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One Road, Many Branches

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One Road, Many Branches

This weeks' essay, in many ways, continues the thread I have been developing the last two weeks of relationships among Native North Americans and people from other ethnic groups. The topic was thrown at my feet when I found a strident protester for a benefit I was doing in a small town for the local Unitarian Church. He raised a hue and cry about my being a "New Age Indian, white shaman" and selling his culture for personal gain. We offered him an hour to present his point of view and invited him to come to the weekend workshop, but he didn't come. My last two essays were largely in response to his criticism.

Today, however, I want to raise a more affirmative topic that of unity. Perhaps because I'm sitting in the shade, in a moment of rest, on the second day of purification, for my first sundance of the season. I'm feeling more related to everything, including my critics, and am still hoping that they will read the book they are criticizing (just released, Healing the Mind through the Power of Story: the Promise of Narrative Psychiatry, Rochester, VT: Bear and Company).

In our evening discussions here at the sundance camp, we came to some conclusions about these inter-ethnic matters that are worthy of presenting. Prior to 1975, for instance, all Native American ceremony was illegal, so there was a necessary secrecy and exclusivity, lest one be arrested. I wrote in Coyote Medicine, about Father Stone, the local priest who attended my first sweat lodge ceremony (before 1975), who was ready to declare the ceremony a Roman Catholic rite if the police appeared. He actually brought his collar into the lodge to put on if required. After 1975 (1960 in Canada), with the passage of the American Indian Freedom of Religion Act, one can imagine that there remained a lot of anger. These were the heydey of the American Indian Movement and Indian political activism. Non-Indians weren't welcome, necessarily, at sun dance or other ceremonies. This led Manny Two Feathers, for example, to start his own "mixed-blood" sundance for non pure-bloods. Before he died, Manny wrote a wonderful book called The Road to the Sundance.

Here's what we think happened, at least in one sundance camp. In the 1980s, culture became incorporated into alcohol and drug treatment programs. Those programs who served a llarge percentage of Native people began to offer sweat lodge ceremonies. They began to welcome the involvement of traditional elders. Since Federal reimbursement guidelines prevented them from treating only Native Americans, this programming became available to people of all ethnicities. Many people of European descent discovered that the Red Road, the sweat lodge ceremony, and the Sun Dance, to name a few ceremonies, were better at prevent relapse into alcohol and drug use than the conventional modalities they had previously been offered. Indians and non-Indians formed lasting bonds in treatment programs through ceremonies conducted there that continued into the larger world. We believe that treatment programs changed the exclusivity policy into inclusivity.

My own involvement mirrored that trajectory. I began by teaching professionals how to incorporate culture into their practice. Soon after that, I helped found a not-for-profit, whose mission was to fund ceremonies on reservations and in urban settings, for people who couldn't otherwise afford ceremony (they are not cheap!). We worked hard at that mission with many successes, but largely our entrance was also through drug and alcohol treatment programs.

One of our members said he had read that there would be over 300 sun dances this season across the United States (40 in South Dakota alone). I suspect that is an under-estimate. Canada would add several hundred more. Sun Dance is flourishing. Many of the people I have met at sundance proclaim the red road and all its ceremonies as what kept them alive and sober. These are people from all ethnicities, not just Native American. The majority of sundances now welcome all comers. Discrimination by ethnicity has stopped. Whites are welcome as are blacks, Chinese, and any other configuration.

Before leaving this topic, I wanted to add that I have also gained a new understanding for "white shamanism". These people in the 1970s and 1980s longed to recovery their indigenous past and their indigenous roots, and didn't know where to look. They didn't want to offend Native Americans and they didn't see many Native Americans coming forward to teach them, so they went to Siberia and discovered shamans. Michael Harner among others brought this back and invented American shamanism. Probably if ttraditional people had come forward to teach them, this would have been unnecessary, but, at the time, it was all they could do, for we all have an indigenous heritage. Sweats are still being done in Ireland and Scotland, for instance, with wonderful four directions songs in Gaelic. Sweats are done in New Zealand by Maori people. Ceremony, ritual, four directions, sweats, etc. are universal and cannot be trademarked by any one group.

Regarding our North American ways, one Onandaga elder told me, "these ways are for everyone. Creator gave them to the people to share with everyone, not just Indians. That's why I welcome everyone with love, for we are all one. His motto was one road, many branches. He also said, in explaining the differences found at each sun dance ceremony, one theology, many practices.

What is apparent here at sun dance, even by the second day of purification, with 7 days remaining, is the incredible love and support that exists for everyone. Hatred and anger has not entered these sacred grounds. We are all working together to produce a dance that is for the healing of the people. We are choosing to suffer on purpose with a purpose, so that the people who come here may be healed, so that the people for whom we are praying, can get well. I will bring people to the tree for healing my friend Julie, who suffers from newly diagnosed ovarian cancer, my friends who are suffering from severe mental and physical illnesses, my new patients for whom I wish to do more than anyone previously has ever done for them. Through our sacrifices and our prayers, these people will be helped.

What I can say to my friend who still attacks me with anger and hatred, is that it's much more pleasurable to be united as one people. It's more uplifting, it's more healing, it's more in keeping with what the elders of today wish us to be. I'm sure I'll have more to say when I write my post sundance essay next Sunday or Monday, but that's a beginning for me.

I do believe in the prophecy of His Crazy Horse, the Lakota visionary, that we are coming to a time when we will be one people, joined together by these ways. It's time for sharng and unity. Exclusivity is a thing of the past. Our sundance leader said he was sometimes criticized for serving all, but that's the way of the future he said. It's the way of love and compassion and that's what sundance is all about.

Another full circle completed itself at this dance. I met a man who had danced the last seven years where I had danced for my first four years. The leader had passed on and now his son was leading the dance. This was a wonderful completion to learn about. I also wrote a poem about the first day of purification that I will share and that will be all for this week. Time to get back to building the arbor for the dance.

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Lewis Mehl-Madrona graduated from Stanford University School of Medicine and completed residencies in family medicine and in psychiatry at the University of Vermont. He is the author of Coyote Medicine, Coyote Healing, Coyote Wisdom, and (more...)

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