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.

Entitlement or Obligation?

I’ve been reading a lot about all of the places where budget cuts under the present administration are threatening services in Indian country. Rightly or wrongly, we hired our current president to straighten out the national economy and lead us to a better standard of living. So, it follows that there will be places where unnecessary expenditures will be trimmed away. The caveat however, as always, will be: unnecessary from who’s perspective.

There is always a lot of talk about the entitlement mentality; that somehow a segment of the population has gotten the idea that the government should be responsible for their sustenance. And I fear that Indian country is being lumped into that perception.

It certainly is a common public perception that Native Americans are beneficiaries of the state. The federally-recognized Natives are quick to accuse anyone who wants to find a place in their community of wanting a piece of their pie; that is also the crux of their opposition to any new tribal entities achieving Federal recognition. And I have heard wannabee individuals express an interest in gaining access to funding that has been set aside for Native individuals and groups; they want to be included in those entitlements.

The problem is, however, that many programs that are being labeled as entitlements are not. Social Security is not an entitlement; workers pay into the program and receive their investment back at a later time. Yet, somehow, we are hearing the sentiment that it is a government handout that needs to be curtailed. Similar observations are often made regarding the Indian Health Services and other services that are made available to Indian country.

What seems to be forgotten now is the relationship between the United States and Indian country. Each tribe remains a sovereign nation. The services offered to those nations are treaty obligations; they are foreign aid.

I have an acquaintance who is one of the chiefs of the Onondaga nation. I was told a story by a mutual acquaintance of his accompanying the chief to Washington DC to expedite some services for his nation. After being shuffled around throughout the Bureau of Indian Affairs, he finally got some satisfaction when he suggested that if the government did not wish to honor its obligations, they should give the Onondaga their land back!

I am afraid that the government is trying to place their treaty obligations to Indian country in the wrong budget column. They are not unnecessary, nor are they expendable.

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.

Back to Traditional Governance?

There are several things about the Trump presidency that concern me; his administration is a mixed bag, to say the least. But I was struck by one criticism out of Indian country that prompted me to remember one aspect of the nature of the governance of the United States that has changed since the origins of that nation.

As we roll up on the 250th anniversary of the founding of the United States of America, we have become accustomed to the concept of the career politician. There are still those who rail against it, yet it has become the status quo. People who engage in national politics are expected to do so as a career avocation. And those offices are now monetized in such a way that one term in office is sufficient to establish a long-term lifestyle arrangement.

Gone are the days of the public servant that temporarily lays aside his/her own avocation to offer a term of service to his/her country, after which they resume their previous activities. We forget that the Founding Fathers, whatever you may think of them, were successful businessmen who felt compelled to pledge their “lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor” to a cause greater than themselves. Several of the signers of Declaration of Independence paid dearly for that pledge.

Now we have a chief executive that has temporarily laid aside his own financial endeavors to offer service to his country. The merit of his efforts is far from decided and the impact of his legacy remains to be seen. But it seems rather disingenuous to criticize him for maintaining an interest in his personal affairs outside the realm of his responsibilities to the country.

By law, he will only have eight years to make his mark on the national history. At this point, I expect that he will then gladly return to his former activities without any further adieu. I have no reason to suppose that his motive is significantly different than that which he stated from the beginning: he wanted the opportunity to allow an individual from outside the political establishment to mold the trajectory of the national history for a change.

How that will ultimately play out remains to be seen. Whether or not the Trump empire continues to flourish while he is only peripherally involved in its day-to-day operations is just that: peripheral.

Expanding to Video

Thus far, this blog has not lived up to my expectations. It is plagued with technical problems, many of which, I suspect, could be resolved almost magically by throwing money at them. I have yet to generate a readership to speak of, again, a problem likely best resolved by throwing money at it.

Without participation, I am presently out of ideas about which to write. For the moment, my writing has slowed significantly. Consequently, at my wife’s urging, I am expanding to video media; specifically, YouTube for the present.

There are aspects of my life as a pretendian that are best portrayed in video. I can describe the process for crafting an artifact but, without visual support, I cannot adequately express enough of the process for someone to duplicate it. There are aspects of my life outside of the Native arena that can be better expressed visually as well. Thus, I have expanded this effort to the arena of visual media.

I have a channel on YouTube, called “Finding the Path with Paul Talbot” that has the beginnings of these efforts. I have begun posting videos on farriery and crafting already. I anticipate posting other videos of activities in my life, as I “find my path”, as I explain in the introductory videos on the channel.

I expect to continue to write here as inspiration allows. There is a power to the written word that permits a more lasting impression than the spoken word. This blog and the YouTube channel both offer opportunity to impart information in unique ways.

For the present, I have expressed most of my ideas regarding the lessons I have learned about the proper way to find one’s place in the Native American community with respect for the culture, which was the impetus for this blog originally. I will add to those as ideas present themselves. And I will begin to write more about current affairs in and around Indian country as I find that I have something to say.

Progress… There’s no stopping it! We continue to evolve as persons as we utilize the technologies to do so.

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.