Anishanobway people. As outsiders to the religion, this is all we can know, and perhaps all we need to know.
SACRED OBJECTS, SACRED SYMBOLS, AND SACRED LAND
Medicine shields were used by Native American men for spiritual as well as physical protection. Physical safety was aided by the size of the shield, and the material used to make it, which was a hard rawhide from the hump of the buffalo. The rawhide was cured, making it dense, so that no arrow could penetrate it. Bullets from early flint rock rifles didnít always go through the rawhide, although more powerful bullets did.
For spiritual protection, the shields were circular, and decorated with power symbols and objects of personal significance. They might draw a picture of an animal or an insect that they felt close to, for instance, a buffalo, an eagle, or an ant. This would come to the man in a vision or be given to him by someone else. The animal or insect would give the warrior further power and protection by allowing him to see where the enemy was. Sometimes parts of animals would be attached as well, such as eagle feathers. Smaller shields, known as replica shields, were made by the men too, and worn for spiritual protection from evil.
Native American artists Tchin explains the importance of medicine shields as power symbols: "I think all people understand the power of things. We understand that we, as human beings, are somewhat weak, and so we need other things to help us."
(Are medicine shields and medicine wheels the same?)
To understand the significance of the medicine wheel, we need to go back to a time when most Indian nations were constantly at war with each other. Tribes were obsessed with wiping out their "enemies." Then a dramatic shift in perception occurred, and a peace was realized, which lasted for a period of 150 to 200 years. This long truce was the result of a great Iroquois chief, (sounds like Agonawila), later to become Hiawatha, who urged the tribes to cease the madness of brother killing brother, and formed an alliance, which came to be known as the Confederation of Nations. The Confederation recognized that Indian peoples were more alike than different. Even though they spoke different dialects, they had the same basic belief systems and followed similar traditions.
An important part of this transformation was the medicine wheel, which was placed in front of every tepee, and decorated in special symbols, colors, and stones, to let people entering the tribe know about its inhabitants. The medicine wheel was a reflection of an individualís strengths and weaknesses, and it gave people guidelines to follow for personal growth. It told people what they needed to learn and what they needed to teach. Everyone was ordered to work on themselves, or else leave the tribe. After several generations of this work, people lost the concept of blame and anger. This, in turn, resulted in the longest peace in modern history.
Brother Eagle Soaring, from Arizona, explains the powerful impact of the medicine wheel: "If I said to you, ĎDoes anyone ever make you angry?í you would say yes. But in reality, this is totally impossible. You choose to be angry by the way you process the event. This is something you were taught to do as a child. If you could imagine not one person in all of New York City having the concept of anger, thatís what it was like during that time period of no wars before the white man came."
The medicine wheel is a circle divided by a cross to create four directions--the north, east, south, and west. A forerunner to astrology, each person is represented somewhere within that circle, depending upon their birth date. That placement is associated with a special moon, power animal, healing plant, color and mineral, as outlined below. Though more complex in actuality, here Brother Soaring Eagle gives an overview of the special meanings the medicine wheel can have for individuals:
North - Purity and Renewal
Spirit Keeper of the North: White Buffalo (Waboose)
December 22 to January 19
Moon: Earth renewal moon
Power Animal: Snow goose
Mineral: Quartz crystal
Frequency: 13.26 megacycles
Plant: Birch tree
Characteristics: The snow goose is at the top of the medicine wheel, and represents the chief. These people have an affinity for the earth, and might pick up rocks while vacationing. The bark of the birch tree helps their digestive tract, and the new leaves and new ends of twigs help deaden the pain in their knees and bones. Like the quartz crystal that is used in communications, these people can send messages over long distances. Often just thinking of someone will be enough to get the person to call them.
January 20 to February 18:
Moon: Rust cleansing moon otter
Power Animal: Otter
Frequency: 13.6 megacycles
Plant: Quaking aspen
Characteristics: The otter sits on the right hand side of the chief in high counsel. Their job is to advise the chief and to dissolve disputes. Otter people assume that everyone is their friend. They are multifaceted and quick thinkers who are usually a step and a half ahead of everyone else.
February 19 to March 20:
Moon: Big windís moon cougar
Power Animal: Cougar
Frequency: 14.6 megacycles
Colors: Blue and green
Characteristics: Cougar people also sit in high counsel, but on the left hand side hand of the chief. Their job is to give advice on running the tribe, as they are considered natural psychiatrists. All people come to cougar people for advice. Being frog clan members, they are natural healers. Cougar people do not jump into the center of the action. Rather, they are the elusive, shy ones that stay behind, and watch things unfold.
East - Illumination and Wisdom
Spirit keeper of the East - Eagle (Wabun)
March 21 to April 19:
Moon Phase: Budding treeís moon red tail hawk
Power Animal: Red tail hawk
Mineral: Fire opal
Frequency: 3.6 megacycles
Characteristics: Red tail hawk people look at the world with a sense of wonder. They have a great flair for life and adventure, and are always open to learning something new. Being of the element fire, these people are passionate about everything they do. They are also fearless, and often act without thinking, which causes them to bump their heads a lot. These people cannot lie, for if they do, they are either no good at it, or it makes them ill. So, they are straightforward and not very tactful. If you ask a redtail hawk whether or not he likes your new dress, you are going to hear an honest opinion.
April 20 to May 20:
Moon Phase: Frogís return moon beaver; New waters moon beaver
Power Animal: Beaver
Frequency: 4.5 megacycles
Plant: Blue commis
Characteristics: These are the architects of the shields. Beaver people are usually workaholics who can focus on getting the job done. The results of their work can have great impact on people far away. Beaver people donít like change in their lives, and must learn to embrace change and to be thankful for the opportunities it offers, even when this is difficult.
May 21 to June 20:
Moon Phase: Corn planting moon deer.
Power Animal: Deer
Mineral: Moss agate
Frequency: 5.26 megacycles
Colors: Green and white
Characteristics: In Indian cultures, deer people are referred to as the Einsteins of the shield. Theyíre the ones with all the ideas. While most people are wondering what to do with their lives, deer people are wondering when are they going to have time to do everything they think of doing. The element air makes them multifacted and changeable. Deer people donít necessarily finish what they start, but move from one thing to another. Often, they are artists and entertainers, and they frequently have two or three jobs at once.
South - Rapid growth and trust
Spirit Keeper of the South - Coyote (Shawnodese)
June 21 to July 22:
Moon: Strong sun moon; warning sun moon
Power animal: Flicker (large woodpecker)
Minerals: Rose quartz, Carnelian agate
Plant: Wild rose
Characteristics: Deer people are good at working with their hands and make excellent massage therapists. As frog clan members, they find it soothing to sit by a stream. And as coyotes, they have an excellent sense of humor. It is good to invite these people to parties.
July 21 to August 22:
Moon phase: Ripe berries moon sturgeon
Power animal: Sturgeon
Minerals: Garnet, iron
Frequency: 74 megacycles
Characteristics: In Indian cultures, the sturgeon represents royalty, therefore, these people are perceived as princes. They come into the world as teachers, with strong leadership abilities. They are always reading and studying to search for the truth. The information they receive must be shared with others. They have a hard outer shell that canít be broken by physical force, but which can be opened through peace, love, and harmony. These people are soft inside, and will allow you to know them completely when you come to them in this way. One way to get to sturgeon people is to praise them.
August 23 to September 22:
Moon phase: Harvest moon brown bear
Spirit animal: Brown bear
Characteristics: Science shows that brown bear people have a high level of neuropeptides in their stomach. Neuropeptides are a substrate of thought, which tells us that thinking is not all in our heads. These people tend to take their gut feelings up into their head to analyze it. As a result, they sometimes lose a sense of what they should do. But if they go with their first feelings, they are usually right. Theyíre good in business if they donít overanalyze. As turtle clan members, they are of the element earth, and enjoy picking up rocks and minerals.
West - Strength and Introspection
Spirit Animal of the West - ??????
September 23 to October 23:
Moon: Ducks flying moon; cooling sun moon
Power animal: Raven
Frequency: 9.2 megacycles
Character: Like ravens, who fly together, these people tend to stay with the flock. They need to separate themselves from the group, and follow their own convictions. Then they can be the leaders they came here to be. Ravens are attracted to things that shine, and can get trapped into situations that look appealing but are not all they seem to be. and their stone is jasper. They vibrate to 9.2 megacycles.
October 24 to November 21:
Moon: Freeze up moon snake; Cooling sun moon snake
Power animal: Snake
Mineral: Malachite, copper
Vibration: 11.8 megacycles.
Characteristic: Snake people are powerful healers. In Indian cultures, they are considered the true medicine women and men, and are trained from an early age for this purpose. These people can sometimes heal through touch. Being of the element water, they are often involved in flushing, healing, and cleansing of the the body.
November 22 to December 21
Moon phase: Long snows moon elk
Plant: Black spruce
Characteristics: These people see the truth where others canít. They are concerned citizens who wonít stop fighting for their cause until it is set right. Whatever they focus on, they will get. They canít survive in an unjust situation, whether it be at work, at home, or in a relationship. That only makes them ill. These people can be clairvoyant, especially with the help of their stone, the obsidian. Ruled by fire, they are passionate at what they do. But they can get burnt out easily if they donít pace themselves. Elk people tend to be impatient with other people who donít want to do things their way. They need to learn that there are many paths to the mountain top. Also, if they look at what people are doing right, they will see more good in what a person is doing, rather than to look for whatís wrong and to criticize.
Native American ethnographer, Robert Vetter, says the medicine wheel can also teach us how to approach life. This is done in four stages, with each stage relating to one of the four directions: The first step is sacrifice. A sacrifice is necessary to overcome a crisis. Contrary to western thought, where we try to get something for nothing, Native American spiritual teachings stress that when we want something in our lives, we must pay for it deeply. In former days, sacrifices involved cutting off strips of skin or fingers, while today they usually consist of fasting, and going out alone on vision quests to confront oneís fears.
The second step is prayer. In the Native American spiritual traditions, people pray deeply for what they need. During a sun dance, for example, a person may fast, pierce their skin, and dance for days for someone in their family who is sick.
The third stage is transformation. Vetter notes that there are many stories of miraculous healings that take place spontaneously as a result of prayer.
The four step is most important and least known. This is the stage of thanksgiving. When a person is healed, there is an obligation to give back to the community. "In the case of Vetterís adopted grandfather, Pahdopony," he says, "Whatever it was that healed him would become the power that he would use in healing other people for the remainder of his days."
Brother Soaring Eagle reminds us that the medicine wheel is a powerful object that has inspired noble acts in the United States. The U.S. Constitution was founded on its principles. And towards the end of the Second World War, Roosevelt based the United Nations on its doctrine. Basically, the medicine wheel says, ĎI respect your views; you respect my views. I would never do anything to hurt you because, in fact, if I were to hurt you, I would be hurting myself.í
Unlike Indians who were able to attain full peace during the time of the alliance of nations, the world today is constantly at war. Brother Soaring Eagle believes that embracing the principles of the medicine wheel, and teaching them to our children at an early age, will prevent arguments and wars. "Instead, we will have a way of understanding each other, just like the Indians did for 150 to 200 years. We will know how to take responsibility for whatís happening to us, instead of blaming it on outside circumstances."
The Black Hills
Recently, satellites at the Eros Data Center, near Sioux Falls, South Dakota, photographed the Black Hills from above. When the pictures were developed, scientists were shocked to learn that the Black Hills were the exact shape of the human heart. You could even see the chambers, veins, and arteries.
This finding gives new meaning to the statements of Lakota elders, the former guardians of the Black Hills, who said all along that the Black Hills was the heart of all there is. One might wonder how the ancients knew what the land looked like from above before the advent of airplanes. Ben First Eagle, who lives in the center of the Black Hills, says that mystics had ways of seeing that are in the realm of the unbelievable. But, for the average person, this scientific data confirms the stories they were told.
Over 65 million years in age, the Black Hills are the oldest mountainous region in the nation, with an important spiritual meaning. Ben First Eagle reminds us that just as every biological being has a heart, every land has a heart too, a region that keeps the movement within it flowing. The Black Hills is sacred for this reason, and the Lakotas often come here to pray.
The land also has important physical lessons to teach all people, as Natives and non-Natives alike are faced with a desperate environmental crisis. All suffer the consequences of polluted air, water, and land. We need to understand that Mother Earth is our home, and that we must take care of her, rather than cause her harm. In the past, settlers would abuse land until it was no longer usable, and then move westward. Today, Native peoples watch other nations travel to the stars or into the depths of the oceans, and wonder why people still arenít satisfied with their home. Rather than seek an escape from our problems, we need to see that by taking care of the planet, we will have good food, water, air, and shelter here on earth. We will have everything that we need.
Ben First Eagle offers this analogy to help raise the consciousness of modern man: "What would happen if you were to go into your motherís home, walk across the living room floor, and throw down a can of pop? Your mother would be all over you. She would tell you to pick it up, and take care of your home. Well, itís the same here.
"Iím also making a prayer for humankind and the land all around. I make a prayer for all life. I look at whatís happening all over, and I will notice that people are having a hard time in Florida with floods and hurricanes. I will make a prayer to help those people and animals, and the land thatís affected. I will ask for pity from this place. Iím not a rich man so I canít send a lot of money to help them, but I can send a prayer."
Native American Healers
Unlike western cultures, where people choose whether or not they want to become doctors, a person receives a calling to become a shaman or medicine person. Sometimes this ability runs in families, and other times one naturally feels summoned to enter into this work. John Grim, author of Patterns of Religious Healing Among the Ojibway explains that the term shaman refers to a practitioner, from an indigenous culture, who has had an exceptional experience of the cosmic power that pervades the world. These individuals are able to bring this power into rituals to affect healing experiences.
Often healers experience some illness in their youth that leads them to be withdrawn and introspective, and causes them to seek out their advice of an elder. The person will become reflective and begin to feel a special obligation towards the work of helping others. This is a tremendous responsibility. A person must develop and maintain a special relationship with the spirit world, and bring that special relationship with spirit to the person or situation in need.
Many times, the shaman will receive revelations concerning particular objects to be used in rituals. These can vary and may include something from nature, a song, or a combination. Items can accumulate over a period of years, and are known as medicine bundles. But medicine bundles are seen as more than material objects; they are a collection of experiences. More specifically, these represent encounters with the sacred world that have been revealed through particular objects.
Medicine bundles are very personal and private, and meaningful only within a cultural context. Grim notes that it is inappropriate for non-Native peoples to place medicine bundles in museum out of curiosity, as these are an integral part of tribal identity and transporting them from a people would inflict deep wounds upon their heritage and identity. Besides, outsiders can never fully appreciate their significance. However, it may be appropriate for non-Native people to try and understand the significance of medicine bundles to Indian cultures to increase an awareness and respect for their customs and traditions.
Plants play an important role among medicine objects. Many indigenous healing practitioners had a profound understanding of local plant life based on a sacred classification. In other words, they understood how one should approach a plant, which parts of which plants are to be used for treating specific maladies, and the idea of reciprocity, respecting the plant as a being of equal worth, being thankful for its help, and leaving an offering, such as a prayer, for the plant that is taken. A deep intimacy of exchange exists at all times.
The understanding of how a shaman functions is difficult for people of western cultures to understand, as their views of the world are so different. Yet it is something most people today need and yearn for. Grim explains: "What makes the shamanís role so fascinating, in the late twentieth century, is the cosmological setting in which a shaman functions, namely, shamans bring people into the presence of the spirit beings who are in the world and in the cosmos. This is something very beautiful. Itís so difficult for us to understand in mainstream America where our cosmology, for the most part, is either the story of Genesis or the story of science. While the Genesis story is seen as very meaningful for Christians who hold that as their cosmology, it does not have the immediacy of entry into their daily life. Itís a cosmology which tells where the world came from, and perhaps explains early parents, the fall, why women suffer in childbirth, and why we were driven out of the garden. But it is not a cosmology that brings spiritual presences to our lives today. Itís a story that explains. The scientific cosmology is also an explanatory story, but one without interest in sacred or spiritual meaning. Scientists are reflective, but they work within certain limits. Their cosmology is a description of the world as it appears to them through their empirical observation.
"We live in this world, then, where the cosmologies that are available to us provide no intimacy. And yet we experience constant intimacies with this seasonal world, with this world of resources, with the clothes that we wear on our back. I want to suggest that the human is constantly interacting with this world. And our interaction demands some respect and attention. That attention can be trivialized or it can be deepened. And shamans are personalities who live in deepened relationship with their cosmology, and who assist their people to deepen their own personal and community relations with the world around them.
"We yearn for that in mainstream America. We yearn for intimacies of exchanges with our world. Does that mean we become Native Americans? Thatís a foolish thought. It means we need to recover our own cosmology. Well, what is our cosmology? I think thatís what we need to re-explore. We yearn to recover that shamanic presence, that capacity to literally draw healing capacities from an exchange with the world around us, to literally heal our communities. Environmental degradation is woven right into these questions weíre talking about. One reason why Native people are connected with this issue is that they have intimacies with their homeland. They have regard for that mountain, desert, body of water. When one reverences something, quite often one doesnít trash it. So, these natural exchanges between a people and the life setting in which they find themselves, those individuals called shamans, I tend to see as a mode or way of being that all people are being called to recover. We are being called to bring this sense of wonder back into our daily lives. So, the shamanic journey is not simply someone sitting with a drum, or a group of people withdrawing and taking drugs in order to get into some altered state. The shamanic personality is a challenge to the late twentieth century to recover right relationships with our bioregions, to begin to understand the earth again as something that has always nourished us. It will continue to provide for us. But it also needs our care and concern. That is the shamanic ritual now."
Shamans Past and Present
Wuan Geronimo Flores
Wuan Geronimo Flores claims to have inherited the gift of his great grandfather, Geronimo: the ability to heal through the movement of energy. Flores has the capacity to speed up his own energy, and to transfer this quickened force into a patient, thereby, helping a person to become spiritually centered, so that their ailments can disappear.
Flores does not need to know the nature of a personís illness, because symptoms are physical manifestions, and Flores works on a more subtle level. He will look beyond appearances to get to the root of a problem. He says of his work: "The healing, which incorporates Native American and universal [principles], takes place in a sacred space. This is the part of an individualís home that is special to them, a place they gravitate to, where they feel the most secure and comfortable. We go to that place and the person lies down. Ever since I was a child, one of my talents has been getting people to relax deeply by putting them in a trance-like state. Then there is the actual moving of energy, the speeded up energy from my body going into theirs. All the while I am concentrating on the individual, and that can be achieved through different ways: through chants, prayers, or just through central focusing.
"This is very visual for me. I start seeing a picture of the person. As I concentrate, the image of the person gets transposed, until there are nothing but stars floating in space. I see the exact same body, only now it is made of nothing but starts. I see metallic dots of blue, silver, purple and black filling up the space and raining down on the person. The colors are calming and cooling, almost as if they are utilizing a certain frequency for the personís relaxation. Once a person has calmed down--they may even fall asleep--the energies that they were holding on to are easily released.
"I will see different things, depending on the person. One man had AIDS, although I didnít ask him what he had or how he got it. But on an energy level, he looked like a meteorite, an astroid, a cavern. He was submerged in a swamp, with tiny pollens ticking away from the inside. Thatís what his body was going against.
"Once that was removed, his body naturally healed itself by reproducing cells that he needed to get rid of the disease. And sure enough, about two weeks later, his cell count went from 4 to 300.
"So,thatís what I do. I work as a guide, and I work on a very deep level. My aim is to release energy blockages so that a personís own energy can take over and restore balance."
George Amiotte, an Ogalala Lakota from Pine Ridge, became a healing professional after a near death experience as a marine in Viet Nam. Upon his return home Amiotte searched for ways to restore his own wounded spirit and for a direction in life, when he was guided by Lakota elders to pursue a career in medicine. This was a tall order to fill as Amiotte had only just gotten his GED in the Marine Corps, but he was able to enter and successfully complete a graduate program as a physicianís assistant. At the same time Amiotte studied medicine with Lakota elders. He, therefore, has a unique background that combines modern and traditional healing modalities.
Amiotte specializes in helping veterans overcome post traumatic stress disorder, a term used to describe combat fatigue. Most of his patients are Native Americans although he sees non-Native people as well. As a guardian of the sun dance, part of Amiotteís work involves the use of the sun dance ceremony in healing. As a result, Amiotte has been able to achieve success where standard Veteranís Administration programs have failed.
When an interested doctor from UCLA visited one ceremony, and was confused by what he saw, Amiotte explained to him that healing is more than a physical manifestation. Healing takes place on the physical, mental and spiritual levels, and a medical practitioner needs to consider all three aspects for optimum success. This is something western medicine fails to do.
Amiotte was then invited to see patients with gastrointestinal disorders who werenít responding to contemporary western medicine. In a yearís time, his four patients responded beautifully to therapy, and the UCLA Medical Society woke up to the advantages of healing from a Native American perspective. Amiotte is now a member of a team of doctors that study and incorporate alternative healing methods into their western medical practices.
In a recent interview, Amiotte shared with me his philosophy of working with patients. His approach is to look at an individual on three levels. First, he checks to see that there are no physical problems, such as an organic disease; second, he interviews the patient to assess their state of mind; and, third, Amiotte looks at a personís spirituality. Analyzing these factors helps him to put together an effective healing protocol.
"I donít have one way of working," Amiotte says. "If a Native American wants to be treated by ceremony, I will set one up. That requires setting the stage for the individual to come to an alter, a physical area that is represented by earth, wind, fire, and water. Sometimes we use drum music. We acknowledge the universal laws, natural laws, our ancestors, the earth that we stand on. And we call in the healing aspect of this psychologically, physically, and spiritually.
Although trained as a healer, Amiotte acknowledges that healing depends upon Godís will and a patientís receptivity: "I am a healer. But the reality of healing is in Godís hands. Iím a conduit, a hollow bone, if you will. For a patient to be healed, he or she must be receptive to a higher power. A person needs a relationship to God or a belief in a greater force."
John Joseph, a shaman with the Chinook tribe of the lower Columbia River, and a nurse practitioner in Washington State, helps Viet Nam veterans suffering from post traumatic stress syndrome, with the purification ceremony: "They have lost their spirituality, and this is a good way to help them find it. The lodge is a safe haven. No one can hurt them. Intrusive thoughts, the anxieties of the day, and the problems of living with post traumatic stress are left outside the door. They are able to speak about things that hurt them during the war and about things that hurt them when they came home. They are able to speak about the triggers that interfere with their lives today, even though it is 20 years later. Theyíre able to speak, cry, yell, regurgitate harmful emotions, and put them in the fire.
Joseph says that that true healing comes from being able to express oneself in a safe environment: "Everything said in the lodge remains there. Nothing is repeated outside of it. This gives a person a real opportunity to cleanse the heart, and to place things into the fire." He adds that the healing is amplified by being in the presence of the heated stones: "There is stone medicine, Inyan medicine; the sizzling and popping from the water on the stones actually gives a spirit direction. Thereís wonderful healing in that."
"Many vets tell me that they feel considerably better for some period of time after they leave the lodge. Often they will come back and ask, ĎWhen are we going to do another lodge? I am absolutely stressed to the max.í We do four, five, or six a year, sometimes more, depending on the number of requests.
"Once they start to get their spirituality back, their physical appearance changes. They start to keep their hair. They become neater in the way they dress. Their thought patterns become more cohesive, without constant intrusions. They can even think straight, in many cases. Sometimes children tell me that their dads sleep for two days after a sweat lodge, when they only slept two hours before. So, thereís a wonderful release, and a wonderful return of cohesiveness to their lives, after the purification lodge."
Jamie Sams is a Native American shaman of Cherokee and Seneca decent, who explains that medicine has to do with anything that makes us feel whole. Indians view medicine as a personís gifts, including their inner strengths, talents, and abilities. "When we look at the idea of medicine," Sams says, "we have to embrace the total person: the body, the heart, the mind, and the spirit. When any of these part are out of balance, then there is a need for healing."
The processes used in healing depend on the type of illness. First a person must be diagnosed to see whether their sickness is physical, spiritual, emotional, or mental. Then it is treated accordingly. When the body is sick, herbs, flowers, and other plant matter can be used to promote recovery. Mechanical help is also used, such as setting bones when broken. Spiritual illnesses are handled by medicine people who may work with a personís dreams, or with what they experience on other dimensions that need to be healed. Some tribes also take into account the influence of past lives. Emotional healing for family upsets, a broken heart, or other problems, and psychological healing for mental illnesses are handled differently still. "Sometimes we need to heal our impatience," Sams says. "And sometimes we need to heal our frustrations. Many times we need to heal the internal criticism that our brain is constantly carrying on, which makes us feel less than. But always, we need to take a look at that which does not work in our lives, and makes our behavior out of balance towards ourselves and others." Here, Sams explains important principles of healing for specific circumstances:
"In indigenous cultures, when someone that we care about is dying, there is a very intense need to mourn. When you donít release the mourning, it will make you sick. Certain Anglo cultures have a different concept. If you release the mourning, you are looked at as if you lost control over your emotions. The spirit of the person who has passed away that you cared about is not then free to move on into the spirit world because the mourning was not complete. The people did not purge their bodies of this sense of grief." Sams adds that mourning to Native people is like a bow. The people moving on are the arrows. Mourning a loss allows the spirit to fly into its new non-physical life.
Healing Pollution for Ourselves, Our World, and Our Future
Sams notes how we poison our systems on multiple levels: "Bitterness, hatred, and resentment are toxins from our heart, while jealousy and greed poison our thoughts. Then we harm our bodies with unhealthy foods and artificial substances, and hurt our spirits with a lack of gratitude.
In this sickened state, human beings tend to lose balance, and begin to see the world around them as something to abuse as well. "The things that we have done to ourselves internally," notes Sams, "we have also done to the earth, which is our sustenance."
Native Americans realize that living according to right principles not only helps ourselves and our planet, but insures a future for generations ahead. Sams notes that, "When we gather herbs to assist someone, we thank each and every plant that the earth mother sends, and we pass the first seven plants to always remember to leave enough for the next seven generations. In doing that, we are honoring the ninth clan mother who looks toward tomorrow for what our children and their children will need on the earth."
Regarding humiliation, Sams writes, "Humiliation is the one event in human life that becomes unforgettable. The loss of human dignity at the hands of another can be forgiven, but it is rarely, if ever, forgotten. Healing humiliation and the loss of dignity is something that comes from inside a person. No healer, psychologist, doctor, medicine person or teacher can do it for somebody else. Consciously shaming another has dealt many a blow throughout time. Kicking people when they are vulnerable is a tactic of insensitive bullies. The world has been fraught with this behavior since its inception. It never seems to happen when we are feeling strong. It almost always happens when we are dealing with our own self-doubt and self criticism.
"We can heal the need to experience this reflection if we protect ourselves. The key is to notice that if we stop beating ourselves up internally the bullies of the world will quit picking on us externally. In Native American thought, we understand that the external world, and the things we experience in day to day life are mirror reflections that show us what we are doing to ourselves internally. If we honor who we are without an arrogance or sense of pride, but do it in a balanced way, and we walk life in a manner that allows us to honor and respect every other living thing, then we donít bring the experience into our lives that would necessitate us being shown how it feels to be bullied or humiliated by another human being."
Healing Personal Integrity
"One of the things that human beings need to heal is the idea of hypocrisy. We say walk your talk. Donít talk your walk. Human beings have learned over the years that spoken words are cheap and promises are often broken. And that, in many cases, is a commitment that is not being honored. So, many times we ask people who have walked the crooked path to heal their personal integrity. Thatís a facet of healing that most people do not look at.
In our grandparents and our great grandparents day, a personís word was their bond. But in this modern world, most times, if we give our word, we arenít sure that the person we give our word to, and they give their word back is going to honor their personal integrity, because the sense of self has been eroded to the place where we cannot embrace the idea that integrity is everything, that if a person honors themselves, that promise is made to themselves. When you make a promise to another person, you are making it to yourself. Thatís another aspect of the great smoking mirror. And when you do not honor your promises to another, you have reflected back to yourself through that great smoking mirror, what you actually think of yourself, which must be very little, because the integrity in your bond and your word was not honored by you, so how can others honor that same thing."
Stories can revive our spirits and transform our perceptions of the world. Even when a story is not be believable, it can contain elements that speak to the human experience. This point is made by Tchin, an award winning Blackfoot and Aragansett artist and story teller from Norfolk, Virginia. Tchin shared this story with me about the creation of autumn, and then told me about the psychological healing such a story can promote:
"In traditional Native American culture, adolescent males and females are not allowed to be alone together. A young man and young woman never see each other unless the young woman is chaperoned. Her aunts, her sister, her mother, or someone else is always with her.
"Parents come together, at the right time of year, when the moon is in correct part of the sky, and plan a hoop dance. The hoop dance is where all the eligible young people come together to be introduced. They learn about the clans of the other people, and about who they can marry as well as which marriages are taboo. People dance, and frequently change partners. This way, everyone gets to be introduced to each other.
"During this hoop dance, the parents noticed one couple that did not change partners. In fact, they even heard some of the conversation. The young lady was saying that she worked in her motherís fields during the day. And the young man said that his uncle was teaching him to play the flute.
"The next day, the young man went down to the field with his flute and played a song. People hearing the flute didnít know what it was. They would say, "Listen to that sound blowing through the trees. I wonder what it is.í But the young lady knew it was the young man playing the flute for her. It made her so happy that her heart jumped.
"She wanted to send him a message, so, she went to a tree, and asked the tree for a leaf. After receiving that gift, she placed it into a stream. The stream took the message down to where the young man was playing. He knew it was from the young lady. It made him so happy that his heart jumped. He picked up the leaf, and went home.
"Day after day, the young man would go down to the stream and play his flute. And day after day, she would go to the tree, ask for a leaf, receive that gift, and place it into the stream, where it would travel to the young man. As the days turned into weeks, and the weeks into months, their love for each other grew strong and powerful, even though they never spoke a word to each other.
"Then one day, the young manís uncle came to him and said, ĎYoung man, it is time that you stopped fooling around down by the stream, and that you learned how to make a living. Iím going to take you out and teach you how to hunt.í It made the young man really happy to know that he would learn how to make a living by hunting. If he learned this, he could take his place in the village. If he could make a living, he could get married. And he knew with whom he wished to marry. So, with great joy and expectations he went out to learn how to make a living.
"Day after day, the young lady would work in the fields of her mother, and not hear the flute of the young man. She wondered why he no longer played for her. Maybe he had to help his aunt. Maybe he had to do something for his uncle. He had to help the elders. He had more important things to do. As days turned into weeks, and the weeks into months, she exhausted all the possible reasons why he could not come and play. And after all of these reasons were exhausted, she came to the thought that he might be playing his flute for some other woman. When this thought came to her, a great pain stabbed her in her heart causing her to fall to the ground. Her parents, who loved her strongly, called to all the medicine people to doctor their daughter. But even in those days, people did not know how to heal a broken heart.
"After many months, the young man came back, very much a new person, with new muscles, and a joyful outlook on life. He ran down to the stream and began to play his flute. But no leaf flowed downstream. At first, he thought to himself, ĎItís too late in the day. Maybe all the people have gone home.í Then, as he was walking back to the village, he saw the young ladyís brother. It made him happy and they talked about all kinds of things that happened to him while he was learning to hunt.
"Eventually, he got around to asking the brother, ĎHow is your sister?" The young brother bowed his head and said, ĎI guess you have been gone for a long time because they placed my sister over there in the rock.í When the young flute player heard what had happened to the young lady, the pain stabbed his heart so great that he fell to the ground.
"The flute player was in tears, saying, "Please take me to where they placed your sister." The young brother agreed, and they walked the distance to the rock, where she was. He left the young flute player there never ever to see him again.
"The young man took out his flute and played a song. Then something miraculous happened because, you see, love is strong, and true love is ever lasting. As that young flute player played his song, all the leaves on all the trees began to fall.
"You know that I am telling you a true story, and you can prove the truth of this story to yourself because around October and November, if you were to go out, you could look at the trees, and you could see that when you look around, all the leaves on all the trees start to fall. This is because love is strong and powerful. Now you know why all the leaves fall off all the trees at that time of year."
Tchin explains that while such a story may not be true, it tells us an event from a perspective that is different from the scientific one, which can be healing. As an example, he met a woman who was grieving over the loss of her son. She was having a hard time dealing with the whole idea of death, and even found herself in the fruitless pursuit of picking up the leaves in autumn, and trying to glue them back to the trees. After Tchin told her the story of the creation of autumn, that part of her was healed. It didnít change her sadness over her son dying. But it made her see the fall in a new way where she looked forward to it. And because itís a story of death, it helped in the process of healing from the loss of her son. Tchin observes that you never know how a person is going to interpret a story, or how it might hit a certain part of their spirit. So, stories can be healing in many ways.
Jamie Sams, author of Earth Medicine: Ancestorís Way of Harmony for Many Moons, says stories are wonderful medicine because they allow us to find ourselves without someone pointing a finger at us. We take what we need from the story to heal ourselves. The stories Sams writes helps people feel more whole, which, in turn, enables them to find inspiration, bring forth their best talents, and help make the world a better place. She wrote this one for children:
"While the river moved over rounded stones, and Night Hawk circles in the twilight, the young mother whispered to the child who suckled at her breast: ĎYou are the blessed that fell from the stars and took root in my heart, little one. You rested inside of my body, and I carried you there for nine moons. It gave me joy to carry the burden of such love. I toiled for many hours to give you birth. And finally, the earth motherís magnitude threw you into your earth walk. Now that you are here, I want you to know how my heart sings. The love I bear your father is the stuff of dreams. He has walked the path of strength and has been strong enough to share his dreams with me as well as his tears. He has lent me his courage. And I have respected him with all that I am. Together we have walked many trails and have faced each challenge heart to heart. In you, I see his courage, his determination, his laughing eyes, and his curiosity. In you, I see my gentleness, my compassion, and my desire to live life with joy. There is a love between your parents that fills each day with song. I want you to remember always that you are, and will forever be, a product of that love."
Another story by Sams is based on the belief that our spiritual essence is the glue that keeps us together. When we are spiritually out of balance, we may try to compensate for a feeling of inadequacy by developing intellectually, physically, or by expressing ourselves artistically. But these can never heal a wounded spirt. The eyes reveal this unsettled state of being, which is why we feel afraid to allow people to look into our eyes when we are off balance. Sams addresses this issue with a short, but profound, story entitled "The Openings of the Orinda."
"The little girl asked her wise grandfather why the Great Mystery gave eyes to two legged tribes of humans. Grandfather smiled silently, remembering her grandmotherís eyes that were reflected in the little oneís face. And then he replied, "Your eyes can see the world around you and take in the beauty of creation. Your eyes can shed the tears that cleanse your hurt, allowing you to heal. Your eyes were meant for seeing all that the Earth Mother places in your path. So these things can be recorded as memories of your passage in this earth walk. Yes, little one, our eyes have many ways to teach us how to see the truth. Your eyes can betray your thoughts and feelings to others because they are the openings to the spiritual essence.
"One day, you will find a warrior to share your life with. When that time comes, you will be able to look into his eyes and see him with your heart. Through his eyes, the opening of his Orinda, his spiritual essence, you will know if his spirit can shelter you, and if his heart is pure. When you look into his eyes, seek the truth of his nature. If he looks away, he is not strong enough to shelter your love for him. If he looks directly into your eyes and allows your hearts to connect, adding his strength to your own, you will know that he is a courageous man worthy of sharing your earth walk."
Finally, Sams writes about the need to prepare for a move to an age of illumination and peace. This requires that we all work on ourselves to let go of malice, envy, greed, and judgement. The ultimate result of this personal transformation will be a better world society for ourselves and our children. If we cannot do this during peaceful times, a disaster will occur as an ultimate wake up call. In this story, Sams is saying that we canít change society, but we can change ourselves. We canít change others but if they are showing malice towards others, there are times when we can intervene:
"The woman scrubbed herself with sand at the riverís edge. After a long winter, the sand washing felt good as the layers of dead skin rolled off the soles of her feet. Lost in her thoughts, she did not notice anything amiss until she heard a little girl crying. Looking up, she saw the childís stepmother scrubbing the childís skin raw. It was bleeding.
"In a heartbeat, she was on her feet, running through the water, whisking the crying child from the stepmotherís grasp. She rocked the little girl, whispering to her, and then handed the child to one of the other women. Without any anger, she softly spoke to the erring woman, ĎFeather, I understand how hard itís been for you to raise my decreased sisterís child. She was your old rival, the first wife to your husband. I will speak to her father, who was once my brother. He will understand if I lighten your burden by taking the child to my lodge to live.í "Feather spat on the ground and used a hand signal to indicate that she was done with both of them forever and stormed off. The woman stood in the water watching her retreat, thinking of how much effort it must take to be that hurtful. She turned back to the river and made the blessing sign with her hand, showing her gratitude to the Creator for her own medicine and her name, Offers Kindness."
Sams concludes that people have an idealized concept of Native American people, but that the red nations are going through the same healing process as the rest of the world. The lives of American Indians changed drastically with the arrival of the white man, partially because local dialects were changed to standard English, and many of the old ideas and concepts were lost. Before the world was seen in a conceptual way, and everything was viewed as a circle. With the arrival of the Europeans, Indians adopted the idea of cutting the circle to divide and conquer. Since these ideas have been part of Indian life for hundreds of years, Native peoples, like everyone else, are in need of overcoming ideas of separation. Sams concludes, "All the peoples of the earth are going through the same thing because we have been in this fourth world of separation for over 60,000 years. It is very important that we encourage the potential and the desire in each and every person that wants to transform, that wants to go beyond the limitation, hesitation, and separation that we have created in our lives. To do that, we have to embrace the realized self, the part of us that can become our potential. When we do that, we are standing at the final frontier. The final destination is always the same--healing and transformation."