You know, I think if people stay somewhere long enough – even white people – the spirits will begin to speak to them. It’s the power of the spirits coming up from the land. The spirits and the old powers aren’t lost, they just need people to be around long enough and the spirits will begin to influence them Spoken by a Crow elder to Gary Snyder.
Indigenous perception may not only be poised to reassert itself if we just hunker down to the earth again, but it may also be a natural mode of perception for human beings. Certainly it is instinctual to children.
A friend of mine, Brian, related to me how, as a boy growing up in a rural area of Illinois, a raven used to come to him in his dreams. It taught him the kinds of things ravens know, and with Brian upon its back, would take him flying over the landscape surrounding his home, showing him hidden things in the forest. One night the raven took him to visit an old broken-down carriage from the previous century, decaying silently in an unvisited part of the woods. Upon waking, Brian bound out of bed and raced out to locate it, following the raven’s instructions. It was there, sure enough, right where the raven had shown him.
For my friend, the visitations of the raven were a special gift, a source of love and companionship his family couldn’t give him. “I actually looked forward to dreaming more than I did waking,” he laughed. “That raven was my best friend.” It is certain Brian needed kinship with the animal world to survive: his father abandoned him and his brother to the streets a few years later.
His bond with the raven was broken, just as such magical perception has been educated and persecuted out of children and whole populations for centuries now, when he made the mistake of revealing the wealth of his inner world to his family. They scoffed. They ridiculed him. They suspected his sanity. The seed of rational doubt and shame planted in his mind, the raven faded away.
Yet there is plenty of evidence that, even as adults, we can recuperate from the suppression of our native perception. We may even make these crossings into the indigenous mind and not even fully recognize its implication.
As a young man, I had the opportunity to join the members of Ring of Bone Zendo for a Buddhist retreat in the wilderness of Death Valley in California. It was rigorous. We got up and began meditating well before dawn in the freezing cold and practiced silent mindfulness throughout the day’s blazing heat as we walked, ate, and worked together. At night we sat in meditation again for a couple of hours beneath the stars, finally crawling into our sleeping bags in the shivery cold again, sometimes with light snowfall dancing in the beams of our flashlights.
After many days of practice, my perception started to loosen, to shift from the habitual, and I became susceptible to teaching from the ancient land. The moment came one evening as a primitive stone tool found on the desert floor made its round from hand to hand.
When it came to me I held it, and feeling how it nestled familiarly in my palm, the hand that had once carefully fashioned it upon the shore of a lake vanished long ago in geological time reached over the centuries to touch me.
With a sudden physical vertigo, I saw and felt the constellations in the sky of my mind wheeling backward, beyond 1492 into the time depths of this continent.
Wrenched free of the artificial, vision-constricting European time-line that had been forced upon my native perception of the world, I understood that my country, the United States of America, which my school textbooks had hammered into me was the most significant thing to ever happen to the Northern hemisphere, was a flash in the pan compared to the ancient cultures that inhabit it as their own.
Looking back, I suspect upon that day I became the first among my English and Danish ancestors to set foot in the sacred topography of the New World, even to comprehend the lineage of the native peoples of the Americas. That intuition would ripen until it led me into the Amazon rain forest as an apprentice in the tradition of shamanic medicine.
Could it be that this sort of epiphany marks passage into indigenous myth time? To going native again? The founder of the Buddhist community I was practicing with was, in fact, the same poet quoted above, Gary Snyder. Snyder also wrote, “For the non-Native American to become at home on this continent, he or she must be born again in this hemisphere, on this continent, properly called Turtle Island.”
This meditation on our innate potential to go native again is excerpted from our forthcoming book, The Shamanic Odyssey: Homer, Tolkien, and the Visionary Experience.
Snyder, Gary. The Practice of the Wild. Washington, D.C.: Shoemaker & Hoard, 2004 (pgs 41-42).