Wannabee Medicine – Experience As Proof

There is no question that experience provides the proof of concept. The hobbyist can experiment with Native culture, tradition and spirituality for a while, but if the pursuit is done in sincerity, sooner or later, something will be experienced that solidifies their belief that there is more to Native culture than arcane curiosities.

I do not pray on the smoke of the pipe because it fulfills my need to appropriate an element of a culture that is not my own. I have seen enough of those prayers be answered that I cannot attribute them to a “law of averages” alibi. There have been odd coincidences that have accompanied pipe ceremonies which make me believe that I am not just blowing smoke!

I no longer go to a sweat lodge for a good detoxification sauna. I have experienced the “sweat lodge vision”, and it has colored my journey across the intervening years.

I will relate two particular incidences that completely solidified my confidence in Native spirituality. The naysayer may scoff, but I saw these events. The reader may make of them what you will.

I was at a powwow, as a storyteller, and the day was going well. After lunch, clouds began to gather and it became apparent that rain was imminent. This was not a fortuitous circumstance; it was the second day of the first year for that powwow and the public would be disappointed to have their experience foreshortened. Nonetheless, soon the rain began.

I had read the book “Fools Crow” (Thomas E. Mails, 1990; apparently no longer in print) sometime previously and the account of him stopping the rain for the benefit of his people was stuck in my mind. I would not place myself on a par with Frank Fools Crow, but the idea appealed to me and I felt an inner urging to attempt something similar.

I borrowed the emcee’s microphone and told the audience that I was going to allow them to hear a Native prayer. Call me presumptuous… I addressed the four directions and other spirit helpers and asked them to push away the rain so that we could complete our dances until the microphone was taken from me because of the shock hazard and to protect the equipment from water damage, I imagine. If I remember correctly, I completed my prayer under an awning. Within fifteen minutes, the clouds passed, the sun returned, and we completed the day without further incident.

The second incident was similar. The details of the account are not as interesting, but the results are imprinted in my memory. We were staying at a camp when the area was placed under a tornado watch. I was impressed to climb an embankment and offer prayers for the tornadic activity to skirt around us. Some of the camp experienced straight-line wind damage, but the tornado did indeed touch down elsewhere, in the direction I had indicated.

I cannot say with certainty that either event had anything to do with my prayers. I have only my belief that it did. Nevertheless, it solidified my belief that there is something to the Native spiritual traditions. The grandfather to the west, the keeper of the rains, heard and answered my request. Believe it or don’t.

What’s In A Name?

Much is made of naming among the enthusiasts. It seems to be among the first things we seek; our Native name. But there is much about the subject of names that is not understood without deeper consideration.

Obviously, a name becomes our identity. Whatever name we bring to the Native community has meaning and holds identity in whatever ethnicity we came from. My English names come from my grandfathers. They are the names that appear on all legal documents for the state of Pennsylvania and the United States. They are the names under which I ply my trade as a farrier.

In the context of my Native community, among those who know me, I am known as Suckachsinheet, the blacksmith. That is a nickname, a name by which I am identified, but it is not my formal name. Only those who know me very well, or those who have known me for a very long time, have any knowledge of what many would call my “spirit name”. That is the name that goes beyond what I do and speaks to who I am.

I will not expound on the proper origin of names. Different cultures have different traditions regarding naming. I will say that I originally received my name from a “namegiver”. I now use a variant of that original name, which I received inadvertently from a former friend and which I consider to have been inspired by Spirit. The variant further refines the meaning of the original name.

The naysayers might scoff at both of these events and discount the legitimate right of either of those individuals to give a Native name. Yet I will attest that the name given to both my wife and I have closely tracked with our journeys in the Native community.

Neither conform to the stereotypical standard of “action modifier”-“animal name” (e.g. Squatting Dog). We were both originally tagged with names of that nature, but when we requested a name from a grandfather claiming Shawnee descent (who was identified to us as a qualified namegiver) we both received a name that more closely conforms to the cultural standard among the Lenape, as I have since been informed. I seriously doubt that Grandfather Thunderbear knew that; I believe Spirit just gave him the correct names.

I have been told that, historically, a Native individual might receive several names in their lifetime. In some cultures a spirit name might be procured for the child from a medicine person shortly after they are born. They might be tagged with some behavioral descriptor as a child. But it would not be until they have reached maturity that they will receive a more formal name from a vision or for an act of bravery. And that might occur more than once in their adulthood.

In my experience, enthusiasts are too hasty to assume a name before Spirit can provide a real identity. A good name, properly acquired, can have power and help the enthusiast throughout their journey to find their place in the Native community.

Thoughts on Ritual

An artist friend recently commented to me regarding the prevalence of ritual in the practice of religion, that being man addressing the supernatural, however we choose to label it. In the course of our conversations, I am aware of her referring to a Mennonite upbringing, a voluntary conversion to Catholicism, the study of Wicca and an ongoing interest in majick. It is safe to say, she has seen ritual in many contexts.

The actual content of our conversation at that time revolved around our bemusement that Christian religion is somewhat defined by its condemnation of ritual in any context other than itself. The Church has, at various points in history, persecuted individuals and groups on the suspicion of heresy for any ritualistic activity that is not practiced exactly as they prescribe it.

I dare say, a most egregious example of this is the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation, the practice of literally transforming bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ in the portion of the Common Mass referred to as “communion”. This is an act of magic in a most unambiguous manner. The phrase “bell, book and candle”, which is commonly used in the modern vernacular to denote magic of a more secular kind, is derived directly from this ceremony; those elements figure conspicuously in that very practice. And yet the Church is quick to condemn any other activity that might claim to accomplish a similar objective.

Likewise, my own Protestant fundamentalist upbringing demonstrates a similar hypocrisy. The denomination I was raised and educated in actually denies the likelihood of any supernatural feat being accomplished by the hand of man, but the more Pentecostal fellowship that I presently attend acknowledges the role of healers and prophets in modern life. Yet they would be quick to attribute the practice of those same activities outside of their prescribed formulas to forces of evil.

Indeed, this has been the nature of colonization since the institution of the Church. In the name of their God, all indigenous religion has been condemned while all indigenous territory has been confiscated for the purpose of reconditioning it for the occupation and use of the colonizers and those who will adhere to their doctrines. The Doctrine of Discovery, the policies of Terra Nullius and Manifest Destiny all proclaim this as God’s intent for His world.

The ceremonies I perform or participate in as a part of the Native American community would be decried, no doubt, as heretical by any Christian church I attend. While I was pastoring a Christian church, I was careful to self-censor any discussion or description of such activities. How it is acceptable to seek healing for an individual from the hand of God, but it is not if it is sought from the mercies of Wakan Tanka, seems a little hypocritical if you cannot definitively differentiate between the two. How revelation from the word of the Holy Spirit is commendable, but revelation received in vision as part of a sweat lodge ceremony is suspect, is equally curious.

There is a fundamental similarity between certain ritualistic practices of the Christian religion and certain ceremonial practices of those Native American spiritual systems which I have studied; they seek to accomplish similar objectives. As I have noted previously, if the colonizer missionaries that swept across the Americas in the early history of the Western Hemisphere had put down their White Man’s Burden long enough to truly understand the spiritual beliefs of the indigenous peoples they encountered, it is my firm conviction that they would have discovered that the indigenous spiritual systems did not diverge too widely from their own, on the most basic levels.

DIY Traditional

The concept of being traditional lies at the heart of being a pretendian. Learning the traditions and being traditional should be the stated objective of all of us who find ourselves being labeled as pretendians. The way that I encounter the word “traditional” being used most prominently in Indian Country refers to an exclusive adherence to the original spiritual aspects of Native life. But there are other ways that the word can be applied to living in the Native community.

Similarly, those individuals who have the genealogy to qualify as enrolled members of a Native nation like to use the concept of “traditional” as a designation to separate those who grew up in their respective culture from those who grew up separated from Native culture, for whatever reason. This can be used to disparage urban Indians, people who no longer possess the blood quantum for enrollment, and, of course, the enthusiast with no discernible connection to the Native community.

Thus, I would suggest that there are ways that we can participate in the traditional lifeways of the nation we claim an attachment to, whether the enrolled members of that nation choose to acknowledge our interest. These efforts may be noteworthy only to ourselves, but we should feel more connected for having made them:

Grow your own food from heirloom seeds. There are actually many sources from which these can be obtained. There are still many types of vegetable seeds available that are acclaimed to be the older indigenous varieties. The Cherokee Purple tomato, the Arikara bean, and Hopi Blue Corn are examples of these. There are even sources for the original indigenous tobacco seed, nicotiana rustica.

Learning to plant the Three Sisters (corn, beans and squash) in the original way, in hillocks, and in sequence, teaches lessons on interdependence and harmonious living. And the pride of harvesting and enjoying what you have grown has a reward all of its own.

Be sure to save some of the seed from the harvested produce to replant and continue the legacy of these original indigenous crops on Turtle Island. Done properly, you need never buy that variety of seed again.

Learn to forage. Even in a suburban setting, there are green spaces where Nature still provides food. Gather berries. Gather nuts. If you are confidant, gather mushrooms. Be sure of what you are picking, but celebrate the bounty of the Earth by accepting her gifts, even as the ancestors did.

Learn to craft in traditional ways. Periodically, you can read a lament from Indian Country that the original knowledge of the old crafts is dying out. Crafting is very time intensive; crafting with traditional methods is even more so. Learning these crafts and these methodologies helps preserve their existence and gives the opportunity to keep the knowledge alive for another generation.

Beading, in its many forms, quillwork, carving, featherwork, making regalia, reproducing artifacts and weapons, basketry, weaving, pipe carving, and such are all valuable skills to possess. Many of them help to keep your fingers nimble. They can be an interesting way to fill the long winter hours of darkness, as they did for the ancestors.

Pray on the pipe. Accurate knowledge of traditional spiritual practices is generally closely guarded by those who possess it. And rightly so; the past 50 years have become the heyday of the “culture vulture”, the individual who appropriates and exploits those practices for their own purposes. Learning those practices correctly is a lengthy process which many will not willingly endure.

But the pipe is somewhat ubiquitous. Each individual can possess and utilize their own personal pipe to speak directly to the Creator in the manner which they choose. The smoke from the pipe carries our words and prayers upward, without regard to formulas or rituals. You can’t really get it wrong; it is your personal pipe. It is a tradition that is older than history.

(Disclaimer: Be mindful of what you put in your pipe. Tobacco, red willow, mullein, uva ursi, and other herbs are safe to smoke. Certain medicinal herbs can be smoked. Make yourself aware of the appropriate substances to smoke before you light your pipe!)

Learn the stories. The stories of any given Native nation are more than just entertainment. At one time, they served as the oral history of that People. This is the true underlying reason for the storytelling tradition; the story had to be repeated verbatim so that no detail was ever lost or omitted.

By learning the stories, you learn parts of the culture, some of the traditional perspectives, the history of the People (factual and legendary), and, as with crafting, when done properly, you help to preserve the culture for another generation. This is important knowledge. And it livens up any gathering.

Learn the songs. Like the stories, these are a significant part of a culture and very much worth learning and preserving. There are recordings of artists singing in certain languages readily available. Many songs, also like the stories, are best learned through repeated hearings, at ceremonies and gatherings, if you have access to such.

Learn the language. This is, of course, the most difficult. Some languages have already gone extinct; the last fluent speakers have walked on. This is a very real concern in Indian Country, which makes it all the more important to undertake if it is possible.

Most of us are old enough and busy enough that we would find it difficult to become fluent in a Native language. But we can make the effort to learn important phrases. Knowing more of your nation’s language than “Aho” is important; it shows you are making the effort to acculturate. Learn titles of address (grandmother, grandfather, uncle, cousin and so forth). Learn phrases of conversation (please, thank you, hello and such).

Portable Altars – Prayers on Smoke

Ceremonial pipe

The stories of most every nation includes one about the origin of the pipe and how tobacco came to the People. The pipe has been a part of the culture for as long as anyone can remember.

It would be out of my place to expound extensively on the pipe and its proper use. I really only wish to elaborate superficially on the use of the pipe in prayer. I have been taught that our words are carried by the smoke to the ears of the Creator.

This calls to mind the word picture painted in the Old Testament of the altars of burnt sacrifice. The smoke ascended to God and a proper sacrifice was a pleasing aroma in His nostrils. Likewise, the incense provided a pleasing aroma for both God and man and set the atmosphere for convocation between them.

I have written previously regarding my firm belief that there are significant parallels between traditional indigenous spiritual practices and the archaic elements of the Judaeo-Christian religious traditions. It is my opinion that smudging is very similar to the element of incense and that the pipe is similar to the altars of burnt offering in the Old Testament.

There are, traditionally, two ways in which a pipe may be used. One is a pipe that is used publicly, in a gathering of people, where more than one person might share the smoke of the pipe to seal an agreement or make a corporate prayer. In certain cultures, this is called a Peoples’ Pipe and it is kept and used by a pipe carrier. A pipe that might be used in this way is pictured above.

Personal pipe
A personal pipe

The other is as a personal pipe, used by an individual for himself or on behalf of others. In the tradition which I was taught, the personal pipe might be smoked in the morning, to greet the day, and in the evening, to end the day. It is always the vehicle for a conversation with the Creator. It can also be used in healing ceremonies.

In either modality, the smoke carries the words of the participant to the ear of the Creator. This is why the pipe was always smoked as a part of any treaty process; so that the agreements made would be heard by the Creator. And it was believed that no one would knowingly speak an untruth in the hearing of the Creator. Unfortunately, that belief was not shared by the colonizers, although history does suggest that it may have been exploited by them.

Regarding Oral Traditions

There is a proud oral tradition among the indigenous peoples of the world. Culture, traditions, knowledge and stories have been passed through countless generations by oral transmission. Before there was written language, there was the oral tradition.

Oral tradition and living example are the best way to learn a culture; to hear the knowledge of a person who grew up immersed in the culture and observe the way that they perform their traditions and practices. To hear the stories of their lifetime and the lifetimes of their ancestors. Then one can fully understand what it is to be a part of that culture.

I am a storyteller. I chose to learn the stories so that I could tell them myself. I learned quickly that there is a tradition that the storyteller must adhere to: that a story cannot be told until it can be repeated verbatim to the storyteller from which it was learned. And I have tried to follow that tradition to the best of my ability, even though many of the stories I recite were gleaned from books, not other storytellers.

I used to consider how a Native story should begin. Some of the earliest stories I encountered began with “Long, long ago, in the beginning times…”, which seemed appropriate for most of those stories. But I encountered an introduction that I truly came to appreciate in the film “DreamKeepers” (Hallmark, 2003): “I will tell it to you as it was told to me, by my father, who heard it from his father, who heard it from Black Elk…”. That is how a story shold be told; citing the source and the lineage of the story to affirm its veracity.

I’m not sure it would carry the same cultural significance if I said: “I will tell it to you as I read it from Richard Erdoes, who heard it from the White Mountain Apache…” but I suppose that is how I should introduce each story. Yet the point is still to establish the source and veracity of the story for the listener. And so it should be for any cultural perspective the enthusiast chooses to share with an inquiring listener.

I have previously commented at length about an incident where an oral tradition was recited but could not be properly cited with regard to where it originated. This is the point at which much of the “education” that I have witnessed, and at one time offered, breaks down.

Most of us enthusiasts are not fortunate enough to have an unimpeachable source of oral tradition available to us. We rely on other enthusiasts who, hopefully, are better informed than we on a given subject, or on written resources we can obtain in print or on the Internet. We are forced to accept the veracity of what we learn from these sources. We should be diligent enough to at least attempt to corroborate the information from multiple sources. Likewise, we should be prepared to cite our source(s) for any information we divulge to others as culturally factual.

We should always be ready and able to answer the question: “Who told you that?” If we cannot truthfully answer that question, we would be well advised to keep that story or bit of information to ourselves.

What’s a Wannabee To Do?

So what can we do to make our pretendian-ness less obvious? How can we avoid embarrassing ourselves when we encounter individuals that actually have a birthright to the Native culture? Study, study, study…learn as much as you can from as many trusted sources as you can.

Read extensively. It is overwhelming how much printed information exists that can offer assistance in getting our vision straight. There is actually a pretty good body of primary source (anthropological and historical) materials available for many of the Indian nations. Admittedly, many are out of print and can only be acquired through libraries and used book sources, but many are available on the Internet as well, in a digitized format.

There is an ever growing body of literature written by Native authors that offers their perspective on society; theirs and ours. There are novels, anthologies, biographies and scholarly works.

I realize that reading is not everyone’s favorite activity. Reading can be difficult for many. But, lacking access to a Native elder to teach you how to think and see and act, reading is, unfortunately, necessary to developing a correct understanding of Native culture. There are books that are directed to all age groups and reading levels; all of them can offer insights to a hungry mind.

The list of available authors is much too large to begin to enumerate, but here are a few that are worthy of your attention, if you are not familiar with them already: Vine Deloria, Jr., Louise Erdrich, Leslie Marmon Silko, Joseph Bruchac, Thomas Mails, John G. Neihardt, Joseph Epes Brown, Robert (Bobby) Lake-Thom, E. Barrie Kavasch, Kent Nerburn, and J.T. Garrett.

Watch relevant movies. There is a growing body of movies that offer an accurate reflection of Native America, past and present. Many Native artists are now producing independent movies that provide the perspective which comes from growing up Indian. Even mainstream movie sources are being careful now to consult Native sources to ensure accuracy in their portrayals. Among those films I can recommend: Songs My Brothers Taught Me, Smoke Signals, Skins, Dreamkeepers, Crooked Arrows, and Lakota Woman.

Older mainstream films that “got it right” (more or less) include: Thunderheart, Last of the Mohicans, and, of course, Dances with Wolves. Avatar offers a valuable window on the contrast between the colonizer, the indigenous people, and the wannabee. Last of the Dogmen does this also.

Use the Internet judiciously. The Internet can be a vast wilderness of misinformation, so it is important to be very cautious about which information sources you rely on. Basically, in my opinion, if the site does not belong to a federally-recognized nation or a university, you should be somewhat skeptical of whatever information is offered with regard to Native culture and traditions.

One source I can vouch for, because I have been a participant and contributor for a long time, is the Woodlands Indian forum. It should be noted, however, that the available information is primarily concerned with the Eastern Woodlands nations only.

Nonetheless, there are some important online news sources that may be relied on for current affairs and editorials. The pretendian is well-advised to keep up with these, to be aware of what is happening in Indian country. Indian Country Today, Native News Online, and Last Real Indians are some of these.

Living Someone Else’s Dream

I had a customer who, when asked the perfunctory “How are you doing?”, would always reply, “Livin’ the dream!”. At first I accepted that assessment at face value, since I had known her since she was quite young and had taken care of her horse’s hooves while she advanced her education through nursing school. She had a good job as an operating room nurse, her own house, a good family, a nice boyfriend and, of course, her horse. It seemed quite plausible that she really was living her dream.

I have come to believe that that was supposed to be some kind of affirmation, manifesting an ever expanding dream. Who’s to say? But I got to thinking about that phrase recently and some lessons that can be drawn from it.

I have an acquaintance who has made it clear that living among the pretendians of western Pennsylvania became someone else’s dream. I would venture to say that it may have held some attraction originally, but in the end it lost any charm that it may have had when it became more a matter of living her partner’s dream. Now she speaks of the experience as if it were a prison.

I just read a series of articles about the Native perspective toward the American Independence Day celebration which, of course, is today. I saw someone assert that they celebrate the day as American Ideals Day, and view the fireworks as symbolic of how beautiful the ideals were on which the United States was founded. One could expand that thought to include how volatile and transitory they have become in practice.

“Livin’ the dream” loses some of its luster if it is someone else’s dream. The indigenous sovereign nations of Turtle Island were already independent. Originally, it was believed that these nations could live harmoniously with the fledgling United States. They had no real understanding of the unbreachable  cultural chasm that would make that impossible. Thus, the sovereign nations saw no problem with allowing the newcomers to pursue their dream, even as they had been doing since time immemorial.

It was only later, when the American Dream began to steamroll westward and displace more and more of the independent sovereign nations from their homelands, that the problem was recognized and resistance began. Manifest Destiny was not a dream shared by the Native peoples; since that has been inflicted upon them, the American Dream has lost much of its luster for the Native peoples.

We can only find contentment when we are free to pursue our own dream. The ongoing unrest in the United States can be largely attributed to the social inequities that prevent individuals, ethnicities, and sovereign nations from realizing their own dreams. A clear vision, firmly held, is a powerful motivator for achievement. Having to compromise that vision under duress to accommodate someone else’s vision is a travesty.

What Are You Reading?

It is imperative that the serious hobbyist stay informed and do research to hone his/her understanding of the culture and current affairs of Native America. There is no other way to properly claim a place in the Native community. One of my biggest difficulties with the pretendian population at large is their reluctance to make a personal effort to learn the culture and traditions of whatever People they claim to belong to, preferring rather to practice and parrot whatever they are told by others.

Most enthusiasts do not have the advantage of having near relatives that can provide true cultural information and traditional teachings. We do not have the aunties, uncles, grandfathers and grandmothers available to us that can pass on that knowledge. Thus, we must diligently seek out reputable sources for this instead.

Books and the Internet are the obvious choices, but care must be taken to ensure the accuracy of the information gathered therein. Many books have been written by individuals claiming knowledge that they cannot actually authenticate by citation. Some of those individuals claim identity that is later demonstrated to be fabricated or exaggerated.

The Internet is a treasure trove of sources that would not be otherwise accessible, thanks to digitization of primary source materials and access to the writings, quotations and recordings of Native elders. But it is also a swamp of misinformation because it is an open access medium that allows anyone to write anything without the restriction of fact checking, editing or peer review. Caution must be exercised in accepting materials gleaned from personal websites as authentic.

I honestly cannot offer a sure-fire litmus test for cultural information. Primary source materials (books written by anthropologists or Native authors) are pretty safe bets. The application of the principle of “from the mouths of two or more witnesses” is also a valid precaution, with the addendum of “the more diverse the sources, the more credible” and some attention to the apparent credibility of the sources (e.g. be wary of self-identified Native sources that feel compelled to include their “spirit name” in their byline).

Nonetheless, the diligent enthusiast should be constantly seeking to enhance his/her knowledge of the People they claim an identity among and the current affairs of Indian country at large. Indian Country Today and Last Real Indians  are reliable sources of current affairs materials that should be consulted regularly. And we should be reading something relevant in a print medium (books and magazines) frequently as well. It seems there is a new book available almost every month by a Native author. I recently read a release for a new book about the Delaware people, written by a descendant about her ancestors.

What am I reading? I just recently finished “The World We Used to Live In“, Vine Deloria, Jr.’s final book. I am reading an e-book about the Bering Strait Theory. I am reading herbal texts to enhance my knowledge of the medicine that the Creator placed in the earth for the People. I read Indian Country Today almost every day, as my schedule allows.

What are you reading?