The Awakening Years

When we reach our thirties, our Journeys of Discovery tend to loop back toward home. The past decade has been an extroverted time of world experience that helped us get to know ourselves, and now we are being called to a quieter challenge: to listen and learn about what my Elders call circle knowledge. It is about the web of relationship and the stories and traditions that bring life its continuity.

As I approached this time in my life, a friend of a friend asked if I might like to come along with her and meet an old Ojibwe Mashkikikwe (Medicine Woman). “Knowing what you’re into, I think you’ll hit it off with her,” she said.

Keewaydinoquay lived in upstate Michigan and spent her summers on a Great Lakes wilderness island. She gave me my name, Tamarack Song, in the Old Language; she taught me nuances of the language that I had not previously grasped; she blessed my Pipe; and she honored me in so many other ways that I would be happy if I could do a fraction as much for others in my lifetime.

Through Keewaydinoquay I met several teachers and Elders, the first being Bessie, a Tlingit woman who was a Waterpourer (ceremonial leader) for Sweat Lodge ceremonies. She taught me her people’s ways of being respectful of the spirit of the ceremony and honoring its intent.

At a Naming Ceremony, Keewaydinoquay introduced me to Gillette Wingeno, an Oji-Cree (short for Ojibwe-Cree) man from James Bay. Speaking both Cree and Ojibwe, he taught me more of the Ojibwe language, along with helping me understand that the lines we draw between peoples are often not as distinct as they are presented. “Cree and Ojibwe are not separate people or languages,” he said, as they all call themselves “the people” and the language changes ever-so-gradually over distance.

Gillete petitioned to use my secluded wigwam for his Fast. It was a great honor for me to gift him in return for what he had given.

At around that time I wanted to learn bow making. Through Keewaydinoquay I met John, a Mohawk elder from New York who was known for his well-crafted bows.


“Would you like to make a False Face Mask?” he asked.
“Whatever for?” I thought. I came to carve a bow, not a healing mask with grotesquely distorted facial features. However, John was an Elder, so I consented.
Though I whittled and whittled, no face appeared. All that stared back at me was a vague image with no dimension, no life. Wait… this is not a mask; it’s a mirror. How did John know what I needed?

Mullein, a dear and wise sister

Soon thereafter while hiking over a prairie, my hand brushed against a mullein stalk and in the same instant a blaze of lightning streaked across the sky. It triggered some synapse in my mind that overwhelmed me with profound feelings of relationship and meaning. I had to lie down.

If anyone could make sense of this, it would be Keewaydinoquay. However, reaching her required an involved island-hopping expedition by car, ferry, and charter boat. Anticipation built to a crescendo on the last leg of the trip — a riotous ride through wind-whipped spray with sooty, low-hanging clouds looking like a mirror image of the churning water.

“I believe you have met your medicine plant,” said Keewaydinoquay after I finished my story. “Your lineage has probably walked with Mullein for so many generations that the relationship is imprinted in your genetic memory.”