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Learning From our Elders

Project Indigenous is involved in many aspects of Indigenous work. We are not only concerned in the environmental impact of our time we are also concerned with the cultural and spiritual health of the Indigenous people. We understand that the environment, culture, and spirit are all connected, but many people outside of the Indigenous world do not understand this teaching and are confused.

I have listened to many arguments concerning Non Native people running Native ceremonies over the past forty years. Some ceremonies in the last few years have caught the eye of the world such as the trial involving a Sweat Lodge Ceremony conducted by a non-Indigenous spiritual leader that resulted in injury of many and death for four of the participants. This ceremony was not in any way connected to Indigenous culture of spiritual pathways. The week long workshop was in fact a self-help workshop for money. Individuals have been attending these workshops for many years because they are profiting from people looking for a richer path of spiritual practice. These self help workshops have resulted in Native people of North America being under siege by people from around the world looking for a spiritual path that seems more rewarding and connected to the earth. They turn to the Indigenous people for that connection.

Many years ago when I was finished with the path of the Black Dog, I went to the old man who was one of the ceremonial leaders of our tribe. He was a good man and never or hardly ever had a bad thing to say about someone or said no to anyone regarding ceremony. I trusted his judgment and thought he could do no wrong.

After each summer ceremony he was invited to travel to Indiana where a group of reformed hippies would treat him like a king. They bought him anything he wanted and he would come home with money and gifts. It was like a reward for his work over the summer. None of these people were Indigenous; in fact they considered themselves some sort of eastern religion. They considered themselves followers of a Frenchman who was a self proclaimed spiritual leader that fled Europe for legal problems.

One year after summer ceremony I was asked to travel with the old man to Indiana. I knew nothing about them but was going to get an education in a hurry. Going anywhere with the old man was a great honor and privilege so I went along as his helper. When we got to Indiana we were split up. That should have been my first indication that problems were going to rise. I was however put with a nice couple in a quiet part of the commune. I refer to this place as a commune because basically that was what it was, cut off from the outside world. Today we would regard it as a gated community. It seems that the group had bought an old farm and built homes and a center for worship for their group. Unfortunately only the most wealthy lived on the grounds while the rest of the group lived in the near by town.

We were at the commune about 10 days. During those days we asked to hold prayer meetings similar to the ones we held at home. After each patient was doctored we were given envelopes with money. Lots of money. Each time the money was offered the old man accepted. However, I was in a quandary about money and ceremony so I refused, but the wife of the leader of the commune told me I would be rude if I did not take the money to help pay my bills. Just years earlier I had been told we could not receive money for ceremony, so I was confused about why the old man took the money and why I would be considered rude by refusing. Because we were separated I had no time privately to ask the old man about the situation and waited tell later to ask him. When we got home he basically told me that they had plenty of money and that was their gift for our services.

The next summer when we held our summer ceremonies I noticed that the group from Indiana set up camp at our ceremony and sat in the area set aside for our elders. They enjoyed privileges Tribal members did not and they acted as if they were above us validating what we did in the ceremony. They had come to draw off the power of they ceremony that we had held for our people, and the old man could not say no.

Years later, after the old man was gone the people from Indiana wrote a book about the old man and produced photos none of us knew existed. They gained notoriety in some communities as authorities regarding the old man and the ceremony he officiated. They were the reason many people left the tutelage of the old man because they were always in position of control and he could not be free of them. Many of us regard them as people who have come to prosper from our work, using their money to buy privilege and fame. We regard these people in a negative light and unfortunately have closed many of our ceremonies to outsiders.

The reason I share this story is because when we trust our elders beyond our instincts we may find ourselves having to make hard choices. We know some people have come to take our ceremonies. We forget that they cannot do what we do because they come from different mud and sometimes for the wrong reasons.

Indigenous ceremony is hard and the lifestyle is hard. People come to learn and study the ways of Indigenous people for many reasons but return to their warm dinners and hot showers days later. People forget that Indigenous people live like they do every day for their entire life and that is why the hold such wonderful wisdom. Some people that have come over the years are truly of the earth and will over time expose themselves as humble and true. The sharing of spiritual pathways is in the benefit of everyone. It is what all people did and should do for everyone. The people who come from the outside should learn the guidelines and be respectful of the locals.

We are at a time when we should share and recognize each other. We are at a tipping point of belief. The elders must keep focused and not be drawn in to the quagmire of money. It is the challenge we must evaluate as repeating itself over and over again. We look for the protection of the Declaration of Indigenous Rights to protect the people but in reality it is down to each elder to guide their youth to the proper awakening for everyone.

People come and people go, it is the way it always has been and always will be, we just need to keep the faith.

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