At age 26 my life had fallen apart despite having faithfully, very faithfully, followed the teachings of my culture, the traditional American social contracts, and my religion, especially my religion. I was lying in a hospital bed with a pre-ulcerative condition. That’s never a good thing, but I was at significant risk as a person with hemophilia, a bleeding disorder which in those days meant if I started bleeding internally I could easily die.
My doctor suggested I must be under a lot of stress. Stress? I told him I wasn’t aware of living in an unusually stressful environment. He suggested I look closer. I did. I was. Long story short, I was experiencing the beginning of the collapse of the tower of babel of a life I had constructed, using the blueprints and materials I had been handed years before. I had dutifully followed the plans. The result was not me. I was a male version of a “Stepford Wife”. I had become a look-alike-robot who stays forever obedient, submissive, docile; a right and wrong, rigid, narrow-minded robot who dutifully allowed others to be the interpreter of all things of the world; a non-questioner (especially non-questioner) of authority. I had become a carbon copy of other “good and loyal” men my age, social class, skin color, financial tribe, and religion. Looking good on the outside. Feeling bad and dying on the inside. My soul (who I really am), was slowly being squeezed to death, (which, according to the doctrine, was a GOOD thing), by the heavy boots on my chest of others telling me what was wrong with me and how I was supposed to be living (always falling short, by the way). Looking into the eyes of men who had followed “the path” for a decade more than I and seeing death behind their eyes. The walking dead. I saw myself dutifully, very dutifully, on the way to join their ranks.
The resources I had been told would bring me happiness and wholeness and would show me “the way, the truth and the light” had failed me. I was told that I had failed IT, that IT was infallible. What I now believe is that they just didn’t know how to help. It’s sad that they couldn’t tell me, “Me too.” I was questioning things that they had no answers for. I eventually ended up leaving almost all my constructed-in-the-image-of life.
As I walked away from it all, I felt free for the first time in my life. I didn’t realize I was imprisoned until l was “free.” Like removing the rock in my shoe that I didn’t know was there until it was gone. It was amazing. The pre-ulcerative” condition vanished. My allergies, vanished. I had been allergic to my life. Who knew?
But freedom to go, do, believe, what? I had nothing or no one(s) to replace what had been. I decided that there was no such knowledge and that anyone or any group of any kind that proclaimed to “know the way” was but another version of what I had already experienced. I resolved to not waste my time looking for answers that didn’t exist.
Despite my best intentions, over the next 15 years of wandering around, without a conscious awareness that it was happening, my “desire to know” found another source of knowing and I drank from it like a man discovering an oasis in the desert. Information about what it means to be a human being. I found it accidentally, indirectly. How?
I gradually developed an ever-increasing, almost insatiable interest in the indigenous peoples of the world, especially those who were native to North America. I became fascinated and I consumed many books about their history. Their stories, their beliefs, their values, the role of humans, how they regarded their children, how they raised them, how they regarded their elders, the experiences they had with western civilization’s religious teaching. I learned of their concept of how all elements of the universe are sacred. From the sacred, vital, and irreplaceable roles young people and elders play, to how they treated those who our culture would regard as mentally ill. How they regarded health and well-being as an internal as well as external process.
Most of the information I read came from the colonizers themselves, not the indigenous people. White people whose purpose, for the most part, was to destroy with efficiency the very people and the way of life that they were reporting on. The indigenous voices were for the most part, missing. Primary sources. The letters home from soldiers who fought against them, the pioneers, priests, and ministers who first interacted with them. Their diary entries, their first-hand reports. The speeches made and conversations of the indigenous people recorded by priests and scribes. Many of the primary sources lauded aspects of indigenous cultures, even as they were actively or implicitly engaged in destroying them. For example, Benjamin Franklin observed that there had not seen one example of a Native American who ever voluntarily left their community to join the dominant culture, while many people who were of western civilization heritage, migrated to and freely chose the indigenous people’s way of living.
The more I learned the more intrigued I became. It led me to spend time with people and in places where remnants of that culture still exist. My first experience was to develop a type of preschool for the little ones in Chilchinbeto, Arizona, on the Dine (Navaho) reservation. I was so taken by the ways of the people and community, I found myself wanting to stay there. Live there. On one of the last evenings there, while walking alone in the desert, I heard myself say “I want to stay here, live here.” A booming voice, from I don’t know where, said back, “YOU DON’T BELONG HERE, GO FIND THIS AMONG YOUR OWN PEOPLE”. The voice was absolutely right. It took me another 4 decades, but I, gradually, have found it in my own culture. For the most part I am living in that same energy.
Later, my next experience was with the Lakota in South Dakota. Amazing to me, was that I experienced firsthand in those places and those times something I had been looking for my whole life, even though, in the eyes of my culture, they had relatively nothing in terms of “stuff.” They did have something that I didn’t have. I couldn’t have told you what it was, but I felt it. I’ve spoken to others who have had similar experiences when visiting those, who by our culture’s standards have little to nothing, yet have that intangible, important, “something” that is grossly absent from ours.
What I didn’t understand at that time was all this wasn't just intellectual curiosity it was part of my spiritual journey in disguise. If someone had suggested that I was on a spiritual journey as I was doing this, I would have denied and resisted that characterization and probably stopped. One of the things that I was attracted to was that they had no word in their language for “Religion”. Religion was not a something, it was how they lived. They didn’t preach or convert, they just did it. All the Christian values? They embodied it. No need to name it. No way to separate “it” from how they lived.
One July night, after twenty-two years of following my initial curiosity, years of study and firsthand experiences, I had a dream. In that dream, a friend asked me if I would like to meet my higher power. In that dream, I said “yes“.
The person pointed to their right and out of the shadows a Lakota man and woman dressed in full regalia stepped from the darkness into the light, and with their arms outstretched and big smiles on their faces, they walked towards me and embraced me. I woke up from that dream in tears and sobbing. What I had been looking for my whole life I had found without directly looking for it.
The message I finally got? Religion, if you must use a word, is not about something you believe, or are taught, or is promoted, or you kill in defense of… it is a way you live. It is honoring who you are, and who others are. There are people who teach others how to do that. Since then, I have had, and continue to have, many teachers from all disciplines, of all ages, in many forms and traditions. “Be it.”
Since that time, I have maintained a close connection with my Lakota friends. They teach me. I teach them. I love and have been loved by them. Every year for the last decade I have taken a small group of people from our culture to spend a day on the Pine Ridge Reservation, so that they too, can experience some of the gifts that I have been given.
Because of COVID and its effects we were not able to visit this year. I have asked two of my Lakota friends, Tasunka Najin, (Guss Yellowhair), father, grandfather, professor, teacher, expert in the Lakota ways, and his daughter Sahiyela Win, (Tianna Yellowhair), mother, teacher, artist, if they would be willing to share with us a bit of their culture. They agreed and wanted to know if they could offer us some healing energy. I said “yes.” They both believe that the way forward is to build bridges between our cultures.
What they will be sharing is a presentation entitled Wo’yawas’te (to bless or praise things). This will be a 75-minute presentation, appropriate for all ages. I believe that sharing cultural gifts from another community can help us put into greater perspective what we are all experiencing. They will give of the gifts that their culture has to bring and are willing to receive what we have to offer.
During our time together they will be:
• Offering a traditional Lakota welcome
• Sharing stories that are used in their culture to teach their children important values of living (and reminding adults of those also)
• Sharing artifacts from their culture that bring meaning and connection to their world
• Offering a Lakota blessing and healing ceremony for all of us at this moment in time
The gathering will take place on Sunday, August 16th from 4:00 p.m. to 5:15 p.m. Central time through Zoom. We would ask that you would consider joining us and have as many of your friends and family members as you would like to be a part of this gathering. As mentioned, this presentation will be appropriate for all ages. We have a limited number of spaces available. Due to copyright and proprietary intellectual property standards, we will not be able to offer a recording option if you aren’t able to attend the live gathering.
COVID has devastated many parts of the world’s economy, and the Pine Ridge is no exception. Guss and Tianna created the only Native Tour Company on the Pine Ridge (Tatanka Rez Tourz) and it typically affords them a significant part of their yearly income. Tourism is non-existent this year. We would ask that you consider making a $50 contribution for attending. If you are unable to pay but would still like to be a part of the gathering, please email Brenda at firstname.lastname@example.org. We don't want anyone to miss out due to financial constraints and Ted is willing to pay Guss and Tianna on your behalf.
To take part you can sign up here: Wo'yawas'te
Whether you can join us or not, I would love to hear your story of how you made peace with the unknowable and unanswerable questions that many cultures, religions, movements, etc. exist to answer.