Story-telling is one of humanity’s oldest endeavours. Shamans have used stories to pass culture on to descendants, to teach lore and law, and also to heal the body, mind, and spirit. This week on Steem @naturalmedicine asks us to consider our Medicine Stories.
This isn’t the story I originally thought I would be sharing; but that is the way of the Medicine Story. What our conscious, rational minds thinks it knows often becomes undone in the face of stronger urges from deep within.
I first became intrigued by the notion of ‘medicine stories’ when I read the story in the first five issues of Legends of the Dark Knight, Shaman by Dennis O’Neil. The idea that a story had healing powers stuck with me, and I think that was when I started to look at superhero comics as modern-day mythologies (in the Barthesian sense). How could the tales of these lycra-clad demigods heal me?
In this story there is a mask that is work by an indigenous shaman when telling the story of how Bat healed the Raven by blowing his sickness away. The telling of the story (with the mask) is used to heal others, and gives Bruce Wayne a different perspective on his role as Batman.
When I attended University some years later, I enrolled in Anthropology and Archaeology with the express intention of learning more about the mythologies and stories of other cultures. I wanted to know how stories of Gods and Heroes helped shape societies. How did they inform ‘cultural norms’ of religion, philosophy, and ritual? And what role did healing people have in creating harmonious societies?
In Khemet (ancient Egypt) for example, the official cosmology centred around the annual flooding of the Nile. Their architecture reflected these myths, and their temples literally were texts. Even the ritual of the enthronement of the king, his life, his death, his mummification, and burial were re-enactments of their stories around how the world worked.
The Id dots the eyes of antiquity
While the Ego, of late, has held sway
Too foolish to stray past the line
Too weary to stay, too weary to stay
— The Dear Hunter
It was during this time in my life that I visited South Dakota. Americans are somewhat amazed and confused why I would choose my first trip to the US to make my way for there, but I was there to meet with Lakota people, to sit with them and hang out with them on ‘the Rez’. To this day I still think the prairie of the American midwest are one of the most beautiful landscapes of the natural world.
The impetus for this trip had actually come from the Dreaming I’d had whilst camping at Lake Mungo, NSW. I had woken up one day with the words “Gathering. Black Hills. Dakota.” On investigation I discovered that the Black Hills were a location in a state called South Dakota (I’d never heard of it), and that indeed there was a gathering of indigenous elders happening there in a few months. So I went.
It was summer in the Pahá Sápa (Black Hills), I decided one day to go for a walk along the small valley that I was camped in. There were some small light showers on this day, nothing to be concerned about. The sun was warm in the sky, mottled with occasional small clouds. When the rain fell, it actually seemed like it was coming from clear sky, which added to the magic of it all. I had really just wanted to spend some time alone on the land, meditating and soaking up this new place.
I sat on some rocks, with my back to a pine tree, and whittled away on some wood. A squirrel appeared out of nowhere and stood on a rock just in front of me. It was like he was checking me out. I had a chat with him, but he wasn’t very talkative. Across the way, in the pine trees rising up the opposite hill there were a pair of red-tailed hawks dancing around each other. It must’ve been a mating pair, and they were landing in what looked to me to be the same tree, probably their nesting tree. Coming from Australia, this was like seeing something out of a nature documentary. Hawks, squirrels, and pine forests are not things I see out my window at home. It was pretty cool!!!
As I sat there, I heard singing. It was like the most beautiful voice in the world. The melody was nondescript, and there wasn’t words I could distinguish. It sounded distant, and yet sounded like it was coming from nearby. I closed my eyes and enjoyed the sound, with the warmth of the sun on my body, and the smell of pine and summer moisture in the air.
I don’t know how long I sat there for. Eventually I got up and headed back up the valley towards where I was camped. As I walked I saw a woman walking in the same direction on the other side of the valley, eventually our paths came together. She was older than I, possessing a kind of regal beauty. She stood tall and strong, dressed in what I call ‘tribal hippy’; but on her it looked genuine, not like she was a wearing a costume. She introduced herself and asked me my name. Answering in my Aussie accent, she looked stunned.
“Pey-dah?” she asked incredulously.
“Sorry, that’s my accent. Pee-turrh,” I replied using my best impersonation of American pronunciation.
“Oh, ah-hah,” she laughed.
“Don’t worry, I’ve been getting that all week.”
“Oh. You know, when you pronounce it the way you do, ‘pey-dah’, it sounds like the Lakota word for fire? That’s probably why folk around here would react funny when you say that’s your name.”
Her words temporarily stunned me; kind of like getting a gentle slap across the face. We talked as we walked, asking what brought me to the Black Hills. I told her the dream I’d had whilst at Mungo. I told her about “Grandma Mungo”, the remains of an indigenous woman found which could be the oldest remains of deliberate, ritual human burial on the planet, dating Aboriginal people in Australia to no less than 65,000 years.
“So you listen to the Earth when she speaks to you? That’s good,” she said.
“Yeah. Even as I sat on the hill back there, I thought I could hear singing.” She looked at me with a knowing smile.
“You heard that too? That song is powerful medicine, Pey-dah,” she said seriously, emphasising the way I pronounced my name. “There was a time when all people heard the Earth’s singing and danced to her rhythms. This does not happen so much nowadays. Those who hear possess old medicine. If she is singing to you, it is a gift. Treasure it.”
She went quiet, as if deep in thought. She then excused herself, and said that her campsite was over in a different side of the gathering site, and said she’d catch me later. I never saw her again, but her words haunted me.
The firebird sings, "all things must pass".
— McDermott's Two Hours
Following my time in the Pahá Sápa, I went travelling through the Makȟóšiča, the Badlands National Park. I remember vividly one afternoon picking choke-cherries in the wild, and sitting high on a clifftop, gazing at the cliffs and the colours of the strata as the Earth sent me glimpses of her past. Dinosaurs had wandered through here many millions of years back, as did hunting parties of ancient Americans, and the ancestors of the Arikara nation. I saw visions of Ghost Dancers fleeing from US Troopers, women and children being gunned down. I was told later that I had been sitting a north of Wounded Knee Creek.
The cliffs and the rocks had all born witness to these changes over millions of years, just like the ‘Great Walls of China’ at Mungo had witnessed the lake dry, the black people arrive, and then disappear as the white man arrived. So much time had passed in these lands, and yet they were considered ‘young’ by geological standards.
Another time in South Dakota, I was taken to go hang out with a wičasawakȟáŋ (Medicine Man), and he suggested we go for lunch. I asked where, and he said he would take me to his favourite place. We drove off ‘the Rez’ and went to the McDonalds in Rapid City. Over Big Macs and Coke, he told me the real reason the Lakota people go to mountain tops and buttes to conduct Haŋblečeya (‘Vision Quests’).
It’s because we don’t live in those places. Those places never made good camps because they’re not flat, and there’s no good food or water there. Those places are for fasting and connecting with the Mother, with the Grandfathers and Grandmothers, and with Wakȟáŋ-Tȟáŋka.
Without blinking an eye, he took a big bite of his burger, and small handful of fries. Slurping his Coke, he continued.
Some places are meant to be left alone. Those places can be visited but not lived in. From time to time, we go to those places and visit. When we visit, we make it into Ceremony. Yes, everything in life is sacred, and that is how we live our lives. But there are also things in life that are sacred, but need to be treated differently. That’s why we have different types of Ceremony.
Mouthful of burger, handful of chips, slurp of Coke.
Like now. When we sat at the table with our food, I said a quick prayer to the Ancestors to give thanks for the fact that I have food that I didn’t need to go and hunt. The ancestors, they’d be amazed at my abundance! It was a quick prayer, simple. I didn’t need to go have a sweat lodge, and invite a bunch of people, and sit around having a pipe ceremony just to give thanks for having the privilege of having food for lunch.
People think us Indians are super-spiritual people, they think we walk around with feathers in our hair and go around doing ‘Vision Quests’ every weekend, and live in tipi. But we all drive trucks, and go to work, and listen to the radio and watch TV, and do normal everyday things; just like everyone else.
The difference is we see all life and everything that happens in it as sacred. We don’t need a church or a temple; it’s all here. It’s the ground under my feet where-ever I’m standing. It’s the air I breathe where-ever I’m sitting. It’s this burger…
He chuckled and took another big bite of his burger, washing it down with his Coke.
That’s the problem with white-folk. Y’all think the sacred and the every-day are two different things. That’s why there’s so much illness and disease, because you don’t treat everything as sacred. You think sacred only belongs in the church on Sunday morning. As long as you acknowledge your life and everything in it as sacred, then you’re connected with the Great Spirit.
I asked him about all the bad stuff that happens in our lives.
Yeah, bad stuff happens. A few years ago I was up here in Rapid, and I was in a store and they had a poster of a cat hanging off of a branch, with the words “SHIT HAPPENS!” in big bold letters. I thought, ‘now that is spiritual message!’
If it wasn’t for the bad stuff in life, how would you know what the good stuff is? But the bad stuff isn’t really ‘bad’. It’s because you’re out of whack. Something’s not right in you. It’s like when my truck has a problem in the engine, I know I gotta take it to my nephew who fixes cars. He looks at it and says, ‘Oh, it’s just the thingamajiggy’, and he fixes it for me.
It’s the same thing with life. Bad stuff is happening because your motor’s gotta problem. That’s when you gotta go up onto the mountain and ‘cry for a vision’. Because that’s when you gotta get close to Spirit and ask for help. So like you only visit those places on the land for those special Ceremonies, you only visit those places in you when you need to work out what’s not working right.
The conversation continued, and I won’t share any more of it here. After lunch we drove back to his place, listening to Iron Butterfly really loudly on the car stereo.
Oh, won't you come with me
And walk this land
— Iron Butterfly
That was a moment that stuck with me to this day. Any time I felt ‘not quite right’, I would remember sitting in McDonalds with a Medicine Man being told stories that somehow helped me through some really tough situations. After my visits to South Dakota, I had a different relationship with ‘the land’ where-ever I went. Nowadays, I find that when I am ‘on the land’ and the sounds of human civilisation are absent, I can hear her speak to me.
Whether it is Central Australia, the Nepalese Himalaya, or the plains of South Dakota the earth has a song she sings and a story she tells. And whenever I find myself in ‘new country’, I fall sick with a fever and spend a period of 24 hours with delirious dreams. I understand that this is the spirit of the land initiating me, and welcoming me into her territory, and introducing me to the Dreaming of a place. Only after this do I begin to hear her song and listen to her stories.
When I crave time ‘on the land’, I’m hearing a call to go somewhere and be told a story. I don’t go with a specific intention, or to heal anything specific. The wind, the birds, and even the silence weaves a narrative that heals a part of me in that moment. The Earth and the skies tell us stories whether we pay attention to them or not. When we take the time to listen to these stories, we become entangled with them.
I become part of them, and they become part of me. And I feel whole again.
In this silence, I believe.