The most often asked question I get from my patients, students, or friends, young and old, is, “Can you tell me a story?” Tell me what it was like to grow up in the native ways. This is exactly what I used to ask my own grandfather. So all the stories that I share with my own children or any one else are the stories my kind, sweet, simple grandfather shared with me.
When I was just a wee pal holding his hand and walking through the woods, or sitting with him in his work shed polishing rocks, or falling asleep around the campfire under the stars, my Grandpa would share, and these stories were treasures to me. Even if I had heard it many times before, my heart would still actually feel warmer, as he slowly and perfectly told the story. Watching his face, seeing his eyes dancing and smiling as his hands moved to emphasize to the plot. It was more wonderful than any TV show there ever was. The stories were medicine, he told me, and it sure felt that way to me. I was a wild child capable of causing teachers nightmares and mental duress. School seemed like captivity to me. I could cause more chaos and confusion than any other five boys combined.
However, Grandfather had a way with me. He saw the “fire in me”, as he would say, and his idea was to give it to the wind. His simple solution to handle me was to give me my head. “Bear”, he would say, “go way up that hill and get me five rocks”. When I had returned he would send me up the other hill and into the forest to get five more rocks; then, the other direction to get him something else very important. After hours of running I would sit on a big rock tired out and ready to listen. He would then start, and I would listen for hours calmly and intently.
Today I probably would be classified as ADD or ADHD. Grandfather, with his very brief formal education, didn’t prescribe meds. He did suggest I should run to school every morning. Each of the treasures and the animals that I would see on the walk would be a helper to me that day. As I grew up, still always asking him to tell me a story, I began to see common elements from the medicine wheel in them. The stories often had the four directions and the four elements. The four directions, being east, south, west and north, have so many more meanings than geographic or location markers. They were teachings from the wheel, about the time of day and time of year. They represented certain ways of power, and were integral parts of our ceremonies, in addition to our stories. No matter where we went we covered much land in the forest and through the hills. The four directions always kept us on track, like our elders, showing us the way.
To this day, I never get lost in the forest; the city is another thing. A story with the east in it is very different than a story that is about the west. Everything in our native ways starts in the east and ends in the west. The east represents daybreak, spring time, fresh starts and new beginnings. The south is about mother’s love, nurturing and care, daytime and sunshine. The north is the night, spirit time, dreamtime, death and passing. The west represents sundown, fall time, completions, and harvests. So as you see, the four directions were very important to every story.
The four elements were also very important for our teachings and stories as shown in the medicine wheel. I remember the cross Grandfather showed me. He would touch his forehead and say “fire”; touch his low belly, and say “earth”; touch his left shoulder and say “water”; touch his right shoulder and say “fire”. Then, bringing his hands together over his heart, he said strongly and slowly, “I am!” This, from my earliest recall, was such a sacred time. Grandfather stood so proud, as he showed me this ancient Midwinwin symbol of power and unity. He would then explain, “You know you are made of these four elements, you are literally on fire”. I studied later in cellular biology and found how right he was. Even though he had never heard of mitochondria, he knew we were on fire. Take your temperature; it is 98.6. We are the earth; all the minerals, vitamins, and trace minerals. All 72 are same as the earth; calcium, magnesium, etc.
They are in our bones, muscles, brain, and so on. We are actually made of the earth. The water, powerful healing force that makes up approximately 70% of the earth surface, is flowing through us. About 70% of each of us is water; cleansing and cleaning and caring for us, in a perfect way in our bodies. Air or wind, as we call it, is our gift from spirit. Pneumo is a word that means both spirit and air. Just like a baby breathes his/her first breath, it’s a gift; a gift we in the native way are so thankful for. Migwitch, our word for thankful, is likely in every breath that we take. We are the wind that carries our bodies and spirit. This cross and these four directions are profoundly important and sacred to us; we hold them in reverence.
At age 13 my grandfather and I did a sacred ceremony. After a vision quest, dreaming of my elders and spirit helper animals, he told me it was time for my medicine pouch, or Mashkimodence. And so in March on the new moon, we traveled east into the forest, and the ceremony began. I sat on the rock on the south side of the fire as Grandfather raised a leather pouch, filled with my many blessed animal totems, over his head and sang the song of the four directions. I began to shake and became aware like I had never been before. He then carefully put the pouch in the fire; my body felt the fire from the inside out. Then he buried the pouch in the earth, and I felt the comfort and protection of the mother. He plunged my pouch into the cold water, and I felt cleansed as if I was washed completely. Then he held my pouch into the wind, and I felt my breath deeper than ever. My spirit soared in the wind with a passing owl, one of my animal totems. After hours I returned to my body and sat there with him into the sunrise. I walk to this day with that pouch in honor of this ceremony.
I have always loved stories; especially true ones. I later heard a story told by a man from a different tribe, the Jewish tribe. He told me of a man who was very rich but had a broken heart. In their ways there is a person called a tzaddic. Tzadic is an old man with amazing powers. So he told the man where to find this tzaddic. “Can he help repair my heart?” he asked. “Maybe he can, go ask him.” So after following some very difficult directions, which took him a long time, the man came to the poor part of town, to the door of a tailor. He thought he had made a mistake. He retraced the directions and ended up in the same place. He looked into the window. He saw an amazing light around this man and knew he was special. Then he thought, “I have no reason to go into a tailor shop.” So, he decided he would rip his own pants, and then go in. After entering the shop, the tailor looked at him and said, “This is a perfect time to mend those pants. Take them off and give them to me.” The tailor, with all his focus and attention, slowly with his needle in hand started to repair the man’s pants. As the needle moved through the pants, the man felt it in his heart. With each stitch his tears flowed with forgiveness. As forgiveness overwhelmed him, his heart was repaired.
I love this story, and it was after my grandfather passed in 1984, that I heard it. Still, it always makes me think of sitting in Grandfather’s work shed; potbelly stove burning the short little logs red hot. When people would come over just to watch my grandfather use his foot petal grinder to polish the stones, I could see in people’s faces, their lives being polished. There is tremendous power in a story, and they are fun as well.
I recall my first date with the woman who became my precious wife; I tried to impress her by reading her the book Where the Wild Things Are with tremendous energy and enthusiasm. I think she realized it was a sign of things to come. Stories take us to another place; like watching the movie The Never Ending Story with my son Dakota. The plot is about a boy who becomes a part of the story itself. That same son, Dakota, is now the fine young man typing this, feeling the power of Grandfather and the gift of a story.