7 February 2014
Walking around the Sacred Circle
Interview by Michał (de) Molka
1) David, on your webpage www.sacredcircles.org I found statement of purpose of your Institute:
Sacred Circles Institute was formed to address the world need for simple yet powerful techniques for spiritual opening, transformation, self-exploration and healing, based on the ancient wisdoms of earth-honoring people combined with insights from modern consciousness research, depth psychology and perennial spiritual practices.
Could you tell us a little bit more about the beginnings of your spiritual journey, leading to foundation of Sacred Circles Institute?
Beginnings of my spiritual journey...
When I was a small child, about age 4, I told my Mother that I no longer wanted to play in the sandbox in the basement of the Presbyterian Church in Lake Grove, Oregon, but that I wanted to learn about Jesus. She took me across the street to the only other church in our small community, the Christian Science Church. There I learned a lot about Jesus and a “spiritual approach” to His life including healing.
I continued to attend the Christian Science Church until I was 12 when I started asking questions like, “Why don't you believe in baptizing with water the way that Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River?” and “Why don't Christian Scientists perform marriage ceremonies?” I concluded at that time, that whatever had transpired in Jesus' time no longer existed. Between the ages of 12 and 16, I visited many churches with my friends, but none of them “made sense to me” or seemed to embody the essence of who Jesus was and what he taught.
When I was 16, I met and dated a very pretty young girl, who told me one night on a date, “I don't do that”, referring to petting and heavy kissing. When I asked her why, she replied that she was a Mormon. Never having heard of the Mormon faith, I asked her “What's that?” She proceeded to tell me some basic information about the prophet Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon, and arranged a meeting with her Bishop who gave me a copy of the Book of Mormon and encouraged me to pray to God and ask if the book was “true.”
Several weeks later, I knelt in prayer by my bed, really for the first time in my life, and asked God to tell me if the book was true. After praying, I picked up the book and began to read it. I was immediately filled with a powerful feeling and essence of light and love, whose intensity increased as I continued to read. I had never had an experience like that, nor had I ever read of any similar experiences. From that point on, I read everything I could about the Mormon Church, the story of the restoration of the gospel of Christ, attended church regularly, and finally at the age of 19 asked my parents for permission to be baptized into the LDS Church.
I attended Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, served an LDS Mission in France and Switzerland for 2 and 1/2 years, married in the LDS Temple in Salt Lake City, and raised five beautiful children with my wife as I completed my PhD and taught and served in many positions in the church until I asked for excommunication about 25 years ago.
During my years in the church, I plumbed the depths of spirituality, psychology, and contemplated the evolution of the soul seeking meaning and personal understanding. I was especially attracted to the teachings of Christ and the prophetic books of the Bible like Isaiah, Jeremiah, and the Book of Revelation. During that same time, I also became very interested in the writings and work of Carl Jung, especially as related to sacred symbols and the unconscious.
For me, the LDS Church was like living in a monastery for thirty years. About five years before I left the church and my family, I had a number of clear dreams and “intimations of the spirit” that I had “other work to do.” Sacred Circles Institute was formed around the ideas and the many symbolic meanings of the Sacred Circle and the Tree of Life that sits in the center of the circle. I first discovered these basic ideas/symbols in the Books of Ezekiel and Revelation where Ezekiel and John the Revelator were taken up to heaven in a chariot/wheel of fire that was guarded and protected at the four corners/gates of the wheel by an eagle, lion, ox, and man. I knew better than to “wrestle” the meaning of these scriptures with my mind, and fortunately had the good sense to let Spirit/God reveal the meanings in a direct and personal way... over time.
Sometime before I left the Church, I was teaching and counseling at BYU, and learned from a fellow professor who had lived among the Ute Indians when he was a Mormon missionary, that Native Americans had been “working with the sacred wheel of life” for hundreds of years, and that they, too, had animal spirits and other energy teachings associated with the cardinal directions... east, south, west, and north. That encounter paved the way for my continuing interest in, and practice with the sacred circle of life, and the teachings of many Native American elders during the past twenty five years. These teachings are embodied in the on-going work of Sacred Circles Institute.
The teachings of Sacred Circles officially began in the Fall of 1992 when one of our beloved teachers, Angeles Arrien, a Basque Cultural Anthropologist, asked Mattie and me when we were going to begin “our teachings.” “Right away”, we replied, as we were taking her to the airport after one of her many teaching visits to the Pacific Northwest.
2) What are the methods, techniques that you use and work with? I understand that since you had both academic and native indigenous teachers, you can combine ancient knowledge and tradition with modern approach?
The intention of the work of Sacred Circles Institute is to assist all of us to “return to the One” that we are, and that IS... the Sacred Tree of Life (the I AM) that sits at the center of the inner Garden of Eden. Therefore, as is suggested in the question, many so called “methods and techniques” and “teachings” can assist each of us to move fully into the center of our own hearts and lives, SO THAT we can energetically and confidently express the divinity of who we naturally are. As one of our Native American teachers and friends says... “We do all of this so that we can be fully human.”
The path of “returning to the One” is truly realized by walking every day with our hearts fully open, loving, trusting, and filled with compassion and respect for all sentient life.
Quieting our minds, emotions, and our physical bodies SO THAT we can hear and respond to the soft and distinct whisperings of the sacred voice within is certainly a first step. There are many “techniques” and ceremonies that teach this quieting... sitting, standing, lying down, and moving meditation, yoga, tai-chi, qigong, Sufi dancing and sun dancing, and the ancient sweat bath or sweat lodge to name a few. Each of these sacred, ancient practices require us to be as aware as we possibly can, in the present moment, of the words, images, and impressions that come into our minds, the emotions of joy, fear, happiness, constriction, and anger, etc. that flood our emotional bodies, and the states of fatigue, wellness, illness, discomfort, pain, and wholeness that we experience as human beings.
In the past, in Poland and in the US, we have also used the sacred ceremony of “walking on fire” to teach the initiate/participants the courage, quiet, and divine intention and attention that is required to walk barefoot, peacefully and calmly (and sometimes energetically) across hot coals (1200-1500 degrees Fahrenheit) without being burned. The sacred fire walk is an ancient technique used to calm the mind, develop clear vision, and “walk without fear and hesitation.” One of our teachers, Stuart Wilde, says “If we can walk on fire, we can do anything.” If one walks with EGO, as in life, one is almost always certain to be “burned.”
Sitting with other fellow human beings in a sacred circle is another way that the unity and diversity of the ONE can be experienced. Since we are all connected and are perfect mirrors of one another, the whole world is reflected in the sacred circle (Black Elk, Lakota). “What we do to the web we do to ourselves”, said the often quoted Northwest (US) Chief Seattle. Other teachers say that, “If we see it in another, we have it in ourselves.” Hence, sitting and working in sacred circles with clear intentions and caring and compassionate attention is a powerful way to see ourselves and others as we truly are... fully human... with all of our foibles, brilliance, silliness, and magnificence.
Crossing into or entering alternative states of consciousness is another activity that is very helpful to the human soul. In our time, we are often so focused on the physical aspects of life, i.e. money, sex, food, power, and the five senses, that we have a very limited and myopic view of the human condition. This focus on “tick tock” clock time severely limits our awareness and appreciation of the “wholeness of all that is.” For generations, humans have moved into these other worlds through a variety of mechanisms. In Sacred Circles, we most often use the devices of the drum, rattle, ecstatic dance, and the shamanic journey and guided visualizations to open up the doors of the unconscious. Individual dream awareness, especially of our lucid and highly symbolic dreams, is another way to understand and appreciate the so-called unknown worlds.
With shaman and medicine people of other cultures, we have also explored with our students and friends, the medicine “helpers” of ayahuasca, peyote, tobacco, bear root, and other herbs. One of our dear Navajo (Dine') friends told us on one occasion that “the problem with marijuana among your people is that you don't know the sacred songs and prayers that can assist you with your desires.” Another caring teacher, Don Augustin Rivas Vasquez, an ayahuasquero of the Amazon, told us that “90% of the healing properties of the plants and medicines is in our spiritual relationship to the plants themselves, and not in the mere physical extraction of the chemical elements.” So... in our teachings and practices, we always take the time to teach our students to have respect for and to make good relationships with all of our plant and spirit helpers.
Year ago while working with Grandfather Misha, an elderly Ulchi shaman, my wife, Mattie Davis-Wolfe, was curious about how to work with the weather. He clearly told her on that occasion that in order to work effectively with the weather, she was never to curse the weather, but instead, she was “to make good relations with it.” “If you really want be a weather shaman”, he said, “you must spend at least an hour each day, for a year, making relations with the weather. If you do this, then you will be able to ask the weather, the cloud people, the wind and rain spirits, etc. to assist you, especially during times of ceremonies, draught, fire, and storms.” Our many shared experiences in Poland, England, and on Turtle Island have confirmed the wisdom of his teachings.
These are a few of the “methods and techniques” we use in our work at the Institute. We also strive, very diligently, to be fully present and attentive to our students and each other with love, compassion, and emotional honesty on a daily basis, and to help them (and each other) to be fully honest and present with their/our feelings. Another teacher says that, “we do not find God with our minds, but with our feelings.”
”May the circle be open, and unbroken. May the peace of the Spirit be ever in our hearts.” (the opening lines from a favorite song)
PS Whoops, I forgot! We also do a lot of singing in our circles. Angeles Arrien told us on one occasion that to be a good shaman or medicine person, you need to have at least 100 songs... songs for children, for sad and joyful occasions, songs to remember who we are, etc. “All songs are useful” she said, “even popular songs or the old Broadway (New York) show tunes.”
PPSS Another Native Elder told us, “If you aren't laughing and having fun in your ceremonies, you aren't truly alive and living life fully.”
NOTES – Making and using sacred objects and tools... medicine staffs and shields, talking sticks/wands, drums, rattles, masks, medicine pipes, medallions, feather fans, prayer arrows, medicine bundles, ceremonial clothing (dance shirts, skirts, robes, and shawls, blankets),
Planting, growing, harvesting, collecting and using sacred herbs and plants (sage, cedar, lavender, mint, bear root, choke cherries, mushrooms, etc.) and using the traditional foods honoring the four directions (corn, berries, buffalo meat, and water) in ceremony.
Working directly with the four elements... fire, water, air, and earth (wood, stones, crystals, and other precious gems).
This is a sweat lodge that we built several years ago for some friends in Southern Oregon. The photo was taken the next day "after the sweat" as you can tell. It clearly shows the fire pit, the pipe altar, and the stones inside the lodge.
A close up photo! You can see the "colors" of the directions ... red for the east, yellow for the south, black for the west, white for the north, and ... on the horizontal ribs representing the "three worlds" ... lower (green for the earth), middle (blue for the sky), and upper (purple for the sacred mystery).
Human's spiritual condition
3) What is the spiritual condition of a human in 2013? I know this is a general question but let's say we focus on people living in the US and Canada, men/women who attend your workshops. Do you feel that today people are more aware, more spiritually open and searching for answers as compared to 10-20 years ago? What is your general feeling of the path that we, humans, are currently walking?
Wow! What a question. Mattie and I have discussed this question together at lengths, and as a result, have decided that we would both like to respond to it.
David's answer. Generally, I feel that many people in the US and Canada are hungry to be fed spiritually and to return to a natural state of well being that so many of us have abandoned because of family and cultural conditioning into the western, mechanistic, and highly material world that surrounds us. In fact, one of the big concerns Mattie and I had when we first came to Poland to teach in 1994, is that your people would be “swallowed up” in the western drive for money, power, and materialism.
Yes, I generally feel that more people are looking for answers to the so-called “big questions” of life than they were 10-20 years ago. But, there are still millions of folks who are deeply locked into “tick-tock” as our good friend and teacher, Stuart Wilde would say. The real question is, “Are we brave enough to 'wake up’ and “do we have the courage to ''walk our talk’ once we have awakened, at least to some degree.
I love teaching at the community college because most often I have three generations of students taking my classes who are most generally very hungry and wanting to “return to source” although they seldom have the language to express what they really want. To love and be loved, and to have a modicum of peace and self-awareness, to me, is at the heart of most of our desires.
I deeply feel that we are at a critical crossroads in our planet’s long history, and that it is imperative that we “wake up” and realize and fully express our natural potential as spirit beings who have come here at this time to know the light of love and share it, especially with those who are angry, depressed, and lost to themselves. We have a great opportunity and responsibility to realize that we are all one, that we have always been one, and that we are connected in ways that our material eyes can often not see.
Mattie's aswer. As David said, we are at a pivotal moment in our planetary history, a next step in our evolutionary journey. It is an evolutionary imperative. Many great teachers believe that the years around 2012 are a nexus point, a zero point field, a fractal turning, a jump time (as Jean Houston calls it) in which consciousness can make a huge leap forward. Human nature can be transformed into a positive partnership with the planet.
It is imperative that we “wake-up” to our fullness of being – beyond our personalities, our limiting egos, and dependence on five-sensory existence to the authentic power of multi-dimensional beingness. We have evolved consciousness to become SELF-aware, but as a whole species we have yet to realize the full potential of consciousness Illumined beings of old and now know a state of oneness and enlightenment. It is time for all humans to reach this awareness. It is time for a whole system transformation and a humane agenda.
For hundreds of years humans have been under the trance of rational mechanistic materialism (perhaps unwittingly begun in part by Copernicus and continued on by Keppler, Newton, Descartes, Voltaire, and others). This spell of looking mainly, or only, outside ourselves at observable reality has had a powerful hold on our psyches. Our deep inner life (and developing nervous system) has suffered from the neglect and thus, our experience of the Universe is blunted.
There is so much more “out there” and more importantly “inside” for us to know. We have sought and depended on external power, thinking that it was the way to ensure security and have committed many acts of damage and violence in its pursuit. This old way is not working. We are at the point that it is threatening the very survival of our planet and species. Now is the time for humans to turn inward for our security. It is the time to align with our deepest source of being – align our actions, emotions and thoughts with the highest part of our true selves, and to activate higher states of consciousness. It is time for humans to develop the kind of authentic inner power that seeks meaningfulness and purpose rather than external power and things.
It is time to walk again in true sacred relationship – the way of the shamans, mystics, and saints who discovered what lies at our core. Being deeply connected with our Source is the imperative. Bringing the field of mind, our humanity, our collective consciousness to a new level of unity unknown before is our purpose. These are the times, we are the people.
This re-patterning of human nature is the change Sacred Circles is striving for and teaching.
4) David, I am aware that you had many native American teachers / elders. You refer to Them as “your native teachers”. Could you mention some of Them and perhaps share a story, wisdom, joke...
Of course! Yes, Mattie and I have had many Native American and indigenous teachers from other parts of the world. The ones with whom we have had the most significant time and personal contact with are:
- Keith Chiefmoon – Blackfoot/Kanai Sun Dance Chief from the Blood Reserve in Southern Alberta, Canada
- Karen Russell – Keith Chiefmoon’s wife and our head woman Sun Dance leader
- Bertha Chiefmoon – Keith’s sister and Sun Dance leader
- Gus and Jordan Chiefmoon – Keith’s brothers
- Joe Eagle Tail Feathers – Blackfoot/Kanai Sun Dance Chief from the Blood Reserve in Southern Alberta, Canada
- Clyde Hall – Ghost Dance Chief (Naraya) Shoshone-Bannock from Ft. Hall, Idaho, USA
- Pete Yellowjohn – Keeper of the Bear Bundle for the Shoshone-Bannock people near Ft. Hall, Idaho, USA
- Bear Boy – Ute Indian medicine man (deceased)
- Tex Joey – Dine’ (Navajo) Native American Church (Peyote) Road Man
- Patricia Ann Davis – Dine’(Navajo)-Choctaw medicine teacher
- Anna Haala – Alaskan/Salish Peace Elder
- Sam Windy Boy – Chippawa-Cree medicine man and sweat lodge leader
- Lynette Edge – Upper Skagit (WA) medicine woman
- Angeles Arrien – Basque tradition keeper and cultural anthropologist
- Don Augustin Rivas Vasquez – Ayahuasquero/shaman from the Peruvian Amazon
- Wallace Black Elk – Lakota/Sioux teacher and ceremonial leader (deceased)
- Grandmother Nadia – Ulchi (Russian) shaman
- Grandmother Mingo – Ulchi (Russian) shaman (deceased)
- Grandfather Misha – Ulchi (Russian) shaman (deceased)
Many of these folks can be found on the internet through Google and Face Book.
There are many stories to share, but the ones I most want to share are from Keith Chiefmoon and Don Augustin.
Many years ago, when Keith was a young man, he went to one of the Elders in the community to ask him an import_ant question. The Elder grunted and said uh-huh, and nothing more. Time went by, and after a year of waiting to hear from the Elder, Keith went back to the Elder “in a good way” and asked the question again, thinking in his mind that the Elder had forgotten about the question. The Elder simply replied, “Young man, I heard you the first time.”
This is a powerful “teaching story” to me because so often when we are “young in the ways” of the old ones, we want immediate answers to our questions and life dilemmas. I call them Mc Questions, expecting Mc Answers (immediate) like ordering from the drive-through window at McDonalds. The native way is a way of patience and deep attention and observation of the details and nuances of “the ways.” Often Indian children are put out on a blanket when they are very young to spend the better part of a day, and to return to their teachers to report what they have observed. Very little Indian teaching of the sacred ceremonies and ways is done verbally as we are accustomed to in the West. Full participation and observation is the primary way that the “medicine teachings” are passed on. Keith often tells us, “I am just showing you what I have been shown.”
When Mattie and I went down into the Peruvian Amazon to work with Don Augustin, he shared some information with us that was very valuable, and applicable to all medicine settings. He said that the problem with the Western or Northern Europeans (and there are many problems with us), was that we believed that the curing or healing essence of the various plants and herbs was in their physical properties. He said that so many of our researchers and scientists come down to the jungle to extract the “cure for cancer” and so on, thinking that the medicine of the plant can be replicated in the laboratory and sold through the pharmaceutical companies. He continued by saying, “Yes, there are curative physical properties in the plants, but the most important healing elements come from the spiritual nature of the plants and our ability to have good relationships with them.”
Native healers often spend years getting know, and make relations, with the plant people, going to them with respect and offerings, and listening very carefully, over time, for the right ways to harvest, cook, and prepare the plants for healing purposes. Don Augustin, himself, spent years living in the jungle in the hollow of a giant tree as he got to know the plants and animal spirits of the jungle so that he could, in time, bring this understanding and the gifts of the plants to the people. I have seen curing miracles happen when the medicine man or woman and the people supporting the sick with their prayers and clear intent have been in full alignment with Spirit.
Keith Chiefmoon and his brother Gus (now deceased) in the Sun Dance arbor near the center pole “Tree of Life” after one of our Sun Dances on the Blackfoot (Blood) Reserve in Southern, Alberta, Canada (Please notice the ropes that tie the male dancers to the tree, all of the red tobacco prayer ties around the tree, the “medicine pipe” that is leaning against the tree, and the buffalo robe on the ground to the right). The Hudson Bay capote that Keith is wearing is traditionally worn by the Sun Dance leaders before the dance when the tree is “taken” (cut down), and afterwards if there is a special ceremony being conducted. (Keith has given you permission to use this photo in Taraka / February 5, 2014 phone conversation with David.)
5) How did your interest in Native Americans and Their ceremonies changed into your participation in them?
Many years ago, I began to have lucid dreams of participating in native ceremonies in the Southwest US. I didn’t understand the dreams and what they meant, and I didn’t try to make these visions come true, or “wrestle” meaning out of them. I simply held them in my heart with respect, and waited. Several years went by, and circumstances in my life took me to Taos, New Mexico where I was invited to take part in my first sweat lodge and pipe ceremony in the middle of Winter in the snow, high up in the mountains east of Taos.
Little by little, and not because I was “chasing the medicine”, Native teachers began to show up in my life to teach me. You probably remember the old saying, that “when the student is ready, the teacher(s) will appear.” This has definitely been the case with me.
Even since last visiting in Poland in 2002, many new Elders and medicine teachers have shown up in my life to help me heal and to teach me and “show me their ways.”
Twenty five years ago, I had never heard of the Sun Dance, let alone ever thinking that I would dance in this most sacred ceremony. When I first heard about the dance, in the early 1990’s, I thought to myself, “What an honor it would be, some day, to witness this dance.” I knew that this opportunity would have to come by invitation, as the Sun Dance and other sacred ceremonies are not advertised or talked about, except in certain family and ceremonial circles.
I was invited to my first Sun Dance in the mid nineties by my good friend, Two Crow, who asked if I would come and support him as he danced his second year. I went to the dance, not knowing what to expect. I was very surprised to see that there were many “whites” preparing to dance, most of whom were Viet Nam veterans. When I asked them how they came to the “dance”, they universally replied that the Native American Warrior Societies were the only ones who accepted them after the war and took them into their sacred circles and ceremonies.
One of my children graduated from college before that dance began, so I never did see the dance. The first time that I “saw” the dance was when I stepped into the Blackfoot Kanai Chiefmoon Sun Dance arbor to dance to the sun in the Summer of 1998, after a year of rigorous and careful preparation, including three, four day food and water fasts.
So my advice is, if participating in Native American or other indigenous ceremonies is part of your path, simply surrender your ideas, beliefs, and hopes of how this is to happen, and let Spirit show you the way. Again, as Keith Chiefmoon often says, “This way (the way of the Sun Dance) is a 'good way’ but it is certainly not the only way to come fully home to the essence of who you are.”
Adopted by Native Americans
6) Is it a common practice amongst Native Americans, that both you and your wife Mattie, were accepted/adopted by Native Americans? Do Native Americans invite gladly others, to take part in Their ceremonies?
Adoption or “being taken in” by Native Americans has been a common practice in North (and South and Central) America since white Caucasians first appeared on the continent hundreds of years ago. Whites, people of color, and children (or disenfranchised Indians) from other tribes have been “taken in” or adopted and often married Native Americans for years.
Acceptance and adoption by Native Americans today varies greatly by individuals, families, and tribes, depending on the degree of wounding, and the inappropriate and unauthorized “stealing” of Native ceremonies, songs, and teachings that has and is still taking place. Because the “American Holocaust” which has continued for over several hundred years, has resulted in the deaths of millions of Native Americans, the stealing of their lands, mineral and water rights, the systematic annihilation of the buffalo, salmon, trees, and sacred living and ceremonial sites, and the forcing of their children into “residential schools” and punishing them for speaking their language, wearing traditional clothing, and having long hair in order to teach them white Christian ways, and the herding all of them onto hundreds of reservations, many Native Americans are still appropriately angry and resentful, especially of whites, and are reluctant to share their sacred teachings and ways.
Others, however, realize, that this is a time when all of the races (red, white, black, and yellow) need to come together in love, respect, and forgiveness under the sacred tree of life so that a new time of oneness and mutual respect on earth can be born.
Years ago, when Mattie was working as a nurse for the Indian Health Services in New Mexico, a gracious elderly Pueblo woman asked Mattie if she would take on the responsibility of tending and caring for the sacred clay beds for her people. When Mattie said that she was “not of her people”, the woman quizzically looked at her and said, “What are you? A giraffe? A coyote? A bear? I thought you were a human.” She then told Mattie that the same spirits who taught her ancestors about the sacred clay beds and other sacred things, would also teach her. Mattie was both honored and humbled by this elder’s request and teachings. She eventually thanked the woman for her invitation, but explained to her that in all good conscience, she would not be able to fulfill the request because she could not guarantee that she would be living in the area long enough to fulfill this calling.
Mattie and I have been “taken in” or adopted by several Native American individuals and families simply as a natural result of our being in “good relations” with them. This adoption is something we have not sought nor asked for. We simply have trusted that Spirit has led us to certain people and situations, and the “adoption” has come about in the course of our being good people with each other.
We deeply honor our on-going relations with these individuals and families, with whom we have shared the most sacred of their traditional ways … births, marriages, coming of age, deaths, and the many ceremonies and gatherings that they practice.
Differences and similarities among the Native People
7) Do Native Americans from different tribes cultivate Their own sacred rituals and ceremonies or did recently some tribes adopted ceremonies from others – for example sacred pipe, Sun Dance and sweat lodge?
Sacred rituals and ceremonies have been created and shared for thousands of years all over the planet, and the same is also true here on Turtle Island. The Native people of the Southeast, Southwest, Northwest, Great Lakes, Plains all have ceremonies and practices that are unique to them and the geographical area in which they live. For example, here in the Northwest Coastal (Salish) US, the salmon, cedar trees, canoes, and long (or smoke) houses, totem poles, dress, language, food, songs, and ceremonial practices are unique and very different from those experienced and practiced by the Plains Indians (Lakota, Cheyenne, Blackfoot, Pawnee, etc.) where the buffalo, tipis, sweat lodge, medicine pipes, and horse culture are prevalent.
Because Native people have always traveled, intermarried, and shared their unique cultures, clothing, food, and healing and ceremonial practices, it has been common for years, for example, to see sweat lodges here in the Northwest and elsewhere accompanied by medicine pipes, hand drums, etc.
Some form of Sun Dance (or sun honoring) ceremonies have also been practiced world-wide for millennia. The Mi'kmaq people of Northeastern Canada for example, lost the form and songs of their Sun Dance many years ago when the whites outlawed their ceremonies. It has only been in the last ten years or so, that our Blackfoot Sun Dance leader, Keith Chiefmoon, has transferred the form and songs of our dance back to the Mi'kmaq, encouraging them to remember and sing some of their old songs. After I finished my first four years of dancing on the Blackfoot (Blood) Reserve in 2001, I was privileged to go back to Nova Scotia later that Summer to assist Keith and the Mi'kmaq leaders with their dance.
Another good example of ceremonies or medicine being shared across cultures or tribes is the “peyote way” practiced for hundreds of years by the Huichol people in North Central Mexico. When so many ceremonies were being taken away from the Indian people in the US between 1850-1900, the peyote ceremony mad it’s way into the Southwest US, and gradually became a central part of the US Government’s officially sanctioned “Native American Church’s” (NAC) sacrament. In many NAC meetings, songs about Jesus are sung, peyote becomes the bread and wine/water of the Christian way, and the altars and ceremonial items often have a strong Christian component.
Every geographical area in the US has its unique healing and cleansing herbs like sage. These remedies and healing practices are being shared more and more as communication and contact between Indian and other people increase through friends, the internet, multi-cultural gatherings, academic forums, publications, and so on. Just this morning, I helped one of our Sacred Circles students who lives in Florida connect with a Dine’ (Navajo) elder friend because the student has Apache and Navajo blood in her father’s ancestral line. So the cross-fertilization of “medicine” practices continues. And, there are countless more examples than the few I have noted here, including the simple use of tobacco and medicine pipes world-wide.
The first sweat lodge
8) When and where did you take part in your first sweat lodge? Do you remember that ceremony?
I participated in my first sweat lodge high in the mountains east of Taos, New Mexico in November 1987. The lodge was held at midnight. The sky was clear and filled with stars, and there was a lot of snow on the ground. It seemed to me that I was about to enter into an ancient time and space, and into the mystery itself. The fire was bright orange and red, and sparks were flying high into the air. The lodge was low and round, with a small entry door.
When I first entered this sacred womb, I felt as if I were returning home. I don’t remember much of the ceremony itself, except that it was dark, warm, and moist, and I felt very comfortable as words were spoken, songs were sung, and prayers were expressed. I knew at some very deep level that I had opened a door into a new phase of my life.
David, Mattie and Ewa Tęczowska (between). The first workshop in Poland, July 1995, Dąbrówka
Jacek Majewski, David, Mattie, Tanna and others around a ceremonial fire in the Lake Country (Poland) [at Turtul] 1996.
First sweat lodges in Poland
9) When and where did you lead your first sweat lodge?
Coincidentally, Mattie and I led our first sweat lodges in Poland in the Summer of 1995 at the first “medicine encampment” we held in Poland, not far from Lublin in a large open, wooden tipi on land owned by an intentional community. There were about 70 people in attendance, and we had no particular intention of holding a lodge as we had just been passed the rights to do so earlier that year. However, several of the workshop participants insisted that they wanted a lodge, and so Mattie and I told them that if they would go to the woods and gather the willows/wood and stones for the lodge, that we would pour for them.
Of course there was a big discussion about who would go into the lodge first, and so on, and because those who built the lodge were insisting that they should be allowed to “go first”, Mattie gave all of us a big lesson on service. She essentially told the group that the women would sweat first, and that the men would drum outside during the women’s lodge, and tend the fire and hold sacred space for the women. We men stood in a sacred circle around the women, and turned our heads to the outside of the circle as the women entered the lodge naked. As I turned to the outside of the circle, a big shower of shooting stars passed by in the heavens to the east of the lodge. This sign was indeed an auspicious beginning to our lodge work in Poland.
After the women finished their lodge, it was time for the men to sweat. As we gathered to sweat, and it was very late in the night by this time, storm clouds and lightning and thunder literally encircled the entire area like a cosmic bowl of protection. We of course prayed that the rain and the winds would hold off until we completed our ceremony, and the weather spirits heard our prayers. As soon as we had finished the sweat and were getting into our cars to go back to the main camp, “all hell broke loose” as the winds and rain came into the area with a vengeance, as if to sweep the area clean, energetically. Interestingly, during World War II, there had been a Nazi concentration camp not far from our encampment.
Needless to say, we were all deeply and profoundly affected by what occurred that first night, as we learned, once again, that the spirits who attend us are real and present, and that this work is not for the “faint of heart.”
Tradition in the sweat lodge
10) How important is it for you to follow a certain type of protocol / tradition in the sweat lodge? For example a sacred path /area for stones, to say “all my relations” upon entering and leaving, to smudge, etc? What do you think of certain traditions that arise spontaneously in other countries – for example in Poland sometimes people invite others while in the lodge – for example their relatives?
Good questions! First of all, there are many sweat lodge and ceremonial traditions, and all of them have had their beginning or creation at sometime. So, all traditions have come from somewhere, and I think it is perfectly normal and appropriate for traditions and ceremonies to shift and change over the years, and to arise spontaneously, especially if they are “spirit directed” and come from the heart. You may recall the teaching that my wife Mattie received years ago from an elderly Pueblo woman in New Mexico, “The same spirits that taught our ancestors will teach you.”
Our responsibility as ceremonial leaders, healers, etc. is to make very sure that we acknowledge clearly where our teachings and ceremonies have come from, so that our students can have confidence that we are always telling the truth, and that we are not borrowing or claiming some knowledge or understanding that we have inappropriately borrowed or stolen from someone else. Keith Chiefmoon, our Blackfoot (Blood Tribe) Sun Dance leader has told us on more than one occasion that “I don’t want you talking about things you know nothing about.” In other words, “Until you have completed your first four years of Sundancing, I don’t want to hear from anyone that you have been talking about a ceremony you have read about in a book, heard through the grapevine, or have only partially completed. And, even then, I want you to talk carefully and caringly about your own experience, as these ceremonies and ways are most sacred to our people and should not be discussed carelessly, or outside of a sacred context.”
Regarding ceremonies being conducted in a “traditional way, “ Keith has always said to us, “I show you what I have been shown” indicating that we are to do likewise, i.e. show others what he and the other Blackfoot ceremonial elders have shown us. When I pour a traditional Blackfoot Sun Dance lodge, which I have done in Poland on several occasions, (after Keith gave me the rights to do so), I always imagine that Keith “Onistaya Kopi” (Buffalo Calf Sitting) is there at the ceremony with me, just as he would be on the Blood Reserve among his people. My “imagining” his presence, helps me to do “ what I have been shown” by Keith and the other Blackfoot elders. In this particular case, I am very careful to follow the traditions, just as I have experienced them.
Since Mattie and I also pour sweat lodges from another tradition, we are very careful to teach our students and participants the differences and similarities between various lodge forms. Mattie also pours “women only” sweats which come from yet another tradition.
Among the Blackfoot people, as among many North American people, there are many sweat lodge forms of construction and ceremony. Lakota and Blackfoot Sun Dance lodges, for example, have many similarities. Among the Blackfoot, their “family lodges” (those that are often held after the Sun Dance or on special occasions) tend to be more informal and may include special songs. In Blackfoot healing lodges, where “serious” healing is requested, (from cancer, for example), it is not unusual to have 100 sweat stones brought in during the first round.
So, the simple answer is this, “Tell the truth about where you have been taught these ceremonies” and make sure, if you make modifications or changes, that you do so in a “spirit-directed” way. Mattie and I came to Poland many years ago to share “what we have been taught” with the hopes that you would learn from us, and bring to life your old ways that have been hidden from your people for so long. Your old people held “sweat baths” just like our Native American ancestors, and your old people and the spirits of your land will certainly show you what you need to do in this time and place to restore and reclaim your teachings and ceremonies, especially as you hold them on or near your ancient ceremonial grounds.
11) What do you think about entering sweat lodge naked? It may seem as a stupid question but there was and I think still is, some controversy about that, at least in Poland.
First of all, this is not a stupid question, as it still arises here in the States from time to time. In traditional Blackfoot Piercing Sun Dance lodges, whether sweating together or separately, the women and the men are always clothed … men in shorts or swimming suits, and the women in long cotton dresses with long sleeves and shawls. Among various women’s Long Dance Communities in the States, it is very common for the women to sweat naked. Counter culture folks in the US also often sweat naked, both together and separately. In the more than 25 years that I have been sweating with Native Americans in the US, mostly with Blackfoot and Lakota elders, I have never sweat naked.
On occasion, over the years, men and women have been inappropriately touched or fondled in the sweat lodge. This, of course, is a serious breach of trust and respect, especially if the sweat lodge leader is involved. Therefore, I think it is very import_ant, any time that a sweat is held, that clear guidelines be set for those attending. In Blackfoot Sun Dance mixed gender lodges, for example, the men all sit together in the northeast, north, and west of the lodge, while the women enter the lodge after the men, and sit mostly in the southwest, south, and the southeast. Naked lodges, in my opinion should only be held when the trust level among the participants is very high and the leaders have the highest integrity.
Sweat lodges for prisoners
12) How did you start leading sweat lodges for prisoners? Could you share some experience?
Mattie and I were first invited into the Washington State Prison in Walla Walla, WA in the mid 1990’s by several prisoners who were taking our Sacred Circles’ “Walking the Sacred Wheel” home study course. We first attended their annual Pow-Wow inside the prison (which we still attend on a yearly basis), and I was subsequently invited to first attend and then lead traditional Native American sweat lodges, not long after I was given the right to pour Blackfoot Sun Dance lodges in 2002.
At first I was a bit nervous about going into the “Iron House” to sweat with the prisoners as I didn’t know what to expect. I called Keith Chiefmoon before I poured my first lodge, asking and hoping for some kind of assurance. He simply said to me, “David, you know what to do.”
There are three sweat lodges inside the prison at Walla Walla, and each of them is located in a fenced in and protected part of the prison yard, directly under one of the high and menacing guard towers. I immediately observed the dedication and respect with which the Native prisoners covered the lodge, prepared and tended the sacred fire, and reverently filled their medicine pipes. As soon as we entered the lodge, I was struck with the realization that all of the outside interference … the barbed wire fences, the guard towers, and the yellow “scanning” lights had disappeared. We were left with the penetrating dark, the dirt floor, the red hot stones, the steam of the hissing rocks, and the sweet smell of the herbs. It was as if the entire outer world had disappeared, and we were left with what was most basic and central to our devotional lives.
One time, when I was asked to pour a traditional Blackfoot lodge, the prisoners, unbeknown to me, had placed black plastic over the top of the lodge, directly UNDER the blankets. Consequently, when I made my first pour, the hot steam came off the rocks, hit the black plastic, and literally bounced back and burned my head, back, and arms. I quickly shouted for the door to be opened, and the prisoners all laughed that they had “put one over on this important Sundancer.” They still kid me about that night about how brave I “wasn’t.” Often, black plastic is used to cover the lodge in the Pacific Northwest (on the outside) to protect the blankets or tarps from getting wet, but it is NEVER placed on the inside, so as not to burn and scald the participants. Oh well! We now have stories to tell.
On another occasion, I was asked to sit in the west of the lodge, across from the door, as the prisoners wanted to pour an “honor” lodge in my behalf. Traditionally, the west of the lodge is one of the hottest places to sit as compared to the north, south, and east, all of which are closer to the door. Again the prisoners were teasing me about “how brave I was” to withstand the intense heat. It was certainly a challenge for me to make it all the way through four long rounds without lying down or asking to leave the lodge. The Native prisoners love to test their “guests” in these ways.
Also, as you might imagine, a number of the full blood Native men were very skeptical about “some white guy” pouring their lodges, so on one occasion, I felt like I was again being “put to the test.” There were a number of new prisoners in attendance who I did not know, and who had not sweat with me before. Fortunately, some of the older men who knew me said to the “young bloods”, “Just give him a chance. He has sundanced and led sweats for many years. AFTER he has poured the lodge, then you can judge him.” Fortunately that night, everything went well. As we were standing around the fire talking after the lodge, a young Yakama man came up to me and apologized. He basically told me that he had “judged me incorrectly and that he needed to apologize and make amends.” He then presented me with a beautiful eagle feather that his father had given him went he was sent to prison. This feather was the only one he had.
I have very sweet and strong memories of sweating with these Native American men over the years. For a number of reasons, I have not been able to go over to the prison much lately to sweat with them, but Mattie and I still correspond with many prisoners throughout the US, and support them in every way that we can by taking sweat stones, herbs, fabric, beads, and medicine pipes to them and by attending their annual Pow-Wow. We only go into the prisons when we are invited.
I just thought of another “touching” prison sweat story.
On one occasion I was in the sweat lodge at the prison in Walla Walla, and there was a young man in the lodge who was new to the prison and the prison Native American circle or “hoop” as they call their circles. He was Ojibwa from Minnesota, scared, homesick, and a long way from home.
During one of the rounds, I asked him if he would like me to sing a traditional Ojibwa song, “A Mother’s Lament” for her warrior son who was off at war. He immediately said, “yes.” As I sang this beautiful song to him in his own language, tears came to his eyes and healing to his soul.
Angeles Arrien, our dear teacher and friend, and a well known cultural anthropologist, told us years ago, that “true medicine people need to have at least 100 songs at their disposal, songs for every occasion … children’s songs, calling spirit songs, healing songs, ending songs, etc.” Mattie and I took her counsel to heart, and many times we have sung these songs at weddings, funerals, burials, for soul healing, and to bring laughter, tenderness, and joy into people’s lives. I was very grateful, on this occasion, to have learned this sacred Mother’s song that was able to comfort a young man who was so lonely and so far from home.
Workshops in Poland
13) I believe you lead six or seven workshops in Poland – what role did they have in your path, as well as contact with Polish people? Do you plan to visit Poland in the near future?
Mattie and I first came to Poland in the Summer of 1994 at the invitation of Ralph White who was at the time, the director of the New York Open Center, one of the oldest and most established holistic/alternative centers in the US. We had met Ralph earlier that year at a holistic centers gathering at Hollyhock Retreat Center in British Columbia, Canada. The previous summer, directors and interested persons of the humanistic and transpersonal psychology movement from Western and Eastern Europe, and the US and Canada had met in Moscow to build relationships and discuss how they could work together to provide more opportunities for women and men for spiritual and personal growth.
About 60 people from the East and West gathered in 1994 at Kazimierz Dolny, a small village on the Vistula River. Each of us had been asked to bring traditional songs, dances, and ceremonies from our respective countries, and so Mattie and I decided to bring our Native American drums and rattles, and share some shamanic processes that we had learned from our teachers. The gathering was very powerful as we met new friends and reestablished relations with old ones. Mattie and I shared a shamanic journey process and invited people to make contact with a power animal or ally. We were both truly surprised with the ease and intensity that all of the participants moved into the shamanic realms.
At lunch that day following our shamanic process, Tanna Jakubowicz-Mount and others approached us and asked if we would be interested in coming back to Poland the following year to do more teaching. Several people also commented to us “that you have no idea what just happened.” We said “no”, and they shared that it was so unlike the participants from the Eastern European Countries to release themselves into these shamanic realms, especially after living for so long under the influence of totalitarian leadership. People seemed to know naturally what to do even though many languages were being spoken and there were not enough translators to translate our English words into their native tongues.
The next year we did come back and presented a number of lectures in Warsaw and held a large encampment in an earth-centered community not far from Lublin. About 70 people showed up for the 4-5 days we were there. It was at this gathering that we held our first sweat lodge in Poland... with women and men sweating separately. (I have related some of the details of that sweat in answering an earlier question).
During the following eight years, Mattie and I came back every year, and sometimes twice each year to teach and lead workshops and encampments in the Lake Country, in Czarne, outside of Warsaw [in Ponurzyca], in Pupki, Zakopane, etc. that were primarily organized by Tanna and Ewa Foley. Most of these gatherings were for mixed groups of men and women, but in the later years, we did a number of separate men's and women's workshops. We led fire walks, many more sweats, and taught trance dancing, drumming, and traditional singing. We also blessed many folks with traditional “spirit names” and passed on the rights to lead sweats, carry medicine pipes, and lead medicine circles. We also formed a wolf clan teacher/leader clan that was, and still is, energetically held together by a traditional medicine bundle.
Needless to say, our dear friends and students in Poland have had a profound impact in our lives. We often remark to each another that some of the deepest healing and teaching work that we have ever done has been in Poland. We have laughed and cried together, danced, sweated, and shared personal healing stories that have allowed us to come together truly “as one.”
Our last visit to Poland was in 2002, and we have not returned since then, primarily because we were caring for Mattie's Mother, Emily Jane, who came to live with us as an invalid in 2002. Jane passed away on November 7, 2012, and this past year, Mattie and I have spent much time in deep healing and consideration of “what is next” in our lives.
Recently, we have been invited to participate in an International Circles Gathering in Poland from August 14-18, and to also lead several workshops in the weeks following the International Circles Gathering. So... after being gone from our beloved Polish friends for twelve years, we are coming back to renew old friendships, to make new ones, and to continue to teach the principles and practices of cross-cultural spirituality that are largely founded on old earth-honoring and shamanic ways.
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