It was the summer of 2003. At the end of a very long week in Rochester, Minnesota. I was sitting in the office with my Mayo Clinic doctor going over the results of a multi-day poking, prodding, scanning, and testing. As he walked in I could sense a chill in the air. A foreboding if you will.
I had known and worked with Dr. P for more than 15 years. He said, “I have some bad news.” “Your liver disease has progressed to stage 4.” “There are only four stages.” We talked about the implications, prognosis, and treatment options. There were no good answers. I was in shock.
A week later I called him back and asked what he would do in my situation. He bluntly answered that he would make sure that there was not anything left undone that he wanted or needed to do. Message received.
Slowly, people who would be impacted by my demise found out. One of them was a Lakota woman, named Toonie, who worked with us as a contract group leader at Onsite Workshops and lived on the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota. One day she called and asked if I would be willing to participate in a healing ceremony on the Rosebud. Apparently she had sought out and got permission for me to be included in one that they were doing for others. I instantly agreed.
It was not because I thought I could be healed by a ceremony, but if my life were ending it was comforting for me to be close to the people, traditions, values, rituals, and common sense that I had been gifted with; that I credit for saving my ability to love and feel and have faith over the previous 27 years.
I say gifted because about that time in my life, the world I grew up in started falling apart for me. A time where all of the things I had been taught growing up as a good American began to be exposed by the political realities, religious “truths”, notions of justice, inequality, racism, sexism, etc. What I had been taught did not compute any longer with what I knew to be true for me. Holding on to those beliefs was literally killing me.
Though it makes sense as I look back on it, it made no sense to me at the time, that as I moved away from what I was supposed to believe, I was drawn to the philosophy, history, wisdom, experience, and simplicity of the people Native to America. I became a student of their way of seeing life, myself, others, my world, the universe. They originally had no word for religion. It was a way they lived. No need for a term to describe it.
Such an interest led me to many opportunities to interact with the Native peoples of America. A huge boost in those interactions came when my wife and I took over a business located in Rapid City South Dakota. A business that provided the opportunity to be with many Native people. 10% of our clients were from the 5 reservations in the region. A number of times I was invited to participate in one or another of their ceremonies and did so. It was always an amazing experience. That business is where I met Toonie.
Toonie’s invitation took me to the Rosebud. I was to attend a healing ceremony, for myself and a few others. I was not sure what to expect, but I was told to not be late. I wasn’t.
When I arrived, we were told that we would be involved in an Inipi, a sweat lodge ceremony. I didn’t know anything about that or what to do but followed instructions and directions. I don’t remember very much about what actually happened while we were in the sweat lodge, but I know there were prayers, and songs, and smoke, and the drum.
Near the end, the leader of the ceremony told me that each month for the next year, each full moon, I was to prepare 100 prayer ties. Each tie would represent a person in my life that I would offer a prayer for. I was not to pray for myself.
I was told to return on this day and to this place one year later. I can’t say that I believed that anything would actually happen for my liver, but it felt good somehow to be there and participate in that space and place and with those people.
Now, a list of 100 people to pray for is quite a list. After about 30, the only people left were the people I knew but didn’t like. I offered them a prayer of good health, or happiness, or peace to them all. The effect of that was amazing.
Each full moon, no matter where I was, I did as I had been instructed. Sometimes friends helped me tie the small tobacco filled ties. 25 red, 25 white, 25 black, 25 yellow. All on a contiguous string. Sometimes I did it alone, but I did it. 1,200 prayer ties
One year later, I returned as I had been instructed. I had asked if two of my friends could come with me and was told that they could. Again, I don’t remember much about the actual Inipi ceremony, but I do remember that near the very end I was asked to put all the prayer ties on the heated stones and as they burst into flames the leader told us that the prayers offered were granted as they were made, and the smoke of the burning ties would carry them all once again to the creator to bless everyone again.
That was it. Nothing about “now you are healed”. Nothing was said about me or why I was there at all.
9 months later, I was once again at Mayo Clinic. I was meeting with Dr. P going over the results of the tests they had conducted. I had noticed that they had asked me to repeat a couple of tests that week, but I was imagining they were finding bad news and wanted to confirm it.
Dr. P started off our meeting by saying, “I don’t believe it, but there is absolutely no evidence that you have or ever have had liver disease. We can’t find anything, except for a slight enlargement of one of the veins going into your liver.” He went on to say, “we re-ran the tests just to make sure, sometimes this kind of thing just inexplicably happens.”
“Inexplicable”, I thought. All I could say is, “Are you sure?” And with his reassurance, “Thank You.”
He was not the kind of person I could tell the story of the Inipi and the Lakota medicine man. Few people are. I’ve told very few others. And it could all just be a coincidence. Who knows?
What I do know is that the Native Peoples with their many gifts and in so many ways have saved and nurtured the essence of who I am.
Here I am 17 years later. Liver is still a good one. Mayo stopped running tests years ago.
I have always felt deeply indebted to those who have saved my life in so many ways. I have set up a series of seminars conducted by a Lakota father and daughter who share the teachings of the Lakota that have been so helpful to me. The next one will be February 21st. The topic is, you may have guessed, the Inipi, a ceremony of transition, of life and rebirth.