Being Hollow

This is a post that is hard to write conclusively, because it presents a paradox for the writer. It embraces a concept that is far easier to describe than to achieve. It centers around the practice of being a “hollow bone” for Spirit.

In his book Fools Crow – Wisdom and Power, Thomas Mails quotes the late Lakota holy man, Frank Fools Crow, as saying “Anyone can do the things I do if they can live as I do”. This writer only aspires to that, but we have to start somewhere.

That book introduces the idea that a key to accessing the power of Spirit is being a “hollow bone” through which Spirit can flow to others for their healing or benefit. Fools Crow’s actual practice for accomplishing this is described, though the underlying principle is merely the presentation of yourself to Spirit for that purpose.

It is an effort to properly be a “hollow bone” for Spirit. There is no place for being self-centered in any way. Allowing any ambition or self-serving motivation into your practice creates an impediment for Spirit to flow through you to others. This is why the practice described included discarding selfish motivations and intentions. His use of a “Self-offering Stick” reinforced that.

I learned early on that the medicine path is not a path to material wealth. Medicine people are traditionally the poorest people in the village, because they harbor nothing for themselves. It is a life of self-offering and humility; there is no other methodology to accomplish the work. Realizing what Spirit can accomplish through such a person is humbling in itself, but the effort to hold human nature in check is paramount nevertheless.

This principle is universal to all spiritual systems. The elevation of others over self is a mainstay in the teachings of these systems. And it is the prerequisite to accessing the Divine and being a conduit for it to the world around us.

The Wonder of Wonder

I try to view the world through a child’s eyes on a regular basis. Everyday life requires an analytical perspective that squelches imagination and wonder. Everything gets mired in the empiric. Everything must be quantifiable. We lose the ability to marvel at that which we do not fully understand or consider what we cannot comprehend.

It is our ability to wonder that promotes the growth of knowledge and wisdom and helps us to keep a youthful perspective on life. Can we yet remember the mystery and grandeur of the world around us when we were young? So much of what we saw fell outside the boundaries of our understanding that our parents were superheroes and all the world was magical.

The Western mindset increasingly precludes the likelihood of the supernatural, save in the imagination. In the arena of fundamentalist Christian orthopraxy, the supernatural is theoretically acceded but practitioners often seem genuinely surprised when it actually materializes. Miracle is generally placed in the realm of the improbable, rather than the commonplace.

Vine Deloria, Jr.’s final book, The World We Used To Live In, documents how the “black robes” attributed the feats of Native medicine people to “powers of darkness”, because they had no framework of their own in which to place it. The Church roundly condemns “magic” except when they practice it themselves.

When my grandchildren were young, quite a few years ago, while my wife and I were providing daycare for them, I was reminded of that childish perspective. My step-children were entering their teen years when I married their mother, so they were long past the age of wonder. They were faced with the pragmatic realities of finding their place in their world. But my grandchildren made me their hero. Their father once remarked that I was their favorite toy, because I so enjoyed participating in their reality.

They taught me quite a few lessons about seeing their world through their eyes. These now compose my favorite stories from those years; including how a “caroon can be rabbit” and how to become “smashy”. It is a joy to see a child light up with the wonder and awe of a lighted Christmas tree, to witness the anthropomorphing of their stuffed animals, and to participate in their reconstruction of “grown-up” activities. It is, likewise, sobering to realize how much of our behaviors become integrated into theirs, as they study to become us.

It would do us all good to recognize that there is much in our universe that we cannot quantify. That there are realms of alternate reality that we can only visit outside our physical selves. That there are planes of existence higher than ours; we are, indeed, not the apex of existence. We need to recapture our awe of the unknown and the magic of the unexplainable.

The Conundrum of Seeking

I’ve written on this before, but I recently was reminded of a subtle paradox that exists in the pursuit of acquiring a correct understanding of cultural practices in the Native arena. It is far too common for a non-Native seeker to draw criticism for not living out the Native culture correctly but, when they ask for correction, find that it is difficult to obtain the correct information. This is a perplexing and disturbing conundrum.

The situation that brought this to mind involves the specific arena of language studies. I know an individual who has taken it upon themselves to create a system to bring a dialect of a certain Native language into modern-day use. Actually, I am aware of several people who are making this effort simultaneously, though not in concert with each other nor necessarily for the same dialect. I am also acquainted with an individual who is an acknowledged expert on at least one dialect of that Native language, who has already devised a system by which it may be taught and used.

Suffice it to say, the expert is justified in criticizing many of the others. The others are somewhat mired in their own prideful pursuit of “re-inventing the wheel” and “building a better mousetrap”. Yet, I am aware of one situation where the expert is reluctant to share his resources, albeit out of the concern that he will not be properly acknowledged for his work, amidst other similar concerns. It is, admittedly, a complicated situation that may not offer the best example of what I am driving at.

A recent exclusion of non-Natives from Lakota ceremonies, coupled with a directive that those ceremonies be only conducted in the Lakota language, provides another example. I appreciate the circumstances that precipitated those directives, but I am also certain that they will likely only aggravate those circumstances. It is an unfortunate reality that misinformation will readily flow into the vacuum created by withholding correct information.

It is undeniable that there are many who seek to appropriate and abuse Native culture for personal gain; these may form the majority of non-Native “seekers”. Yet, there are also those who want to connect to a way of life that calls them out of their own cultural morass; the true Maka Oyate, the Earth People.

Critical Correction

As a follow-up to the previous post, I would like to hone in on an actual example of the tightrope that confronts the sincere seeker in discerning the validity of the claims of an available resource purporting to offer the information that is being sought after. Actual names will not be used, in that I have offered criticism of this individual and group at other times and places that may have been overly harsh or even unwarranted. It is a tightrope when you choose to offer criticism; you must be very certain of your knowledge base. Perhaps I was not.

There is a Lenape “nation” (that is, a group calling themselves a nation without any documentable historic or cultural criteria that would allow them to be considered for Federal recognition as a nation) close to me that I have been acquainted with from very early in my journey. It is headed by an individual who calls himself a medicine person and performs in that capacity regularly and publicly. He has performed ceremony for me, in person and on my behalf, many times over the years, though not so much recently (my fault).

I have flip-flopped numerous times over the years about how I regard this resource. I have spent enough time with this man, at his most visible ceremonial venue and via correspondence, to know that he does not exactly fabricate his cultural and traditional information from whole cloth. He is acquainted with recognized primary source material for the Lenape people. He makes an earnest effort to study and learn.

And yet (and this is where the tightrope narrows) his cultural and spiritual teachings draw from oral sources that do not align with the primary source materials. He claims to have received oral knowledge from family sources that are not easily documented or verifiable. His actual practices seem to be an amalgam of traditions from numerous Native cultures. This has made him an easy target for diverse critics working from more verifiable and academically accepted resource bases. At various times I have fallen into step with the critics and denounced this individual as a charlatan.

But here’s the rub: His medicine is good. He taught me a rain-calling song that actually works quite reliably. He awakened (blessed) a pipe for me that was very effective. The sweatlodge tradition I learned from him produces the desired outcomes, as far as I know. And he has remained a friend and available resource to me throughout all of my waffling.

Something I have come to understand recently is the need for steadfastness in your practice of the medicine path. Frank Fools Crow (the late Lakota holy man) introduced me to the idea of being a “hollow bone”; a clear conduit for Spirit to convey healing or power to other individuals. What I realized recently is that that will be compromised by allowing criticisms from others to cause hard feelings to build up as a result. That can be compromised by anything that turns our attentions inward; there is no room for being self-centered in medicine.

It is another tradition that a Native leader (chief) must have a “skin of seven spans”, i.e. to be indifferent to criticisms when you are convinced of the validity of your viewpoint and actions. There will always be someone who opposes or questions your position on any given subject. The great leader will proceed resolutely, with the certainty that time will vindicate him.

Given that I have also learned over the years that Native spirituality is not a hard target–that certain principles govern the practices but there is room for vast diversity in the actual performance of these practices–and that it is next to impossible for a non-Native to find willing teachers among the recognized Native community, I no longer wish to be overly critical of this individual. He has stood the test of time and resilience for me. I leave it to others to reach their own conclusions.

Pointing Fingers

We have all probably heard the adage that “when you point a finger at someone, there are always three more fingers pointing back”. I’ve had some time to think about that lately. Well, I try to always keep that in the back of my mind, actually. But I’ve had reason to think about it a little more lately.

If you have read this blog from the beginning, you know that it began as an effort to share some of the lessons I have learned in more than twenty years of trying to find my place in the Native community as a non-Native enthusiast. I suppose that some of what I have written probably seems overly critical or even hurtful.

It is an unfortunate truth that, after I left all of the enthusiast groups I had passed through from the beginning of my journey, which furnished the grist for much of what I have written here, I found my way into on-line venues that often adopted a very judgmental tone in pointing out the flaws in everyone else’s journey. I suppose the apex of that for me was when I filed a piece documenting a visit to a powwow being hosted by a newly formed group which had grown out of another group I had once been a participant in.

I was not overly kind in my account, given that the event was filled with the same kind of tom-foolery that provides grist to the Federally-recognized groups to perpetuate their disdain for all non-Native enthusiasts; reinforcing the epithet value of “wannabee” and “pretendian”. But the feedback that ensued from the other contributors to that forum was beyond harsh. I wasn’t sure that a first outing deserved that kind of vitriol. And, of course, it has colored subsequent encounters with that group.

Here’s the thing: When a non-Native person decides to make the effort to explore the Native community, traditions and culture, they are largely on their own. It is never an easy pathway. Generally, you have to navigate untold swamps of dubious information, in hobbyist groups (nations, bands, clubs, leagues, etc.) and, especially, on the internet, before you find your way to authentic resources.

It is far too easy for someone who has already traversed those minefields to criticize those who are still searching for solid ground. It is easy to disdain those who do not seem to want to hear our wisdom, not having the empathy to remember the insecurity that arises from encountering so many charlatans and dead-ends previously. It is far too easy to be disdainful of those who have not attained our personal level of enlightenment, and far too easy to not remember that we are still on our own journey and perhaps not as enlightened as we would like to think.

Didn’t See That Coming!

So, I’ve been gone a while. I last posted in late August. Not what I had planned. But there’s no point in writing for the sake of writing. I kinda ran out of ideas for a while. And life intervened.

On September 4, Indian Country Today effectively closed its doors; that is it ceased its online operations. A decision had been made that it was financially unsustainable. I will miss it. There are other news outlets for Indian country, but that was the most readily accessible for me; it just showed up in my inbox each day.

I gave up Facebook for the most part because it seemed like a giant time sink for me. Amidst all the memes and details of everyone’s life that may or may not interest me, there were useful thoughts and news out of Indian country. But once I opened the news feed, hours could pass before I resurfaced; that was temporally unsustainable for me.

I found out that vlogging (video production) was even harder than blogging. I salute those stalwart souls who have refined that art to the point of being able to release a video daily or even several times a week. I found that it required hours of my time to film usable video, additional hours to edit it into a release product, and then (rather surprisingly) additional hours to upload the video production to YouTube.

And there were technical issues. I learned that a GoPro type camera is not really suitable for close-up work. If I put it on a tripod, it was so wide-angled that I could not capture the fine details of the crafting I was trying to demonstrate. If the viewer cannot really see the technique being employed, what’s the point of making the video? And when I devised a way to get the camera close enough to my hands to demonstrate technique, the finished video had a sort of fish-eye lens effect.

So, anyhow, time has passed without my producing anything on either media. Hopefully, this rainy Sunday afternoon will put a stop to that for the moment…

The Long Parade to the Bridge

I said farewell to a goat this week. We are slowly closing down the farm, as we prepare for new adventures elsewhere, and as the stock animals die they are not being replaced. Belle was old; she was rickety; it was time. Still, she gave us some good years, some good kids and some good milk. Her daughter, Sequoya, is the last goat standing.

Somehow, about a month ago, I let the second anniversary of the death of my Best. Dog. Ever. slip past me. Her name was Tasha. She was some kind of husky. We called her The Wolf. She shared my soul. I miss her at least once a week; I can still feel her coat and see her face when I think of her.

There is a long parade of animals that have gone on ahead of me since I was a child. I was relieved to learn of the Rainbow Bridge when I began my journeys in Native American culture. That was the first place I encountered it; in a story about a boy and a dog. I have encountered the idea in other places since then; I believe that is where the Rainbow Bridge moniker actually came from.

If you are not familiar with the concept, the belief is that there is a bridge we all must cross to get to the next reality that is guarded by all the animals (especially the dogs) we have cared for in this lifetime. If we have been unkind to many of those animals, they will oppose our passing over the bridge.

I am hopeful that Tasha will return to lead me to the bridge; I am hopeful that she will forgive me for not realizing what was killing her. I am also hopeful that my old horse, Rocky, will forgive me for letting him linger for three days because I wanted to let him die with dignity. I hope Lager will be in his right mind in the next world; he was schizophrenic in this one.

And there are many others I am anxious to see again: Stephan (the fuzz-head), Dimitri, Thor, Sheba (She-Bear), Duke, Tordenskjold (Torrie), Nianke, Cuddles, Glitter Girl, and Jet. Those are just the ones I had a very personal relationship with; the parade is much longer than that.

That had better be a really big bridge. There should be a lot of old friends waiting there.