Sacred Fire Magazine Issue 12

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S A C R E D F I R E M A G A Z I N E .C O M






take on



of author



$7.95 U.S. / $9.75 CANADA




Indigenous Innovations


Photo by Kevin Schaefer

The Whole World is

Be still a moment. Listen with your heart. There are beings all around you. Don’t be afraid to hear them.

the ancestors the elders the living spirits of nature With their guidance we’ll thrive. Together.

Listen Deeply Be in conversation with the world





DEPARTMENTS Publisher’s Note

Acts of God

Our Contributors Editor’s Note

At Lost Park

The volcano in southern Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull glacier photographed on Saturday April 17, 2010. AP Photo/Arnar Thorisson

Conversations with the Earth The Pachamama Alliance The Tracking Project Hamaatsa Orphan Wisdom Traditions in Western Herbalism Tunefoolery Sacred Fire in the World The Earth & Spirit Council

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Matters of Death in Life | By Prema Sheerin

The Ways We Die


Logs for the Fire | By Chris Schlake

A Rite or a Ride

Reconnecting with the Earth | By Rina Burleson

Let Mosquitos Bite

Light and Shadow | By Rob Preece

In the Shadow of Goodness

Final Flicker | By Chief Arvol Looking Horse

Gulf Coast Oil Spill - Sioux Prayer Request





Flint and Tinder


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The Heart | By Maxima Kahn

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You’ve got our land, you’ve got a lot of culture, now you want our spirituality because you’ve got a hole in your hearts.




This is Not a Fairy Tale | By Jonathan Merritt

The world is speaking to us in loud voices. Are we willing to listen?


The Agreement | By Jaki Daniels


It’s Not a Calling. It’s In My Blood | By Deena Wade


How quiet must we get to hear the stories told by trees.

When her preparations and expectations prove inconsequential, the author discovers what it means to sit in the presence of a curandera. Lost Land, Lost Identity | By J. H. Baker

Denied the opportunity to speak at

the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, Eda Zavala pours out her heart in ceremony.




The author of several works featuring Indian wisdom has a heart tempered by 60 years of non-existence, an auditor of others’ experiences.

Gathering the Shamans to Save the Land | By Cynthia Frisch

An interview with Liliana Madrigal reveals how the Amazon Conservation Team achieved success by abandoning conventional land protection practices and following the guidance of shamans. The Maya Versus Monsanto | By Maria Owl Gutierrez

When GMO corn is poured into the land of the Maya, the People of the Corn, it threatens their heritage and their existence as a people.

Issues of Ultimate Concern: A Conversation with Kent Nerburn | By Sharon Brown

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Getting Good Wood | By Kent Nerburn

In the camaraderie of work a man opens up and speaks of things he would never share with a stranger. Talking With the Earth | By Jon Turk

Things break on the tundra. But when a pelvis breaks, where does a person go for healing? SACRED FIRE MAGAZINE / 3



Acts of God

What disasters tell us LIKE 200,000,000 OTHER PEOPLE IN

the world, I saw Avatar. Watching the film in 3-D was a magical immersion. While the storyline often felt predictable, I had a visceral longing to be part of the alien world, Pandora. The film offered a palpable experience of what “living in spiritual connection with all things” could feel like. Writer/director James Cameron created a world of “communicating umbilical cords” and “tree root-neural networks,” weaving a living web of plants, animals, ancestors and Pandora’s goddess deity. In this way all creatures could experience each other on an elemental level, and the audience could experience this connection viscerally through the film. Apparently Avatar struck a chord of longing in many people. I’ve read accounts of people so moved by the experience that they became depressed (some reports even say suicidal) when they “returned” to our culture and realized how sullied our natural world has become. (Hmmm... the main character’s name is Jake Sully. Did Cameron select that label of blind wastemaking consciously, or did that name arise from our own world’s wry creative spirit? After all, the gods do have a sense of humor.) Sully is a white ex-Marine who has a change of heart and leads the indigenous Na’vi people to victory against corporate raiders from Earth. The “white man saves the day” story caused many 4 / Issue 12

to accuse the film of racial bias, but despite complaints Cameron was in much demand by indigenous peoples of the world who found him an ally. When he spoke during April’s Ninth Session of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII), he brought an international spotlight to the battles being fought to protect native lands. But what will it really take to win the battle against environmental and cultural exploitation? Take a look again at Avatar. Was it the Na’vi people’s political gamesmanship, cunning guerrilla warfare or passionate commitment to activism that turned the tide and won the battle? No. For the Na’vi, all was lost—until Pandora, the planet herself, rose up and joined the fray. And what prompted her engagement? Prayer. Prayer was the secret, game-changing weapon. Specifically, the prayers of a white, male, dominant-culture mercenary: the prayers of the oppressor who offered an awkward but earnest plea to Pandora’s goddess for help. It was well known that the goddess would not “take sides” because she simply maintains the balance of life. But she took notice when the oppressor revealed his people’s darkness. When the exploiter acknowledged his role in the exploitation, offered up his horror and called upon the goddess for support, a tipping point came. Pandora unleashed her power

and rebalanced her world. Sigh. Don’t we all wish our Earth could do that? Ahh, but She can! And is! Our collective prayers that the Earth return to balance are being answered, though we may be surprised by Her response. Ask yourself—if Mother Earth were to rise up to rebalance our world, if She were to fight off the exploitation of Her “natural resources” and the perversion of Her natural law, what would it look like? Perhaps it would look like this: January 12, 2010: Haiti is hit by a 7.0 earthquake that kills 200,000 people and puts 3 million in need of emergency aid. February 5-10, 2010: two huge snowstorms bring 50 million people to a standstill in the U.S. causing economic losses of over 2 billion dollars. February 27, 2010: Chile’s 8.8 quake, the fifth strongest ever recorded, alters the earth’s axis and shortens the length of a day. March 20, 2010: fierce sandstorms blast Mongolian and Gobi Desert grit 1,600 miles into Beijing, overpowering the city for days and forcing 22 million

people to take shelter. March 21, 2010: Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull volcano spews fire and ash 65,000 feet into the stratosphere, shutting down European air travel for six days and stranding 10 million travelers. April 20, 2010: the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig explodes in the Gulf of Mexico. Two days later, on the 40th Anniversary of Earth Day, it sinks and begins leaking two million gallons of oil a day. May 3, 2010: responding to public outcry that BP should be held accountable for the Gulf oil spill, Texas Governor Rick Perry (r) warns against jumping to conclusions, claiming that the oil rig explosion was “just an act of God” that could not have been prevented. An act of God. Yes, I would agree (though perhaps I would change the phrase to Goddess). The Gulf oil spill was an act of God—a Goddess who is rising up to stop the insanity. Over centuries of “progress” we’ve forgotten Her; it is time we remember. Humans can be pretty thick-headed,


By Sharon Brown

Sacred Fire The Heart of the Living World Issue Number Twelve

stubborn and selfish. Many of us also require “proof” of things and say, “I’ll believe it when I see it.” Apparently it’s going to take some real fireworks to get everyone’s attention. Here comes 2012; sit back and watch the show. June 16, 2010, only a few days after BP began a new initiative to siphon and capture the oil, a bolt of lightning struck the deck of the containment tanker and set it on fire. That same day another bolt of lightning struck a six-story fiberglass statue of an evangelical Jesus Christ “King of Kings” and burned it to the ground. Perhaps God does not like Her name being used as an excuse for continuing deep water drilling. These events are sharp reminders: we are not in charge here, Creation is. Cycles of birth and death, of creation and destruction, are the face of Divine. Perhaps our roles in the current cycles of catastrophe are less about trying to figure out how to “change the world” and more about trying to figure out how to “connect with the world.” I saw a Buddhist bumper sticker once that said, “Don’t just

do something, sit there!” The message really resonated with me (and made me laugh). What’s needed in these times is not more action against the onslaught of “what’s wrong with the world” but a deeper connection and relationship with Her. What’s needed is not so much external action, but internal action. What’s needed is a revolution of heart. When this occurs, everything else falls into place. Hearts connected to the spirits of the land can never destroy the land. Hearts connected to the hearts of fellow humans cannot exploit those humans. When we recognize and embrace our true role in the web of creation, we can recognize and embrace the roles of all beings around us. As they say to each other (no matter the species) on Pandora, “I see you.” When we live from heart, we suddenly find that we make new choices, take new actions. Indeed, this is the most elemental form of activism from which all other forms must spring if they are to be effective. Want to change the world? Then help us bring about the Revolution of Heart. Pray. In your prayers don’t ask for an end to the oil spills, an end to the earthquakes, an end to the global warming. Pray that there be an opening in everyone’s heart to the livingness of this world. For that is the solution. Mother Earth, the Goddess, the Creator, the spirits of all, will take care of the rest. As she watched Avatar for the second time, Sharon Brown, publisher of Sacred Fire, was surprised to discover that she and Jake Sully have the same birthday, August 24, though she is 168 years his senior.



Letters We encourage readers to share their reactions to Sacred Fire by sending emails to or letters to 10720 NW Lost Park Dr., Portland, OR 97229. We reserve the right to edit submissions for length and clarity. Submissions We accept queries and unsolicited submissions of writing and illustration. See for guidelines. Email editorial inquiries to and illustration inquiries to Advertising Inquiries For an ad sales media kit, visit magazine/advertising sales or email Change of Address or Other Subscription Inquiries Email and include both your old and new address. Please allow 6 weeks for address change to take effect. Subscriptions In the United States: Four issues: $28, in Canada, $38, all other countries, $48 (all amounts in USD). Subscribe online at Single Copy Sales Bookstore sales in the United States: $7.95, Canada $9.95. Order single copies and back issues online at, $10 includes shipping within the U.S. Distribution Services Sacred Fire is available to newsstands in the U.S. and Canada through Ubiquity, Armadillo, Kent News, New Leaf, One Source, Ingram, Source Interlink and Disticor Direct Postmaster Please send address changes to: P.O. Box 7284, Santa Cruz, CA 95061-7284. Reproduction No part of this periodical may be reproduced without the written consent of the publisher. Any requests to reprint material appearing in Sacred Fire magazine must be made in writing and sent to

PUBLISHED BY SACRED FIRE FOUNDATION Sacred Fire Foundation fosters personal, cultural and environmental healing through the preservation and propagation of traditional indigenous lifeways. A 501 (c) 3 charitable organization, the Foundation seeks to revive “right relationship” between humanity and the natural world. The Foundation supports sources of ancestral wisdom through partnership and grants, and brings ancestral wisdom to the world through publishing and events.

SACRED FIRE FOUNDATION 71 N. Main Street P.O. Box 270 Liberty, NY 12754

Board of Trustees CHAIRMAN DAVID WILEY BOARD MEMBERS ALAN KERNER, ARTEMIA FABRE TREASURER AND ADMINISTRATION DIR. NANCY EOS EXEC. DIR. DEVELOPMENT WILL BERLINER EXEC. DIR. PARTNERS AND GRANTS SOFIA ARROYO EXEC. DIR. COMMUNICATION AND EDUCATION SHARON BROWN SECRETARY VICTORIA REEVES The opinions expressed by Sacred Fire contributors are not necessarily those of Sacred Fire magazine, the Sacred Fire Foundation, the Sacred Fire Community, and/or their respective staffs.



Deena Wade has an MFA in Writing & Poetics from Naropa University, Boulder, CO, and a BA in Environmental Studies. She is a certified massage therapist, writer and poet, artist, traveler, environmentalist, gardener, dog mom, awakening goddess, and evolutionary member of the Hudson Valley of New York. Her published work focuses on interviews with spiritual teachers, elders, and wisdom holders, as well as on sustainable living, gardening, spirituality and health. Maria Owl Gutierrez has been in service to her community as a spiritual teacher, counselor and healer for over twelve years. Her work is deeply rooted in indigenous wisdom, depth psychology and ecopsychology; it honors all spiritual faiths. Twice a year Maria’s organization, Ancient Path Vision 6 / Issue 12

Quests, takes small groups into the wilds of California for ceremonial fasting and prayer. Maria currently sees clients in Sebastopol, Sonoma County. For more information go to







Cynthia Frisch cultivates connections between Earth and people in businesses, organizations and communities through her company Gaia Global Consulting. Her seminar “Ancient Wisdom for Environmental Corporate Leadership” interjects traditional values into the modern dialogue about sustainable environmental practices. A facilitator of Pachamama Alliance’s Awakening the Dreamer, Changing the Dream Symposium and her own workshop The Power of Earth, she also serves as an Ambassador for Change with the Green Energy Council, where she integrates traditional earth wisdom into their Green Jobs Corp training.

Olivia Fuente graduated from the California College of the Arts with a BFA in Illustration. She has exhibited nationally and internationally while living in eight different cities, and has traveled extensively through thirteen countries. Her experiences with various lands, languages and cultures continue to inspire her work.

J.H. Baker lives and works in Asheville, North Carolina. After serving as a Conscientious Objector during the Vietnam War and following a career in the building trade, Baker now has the opportunity to follow the early call of the spiritual world. Part of that path involves writing about the wisdom of peoples throughout the world. Recent works include a compilation of notes titled Heard Around the Fire, the Teachings of Grandfather Fire available from the Sacred Fire Foundation.


Jon Turk received his Ph.D. in chemistry but left academia to wander the world’s great wildernesses. His passage across the North Pacific Rim was named by Paddler Magazine as one of the ten greatest sea kayaking expeditions of all times. Jon is a writer and a wandering storyteller. He gives workshops on connecting with nature. Jon’s newest book is The Raven’s Gift: A Scientist, a Shaman, and Their Remarkable Journey Through the Siberian Wilderness.


At Lost Park By Jonathan Merritt



our home that I like. Isolated and difficult to find, it’s a quiet place, bordered by blackberries, holding the remnants of an orchard, a tennis court, a small playground and an unkempt patch of forest. Only a few neighborhood people go there. Most prefer the plusher, newer park a half mile away with its great play structures and swings, its duck pond and level, closely mown lawn. At Lost Park I let the dogs off the leash and sit in the shade while my children play. Occasionally, I converse with other dog keepers or parents. But mostly, I like to listen to the wind through the high maples and across the shaggy grass. A few weeks ago I sat on a picnic table beneath an apple tree watching the dogs run. My daughter Maya swung high on the swings. Eli, my son, tried to engage four small children in one of his adventures, though they were too young to understand his game. A man and a woman sat on a park bench beside the playground carrying on an intermittent conversation. Suddenly, a tremendous cawing of crows broke the quietness. I looked to the sky and out of the east came a wheeling murder of twelve or thirteen crows, diving and screaming around a red-tailed hawk. The hawk was magnificent, gliding serenely on the wind, seemingly undisturbed by its whirling, cacophonous accompaniment. Surely, it could have beat its broad wings and

soared away. Pointing up, I shouted, “Look at that!” to the man and woman. The man looked at me dumbly and gazed back to the children. The woman didn’t respond. Somewhat baffled, I watched the hawk drift off over the maples and listened until the chorus of crows was out of range. What baffled me was that this short, tense drama of the hawk and crows was of no interest to the man and woman. Either their concern for the children, toddling in the bark dust and sitting at the base of the slide, was too great to turn their eyes away for a moment, or the wheeling of crows and gliding of hawk was simply inconsequential. Or, I thought, perhaps the interplay of the natural world was so foreign to their consciousness—conditioned by the speed and complexity of modern life—that it simply didn’t exist for them. I thought of the accounts of when European ships first sailed into the bays of Turtle Island, the native people couldn’t see them. The ships were so far out of the context of their experience that they simply didn’t exist— until the people on those ships engaged them. For many of us the interplay of the natural world is so separate from our daily lives that we’re oblivious to its intricate spectacles. We aren’t aware of the intimate beauty of sprouting, hatching and birth, the exuberance of growth, the ecstatic dances of courtship and mating,

the pursuits of life and death, or the joyous feasts that occur around us all the time. I don’t exempt myself from this. A little while later, as I walked through the forest, I was acutely aware of how little I knew of what lived there. Sure, I could identify blackberry and morning glory climbing over hawthorn and plum trees, maidenhair and sword fern beneath the maples and fir, dandelion, bull thistle, rye grass. I could hear squirrels, woodpeckers, chickadees and wrens. I saw spider webs and ant holes, slugs sliding across the path. But I knew almost nothing of the interrelationships of these beings. I did not know one tenth of the plants woven together in this forest patch. I could not smell the raccoon den or say what the ants were harvesting or see what kind of fly was hatching in the shade. Not that long ago this sort of knowledge would have been

vital—not just for nourishment and healing, but as a way of knowing the world. What was gathered or fished might depend on the songs of insects. The color of birch leaves might indicate the proper preparations for winter. But even more than that, the dramas of plants and animals, played out in raucous stories around the fire, gave a sense of our dependence on and obligation to the living world, our purpose and place in life. After a couple days, I went to Lost Park alone and sat in the forest patch. I watched ants milling through the duff, spiders hanging in their webs, birds flitting between the trees, squirrels running on thin branches, leaves shimmering in the sunlight and shadows playing across the ground. I can’t say I learned the meaning of life, or even understood much of what was going on. But when I left, I felt lighter and thoroughly entertained. SACRED FIRE MAGAZINE / 7



CONVERSATIONS WITH THE EARTH A vigorous deliberation about Earth’s future is taking place this very moment among authorities throughout the world. In the face of unprecedented upheavals in the familiar cycles of nature, expert witnesses are marshalling evidence, exchanging testimonies and implementing bold initiatives to ameliorate the devastating effects of drought, flooding, melting permafrost, extreme heat and disrupted habitat. Few of these policy-makers own a suit or a cell phone. What these analysts and advocates have instead is an unsurpassed

wealth of local knowledge. Highly versed in soils and sea currents, stars and snows, and all manner of animal migrations, indigenous and ancestral peoples from around the world have had their expertise tuned and tempered on the frontlines of climate change. And their stories are being told in an artful display of color and sound. The indigenous-led multimedia campaign Conversations with the Earth (CWE) is an intimate and detailed recounting of the everyday experiences, lessons and adaptive wisdom of those

communities most affected by the tumult of ecological imbalance. In a world where those least responsible for climate change are often the most affected, CWE blends communitybased video, journalism, photography, audio and essays, enabling first-person storytelling from far-flung peoples to reach the global public. French-born photographer and specialist in oral traditions Nicolas Villaume is director of CWE. He premiered the CWE multimedia exhibition at the 2009 UN Conference on Climate

The Pachamama Alliance

Responsive to the call for partnership from the indigenous Achuar of Ecuador, The Pachamama Alliance believes that the best protectors of the rain forest are its ancestral custodians. Through technical and financial support for self-determined social and ecological development projects in South America and education and awareness-building around the world, The Pachamama Alliance seeks to “change the dream” of the modern world and bring forth an environmentally sustainable, spiritually fulfilling and socially just human presence on the planet.

Change, which included his own photographs at the National Museum of Copenhagen ( To learn more about the wide-ranging communities involved in the project, visit their interactive website listed at the end of this story. One storyline in the exhibit, which is echoed through diverse locations with disturbing repetition, describes the devastating impacts of imposed, top-down scientific and political “mitigation” efforts. The photo essay on the forest-dwelling Guarani people, for example, reveals the dark understory of high-profile programs like carbon trading.


Indigenous experts on climate change demonstrate how to create reciprocal relationships with their local ecosystems.

Dodem Kanonhsá


Based on restored aboriginal lands near the Ortiz Mountains, NM, Hamaatsa is an indigenous learning center and demonstration site committed to sustainable living, spiritual wholeness and cultural restoration. Named from a Keresan Pueblo word used in reference to time, Hamaatsa (Hama-at-sza) is a gathering place, a “place to start over, once again.” Land-based, experiential learning programs teach simple living, integrate traditional healing and restore indigenous lifeways.

Through the tradition of oral teachings handed down by grandfathers and grandmothers Dodem Kanonhsa’ (“Clan Lodge” in the language of the Ojibwe) promotes the sharing of Aboriginal culture and its philosophies. Open to both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people, the lodge hopes to increase cross-cultural communication. Sharing and drumming circles are scheduled weekly. Visiting elders and teachers are available throughout the year.


Near the Guaraqueaba forest reserve in Brazil—home to over 60 sacred burial and spiritual sites— locals contend not only with the vagaries of the climate but with threats from the Forca Verde or “Green Police.” In vivid pictorial detail we learn that those who tend crops alongside the General Motors portion of the reserve (where G.M. owns trees to offset U.S. emissions) are routinely harassed and even shot at. “They don’t want us here,” says one farmer. “They don’t want human beings in the forest.” CWE contributes to viable, collective solutions by creating a communications platform for traditional stewards of the Earth, who demonstrate lives lived in reciprocal relationship with their local ecosystems. For those of us called to re-examine our connections with the natural world, this very possibility of balanced intimacy with the natural order invites whole new vistas of creative response. Just in time for a public eager to act, the global discourse on climate change is making room for the enduring voice of the ancient. To learn more about CWE’s past and future work, please visit

Orphan Wisdom

In a culture drunk on information, knowledge must be the skill of gathering what is needed to make life live without killing it in the pursuit of comfort. Wisdom is the place where knowledge is fired, forged and annealed to become something of great beauty and usefulness to the world. Orphan Wisdom teaches Canada, a nation of immigrants and successful refugees, that the only way to make a culture that can feed the world is to be faithful witnesses to what their ancestry asks of them.

TRADITIONS IN WESTERN HERBALISM While Western medicine is experiencing a healing crisis, much of the world has always relied on the ancient tradition of herbs. One statistic from the World Health Organization (WHO) might surprise a lot of North Americans accustomed to scans, pills and expensive specialists. Over 80% of the global population turns to a single source for their primary health care needs: plants. This fact might give pause to boosters of modern medicine, but for the participants at the Traditions in Western Herbalism Conference (TWHC) the potency and popularity of botanical medicine is no newsflash—it’s daily life. The ancient tradition of herbal medicine is not only enduring, but growing in response to a burgeoning movement for local, low-cost, natural healing. From September 17-19, over 20 internationally acclaimed teachers of herbalism will gather at the stunning Ghost Ranch Education and Retreat Center in the high desert of northern New Mexico to present dozens of workshops and classes. While sessions will include the latest scientific thinking, they will emphasize heart connection and the human-plant relationship. SACRED FIRE MAGAZINE / 9

FLINT AND TINDER The Tracking Project

Bringing joy and healing to performers and audiences alike, Tunefoolery is a musical group composed of and run by mental health consumers who play music to establish identities based on musical achievement rather than mental illness. Providing opportunities to pursue meaning, creative expression, vocational opportunities and connection with others, the program also promotes greater access to the arts for underserved audiences while increasing awareness and understanding of mental illness among the general public.

The Earth & Spirit Council

Emphasis on the spiritual dimension of life, The Earth & Spirit Council feels, leads to the greatest untapped reservoir of power, imagination and courage to protect the Earth. The Council calls humanity into a new relationship with the natural order and provides a forum for all people to explore their common connections and commitment to Earth-conscious living. Based in Portland, OR, programs include an Indigenous Elders speakers’ series, a digital archive of elder wisdom, and a multi-arts program for kids.

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For more information visit and



For all the concentrated expertise the conference intends to be more than just a showcase of leading practitioners. At a time when Western culture itself seems in the throes of a healing crisis, the event seeks to celebrate and galvanize the field of herbal medicine by drawing together diverse traditions and practices into one experiential, learning community. Willing to stretch both participants and presenters, the entire three-day gathering has been carefully designed to evoke transformation in experts and amateurs alike. TWHC is the creation of healers and teachers Jesse Wolf Hardin and Kiva Rose, founders of the Animá Lifeways and Herbal School in southwestern New Mexico. From their wilderness retreat, botanical sanctuary and wildlife refuge, Jesse and Kiva offer on-site and online courses in nature awareness, herbal medicine, and “re-wilding” skills. Together they seek to promote herbalism as a practice of place, a grassroots energy medicine rooted in the unique presence of the local landscape. “I don’t know of any more effective and sustainable way to be an herbalist than with the assistance of the land where we already are,” says Kiva. “The more we can depend on local sources for our food, medicine and other necessities the closer we will be to the earth and the more likely we will be to care for the environment and ourselves.”

Working with community educators and Native elders from around the world for the last twenty-four years, the Tracking Project in Corrales, New Mexico guides individuals to connect directly with the natural world. Through programs emphasizing indigenous knowledge, the lessons of Nature and the power of art, they teach natural and cultural awareness through a wide range of skills including traditional tracking and survival skills and music, storytelling, dance, peacemaking and martial arts training.

SACRED FIRE IN THE WORLD A visit with village authorities becomes an opportunity for cross-cultural exchange in the Huichol’s Sierra Madre homeland. Artemia Fabre, cultural anthropologist and board member of Sacred Fire Foundation, recently traveled to San Andres Cohamiata, a Huichol Indian village in Jalisco, Mexico. A juridical anthropologist, Artemia works with indigenous cultures and peoples in legal and civil matters. Too often, the laws and courts of Mexico’s state and national jurisdictions have no awareness or understanding of traditional indigenous approaches to property rights, conflict resolution or equitable justice. Artemia works to find liaisons for the native people and to help the indigenous learn how to communicate their needs within the legal system. During her trip to San Andres to meet with local authorities, Artemia was accompanied by Javier Balderas, an autochthonous Zapotec lawyer from Oaxaca. One member of the Agrarian Authority, a primary school teacher, asked the two to meet with his third-grade class. Many Huichol never travel outside of their Sierra Madre homeland and sacred sites, and the teacher saw an opportunity for some cross-cultural exchange. “It was a delightful morning,” says Artemia. “The teacher presented us as people interested in knowing their culture and in sharing the culture of another indigenous people, the Zapotec.” Two children were asked to welcome the pair, one in Huichol, the other in Spanish. Javier began speaking in Zapotec and, using Spanish as a bridge, began asking the kids to teach him a variety of words in Huichol. Soon they peppered him with questions about his homeland: what does it look like, what do people do for a living, is it a community near the sea? They listened to stories of a place completely different from their mountain home and used geography books to find Oaxaca and Itsmo, the region where Javier was born. “We laughed a lot,” says Artemia, “Before the class was finished the teacher came in with some students to give A 501(c)(3) charitable organization, Sacred Fire Foundation develops partnerus presents, earrings for me and a bracelet for Javier. We ships and programs that provide in-kind, technical and financial support for thanked them for their time and for their joy, and then organizations that preserve and sustain traditional indigenous lifeways. Sacred took some pictures together.” Fire Foundation publishes Sacred Fire magazine.

The Alliance for Wild Ethics

Mindful that the largest part of our human inheritance derives from our indigenous ancestry, AWE provokes deeply felt shifts in the human experience of nature. Motivated by a love for the more-than-human collective of life and for human life as an integral part of that wider collective, they seek to revitalize local, face-to-face community and to integrate communities perceptually, practically, and imaginatively into the earthly bioregions that surround and support them.


The Ways We Die We have, in fact, developed so many euphemisms for death that it has become quite distasteful to simply say that we “die.” Instead, we “pass away” or “cross over.” If “it” happens in a hospital it’s referred to as a “terminal episode.” Unless, of course, it occurs due to malpractice, in which In our modern western culture we have developed an case it is a “therapeutic misadventure.” In any case the insurance company files it as a “negative patient outcome.” astounding abhorrence of death, the natural and inevitable At all costs we avoid admitting to actually dying. counterpart to life. With our belief in the power of technology By contrast, in indigenous cultures and wisdom tradito overcome the forces of nature, we have come to view old tions death is honored as part of life. The elderly, rather than being cast aside, are honored for their wisdom and age and death as a kind of enemy, something that needs given respect and care by the younger generations. Death to be vanquished. We have bestowed increasing importance itself is understood as a sacred passage, ushering the soul upon the power of our minds and have lost touch with the back to the realm of the ancestors, beginning anew the cycle of life. For those left behind, grieving is recognized heart’s ability to embrace the void, the darkness, the great mysas the natural and healthy response to loss, honoring the tery. This approach brings with it a profound fear in the face of gift of the life that was and, very importantly, letting it go. an unconquerable force that is an integral part of life itself. And How very far we have strayed from this ancient wisdom. so, in our fear we skirt around the subject of death at all costs. Instead, when faced with death we tend to be fraught with denial, fear and guilt. This sense of disconnection and alienation causes tremendous suffering for those facing death as well as for those struggling to cope with the loss of loved ones. Janie was 66 when she was diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis, a lung condition for which there is no allopathic cure. A widow with three grown children, she was an agnostic and held only fragile notions that there might possibly be something beyond this physical body and this life. Janie was reluctant to tell anyone of her illness. She didn’t want to be a burden or to worry her children or her friends. She didn’t want to admit to others, and therefore to herself, that she was facing the frightening specter of death. Janie’s children and her best friend watched, bewildered, as the once vital woman gradually became more and more frail over the next few years. She was often overcome by bouts of coughing that she insisted were “nothing.” Finally, when it could no longer be denied, she confessed her condition to her eldest daughter who summoned the family. But within days Janie’s lungs collapsed and she was rushed to hospital. Only her son was with her when she died, her face set in a mask of lonely terror. Other family, rushing from far flung destinations, arrived too late. Janie’s family was horrified when they discovered that she had known of her condition for 8 years. It was a combination of shock, anguish and frustration that she had not reached out to them for help or given them the opportunity to say goodbye. She was suddenly gone, and what was left was the sadness of not having expressed to her how much they loved her and what she had meant to them. Janie’s story is a tragic reminder of what is missing in our culture. It is a sense of relationship—with each other, with nature and with the Divine. It is relationship with all aspects of life—the darkness as well as the light, the pain as well as the joy, the mystery as well as the knowledge. In our culture we have developed an infatuation with the “light,” with the “good,” Prema Sheerin is an initiated with “happiness.” But life, like nature, includes the full spectrum of experience. Nature reminds shaman in the Huichol tradition of Mexico and has a shamanic healing us of the inevitable cycles of darkness and light, coldness and warmth, hibernation and activity. and life coaching practice. She When we come to accept the whole range of human experience and are willing to share that heads the Death and Dying Council with each other, we no longer need to be in denial of the great mystery that is death. of the Sacred Fire Community. We humans have increasingly come to think of ourselves as individuals, as separate entities For more information go to seeking to secure our own safety and prosperity. However, our ancestors knew that a profound

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The stories of two women show how people can deny or embrace their impending deaths.

sense of connection to each other and to the Divine was essential for a good life as well as a good death. Death is not an individual process but a community undertaking involving a web of relationships with both the seen and the unseen. Catherine embraced death in the same way she embraced life—through relationship and community. Unlike Janie, Catherine always shared openly her 13-year journey with cancer. She also had a strong relationship with the Divine. About 6 months before she died, Catherine made a decision not to fight anymore and to accept that she was dying. She called her community around her and asked openly for their support with finances and with caring for her physically. She moved into an apartment with a spare bedroom so that friends and family from far and wide could come and stay over. She set up a schedule so that her local community could volunteer to help her with everything she needed. There was a continual stream of visitors that flowed through Catherine’s little apartment, sitting with her for hours, cooking for her and sharing stories, experiences and laughter. They also shared her struggles and her tears, her grief, her fear and her anger. She allowed them to see it all. As Catherine grew weaker and weaker and it became clear that it wouldn’t be much longer, she began to say goodbye. She and her friends shared how much they loved each other, how much they had meant to each other and they blessed

each other to go on their separate jourSurrounded by family, Baby neys. Catherine died peacefully in the Anastasia is baptized hours presence of close friends. before her death in 2008. Catherine remembered what our ancesThis photograph was made tors have always known: the importance of by Todd Hochberg of Touching Souls Photograthe community in honoring the sacred pasphy, which provides docusage of death and creating the conditions mentary photography supthat allow the soul to let go of this world port when a baby or child and pass on to its rightful ancestral place. dies. They also understood that the rituals and funerary rites performed by the shamans or elders were an imperative that ushered the soul to its home in the unseen realms and allowed the community to grieve and let go. It is in honoring this vast web of our connection to each other, to the natural world and to the Divine forces that move us that we come to peace with both our life and our death. It is time for our culture to return to this ancient wisdom and to honor death as the great teacher that it is. Death invites us to enter the darkness, to embrace the great mystery, to trust in forces that are beyond the comprehension of our human mind. It teaches us that ultimately we must be able to let go and trust in the great richness, fertility and transformation that lies in the darkness. Death reminds us, whenever we care to listen, about what is most important in our life. SACRED FIRE MAGAZINE / 13

LOGS FOR THE FIRE By Chris Schlake

sunk in, a mournful protest leapt in my chest. Ride the Rockies is a week-long cycling event that nets a lot of money for community nonprofits—with a good boost to the revenues of the local businesses along the route. This year the ride spanned no less than 532 miles, winding through some of the most spectacular alCan a 500 mile bike ride through the Rocky pine and canyon country of western Colorado. Mountains really be considered a rite of passage? For most riders it is an amazing physical and psychological feat. It yields a deep sense of caAS A NOVICE COUNTRY BUMPKIN living without electricity or runmaraderie and an appreciation of the western Rocky Mounning water, the prospect of heading into town is often shot tains. And it’s all for a good cause. through with anticipation. Banging down my rutted rock path of But Ride the Rockies is no rite of passage. Coming this year a driveway en route to the small town not five miles away, I’m from 48 states and over a dozen foreign countries, the riders do absorbed by giddy visions of the coffee shop with its strong daily not form a cohesive, resilient, intricately woven community born brew, fresh baked brownies and, especially, its 120-volt sockets of shared experiences of marriage, disease, childbirth, drought, custom-fit for my computer, cell phone and occasional power tool. death, vision and joy. The riders are joined by no common alleThis morning was no different except that our tiny town of giance to a tradition of wisdom that guides and cradles their conMesa, CO was hosting over 2000 bicyclists and several hundred nections to the living lands they adeptly traverse. The riders do support personnel for the annual Ride the Rockies. Coasting in not strip themselves of every vestige of their identity, do not dismy pick-up towards the one intersection between the coffee shop, liquor store, post office and general store, I came upon a landscape transfigured almost beyond recognition. Replacing the idle, sleepy little crossroads was a curious oasis teeming with mythic, technicolor, two-wheeled humanoids. In various states of repose and re-hydration, they dominated the center of town and filled me with an uncanny abuse themselves of each familiarity, comfort or orientation, do and unfamiliar fear—that I wouldn’t get a table. not surrender each piece of their known world. The riders don’t Maneuvering through the gauntlet of spandex and sweat, I intend to die. scored a spot near an outlet and set up shop. Nor are they given a true hero’s welcome at ride’s end. They are Before I could check a single e-mail, how- not seen, acknowledged or celebrated as utterly new people, beever, a new acquaintance introduced me to ings irreparably transfigured by the cosmic flames of ritual space, her friend. Soon I learned that this friend’s inexorably directed to new destinies. They are not received as friend was also from California and that she carriers of new medicine, new strength, new vision. They are not was here with her whole family. In fact she entrusted with new and greater responsibilities. had four sons—each of whom at the approIn fact, when the ride is over, they are accountable to none but priate age had joined their father to attempt themselves. They do get a sense of satisfaction and a new T-shirt. the ride. All but young Aaron—grinning Cycling events like Ride the Rockies make for great news stowith an extra-large latte—had completed ries, generate needed funds for organizations and provide rich it at least once. In their family Ride the experiences for the participants. They get people away from their Rockies was a Rite of Passage. video screens and even out of their cars. But if such events are Surprised to hear my new acquaintance construed as genuine rites of passage, we have a good measure of describe the event as a rite of passage, I be- just how lost as a people we have grown. gan to glimpse the day’s happening in a more Language can as readily preserve memory as occlude it. It can charitable and encouraging light. The mass even trick us into thinking we are remembering. The grave risk is Contributing Editor of riders seemed to emit, even through not that we forget, but that we forget that we’ve forgotten. Chris Schlake lives their sealed suits of lycra, an entirely new By all means get out and ride. Do a century ride (100 miles); in the high desert of hue as my mild judgments and mockery do a half-dozen of them. See if your limits aren’t self-imposed. western Colorado where he is helping to gave way to a burgeoning admiration. Connect with like-minded riders, raise some money, see upbuild an off-grid comMy cheerfulness, however, was as shortlifting sights. munity deeply rooted lived as my laptop battery. As her words Just don’t call it a rite of passage. in the land. 14 / Issue 12


A Rite or a Ride


is the dance of the life force. When we eat an animal, part of its spirit enters into us, and part of its spirit returns to the Creator. In that sense there is no death, only a magical, luminous dance of spirit and matter. A more useful response to all of this is not abstinence, but rather reverence, love and gratitude for the beings we consume and for the life force itself. With these things comes the most important response of all—the willingness to give back. When we feel “superior” to the rest of Creation we can’t possibly react in these ways. When you feel superior to something you close yourself off from it. That feeling of superiority blocks our ability, emotionally speaking, to both give to and receive from the natural world. To accept our part in the cycles that perpetuate all life, therefore, requires recognizing that we are equals with all other beings. After all, the spark of Divine Intelligence is within all of us. If we can recognize this, then we can find a deeper intimacy with all of Creation. We can recover a feeling of belonging to the natural world like the deer or the woodchuck. The natural world becomes our family and our home. When we can accept that it is our place to contribute to the cycle as well as take from it, then Eating is an act of exchange, and everything we can adopt a new attitude towards the mosquifeeds other life. So why swat the mosquito? toes in the woods. We can stop thinking of our interactions with them as a battle, and begin to WE ARE TAUGHT AS WE GROW UP that we stand apart from the natusee that the mosquitoes bite us precisely because we do belong. ral world, that we are “superior” to all other animals and that In giving a little blood to the mosquito we perpetuate the lives of our place in nature is to battle and control it. Many of us work the frogs and fish that eat mosquito larvae, and so we perpetuate to overcome that conditioning, but it can be difficult, even for the processes that support us all and replenish our own food supthose of us who are drawn to find closeness with nature. ply as well. For example, when I walk into a damp woodland I am surIn practice this means letting the mosquito bite, but I’ve had rounded by mosquitoes, and I feel attacked by them. My nor- only occasional success with this. For it to work I need to open mal response is to swat and kill them. But let’s look at this a my heart and remember my place in the web of life and simply different way. let the mosquito bite. When I am able to do this, I am astonished We are part of the cycle of life—a cycle that involves giving as afterwards to find no itchy bug bite. I can’t even see where the well as taking for every species. Every time we put food in our mosquito bit me. It’s almost as though, when I cooperate with mouths we take a life, and something dies so that we may live. the mosquito, it cooperates with me. We do this every day of our lives, over and over again, until in the Admittedly, this takes practice. It is easier to do with one end it is our turn to die that others may live. In death we return mosquito than with two or more. But the most important part the stuff of our bodies to the earth, to the plants growing in that of the exercise is not about letting the earth and to the animals that eat those plants. No being stands mosquito bite you. It is about opening the apart from this process or above it. heart and remembering our place in the Grasping these words on a gut level is not easy. We don’t often world—that we belong to nature, that we Rina Burleson has studied think about the fact that every time we eat we take a life. Those are part of a cycle of life from which no indigenous ways of who do worry about it typically react with abstinence—by refus- being is exempt and that when we serve relating to the world with ing to eat meat. But we take a life even when we eat a plant, so this greater process with gratitude and reStephen Buhner, Ray this is no solution. This taking of lives in order to eat is normal. It spect, it serves us as well. Reitze, and Tom Brown Jr.


Let Mosquitoes Bite


LIGHT & SHADOW By Rob Preece

In the Shadow of Goodness

scious. This forms what Jung called the shadow, an accumulation of unaddressed and dark emotional life that is no longer acknowledged and therefore not addressed and transformed. Jung spoke of how the brighter, more positive and “good” the life of consciousness became, the When a good man dies, the secrets of his life more extreme and unacceptable the dark side are revealed and show how he wrestled with of our nature would become. He also saw that the demons of perfection. the contents of the shadow created by this control do not disappear but seem to gain strength IN SEPTEMBER A YEAR OR SO AGO I was shocked and saddened to from the darkness and denial. They build up a kind of potency hear that a good friend had died. As a man in his early forties that can be hugely destructive when it eventually, as it almost this friend was someone who could genuinely be described as a always does, bursts into consciousness. good man. He had a good heart and was always willing to help Jung once wrote that to be human is to have a shadow, and to those around him. He worked as a therapist and was clearly deny it leads to a kind of inflated grandiosity. Attempting to crevery talented at his work. His Buddhist practice meant a huge ate a “spiritually correct” persona of goodness or purity merely amount to him, and he tried to live within a code of life that splits us off from buried feelings of badness; it does not resolve was caring and wholesome. His friends and those he worked them. We may not experience the depth of darkness my friend with all felt he was a very compassionate and generous pres- went through, but we each nevertheless have our shadow. The ence and would often put him on something of a pedestal as a question is: how do we live with the shadow to transform and inparticularly gifted soul. tegrate it? There is no simple answer to this problem, but there The shock of his death came in part from the ending of a is no doubt that living with a veneer of goodness, spiritual corbright and gifted life, but for his community of friends and col- rectness or attempts at perfection that cover deep unresolved leagues the biggest shock was that he died of a drug overdose. I psychological issues is not useful. had known John, I will call him, some years and was aware that Striving for purity and perfection in our spiritual life needs his biggest struggle was resolving two totally disparate sides of something of a health warning. The hazard is that we fall into his nature. He was a good Buddhist practitioner whom people a pathology that is more associated with superego’s ideals loved, valued—even idealized, but most of them had no idea than a genuine state of transformation. Today as never before that he had a very dark side that he could not resolve even with there is a vast industry based upon self-improvement and his spiritual practice. The only resolution he found was to sup- personal growth which has at its heart the sense that we are press, to hold his addictions within tight boundaries that would not acceptable as we are. We must be better, faster, slimmer, at some point erupt and drive him back into binges. His life was more attractive, more dynamic. Our twenty-first-century vera vivid example of a swing that can happen between periods of sion of original sin is that we are not good enough as we are. being “good and wholesome” followed by periods when, to use Even within the spiritual world there can be the same search his term, he would enter into a very dark underworld of intense for self-development to become better, more pure or more pain and addiction. realized, which can also have at its root a lack of self-accepJohn was indeed a good man. What felt tragic was the seeming tance. If and when this idealism leads to the continual sense impossibility of resolving the side of himself that was in huge that we have to strive to perfect ourselves, we can embark upon pain. The ideal of goodness he held as so important was not the a very demanding and relentless path. Chvgyam Trungpa cause of his torment, which began years before in his childhood. once pointed out we go around and around, trying to improve It was, however, an ideal against which he constantly measured ourselves through struggle, until we realize that the ambition himself and found himself failing. The shame and lack of self- to improve ourselves is itself the problem. value this conflict brought must have been unbearable. From a psychological point of view it is our shadow that needs Perhaps it is in the light of John’s struggle that we need to to be revealed and transformed, which requires more than just ask ourselves how helpful it is to set up what Freud would have control and suppression, more than striving to be good, pure or called a superego ideal that we cannot easily live up to. Spiri- perfect. As we begin to include and honestly acknowledge our tual ideals of goodness and perfection can be something we shadow it will probably mean that we are not so clean and holy. aspire to, but all to often they cause us to repress aspects of our- It will mean that we have to be more open both with ourselves selves rather than accept, integrate and transform them. When and those around us about our human fallibility. It is our fallibility, we try to live up to ideals of purity, goodness or perfection, the however, that is the basis of compassion, not ideals of perfection. control we need to exert over our behavior of body, speech or With John the place he felt able to be truly honest was Narcotics mind inevitably drives what is unacceptable into the uncon- Anonymous. There he seemed to find the compassion, acceptance 16 / Issue 12

Rob Preece, author most recently of The Wisdom of Imperfection (Snow Lion, 2006), is a psychotherapist, spiritual mentor, leader of Tibetan meditation retreats, and an initiated Granicero (weather worker) in the Nahua tradition.



and understanding he needed so that he didn’t have to cover his darker side to try and uphold an identity of goodness. But, sadly, whenever he placed himself back in his spiritual community, the split would return and he would need to hide part of himself. As I have attempted to integrate the shadow into my own spiritual life I have found that it means I am probably not such a “good” Buddhist, but I feel I can be more authentic and honest both with myself and others. Being imperfect and learning from our imperfections are the manure of our potential awak-

ening. When we genuinely begin to accept ourselves with our qualities and our flaws, we may not be so wonderful, but it can be a great relief. Many years ago I was asked by my Tibetan lama to paint a Tangka (a Buddhist Icon) for him. When I eventually took it to him I was worried that what I had done was not good enough. When he saw it he was silent for a while and then, with a big smile on his face, he said, “Good enough, Dear.” My sense of relief was profound, and his words have remained with me through my life. SACRED FIRE MAGAZINE / 17

THIS IS NOT A FAIRY TALE In this time of imbalance the strong actions of Wind, Rain, Earth and Fire remind us of our obligations to life. BY JONATHAN MERRITT | ILLUSTRATION BY MACE FLEEGER


Once upon a time all over the world people were raised from the land. The spirits of each place composed the people of the unique aspects of the land. The people were given stories and songs that taught them how to live with the plants and animals, earth and weather beings, with other humans. These instructions were held in the traditions of the people, carried by the wisdom holders and maintained through the various daily and seasonal rituals and ceremonies. Life was difficult, as life is, but humans thrived everywhere, taking only what was needed, giving thanks for what was taken, honoring the great and small beings with offerings crafted by their hands. From time to time, people got greedy. They took more than they needed and forgot their obligations to the livingness of the world. This greediness, born of fear and the desire to protect against loss, created imbalance. Sometimes a catastrophe erased the imbalance. Every tradition carries a story of catastrophe that wiped out almost everything and, eventually, brought the people back into relationship with divine. In the time of innovation,

which is the time of forgetting, cities arose from the land. Forests were cleared and fields planted. Herds were protected and eaten. People built walls to protect their granaries and homes. And wealth was gathered within those walls as the cities fed from the land. People came to the cities for excitement, protection and comfort, bringing the bright colors of their crafts, their traditional stories and songs. But the song of the path to the highest place, with its tales of forests, rivers and stones, made no sense when sung in the city plaza. So people forgot their songs and how to live with the beings of the land. And the cities grew and became empires. And the empires ate the traditions. And new songs were sung, songs of wealth and conquest, songs of empire. And the empires ate the lands—eating and eating, everyone eating as buildings soared into skylines and jets left trails across the sky and sewage flowed into the rivers and bays. And the livingness of the land was forgotten and the obligations ignored. And the great diversity of life came to be seen as simple phenomena, phenomena to be exploited and controlled.

But Life will not be controlled!



nce upon a time

Wind arose from Grandmother Ocean and sang across the land. It flew in every direction, gathered the news of the world and carried it from place to place. The adepts among the people could read that news—how the weather was forming, what was blooming, what animals were moving, where the waters flowed, what was happening in the next village and the villages beyond. The adepts knew Wind’s many manifestations, its expressions of emotion—caressing, dancing, playing, howling, gusting, roaring—an infinite variation. They spoke with Wind and listened. They made offerings and received wisdom. In the time of innovation, which is the time of forgetting, people learned to use Wind to propel their ships up river and across seas, to spin the windmills, to lift them and carry them over the land. They explained Wind in intricate equations of heat and cold, altitude and depth. And the susurrations and screams of Wind became simple physics. No personality, no emotions, no wisdom, nothing worth listening to, no reason to listen. But Wind never stopped singing, never stopped spreading the news. And this is the news—the land has been consumed and deserts have spread. Dust swirls where the tall grass grew. Wind gathers dust and with great howling gusts blows it through the Forbidden City, filling the eyes and ears and mouths of the people, blowing into their windows and doors, coating everything with dust, dry dust.


nce upon a time

Rain arose from Grandmother Ocean and washed over the land as a great blessing, enlivening the spirits of plants, nourishing the animals and people, the insects, the living soil, flowing in every cell of every being. The people recognized the blessing of Rain and made prayers of gratitude and burned offerings. They spoke with the Rain Beings and they listened. And they did as Rain asked, for their lives and the lives of the plants and animals depended on

Rain. And Rain flowed in streams and rivers, carrying the essence of mountains down canyons, pooling in lakes and swamps, gathering the essence of forests and plains, gathering the essence of every being, bringing it back to Grandmother Ocean in an endless cyclic flow. In the time of innovation, which is the time of forgetting, people dammed the flow of rivers and filled the canyons with water. They spread that water so that orchards bloomed in the deserts. They siphoned water

from the ground and piped it into cities so that millions lived where few belonged. With great turbines they harnessed the power of the flow and stood as masters of Rain, lit by great lights, heating the cold, cooling the heat. But Rain gathered in the high mountains and poured and poured and poured, overwhelming the banks of rivers, flooding through streets, entering buildings without knocking, spreading its blessing everywhere, cleansing the land, returning its essence to Grandmother Ocean.


nce upon a time

Grandmother Ocean brought forth Mother Earth and gave the mountains a place to stand. She spread out the valleys and deserts and plains. She sent Wind and Rain to nourish the land. With Father Sun, Mother Earth gave birth to all the plants and animals. People walked on her firm body. Everything thrived, receiving the gifts of the lives that fed it, giving back its own life, giving it back to Mother Earth. In the time of innovation,


which is the time of forgetting, people gave up the gathering of this root and that leaf and planted great fields. They gave up the hunt for the deer that offered herself and subjugated herds. They extracted metal and drew oil from the ground. They moved and moved and moved until few knew the land that held them. And misery was sown upon the plants and animals and misery was sown upon the land. For some there was great comfort and wealth. For many there was poverty and disconnection.

One day in a city on an island that had once been a paradise of fish and fruit, a place whose forests had been stripped and native people killed, where the few drank sweet liqueurs in their mansions by the sea while in the streets children ate pies made of mud and flour, Mother Earth shrugged and the buildings fell. She opened her mouth and swallowed 300,000 lives and chewed on countless more. Misery upon misery, more misery to come— how much shaking until the people awake?


nce upon a time

people lived in great difficulty. Lacking fur, they burned in the day and froze at night. Poor hunters without fangs or claws, they fed on scraps. Lacking fast legs, they fell prey to the lion and bear. But Fire spoke in the hearts of the people. Fire taught them to cook and warm themselves, to light the dark and fashion tools. In the flicker of flames people heard the songs and stories of their connections and obligations to the plants and animals that fed them, to the earth beings that held them and watched over them, to the

The Voice of Fire

Come out of the darkness and cold. Sit beside me and be warmed. Let my light and shadow play across your face. Watch it play across the faces of people. Listen to their voices. Listen to their stories. Give up your separation and loneliness. Speak your own story. Speak your heart. You will see and be seen. You will remember your purpose and place. The old wisdoms will be heard again. Wind will sing in your ears. Rain will bless your home. Earth will feed you and hold you. And I will carry your prayers.

weather beings that nourished all things, to each other. In this way Fire gave people the traditions that let them thrive in every land. In the time of innovation, which is the time of forgetting, people left their ancestral homes. The old rhythms were broken, the wisdom forgotten. Imaging themselves as masters of Fire, they fashioned complex technologies for comfort and protection. And a great hunger arose in them for no comfort or protection could fill the void caused by the loss of connection. Living in great cities, they felt separate and

alone. Fueled by fire, they moved faster and faster over the land, consuming everything, for nothing was ever enough. But Fire never stopped speaking, calling people to slow down, to remember Wind and Rain and Mother Earth, to listen to their own hearts. And one day with a great roar Fire erupted from the ground and shot a tremendous cloud of smoke and ash. Airplanes were grounded and people stranded in makeshift camps. For a few days they had to rely on each other as they waited for the smoke to clear.

THE AGREEMENT Seeking silence in a wilderness retreat, the author receives a surprising gift from a forest being. BY JAKI DANIELS | ILLUSTRATION BY OLIVIA FUENTE


September of 2009 I embarked upon my first silent, solitary retreat. My goal was to experience Mother Nature as my only companion. I was very fortunate to be able to stay in a humble, primitive cabin in the forests of Central Alberta, within one minute walking distance from a small, pristine lake. I had been there before, many times. The cabin is owned by a member of my extended family. It had long been a sanctuary when the hustle and bustle of big city life started chipping away at the memory of who I really am. On the morning of my first day, I went for a long walk in the woods. After about a half an hour I found myself face to face with a very large pine tree. There was something about this tree that captured my attention. I was literally surrounded by hundreds of thousands of trees, but now I only had eyes for this one. Having cultivated a strong relationship with the plant people for many years, I knew what this meant. This tree had something to offer me. Yet as much as I sensed a potency to our

24 / Issue 12

connection, I also knew it was not yet time. I introduced myself to that tree and offered tobacco, with a promise of my return. Over the next five days I returned to the tree each day, saying a few words, offering tobacco. For some reason unknown to me, it seemed very important that we become friends in this way before I asked for anything. On my final day I took a few additional supplies, notebook and pen, thermos of tea and a blanket. I had no idea what to expect or how long I would be gone. When I arrived at the tree, it now felt so familiar to be there. After a short greeting and more tobacco, I laid out my blanket at the base, set down my pack, sat myself down and leaned my back against it. I closed my eyes and snuggled into the comfort of the arms of an old friend. It was only a few moments later that the tree invited me to merge with its awareness as it told me the following story, word for word. One day a young Indian brave, age thirteen, was about to set out on his first hunt. His name was Anton. How excited he was with his spear in his hand, proudly showing his new cloth-

ing—not that of a boy playing at his mother’s side but that of a young brave ready for his first solitary kill. He had a pouch of sacred medicines at his side so he could do a small ceremony and offer thanks, giving gratitude for the life he had taken and for the way it would feed his people. Not far from their village was a river, and he planned to go there to begin his journey. He also carried some corn kernels and seeds in case he became hungry or needed to stay overnight. Once at the river he was struck by the beauty of the place and the warmth of the sun. He decided to rest first, hunt later. The boy fell asleep and began to dream. In his dream many animals came, bear, deer and beaver. They all came close and placed their faces in front of his, staring. It was as though they had never seen such a creature. In the dream Anton was unable to move: he was frozen standing upright like a tree. He was afraid and frustrated. He could not protect himself and he could not hunt either, and the animals were so close. Then the animals decided to have a picnic together, right in front of him. They

gathered berries, roots, leaves and some bark. They drank from the river first, then sat down to their impromptu feast. Anton could not believe what was happening. He struggled to get free, but he couldn’t. It was as if his hands were tied behind the trunk and his feet were bound to the base. He wriggled and squirmed, then started to thrash about, becoming desperate. During this time the animals took no notice whatsoever. In the flash of the next few moments all of Anton’s dreams for himself as a young brave, as a proud hunter, were crushed. He gave up his struggle, slumped forward and, forgetting that he was now a man, began to cry like a young boy. The animals stopped eating and turned toward him. He looked up, and there they were once again staring. It was then he remembered that they had stared earlier, purposely coming close, but something changed and they started ignoring him. Now they were interested again. As if reading his thoughts, Bear spoke. “When you first arrived you were humble, unsure of yourself, yet here with a purpose. We reached out to you, showed ourselves to you. Yet you did not respond. Then you became arrogant, and we were no longer interested, so we turned away. When your true spirit returned and you shed the tears, we were with you once more. You see, Anton, it is our people who decide whether we offer ourselves to your people. If you are to have the life of a hunter, it is important that we learn each other’s ways,

quickly and cleanly, for I do not want to suffer. To do this, you must be completely committed, no part of you may hesitate. Do we understand each other?” “Yes,” said Anton. In the dream, it took Anton three days and three nights to prepare. Until then he knew that he was not ready, that he couldn’t deliver the spear with the force required. On the fourth morning he finally felt ready. He was very hungry, and he was very sure. He now understood what it was to be a hunter, what it was to be a man. He would kill with one strike, and afterward he would shed tears of release and gratitude as he prayed and offered thanks. Anton woke up. The sun had moved across the sky. It was nearing dinnertime. He couldn’t believe that the whole day had passed, and then he remembered the dream. He knew this was powerful medicine, and he opened his bundle and lit some sage to offer thanks. He looked down at himself as the smoke rose and circled gently upward. He was certainly dressed as a hunter, but after experiencing the dream he knew that he wasn’t ready to kill. He was still a young boy inside, and the new clothes didn’t change that. But he had received his first medicine dream, and that gave him comfort. He knew in his heart that this was only the beginning. With this teaching he would now know when he was ready. He would be a great hunter one day, but today he

In his dream many animals came, bear, deer and beaver. know when to ask for more and know when to back off. By not recognizing our offering of friendship you became invisible to us. Now we know who you really are: you have revealed your true feelings. Therefore, I have decided to be your first kill. You may thrust your spear into my heart as I rise up onto my hind legs. I only ask that you promise to thrust with all your might, with every ounce of strength you have and that you sharpen your spear first. This will be our agreement. You must kill me 26 / Issue 12

was getting cold and lonely and was ready to return to the village. In the first moments after receiving this story I simply sat still and tried to notice what was stirring inside me. It wasn’t a feeling I could articulate, so I held it like a treasure, tucked away in a safe place. Within a few days I was ready to speak about the experience and ask myself why the tree might have chosen to share that particular story with me. Was it for me per-

Jaki Daniels is a teacher, writer and practitioner of shamanism. Through her experiences with nature and a ten year apprenticeship with a traditional Cree Elder she has been guided to a medicine path which offers healing that reaches deep into the spirit and our essential natures. Her book Heeding the Call: A Personal Journey to the Sacred outlines her journey and is a guide to others wanting to venture into these sacred ways.

sonally? Was it a story to pass along to others? During that first week it felt like the story took hold of me, strong emotions rose to the surface and I looked at our animal husbandry practices in a surprisingly different light. I had considered the modern ways of organic and biodynamic farming to be models of a better way. The animals were allowed to roam and eat their natural diet, the food products they provided were of excellent quality and therefore nourished us well. I had considered that it gave both of us “a good life.” Yet, compared to the purity of the story’s message, with the animals having complete freedom to live, to procreate and to die, all in their own ways and in their own time, these practices now fell short. I was able to see a level of forced restrictions on these farmed animals that hadn’t been evident before. I stopped eating animal foods and became angry and saddened by the current state of affairs in our culture and in the world at large. The anger didn’t last, however. After a few more weeks, without any intention to change my new-found views, I found a different balance with the teaching. I could respect and honor it without attempting to replicate it. I could see the value, once again, of managing the best that we could in our given circumstances. I realized then, and have been reminded since, that trees can be teachers of the law, teachers of the correct way. It was a privilege to have been chosen to receive this story, and I now understood its purpose. I decided to call it “The Agreement” and share it with my people. While it may not be possible for us to return to the ways of our ancestors and live accordingly, we can hold the knowledge of that ideal balance in our hearts and minds. In keeping with the oral traditions where the land informs the people that walk upon it, we can share the story and keep it alive.

THE HEART By Maxima Kahn Impossible organ, beating and pumping our blood river to some unknown sea. It doesn’t take much, a small glitch in the inevitable rhythm, weather break, wind-howl and we are set adrift. We long for order, but the heart with its incessant thump-thump, thump-thump has its own music, its own reasons, if you can call them that. Today the sun rises gold as it always does, washes the buildings across the way with autumnal light, and as the squalling of birds mingles with the morning traffic, the heart wakes too into its own song, its own colors and weathers, the way the wind animates the leaves outside the window, the way red catches the eye.

Maxima Kahn is a poet, essayist and fiction writer. She leads workshops on writing and the creative process and works one-onone with writers. Her poetry has appeared in numerous literary journals.


Peruvian curandera Eda Zavala preserves the traditional wisdom of her people and nurtures the lineage of women healers. BY DEENA WADE ILLUSTRATION BY MACE FLEEGER

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identifies herself with the traditions of her people and their particular medicine. Invoking plant, animal and earth spirits for healing, curanderas, like shamans, address illness of the spirit, the emotions and the physical body. From shape-shifting to ecstatic dancing and from divination to drumming, curanderas and shamans around the world are highly respected in their native communities for their ability to facilitate this ritualized relationship with the sacred wisdom of the visible and invisible worlds. Human channels for the divine, they are entrusted to use this knowledge with respect and humility. Corrected but not deterred, I eagerly set about to make Zavala comfortable, maybe even impressed by my knowledge of her Wari ancestry—a warrior Peruvian civilization that predated the Incas—and their Quechua language. Eda smiled. Then I maneuvered toward my real topic, the place I anticipated a lot of juice: women’s curanderismo. I had read about the dark, tangled history of women healers, witches and herbalists, and felt I had some provocative questions. Within minutes, however, all my notes and preparations seemed irrelevant. Zavala wasn’t going to reduce herself to my concepts. She wasn’t intentionally trying to make it hard for me, but she wasn’t interested in impressing me with her feminism or her exoticness either. When I asked how she received her calling to be a healer, Zavala seemed confused. “My calling? It’s not a calling. It’s in my blood because my lineage mothers, they are healers, so it’s not a calling. It’s just running in my blood. The knowledge is just in me, in my cells, in my DNA.” And when I asked about an initiation, she was just as nonplussed. “My grandmother raised me, and I saw how she used medicinal plants, flowers, coca leaves, water and her relationship with them. It was very natural, very simple, you know, part of her life. So I grew up looking at this experience directly in my life. I suppose I didn’t have any kind of initiation because it was just part of my childhood, very natural, not like a ceremony.” As far as the healing practice of curanderismo is concerned, Zavala prefers to work with plants with feminine energies and to work with women. A plant with feminine energy is more loving and gentle, she explained, whereas a plant with male energy, for example, may give you pain in your stomach and keep you up vomiting all night. She imitates slapping her cheeks to demonstrate this energy. Zavala also feels an important part of her work is to share her knowledge with young Peruvian women, encouraging pride and honor in their traditions and passing down this ancestral wisdom to a new lineage of feminine healers. And Zavala’s own relationship to the plants seems to embody a feminine approach as well. “When I take them, I put all my love and respect, and I don’t want to receive some information that I can use later and say, ‘Look at me; I have knowledge; I’m a shaman; I can teach you.’ When I take my medicine of the plants, it’s because I trust them so deeply and I know they cure my life, my soul, my body—very humble. I don’t have any intention to have power using this knowledge.” Zavala attended university in Lima as a young woman, and her parents had dreams for her—a city job, an office of her own, but after school she returned home to follow the path she had been given by her grandmother. Zavala returned to the Amazon to be a healer and protector of the ancestral medicines. She acknowledges, however, that her university education allows her to cross borders, both geographical and otherwise. For the past few months Zavala has been traversing the country between New York and California giving talks and offering ceremonies and healings. She knows most people are fascinated and seduced by American cities like New York and Los Angeles, but she misses her home and family. “I’ve been here sharing my knowledge, but still I am Eda. So I am not fascinated to stay here and change my life, get many things (laughs) because I am very grounded. I know my role; I know

She was offering prayer, songs and ceremony in the yurt of the Blue Deer Center to a small group of us who had traveled from one to several hours to meet her. A small woman with long brown hair and dark skin, she was earthy, feminine and serious all at once. As questions were asked, she answered thoughtfully. And when each of us in the room raised our hands to receive her healing touch and prayer, she patiently visited each person until no more hands were lifted. At the end of the evening, as others were saying their goodbyes and filtering out into the dark night, I pulled closer to Zavala to ask about a disappointing and confusing experience I had with ayahuasca, a South American healing plant. She shared her concerns about using non-native, and sometimes non-legal plants, whose medicine exists within a cultural context that needs to be respected. I was taken by her sincerity, her integrity and her dedication. This is a woman who knows who she is, I thought. These days it seems that “shaman” is a label tossed around almost as freely as “natural,” and both are at risk of losing their meaning. In distinctly American fashion, bent on commodifying everything we can get our hands on and even what we can’t, what might be special has become common, and what might be common has become special. So I admit it was both unsettling and refreshing when, a few months later, sitting together at a friend’s home for an interview, the first thing Eda Zavala did was to correct me. “I am not a shaman,” said Zavala. “I am a healer, a Peruvian healer, a curandera. I am not a shaman.” The word shaman is believed to derive from the Turkic languages of Siberia, brought to the New World by reindeer hunters during the last Ice Age, around 15,000 bce; whereas curandera is Spanish, Zavala’s native language. By making this distinction, Zavala specifically 30 / Issue 12


It was a cool autumn evening last year in the Catskill Mountains of New York when I first encountered Eda Zavala.

my mission. I know who I am thanks to the medicine of plants.” Combining the knowledge that comes through her heart as well as her intellect, Zavala is committed to preserving the traditional wisdom of her community along with the sacred land from which this wisdom grows. “My big concern,” Zavala explained, “is about the Amazon rain forest right now. Not only because I work with the medicinal plants, not only because I live there. There are many indigenous communities, and they don’t have any access to be educated and have the power to control the destruction [of the rain forest]. They live very simple, very rustic, and they are very humble. But the urban people, the Peruvian people who live in the big cities, they don’t respect them very much, especially the government. They don’t see them like Peruvian citizens. And forget about preserving and protecting the Amazon rain forest because for them they are, you know, some Indians, primitive peoples living there, so no matter if the companies come and destroy this beautiful and pristine forest in the name of development, in the name of progress. But I am very conscious of that.” The Amazon is the least populated region of the Peru, and although there is no formal class system, the indigenous populations have long been the target of racial and social discrimination. These factors, along with the growing “overculture” of a consumer economy from the West, mean the indigenous people have little political voice. Oil exploration, mining and industrial agriculture threaten cultural extinction for more than sixty Amazon Indian groups who are literally fighting for their lives, lives which cannot be separated from the sacred land they call home. Zavala has made many friends here in the United States, and she is grateful for the opportunity to travel and speak on behalf of her people. “I’ve met many beautiful people, wonderful people, men and women, Chicanos, Latinos, Asiatic people, black American people, indigenous people,” she explained. “But I see many contradictions here. The people in the U.S. are so far from their hearts. I feel that your people lost their spirits—no more connection with the earth, the sky, the universe, no more connection with God. So it doesn’t matter if they destroy everything including the planet Earth because they are very disconnected. Maybe your people need to find a path, a way. I don’t know if they have much time to do this; I hope so.” In Dark Nights of the Soul theologian Thomas Moore writes that we Americans have not ade-


quately experienced our grief for what we have done to indigenous and black peoples, not to mention, I would add, to nature and to our relationship with the numinous. “Avoidance,” writes Moore, “makes people numb, foggy, and incapable of real empathy. A society that has lost its soul looks for security in the future, denying the reality of the present.” I see now that I came to Zavala as a tourist, guidebook and map in hand with requisite highlights and circled destinations. I had a plan. But reading a book or even taking ayahuasca doesn’t mean we have any idea what is really going on. If we want to learn anything, it occurs to me, it’s time to stop thinking we know something—or at least everything. It may be time to admit some level of defeat. I don’t know what the great mystery holds for us, but I strongly suspect that if we are lucky, we may have to find our way back to something more original, simple and sacred. We may be forced to give up this insatiable religion of consumerism. We may have to genuinely feel our grief. And at the very least, we may have the opportunity to relearn empathy with nature, as well as humans and other beings, and stop living like tourists in our own amazing lives. It is tempting to want to spin my time with Eda Zavala into something precious, into simple souvenirs that support our comfortable, romantic concept of what it means to be a woman, a Peruvian, a healer, or even an American. But Eda Zavala is not simple or precious, and she knows why she’s here. Her wisdom, her family’s way of life and the sacred trees and animals and people of the rain forest are genuinely in peril. We’re in peril too. And her hope, it seems, is tied for better or worse to our own. “I know how powerful the rich countries are and the multinational corporations, and they have all the tools to be in control, and I don’t want to be an indifferent woman about that because I have a commitment with my people. I have a commitment with Mother Earth because thanks to them I am a person, I am a woman. They gave me a lot of gifts; they saved my life.”


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OST IDENTITY Speaking from her heart, Eda Zavala laments the degradation that is ripping the spiritual fabric of the rain forest.



I do not recall ever being so profoundly moved. We stand in silence in a circle of about fifty, watching the gentle fire whispering its magic. Such a distance from her Peruvian home, the medicine woman faces the fire. Long, jet black hair resting on her white dress, she kneels at her colorful blanket altar, singing her song to the Gods and sacred beings of the Eastern realm, working the feathers in her right hand in purposeful and meaningful gestures—a meaning that is beyond my thinking mind but very clear at some very deep level. The song is lilting. It floats around the fire and our ears like a butterfly, lighting on this one, brushing by that one, soaring impossibly high and floating back to the hearth as if caught by a current of mystery that is emanating from her, coming through her. There is at once unbearable sadness and uncontainable joy. And when at last the song has been offered to the East, still kneeling, she spreads her arms like wings, flower water in her right hand, the eagle, hawk and condor feathers in her left, symbolizing the unity of different peoples. Eyes closed, she bows forward until her forehead touches the ground in front of the fire. With the smoke rising from the gentle fire, it looks as if a beautiful black and white eagle has come to make offerings. It is both striking and humbling. It is complete. Something is happening that both involves this gathering and goes beyond it, far beyond it. Perhaps, I think, the afternoon will allow this story to unfold. She arises slowly and deliberately and with solemn purpose and care walks around the fire to address the West. The same intense focus—the same lilting song with perhaps a few different words. The same complete demonstration of honoring and gratitude to the fire at the finish of the song. And then to the North and lastly to the South. “You may as well put away your pens and paper,” she tells us in her very brief introduction, “because I do not speak with word as much as I speak from Heart.” Now what she means by her words is becoming clear. When she finishes with her invocation to the directions and to the ancestors, she goes from one person to the next around the circle, connecting with her eyes, a few quiet words, her heart until that too is complete. Eda Zavala Lopez was born in Sierra Centra, a small village to the north of Lima, Peru. She came from a lineage of medicine women or curanderas on her mother’s side that went back to the Wari, a peoples displaced centuries ago by the Incas. As an anthropologist, Eda worked with many remote tribes and villages and came to know the ancient medicine from these people, her ancestral family. She had been invited to this gathering in New York’s Catskill Mountains to speak about the use of plants for healing the physical and spiritual body. Some would refer to this type of work as shamanic; however, Eda does not use the term for good reason. “Well,” she admits “I don’t like that, especially right now. When you look at the internet and look for ‘shamanism,’ there are thousands of agencies and shamans who offer their services in the name of sacred medicine.” When Eda describes these groups that visit her village she uses the term “eco-tourism” and “shamanic tours.” She says these self-appointed shamans or spiritual guides “take a group of SACRED FIRE MAGAZINE / 33


Standing at the entrance to the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, I recognized Eda Zavala, a Peruvian curandera I had met at the Blue Deer Center in Margaretville, New York. She invited me to be her guest at the hearing. The conference room had concrete walls, fluorescent lighting and lines of gray tables. In contrast to this stark room the people were colorful—women in tall hats, lapis lazuli caftans, multi-colored scarves and shawls, men sporting bright headbands, turquoise belt buckles. There were Tartars from the Crimea, African Bedouins, Sami Reindeer people, representatives, young and old, from every continent. The subject was land use. The chairman called on delegates, but they were given a very short time to speak. Those familiar with this process spoke in measured tones, giving time to their issues and requests. Others shouted rapidly, urgently. Some were cut off before reaching the core of their message. One man was cut off before he had arranged his papers. We heard about indigenous women being raped by loggers, mining companies poised to destroy Apache tribal homelands, the effects of climate change on reindeer herding in Norway, how land use laws affect the lives of Bedouins in Africa. We heard about tribes whose existence was not recognized by their governments, nomadic peoples whose territories were not respected. Yet Eda, whose Amazon forest homelands were being destroyed by logging and whose elders had been savagely murdered when they tried to resist, was not even invited to speak. Though the solidarity amongst the indigenous peoples was profound, though the sacred lands, waters, animals and plants were all invoked and held in the collective heart, I had not witnessed a gathering where people were listened to with respect. I left the meeting feeling raw, my heart in pain. I wept. Eda felt sick to her soul. She protested that this gathering was a circus, that the indigenous people were being manipulated, that nothing would be done. What could she tell her people? Before the UN finished compiling a report, they and their forest would disappear. She refused to return for the last day of the meetings. Instead, she traveled north to meet with the Iroquois elders in their homeland. —MELISSA CLARE

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people into the jungle, give them some ayahuasca, let them get all disoriented, and charge them many thousands of dollars.” To do this they rely on the local people who get little if any benefit. They might be given 30 pesos total, whereas these “guides” will receive up to 1300 pesos for each person! Eda says that this feels like manosear, or intrusive, dirty energy to many of the village people and is seen as a form of exploitation. But, as her villagers know, it’s hardly the worst. According to Eda, the degradation that is ripping the spiritual fabric of these people started many years ago. In the 1950s entrepreneurs from the city came to exploit the Amazon rain forest. They started to cut the trees so they could plant coffee; thousands of acres were cleared. Then the cattle farmers, fueled by governmental encouragement, further tore up the forests and forced the tribes off of their land. Now the large corporations make the earlier clearing practices look like child’s play. “They didn’t care—they don’t care,” she says. “You cannot hunt or fish or plant crops because your land is growing more and more poor in terms of nutrients in the soil. And, if you add that el narcotraffico, they want to take our lands too, so they can plant the coca leaves! And, if you add the Peruvian mining corporations wanting to exploit minerals, and if you add the multinational corporations that are looking for oil, gas, minerals—forget it! These are sacred territories for many of us, but if we stand in the way, we are shoved aside or shot!” This is the face of oppression in Peru. In June 2009, twenty indigenous elders protesting the corporate land grab were gunned down by governmental forces. To the tribes this was a huge loss, a huge sacrifice, and an indictment of a government controlled by corporations. Many tribespeople came forward. Eda was in her village at the time. “All of us just woke up! You could see how this tragedy broke the hearts of my people. We needed to survive. We needed to confront the enemy, because the government at this point is an enemy. We went down there, and we said to the government, ‘We are here! And if you want to kill us, let’s do it!’” With that forceful demonstration and international pressure, the government backed down. But the international and domestic corporate forces remain in the background, armed with cash and poised for action. Even worse than these outside forces intruding on her homeland is the loss of the life blood of the community, the young people. Whether fleeing poverty or running toward the mirage of prosperity, the youth are leaving for the urban culture and casting away their indigenous heritage. “From the jungle, they have been pushed out and moved into the cities,” Eda says. “They work hard and try to get some job, some space to live in the city, and you know, after a year, they completely forget about their identity, about their traditions, about their family here. I am an indigenous Indian and in my country the majority look like me. But many of these young people who become professionals, who used to look like me, don’t want to be Indians! Even when people don’t have much money in their pockets, still they insist on looking like a North American guy.” Eda pauses and then continues. “And my people lose their dignity. When my tribe people stepped forward like that, it was an amazing experience, including for all the Peruvians who lived in the city, because they are ignorant about their own people! Ignorant about the Peruvian people! Ignorant about indigenous people. Or, they don’t want to see. So, my people think about themselves like they are not citizens; they are no longer on their land, no longer have their identity. They are no longer human beings.” One of her main reasons for this journey to the United States was to attend the symposium for indigenous peoples at the United Nations. “I believed that they really wanted to help us, to save the forest, to protect our rights, human rights, to listen to us about issues between Peruvian government and indigenous people. I really wanted to introduce my community and our work. We are protecting the pristine forest! We are protecting traditional knowledge! We are keeping the sacred wisdom!” “I wanted to show them at the United Nations, about our work, our initiatives, and how we are putting all of our efforts together! Just by ourselves! We are trying to save our land, the beautiful forests and mountains where we live.” There is silence. I ask her what happened. “It broke my heart” she says softly, shaking hear head sadly. “They didn’t want to listen. They have their own business. Oh, they have money. They say in five or so years —‘But we need stud-


ies and la, la, la....’ And so this money just circulates between them and the bank. You see? This money just goes round and round. It is a lie! “Why did they capture our interest? Why did they capture our good intention? I saw many indigenous leaders in this powerful system and it’s ‘Look at me, how important I am!’ It is just about the money and benefits and ego. They run their own game, their own interest, their own ambition. It’s a lie! They don’t want to help us. Why is the United Nations lying?” She shakes her head. “It is what we call a perversión in Spanish.” “We need to work together, my friend. It is not just about educating your people. It is about educating my people as well. To recuperate our dignity and our commitment to our communities.” Perhaps it all comes down to choice, choosing the things that are important on the local scale and in this global village. “I made my choice, my friend.” Eda says, looking off into the distance. “I will continue to run in the right way, respecting my people, respecting my parents, respecting my family, and respecting our values. Simple values and powerful values, like dignity, humility, honesty—and to have love. It starts here!” she says, holding her hands over her heart, “not over there or in some other place, some other country.” “We need to be a community, and we need to work together, supporting each other, respecting and loving—one another, Mother Earth, the forests, here, in Africa, in Asia and the Amazon jungle. We need to work together to make this better, little by little, piece by piece.” Eda returns her focus to the room, ”We are all in this together,” she says softly.

The Author and keynote speaker, Eda Zavala speaking during The 6th Annual Plant Spirit Medicine Conference at the Blue Deer Center.

FOR FURTHER INFORMATION OR TO COMMENT, WRITE President Alan García Office of the President, Plaza de Armas, Lima, Peru Secretariat of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues United Nations, 2 UN Plaza Room DC2-1454 New York, NY, 10017


Margarita Buesaquillo of the Women Healer’s Union in the ASOMI property’s forest

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GATHERING THE SHAMANS TO SAVE THE LAND Liliana Madrigal speaks of the powerful shamanic wisdom that guides the Amazon Conservation Team’s work of protecting the rain forest, its people and traditions. BY CYNTHIA FRISCH


I met Liliana Madrigal and her husband, Dr. Mark Plotkin, at an environmental funders’ conference in 2001. With my background in anthropology and my work with an environmental foundation, I had been interested in the Amazon Conservation Team (ACT) for some time. Liliana, Mark and I became fast friends, sharing our passion for the Amazon and the traditional cultures of its people. I began supporting ACT as a consultant, experiencing firsthand the extraordinary way that their work is accomplished. Liliana Madrigal has spent her life working in the conservation field. Early in her career, serving as the Nature Conservancy’s Director in Costa Rica, her native land, she oversaw the Parks Campaign which established most of the protected areas in that country. In 1987 she helped found Conservation International, becoming its Director of Southern Central America. By 1995 Liliana, along with her husband, had become disenchanted with traditional conservation strategies. Following the lead of Mark’s mentor, the famed ethnobotanist Dr. Richard Evan Schultes, they recognized that the cultures living in the rain forests were disappearing even faster than the forest itself. Mark and Liliana began finding ways to support valuable indig-

enous projects that expressed this innovative vision. In 1996 the Amazon Conservation Team (ACT) was born. With programs in South American countries such as Suriname and Colombia, ACT works in partnership with indigenous people to foster greater autonomy and self-sufficiency as well as to preserve their traditional heritage. Using ethnographic mapping done by the indigenous communities to support their land rights, ACT has helped to protect over 40 million acres in the Amazon. ACT’s Shamans and Apprentices Program enables elder shamans to pass their healing knowledge to the next generation. Indigenous healer associations preserve the integrity and purity of traditional knowledge and strengthen re-

spect for these ancient practices within their tribes. Traditional healing clinics, built near medical health clinics, offer an unprecedented exchange for improving the healthcare of community members. Innovative models of indigenous parks have been established that span thousands of acres and are managed and protected by tribal members themselves. While ACT’s effectiveness has become highly recognized in conservation circles, few people know about the tribal spiritual leaders’ critical role in the evolution of projects. As ACT’s Vice President of Programs, Liliana is continuously challenged and stretched into new dimensions as she works closely with Amazonian shamans to protect their land and ancient wisdom. SACRED FIRE MAGAZINE / 37

Liliana Madrigal: Yes, because one of the first projects involved the Colombian shaman Taita* Laureano Becerra, a very powerful, strong visionary who was one of most amazing conservation leaders that I have known. Probably the last of the Ingano shamans in the western Colombian Amazon to work only with uncultivated yagé or ayahuasca, their sacred healing plant, Taita Laureano held the vision for what has become our Colombia program, including the shaman gatherings, the union of yagé healers and the protected areas. This first project was to build Laureano a maloca where he could practice his healing,

a very symbolic structure which represents strength in the ancient tradition. Giving back just that physical structure revived a tradition that had no longer been respected, and people started coming for healing. It was a very strong starting point for us that set the direction for the future. No amount of money can bring about what we have in our connection with the traditional healers. We actually have very limited money as an organization, but our relationship and the way that we choose to operate— what we do—works. CF: Your role with ACT has primarily focused on programs specifically related to the shamans rather than mapping of indigenous lands or other ACT signature projects. Mark’s background was extensive with indigenous healers as an ethnobotanist, but how did you first begin working so closely with the shamans in the unique way that you do?

LM: I truly never wanted to be involved with

THE GATHERED SHAMANS SPEAK After centuries of guarding their shamanic practices, forty of the most powerful shamans or taitas from the northwest Amazon gathered in Yuruvaco, Caqueta, Colombia in June of 1999. Recognizing that the survival of their spiritual heritage was at stake in the modern world, these shamans met for the first time to openly exchange their knowledge and protect their ancient traditions. Enormous hurdles had to be overcome for this event: long distances through Amazon jungles, severe rains, cultural and linguistic differences among six indigenous groups, and a history of secrecy and distrust among shamans of different communities. Taita Luciano Mutumbajoy, an Ingano shaman and a leader in the recovery of indigenous healing, traveled for months 38 / Issue 12

through the Colombian rain forest, often on foot, to invite and convince other shamans about the importance of the gathering. The event established an unprecedented union of healers called UMIYAC (Unión de Médicos Indigenas Yageceros de la Amazonía Colombiana). It also planted seeds for subsequent gatherings that have extended beyond Colombia to include medicine men and women from Suriname and even Canada. A Gathering of Indigenous Women Healers in Colombia was held in the spring of 2004, and the women quoted here attended that gathering. The words of these visionary elders bring to light the relevance of these gatherings for them as well as for the world.

anything that had to do with ceremonies, and it’s always been that I do everything by force and then find myself in the most remarkable situations. I met Mark in 1985 and didn’t participate in a ceremony until 1998. By then we had contacts all over as we started to plant seeds to support and strengthen traditional knowledge as a base for conservation. Ironically, my first ceremony was with a Colombian shaman in Costa Rica, the country where I was born, had spent my early childhood and had done so much conservation work in the past. I was invited to work on a Costa Rican project outside of ACT and thought it would be good for us as a couple if Mark and I worked separately. When I went to Costa Rica to sign the contract, Taita Luciano, a student of Taita Laureano, came from Colombia to support the project. Having met Luciano only once before, I was terrified of him because of the stories I had heard about yagé. In Costa Rica I got to know him better and somehow ended up participating in a ceremony he was leading. During the ceremony, I saw things, not like you see with your eyes, but in a way that you see and feel and are guided in your thinking process that was very powerful for me. CF: Can you describe those insights and experiences from that ceremony?

LM: You hear about people transforming themselves into jaguars or eagles or other animals, and someone there told us this is what happened to him. A filmmaker in our group didn’t want to participate in the ceremony and was rather arrogant about it when he heard of the physical purging that can hap-

“Before this, we were jealous and mistrusted one another; now it’s time to discard those sentiments and to unite in defense of our medicine. There are very few taitas left and this is the time and the moment to get organized so we may strive for a single cause: to defend our rights and our identities as traditional doctors.” Taita Luciano Mutumbajoy

Ingano, from Mocoa, Colombia, heir of an established shamanic lineage


Cynthia Frisch: I’ve always felt fortunate to have a behind-the-scenes perspective of ACT’s phenomenal work from my own experience as well as from your incredible stories over the years, always highlighted by the profound shamanic influence in the projects and in your life. Did the relationship with the shamans get integrated into the work from the very beginning?

Taita, an honorific for northwest

Amazonian shamans, is also a local indigenous word for “father.”

“The science of yagé is not easy to learn because it is very subtle and involves much suffering. It requires care in what you eat and drink in keeping yourself pure and obeying the structures. It takes many years to learn and as you take yagé you begin to learn.” Taita Laureano Becerra Ingano, spiritual leader of


the movement to recover indigenous traditional medicine

pen with yagé medicine. We were in the middle of nowhere where there are snakes and jaguars. Taita Luciano gave us yagé and this man took it, which really surprised me. Nothing was happening to me from the yagé—no purging, no dizziness, no visions. All of a sudden we heard the roar of a jaguar, a sound that is humanly impossible as far as I’m concerned, and we realized this man had become possessed by the spirit of a jaguar, moving with cat gestures and making us shake when he roared. He then took off barefoot into the jungle. I was terrified that he might get bitten by a snake, but Taita Luciano reassured me that he was under the

control of the jaguar spirit and nothing would happen to him. He finally returned, and, as he started moving back and forth from being himself and being a jaguar, he got upset thinking no one would ever believe him. I have this image of Taita Luciano reassuring him, this man sitting on a fence like a cat. As it turned out, he had been in the closet for many years, and this experience helped him to fully accept himself. It was definitely the most exotic way of coming out. Watching his incredible healing experience and how these animal spirits take form, I was stunned and never quite the same. What I saw was so profound that I realized there that I was totally bound to the kind of work happening through the Amazon Conservation Team, that this is what I wanted to do and couldn’t see myself taking the job in Costa Rica. And I didn’t. It was huge turning point for me.

CF: I recall my first ceremony with you and Taita Luciano in 2002. It was the first time that I had a glimpse of how ACT really worked. Rather than just being in a healthy partnership with indigenous people, the work was actually being guided by the spiritual leaders of these communities, and they were listening to higher spiritual sources. So what I thought was going to be a yagé ceremony with Taita Luciano was actually like a planning meeting of the most extraordinary kind.

LM: They are always like that. CF: Tell me about your experience of the first meeting like this, when it became it clear to

you that this was the process.

LM: It was about a month after the experience in Costa Rica. I went to where Taita Luciano lives in Colombia for an entire week of ceremonies. This was pretty naïve on my part because I just didn’t realize the strength of this man’s capacity. The first ceremony was very powerful, a cleaning out inside as you have to do. The second time I thought, “I came here to work. I am not interested in all these ceremonies. I have to figure out what the plan is going to be.” I discovered then that they don’t even talk about the work. The only way they approach it is through and in ceremony. That week it became clear that my relationship was going to be with Taita Luciano through Laureano, because he and Laureano were one. There was never any division or a different thought process between them. That week of ceremonies also showed me just how the work got done—the ethics and core values required to work with Laureano and the shamans. CF: So it was less about the actual logistics of the work and more about the context and the orientation of the way that you worked.

LM: Exactly. And I want to be very clear that yagé is only a part of this, that it’s the Colombian healers themselves whose work is so important. They are behind the shaman gatherings and connections not only in Colombia but also in other places such as Suriname and even North America. I watch how Taita Luciano is trying to establish this strong spiritual union among a small group who are very quiet, do not get paid, do not travel but are absolutely essential to their community. Those are the people who I’m interested in working with, those very quiet women and men whose knowledge is at the brink of disappearing and yet so vital to the wellbeing and health to not only their community but to the world. From the gatherings that we’ve organized at their request, I see this like a recipe with very different components, and each of these traditional healers has one ingredient. When some day we bring them all together, we might have the whole thing. If one disappears, then it won’t be complete. CF: Let’s talk more about the shaman gatherings that ACT has organized, starting with


“Previously, we learned with our grandparents drinking yagé in forests, alone. We want to have our territory, to have pure water without contamination, to be able to teach the young and the apprentices our traditions and how plants are used.” Taita Fernando Mendúa Kofán from Yarinal, Putumayo, over 100 years old, known for his power and extensive shamanic wisdom 40 / Issue 12


Fernando Mendúa and Tiberio Lucitante during the 1999 Gathering of Shamans of the Colombian Amazon


the first one in Colombia in 1999 and how that came about.

LM: This was again Luciano’s leadership through Taita Laureano. The Colombian shamans were isolated and didn’t trust each other. Their medicine was also being misrepresented, abused and in some cases considered a hallucinogen and thereby might potentially become illegal at some point. We’ve seen that happen in other places. Taita Luciano and Taita Laureano wanted to invite yagé healers from the Colombian Amazon Piedmont for a meeting to support each other and share that which was most sacred to them. Luciano traveled for over six months through the jungle—sometimes on foot—from village to village doing ceremonies to figure out who should be invited, who was real and who wasn’t. He was also challenged by shamans who initially were not open to sharing their knowledge. He had to convince them that for the survival of all their sacred traditions they had to put aside their distrust and come to the gathering. That was not easy, and they tested him intensely with their ceremonies and medicine. Luciano’s work was incredible. Funding the event was also challenging because who in their right mind would underwrite a gathering in one of the most politically conflictive areas in Colombia. The first gathering of shamans, the “Encuentro de Taitas,” was ultimately made possible because of the strong intention of everyone involved. What’s amazing is that the agenda the shamans established at that meeting has been accomplished and continues on at even greater levels. The meeting was also very important and an inspiration to other indigenous healers, particularly to Native Americans in Ontario, Canada from the Six Nations. The Canadians have reprinted several times The Code of Ethics, a book for shamans created at the Colombian gathering, because their elders feel that it is exemplary. They also developed their own Shaman’s Apprentice Program modeled after the Colombian program as well as a youth and elders council. Along with the code of ethics and the Union of Yagé Healers (UMIYAC), there

are other palpable outcomes from that first gathering, such as two major protected areas in Colombia. I first went down to Colombia wanting to make sure that we created something concrete conservationwise, because everybody thinks that we’re only about ceremony. I wrote a proposal focusing on this tiny territory. Not long after, Taita Luciano joined us to meet a potential funder in Florida, and the strangest thing happened. We waited and waited for this man at a hotel, and he never came. Finally, four hours later we saw him only to discover that he had been looking for us the whole time in the exact place where we had agreed to meet. Unfortunately, he had to leave right away to catch a plane to London. I was so crestfallen, losing our big chance to get that tiny, indigenous reserve. We had a ceremony that night near the Everglades where Luciano told me, “You have to go at our pace; you cannot go at your pace. If you go at our pace, things will turn out, and they will be much better. You want to do this reserve, but this is not the way to go about it.” Eight months later

it wasn’t a one thousand acre reserve that we were creating; it was a one hundred and ninety-one thousand acre indigenous national park! It was like looking at a little slide and then watching an IMAX movie. This is the Alto Fragua Indi Wasi National Park, a protected area jointly managed by indigenous communities and the Colombian National Park Service. Later, the Kofán tribal elders kept insisting on protecting another area. They were so persistent that we finally bought it. In 2008 we created with the Park Service the Orito Ingi-Ande Plant Sanctuary, which establishes a new category of reserve that protects plants of high cultural value to indigenous communities. The sanctuary is a first in Latin America, where the National Academy of Sciences recognizes the immaterial value or the invisible nature of an area for indigenous people. It’s a huge precedent. These are the types of conservation that have come out of their leadership and vision—and our being able to trust it and collectively work together. But it’s not just about vision or about ceremony and feeling

“I want the wisdom, not for me, but to teach it to our children and grandchildren, so that our medicinal plants are not forgotten.” Taita Francisco Piaguaje

Siona, from Buenavista on the banks of the Putumayo River, a legend of shamanic knowledge


really good. There’s a lot of hard work, and the results are very concrete things that you can see, feel and measure. That’s what matters most to me—that people who are not Indians and people who are here have come together and now there is an important indigenous site that is part of a system of official protected areas. CF: What were some of the shaman gatherings after that first Colombian gathering in 1999?

LM: A very interesting relationship developed with another South American tribe in 2004. They wanted to know more about what ACT had done with other indigenous people and to hear from them directly. I went with Taita Luciano to visit another 42 / Issue 12

tribe and all of their shamans were waiting for us. They are inordinately powerful beyond what you could ever imagine, and they raked Luciano through the coals to really find out about him and ACT. Then, although they had never traveled before, they wanted to visit the Colombian shamans, so we brought them to Colombia. The shamans were astounded to see the difficult circumstances under which the Colombians live. Colombia has enormous indigenous reserves in the lowlands, but in the Piedmont where we work they are very small and scattered. We went to Taita Luciano’s place, and the children were at school. The visiting tribe wanted to know where were the children, where was the community? For them it was seeing their own lives

thirty years down the road if they didn’t adhere to the land, protect it, and really fight for it. They were also able to see that despite the poverty and challenges, the Colombian yagé healers are still very powerful. A strong alliance was established between the these shamans and Colombian shamans during that trip, and we had a gathering in 2006 with all of them there as well as Lakota spiritual leader Arvol Looking Horse and Amasina Uremaru, the paramount shaman of the Trio people in Suriname. There have been other gatherings since which have been incredibly powerful, but that one was just earth-shattering. They all took turns doing different ceremonies, explaining how they healed and sharing their knowledge with each


Juana Concepción Chindoy “Conchita” signing official documents of the Women Healer’s Union

Read more about this historic Encuentro de Taitas in an extraordinary book, The Gathering of Shamans in the Colombian Amazon: Ceremonies and Reflections (Published by Erredicions, Bogotá, Colombia, 1999)

“When there wasn’t a road or anything, we just had good times, going hunting, fishing, just everything, we were so utterly content, and later the road came and with it colonization, and now we’re nothing, no hunting, we don’t have anything, the forest is lost, pure coca fields that the settlers plant, and we wind up with nothing, nothing. Maria Queta Kofán healer

other. They’ve had other exchanges since that time in Suriname and visits by the Colombians to North America. You were with Taita Luciano and me the first time we went to Green Grass, South Dakota a few years back. Luciano and I went back there this past summer since Arvol Looking Horse happened to be in a meeting with all the Lakota chiefs discussing the lands in the Black Hills, and President Obama wanted to meet with them. It was very moving to see the support by Luciano’s presence.


CF: Another important gathering that you were involved with was the Gathering of Indigenous Women Healers in Colombia in the spring of 2004. I remember from our conversations back then how challenging it was for you to put on that event.

LM: An elderly and highly respected Siona shaman, Taita Pacho, came from Colombia to visit me in D.C., and I really didn’t understand why. He told me that he had come to “plant some seeds.” He asked me to organize a gathering just for the women healers saying, “Without their strength, without their

knowledge, and without them none of our work is possible.” He told me that it was very important for the balance of power, and I knew that he didn’t mean just in Colombia. We started to organize, which was a very painful process right up until the gathering. It really divided a lot of people—not so much the Indians but the white people involved within Colombia. The gathering itself was absolutely beautiful and very successful, and one of the most remarkable weeks of my life. All of the women were very poor. One elderly woman was so emaciated when she arrived that she passed out. Others—their underwear was in tatters. Of course, later we set up a fund through ACT for people to support these women. We had done extensive interviews to find the most gifted women, and here were twenty-five of the most powerful women healers in Colombia, women who held ancient and sacred knowledge of women’s healing and medicine, and some of them—particularly those who were widows or whose children had moved away—had been essentially living at the edge of their communities in total poverty quietly taking care of women their whole lives. For the first time they were able to meet other women like themselves, to share their knowledge, their crafts, their plants, their food and to know that by our holding this gathering for them that their knowledge and gifts were valued. I have never in my life laughed and felt so much joy as I did that week. A friend, a Colombian architect from Bogotá, built this wonderful structure for the meeting in the shape of a uterus, which continues to serve as their gathering place. An association of women healers called ASOMI was established with a network of collective and individual gardens, because the garden is emblematic of indigenous women. A big focus has been ancestral agricultural production, seeking the knowledge of the grandmothers to bring back some of the crops that are disappearing. And with the growing cadre of apprentices as herbalists, midwives and a few yagé healers, we are sustaining these traditions. We also seek out young and promising indigenous women who want to study law or pursue careers

that enhance their professional representation in the community. Although it was one of the most difficult projects I have ever worked on and many times I wanted to give up, I’m so glad that I didn’t and really trusted Taita Pacho’s vision. He’s gone now, and I feel that the seed he planted in that visit to D.C. is now flourishing. CF: Where do you see the future of ACT in terms of your particular area of work? Where do you sense that the shamans see it, because that is really the question?

LM: I have no way of knowing where they see it. Sometimes I feel like they’ve totally forgotten things they had discussed; time passes and then something extraordinary happens. Of course, the gatherings are very important to them and to forwarding our work together. We have had smaller ceremonies the past few years as they are very expensive to organize. However, we are hoping to have another larger gathering again if possible this year. I do think that an international union of healers of some kind—a connection between all of these powerful indigenous healers—is the underlying intention of a very big and profound vision. How that will fully manifest remains to be seen. CF: How do you feel personally changed from working with the shamans in this way?

LM: I don’t necessarily feel changed. I feel that I’m just a good friend, that I respect them and feel very grateful and privileged to work with them. I trust that they know things that we do not. They have guided our work in ways that no one else is able to and have inspired so much with their humility and their joy and their love of life. It’s such a gift for me to be able to do this work. I just know that the most important part of my work,—and the work of ACT—is just to listen to the wisdom of these great shamans and to respond as best as possible. It isn’t always easy, but it’s always worth it. For further information about the work of ACT write to Amazon Conservation Team, 4211 N. Fairfax Drive, Arlington, VA 22203, 703-522-4684,





are the people of the corn,” Tata Cecilio teaches the crowd of women, men and children who have gathered to hear him speak at the community hall in Pt. Reyes, California. His elder, Tata Tomas, sits in a folding chair near the stage thoughtfully listening. Tata is the Mayan word for Grandfather or Spiritual Guide, but these two men aren’t just respected elders; they’re both Daykeepers of the Mayan calendar, the ancient calendar of the Kaqchikel Maya of Guatemala, and Ajq’ij. They have come to speak about food security for the Mayan nation through education about genetically modified food. Part of the education includes building seed banks throughout the land of the Maya that will store native heirloom seeds. Both the tatas stand around 5 feet in height, wearing a combination of Western clothing and traditional Mayan textiles that emanate an energy like the Earth herself. Tata Cecilio is 40 yet is still honored as an elder at home. Tata Tomas, in his 60s, holds the position of “Elder to the Elders” and is highly respected among his people. Their friend and ally Camila Martinez, director of the Maya Seed Ark Project, translates for Tata Cecilio. “The four elements of earth, air, fire and water come together and create life through seeds. The seeds grow into corn. We eat the corn and receive life. When the Maya grow and eat GMO seed, we introduce genetics that are foreign into our bodies. We change our own genetics. Then we can no longer be called Maya.” There is a hushed silence in the room as we non-Maya consider this fact. Those of us who can’t conceptualize how humans can also be corn, or taro, or buffalo and how the fate of one is interchangeable with the fate of the other will never truly comprehend the Maya, or any indigenous culture. But when we can understand this truth, it’s not a far leap to then understand how genetically modified seeds are threatening the very fabric of existence for indigenous cultures. Though I am familiar with the devastation Monsanto has been causing to small farmers all around the world, I’m appalled to hear the details of what is happening

down in the land of the Maya. The Maya are the People of the Corn, and the threat to them is why Tata Cecilio and his elder have made the long journey north to the unknown land of California from their remote communities in Guatemala. A few days before, I had my first meeting with the tatas and Camila at a Sunrise Fire Ceremony in West Marin, a special gathering for donors and close friends. It was the first time two Kaqchikel Mayan elders had ever held a traditional ceremony like this in our region of California. I was there as a donor, having heard about their visit from a friend. She knew I’d just returned from ten days in the Yucatan where I was communing with my ancestral roots, and she thought I’d like to meet two traditional Mayan elders. Most spiritual seekers today know the date of 2012 on the Mayan calendar from books, internet sites, or the feature film 2012 by Rolland Emmerich. Tata Tomas and Tata Cecilio have a different account of their own prophesy and calendar and feel discouraged by the continued exploitation of their spiritual heritage. At the fire ceremony they explain that their ancestors handed down a perfected method of living; this method is the observance of the Mayan calendar. The very birth of the calendar

their traditional ways, an all too familiar story among native communities. And now with Monsanto selling genetically modified hybrid corn to unknowing farmers, the Maya are losing hold of that which is most sacred and connected to their soul. The calendar can guide not just the Maya but everyone in how to live a beautiful, harmonic and conscious existence. The tatas teach that 2012 is bringing in a great shift in consciousness. As I sit next to Tata Tomas in the Point Reyes community hall, I know in my bones that this is what I’ve been waiting for: to hear the wisdom of the calendar shared from the voices and hearts of the Mayan people—a wisdom that is not separated from their daily lives. Tata Tomas stands now and speaks: “Our calendar ends at your year 2012. At this time you are facing a choice: to listen to our Mother Earth, or destroy her. It is your choice.” I feel a warmth rising from my belly to my heart, and I know I have to play a part in alerting people about what is really happening down in the land of the Maya. This cause is close to my heart. I made a pilgrimage to the Yucatan earlier in the year to connect with my Mayan ancestors. At that point I only had an intuition that my lineage was connected to the Maya, but no facts. At the Sunrise Cer-


46 / Issue 12

and the people is recorded in their creation story, the Popol Vuh, which describes the decline of the classic Maya culture because of drought and climate change. Based on thousands and thousands of years of Mayan observations of the cosmos, Mayan Daykeepers have been able to foretell when the cycle of climate change will come around again. It is right now. That is why the elders are starting to share the prophesies with the greater world. The calendar guides the Maya in all areas of their lives: family, education, work, ceremony, food, medicine and governance. With the encroachment of modern civilization, the Maya are struggling to hold onto

emony I was surprised to learn from Camila Martinez that the Gutierrez came over from Spain with Cortez and landed in the Yucatan. When most of the other officers and soldiers left, the Gutierrez stayed and intermarried with the Maya, making Mexico their home. Is this why I’d grown up calling my grandparents Tata and Nana? While in Mexico I hoped to encounter traditional Mayas, but I didn’t make one connection. The closest I got was almost attending a Tamazcal, a traditional Mayan sweat lodge ceremony, at a yoga retreat center. Mostly I bore witness to a degraded Mayan culture where the people struggled to eke out a living as maids, gardeners and main-

Consumers Association.” “Save your seeds. Grow your own food within your community,” Tata Cecilio adds. After the event I am filled with energy and looking forward to my private meeting with the tatas and Camila the next day, when the tatas will read my Mayan astrology. Before heading back to Sonoma County, I ask Camila if I can write an article about the plight of the Maya that might help spread awareness of their cause. “Call me,” she smiles, handing me her card. Her presence is formidable like a mother cougar, and I feel grateful that the Maya have her as a spokesperson in the North. She has been a strong advocate for the Mayan people in their struggles against the Monsanto Corporation. Camila began working with the Maya in 1996 as a bridge to information, advocacy and resources. She met Tata Cecilio, a former president of the Kaqchikel Linguistics Institute, in



tenance staff at the gargantuan international resorts. Upon my return home I realized that the conquest of Mexico’s people that started in 1520 by the Spaniards was still happening today, but now the weapon was capitalism and the conquistadors were the international corporations. When I heard two Mayan elders were coming to the land of my birth and that I could sit with them, I knew there was some kind of spiritual intervention at play. Now in the audience others must feel a strong connection also, as suddenly many hands are raising into the air with questions. The tatas answer every question attentively. The Point Reyes community is on fire with


ideas! They’re already brainstorming how to help disseminate the DVD that Camila has made, which teaches the Mayan people how to build seed banks and conserve their native heirloom seed. One person asks how else can we help? Camila responds, “First and foremost, stop eating genetically modified foods. Check your cupboards. Get rid of GMOs. For a list of companies that produce or distribute GMO foods, go to, the Center for Food Safety, or the Organic

2007 when they were both speaking on a panel at the Seventh Encuentro de Pueblos Maya, which took place in Belize. The Encuentros are annual gatherings of Mayan people from all over the land of the Maya, which includes southern Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize. They both presented on seeds: Camila regarding Monsanto’s GMO seeds and Tata Cecilio regarding the Mayan Calendar and Prophesy. Within two years of that meeting, Camila produced, directed and edited a one hour and SACRED FIRE MAGAZINE / 47


fifteen minute film entitled “Alarma! No a los Transgenicos!” (“Warning! No to GMOs!”) in which Tata Cecilio appears. The film teaches in detail what a GMO seed is, its health risks and how to save traditional seeds in seed banks. Because of her growing friendship with the Maya and loyalty in assisting them, Camila was invited to the last three Encuentros to warn the people about Monsanto’s plundering. It was at the Ninth Encuentro of Mayan nations, held last year in Zapatista territory in Chiapas, Mexico, that she premiered the film. Today the spiritual elders are collaborating with the Maya Seed Ark Project to get the word out to their communities. Inside the traditional lands of the Maya there is a large swath of rain forest called the Peten Jungle. It is one of three places remain48 / Issue 12

ing in the world with such great density of biodiversity. There are three million Maya living in this area. Many still live in isolated areas, hours from central townships, maintaining farming practices handed down to them by their ancestors, but Monsanto has infiltrated even these most remote villages with GMO seeds. Sadly, there are some regions in Guatemala that have lost their traditional yellow corn seed and plant solely GMO crops. That means that that region’s variety of heirloom yellow corn is gone forever, and the corn they rely on for food is GMO. For the last two years Guatemala has been in severe drought and farming families have been hit hard. On top of that, the Guatemalan government has recently issued rate hikes on fertilizer, electricity and propane, squeezing the Maya even more. It is no wonder the Maya are so vulnerable to offers of seed from Monsanto. Often Mayan farmers acquire genetically altered seeds at their lo-

cal seed store, hooked by the promotional labeling “The New Improved Seed.” Or they are invited to attend a meeting where they are given a bag of free (GMO) seed. Religious groups and midwives, unknowingly enlisted in Monsanto’s army through sly slogans like “Join the Modern Times” or “Biotech will feed the world,” are sometimes found helping Monsanto promote their genetically altered seeds to farmers. Not only do the Mayan farmers not know they are planting GMO seed; they also don’t realize that they are planting seeds that can cross pollinate with their traditional seeds and contaminate them forever. Once farmers have switched over to GMO seed, they are dependent on Monsanto for their annual supply. And just this spring Monsanto raised their prices on seed by 30%, well aware that farmers have nowhere else to turn. Monsanto’s agents are also giving away free seeds to get people to plant GMO with-


1. Copy and distribute the film ALARMA! NO A LOS TRANSGENICOS in the lands of the Maya 2. Educate people via films, flyers, community radio and indigenous TV 3. Build seed banks of traditional seed in sustainable regions 4. Gather original seeds from all regions, foods, medicinals and trees 5. Generate seed exchanges between farmers 6. Create demonstration sites of organic native seeds 7. Test for GMO contamination

WHAT THE MAYA SEED ARK PROJECT NEEDS IMMEDIATELY It takes $100,000 to set up one seed bank. The goal is to begin with three seed banks, one in Belize, one in Guatemala and one in the Yucatan region. • It takes only $7 to make a copy of the 1hr. 15 min. film Camila made. The more copies the better! • $10,000 is needed immediately to distribute the film to more Mayan communities. • $4000 is needed to dub the film in English so that people and donors in the North can hear what is happening to the Maya. • $4000 is needed for reproduction and distribution of dubbed film in English. • Volunteer help is needed at the Maya Seed Ark Project in computer technical assistance. • Long-term investors who are committed to the Maya and the survival of their culture are needed so that the ongoing implementation of seed security plans and education can be done.

DONATING If you’d like to make a tax-deductible donation write check to “Wakan” c/o Camila Martinez, P.O. Box 751, Bolinas, CA 94924. Please write “Maya Seed Project” on check.

CONTACTS The Maya Seed Ark Project,, Founder, Director Camila Martinez is available to speak at conferences and events, and is available for Mayan astrology readings.

out knowing it. For example, they host a community meeting called “Mothers of the Corn,” inviting Mayan midwives to attend. When the women get there they are gifted a large bag of GMO corn seed. Tata Cecilio told the story of his mother’s experience

going to a meeting like this and how happy she was when she returned home with free corn. She put some in a pot and cooked it up, but she disliked the taste so much she threw away the whole bag. But not all Maya have the luxury to throw out free seed. Many are so poor and their families are so hungry they eat this corn and are grateful “to the savior.” Monsanto is not just pushing their GMO seed; they’re also patenting indigenous heirloom seeds and the seeds of many varieties of wild medicinal plants. The genetically engineered seeds currently being disbursed in Central America include corn, tomatoes, chilies, papaya, cotton and tobacco. In order to protect native seeds, the mission of the Maya Seed Ark Project, in collaboration with the Councils of Maya Spiritual Elders, is to establish Mayan seed arks in selected locations on the Yucatan peninsula, Guatemala and Belize, where there is potential for long-term sustainability. The next step is to initiate Mayan men and women as Keepers of the Seeds in every village as a sacred charge for future generations. The seed arks will provide families with food and medicine security and will be a genetic treasure trove of heirloom seeds specific to each region. By the time the tatas’ journey came to a close, my heart was connected to the Maya irreversibly. I was deeply moved by the humility, authenticity and compassion with which the tatas met everyone, no matter who they were. If this was an example of the dignity of my ancestors, I had something to be proud of and something to strive for in myself. I had two major realizations through my time with the tatas and Camila. The first is that for the Maya their fight for food security is foretold by and guided by their ancient prophesies and their astrological calendar. Even my involvement can be read in their calendar, as my astrology reading with the tatas showed. It is impossible for the daily life of the Maya to be separated from the living energies of their calendar. Therefore, they themselves are the living calendar. The two exist together as one. The second realization is that a non-Maya who desires to learn more about the Mayan calendar needs devotion and study. And there is not just one calendar; there are many, each different but similar and all concluding with

the same final date. The teachings are multidimensional, very personal and very cosmic at the same time. Camila taught me that the best way to know the calendar is to start to live by it and see how it affects your life. If you want to learn from a genuine Ajq’ij, you have to do the preliminary work to be ready for that auspicious occasion. Sitting cross-legged on the ground and picking at our plates of food at the goodbye party for the tatas, I speak in very broken Spanish to Tata Cecilio about his home in Guatemala. He is a teacher by profession, and his time in California is time away from work and family obligations. He says he is looking forward to getting back home to his newborn daughter, who arrived just one month ago. The stark reality that his family’s everyday experiences are so different from my own is inescapable. I suddenly feel a wave of concern rush through my heart for the safety of the tatas and all the Maya who have been courageously speaking out against Monsanto. Stories of Monsanto’s ruthlessness toward any who oppose them, like Percy Schmeiser, a canola farmer in Bruno, Canada, flood back to my mind. But these fears are wasted energy in helping the Maya; rather, I want to offer them my own courage to act on their behalf, my faith in their spirit and my unending love. For one last time the group of donors and friends is called to gather around the central altar. Joyfully, yet with a wordless longing in our eyes, we join the tatas kneeling to the four directions, touching our foreheads to the Earth and offering our dance up to the ancestors. Hugging the tatas goodbye and looking into their serene eyes, I feel my own ancestors looking back at me: the grandfatherly open heart of Tata Tomas and the sharp, clear heart of Tata Cecilio, both holding a beautiful wisdom so rare and precious, both taking tremendous risks for their people and for us. If you want to know the truth, go to the source. Only the source. The Maya Daykeepers can teach you the wisdom of their calendar. They are the living prophecy, the living Mayan calendar. No book can ever substitute for the continuance of this ancient culture on Earth. Please support their efforts to preserve their culture. SACRED FIRE MAGAZINE / 49


As a child, author Kent Nerburn began walking a path of compassion with reluctant mystics, A CONVERSATION WITH KENT NERBURN native spirituality and the power of ordinariness. BY SHARON BROWN | ILLUSTRATION BY MACE FLEEGER

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first learned of Kent Nerburn when I came across a small book called The Wisdom of the Native Americans (New World Library, 1999). I was struck by the simplicity of the book which contains quotes and stories from a variety of native elders from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. There are beautiful philosophies for living and an incredible amount of heart in the book. His name stuck with me, and when I found his new book The Wolf at Twilight, I was impressed by his integrity and honesty in presenting the experience of native elders today. The book is not romanticized or sentimental. It tells an inspiring story in a sometimes raw way. I knew I had to meet him. The publisher of his book put us in contact, and we arranged an interview over the phone. I was surprised by the person I got to know. I had expected a “wise man,” but Kent presents himself simply as an empty vessel, what one might expect from a Buddhist monk or a shamanic healer— though he is neither of these. He exists so that he can be filled and so that he can pour stories out of himself. We spoke for nearly two hours and the following is taken from our conversation. Sacred Fire: As a child were you always drawn to things of world and spiritual perspective, or was this something that came to you later in life? How did you become you?

Nerburn: One of the pivotal events in my life was my dad’s job, director of disaster services. His job was to go out and offer comfort and help to people whose houses had burned down, or sometimes there would be a drowning in the lake in the middle of the night. And I’d go along with him. I’d be in my little suburban house, and I’d gone to bed worrying about whether or not my hair was cool, or whether some girl might like me, or whether the teacher was going to be nice to me the next day. And in the middle of the night my dad would come in and say, “There’s a four-alarm up on the north side, you want to go?” and I’d jump out of the bed in the dark, and we’d go to usually some scene of tragedy and horror. He’d say, “I’m going to bring the people in the car and I want you to sit with them and talk to them.” And sometimes they might have lost a family member. Or there’d be something as simple as an old lady who lived by herself, and her cat had gotten caught in the fire, and she was inconsolable, and the fireman would say, “There is nothing we can do—we’re not going back in to get a cat.” SACRED FIRE MAGAZINE / 51

I’d see these things—and my life became non-existent in a way. I became a pure auditor in the experience of other people’s lives; I was dealing with issues of ultimate concern, of the absolute tragedy and mystery of life. These things became part and parcel to my upbringing: How does this happen? Is there a God? What is the nature of tragedy? What is family? Whatever big question you could ask was just implanted in me. SF: You are a Euro-American, yet your books communicate a Native American world view. Are you comfortable discussing the concept of “Indian wannabes?”

Nerburn: I’m wary of people who are trying to fill some hunger in themselves with native spirituality. I’m wary not so much for them as I am for the native people who have so little left. We Europeans have appropriated everything for ourselves. Many native people have said to me, “Okay you’ve got our land, you’ve got a lot of culture, now you want our spirituality because you’ve got a hole in your hearts. And we don’t want to give it to you.” I respect that. And yet at the same time I see so many people with this hunger for spirituality without religious ideology—and the native people have always had this. They have a belief that we all meet the Creator alone and therefore our spiritual searches are solitary and private, and that we should do what we can to help another person on this spiritual search. So when I see people who are hungry for native spirituality, I have a great sympathy for them. But when I see them saying, “I’m going to change my name from Kent Nerburn to Star Littlehawk,” then no. No, because we are who we are. We were given what we were given in life by our parents, by the forces that be, and I believe we have to honor that past. I’m not comfortable when I see people really trying to chuck off what they were and become something else. SF: At the same time, your books feel like you give readers permission to feel a deeper connection to spirits of nature, to believe their own experiences without feeling like they’re crazy.

Nerburn: Absolutely. I’ll use the term “reluctant mystic” for lack of a better one. People 52 / Issue 12

that rush out— and this ties into what I said previously— and claim easy communion with other spiritual traditions, well, I’m wary of them and I ask them to be wary of themselves. But people who quietly have the feelings of the presence of spirit and nature, people who feel the presence of a relative who is passed, people who feel the spirits of their pets, who can sense the spirit in the land around them— they’re the ones I respect the most. The ones who are quiet. People who are spiritual without being religious often don’t wear their spirituality on their sleeves. I find their spirituality to be so needed in a world that doesn’t have much grounding in the power of nature, the power of the earth, the power of weather. SF: When you talk about the power of weather, the power of nature, do you have any particular sense for what’s going on out there?

Nerburn: Every generation thinks it’s seen the worst thing that’s ever been seen. So it’s hard for me to say that we’re looking at apocalyptic end times or anything. But it’s been a very selfish time for the last half of my 60 plus years, and I’ve been very bothered by the selfishness of the world and by the apparent victory of a capitalist economic model that’s predicated on winners and losers. If I take the position of a father looking at the world for his children, I get very worried and very upset and say, “I don’t see good people rising up to take command of things.” When I look at a short-term world I get very upset. But when I look at a long-term world I say we’re heading towards something where people are going to have to at some point say, “No. We cannot continue on this path.” Those of us that came out of the 60s thought that we were going to bang the drums and change the world. Well, we didn’t. We made it safe to wear blue jeans to work. I don’t know what the shape of revolution is going to be. It may be the revolution of consciousness that so many spiritual seekers look for. It may end up being political revolution; it may not even be recognizable as revolution.

But things cannot continue as they are. I’m very impressed with the younger generation. With the kids in their 20s and early 30s. I think they’re citizens of the world. I think if they can transcend thinking only about themselves and their immediate small circle, they’ve got tools that we didn’t have. SF: You mention people in their 20s and how in these times things just can’t continue. That implies a need to spend time with elders who have grounding and relationship with the world. What should people do to further their growth in a good way?

Nerburn: This goes back to what you were asking earlier, whether Euro-Americans have a right to seek out native spirituality in a way that doesn’t become intellectual colonialization and spiritual appropriation. There are so many different paths that if you find one that

WE THOUGHT WE WERE GOING TO BANG THE DRUMS AND CHANGE THE WORLD. WELL, WE DIDN’T. WE MADE IT SAFE TO WEAR BLUE JEANS TO WORK. allows you to walk it, you may find guides. Maybe those guides are actual people, maybe those guides are sacred texts—but you walk that path with compassion. I never feel comfortable speaking about a path for other people. I believe in the power of ordinariness. I believe that we all have a quality of heart that we all need to excavate and that we have to learn to be kind and be caring. Because it’s such a world where power is valued. It’s economic power; it’s political power; it’s corporate power that empowers itself. It’s not only an illusion; I think it’s dangerous. Those who give away power are ultimately the stronger ones. SF: What will you be working on next?

Nerburn: There’s an idea that has two different expressions. One, I’d like to expose some of the darkness that we’ve buried in our historical

understanding of things. The other is to point towards the light of what we’ve lost of the native way of teaching, what the native people still have to teach to us. And I’d kind of like to carry this forward in two different realms. There is a horrible place in South Dakota called the Hiawatha Asylum for Insane Indians that was an institution where they incarcerated Indian people. It’s like the boarding schools times ten. Many were sent there because they had a quality of spiritual understanding. They had relationships to the earth and had relationships to nature that made them look like they were crazy. I would like to bring some of that forward— the ones who legitimately could talk to the animals. Who could engage with the plants on a mystical level. These people were alive at one time and there may be a few of them out there now, although I don’t know any of them in particular. But their way of understanding the world is something I’ve only brushed against in both my own experience and in my writing. I’d like to go deeper into the darkness in this next book, as well as tell even more of the alternative model of understanding the world that we don’t even see. What they had in their traditional ways is something that I think we need to hear. SF: As you’re speaking I’m feeling very

moved. What you’re speaking about is the point of view of Sacred Fire magazine. The people who work on the magazine have various teachers and traditions, but that mystical relationship with the world is very living. So I’m thrilled to hear that that’s where you’re feeling directed.

Nerburn: My skill as a creator, whether it be as a sculptor or writer, is to be able to divest myself of my own sense of self and enter into someone else’s reality. It’s kind of a shamanism, for lack of a better term. I enter into them. The idea is to inhabit something to the point where it talks to you, rather than you analyzing it. So there is this constant kind of spiritual—someone once called it ‘“spiritual vampirism.” I get my creative blood, creative knowledge by sucking the blood out of something else. Now that’s a pretty dark and trippy comment. But the idea that I enter into those other beings is no different than when I was sitting in that car with the woman whose cat was lost in the fire. I don’t care about myself at that point. I don’t even have a self. What I want to do is make my heart become that woman’s heart, and I look up at the burning building and see the fire in the window, and my heart breaks for the cat inside of that window, and I’m nobody. I think it’s interesting that you started our conversation with asking the question about what made me “me.” I’ve

wanted to know what it would be like to have no self. And maybe it’s an impossible question. SF: It’s interesting that you talk about artistic shamanism. I’ve attempted fiction in my past and have done mystical journeywork; they can feel like very similar states. People who work with plant spirits have the ability to dissolve themselves, to lose themselves, to open themselves to actually communicating on that level.

Nerburn: And the plant is there to talk to them. SF: Yes.

Nerburn: You need to be able to hear. One of the native teachings always says the first thing you need to do is to be able to listen. To be able to listen, you have to shut up, and that means not only with your mouth but with your mind. SF: Exactly.

Nerburn: You have to be able to hear. Once you hear, things will talk back to you. Once they talk back to you, if you have enough clarity and enough spiritual openness to something, you can hear what they have to say. And a plant, an animal, a character—they’re all the same. It’s a degree of openness that allows you to become the vessel that’s filled.


In the following excerpt from The Wolf at Twilight, An Indian Elder’s Journey through a Land of Ghosts and Shadows (New World Library, 2009) BY KENT NERBURN | PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN WILLIS the narrator has been called to a Lakota Reservation in the Dakotas by an old friend to help him find he young man on the four-wheeler had fallen in behind us. At each stop he ran over and assisted Orv by pulling out deadfall or shifting the position of the his sister who was lost to the Indian branches so that Orv could get a clear cut at them. The two young girls who Boarding Schools sixty years before. were riding with him assisted by picking up small pieces of kindling that they then He accompanies his friend to a place threw into the back of the truck. I tried to help as best I could, taking the logs and bigger branches from the young where a sweat lodge is being preman as soon as they were cut, and either handing them to Shitty or throwing them in pared. Here, he helps gather wood the back of the truck myself. I noticed that Orv always paused right before cutting and said a few words under his breath. I assumed it was a prayer of some sort, or an invofor the sweat lodge. SACRED FIRE MAGAZINE / 53

cation. The young man stood still during this pause, only moving again when Orv revved up the saw for the next cut. It was obvious that Orv was a good man. Though only in his fifties, he was clearly the patriarch of this group. He had an ample belly and a cauliflower nose and pockscarred face that would have made him seem ugly had it not been for the kindly manner he exuded in everything he did. From calling Shitty and Jumbo into action, to starting the chain saw and cutting the tree limbs, there was calmness in his demeanor. When he touched things, he did so gently. When he moved, he was patient and deliberate. There was something almost prayerful in his approach to every task. He seemed at peace with his work, with himself, and with the world around him. At one point I heard him tell Shitty to stop, and he climbed out and walked past a number of downed trees to a limb that was freshly fallen and still covered with leaves. He paused for a moment, said a few words under his breath, then deftly sheared off the leaf-bearing branches and cut the remaining limb into precise two-foot pieces. “This one will give us good smoke,” he said as I gathered up the freshly cut logs. “It still remembers being up in the sky.” He lifted one of the shorn branches and said a short prayer. “Oak,” he said, as if teaching me. “Oak’s a good tree. Lots of courage. It’ll stand on a hill all by itself, even when there’s no other tree around. Holds out its arms to protect the animals during a storm. It’s good wood for a sweat.” We proceeded this way up along the gully. Orv cut, the young man handed the logs to me, and I handed them to Shitty, who then handed them to Jumbo, who piled them in the pickup bed. It was like a water brigade, and it made me feel good to be part of a collective effort. After about a half hour, the pickup bed was almost full. We were all sweating and exhausted from the heat. Orv sat down on a fallen log and gestured me to do the same. He nodded to the sweatshirt boy, who immediately ran back to the pickup and grabbed a plastic milk jug filled with water. He sat down next to us and handed the jug to Orv. “This will be a good sweat,” Orv smiled. 54 / Issue 12

“We’re getting good wood.” The sweatshirt boy nodded. I had the distinct impression that he was serving an apprenticeship or was in some kind of training. I was fascinated by Orv’s concern for the wood. I had sculpted in wood for almost twenty years before turning to writing, and it was the spirit and presence of trees that had first piqued my interest in the Native world. It was the Native peoples alone who seemed to understand the almost mystical life force of trees in the way I had come to experience it when I worked for six or eight months on a single tree. Now I was with a man who seemed to accept this spiritual presence as a matter of course, and who sprinkled his conversation with casual references to a way of seeing the world that few, if any, white men I had met could even begin to understand. “So, the tree you choose is important?” I asked. “Oh, yeah. You want trees with a good spirit.” “How do you decide which trees to choose?” “Oh, I just kind of drive along until I get a feeling. Maybe I’ll see a tree and I’ll feel like it’s calling out to me. Cottonwood’s the best. That’s the sacred tree. The best cottonwood is from a tree that’s been used for a Sun Dance. Some guys, they’ll use anything—old two-byfours, scrap, whatever they have. I don’t think that’s a good way to do it.” He took a leaf from a branch that was lying nearby and put it in his mouth and started chewing it. I decided to take a chance. “I used to carve wood,” I said. “I did big sculptures from trees. Six months, a year with one tree, and you learn something about it.” I was nervous that I’d sound like some New Age seeker. But I wanted to continue the conversation. This was one of the few men I’d ever met who was willing to talk about spirit in trees. Orv nodded understandingly. Emboldened, I continued. “There was an oak tree once. It had been down for years. I didn’t like to kill trees to carve in. It seemed wrong.” Orv nodded again. “I worked on that tree for months. It was the saddest tree I’d ever known. Something about

the way it responded to the chisel. Sometimes after six or eight hours alone with it, I’d just start crying. It seemed so lonely.” “It must have had a hard life,” Orv said. “Oaks are pretty strong. They can take a lot.” “That’s what I thought. That’s why this one surprised me so much. Oak always seemed pretty masculine, almost military. I expected a struggle, or at least something that challenged me. But this one was crying.” I had never said words out loud like this to anyone before. “It’s good to listen to them,” Orv said. “What kind of tree did you like best?” “Walnut was my favorite. Walnut and butternut. They seemed so giving, so feminine.” “We don’t have them out here. They have fruits or nuts, right?” I nodded. “Trees that have nuts, fruits— they’re used to giving things away.” In a strange way it was one of the headiest conversations I had ever had. I felt like a boy in a confessional. These were thoughts I had never shared with anyone, and here I was carrying on a perfectly matter-of-fact conversation with a man I had just met, telling him things that I didn’t even share with my wife and children. The boy in the hooded sweatshirt was sitting across from us, saying nothing. Shitty shouted something from over at the pickup. Orv took a final swig of water and hoisted himself upward. “Time to get back,” he said. He looked over at me with his kind, smiling eyes. “Why don’t you pick a couple of logs? We can use a few more.”

ELLEN HOLLOW HEAD’S LODGE photograph by John Willis from John Willis’s new book, Views from the Reservation published by The Center for American Places with an essay by Kent Nerburn and contributions from the Lakota people in the form of youth poetry, essays, elders words and a CD of various traditional music. All royalties are donated directly to Kili Radio, Voice of the Lakota Nation.


TALKING WITH THE EARTH A scientist and adventurer is carried to great healing on the wings of the Raven God Kutcha WORDS AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY JON TURK

February, 1983. The dogs are tired after pulling the long grade onto the Qikiqtaaluk plateau in the Canadian arctic, so I call a rest. They lie down immediately, curl into eight furry balls and tuck their noses under their tails, conserving heat. The thermometer hanging from the handle of my dogsled has climbed to—40° F in the noonday sun. Joker, a lead dog with one eye black and the other white, like yin and yang, lifts his head quizzically as if to ask why I stand vertical, exposed, teetering on the thin line between black and white—life and death—nudged ever so delicately toward life by the thin layers of reindeer skin that I am wearing. I have no answer for Joker; no answer for myself. Answers are meaningless out here on the tundra, wrapped in its winter veneer of wind-swept snow that blankets the primordial granite. I chop a frozen char into snack-sized bites, give a morsel to each of the dogs and pop one into my own mouth, melting it on my tongue before chewing slowly. We are a team out here, sharing the same work, cold and food, as well as the exhilaration of infinite space and silence. By late afternoon the sun dips toward the horizon and temperature plummets until the moisture in my eyes freezes, forming crystals that dance rainbows across my retinas. I’m jogging behind the team to stay warm. No, that’s a lie; the phrase “stay warm” is a throwback to another time and place, far away, almost beyond imagination. I’m jogging to stay alive. Suddenly, the fatigue and hunger become overwhelming, so I stop and set up camp to drink warm tea, cook hot food and sleep. After dinner I snuggle into my sleeping bag, but sleep is elusive because the permafrost is talking. I slip on my anorak and step outside. The dogs look up incredulously, wondering if 56 / Issue 12

I am so crazy as to harness them to run in this frigid darkness, but I tell them soothingly to go back to sleep. This is my journey, one that I cannot explain to the dogs, or maybe it is a journey that we are sharing without verbal explanation, in the way people and dogs share these things. We are camped in a huge basin, overlying deep permafrost and ringed by rock outcrops. It’s 60° below zero. The cold reaches past the guard hairs of my nostrils, bites deep within my sinuses and attacks the blood stream. Every breath invites more frigid air into the inner fortress of my body, threatening to whisk my life into the cosmos. I tell myself that it’s ok to be so fragile, yet I cling to existence. It’s the extreme cold that causes the permafrost to talk, by expanding and cracking like lake ice. Yet this fracture is so much deeper and more resonant, amplified by the soundboard of the earth. The crack races underground across the landscape like a primordial earthquake. It

changes pitch as it charges through the bowels of this tundra, passing almost beneath my feet as if threatening to swallow the tent and the tethered dogs. But the crack represents no more danger than the fiery aurora that swirls electric reds and greens across the night sky, or the Big Dipper that spills its elixir into the heavens, showering mysteries upon us. The earth is talking, communicating, cooing, asking to be heard, and not shouting alarm. I’ve been an adventurer for forty years, and when I’m not traveling across remote landscapes, I live in a small house in the Bitterroot Mountains in western Montana. The earth is always talking, not only in dramatic moments, but also in the softness of a May snowstorm or the quiet gurgle of a mountain creek reduced to a trickle by summer drought. Like many people, I listen some of the time, but often fail to return the salutations. How rude, when you think about it—even my kindergarten teacher

told us that the foundation of politeness is to reply when spoken to. But she assumed that we have conversations only with people, not with animals, plants, rocks or permafrost. I had to wait twenty years to learn what Miss Maroney neglected. April, 2001: I am traveling in the Arctic again, this time along the Pacific coast of Siberia near the small village of Vyvenka, inhabited by Koryak people. One afternoon in early spring, when the sun warms the tundra and is melting its winter armor, I cross a frozen creek, but the soft ice fractures. I fall off-balance and an intense pain radiates through my pelvis, which was bolted together after a horrendous avalanche accident in British Columbia five years previously. I writhe in the snow and soon my friend Oleg saunters over and looks down at me, with his broad, weather-lined face. Oleg is a bear of a man, huge and broad shouldered, with legs bowed slightly from a lifetime of standing on the deck of fishing boats in the North Bering Sea. When we’re on the tundra, he always wears a beaded, dog-fur cap with two lobes, like the ears of a wolf. “Don’t worry, Jon,” he tells me. “Things break on the tundra. Snow machines break. Skis break. Now your pelvis is broken. This is not a problem. We know how to fix these things. We will take you to see Moolynaut, our grandmother, back in the village. She will heal you.” To be honest, I’m thinking fondly of helicopters, hospitals and orthopedic surgeons, but those options aren’t available. Two days later, we return to Vyvenka, a ramshackle collection of tar paper-covered shacks perched on a sand spit in a great roadless wilderness, nine time zones from Moscow. Moolynaut ushers me into a spartan room with its threadbare rug, narrow saggy bed and old footlocker. She is less than five feet tall, wearing a jaunty kerchief with gold thread woven among red roses. In her wrinkles I envision the tundra as it was in her youth, 100 years ago, with tens of thousands of reindeer grazing on the tundra, children playing and girl-mothers giving birth in the snow. She tells me to undress and balance naked on one leg, one arm stretched out before me and the other folded behind my back. I stare straight ahead and concentrate. For the past few years I’ve lived with episodic pain. On


some days I can ski, while on other days I can’t walk and must crawl to the bathroom. Yet I’m a skier and rock climber, so I reach deep into a lifetime of athleticism and imagine the onelegged stance as I would imagine a difficult move on vertical rock. I ask my body if it can maintain balance and it sends signals back to my brain, “Sure Jon, together we can do this.” Moolynaut tells me that she will travel to the Other World and ask Kutcha, the Raven God, to fly to the Old Woman Who Lives on the Top of the Highest Mountain. Kutcha will ask her to heal my injured pelvis, to make me whole, so I can walk without pain and travel on the tundra again. But first I must believe. If I don’t believe, bad things will happen to Moolynaut, to Kutcha and, especially, to me. I grew up in suburban Connecticut, graduated from an Ivy League college and earned a Ph.D. in chemistry. Nothing in my upbringing or experience had prepared me to believe that

Kutcha, a Raven God, could heal a serious orthopedic injury. Yet I must answer this Spirit Woman who stands before me. My mind goes blank as I concentrate on maintaining my balance, aligning my damaged body over this focused center of gravity. I tell Moolynaut that my mother never taught me to believe in Kutcha; she never taught me to believe in her ways. But I will try. I will try with all my heart. Moolynaut chants herself into the Other World, and suddenly I am balancing on a thin branch, wavering in the breeze, wing tip to wing tip with the Great Raven, listening and talking back—cawing and joking as if we were old buddies. My quadriceps muscle begins to tire and then the fatigue dissipates because I am weightless;, soaring, buoyed skyward on currents of air. And I am healed. Healed so completely that the following year I ski a 20,000 foot peak in SACRED FIRE MAGAZINE / 57


the Andes. And the year after that I ski lines in Alaska so steep that falling is not an option, and I stake my life on the assurance that my pelvis will not fail. After the healing I walk outside to be alone with my thoughts. The temperature is below freezing, but not frigid—a comforting, embracing, friendly, familiar cold. The snow crunches underfoot as I head down to the beach to watch the waves of the restless North Bering Sea caress the sand. I breathe in the events of the day, the events of my life, and breathe out warm moisture that condenses and floats in the night air, whisked into the inky blackness by a gentle wind that blows in from the sea. “What happened, back there in that room, when Moolynaut was healing me?” I ask myself, half believing and half skeptical. I’ll never understand everything that happened, and any attempt at a full explanation is just plain silly. But perhaps there was one moment back there when Kutcha joked with me as only ravens can—alert and saucy—and I joked back. I don’t remember what we said to each other, only the easy familiarity of the conversation. 58 / Issue 12

A year later, I return to Vyvenka to thank Moolynaut for healing me. She laughs in her hoarse, throaty voice, smiles gently and explains that she is just the messenger, and that I must travel to the Other World again, to thank Kutcha directly. It was Kutcha, after all, who made the effort to fly all the way to the top of the Highest Mountain. So I set off to the Other World, but even under Moolynaut’s careful guidance, I am unable to complete the journey, to share jokes and wisdoms with the Spirit Bird with broad black wings and the power to heal. Then Oleg the hunter, not Moolynaut the Shaman, became the teacher that I was seeking. “Don’t worry if you can’t journey back to the Other World,” he reassures me. “You are a good traveler in this world. Make your journeys in this world. Listen to the tundra, and when it talks to you, you must talk back. When the tundra becomes your friend, when you can laugh and joke together, then Kutcha will come and you can thank him for your healing.” So I return to Vyvenka to ski across the landscape, resolved that the next time the permafrost sends voices reverberating through the subterranean ice, the next time a raven caws

from the sky, I will not only listen; I will talk back—recognizing that we are old friends and partners, two sentient beings with feelings, consciousness, love, frailties and mischievousness. And through the hunger, cold and fatigue of a long journey, the world becomes ever so more wondrous, familiar landscapes more intimate, and then Kutcha flies down and hovers overhead, so I can thank him. On my last visit to Vyvenka, in 2005, Moolynaut was about 105 or 106 years old. As I was preparing to leave, fairly confident that we would never meet again, I linger for one last capsule of wisdom that might summarize all the healing, all the mysteries and adventures of this place. I don’t know what I expect. Surely not some specific instructions or a pithy mantra to repeat during meditation. That would have been so uncharacteristic of my experiences out here, on the eastern edge of the eastern world. No, Moolynaut left me with a simple story of childhood joy, a joy even richer and deeper than her shamanic healing, achievable simply by talking with the earth and its creatures. “Would you like me to tell you a story about horses?” she asked. I nodded and she began. “When I was very little, we didn’t have any horses. Then the Americans came in their ships and brought white horses from America. Beautiful horses. They were all white except for their black eyes. These horses were very smart and followed the people around without a lead rope. “One day, when I was nine or ten, the horses were on the tundra, eating grass. All the people in our tribe were working with the reindeer, and I was alone with the horses. Quietly, I climbed onto the broad back of the largest horse. The horse lifted its head and started to run. I was frightened and held onto the hair on the back of its neck. You know about this hair on a horse’s neck?” I nodded again “I held on tight and we ran across the tundra.” Moolynaut closed her eyes and rocked back and forth. She slapped her legs and started laughing until tears rolled out of the corners of her eyes and moistened the deep wrinkles that creased her cheeks. And with that, we hugged briefly and she waved me away, signaling that our last meeting was over.



Fire is the energy of warmth, connection and transformation.These fire circles hold a ritual space for people of all paths and traditions to connect with each other and the world through the sacred spirit of fire.


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My gift is in helping others connect powerfully with the divine through prayer and from there to pray effectively. I offer workshops, personal coaching and companion prayers. 860-656-6817 (USA) 250-483-5273 (Canada)



The Community Fire Circle of Carrollton, Georgia invites you to come join us around the fire! Stir Ancient connections with the natural world. Share our hearts and lives. Deepen our spiritual connections. Sherry Boatright 770-854-5551 SC | FLORENCE

The Community Fire Circle of Florence, South Carolina invites you to come join us around the fire! Stir Ancient connections with the natural world. Share our hearts and lives. Deepen our spiritual connections. Annie King | Second Saturday of the Month 843-665-1340

Are you longing for a sense of community? A place to share your heart with others in a sacred space where you can feel safe and heard? We welcome you to join us at our monthly fire! Claire Franck 845-657-2929 TN | SUMMERTOWN

The Community Fire Circle of Summertown, Tennessee invites you to come join us around the fire! Stir Ancient connections with the natural world. Share our hearts and lives. Deepen our spiritual connections. Susan Skinner 931-964-2452

Western U.S.



Fire moves you to a different place.The Brookfield, Massachusetts Fire Circle invites you to join us to share the warmth at our monthly community fires. Tim Simon & Gwen Broz 508-867-9810

You have an open invitation. Mark your calendar for the first Friday of every month, rain or shine. We’ll sit around the fire in community as our ancestors did. Alan Kerner | First Friday of Every Month 310-452-0658



The Westford, Massachusetts Fire Circle invites you to join us at our monthly fires. Come share a song, a joke and your open heart. Ray Strouble 978-589-0901

The Community Fire Circle in Olympia,Washington invites you to join us at our monthly fires. Come be with the fire and each other. Peter & Sharon Brown | First Saturday of Every Month 360-943-9373


“As above, so below.”The planets and stars speak to us.They offer guidance about our life purpose, relationship intent, initiatory opportunities and how to live life in alignment. I offer astrological readings and counseling. Yuma, AZ USA. 928-210-5092

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Ancient Wisdom Rising Spreading the Revolution of Heart

A public gathering and life-changing event with indigenous elders and traditional wisdom keepers.

May 19-22, 2011

Port Townsend, WA A wisdom-led future is the only sustainable future. Come listen, learn and celebrate with others who are ready for change. An Interspiritual Conference Presented by:

Sacred Fire Foundation

For more information:

The Raven’s Gift

A Scientist, A Shaman, and Their Remarkable Journey Through the Siberian Wilderness

Jon Turk • Published by St Martin’s Press Framed by high adventure across the vast and forbidding Siberian landscape, The Raven’s Gift is a life altering vision of the ties between the natural world and spiritual realms, informed by one man’s awakening and guided by the ancient spirit Bird with wide black wings and spi the power to heal. Henry Pollack: Co-Winner of the 2007 Nobel Prize with Al Gore wrote: “The tension between his own logical scientific background and the mysterious shamanistic wisdom of his healer is at the heart of this wonderfully-told story of Koryak life, and of his own personal transformation.”

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Gulf Coast Oil Spill - Sioux Prayer Request

My Relatives, Time has come to speak to the hearts of our Nations and their Leaders. I ask you this from the bottom of my heart, to come together from the Spirit of your Nations in prayer. We, from the heart of Turtle Island, have a great message for the World; we are guided to speak from all the White Animals showing their sacred color, which have been signs for us to pray for the sacred life of all things. As I am sending this message to you, many Animal Nations are being threatened, those that swim, those that crawl, those that fly, and the plant Nations, eventually all will be affected from the oil disaster in the Gulf. The dangers we are faced with at this time are not of spirit. The catastrophe that has happened with the oil spill, which looks like the bleeding of Grandmother Earth, is made by human mistakes, mistakes that we cannot afford to continue to make. I ask, as Spiritual Leaders, that we join together, united in prayer with the whole of our Global Communities. My concern is these serious issues will continue to worsen, as a domino effect that our Ancestors have warned us of in their Prophecies. I know in my heart there are millions of people that feel our united prayers for the sake of our Grandmother Earth are long overdue. I believe we as Spiritual people must gather ourselves and focus our thoughts and prayers to allow the healing of the many wounds that have been inflicted on the Earth. As we honor the Cycle of Life, let us call for Prayer circles globally to assist in healing Grandmother Earth (our Unc’i Maka). We ask for prayers that the oil spill, this bleeding, will stop. That the winds stay calm to assist in the work. Pray for the people to be guided in repairing this mistake and that we may also seek to live in harmony, as we make the choice to change the destructive path we are on. As we pray, we will fully understand that we are all connected. And that what we create can have lasting effects on all life. So let us unite spiritually, All Nations, All Faiths, One Prayer. Along with this immediate effort, I also ask to please remember June 21st, World Peace and Prayer Day/Honoring Sacred Sites day. Whether it is a natural site, a temple, a church, a synagogue or just your own sacred space, let us make a prayer for all life, for good decision making by our Nations, for our children’s future and well-being and the generations to come.

Onipikte (that we shall live), Chief Arvol Looking Horse

19th generation Keeper of the Sacred White Buffalo Calf Pipe

While the Prayer Day has passed, this prayer is still needed. Please open your heart to this prayer so that Grandmother Earth may hear us and we may live in harmony again. Reprinted with permission from Chief Arvol Looking Horse and

64 / Issue 12

Arvol Looking Horse is the 19th generation keeper of the White Buffalo Calf Pipe Bundle and holds the responsibility of spiritual leader among the Lakota, Dakota and Nakota People. He holds an honorary doctorate from the University of South Dakota and travels and speaks extensively on peace, environmental and native rights issues. He has received several awards, including the Wolf Award of Canada for his dedicated work for peace. For further information about his work go to


To All World Religious and Spiritual Leaders

Sacred Fire Foundation supports initiatives that honor and sustain traditional knowledge and indigenous spiritual approaches, because these ancestral lifeways foster global balance and healing. Our educational and charitable activities fund programs and organizations committed to:

Our mission: to help all people re-discover, celebrate & engage with our innate and intimate connections to the living world.

1 Traditional lifeways 2 Projects, events & publications 3 Restoration & preservation

of indigenous traditions, cultures and knowledge including ritual, ceremony, initiation, story, language, art and education


that document, educate and communicate traditional lifeways to the world, including Sacred Fire magazine, Sacred Fire Press, and Ancient Wisdom Rising gatherings

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Your donation is the fuel that feeds our fire. Please help us warm the world. Please use the response card in this issue to make your tax-deductible donation, or donate online at Thank you!

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