Our indigenous ancestors passed down their ceremonial ways of worship through the most ancient transmission. Being part of a community, going through rites of passage as one develops into an adult, each man and woman is “seen” for who they are. The Great Spirit’s gifts are manifested in the way each person lives their life. We recently had an opportunity to see into these ancient ways of living with the coming of age rituals and acceptance of the hero in James Cameron’s epic film Avatar. The white skinned European colonialistic would-be-conquerors are contrasted with the indigenous people, who are taller, more agile, blue skinned, and have physical adaptations for harmonious living with the plants and animals of their Great Mother. Almost anyone who knows the history of our planet will see the parallels to our treatment of indigenous populations on Earth, our Mother Gaia. After the United States Federal Government crushed those States which felt they had the right to withdraw from a one hundred year old contractual agreement in our infamously bloody Civil War (which turned families against their kinsmen) the victors had the problem of what to do with the crazy soldiers.
The ancient Chinese conqueror, who brought together the opposing kingdoms of that time, used the enormous army he had collected in a public service project: The Great Wall of China. Many of his warriors are buried in the structure which they erected. Those who were too old and tired to work were sent home with little to survive the walk across the continent. Very few lived to talk about the experience. They were too tired to fight about the abuse and just happy to be home. The United States Federal Government in the mid-nineteenth century turned their warriors loose on the defeated Southern States and the Native American Tribes. That change has been dramatized in books, stories, and in the twentieth century moving pictures. First we saw it through the eyes of the victors, like most history. But more recently the other side of the story has emerged in films like Dances with Wolves. These alternate versions of history and of perceived reality give us a little hope for a better tomorrow.
Much of our present situations of conflict rest on a foundation of poor communication. That became evident the other night in a Native American Church service. Basically the ancient ways are passed down to the next generations through conscious recognition of abilities. In Avatar the hero proves his right to share in the destiny of his people through feats of bravery and mastery which are undeniable evidence of his harmony with their Great Goddess. The people must join together and take action. They must respond to the challenge to their way of life. We call this being response able, or responsible. Taking action in harmony with the other clans and animals creates a united state, sort the same idea in our war of Independence from the British Crown. United we stand, divided we fall. That could easily be said of all resolution of conflict. One Cheyenne/Arapaho elder told us how the tribes tried to kill each other when the real enemy was the Federal Government. “Now we just need to get along with each other. That’s what our Peyote Way is all about, love, hope, faith, and charity. Getting along with one another. Making peace. Understanding our differences and accepting one another just the way we are.” But how hard is that when we don’t speak the same language?
The elder in his seventies had passed his fireplace, his ordained fire, to very few people. He assumed a cultural understanding of tradition and respect for the old ways. But his choice of people to transmit his family fireplace was clouded by his dependence upon others. He assumed he would be honored and respected in the ways of his ancestors. He thought he could make decisions and the younger people would cooperate, they would follow his orders and he could sit in a place of honor while he continued to mentor them. That was how he was taught. He had to earn the respect of his elders through hard work and devotion to their sacred ceremonies. As soon as he was able, he took care of fire, carried the drum, and ate medicine. When the elders decided he was ready, they gave him permission to be responsible in a traditional and culturally accepted way. We see this in the film Avatar, when the mentor says “you are ready”. The hero must then prove he can choose and be chosen by the flying reptilian. “He will try to kill you; that’s how you know the mount has chosen you, but you must ride to seal the bond.” It isn’t a done deal until you can fly on your own.
My spirit brother and sister were given a fireplace by this elder in 2000. Neither of them were ready to fly on their own. They hadn’t finished the training. The old man had dreamed he was dieing and hoped the children would be grateful for the gift of the family fireplace. But neither of these children were part of the blood tribe. Another sister had a much longer relationship with the tribal ways. She was part native by blood, but like many of us, looks European. She was and is an excellent target for projected anger and resentment. Native Americans have a lot to be angry about and playing nice is a survival skill. Get on their turf and you might have a fatal accident. If the rattlesnake bites you and you die, you aren’t strong enough to be a medicine person. The film Billy Jack demonstrated that. Poison transmuted shows power over the poisoner.
The native Californians, like many other seemingly peaceful tribes, poisoned their enemies and put out contracts on their family members. From the outside it looks peaceful. The whites thought so. Grace Hudson’s paintings showed the last of a disappearing culture in northern California. I walked through the Sun House with a group of native children with my friend on the tribal council. She pointed out which ancestor was related to each of the children. She knew her history. She was the daughter of her tribe’s medicine person. She later died of poisoning. She was raised on the European diet and before she was sixty, diabetes killed her. The Indian Health Service in our area referred to this phenomenon as “the third wave of genocide”. The first was disease carried by the boat people, the second was war and then relocation on reservations. My central American brother got bitten by a spiritual rattlesnake and still doesn’t understand the poisoning.
My brother is tall and brown skinned. I sat next to him in my first Native American Church meeting. He mentored me during the meeting. That’s when I met my ancestors and my previous incarnations. The Medicine introduced me to the unconscious parts of myself. At fifty-six I felt I had finally found home. It was a miracle and I couldn’t get enough. Two years later I witnessed the elder pass his Ordained Fire, first to my sister and second to my brother and his wife. According to the elder’s understanding, the fireplace ceremonies were originally run by the women, but defeat by the Federal Government deprived the hunters and warriors of their traditional roles, so the women gave the men something else to be responsible for, their fireplaces. That’s how the story goes. The men have been in charge of these sacred ceremonies ever since. Theoretically the fireplace belongs to my sister, whose husband shares the responsibility with her. That looks good when husband and wife stick together and cooperate with one another. That’s how the ceremony is constructed, as a harmonious balance of the masculine with the feminine. But divorce is common now days and that rips apart the traditional way of doing things. The stability is disappearing rapidly. What looks native on the surface sometimes isn’t. My brother is that way. He looks native, but he’s really Hispanic. When his family moved to the United States he had a big surprise. Military service was compulsory, that’s when we had the draft. I lucked out through student deferments until the lottery. My number wasn’t picked and I got married. I didn’t want to serve in Viet Nam because it seemed like another war on the indigenous. My brother didn’t like being in the military, but the Hispanic macho stereotype required an alignment with the warrior, even if you don’t agree with the government, it’s your duty to serve. “Americans fight for religious freedom, they protect our right to worship in these ways.” That’s my brother. For an educated man, he ignores what is right in front of him.
He also ignores the man who passed his wife their fireplace. A lot of this is culture and language misunderstanding. The elder thought he would be taken care of by his new relatives, that they would give him a place to live, perhaps in their home. He assumed he would be invited to sit beside the Road Chief, so he could continue to instruct him on how to run one of the most sophisticated fireplaces on the planet. When my brother heard “the fireplace is the doctor and peyote is the medicine. That’s how the miracles occur, through our prayers and intentions. It’s a sacred circle.” He heard the English converted into his native tongue, Spanish. He understands best in Spanish. It got complicated because the elder’s disability resulted in very difficult speech patterns. If you have a good ear for such things, as I do, listening intently works great. I can repeat what the elder has said over the past ten years to his satisfaction. That doesn’t mean that he likes me. He doesn’t. He still sees me as General Custer and tolerates my presence. When I took care of fire this past weekend, he told me “I was surprised. I didn’t think you could do it.” But I also keep my eyes open and watch. I have listened intently to his fireman of fourteen years and I can follow directions. I was told by three Road Chiefs, “you take care of fire better than your brother and your nephew”.
Maybe so. Maybe I do have a knack for pacing myself and not overheating like my nephew always does. He’s too perfectionistic and the fire consumes his energy. The Natives say, “it cooks his brains and burns his skin”. Of my brother, “he never finished his training, just took off with the fireplace and does it his way.” So I didn’t burn or fry my brain, and I did it in my Buffalo Bill Cody leather coat. I took lessons from my nephew who wears thermal long johns under his jeans (the perfectionist) and my grandson (the coyote) who discovered that metal buttons and zippers on your Levi jeans might look good, but if you don’t wear underwear, your penis gets burned. Indians don’t tell you these things. They teach you the hard way. You find out for yourself while they berate you for your stupidity and wrong action; something they learned to do from their white European conquerers. This is basically wrong in itself, but if the conquerors won, their way must be better. That’s what we learn in public school, in the boarding schools and in parochial schools. One of my relatives told me last week how he wears leather as a glass blower and since it was my first time tending fire, I wore my fancy leather jacket. It was a little awkward with the fringe swinging around in the fire, but it didn’t burn and neither did I. Making medicine balls (to heal the sponsor) for the first time was challenging, but I had been on the other end of that healing way several times and knew I had to bond my intentions tightly into the medicine. I ate as much as I fed my nephew and explained to him as I fed them to him what each ball embodied for his healing. What came out of the meeting for me was an awareness of how misunderstanding and poor communication can destroy a community.
My brother and sister didn’t have any idea there was a life-long commitment in being passed the fireplace. They regarded it more like a pilot’s license to fly a peyote spacecraft. Once they got the hang of it, they were on their own. It should have been clearly spelled out. But they aren’t natives and don’t “speak Indian”. The culture is quiet because so much is assumed and understood. When I asked my brother to run a meeting for me ten years ago, just after he and my sister were passed their fireplace, he said yes. Then he talked to the elder and called me back. He had accepted tobacco to run his nephew’s meeting and the elder told him that running my meeting would “cross the tobacco”; that was forbidden. I would have to ask my sister to run the meeting and my brother could take care of fire for me. I was brand new at the time and didn’t have a clue about protocol. I didn’t want that old man who hated me to be involved in my healing process, I felt it would be counterproductive and told my sister that. She assured me that she had “her own crew” and it would be the way I wanted it. Nothing was further from the truth. The day of the meeting the elder showed up and threatened to take the fireplace away from her, if she didn’t have him sit cedar. The Cedar Man makes medicine balls for the sponsor and that is exactly what I didn’t want to happen. My brother and sister witnessed all of this from the fireman’s side of the fireplace. But they didn’t get it. You don’t mess with tradition unless you are prepared to be shunned.
When they abandoned the elder a few years later and went their own way, I went with them. I had bonded to them. I tried to translate the elder’s speech, as had my sister, but my proud Hispanic machobro slowly withdrew. He wouldn’t speak to the old man on the phone. He couldn’t understand his English. But he wouldn’t say so either. He would have to be humble and admit he needed an interpreter. So the misunderstanding and hurt feelings grew greater and greater until a split in the family occurred. My other sister had learned her lesson. She had the elder sitting cedar in the meeting this past weekend. That has been happening for ten years. It looks co-dependent from an addictions model. But it is traditional until he dies for him to be honored in this way. My brother and sister are Europeans in culture and don’t honor anybody but themselves. They say they do. They claim to love unconditionally. But when they ran my last meeting in 2006 things began to change.
The first was the morphing fireplace. I looked at the part of the altar which normally looks like an equilateral triangle. It had been changed into a heart shape. I asked my sister why. She said, “It just came to me when I was making the moon. You have such a big heart, Mikey” That was good. So then I asked her if I could put a bouquet of flowers on the sponsor pole. “Anything you want brother.” So I did. I also explained my previous week’s experience with the South American Medicine Ceremony and the miraculous healing of my lower back which I had been suffering for forty years. Creator works in strange ways. By morning my brother, the Roadman, verbally attacked my son, who told the congregation that “Creator is Unconditional Love, that’s all we need to be, is loving”. When I entered the Tipi from outside, the argument was happening in the circle with the heart being central to the altar. How could that happen? And to add to the surprising events, my sister forgot about how that heart became part of the fireplace, she took credit for the inspiration. It was her idea (of course) to put it in there, but she never again told about the meeting when it first occurred. Within two years she and her husband weren’t speaking to me, nor with our sister or the elder who passed them the fireplace. Every time I have sat up with my sister she prays for the health of her “godfather” who passed her the fireplace. To me this feels insincere, because she makes no attempt to include the old man. He does live far away and it would be expensive to pay his way for all the meetings they run. That too would be expected. So she and my brother continue to pay lip service to the “godfather”. They did turn the heart back into a triangle. They were claiming that they hadn’t changed the fireplace when we all knew they had, so conforming to the original shape looked good. But it hasn’t healed the wounding.
What we need to do is try to get along. That means talking to one another, even if we have to use interpreters. We can’t understand what we have done wrong unless the other person talks to us. We can assume all sorts of reasons, but they are usually our own judgments projected onto the other person. So we just keep trying and waiting for the right time. Maybe we could listen better and be open. But as my South American Medicine Man said several years ago, “you can’t teach respect to adults, they either have it or you accept them as they are. It’s the only loving way to be.”
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