In a time of global movement away from our origins, disintegration of family and disconnection from the natural elements, Spirit Keepers are the true warriors of today. In diminishing pockets throughout the world, in many ways disrespected, they still maintain the invisible threads that connect us to our roots.
We help preserve Indigenous traditions threatened with decimation.
Spirit Keepers are the stewards of our future. The ancient, Indigenous ways instill appreciation for the Mother Earth and all beings. When Spirit Keepers are honored and come together to share their sacred practices, we are all nourished. Our common foundation is strengthened.
We honor traditional Indigenous spiritual leaders, healers and communities who hold the fragile threads of their sacred ways.
We fully believe: If these traditions continue to die, we all lose.
I founded Kenosis Spirit Keepers as the nonprofit extension of Kenosis. I’m pleased to say that we’re now in our 14th year. We continue our work against all odds.
A side note: Although I’ve explored various media in my artwork across decades, the intent of the content remains … those elements most sacred.
I had been listening to this young man for the past hour recounting significant aspects of his life’s story — a pilgrimage really — moving over the past decade. We were sitting in the upper level of Xapiri, his gallery a couple of blocks off Cusco’s main square, with Amazonian art all around us. He was winding down.
I’d been enthralled. “That’s incredible, you know.”
He offered a sardonic smile and said in decidedly Oxford English, “Yeah, that’s the brief story. There was a lot of randomness in-between.” Jack had a delightful way of laughing at himself that was attractive. But there were elements beyond his charm that spoke to greater substance and make-up.
Earlier that morning I was having breakfast in the tiny café of the family hotel El Balcón where I had long lodged my spiritual travel groups to Peru. A young North American woman, interning in hospitality services there, sat down across from me. We’d talked several times about what we were both doing in Cusco. This time she said, “I think you should meet Jack Wheeler. He’s got quite a story.” She gave me just enough to pique my interest and directions on where to find Xapiri. I took a chance that Jack would be there during my free time, and he’d be open to telling a complete stranger his personal history on a moment’s notice.
For a limited few, the trajectory of their life is laid out with certainty — and they’re quite satisfied with that. Satisfaction is key in this distinction, being bred in the bone to the extent they wouldn’t have it any other way. For the rest of us, conscious of it or not, we must seek our grounding. We know we’re not there when there’s an underlying feeling of discomfort, the rumblings of angst, a sense of just passing time, filling a slot, or waiting for something to happen. The tragedy of settling for the uneventful life is not discovering who you are. That’s not much of a legacy to pass down.
Jack had led into his tale, “When I left college, I wanted to follow one of the normal careers. I started working in a bank in my home city of Birmingham. It’s called the second city, London being the first. I’d worked there for two years. Although I was successful with promotions and really good money for my age, I definitely wasn’t happy. So, I started to travel. I took three months off and went to Peru, the first place I visited. I was twenty years old. At that point, I had no idea what I wanted. I was lost. I was traveling just because I wasn’t happy in England.
“But still I went back there. After a few years in the bank, I started a business with my older brother Tom. We worked hard, and it took off within six months. For many people it would appear to be a dream come true, creating something and being your own boss. But again, even though I was making money, I had no fulfillment — like it was at the bank. It wasn’t feeding my soul. So again, I decided to travel,” Jack punctuated his story with chuckles.
“That was about 6 years ago. I had a big, big trip where I traveled for a year…from New York all the way across the Americas…Central and South America, all the way to Patagonia. Big, big travel. Amazing travel. But looking back now, it was ticking boxes. I was going from place to place, spending a week in each place. It was enjoyable but not getting deep. It was more a standard backpacking trip.”
I pointed out to him a lot of people stuff their discontent instead of doing something about it. So much depends on outside influences and belief in what’s possible. There’s also the question of risk, stepping outside what’s familiar. Typically, if someone is going to answer what Joseph Campbell spoke of as a Calling, it’s after they’ve got more years on them, and the sacrifices have mounted up. I was speaking from experience.
“I think I was lucky to realize it at a young age. I put it all down to the traveling. At the beginning, the traveling wasn’t so deep. I wasn’t yet involved with Indigenous cultures. It still opened my eyes! When I came to Cusco the first time, I stayed in an orphanage volunteering for three months. I saw humanity, and it woke me up a little bit. The idea for Xapiri didn’t come at that point. I didn’t yet understand what I needed for fulfillment. It was a slow process. But I realized I couldn’t handle all the money and success back home.
“After the three months? I went back to England. Yeah, the story’s crazy!” With this last admission he produced a subdued bark, a commentary perhaps at the expense of his not-so-much younger self.
It’s seldom understood in the moment. But wandering is rarely aimless if we’re engaged, alert and open to possibility. A sorting process occurs beneath the surface, a recognition of what fits and what doesn’t. It takes putting ourselves into new, sometimes off the charts, experiences. In this way, we get hits over time, self-correcting so that when the full unveiling comes, it’s like we knew our passion all along. It’s no stranger to us. What at first may seem accidental, becomes the realization of personal destiny.
“My brother had relocated to Sweden. I went and spent the summer. I got back involved with the business in a different role with the idea I’d get more connected. But again…I didn’t. Yeah, I traveled again.
“This was a common theme. I was always traveling as an escape looking for something, I guess. It was on this travel when things began to click. I was in Venezuela and then Brazil where I had contact with the first Indigenous communities. I suddenly realized this is the work I wanted to do — to be involved with Indigenous people.
“At this point there were still no projects, no idea to work with the arts. Only later, I stumbled into this art gallery called CANOA in the town of Paraty. It was founded by Nina Taterka who was doing amazing work with over fifty ethnic groups in Brazil. A few months later I met her son Tui Anandi who became an important part of Xapiri from the beginning. He had all his experience having grown up surrounded by his mum’s work. Now Tui is a great friend, Xapiri partner and photographer for when we visit the communities.
“The moment I walked into Nina’s gallery, I knew I needed to be involved,” He nodded emphatically. “Somehow I persuaded her to listen to me. We had some meetings. The initial idea when meeting her was to show this Indigenous art to a European market. We made the shipments, sending the art work from Brazil to England…and that’s how Xapiri was born six years ago now.”
There’s an interesting thing that happens once the seeker finds life purpose. The traveler comes to rest in the comfort of self-knowledge. Seeking goes to the wayside, and they find solid ground, even if it’s invisible in the moment. Having sought outside the box, all manner of potentials will become apparent that heretofore were hidden. The more clarity existing within your intent, the more those elements will naturally come to fulfill it. Synchronicity becomes a common occurrence. It’s not that blocks don’t appear, but we recognize alternatives to skirt them, an important part of the learning process. In this initiation, a foundation is built.
I was curious how Jack gained entry into the Indigenous communities in the Peruvian Amazon. I knew he had some help initially from Nina when he was in Brazil. Beyond that, he would definitely enter foreign territory where some remote ethnic communities would have had little to no contact with Westerners. It could be sketchy to just show up — without invitation. Even with an invite, it was a fearless move. Jack had to harbor such strong intent that he was on the right track. At any rate, a lot of people want to do things but don’t have the how-to, especially given the unusual path he had chosen.
“I can give a few examples. The way these relationships start are always different with each community. You’re right. In the beginning, I had this connection with Nina in Brazil. She was the first person to introduce me to some communities. The first expedition we went on was to visit the Asurini people of the Xingu river six years ago with Nina and her photographer friend, Alice Kohler. It was because of their relationships we had the invitation to go in.
“Since then it’s been Xapiri — the team and me — creating the connections in many different ways. The Matsés are the most remote community we work with, as an example. For sure, they had very little contact with outsiders coming into their territory. A number attempt to get into their land but don’t succeed. Once they get to the military outpost on the border of their lands, they get no farther. You really need to have connections and invitations. How it happened with the Matsés was through a nonprofit called Acaté Amazon Conservation. They’ve been working with the Matsés for about ten years and have created many amazing projects with them.
“Acaté is a nonprofit that does super work. Their cofounder Christopher Herndon sent me an email at the beginning of Xapiri five years ago saying we’ve had some meetings with the Matsés women, and they want help selling their arts. Chris and I connected on our first conversation, and we agreed to begin with sending a few bracelets created by the Matsés women to Xapiri. That’s how the relationship started — very slowly. I think we had ten bracelets in the beginning. They started to sell. We asked for fifty bracelets, a hundred bracelets and so on. I would say over the first year that we were building this trust, with both Acaté and the Matsés, from repeat orders. Soon, it developed by asking Matsés men to make many lances and arrows, to keep it fair with the women.”
“We started to hear stories. There were still some elder women making ceramics in the remote villages. Slowly, more of their arts appeared, their baskets, bags and so on. On that trip we also made direct contact ourselves. It became this beautiful project where we were selling through Acaté. After a year when this trust had been established, we had the invitation to go visit the Matsés. It was from the Matsés leaders and the nonprofit. The first time we went in was three years ago. We started having a direct relationship with the Matsés creating media documenting how they live, telling the stories of their lands. With the Matsés, it happened slowly with the help of the nonprofit. Now I’d say we’re really close with the Matsés. We were there again in 2019. Every time we go, we present our work to different villages and communicate what we’re doing.
“With other communities, we’ve made contact through recommendations from friends. Tui and I have done long expeditions into the jungle. We’ve gone exploring. Three years ago, we went from Manaus in Brazil to Peru to the Colombian border to Pucallpa. This was a three-month trip where we stopped off and visited different communities and made contact with different nonprofits. We were working out which nonprofits we could partner with on the ground to help us. That’s how we made contact with the Shipibo in Pucallpa through the nonprofit Alianza Arkana. On that trip we made contacts ourselves with the Ticuna on the border with Colombia. Along with that, a lot is happening in communities near Cusco through direct contact and through friends we meet in the gallery.
“Puerto Maldonado, the capital of the Madre de Dios region, is considered the entrance into the southern Amazon jungle. In this region, you have the Yine. By visiting that city, we’ve had contact with some of the leaders and had invitations to some of the villages. It’s lots of trial and error. Lots of the connections we make never materialize. The communications are very difficult. Lots of times there are no phone signals. It’s really face-to-face relationships and building trust in person before anything develops. We try to make many relationships and a few stick. So now we’re working with ten different ethnics. That’s how it is.”
When lifework comes together bit by bit over time, especially when focused on the everyday process, there can be a tendency to take the journey for granted. I asked, “Do you ever look back and wonder how in the world you got here?“
“Of course. There are often these moments in Matsés land, and you’re spending the whole day in the canoe. These are the times you reflect. I look at Tui. It’s five years ago we were just dreaming. We were just following our passion, and now we’re doing this really important work. We have to pinch ourselves! It’s emotional these moments. It really is — all this hard work coming together. Spending time with the communities, this is what it’s all about. Back from these expeditions you feel like different people. We’re ready to put all this energy into the work back in Cusco and what we do day-to-day. Waiting for the next expedition and time with the Indigenous… It’s the cycle. It’s beautiful.”
I wondered about the effect Xapiri has had on the Indigenous peoples within their focal point.
“The sheer number of people we’re supporting now is well over one hundred artists. These artists are normally the only people bringing money into their families. I can’t tell you how many phone calls Xapiri gets from Indigenous people asking us for support. For instance, someone is asking for two hundred Peruvian soles for medication because a family member is sick. We send this money and know within a month they’ll send art as a return. There are these examples where we’re supporting these individuals who have no other option when they get sick or want to send their grandson to university. Without Xapiri’s platform, it really wouldn’t be possible. They call on Xapiri as the trusted people they know who will help. On a very simple level, we’re supporting many people now.
“What’s so important now is engaging the Indigenous youth with our work. It’s the grandmother making her art and selling. Then it’s the granddaughter seeing this, and she wants to know how to make the basket or the bracelet. She gets connected again to her culture and this can bring a sense of restored pride. If we can keep doing this — getting the young people engaged in the culture — that’s the biggest thing Xapiri can do is connect with the youth.
“It’s proving to be one of the hardest things. But when it’s working, this is one of the most important things. These traditions will continue…the art, language, medicinal plant knowledge. It’s all connected. If the Indigenous are strong and connected to their culture, they will continue these aspects. That’s presently one of Xapiri’s biggest missions. It’s for these pieces of wisdom to continue. If we can help support that…that’s our mission.”
One of the important aspects of finding our place in the world has to do with recognizing resources and undertaking subsequent strategies as a result. Frequently, people overlook the most preeminent resource of all. Acknowledging their own capabilities, whether innate or learned, creates a stronger foundation. It’s something to count on. Self-acknowledgment builds baseline confidence to move ahead — even in the dark days.
I wanted to explore this with Jack. “I love your story. Also, I recognize there’s something within you. You possess capacities that allow you to put things in place and be so successful. Starting out, even when you were back in England, everything worked like clockwork for you. I think that’s an important point because some people will stay in a job because it’s lucrative, and they’re able to do it. For you, that wasn’t enough. You’re adept at creating relationships as well.”
Jack considered the past. “I agree. One of my greatest strengths is in relationship-building and the small steps we’ve taken to get to this point. Those first years in England where Xapiri was born, that was the foundation. I read book after book on history and different Indigenous matters. You’ve got to make connections with different activists, nonprofits and anthropologists. That was the base, doing my research. Without that time, Xapiri never would have taken off in Cusco. Throughout these past years, there have been these careful steps. Very slowly, but building it in a careful and really deep way. Every relationship we make is sincere. It’s aimed to be super long-term and sustainable. It’s not something we’re doing for a few years. I know it’s long-term because it’s such a passion. That’s why I’m happy to move slowly and do it right. I know that if I keep taking these steps for ten, twenty, thirty years…we can do some amazing things.”
In such a way spiritual identity is developed. It’s more than a public face. Like Indigenous peoples who maintain their traditions, connections to their communities and ancestral lands, roots run deep. Everyday life is lived through deeply held beliefs. There’s no compartmentalization. Any task or direction is reinforced through sacred threads they hold as generative. One thing is woven into the other, creating wholeness.
That morning I introduced myself to Jack, there was a specific prompting I received in my early morning conversation with the young woman who suggested I meet him. Not knowing his story exactly, I was quite familiar on a personal level of the elements it might contain. I was curious as to what compelled Jack specifically to undertake this venture. It could even be considered a holy one. Such rites of passage always involve risk, unfamiliar territory, uncertainties and potential failure.
All who submit to the journey will have their own details within the elements just as Jack did. One thing is certain. If the intrepid explorer follows their intent all the way through to its true and logical destination, they will experience a quickening. It will allow them to find — not merely footing — but grounding within their own finely tuned home in the world.
Over the last five years, I’ve been periodically working with Don Alberto Manquierapa — Huachipaeri-Matsigenka spiritual leader, master of plant medicines—bringing groups to learn from his teachings of the jungle. I’ve consistently said Don Alberto carries the rainforest in his soul. In November 2019, we were with him again in the high jungle of the Manu Biosphere in Peru. For the first time, he spoke at length of the wise men of the Matsigenka (also spelled Machiguenga) and how they were marriedto Nature but never elaborated directly what that meant.
A few months later I was having a conversation with Jack Wheeler of Xapiri, whose relationships extend to the Matsigenka and ten other Indigenous peoples of the Amazon. He suggested I read The Storyteller by Mario Vargas Llosa to see what I could glean.
I was rewarded in the first chapter when a character called Mascarita, in talking to the narrator, spoke of a wise man then saying, “I’m calling him a witch doctor so you know what I’m talking about.” He also used medicine man and shaman as a stand-in. Additionally, I learned that, while the Matsigenka may practice polygamy, it appears that a wise man sets himself apart from the villages, living in the jungle, or on a riverbank, even more simply than others, distinctly in solitude, communing with Nature.
Much of the book is interspersed with creation stories, tales of survival and beliefs. We know when a story ends because it’s punctuated with, “That, anyway, is what I’ve learned.” That said always before launching into the next monologue. Clearly the discourse is relayed to an audience but not clearly who or even the identity of the one relaying…until much later. Many peoples only know of themselves, their origins and how they are to exist and survive through the keeping of oral histories taken on by a living depository. That person has a special role and designation: Storyteller.
The Matsigenka are peaceful people who hold their world together by walking, being nomadic…nonviolent men who walk. But what happens when Viracochas* begin to intrude and impact the lands always known to them…introduce money and other foreign ways…when missionaries move into their villages? When…”The most important thing to them was serenity…Any sort of emotional upheaval had to be controlled, for there is a fatal correspondence between the spirit of man and the spirits of Nature, and any violent disturbance in the former causes some catastrophe in the latter.”
In such a case, maybe there’s finally a time when only a Storyteller can tell the Matsigenka who they are and where they’ve been.
This may be a familiar tragic tale containing elements we’ve heard all too many times before, but it’s also a mystery. The Peruvian narrator, whose name is never uttered, goes into a small gallery, while in Florence on vacation, and is electrified by what he sees in a particular photograph in the exhibition. And what of Mascarita who appears to have a significant role in the book but then simply disappears without a trace…never to be heard from again?
The Storyteller is a complex novel. For me, it was equally disturbing as it was compelling. I believe Llosa meant it to be so. I’ve promised myself that, in the not-too-distant future, I will reread it, thus allowing its even deeper structure to become apparent.
This book was first published in 1989 and still widely available. I bought my own copy. It’s well underlined.
*I found it curious that the name Viracocha, commonly known as the Inka and pre-Inka creator deity, is used with a capital “V” in The Storyteller to identify outsiders, particularly foreigners having marked consequences on the Matsigenka way of life.
There are two questions Krista Tippett of On Being consistently asks people she interviews. She starts out with what was your religious upbringing? The answer to that may or may not be relevant in the present, although the effect lingers in some way—great or small. Somewhere along the way she does the deep dive with what does it mean to be human? Even though people are usually expecting this question, given Krista’s long history of asking it, there’s a pause…because the answer is defining. There are two additional questions that aren’t usually spoken but are inferred: How do we want to live? Who will we be to each other? From these, the beliefs, interests and actions of the individual naturally unfold to state who they are in the world. It has to do with Identity. It’s important.
I’m not religious but do identify as spiritual. My beliefs are firmly grounded in human potential, the humanitarian and respect for the planet. With that, the questions mentioned previously—setting aside the one on religion—are engrained within my consciousness. Sometimes I think it would be easier if they weren’t, if I could turn my back. But I can’t, even as exhausting as it’s become in the last few years. The questions are swirling around all of us, coming from every direction, calling continually for us to define Who We Are.
Aside from the many environmental issues, immigration is at the forefront for me, having written of it before in regard to Francisco Cantú’s book The Line Becomes a River. I hold great respect for the many who are acting with decency, some with great sacrifice, to do what they can, seeing those in need as people—not chips in a political game.
In October, the Prescott United Methodist Church and others in the local interfaith community, League of Women Voters, Prescott Indivisible and Prescott Peacebuilders sponsored an immigration panel. I went because I really wanted to know how the question was being answered locally. Representation on the panel was wide-ranging, covering a lot of ground. Of the invitations extended, we learned that only the Prescott Police Department declined to send a representative as panel member.
These are the key points offered from those on the panel.
Saul Fein is a Holocaust survivor. Born in Romania, he emigrated to Argentina in early WWII, finally coming to the US to become a citizen after the mandatory five-year wait period. He made these important statements.
Emigration spells persecution. People don’t leave their homes unless they’re threatened significantly.
A member of the local immigrant community, who had come from Mexico 25 years ago, spoke of life as an immigrant seeking citizenship in the US. The tears she could not hold back, her shaking body, communicated more than words ever could.
Dan Streeter, Superintendent of the Humboldt Unified School District, the largest in Yavapai County, cited the 14th Amendment, Civil Rights, Family Rights and Privacy Acts related to protection, and that schools are prohibited from denying students access based on immigration status. He was reassuring in that he said, This is not a political issue for schools. This is a child issue for schools. That was a relief, but then he also stated concerns about children coming to school hungry, or not at all, as families avoid available assistance out of fear—a valid one [my comment].
Photo credit: Doug Iverson.
Laura Rambikur is an adjunct professor at Boston University’s School of Theology teaching graduate level courses on immigration and theology. She also works as a clinical therapist, serving survivors of torture, for the International Rescue Committee in Phoenix. She spoke of history and what makes it important today.
Family separation links all the way back to the transatlantic slave trade. What we’re experiencing today is baked into how this country really came to be. Immigration in this country is always been linked along racial lines, as well as economic empowerment for very specific groups of people in positions of power.
We can’t begin to have a conversation on immigration until we recognize the history we participate in. The theological concept of Manifest Destiny is taught in our schools: the right to take advantage of, to conquer and to expand.
This led westward expansion and cultural development specifically in the Southwest. This is important when thinking of boundaries and borders, especially when considering tribal communities that have been here more than 3000 years. Until the 1930s, tribal membership numbers were kept in the Arizona Game and Wildlife [designation]. Until 1970s, Native Americans had to pass a literacy test to have the right to vote. Immigration has always been about who is counted and who is not, always along racial lines.
Today politicians use theology [quoting scripture out of context] in a very public way that affirms children being ripped from the arms of their parents.
How do we participate in these policies whether we are aware of them or not?
Ella Rawls, daughter of an immigrant, is an immigration attorney working with low income immigrants in southern Arizona. Ella went through the types of visas and application process. For some, it may take 12 years.
Now in San Diego and El Paso, when they present at the border, they are no longer allowed into the US. They get a court date and are forced to go back to Mexico to wait. Courts are secretive and do not allow legal observers to view what’s going on. The level of success is very low unless they have access to immigration lawyers, who are often hard to reach and, if not working for a nonprofit, very expensive.
Sue Lefebvre is the author of No More Deaths and representative of the humanitarian organization by the same name based in southern Arizona. Their mission is: to end death and suffering in the Mexico–US borderlands through civil initiative: people of conscience working openly and in community to uphold fundamental human rights. More information on their website. They have especially been in the news over the last few years for search and rescue efforts in the desert, and providing aid by leaving water, food and blankets on migrant trails. Volunteers have been arrested while carrying out their duties according to their charter. Dr. Scott Warren was put on trial in federal court for harboring undocumented migrants, a felony, which ended in a hung jury. Some of the charges were dropped. But, as I’m writing this, he has entered retrial in Tucson and faces 10 years in prison if convicted. You can follow a daily log of the trial here.
Sue spoke about the impact on those living along the border, and hardships and deaths of migrants.
In 1994 NAFTA between the US, Canada and Mexico came into being and destroyed the cotton market in Mexico. Farmers began to move north. In addition, in 1994, they tightened measures at border entry. Many more began attempting to cross through the desert. Before 1994, there were a few deaths in the desert. In 2000 there were 1,600,000 arrests and 260 people died in the Arizona desert [and it’s kept climbing].
Photo credit: No More Deaths.
Elea Ziegelbaum is a graduate of Prescott College and community organizer from northern Arizona who has focused on migrant and climate justice since high school. She spent several months on a research project collecting data on immigration enforcement in Yavapai County. In her talk she especially focused on the 287(g) program, an agreement between ICE and the Yavapai Sheriff Department. Few in the audience knew what she was talking about.
That’s because it’s secretive. It authorizes local law enforcement to conduct immigration enforcement, the highest level of collaboration possible, with ICE.
This is a completely voluntary agreement.
The main emphasis is to elevate detentions and deportations in members of the immigrant and undocumented community in any given area by creating a tight web that increases people’s chances of being arrested and deported.
Yavapai County has had the 287(g) agreement since 2008. The impact is hard to determine because the records are kept under wraps. They are not open to sharing arrest and deportation data. So, this is a conservative number. Since 2008, 1812 arrests can be confirmed. Again, a conservative number. Considering how small our communities are, even this is a sizeable impact that has torn families apart.
Diane Iverson, children’s book author and illustrator, opened the panel with a prayer she’d written. By the time she’d said the last words, tears were slipping down my cheeks…because, as a collective, we’ve fallen so short of the ideals she mentioned, and so many have closed their hearts.
Prayer for the Immigrant
Oh God, whose name is love, we have a statue on our shore. She lifts her flame heavenward in a way that makes us proud to be American. Please make us worthy of her lofty ideals. Give us hearts willing to share the blessings of this country.
Welcome into your peace the father and his child, face down on the river’s edge, who longed for the life we sometimes take for granted. Give us the will to free the little ones from their cages and into the arms of their loved ones.
Be present with all those who work to create and enforce laws, that our nation may be both just and compassionate. Open our hearts that we may remember our own immigration story. For we were strangers in the land of Egypt, and yet here we are, in the comfort and safety of this room and this country by your abundant grace. Amen.
So, we are left with the questions mentioned in the beginning whose answers provide a platform to live by…
What does it mean to be human? How do we want to live? Who will we be to each other?
Imagine a people whose origins were once lost to time but who are now thought to have come from northwest India…who—in their own region—endured plunder, massacre and enslavement over 500 years and beyond at the hands of foreign rulers. The result finally creating a diaspora, spread over the world, in search of home…over 1500 years to present day.
When doors were shut to them, the road and their culture endured. It was a way of life. They were so close knit—for mere survival—that, for many of their present-day groups, it’s still a taboo to associate with outsiders except for livelihood…when they themselves are considered so. They’re communal, strict about their traditions and syncretic religion. They’re known for passionate song, music and dance, having influenced jazz, flamenco, and even classical music. They are mostly entertainers, artisans, laborers and trades people. Along with the Jewish people, they were the first target for annihilation by the Nazis, and their women underwent forced sterilization. Despite this, their culture maintains the heady expression of freedom, along with protection of their own.
For the rest of the world, they largely retain an air of mystique and are reviled or barely tolerated. Objects of fear. After all, they live outside the mainstream. They’re different. How can “other” be good?
Their names for themselves vary depending on country—Romanichal (England), Romansæl (Norway and Denmark), Sinti (Germanic countries), Manush (France), Kalo (Spain, Wales and Finland)—or clans—the Kalderash, Machvaya, Boyash, Lovari and others.
The Romani or Roma people are known to non-Roma by a number of names depending where they are: gitans, ciganos, zingari,gíftoi and others, along with the derogatory term gypsy.
Dispersed as the Roma are, in late May, from great distances, they stream into a diminutive French town in the Camargue on the Mediterranean Sea. In a massive gathering, they come to venerate, celebrate and reunite through the passions of devotion, music and processional.
For it is here the three Marys, Sarah—and some say—Lazarus and Maximin landed safely on the shores of Gaul in their tiny boat, site of the present-day Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer. To the Roma she is known as Sara-la-Kali, Sara the Black, their patron saint, an adolescent Egyptian maid who accompanied the Marys. To others, Saint Sarah is the daughter of The Magdalene and Jesus.
And we will be there…women on pilgrimage of spiritual travel…sourcing the ways of love and light. We will be there for the music, dance, making our own prayers as we witness Sara-la-Kali…Saint Sarah in her glorious vestments carried from the church on the shoulders of the Roma, accompanied by the famous Camargue white horses, into the sea.
In Latcho Drom—meaning Safe Journey—you can catch a glimpse of this passion toward the end. Latcho Drom is a 1993 documentary about the Roma by filmmaker Tony Gatlif, himself Roma. This film is a cinematographic masterpiece telling the story of a people through song, dance, music and community. It subliminally tracks their geographic diaspora until you finally realize the whole by the end of the film.
This version of the documentary includes sporadic English subtitles of lyrics, just enough to emphasize the beauty and—later—the poignancy of the scenes.
In one with exuberant music and celebration that continues late into the night until the fire has burned out, a man sings and gestures first to a woman in their circle and then to the moon…
…I have placed my bed in a delicious spot. How can I sleep without you?
…In the grounds of my coffee cup, I see your image…It drives me mad…
And much later in scenes toward the end…
…We are cursed to wander all our lives…Deliver us from our trials…We fled from hate…No one will ever change our way of life…Me? I am a black bird who has taken flight…
Latcho Drom may be viewed in its entirety streaming online for free. This is a haunting, inspirational depiction of a beleaguered people with a rich heritage not widely known. Highly recommend. 1 hour, 38 minutes.
I stumbled across a brief note on Olive Oatman researching something else, and read The Blue Tatoo to learn the full history relating to what occurred from 1850 and continuing on well beyond her death in 1903. Olive Oatman’s name became inseparably intertwined with that of the Mojave and Yavapai Indians, a tragic story for all on a number of levels. The complete truth remains elusive. It varied significantly depending on who told the story and when…even becoming an episode of Death Valley Days, the old TV show. The Blue Tattoo may well be the most accurate and comprehensive account, the author Margot Mifflin having depended on historical documents, family diaries, letters and interviews.
In 1850 a large group of Mormons left Independence, Missouri headed to the Southwest. Their numbers went through several splits as different factions sought to take over and redirect their destination. Until finally, the Oatmans—with seven children spread between the ages of 1 to 17 and mother pregnant—were the sole travelers in the Sonoran Desert on a 190-mile trail well known for its extreme desolation and danger to whites, frequently attacked by tribes living in the area. The father Royce Oatman, described in the book as a reckless piece of work, knowingly put his family’s lives at great risk. His actions had dire consequences.
About 100 miles from what is now Yuma, Arizona, the family was surprised by a small group said to be Yavapai Indians, often mistaken for Apaches. They asked for food. Royce refused, and the family was massacred with the exception of Olive, Mary Ann and Lorenzo, ages 14, 7 and 15, respectively. The Yavapai took Olive and Mary Ann, along with the family’s few cows and oxen. Lorenzo, who was severely beaten, had rolled down a ravine and was left for dead.
Thus began the unfolding of events detailed in The Blue Tattoo: the terrible year with the Yavapai, their trade sought by the Mojave, Olive’s assimilation into Mojave life over a 5-year period, her “rescue” and what transpired over the next decades. I won’t go into details and instead leave them for you to read.
But there are a few things I do want to say.
The author focuses on the fact that it would be highly unusual for the Yavapai to conduct such raids except on their traditional rivals the Pima and Maricopa. She puts it to the reason of late winter hardship made more desperate by drought. But cannot say why they chose to abduct the girls since they would be more mouths to feed in dire times. They were, however, mistreated, worked to the bone as servants and last in line to receive what food there was.
The Mojave were farmers who lived tucked away in a little traveled area near what today is Needles, California. They were kind to the girls and likely saved their lives. Olive’s traditionally tattooed chin was an indicator of her assimilation. They were made part of the tribal leader’s family and taken into their clan. When a surveying party headed by a Lt. Whipple came to the village over a several-day period and were made welcome, the girls did not make their presence known or try to approach the party to escape. Within a year though, due to rumors of a white girl living with the Mojave, a Quechan messenger from Fort Yuma came demanding Olive’s return upon threat of annihilation of the tribe.
Shortly after Olive’s arrival in Fort Yuma, she was taken under the wing of Royal Stratton, a Methodist minister, who exploited her for his own gain. He wrote a book, liberally changing the story, adding manufactured details meant to titillate. He set Olive up on the lecture circuit where she traveled for years. She became famous.
It reminded me very much of the same kind of travesty befalling the healer Santa Teresita of Cabora when she was deported from Mexico to the United States, and her many years’ exploitation by a so-called medical consortium.
I understand the terrible conflict Olive must have faced brought back into a society that held the prevailing message: The only good Indian is a dead one. Having now lost two families, she must have been wondering what story to tell at all: the one white society was salivating to hear or the truth. She contradicted herself frequently.
One of the many things that saddens me so about this tragic story is her betrayal of the Mojave people who were kind to her—when she told the version that they had enslaved her. Within a couple of years, they were removed from their villages, split and confined to two reservations: one near Parker, Arizona and the other to the Colorado River Indian Reservation near Needles. Their small numbers lessened.
Margot Mifflin cites, The Mojave homeland was literally wiped off the grid. Area maps printed after 1859 no longer identified the site of the Mohave villages; instead, the region, dubbed Fort Mojave, was distinguished by a military post…to protect westward bound emigrants from the Mojave Indians.
From the Yavapai-Prescott Tribe website: There are three primary groups of Yavapai existing today – they are located at Fort McDowell, Camp Verde and Prescott.
The Blue Tattoo is widely available in print, ebook and audiobook. I read a copy from my local library.
This is less of a review and more of a story about how I came to learn of the book Neither Wolf Nor Dog, and then my process through attempts to understand its full, often uncomfortable meaning.
About this time a year ago I received an invitation, really it was delivered as a demand, from a Lakota elder that I come to South Dakota to receive teachings. It came at a time I was continually traveling, barely home but longing to be. When I thanked him and attempted to arrange a time that made it easier for me, he became insistent. We finally settled on a time. For me, it meant giving up the only travel-free week I’d had in some time. I wasn’t sure what this was all about, and didn’t know the elder. The prior contact we’d had was relatively brief, a long phone call. I finally decided it was something I was being called to do.
I would like to say it was a meaningful journey and a great sharing passed between us. Instead, our time ended abruptly. I left with even more confusion than I’d periodically felt over those days and a high level of frustration, angry at myself that I’d been talked into coming. Clearly, there was much he kept tightly wrapped. Although, it sometimes emerged in ways I wasn’t used to dealing with, much less how to respond adequately. But I was going directly to another commitment, one that mattered a lot to me. So I tucked the strong emotions away and chalked the whole thing up to a mystery of the Universe.
Before I made that trip to South Dakota, I’d mentioned it to a friend. She said there was a book she thought would be good for me to read. I dutifully ordered Neither Wolf Nor Dog but didn’t have time to read it before I left. It found its place on my bookshelf where it languished. I hadn’t known it was made into a movie. Some months later it was being shown where I live, and I followed the strong urge to see it.
The film hadn’t progressed very far when I began to get the eerie feeling of dejá vu. An author from Minnesota, Kent Nerburn, received a cryptic phone call out of the blue from a woman saying her Lakota grandfather wanted to see him. No reason given but delivered with a sense of urgency. Some months later, Nerburn—as he came to be called—finally was able to free up some time to make the long trip to the isolated place the elder Dan called home. There were few explanations given to Nerburn, punctuated with a lot of silences. Quickly, Dan’s younger Lakota friend Grover was introduced into the story, a caustic individual with barely contained anger frequently directed toward Nerburn in clipped tones and looks. Frankly, I wondered why Nerburn stayed around. I think he did, too. He wrestled with his own responses and ultimately decided to let things play out. Plus, he had the nice guy syndrome going.
I experienced repeated slaps in the face watching all this. It was visceral. When Dan and Grover threw Nerburn in the car and took off on a little explained, exhaustive trip across the Dakotas, my forearms puckered into chicken skin that didn’t go away until the film ended. There were just too many parallels. The places they went, the flavor of the discourse. Showing rather than telling. When Dan broke silences to hold forth on what he wanted Nerburn to learn of the Lakota people…what he wanted Nerburn to put out there in writing… Well, I don’t have words for what I felt.
Clearly, I was not going to be allowed to tuck away my still strong emotions and bewilderment about the journey I took to the Dakotas. I can only believe unseen forces were taking me by the hand to engage with all of it.
So I started to read the book. It was not easy going for me. I could only read a few pages at a time. Then I’d have to digest the contents. Most of the things covered in Neither Wolf Nor Dog I knew about in some form: the atrocities done to Native peoples by whites, cultural differences in beliefs and values…and then there’s appropriation of Native traditions by white people searching to find spiritual grounding…or those who seek to do good but hold a hidden agenda. But I hadn’t found anything to the depth or in the frame presented by Dan, and even Grover, in this writing. The book naturally goes much deeper than the movie ever could.
It took me over two months to read Neither Wolf Nor Dog. I stepped back numerous times to examine the level of my own assumptions and awareness, as well as my motivations behind the work I’ve devoted twenty years of my life. It was a necessary, intensive process. I can’t say it’s over. Instead, it’s all percolating some place inside. I don’t know what will finally emerge.
Neither Wolf Nor Dog is book one of a trilogy that recounts the story of an Indian elder, the surrounding Lakota community, and the white man who somehow has been called to be part of the Truth-naming. The Wolf at Twilight is about Dan’s search for his long-lost sister Yellow Bird who, kidnapped from her home some eighty years before, never returned from the Indian boarding school. The Girl Who Sang to the Buffalo brings back the things many have forgotten: the meaning of dreams, the abilities to engage with nature and speak with animals. Sadly, it uncovers the existence of a secret asylum and events that took place there.
Kent Nerburn says these books are fictional accounts of actual events. The truths are in each sentence and have global application. This isn’t merely history. It’s today.
The books are available on Amazon or elsewhere. The movie may still be making the rounds in theaters. Hopefully, it will be offered streaming soon.
With many thanks to Karen Marchetti who turned me on to Neither Wolf Nor Dog. Without this guidebook I may never integrate the odyssey I was strangely called to undertake.
In 2009 when I heard a reporter on NPR infer that the Indigenous peoples of the Andes were addicts because they use coca, a nutrient in its natural form, I was incensed. I was compelled to speak out in my newsletter and again years later on this blog. We have too many incidents of dominant cultures misunderstanding those who are different than their own, supporting marginalization.
I met dear friends Dr. Emma Cucchi Luini, a humanitarian doctor who modeled herself after Dr. Albert Schweitzer, and Christo Deneumostier Grill, her research partner, in 2001. Finally, their legacy is receiving more recognition. The Coca Museum in the San Blas District of Cusco is the location of what was their second storefront K’uychiwasi Qosqo. The original storefront was located within the walls of Koricancha in Cusco.
Without their dream and persistent research, alternative coca products like candies, soaps, even ice cream, would not be flourishing all over Peru now. All were derived from Emma’s and Christo’s determination and products to give coca farmers other choices than dealing with narco traffickers or the Peruvian government who paid them a pittance for their crops. They won the coveted Slow Food Award in 2002. Others took notice and started copying their products. Although, in my opinion, none of them match the quality of those from K’uychiwasi. In the process though, nutritional coca products are more available for wider consumption.
Both Emma and Christo have gone on to other things having accomplished their mission of training the Quechua staff to take over, and encouraging the product spread as they did. But the story of their beginnings should not be forgotten. It’s one of strong intent in the face of much adversity. For that reason, I documented it in my 2004 book Standing Stark. I’m sharing an excerpt here.
…The bulletin board on the wall just outside the tiny shop front had some very detailed information posted about preventing high-altitude sickness. Alongside was an article on Coca-Cola. I thought it mighty strange that a display partnered the story of the evolution of a commercial product with data on medical advice. Then I realized that the common denominator was the use of the coca leaf. The sign over the door said K’uychiwasi Qosqo, Rainbow House of Cusco. Curious, I glanced inside the small space and was invited in by the brightly colored wares…
A diminutive woman wearing clothing that seemed to swamp her small frame and a large brimmed black hat covered with folk art pins busied herself with something behind the counter. As I walked in, she glanced up, immediately broke into a big smile, her eyes, crinkling up behind wire-rimmed glasses, greeting me. I took a leisurely turn through the shop looking at cookies, candies, teas and artwork. By then, my friend had caught up with me and came in to investigate as well.
Seeing our apparent interest, Emma Cucchi Luini introduced herself and began to tell us of K’uychiwasi Qosqo’s mission. The central purpose of this nonprofit organization was to educate about the uses of the coca leaf and its connection to the Andean culture. Actually, rather than connection, Emma emphasized that the coca leaf was the backbone of this ancient tradition, its practices and health of the native people.
Beleaguered with the discovery of a chemical extraction known as cocaine, the sacred coca leaf is now being threatened with extinction. Through tighter and tighter governmental controls and concurrent illicit operations, the simple coca farmer has been squeezed. Trying to scratch out a meager existence raising the same crops their ancestors have raised for centuries, these people are being directly affected by an encroaching Western culture in which a number of people substitute nose candy and greed for real experience.
In the last couple of decades, the national governments of Peru and Bolivia, pushed by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, have targeted the coca leaf as the enemy, totally disregarding its cultural and quite innocent, but important, use by the indigenous peoples. The chewing of coca leaves is standard practice among the natives in the Andes, not to give them a high, but to increase their stamina for living and working in an environment that is often very difficult. Instead of inducing any undue alteration in their normal consciousness, which the coca leaf cannot relay at all in its natural form, its nutritional makeup provides them with energy and a plethora of nutrients not as available elsewhere in their sparse diet. Also ignored is its elevated status in the spiritual traditions and rituals of the Andean Indians. Mama Coca is the plant spirit invoked and Her leaves used in divinations, blessings and ceremonies. An analogy would be the chalice of wine symbolizing the blood of Christ in the communion ritual of many Christian religions.
As Emma so aptly put it, “There are many, many alcoholics in the world. Do they destroy the grape?”
That question certainly does make one think, particularly relative to what other motivations, political or otherwise, could possibly exist for the shortsighted methods used for eradicating cocaine trafficking through a focus on coca crops…
…Enter Emma. With the in-country support of two Dominican friars, this Italian woman founded K’uychiwasi Qosqo in 1999. Christo Deneumostier Grill, a young Peruvian man, has since joined her in her efforts. In addition to educating about the traditional and medicinal uses, they research new ways to use the coca leaf. In their quarters they help women, girls and young men in need by training them to produce cookies, candy and folk art using the coca leaf as an ingredient. They look forward to eventually create additional goods such as soaps…
…Emma and Christo are currently making small but painstaking steps within the bureaucracy of the Peruvian government toward wider distribution of their coca wares, the regulation of coca being tremendously tight. The only export of the leaf currently allowed is to the Coca-Cola Corporation in the United States. Ultimately, the success of Emma and Christo will benefit the Andean culture and help to maintain the growing of the coca leaf by offering products to be used by mainstream society.
As she finished her monologue, Emma shrugged and opened her hands in a characteristically Italian way and said, “I’m Italian. This cause doesn’t even belong to me.”
Reviewing our encounter in my mind later, I thought to myself, “This is a cause that belongs to the world. It belongs to us all. Emma chose to take it up.”
Emma’s story continued with a recounting of her remarkable life and humanitarian service that took her to dangerous, remote areas in Haiti, Sudan and Bolivia. It was deep in the jungles of Bolivia that she first met the coca farmers who befriended her and further informed her path. They educated her in the chewing of coca and told her of their difficult lives. When she became their outspoken advocate she was thrown in jail in La Paz, beaten and deported to Italy. But that didn’t stop her.
Both Emma and Christo embodied intent and humility. To me, they’re primary examples of the many unsung heroes the world over who believe in something and get it done.
For the complete story and others on the path of intent, read Standing Stark.
There are some things held in secrecy because they’re too sacred to tell. Or if uttered at all, are whispered in the night in silent places. There are others whose truths are hidden because to openly relate them at all risks great punishment. Or they’re distorted through misunderstanding by a culture that cannot fathom a different meaning than their own.
I’ve admitted to being greatly distressed by the ongoing acts against truth, understanding and compassion in the current political climate and otherwise. And truly attempting to find grace and balance for myself within it all. I do believe that the Universe does deliver when we open in that way. Hence, some salvation dropped in my lap.
I stumbled upon a 2009 interview by Krista Tippett, host of On Being, of Ernie LaPointe, a direct lineal descendant of Tatanka Iyotake. Closest translation from Lakota being Buffalo Bull Who Sits Down—not Sitting Bull.
In the interview, Ernie LaPointe relayed some of the oral history passed to him by his late mother, Angelique Spotted Horse-LaPointe, about his great-grandfather and their traditions. I was so moved I listened to the two-hour, unedited version of the podcast twice—and then bought his book Sitting Bull: His Life and Legacy so I could return, again and again, to points that particularly inspire me.
The parts about the Indian Offenses Act of 1883 outlawing sacred practices, all the betrayals and ramifications generated a great deal of sadness for me that is hard to put aside. But within that is an example of a man who held utmost integrity and compassion in his heart. The long-term wellbeing of his people informed his decisions. History calls him a war chief when really he was a great spiritual leader. He was killed on Standing Rock Indian Reservation for who he was. But his Spirit lives on. He was humble, preferring to be known as a Sun Dancer. Not a chief. As a child he was called “slow” by some, a misrepresentation of one who notices everything, weighs all sides to come to deliberate decision.
Here’s one about knowing when to fall on your sword and the good karma that comes when rash decisions are avoided. When Tatanka Iyotake, then called by his childhood name Jumping Badger, was 7 years old he was among a band of young boys being tested for their skills. First they had to make the perfect arrow and then were told to hunt and return with a beautiful bird. He and another boy spied a bird at the same time. The other boy let his arrow fly but it missed and lodged in a tree branch. Tatanka Iyotake offered to help the boy by shooting it down with his own arrow. He succeeded but the boy’s arrow broke when it hit the ground. The boy became angry and blamed him. Rather than get into an argument about the whole thing, Tatanka Iyotake gave the boy his own arrow, which he’d labored over to perfect. When their teacher heard through others about the incident, he gifted him with a full set of bow and arrows.
Perhaps my favorite story is this one that foretold his future as a great spiritual leader. When he was 10 years old, his uncle Four Horns tested his tracking and hunting skills for buffalo, a dangerous undertaking with the potential of stampede. Tatanka Iyotake rode into the center of the herd, aimed at a huge bull, let his arrow fly and brought it down. Proud of his nephew, Four Horns was also angered at the dangerous risk he took. When asked why he didn’t go for the cow at the edge of the herd, he responded that he saw the cow. But he also saw her calf. If he’d killed the cow, her calf would die, too.
Four Horns guided him through the ritual to thank the Great Spirit then directed him to run get this mother and the other women to butcher the bull, which he did. But not before he asked his mother to be sure to save good portions for a widow and her children who lived nearby.
From this incident, which displayed his foresight and generosity, Jumping Badger gained his adult name Tatanka Iyotake, Buffalo Bull Who Sits Down.
Stories like these and other sharing about Lakota ways were so good to hear. It was also disheartening to learn how things changed due to outside influences.
Counting coup, the striking of an enemy with a stick, was as a visual way of settling differences and gaining honor. It was after the white man came that young warriors started killing instead.
During vision quest the young men would often see colors that would then be worn as protection, a part of spiritual practice. Not “war paint”—a measure of disrespect by those quick to misunderstand. Ernie LaPointe spoke of himself and others who carried PTSD as a spiritual wounding because they didn’t wear their colors to protect their Spirit.
The reverence toward women is woven into the culture. The belief is, through their menstrual cycle, women go through a natural, monthly purification process. The wisdom they gain in the process is enlarged upon throughout their lives. So, while the men may consider a direction, the final decision is not made until it is placed in front of the women, who weigh in with their wisdom.
What I’ve shared here is only a token of all I heard and read. For the full richness, view the full interview or listen to it on Sound Cloud.
With so much appreciation to Ernie LaPointe for telling the stories of his great-grandfather, even in the controversy directed toward him for doing so. Because of him, I’ll continue to watch for the leader who Carries the People in the Heart. We’ll know that person by their name. Not because they proclaim it. But because the people have granted it by virtue of the actions that distinguished the honor.
We drove along the South Rim tourist area of the Grand Canyon and wound our way to the west on a dirt road through tall pines. Leaving the throngs of people behind, with much anticipation, we entered a different world. During opening circle for our spiritual travel program to Hopi just the night before, I’d let the folks know an opportunity had presented itself.
The Grand Canyon is sacred to the Hopi. They emerged into this middle world in ancient times from a point deep in its interior, and the Havasupai people have called it home for at least a thousand years. A relationship exists between these peoples. So when my Hopi partner Char Joseph contacted the Havasupai Tribe inquiring if there was someone who would speak to us about their ways, they were happy to oblige saying…all too often they were forgotten.
We pulled into Supai Camp, once the tribal winter home on the rim where just a few remain. The traditional dwellings are long gone. In 1934 the National Park Service (NPS) tore down or burned the homes without notice to the residents who were away at the time. I Am the Grand Canyon documents more than a century’s devastation of the Havasupai at the hands of the US federal government, NPS, Grand Canyon Association and Sierra Club. In the book, Havasupai Mack Putesoy testified how their homes were burned to the ground with all their belongings inside. Effie Hanna said she lost things she’d been saving all her life. In place of traditional homes on their aboriginal lands, the NPS built cabins and forced the residents to pay rent.
However, I knew none of this at the time we approached the home where we’d been invited.
Havasupai girl, circa 1900. Photo credit unknown.
We were greeted at the door by Colleen Kaska, daughter of Daniel Kaska who was chairman of the Havasupai Tribe in the 1970s. Elder Daniel is now quite frail but welcomed us. He wanted to tell us the story of the Havasupai, People of the Blue-Green Waters named after the beautiful canyon waters running through the area they now mostly live. Colleen shared in the storytelling.
Their aboriginal lands once encompassed areas from the Grand Canyon to the Colorado River and the San Francisco Peaks west to Ashfork and Seligman. In the warm months they lived in what is now known as Cataract Canyon in the interior of the Grand Canyon and grew crops. In winter months they dwelt on the rim in order to hunt.
Once the Santa Fe railroad came along and interest in the Grand Canyon grew as a tourist and recreational site the Havasupai were squeezed and began to suffer. In 1882 President Arthur declared the majority of their aboriginal land belonged to the American public. The People of the Blue-Green Waters lost their plateau hunting-herding lands and many thousands of acres. They were barred from rim watering holes by cattlemen and the NPS…and relegated to Cataract Canyon. This narrow 518-acre tract doesn’t see sun during winter months, and historically endured flash floods that sometimes took out homes and people.
Colleen had been relating this history in a matter-of-fact way. The more she spoke, the sadder I felt. I had no idea what we would learn when we came through this family’s door. But I didn’t anticipate such a story. I’d thought of the NPS and Sierra Club as entities that conserved beauty…not those who wrought devastation upon peoples of the land (I thought) they were to protect. I said, “This all must be heartbreaking.”
Colleen paused, became still. She had a faraway look in her eyes. “Yes. But when I walk our aboriginal lands⎯the ones taken from us⎯I know it is of my people. My ancestors are there.” The tone of her voice made clear that knowledge gave her strength.
Elder Daniel spoke haltingly of the century-long struggles to be recognized by the federal government, to regain any of the land taken from them, including his own personal involvement as chairman in this quest. Finally, in 1976 they succeeded to a small degree: 185 acres returned to the Havasupai with 95,300 acres named “Havasupai Use Lands” but controlled by the NPS.
K’iche’ Maya Daykeeper Apab’yan Tew was present as a sponsored guest on our spiritual travel program. He wanted to know about Havasupai ceremonies. He asked Daniel, “Do you have a story about some time of a spiritual nature you remember?” Daniel shook his head. It seemed the focus for so long had been a fight for acknowledgment, some recognition of their worth, that there was no energy left for anything else.
Mike Weddle⎯Kenosis Spirit Keepers board member, Daykeeper and musician⎯visiting from Maryland was able to join our group for just two days. He brought his flute. I invited Mike to offer Daniel and Colleen a prayer song. The music was sweet. When it came to an end, there was silence. Then Daniel began to sing in words and tones that entered every one of us. The energy seemed to shift.
When we all expressed how it touched us, he uttered softly, “It’s a funeral song.” And then, “We are a lost tribe.” It was painful to hear of such loss.
Our visit was over. We formed a circle outside under the pines and invited Colleen to join us. Elder Daniel was unable to do so. Apab’yan offered a Maya prayer for the People of the Blue-Green Waters and the land.
A few days later I received a note from Mike who had to leave for other business.
I think we all felt the same as elder Daniel Kaska told his story of loss and betrayal, going to Washington where no one would listen, voting against the government deal when his own people would not listen, and his final ‘I don’t know what will become of us’. When he sang his beautiful song, and then said it was a funeral song, I almost wept.
We were invited by Colleen to join a singing ceremony 8 am Saturday at Red Butte. I did go to represent us but there was no one there. There are two forest roads on each side of the Butte, but no people, no cars, and no singing.
So I climbed the switchbacks to the very top of the butte, the summit. At the very top there is a crossing with 4 paths going in the 4 cardinal directions. I’m sending a photo. Colleen called this the Supai place of origin.
I felt that in just 2 days I had been witness to the place where the Supai began and perhaps the place where they end. As there was no one else there to sing, I did the singing, and I sang the Maltyoxb’al, the [Maya] great gratitude song, for the arc of the Supai nation.
Red Butte where the Havasupai were born to this world. Photo: Mike Weddle.
Four Directions at the summit of Red Butte. Photo: Mike Weddle.
When we held our closing circle at the end of our week with the Hopi and Havasupai people, I spoke to the group.
I never know in advance how things will unfold when we hold a sacred container of pure intent. Things I can never predict come in ways that affect us all. I believe the most important thing we did during this journey was sit in respect, listen deeply to this Elder’s words and witness the grief he carries.
Sometimes that’s all we can do even in the face of our own helplessness at such recognition. And that acknowledgment matters.
Note: Elder Daniel Kaska singing recorded by Apab’yan Tew.
The Lifepath Dialogues offer an invitation toward embodiment of all that is life-affirming and the deeper meaning of sustainability. Themes are drawn from books "Calling Our Spirits Home" and "Standing Stark" and 20+ years as a conscious living mentor leading spiritual travel journeys with Indigenous Wisdom Keepers serving their communities, group and individual programs. Carla specializes in working with people who seek to live through their deeply held values. For more info see the “About” tab. The author may be reached via firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow this blog by becoming a fan on the Kenosis Facebook page.
The Lifepath Dialogues Gatherings
Topics here are meant to open conversations and self-reflection. For more information, go to the "About" page.