The house I lived in from age 9 to 19 was not a happy place. A lot of terrible things happened to me there. But hanging on the door of the room where my dad kept his records, instruments and trophies was a humble glimmer of enlightenment. It was a cheap, small, plastic sign my dad had put there. I’m not sure where he got it, but I think it came from St. Joseph’s Indian School. Regardless, it had a Native design on it, and a quote that I grew up reading and ultimately incorporating into the way I now try to live my life. It read: “INDIAN PRAYER: Grant that I may not criticize my neighbor until I have walked a mile in his moccasins.” I acquired one of these little plastic signs myself somewhere along the way, and it now hangs in my house right inside my front door.
There are a lot of heated words flying around right now about statues, flags, anthems and patriotism. And it is tempting to jump into the fray with what, to me, seem like inarguable facts. But I have quietly watched and listened as others have attempted to articulate these undeniable truths, only to find that their words fall on deaf ears and invoke more emotionally charged, nonsensical rebuttals. Thus, I have taken time to contemplate and reflect on what the deeper issue is here, and now realize why logical explanation is futile: deep seated prejudice that causes an inability and/or unwillingness to truly listen. Facts don’t matter when we are angry, and truth is inconsequential when we refuse to consider another perspective than our own. Those who have little to no personal or ancestral history with oppression can find it difficult to empathize with those who have. Add a dash of prejudice to that, and it becomes nearly impossible. One cannot consider the view of a person who belongs to a group they have collectively prejudged with the broad brushstroke of racism and stereotypes, which means any chance for a logical, unbiased dialogue is usually hopeless. So how do we, as human beings, free ourselves from this quagmire? The answer is simple, but obviously not easy or we would have already done it. In the Broadway musical ‘The Will Rogers Follies’, the Cherokee philosopher, writer and entertainer says, “Y’see, an Indian always looks back after he passes something so he can get a view of it from both sides. A white man don’t do that – he just figures that all sides of a thing are automatically the same. That’s why you must never judge a man while you’re facing him. You’ve got to go around behind him like an Indian and look at what he’s looking at. Then go back and face him and you’ll have a totally different idea of who he is. You’d be surprised how much easier it is to get along with everybody.” I beg to differ with Will on one thing. I believe all people have the ability to look at both sides. The question is whether we choose to or not.
The current rancor over statues and the national anthem is missing the point; or worse, trying to change the subject. Because the point and the subject has always been about the fact that oppressed, marginalized peoples have been – and are still being – mistreated by mainstream American society. As I said, the remedy is simple. It’s called empathy. It means to feel the pain of another, to listen and hear their truth, and to share and be involved in healing the hurt and brokenness. In order to do that, it requires us to choose respect over prejudice, inclusion over division, open-mindedness over bigotry, humility over arrogance, truth over propaganda, empathy over apathy, and love over hate. And yes, those are all things we choose, which means the power rests with each of us. So take time to reflect before you make that choice. Because until we stop being distracted by the smoke and mirrors diversion that wants us to argue about statues, flags and anthems, we will never address the very real issue that people from all walks of life are peacefully and legally standing up and taking a knee for – racial injustice in America. All people, no matter their ethnic background, just want to be heard, included, treated fairly, and understood. That is definitely not happening right now. Because it can only happen when America can learn to live by the credo on the humble, plastic sign that hangs by my front door: “Grant that I may not criticize my neighbor until I have walked a mile in his moccasins.”
A long time ago, the wisdom of a Lakota Unci (grandmother) was shared with me. It went like this: No matter what you do in this life, no matter where your path takes you, and no matter how short, long or winding your road is, never ever forget to have a good time! The shining sun will always be concealed by the clouds now and then, and the rains will slide away and be replaced once again by the sun. All of life is the same. There is ebb and there is flow. The tide comes in, the tide goes out. There are good days and bad days, times to laugh and times to cry. All of this duality is why we are here. Through it all, we are learning what really matters – and what really doesn’t. Spirit is teaching us how to be at peace, and even smile, when we find ourselves on a small boat with no oars in the midst of a storm.
In my new book, Hidden Medicine, I write about the severe abuse I suffered as a child and the journey I took to survive, heal and ultimately rise from the ashes victorious. I did not write this book because I am the only one who has experienced such things. On the contrary, I wrote it because we all have. It took me 30 years to arrive at the place where I could finally tell my story. And those 30 years have given me time to climb the mountain and look back with a heightened perspective on it all. It is that perspective I wanted to share, because it is a key to happiness. It is a road-map for how to be at peace with the ebb and flow – the good and the bad – of this life. There will always be dark days. And sometimes it will seem as if the sun will never shine again. I want to offer you an excerpt from my Hidden Medicine book that says it best:
There are moments in this life that test your faith; moments when it seems love has left us and we are alone. Love is like the wind, sometimes it swirls and gusts and you know it is present. But other times it is so still you can barely feel it, and yet it is all around you. We cry out for it and hear nothing, causing us to doubt its presence and question its existence. Love is a mystery. Its purpose is deep, and its vision long. We cannot always comprehend its hidden medicine. Thus, we must quiet our heart and lean in to hear its still, small voice. For just when it feels as if love has abandoned you and all hope is lost, it reveals itself, and you realize love has been with you all along.
So remember the wisdom of Lakota grandmothers. Good times and bad times will come. This we can be sure of. And the light always seems brighter after a great darkness. In all things, there is balance. So no matter what – never forget to have a good time. I offer you the lyrics to a Michael Jackson song to sum it up:
Smile, though your heart is aching
Smile, even though it's breaking
When there are clouds in the sky
You'll get by
Light up your face with gladness
Hide every trace of sadness
Although a tear may be ever so near
That's the time you must keep on trying
Smile, what's the use of crying
You'll find that life is still worthwhile
If you just… smile.
If you haven't gotten my new book yet, I hope you will. Click/tap the image of the cover below to get it.
It is also available on this site as a downloadable E-Book, on Kindle and on Amazon.
I will be doing author readings and signings of my book on May 7th at Ozark Research Institute in Fayetteville AR, and on May 12 at The Writers Colony in Eureka Springs AR, and at other events and venues in the coming weeks and months. Keep your eye on my Event Schedule and social media.
In Spirit and Friendship,
My friends and relatives.. I have thought long and hard about whether I should say anything about this recent presidential election. I have always kept my political views private, but after careful consideration, I have decided this moment in our collective history is too important for me to remain silent, and so I offer my thoughts....
Let me begin by stating that I am a political centrist. I am not a 'D' or an 'R'. In fact, I have values and views reflected in both, and have always welcomed healthy political discourse. So this commentary is not a partisan rant, it is simply one man's conclusion....
Although he privately opposed slavery and was the only prominent founding father to arrange in his will for the freeing of all his slaves following his death, President George Washington remained a slave owner his entire life, having received his first 10 slaves as a gift at age 11. President Abraham Lincoln was responsible for the largest mass execution in U.S. history (38 Dakota Sioux Indian men were all ordered by Lincoln to be hanged on December 26th, 1862). Two beloved American Presidents, both stained with the blood of the racial prejudice of their time. Since the words 'all men are created equal' were penned in 1776, wars have been waged, and thousands have suffered and died as this country inched its way forward in its painful struggle to collectively comprehend what was supposed to be a 'self evident' truth. There is wisdom in those old handwritten words, wisdom that far exceeded the scope of the era in which they were penned. Wisdom that pointed the way to what was morally, ethically and legally right, despite the mindset of the majority at the time they were written. And despite the fact that there are still people in America today who have yet to learn that all are created equal, the majority now understand that when it comes to equality, there can be no compromise....
My friends, if we put our politics aside and are honest with ourselves for a moment, I think we can all agree that some of the words and deeds of Mr. Trump during his campaign were perceived with giddy enthusiasm by some who espouse bigotry, racism and prejudice. That enthusiasm emboldened these unsavory sorts to come out of the dark recesses of society and publicly align themselves with this candidate. It gave them a green light to openly attack those they hate, and I have been shocked, hurt and saddened by what I saw, both at campaign events and online. And now, post election, I hear well meaning folks saying we should all sing 'Kumbaya' and come together in unity. I hear some people saying we owe Mr. Trump an open mind. Well, I have to respectfully disagree on both counts. I want to make this abundantly clear; no one should ever unify, unite or align themselves with bigotry in any form. Nor do Americans owe Mr. Trump anything. On the contrary, he owes America an apology for having inflicted damage on the hardly fought progress that has been made to live up to the wisdom in that credo that says all of us are created equal. As for me, I have friends who are Black, Brown, Mexican, Immigrants, Muslim, LGBTQ, Female, etc.. I love these people. So I must kindly ask anyone who is a closet bigot or is prejudiced against any of these groups of human beings.. please refrain from sharing/saying/posting things that are obviously bigoted. I don't want to see or hear it anymore, as I do not share your prejudice nor do we see the world through the same lens. And if you are one who thinks most Black people are thugs, most Mexicans are crooks and most Muslims are terrorists.. and you cannot or will not refrain from sharing or speaking these kinds of sentiments, I'm afraid our friendship will suffer greatly, as I am one who strongly espouses that credo that ALL are created equal. The same goes for anyone who hated President Obama because he was Black or because you thought he was a 'secret Muslim'. So no, I'm sorry, but I will not be singing 'Kumbaya' or agreeing to align myself in any way to the presidency of a man whose path to the White House was made possible in part by the inciting of bigotry, fear and hate, and whose actions since being inaugurated already pose dangerous threats to Mother Earth and Native people. I will continue to hope and pray, and to contribute my efforts for a better, kinder, more inclusive world as I always have, but I just cannot and will not espouse or get behind most of what this deeply troubled man and his increasingly questionable administration stand for, so don't ask me to. For again, when it comes down to these words: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal...", there can be no compromise. And anyone who compromises on that indisputable wisdom remains in need of a change of heart....
This photo is a favorite of mine. I took it while on tour in Ireland. In the photo are two of my favorite people on this earth. On the left is Morten Wolf Storeide, who is from Norway. On the right is Brother Seamus Byrne, who is a monk from Ireland. They stand at the base of a tower that was built by the Irish monks in ancient times as an escape from the Norse, who would come to kill and destroy them. To see these two beautiful men – one of Norse heritage and the other of Irish monastic heritage – together as dear friends in this historically painful spot is a testament to the healing that can happen when love and peace reign supreme. It is easy – perhaps too easy – to look at the global picture and become cynical about the idea of human beings ever living together on this earth in peace. After all, for thousands of years up to the present we have demonstrated again and again how impossible we can make it to be at peace with each other. It seems almost an alien concept to us, this ‘peace’ idea. After all, I don’t think the way you do about lots of things, so how could I possibly live in total peace with you, right?
What is ‘peace’?
Is it the total absence of disagreement? Is it some kind of utopia in which no one has a differing opinion or an opposing view? I don’t think it is either of these things. Peace is a state of existence in which human beings with widely diverse views do not consider the inflicting of physical violence an option for intellectual discourse, period. Peace is not some gloomy place where people have all had a frontal lobotomy. Nor is it an idea that only makes sense to hippies and flower children. My friends and relatives, if humanity does not learn what real peace is, and find a way to it globally, well… I think we all know the answer.
So what will it take?
After countless centuries of war, it will at the very least take plenty of healing, education and enlightenment for humanity to find a worldwide peace. Or it may very well take a global cataclysmic event large enough to draw all of humanity together. Climate change would be such a thing. Regardless of the catalyst, the onus is on us. Peace will not be achieved by an angry minister shouting that he doesn’t care about offending someone he disagrees with any more than it will be achieved by an angry fundamentalist taking the life of another human being because he disagrees with them. Both are guilty of hate, and hate is not the way forward for humanity on this earth. We must learn – or relearn – the meaning of love. We must learn the power of humility, compassion, empathy and kindness. These virtues are not the traits of weakness. They require great strength and wisdom. This is the way to peace. Peace is not void of turbulence. It is the ability to navigate that turbulence with love….
Oh, by the way, Morten Wolf Storeide is the facilitator of The World Drum Project, a global vision that has sent a handmade drum to every continent on earth for people of all walks of life to touch it, play it and pray for world peace and healing.
And Brother Seamus Byrne is a healing music recording artist and spiritual teacher who has traveled the world sharing his message of grace, compassion and love. Both know the meaning of peace....
As always, I continue to pray and work for world peace, and ask you to join your unique and beautiful prayers, positive energy and love with mine....
Click these links for: John's Music ~ John's Books
As a new year begins, we look ahead and consider what it may bring. What does that mean to First Nations people? What do Indigenous, Native people hope for when considering the future? Here are some things I feel most American Indian and Indigenous people would agree are the dreams of new beginnings....
The other night, Leonardo DiCaprio won a Golden Globe for Best Actor for his role in ‘The Revenant’, a film which has a fair amount of First Nations actors. At the end of his acceptance speech, he strongly asserted that it is time the world heard the voice of Indigenous people. I applaud him for making that statement. For centuries, the Native voice has been twisted and misunderstood, forcibly silenced or utterly ignored by mainstream America and the rest of the western world. Humanity needed to hear that voice. It still does. The damage of the silent Indigenous voice can be seen globally, as the world now wrestles with human-inflicted climate change and an epidemic of dangerous religious extremism. The wisdom in the old ways of First Nations peoples is needed now more than ever, and that only comes if the world will listen and hear that voice. Also, if the voice of Native people is truly heard, mainstream society will no longer be able to ignore the continued use of tired, antiquated stereotypes and racially offensive terms and imagery which are in prominent every day use still today. A new voice for Native people requires those outside of our communities to join their voices with ours to affect positive change of all kinds.
There is a new day rising in Native communities across North America. I see it in my own Lakota community. There is a new generation of young, Indigenous people who are finding a deep strength in the traditions of their culture, and are passionate about ensuring a positive future for not only Native peoples, but for the planet and the world. First Nations communities everywhere are turning back to the traditional foods that once nourished a strong and healthy people. Native communities are looking at alternative energy sources like solar and wind to power the homes of their people. We have always known the way. We have just never had a voice. Part of the reason for that is the perpetuation of false, fantasy type imagery of our people by the mainstream society. How can you hear the voice of a people and take it seriously when all you know of them is a ridiculous stereotype? You cannot. So the new direction for Native people will require a new view of who and what we are (and were) by those outside of our communities.
A New Day
We can, and we must change. Humanity has no guarantee from the universe that we are to remain. What Indigenous people around the world have always known is that we are part of the web of life. We are not above it. We have always known that what we do to the delicate balance of that web, we do to ourselves. We must return to that balance. We must seek the wisdom of old ways for a new day. Native people have always known the way to a new beginning. Perhaps the time has finally come for the world to listen....
“What is the meaning of life?”, a question human beings have pondered for centuries. And yet, the answer is surprisingly simple. It’s only the explaining and understanding of that simple answer that can get complicated! So… is it purpose? Yes, having a reason for your life does give it meaning. In our Lakota way, we seek out that purpose through a custom called Hanbleciyapi — the crying for a vision, or vision quest, in which we go up on the mountain alone for several days and nights to ask Spirit to give us a vision for our life. So purpose is definitely a part of the meaning of life. But so is laughter! Yes, I said laughter. Finding and enjoying things that make you smile and laugh are also necessary to give meaning to our life.
What about service? Of course! There is nothing that enriches our lives more than those times when we serve. Whether it be another human being, or just the greater good, when we serve, we find meaning. We also find meaning through learning and enlightenment. Spiritual, emotional and intellectual growth help us to see the world and our lives through eyes more open, more illuminated and with more meaning. And then there is the biggie… love. Ohhhh yes, experiencing the power of love gives great meaning to our lives in both broad and intimate ways. But even love is only a part of that simple answer to the question, ‘what is the meaning of life?’.
So, what is it? What is the answer?!! My friends, the profoundly simple answer is this: the meaning of life, is to live. Yes, it is that simple, and yet how many of us do it? How many of us really live, and live fully? Having a vision, being enlightened, serving and loving, and experiencing laughter and happiness are the tenets of a life fully lived. Listen to your inner voice, it will tell you of your purpose, the gifts you have to give. Take the time to breathe in the beauty of your world, to celebrate its wonder and its mystery. So live, my friends. Live fully. Fully present in all your moments. Fully alive all of your days. For when you are fully alive, there is no need to ask, ‘what is the meaning of life?’.
~ John Two-Hawks
As I sit here tonight in Olympia, Washington, I find myself half way through the west coast leg of my ‘Horse Spirit’ U.S. Tour. Along the way, we have shared time with many wonderful, beautiful souls, and have witnessed the healing power of this new ‘Horse Spirit’ music. The concert experience takes the audience on a deeply moving journey, inviting all to ‘ride back into the wounds’ of the past, and rise up out the other side transformed and healed.
The Native flute itself is an instrument that can and does heal. It is a humble vessel, empty inside, with its ego out of the way, that allows spirit to flow freely through it. It was born of love, and of a broken and then mended heart. That power to mend became another of its uses, which continues to this day. It survived terrible cultural upheaval, and is now experiencing a worldwide renaissance. And why? Because the world is hurting and humanity has lost its connection to the earth, to simplicity, humility and wisdom. The essence of all Native music is its earth connection. Whether it is a Native flute, a hand drum or a powwow drum, the songs Native people bring forth from these instruments are about connection, honor and spirit.
With ‘Horse Spirit’, the music is weaved into a braid with the stories of the Chief Bigfoot Memorial Ride, the history of the massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890, and reflections about how we all must address our wounds in order to truly heal them, and that when we do, we restore our health, our purpose and our happiness. The response to this musical journey has been deeply moving for me. People are resonating with it, finding inspiration and meaning for their lives. What an incredible, humbling honor!
Wopila (Great Thanks) to all who have come out to attend my ‘Horse Spirit’ concerts, bought the album, and connected with it’s message. Together, we ride into the shadows, that we may claim the light....
Etiquette with Native People
And so we broach what can be a sensitive topic with this blog – etiquette – as it pertains to interacting with American Indian people. Right out of the gate we will address one. You notice I said ‘American Indian’, instead of ‘Native American’? Well my friends, that is on purpose. The term ‘Native American’ is a term that was invented by the U.S. Government, and a majority of First Nations people prefer other identifying terms. Having said that, no First Nations person is going to be upset by the term ‘Native American’! To keep things simple, I will use the term ‘Native people’ for this blog.
So, what does it mean to exercise etiquette toward Native people? Why is it even necessary?
The reason it is necessary is both historical and cultural. Historically, Native people were grossly misunderstood, misrepresented and often characterized in unflattering, inaccurate and even demeaning, insulting ways by the American government, mainstream media and society. A quick peruse through newspaper articles of the past about American Indian issues will plainly illustrate the warped historical view most Americans had of Native people in those times. Those warped views continue today in many ways, some subtle and some more obvious (obvious at least to Native people). The problem with these misconceptions is that they cause injury to Native peoples, injury in the form of racism, teenage suicide (3 times the national average), violence against Native people, alcoholism, epidemic poverty and many other socio-economic issues. This is why it is very necessary to understand and exercise etiquette with Native people.
So, to keep things light and positive, I will focus more on the ‘dos’ than the ‘don’ts’! Here are a few for you:
There are, of course, a lot more ‘dos’ and many ‘don’ts’, but the basic message here boils down to respect. To give someone, anyone, respect, you must see them as an equal. You must see them as human, and not a caricature, a villain, a hero, a mascot or a romanticized fantasy character. To respect a Native person, one must treat them as just that – a person - and not anything more or anything less. We are people. We are human beings; human beings with incredibly diverse human traits, complex cultural traditions and ancient complicated histories. We are not the two dimensional buffalo head nickel, Edward Curtis portrait, sports team mascot cartoon characters much of the mainstream western world has painted us to be. It is necessary to discuss etiquette toward Native people, frankly because it is so often not practiced. So, in summation, etiquette just means to be decent, polite, respectful and gracious. Apply those simple graces to your interactions with Native people as you would any other person, and we may just get to know each other for who we really are!
My friends, as I write this the time is 1:00am. I have been outside tonight, looking up at the sky and breathing in the silence of the forest that surrounds my Ozark Mountain home. It is in these quiet moments alone that I have always found my solace. The forest has always been my teacher. Even as a boy, I never did well learning inside of a square box. I still have an elementary school teacher’s report card informing my mother that I did ‘too much daydreaming’ in class. Indeed, it was true. My daydreams were my escape from the coldness of that square box. I did not fit there in that place with the desks all in their neat little rows and life’s questions in tidy numbered lines on paper. No, the lessons that have guided me throughout my life have always come from the wonderfully untidy, vastly complex, nonlinear order of nature.
Tonight’s lesson was in the sky. The air was warm, and the clouds were thick, yet patchy. And they were rolling, moving fast. As I sat with my eyes cast upward, every so often the clouds would part, revealing the starry sky and the moon behind them. Then they would close back up and hide the stars from my sight once again. It was beautiful to watch this atmospheric motion of life. So, what’s the lesson? Allow me…
Sometimes our life can fill up with things that block out the light, things that keep us from seeing clearly. Those things are like clouds, swirling and billowing and impeding our view. In cloudy times, we can get confused; we can lose our perspective and even our faith. It is easy to want to look away and not face things. And yet, if we find the courage to fix our eyes on the swirling, billowing things we can’t make sense of, an amazing thing happens; the clouds part and the truth is revealed. The light shines through, even if only for a moment, and wisdom is given to us. Answers are given to us. Direction is given to us. And clarity is given to us. So, no matter how dim your view may be; no matter how hard it may be to see clearly, keep your eyes fixed on those cloudy things, because they will open up when the moment is right and show you the way to the stars…
A Tribute to Grandpa Bob
I am very sad right now. My hunka Grandpa Bob passed away today at 1pm CST. Hunka, meaning he is a relative by way of a making of relatives ceremony. I am so glad we got to spend this last day with him. He was a man with an amazing life story. Born to a Yankton Sioux father and an Irish immigrant mother in Chicago in 1933, he was abandoned the first year of his life. His mother left the hospital after the birth and never returned. His father came to get him after he had been there a year and took him to the Yankton rez in Wagner, SD, where he lived for the next 5 years with his Yankton Sioux family. Then, one day in 1937 or 38 his dad put him in the car and drove him to St. Joseph's Indian School and gave him up. Grandpa Bob can remember when there were only 2 wooden buildings at St. Joseph’s Indian School. Adopted by a white couple (the Austins) from Chicago a year later, Grandpa Bob never saw his biological father again. And yet he never lost his sense of Sioux Indian identity, and thankfully, his adoptive parents fully supported it. Bob kept busy throughout his youth and into adulthood crafting everything from traditional regalia to birch bark canoes to tipis. He danced at powwows and kept active in all things American Indian.
Bob was taken by his parents to visit reservations in South Dakota on several occasions throughout his childhood. He recounted to me many of his memories of those times. On one trip, he was taken to a wacipi (dance) on Pine Ridge Reservation, and he remembered seeing the grass dancers wearing the actual grass on their regalia. He also remembered vividly the uncomfortable stares he got, presumably because of his lighter skin. Bob was Indian through and through, and yet the disconnect was painfully apparent, and I think it bothered him greatly, though he never spoke of it. Being a Native person with mixed ancestry is no easy road, as I can attest, and Bob’s road was incredibly difficult.
Bob served in the Army, survived the Korean War, and worked many different kinds of jobs over the years. He was married once, and his wife died quite young. He never married again. Through it all, Bob maintained his cultural connection by continuing to create traditional regalia, and dancing at powwows, as well as making countless trips to reservations in South Dakota. It was in early adulthood that he learned the ancient art of American Indian finger-weaving, and discovered that he had a real knack for the craft. Bob went on to become arguably the most prolific American Indian finger-weaver in Indian country, achieving true Master status (Grandpa Bob would laugh and downplay that statement for sure!). 50 years of weaving produced countless hundreds of pieces that simply cannot be rivaled by any other finger-weavings you will see anywhere. And now that he is gone, some of his secrets have gone with him.
Grandpa Bob blessed me in more ways than I can express. He was a teacher, a historian, a philosopher, a spiritual man, and a traditionalist. He was so deeply Indian that even total separation from his Sioux family could not suppress his natural identity, nor could it keep him away from being totally immersed in his culture. It was an honor of great measure to sit beside him all these years and learn from him. He knew so many of the subtle details of our old culture. He was full with wisdom, and with a wry sense of humor, always poking at himself for my amusement. I can’t tell you the endless hours I sat quietly listening to his stories and his thoughts, to have him stop now and then to say, “Now there I go blabbering again! Tell me about what you have been doing!” In no time he’d be headlong into another story and I’d be happy to be listening again.
I am going to miss those stories. I am going to miss looking into those old Sioux eyes and seeing that twinkle of mischief. And I am going to miss those awkward hugs he would give Peggy and I when it was clear he never wanted us to leave. I love you Grandpa Bob. I always have. I always will. You taught me so much about what it takes to be true to yourself, even when it seems impossible. You are my hero. May you find your ancestors waiting at the fires on the other side. Until then…. Toksa ake!
We are on tour in Florida as I sit down to write. Since we have been here, Peggy has been collecting sea shells. For a week and a half, during our walks on the beach, she has kept her eye out for shells, which for whatever reason were quite scarce. And the shells she did find, though lovely, were all rather small. So, for many days she dug in the sand, toiling to fill her pockets with the little beauties. Then, yesterday, we were taken to a beach a few miles down from where we had been taking our usual walks. We were not thinking about shells, just sightseeing with a new friend, going with the flow. When we stepped onto this beach, there at our feet were piles and piles of the biggest and most wonderful shells! In minutes we gathered more sea shells than we had the entire previous week and a half! So, what is the point of this story?
Sometimes, in this life, we find ourselves stuck in the same place, only able to dig up barely enough to fill our pockets. This does not mean that those times are a waste. It’s good to keep digging! And those small things we find in those times and places are a blessing. The wisdom here is to keep your eyes open for the opportunity to take a journey, to explore another place, another view. For when you do, you just may find an abundance of what you seek in that new place, and all that digging and learning you did about how to spot what you seek will finally be rewarded.
So keep searching for your sea shells. Even if they are small, they are still beautiful. And keep your spirit open to receive the invitation to go someplace beyond the familiar. And when it comes, go with it. Take your mind off your sea shell searching and just enjoy the ride. That will be when the miracle happens. Such is the pathway to a purposeful, rewarding, enriching and happy life.
original native foods
A partial list of the foods originally developed or discovered by Indian people
(Most of these foods were Indigenous only to the Americas, meaning they did not grow anywhere else in the world)
Corn - all types including sweet, flint & popcorn
Beans - almost all types including: Pinto, Lima, Kidney, Navy, Red, White, Black, Green (String, Pole, French, Snap), Butter, Great Northern and Wax
Squash - all types including Zucchini, Acorn, Spaghetti, Crook-neck, Summer, Winter and Butternut
Tomato - all types including Red, Yellow and Orange, from cherry to melon size
Potato - 250 varieties grown (20 varieties are 75% of total harvest)
3,000 varieties were developed by the Incas
Cacao (Cocoa & Chocolate come from this)
Peppers - all types including Green, Chili and Banana
Sunflowers (the seeds and oil as well),
Indigenous food today
Restoring Our Future by Reclaiming Our Past
And so here we are, 150+ years after the ancient, healthy diet of American Indian people was so forcefully and drastically altered, causing a litany of health problems leading to the lowest life expectancy in the U.S. (statistics on Lakota life expectancy: 48 for males, 52 for females). And yet, as I said at the end of my last blog, that is not the end of the story! We are still here. We have survived. And now there is a new focus and purpose spreading across Indian country. Indigenous Nations across North America are rising up and reclaiming their culture, their traditions, their rights and their sovereignty. With this reawakening, Native people are beginning to also reclaim their food heritage.
In Lakota country, there is an organization called the Lakota Lands Recovery Project, which is working to restore tribal lands to the Lakota families they were allotted to. As part of this effort, the project is also focused on educating our communities about how to locate their lands and identify the options and procedures for recovering, protecting, utilizing and managing those lands. Another great facet to the Lakota Lands Recovery Project is that they are supporting the restoration of the traditional ecology, economy and culture surrounding the buffalo. Nothing could be more important to Lakota people than the reestablishment of our deep connection to tatanka. An example of that vision for the future of our Lakota diet is Tanka Bar, a company located on the Pine Ridge reservation. Tanka Bar applies the ancient Lakota traditional food customs of combining buffalo meat with fruit, while making their products marketable and easily consumable for today’s world.
Another great example of American Indian people reclaiming their food heritage is the local food system being built and implemented by the Sac and Fox tribe of the Mississippi/Meskwaki Nation. Through its ‘Meskwaki Food Sovereignty Initiative’, they have developed an organic farm called ‘Red Earth Gardens’, a 40 acre farm consisting of fruits, vegetables, herbs, flowers and cover crops, as well as a 1.5 acre community garden, cooperative incubator space, and hay and conservation habitat. The Initiative aims to restore the tribal community connection to Mother Earth and their rich, organic, healthy indigenous food heritage.
A school garden, tended by the students, provides produce for the school cafeteria salad bar. Not surprisingly, the students love the salad bar! The yield from Red Earth Gardens is sold through Tribal Supported Agriculture shares, a farm stand at the Meskwaki Trading Post, the Toledo Farmers Market, the casino, grocery stores and restaurants, thus providing economic resources for the Meskwaki Nation.
Stories like these are the buzz of the times across Indian country. Everywhere, American Indian communities are reclaiming their right to eat the way their ancestors knew so well. It is way of wisdom…. a way of acquiring, respecting and honoring our food, so that we may be the strong and healthy people we once were. A new day is dawning for the Indigenous Nations of North America; a new era of sovereignty, self determination and self reliance. Our cultures were devastated in every way imaginable. And yet, we remain. And so we reclaim all that makes us who we are, including how we eat. Thus the Indigenous food of our future is tied to the Indigenous food of our past. Together they make a sacred bundle, reconnecting us to our history with a vision for our future.
From bounty to leftovers
The 'Whites' Invade the Indigenous Diet
It is not my intention to be a ‘Debbie Downer’ here! However, I feel it is important to know that these drastic changes to the American Indian diet were the direct result of military force and were a conscious decision by the U.S. government at that time.
Before European contact it is estimated that there were some 30 to 60 million buffalo roaming North America. With the outright intention of literally starving Plains Indian people into submission, the U.S. government made a conscious decision to call ‘open season’ on all buffalo anywhere at any time by anyone. Colonel Richard Dodge said in 1867, “Every buffalo dead is an Indian gone.” And so they shot them…. from moving trains, killed them en masse for only their hides and tongues, and brought the American Bison to the brink of extinction in just 40 years, from 60 million down to just 600. The same was done in the southwest during 1863 – 1864, a period in which tens of thousands of sheep were slaughtered by the U.S. Calvary, thus crippling the Dine’ (din-AY – ‘Navajo’) people. Another example is the Ponca People being forcibly removed from their homeland on the Niobrara, where they had long been farmers and agriculturalists. And the Pacific Coastal Peoples being taken away from their ancient fishing traditions and pushed onto reservations. The examples and tragic stories are, of course, endless.
And so the reservation period began, and with it came ‘the whites’. What ‘whites’ am I referring to? Why of course – flour, sugar, salt and milk! Yes, for the first time in the ancient history of American Indian people, whole milk and these forms of flour, sugar and salt were introduced to the indigenous diet in large doses. Even by today’s standards we know that too much of any of these ingredients in any diet can be detrimental to our health. But being that the diets of Native American people had never included milk, and such high concentrations of white flour, sugar and salt, the effects on the overall health of Indian people were, and still are, devastating. The introduction of fatty meats like pork and even beef also had adverse effects on the indigenous diet. Not to mention the fact that food rations from the U.S. to Indian reservations were often spoiled, rotten or short in supply.
The long term result for American Indian cultures across the country was, and still is, near epidemic problems with obesity, diabetes, heart disease, terrible dental problems and countless other diet related health issues. And so it is that, by force, the indigenous diet went from being a robust, healthy, organic, local foods driven way of eating, to a destructively unhealthy diet of flour, sugar, salt and cheap, overly processed foods. Before the introduction of these items, it is noted by historians of the times that Native people were strong, lean and healthy, with good teeth and were in great physical condition. The adverse results of the forced change to the indigenous diet not only affected the physical health of Indian people, but their mental state of mind, and their socioeconomic well being. But that is not where the story ends. Stay tuned for my next blog for some great news on what is happening now throughout Indian country!
Did you know that over 62% of the food that people around the world enjoy today was originally introduced by the indigenous people of the Americas? That’s right; everything from tomatoes to pecans to popcorn to potato chips was given to the rest of the world by the Native people of North and South America. So where did all this agriculture begin?
Let me take you back….
In ancient times, tens of thousands of years ago, the indigenous people of these lands acquired their food by picking the fruits of nature’s yield where they could be found, fishing, or hunting for small or large game. And yet, Native people were way ahead of the curve when it came to developing agriculture, and the preservation and domestication of food. For example, American Indian people invented raised bed gardening over 4,000 years ago, irrigation techniques over 10,000 years ago, and terraced farming over 3,700 years ago.
Here I’d like to share a couple personal stories of American Indian food customs that date back thousands of years….
My good friend, the late E. Donald Two Rivers, once told me of a wild rice gathering tradition among his people, the Ojibwe (Chippewa). They go out into the marshes in a canoe that has had its inner floor thoroughly cleaned. They bring two sticks with them. With one stick, they gently bend the wild rice shoot toward the boat. With the other stick, they strike the shoot. Any wild rice pods that are ripe will fall into the bottom of the boat, and any that are not, stay on the shoot to keep growing. They do this all day long, and at the end of the day, the bottom of the boat is full with wild rice!
In my culture (Lakota), we have a traditional food called wasna (wash-nah), which is a blend of dried tatanka (bison) meat and fruit. Wasna was used as sustenance by our ancestors when they were on travels, hunts or journeys which took them away from the community for any length of time. It was packed with energy giving nutrients, and was a staple for our people for countless centuries. We still eat wasna today. It was given to all of us on several occasions during the Chief Big Foot Memorial Ride. I consider wasna a ‘big medicine’ food, because it gives your body and your spirit strength and energy.
So we have been at this food making, developing, cultivating and innovating for tens of thousands of years. Food related health problems like heart disease or diabetes among our people were unheard of. We were a strong, healthy, and robust people with a closeness to the earth, and therefore, to our food. We respected it, honored it, and valued it greatly. Our American Indian ancestors viewed their food with reverence, and treated it as such, understanding that if what you eat is healthy and strong, you will be too….
John Two-Hawks - Grammy nominated Native American Flute Music Recording Artist, author, activist and speaker. FULL BIO