First Nations


ou would think, after so long a silence, that I would have something more profound to say. I fear I must disappoint you. There are many reasons I have not been blogging, some of them trivial, some of them more compelling, but I don’t think any of them have produced in me any new wisdom or wit.

My job has me writing a lot each week: weekly newsletters, press releases, editorials, forwards and introductions to books—that sort of thing. I’ve also been participating in a weekly short fiction writing group (500 words max, on an assigned topic, in a very short time limit); a couple of the pieces have been recorded and aired on a public radio station in Kentucky, though I feel shy about posting any of them here. I’m not entirely sure why.

However, all this writing, coupled with an over-eager participation on Facebook, means my urge to simply write found other outlets; and as I was not moved by any great need to expound at length on any subject, the blog languished. Since May of 2010, I have written only five blog posts.

The big event last year was of course the illness and death of my friend Lee, my dear friend Adam’s wife. I am not sure what to say about it just now—a few sentences couldn’t begin to express how it affected me; I doubt that a few hundred pages could do much better. What shocked me, though, was the depth of the grief I experienced. Even though I could understand and rationally explain what her death was touching in me, on an emotional and spiritual level I found myself quite unable to cope with the intensity of the pain and loss I was experiencing. And it set off a recurrence of the terrible depression that nearly took my life a decade ago; the only difference is that now it is more dangerous, since I am far less willing, or perhaps able, to tolerate it: It must stop, I told myself, and stop soon, one way or another. There is no longer any thought of living with it chronically.

In the 1920s, Carl Jung coined the word synchronicity, which he described as “meaningful coincidences” and as the “acausal connecting principle.” In rapid succession I had my spiritual worldview rocked, ran painfully into walls where I had previously experienced open vistas, discovered some remarkable Chinese herbs that work far better than any antidepressant I have ever encountered, began questioning my purpose in life, and found myself in the office of an astonishingly gifted psychotherapist pouring as much of my life’s story as I could into a fifty-minute session. Meaningful coincidences indeed! In the space of two months it feels as if much has changed in me forever.

I am eager to see what this next phase of my life brings. And I thought it might be useful to start blogging again, not only to keep you all in the loop, as it were, but also to help me clarify my ideas. As E.M. Forster put it so succinctly, “How can I tell what I think till I see what I say?”

You may have noticed that the blog has a new design. From the first I’ve called it “Notes from the Dreamtime,” but I’ve never really talked about where the name came from.

The term “Dreamtime” is a translation of Altjeringa or Altcheringa (it may also be translated “the Dreaming”). Altjeringa is a word in the Arrente language spoken by aboriginal Australian tribes living in the Northern Territory, around Alice Springs. The traditions and lore of Australia’s indigenous peoples belong to what may be the oldest continuous culture on Earth—around 50,000 years.

The Altjeringa is both a sacred “once upon a time,” a time out of time when ancestral totemic spirit beings formed all of creation, and the spiritual realm itself. Anthropologist and historian W.E. H. Stanner rather saliently called it “the Everywhen,” since it is experienced as a confluence of past, present, and future. Indigenous Australians consider the Everywhen of the Dreaming to be objective, while linear time was considered a subjective construction of waking consciousness of one’s own lifetime—the precise opposite of our usual way of looking at things. The Dreaming is the sacred, timeless, creative ground of being—and the continual source of all things that are manifest in our world.

So that’s what I hope to write about. There are great cobwebs in my brain, and heart, and I hope to use these pages to help sweep them away and create room for new things to come forth. My great error has been in thinking that I needed to have Something Important to Say; the truth is, all I need is to tap into the Dreamtime, and talk about what I find there.

Categories: Depression, Dreams, Earth-based Religions, First Nations, Shamanism, Writing | 3 Comments


I have officially achieved coffee Nirvana.

A couple of years ago I stumbled upon Raven’s Brew Coffee Roasters, a marvelous coffee company in Ketchikan, Alaska. Easily the best coffee I have ever tasted. Extraordinarily high-quality beans, perfectly roasted. Even better, they’re big proponents of sustainability: they use shade-grown, organic, and naturally-processed coffee beans in most of their blends, and support small family growers through their buying practices.

aeropress Last week I stumbled upon the Aerobie AeroPress, an espresso and coffee maker that gives French press quality coffee without the bitterness or sediment. The reviewers, even jaded coffee connoisseurs, were going overboard in their praise (as one friend would say, “raving, foaming at the mouth, falling over backward”), so I ordered one, and made my first cup this morning.

It was, as I said, Nirvana. Silky smooth, full-bodied, rich, incredibly flavorful, and bringing out all the subtleties of the coffee as well as its strengths, even with cream added. A new shipment of Raven’s Brew arrived just yesterday. So today I had my old standby, Wicked Wolf. But I also ordered an old favorite, Skookum Blend.

When we read the Skookum Blend motto—“Halo Wau-wau, Muckamuck Kaupy,” which they translate as “Shut up and drink the coffee”—Adam was as fascinated with their use of Chinook jargon as I was. I had been familiar with only a few words and phrases before: tilikum (friend), tumwater (waterfall, literally “heartbeat water”), potlatch (the great gift-feast which underlay the Pacific Northwest Coast people’s economic and political systems), and of course hyas muckamuck (the “big dogs” who sit at the head table during feasts), but reading the Wikipedia article on the subject was nearly as stimulating as the coffee itself.

It even prompted Adam to write a poem about the coffee. The poem, appropriately enough, is called “Skookum,” which is Chinook jargon for “strong.” (I sent a copy of the poem to Raven’s Brew, but they must have never received it, or surely it would now be printed on their coffee bags or displayed prominently on their website.)

Here, then, is Adam doing a public reading of “Skookum,” from his forthcoming collection Identity Theft:


by Adam Byrn Tritt

I had this dream.

A longing. A thirst.

I would go to the Pacific Northwest
And live among the tall trees.
Wake to cedar and coffee,
Fish for salmon,

I would learn from the Chinook,
Keep my mythos close to me,
Prosper from the green land,
Take life as pleasure.

I even learned their Trade Jargon,
The Chinook Wau-wau so much the
Creole of the Pacific Northwest.

I am called there but
It is a battle upstream
And I am exhausted,

I am too busy working to spawn.

Listen to me.
As we sit here across this table,
As I decide what to wear,
Think about how long my day will feel,
Taste the dry breakfast I eat of need
And not desire,
I sip the strong splendor;
My salvation in a cup,
My blessed Skookum.
As I listen to you drone—
Your day, our life,
How good it all is—
All I want to say is
Halo Wau-wau, Muckamuck Kaupy:

“Shut Up and Drink the Coffee.”

Categories: First Nations, Food and Diet, Poetry Sundays | 5 Comments


Yesterday was my grand-niece Jillian’s first birthday. Six weeks after she was born, Mom got a visit from the whole tribe: my brother Darryl and his wife Janet; my niece Jenny and her husband Mike (I performed their marriage ceremony); my other niece, Tracy; and my other brother, Dale, and his wife Nilda. All so Mom could meet little Jillian. Jillie, as everyone calls her.

Mom was already starting to fade by this time last year. Dale and Nilda had tried to visit every other week, but sometimes Mom didn’t feel up to letting them come, and when they did visit, often she felt she needed to “tune out.” I think family visits just overwhelmed her.

The day everyone brought Jillie to see her great-grandma, Mom wasn’t feeling at all well, but she wasn’t going to let this opportunity slip by. I think she had willed herself to hold on until after she met this precious gift of a child. Everyone crowded into Mom’s bedroom, and we all oohed and cooed and made baby noises, and then Mom got to hold her: Continue reading

Categories: Death, Family, First Nations, The Medicine Wheel | 5 Comments

Finding Directions

I have always been fascinated by maps. Not handsome, historical maps, but ones I might actually use. These days I spend an absurd amount of time on Google Maps or finding myself frustrated by various trip routing software. I’ve just bought a cheapo GPS for my car.

Part of it is that I get lost rather easily. For a while, when Indigo Bunting lived in Maryland and her husband lived in Vermont (both because of job demands), she was flying up to see him periodically and I would pick her up from the airport, one I have been to dozens and dozens of times. And every single time, on the trip back home, I would take a wrong turn somewhere and get us lost. Twice, maybe three times, I have picked up a friend at Orlando International and have gone west toward Tampa instead of east toward home. I think I make the mistake of thinking I can talk and drive at the same time, when I can barely manage to do even one of them adequately.

The deeper pull of maps seems to be tied to two things: a sense of being lost in the world, and needing some kind of spiritual cartography program that will help me navigate life a little better; and the notion that the inner landscape of the soul can be described, at least symbolically, in an image that is found in the iconography of countless cultures.

The indigenous peoples of this continent (though I prefer the Canadian term, “First Nations”) call this image the Medicine Wheel.

Continue reading

Categories: Earth-based Religions, First Nations, Shamanism, The Medicine Wheel | 5 Comments

Africa in Perspective

I found this utterly fascinating.

Categories: First Nations, Politics | Leave a comment

Oglala Sioux Could Regain Badlands National Parkland

The National Park Service is considering giving back the southern half, which was confiscated from the Indian tribe during World War II.

By Nicholas Riccardi, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
June 8, 2008

BADLANDS NATIONAL PARK, S.D. — The southern half of this swath of grasslands and chiseled pink spires looks untouched from a distance. Closer up, the scars of history are easy to see.

Unexploded bombs lie in ravines, a reminder of when the military confiscated the land from the Oglala Sioux tribe during World War II and turned it into an artillery range. Poachers who have stolen thousands of fossils over the years have left gouges in the landscape. On a plateau, a solitary makeshift hut sits ringed by empty Coke cans and shaving cream canisters. It is the only remnant of a three-year occupation by militant tribal activists who had demanded that the land be returned.

Now the National Park Service is contemplating doing just that: giving the 133,000-acre southern half of Badlands National Park back to the tribe. The northern half, which has a paved road and a visitor center, would remain with the park system.

The park service has dissolved 23 parks and historic sites since 1930, but none has been returned to tribes. “It’s really exciting for us to think about walking down this road,” said Sandra J. Washington, head of planning for the service’s Omaha office, which oversees Badlands. “The intention is to be as honorable as possible.” Continue reading

Categories: First Nations, Social Justice | 2 Comments

Lakota Group Secedes from U.S.

By Bill Harlan, Rapid City Journal
Friday, December 21, 2007

Political activist Russell Means, a founder of the American Indian Movement, says he and other members of Lakota tribes have renounced treaties and are withdrawing from the United States.

“We are now a free country and independent of the United States of America,” Means said in a telephone interview. “This is all completely legal.”

Means said a Lakota delegation on Monday delivered a statement of “unilateral withdrawal” from the United States to the U.S. State Department in Washington.

The State Department did not respond. “That’ll take some time,” Means said. Continue reading

Categories: First Nations, Politics, Social Justice | 15 Comments

Pampering a Mysterious Deity with Presents and Rum

By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, September 26, 2007; Page A14


The shaman looked annoyed. Slivers of light cut through cracks in the thin wooden walls of the house at the end of a slippery mud street, illuminating his glare of disapproval. The kids in the back of the tiny room were giggling, but for the shaman this was a solemn moment. The look he shot them shut them up.

It was 1:15 p.m., time to worship the statue of Maximón, a squat, roughly carved wooden deity beloved here by those who believe in his power to grant favors and feared for punishing those who do not pay him proper respect. Maximón, pronounced maw-she-MAWN, occupies a space between the polar tugs of Guatemalan spiritual life, Catholicism and evangelism, neither of which approves of him. His origins are a mystery. Some say he is a modern version of a long-forgotten Mayan god. Others say he represents a martyred holy man. Still others merely shrug their shoulders.

Great gusts of smoke rose out of the metal bucket the shaman filled with burning incense. The bucket swung back and forth, and the shaman began to pray in the Mayan Tzutujil dialect. Strands of Christmas tree lights, slung over a separate, glass-encased statue, twinkled. A pinwheel of flashing lights spun round and round. Incongruously, the notes of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” slipped tinnily out of a palm-size speaker dangling from the wall. Continue reading

Categories: Christianity, First Nations, Shamanism | Leave a comment

Braving the Past

Shaman wisdom, psychology treat post-traumatic stress disorder

Anchorage Daily News | September 17, 2007

After a lifetime of losing friends and family members, including two cousins who killed themselves in a 12-month period, Roy Hancock went on a three-week drunk last year.

As he paced the floor of an abandoned house in Chistochina, he thought about grabbing a pistol and shooting himself. That’s when a friend showed up and invited him to an unusual therapy program in Anchorage.

Hancock, 45, agreed to go.

“It was that, or put a bullet in my head,” he said.

The program, called White Raven Center, treats clients who suffer symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, a severe and stubborn reaction to trauma that includes symptoms such as nightmares, emotional detachment or severe depression.

The disorder is often associated with returning combat soldiers or firefighters who searched the New York City rubble after Sept. 11, 2001.

But it’s common in rural Alaska too, where cultural upheaval mixed with alcoholism has pushed rates of suicide and family violence among the nation’s highest, psychologists say.

The White Raven Center, run by Floyd Guthrie, a Tlingit shaman, and his wife, Marianne Rolland, practices a cathartic therapy that allows clients to revisit memories and unleash feelings in a group setting, often with powerful results. Continue reading

Categories: First Nations, Shamanism | Leave a comment

Of Shamans and Storms: A Shishmaref Story

by Marie Ryan McMillan

On one of my last days in Shishmaref, I heard the story of the last shaman. In it, the village’s last shaman walked under a large whalebone arch and disappeared. Just like that. My students were unwilling to tell me more, and when they approached the remains of the arch (virtually next door to the island’s only church), they ran, ducking and giggling nervously.

This story has always dogged me. Why was he the last shaman? And why did he feel his only choice was to disappear from this barrier island in the Chuckchi Sea? It’s hard to imagine people like me weren’t one reason: schoolteachers, clergy and social workers, all white, all from somewhere else, all good intentioned. Did we make the shaman obsolete, like a laid off iron worker? Continue reading

Categories: First Nations, Shamanism | 2 Comments

Jungle Fever

The chattering classes are heading to the Amazon in search of esoteric highs. Are shamans the new shrinks?

by Clover Stroud
The Sunday Times
September 9, 2007

At a dinner party in Gloucestershire, Lucy, a mother of three, is regaling her guests with details of her last trip abroad. She has honeyed limbs and high-maintenance hair, suggestive of regular villa breaks in Ibiza or Tuscany. But earlier this year, as a 40th-birthday present to herself, she went to Brazil for a 10-day guided retreat in the Amazon, where she underwent a series of plant rituals involving the powerful hallucinogen ayahuasca. “It was as far removed from taking normal party drugs as you can imagine,” she says, eyes glittering. “It was frightening and extraordinary.”

Lucy’s experience is symptomatic of a collective search for a complete wilderness experience as a panacea for our troubled souls. “I went to the Amazon because I felt my whole life needed shaking up, and I just didn’t know how to do that in England. I had everything I wanted, in terms of a stable marriage, lovely kids and a nice home, and although I knew I shouldn’t feel dissatisfied, I did. I wanted to reconnect with myself and the way I live before I got much older.”

Deep immersion in a faraway jungle is the latest fix for those stuck in the cultural, spiritual or personal malaise that besets many in the 21st century. Having an extreme psychological experience such as ayahuasca at the same time makes it all the more desirable. The Brighton-based writer and therapist Ross Heaven, author of Plant Spirit Shamanism, has been leading trips into the Amazon for 10 years. “In the 1990s, only real new-age devotees had heard of ayahuasca, but the sort of person going on retreats has changed dramatically,” she says. “I’m taking a trip in October that will include account managers, business professionals, a media figure, a conventional doctor and a nurse. People are getting turned on to the fact that in the Amazon we can learn something about the wisdom of native culture and the psychological healing aspects of the plants there, while also gaining from personal exploration and creativity.”

It was inevitable that we would find a faster, harder, more esoteric replacement for yoga. As eastern mysticism starts to look a bit, well, passé, people are looking elsewhere for their spiritual kicks. They now have a desire to immerse themselves in an extreme environment, which is why the Amazon has never been as hot as it is now. Sting and Madonna first swung our global eyes to the rainforest in the 1980s. But then we forgot about it as we turned our gaze back to organic vegetable boxes and carbon footprints.

Now, once more, the Amazon is gripping our attention: the interest in ayahuasca is emblematic of a growing fascination with tribal life. A rumbling collective disquiet suggests that we’ve got it all wrong, and that it is those naked men in the jungle — whom we might once have dismissed as savages, or patronised by buying their handcrafted tables for our fashionable lofts — who have actually got it all right. Could it be that such tribes might hold a key to global salvation? Shamanism and ayahuasca are slipping into the spiritual dialogue of the chattering classes where once there was ashtanga and kabbalah. Continue reading

Categories: First Nations, Healing, Nature, Shamanism | 2 Comments

The Shaman Is In

A tiny Amazonian village mixes traditional healing and modern medicine

by Andy Isaacson
Utne Reader, September / October 2007 Issue

At an intertribal gathering of shamans held last spring deep in Amazonia’s northern fringe, a stout elder from Brazil’s Waura tribe offered an impassioned plea. “Please,” he urged fellow healers from Colombia and Suriname, “don’t let the medicine die.”

His appeal did not fall on deaf ears. In Kwamalasamutu, Suriname, where the shamans convened, an innovative model is leading the effort to preserve centuries of indigenous medicine by integrating traditional and Western practices into a thriving community health care system.

The cooperative nature of the effort is evident across the soccer field from where the shamans gathered. In a concrete building, a former missionary organization provides free primary health care, while next door, in a thatched-roof clinic, shamans wield medicines brewed from leaves, vines, and tree barks.

Five mornings a week, villagers trickle into the traditional clinic seeking remedies for a range of common complaints, from yeast infections to diarrhea. The shamans might look at the tendons of patients’ fingers or peer into their eyes before turning to the bottled elixirs they keep in a solar-powered freezer. Or the shamans might refer them to their neighbors for treatment.

So far, three other rural villages in southern Suriname have built similar clinics, replicating a cost-effective model for indigenous health care that’s been hailed by UNESCO and the World Bank and was one of 10 finalists this year for the prestigious Seed Award for innovation in local sustainable development.
Continue reading

Categories: First Nations, Healing, Shamanism | Leave a comment

The Meaning of Community

This is a sermon I gave today. I was the guest preacher at the
Unitarian Universalist Church of Brevard
here in Melbourne, Florida.

I think “community” has gotten a bad rap. Say the word to some people, and they think of a group of crunchy New Agers sitting in a circle holding hands and chanting, or singing “Kum-ba-ya.” Say it to others and they hear the media’s overuse of the word—“the disabled community,” “the gay community,” “the African American community,” “the business community,” or most absurd of all (I heard this one on the radio recently), “the international community”—as if everyone in these groups have the same agenda or worldview!

A community is defined as a social group of organisms sharing an environment, normally with shared interests. In human communities you’ll usually find they also share beliefs. Resources. Preferences. Needs. Risks. How strong these elements are can determine their degree of cohesiveness, their identity as a community.

You’d think—or at least, I did—that the root meaning of the word “community” is “coming together as one.” But it’s not. The old Latin word communitatus comes from two even older words that mean “the changes or exchanges that connect people” and “small, intimate, or local.” And I think that’s incredibly telling. Continue reading

Categories: Christianity, First Nations, Shamanism | 8 Comments

Cannibal Tribe Apologises for Eating Methodists

by Nick Squires in Sydney | Daily Telegraph

[Just so they know: No apology will be either expected
or desired for any Baptists consumed. . . .*]

A tribe in Papua New Guinea has apologised for killing and eating four 19th century missionaries under the command of a doughty British clergyman. The four Fijian missionaries were on a proselytising mission on the island of New Britain when they were massacred by Tolai tribesmen in 1878.

They were murdered on the orders of a local warrior chief, Taleli, and were then cooked and eaten.

The Fijians — a minister and three teachers — were under the leadership of the Reverend George Brown, an adventurous Wesleyan missionary who was born in Durham but spent most of his life spreading the word of God in the South Seas.

Thousands of villagers attended a reconciliation ceremony near Rabaul, the capital of East New Britain province, once notorious for the ferocity of its cannibals. Continue reading

Categories: Christianity, First Nations, Humor | 14 Comments

Nazario Turpo: A Towering Spirit

by Edgardo Krebs
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, August 11, 2007; Page C02

After learning of the death of the Peruvian shaman Nazario Turpo, killed last month when the small bus he was riding in turned over in the Andean night, lines from “Beowulf” describing the burial of a Viking warlord kept ringing in my mind:

A ring-whorled prow rode in the harbour, ice-clad, outbound, a craft for a prince.

Something about the unadorned elegance of the Old English poem’s description seemed to evoke the loss of this singular man.

Nazario Turpo was a Quechua-speaking Indian from Pacchanta, a cluster of households in a valley dominated by Mount Ausangate in southern Peru. Nazario was a peasant, indistinguishable in that respect from many other Andean Indians who make their living herding alpacas and llamas, planting potatoes and weaving. He woke up every day before dawn to fetch water from a brook and, thus, set into motion another regular day of hard work in the household and the fields. He was married, and had four children and several grandchildren.

Two things made Nazario different: He was the son of Mariano Turpo and, like Mariano, he was a paqo.

Convention and ignorance would lazily translate paqo as “shaman,” a word that has us trained to picture an almost caricaturesque wise man, straight from central casting, capable of miracle cures and spiritual ministrations, of going, with his herbs, chants and rattles, where Western medicine and religion do not tread. Continue reading

Categories: Death, First Nations, Shamanism | Leave a comment

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