Frequently Asked Question
Q: “Do you and your family live a native lifestyle?”
My reason for being, which is to bring the wisdoms of the Old Way to these contrary times, has me deeply involved in both the natural and modern worlds. I once lived in a bark wigwam at my wilderness camp, and I’m still there several days a week to teach, but I rarely sleep there anymore. Writing and counseling have become my primary methods of sharing, so I’ve found it necessary to have regular computer and telephone access, and to work closely with editors and translators. After years without modern conveniences, I now live in a house with electricity, a toilet, and hot and cold running water.
And yet my family and I live quite natively. Heating with wood, drinking lake water, relieving ourselves outdoors, and having no TV, stereo, or bedroom electricity, we use few of the house’s amenities. Rather than using tables and chairs, we sit in a circle on the bearskin rug-covered floor, and we observe many other traditions of lodge living.
Even though we have incorporated much of our wilderness lifeway into our current household, there are still differences brought on by the cultural interface: Lety commutes to two different reservations for Ojibwe language classes, our son now attends an alternative school, and I spend time every day communicating with the outside world. When I was younger this would have compromised my values and drained my spirit, but now it makes me stronger. I am like a Wolf who wanders into the city, sees how dogs live, and becomes all the more clear and grateful that he is a Wolf.Much of my day is spent at the computer or voice recording. At first glance this might appear quite disconnected from native lifeway–until seeing what I am up to. Virtually all of my time with a keyboard or microphone is devoted to writing books and articles on what I’ve learned from native people and the animal and plant relations. To keep my lower back strong, as naturally happens when sitting on the ground without a backrest, I have removed the back from my computer chair.
Q: “Do you ever feel like you were born in the wrong time?”
Every day I wake up grateful to be alive and thankful that I am here, now. I jump out of bed brimming with passion for the opportunities the day brings to serve in the Healing. As with all of us, I was born for a reason: to act as a bridge bringing the ways of balance to this time of confusion. That considered, how could I have been born into a more idyllic era?
If we were given life just to serve ourselves, I could imagine wanting to live at another time. However, we are each here to serve our people, and that is what brings us the deepest joy. When I reflect on how my service might be helping us give the coming generations a world in which they could be glad to be born, I am flooded with gratefulness for the privilege to be alive in this–for me– made to order era.
Q: “What kept you from giving up during all those years when nobody else was around?”
Those who knew me back in my late 20s and 30s will ask this question, because they saw me often living alone in the woods, struggling to survive both emotionally and economically. At times I felt as though I was the only person on Earth: no one understood me and there was no family or lover to comfort me. Even though depression loomed and suicide taunted, I could choose no other option but to follow my heart. Forlorn as I was, giving up would have been tantamount to suicide–a desecration of my reason for being that would have left me a walking corpse. The poverty and criticism–even the death threats and extreme loneliness–were easier to face than snuffing my guiding dreams and turning my back on my ancestors. How other people thought I ought to act and believe only helped keep me focused on my given lifepath. When others thought they were tearing me down, they were giving me the warrior training I needed to make me quick and resilient.
I must note that my carrying on alone was only an illusion. I am, and have always been, surrounded by a community of people who are dedicated to the Old Way and treat each other and all life with respect. It is to their credit that I have not only survived, but maintained my sanity. I wish to honor this community, my furred and feathered and scaled and leafed sisters and brothers of the natural realm, for continually being a shining example of the Gifting Way.
“You are obviously a man who makes many distinctions and judgments, with strong beliefs and opinions.”
Paradoxically, some others get the impression I don’t have a belief system. Either way, I like to answer with this story:
One early morning Raccoon was following the streamside back to his den after his nightly ramble. He came across Wolf, who had just awakened and come down to drink.
“Good morning Sister Wolf,” said Raccoon. “If I may, I would like to ask you a question that has been puzzling me for a long time.”
“Of course,” replied Wolf, “I would be honored to share whatever I can with my Brother Raccoon.”
“You seem to have a strict set of beliefs by which you live,” began Raccoon, “and strong principles from which I have never seen you waver. Is this so, or have my eyes lost some of their sharpness?”
“This person thinks you see very clearly,” responded Wolf. “You watch me walk my life in the Way of the Wolf — I run with my pack, I kill, I love, and I give birth. This has been the life of my ancestors since the time of the first memories. You see, being Wolf is not a belief, and there are no values to guide the Way of the Wolf. It lies beyond thought and word, beyond choice and label — it is etched in my bones and danced in my dreams.
“Because there is nothing to choose, nothing to ponder, I do not find myself in a quandary over whether to hunt or howl. And we do not debate among ourselves whether it might be more right to follow the Way of Dog or Bear or Otter. Being Wolf is my bliss, and I can only be in my bliss when I am Wolf.
“By walking the path of my kind, I honor the ancestors and the unborn, and I serve the plant and animal relations by fulfilling the guardian role Wolf has been given to help keep the Hoop of Life in balance.”
“Aho (I have spoken).”
“Ah,” said Raccoon thoughtfully, “I am grateful for your story, Wolf, as I can now see it was not my eyes that were cloudy, but my perception.”
Q: “How do you respond to those who accuse you of cultural appropriation?”
Actually it seldom occurs, probably because those who know me or do some research are aware of my roots, my relationship with Elders, and my dedication to restoring native lifeway. When the question does arise, I first state that there can be no simple answer, as the question begs a dozen others that need to be addressed if the issue is going to be done justice. Here I will touch upon a couple of what I consider to be the main points.
The term cultural appropriation is usually used in reference to non-natives drawn to native lifeway who practice aspects of the lifeway (usually ceremony, craft, or dress) outside its context. Usually there is sparse understanding or honoring of the traditions around the practice, and there is little or no relevant connection with the culture or people. This leads to romanticizing, misinterpretation, cultural displacement, and even commercialization, all of which most natives consider to be disrespectful of themselves and their cultures.
The irony is that the appropriators are usually sincere, as they are merely responding to a deep longing to reconnect with their native selves. They just don’t know any better, because they are accustomed to a pick-and-choose culture and an hour-on-Sunday-only approach to spirituality. They therefore see nothing wrong with injecting a Sweat Lodge or Pipe Ceremony into their everyday lives or hanging a dreamcatcher from their rearview mirror.
Appropriation is so much a part of the dominant culture that I doubt many people give it a second thought. Imports of resources, cheap sweatshop goods, dress and hair styles, and spiritual practices are so commonplace, and the vitality of the culture is so dependent upon them, that it usually takes someone from outside the culture to point to the fact that it is parasitizing. Yoga is an example most are familiar with, as it is a highly regarded exercise regimen. However in South Asia, from where the practice was usurped, people don’t “do yoga.” Rather, it is a way of life, of which the exercises we know as yoga are only a small part.
If those sincerely drawn to native ways only knew that few traditional Elders would refuse to guide someone from outside their culture who was sincere, humble, and respectful. These seekers need to take the time to learn the ways of the culture, and they must be willing to give without expectation.Once people are educated on appropriation, I find that many of them want to be respectful, and they want their involvement in native ways to be relevant. Others are so desperate for meaning in their lives that they will cling to what they have found regardless of native opinion or relevance to actual native lifeway. And those who are involved because it is trendy have little concern for what anyone says or thinks other than their peer group.
Am I an appropriator? I certainly am. The progress I make in changing that will not be enough until I am fully connected with the means and ends of my existence, whether it be spiritual, social, or physical. To that end, I feel comfortable with the guidance of Grandmother and my other Elders, as it resonates with my ancestral memories and my dreams. The Old Way is not a choice for me; it’s the only life that has made sense, and no passion or profession has yet diverted me. Even a brief entrepreneurial jaunt in my 20s was only to provide financial support for myself and others to return to balance. From my earliest childhood memories to the last thoughts of the day, my whole life has been absorbed in the Old Way.
For me, learning the ways of the indigenous people is a matter of respect. If I found myself in a new land, I would be faced with two choices: hang on to my ways or adapt to the regional culture. History shows us that the first choice would undermine the culture and the second choice would support it. Besides, my ways wouldn’t fit, because they evolved in a different environment. So wherever I found myself, I would adapt to the language and culture of the land, and I would respect the original people as the area’s Earthkeepers.
Perhaps the most confusing cultural appropriation issue for native and non-native alike is the prophecies of the coming Earth changes. Ojibwe Seers tell of a new people who will become the Earthkeepers, perhaps in conjunction with some of the indigenous people. In light of this, some Elders say it is a time for people to come together rather than stay divided. These Elders state that they have been the Wisdomkeepers for all the people, and that now is the time to share the teachings with those who are ready. We will know this time has arrived, they say, when Cougar returns from the north. I have learned similar from the Hopi, who tell us that Cougar and Owl will be the animal guides of the Fourth World. Cougar is now returning, and Owl guides me, so the Elders and Seers have my attention.
Other natives disagree with the prophecies and are staunchly opposed to nearly all people from other cultures being involved in theirs. I empathize, because the dominant culture has nearly sucked theirs dry and they are committed to keeping it alive. And because I have met so many people who believe the watered-down, misinterpreted, trivialized–and even fabricated–versions of native ways they have learned from uninformed or uncaring people to be the real deal. These naïve seekers are entitled to a legitimate path to the Old Way.
As I stated at the beginning, cultural appropriation is no simple issue.