What do the indigenous peoples of the world innately comprehend about the nature of reality? And how do their traditional ceremonies connect them with nature’s regenerative and life-giving qualities?
For the person educated in western principles, “interconnectedness” exists as a conceptual abstraction. Certainly intellectual and scientific understandings of the complex interrelationships between the sun, moon, earth, water, air, plants, trees, microbes, insects, animals, climate, and seasons have been achieved.
But for those peoples who live in “divine oneness” with the whole of nature, there is no separation between identity of the self, the environment, and the ongoingness of spiritual interactivity. For them, that fundamental and sacred union is simply “the way things are.”
Featured here are two voices, one past and one present, whose words carry the power of personal experience through ceremony, life well lived, and wisdom gained.
From Skokomish Nation Elder and Teacher Bruce subiyay Miller:
My elder from Vancouver Island said, “Look, look up at the hills. What do you see?” And I said, “That is an easy answer: Forest! The trees are there.”
And he said, “Well, that is exactly the answer 90 percent of the people would give. But what you see there is the oldest teaching since creation.” He said it is the teaching of the tree people: “You look up there and say you see trees, but what you see is many nations of trees living side by side in harmony from the beginning of time.”
We were taught in this teaching that we were never to infringe on the diversity of the forest. We need to respect all the things that the other races of people have contributed to this earth; not to look for the differences, but to look for the things that we have in common. This will keep the earth in harmony.
The teaching of the tree people was that if the earth was to remain in harmony, then we would be living like the trees — a multitude of nations living side-by-side with a common goal: The preservation of earth that we live on.
These were our first teachers.
Excerpted from the documentary Teachings of the Tree People: The Work of Bruce ‘subiyay’ Miller Produced and directed by Katie Jennings © IslandWood, used with permission
From Mark Syk ‘Amen Johns-Colson Chehalis Nation Hereditary Chief, Spiritual Leader and Teacher:
Most times, I can only speak in very broad terms which are open to interpretation by the ears that hear these words. I tell people in ceremony, “Listen to what I have to say, but be careful what you hear.”
We are in such a fast-paced world, and have been trained for instant gratification. Be real. Be real with where you go. Be real with your friends. Be real with your food. Most of all, be real with your family, and be real with yourself. Slow down. Ask, “How do I want to be remembered?” and “How do you want your name to live on?” I think of these things quite often.
When I was given my name, Syk ‘Amen, I was told to honor my name. The closest way I can translate it in English is, “To remember like the sun.” The sun comes every day. It remembers what it has to do. It does its job every single day. It holds the knowledge that makes things grow, and turn things green. It holds the knowledge to heat things up. The sun holds much knowledge that it passes on to all the things it touches.
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In our way of life, to remember these things is to remember the stories, and to remember the ceremonies, to not forget and not vary the ceremonies that have been passed down for thousands of years. To be like the sun. That is what I am charged with remembering.
Subiyay taught many people, but he didn’t teach everybody the same. He saw the big picture of what was long ago — the teachings of the tree people. We all needed each other and he understood that. And some of us are still trying to understand that we need each other, because we can’t do it alone.
He taught some how to be basket weavers. He taught some how to speak. He was the conductor of the orchestra. He might not have known everything himself, but he knew how to pull everything together. He knew how to use reference points of other elders like Taq ‘seblu (Vi Hilbert) and all these great spiritual leaders. He knew and understood that he can send this person here, and I can send that person there. Then we can bring them back and make our house stronger. When ‘subiyay’ wove his baskets and mats, he was really weaving his people together.
Interconnectedness? It is an understanding that comes to us through the ancient stories.
We come from people who had no lawyers. We come from people who had no hospitals or jails. We didn’t have to lock our houses up because there were no thieves. There was just this understanding: We didn’t commit crimes. There was no such thing as crime. There was no such thing as belittlements against each other. We had the understanding that we needed each other.
The issues that we face today, health issues, substance abuse, poverty issues, for the people I must live a righteous life so that they who come will find the strength to not give up completely. Some people dangle from a thread, back and forth.
What if I fell? What would happen? What if? What if I quit doing ceremony? What if I didn’t do it? What if I wasn’t here? What then?
What about my human needs? What I know is that I can’t live off of those. I can’t act on those. I can’t. I can’t go to the tavern or hang out at a club. I can’t bring it into my life.
This life is a double-edged sword.
There are things I have to willingly give up to be that example. And that goes back to leaving our door unlocked. At some point we are going to have to go back to that. We are going to have to go back to needing each other. We are going to have to go back to trusting each other.
I have sat up high on the mountains and wondered, “What is real in this world?” I look up at the sky, and I know when I look at the stars, that not all the lights I see are stars. So, what is real?
The question takes me back to my childhood. Where did my grandmother take me? Where did my grandfather take me? Where did her grandfather take her? And for countless generations, my family has been going to the same spot. Why? What’s there? My “real” is there.
To know my “real,” I go to the mountains. And I especially take those that are hanging by a thread. We get up there, and it is not easy. It’s not day camp. It’s not Boy Scout camp. If you want to stay warm, you gotta work. That firewood is going to heat you twice.
If you want to eat, we have to drag that four-legged up that hill. If you want water, you have to hike down to the springs and pack it back.
In return, we are getting clean water. Those are not genetically modified trees. That’s wilderness. Those are real trees. That’s real bear that comes into camp. That’s a real cougar coming into camp. You have to become aware of what is really around you. You want to cook food? We’ve got to heat those rocks up to cook our food.
It’s not survival. It’s going back to our teachings. It’s living the way our ancestors did. All these songs that we sing, all these stories that we have, they came through our ancestors through this work, through this understanding of how it all works. Our ancestors created these songs being connected.
Picking berries and understanding what the bush is giving us. It’s not free. If you want those berries, you have to work for them. And you’ve gotta have that understanding, that connection with that berry. It’s about what our ancestors did.
It’s not about the instant gratification of going to the store and buying a box of frozen berries. It’s not about going to the fast food place and getting a fish sandwich. If you want fish, you have to catch the fish, then understand why we cook it like this. Why is it cooked like this? Why are these berried dried like this? Why don’t we put them in a dehydrator? These teachings get carried on.
This knowledge is held in my DNA. My DNA remembers my language. My DNA remembers these foods and these medicines I put into my body. When I am up in the mountain living, I am remembering. There’s nothing interfering there. I’m drinking from the same water hole that my ancestors drank for generations and generations. I do not go to the mountain for myself, but for my children and future generations.
And there is where I go to remember like the sun, wakiksuya, to remember.
This is where the songs come from. It’s where my ancestors sought their power. It’s where they learned the secrets of the earth. And those secrets can’t be written down. That’s where the understandings come from, that we can’t even translate into a word, especially into English.