I found a copy of Sun Bear’s (Gheezis Mokwa) book in an obscure second-hand books shop sometime in the early 1980s. Sun Bear was a well known sacred teacher of Ojibwe (Anishinabe) descent. He was an activist, lecturer, and author.
He was born in 1929 and was the publisher of Many Smokes, a Native American monthly news magazine. I had been given a copy of his first book, At Home in the Wilderness, which was a guide to living outdoors in harmony with nature. I still have this old and now tattered book, which he signed for me. He lived in Washington State, just south of where I was in Alberta, Canada, and invited me down to his land.
I arrived in early spring. The snows were still melting, but the first spring flowers were pushing up through the shade in the forest. He stood at his front door, coffee mug in hand to welcome me with a big smile. He was a large, warm, loving man who had dedicated himself to offering “Earth wisdom” to all and everyone and I felt so honoured to have received his hand-written card. Within seconds he invited me into his home and ensured I was fed and housed, with no questions asked. Over the next few days we spent time together as he showed me around the property and introduced me to the group of people who lived and worked on the land with him. He was serious about his teachings and obviously felt passionate about growing his own food and becoming self-sufficient, yet he was also mischievous with a great sense of humour. Like Grandfather Randolph, one of my Blackfoot teachers, Sun Bear had been in Hollywood and had appeared in many movies. He was often a consultant on set when they needed Native traditional input.
He had many “tall tales” but his favourite story was the time he spent as a consultant with the movie star John Wayne in the desert of the south west. The well known actor had wanted to include “genuine” Native American Indian dialogue in one of his movies rather than the phony “how” greeting. Several Navajo men volunteered to train John Wayne to offer a greeting in the Navajo language however, instead of the usual statement the actor was trained to make a rather crude homosexually explicit statement to the actor playing the Navajo chief. Sun Bear told me this story, slapping his thighs and wheezing loudly laughing at the memory.
I laughed. It was a funny story, but again, as with so many of my teachers, I was not sure I truly understood the “coyoting” way of teaching that so many Native people employ. I had been coyotied myself, not in a harsh way, just in little joking teasing ways, such as my native friends hiding my journalist spiral notepad (my prized possession!). They would laugh and tease me when they saw how I would panic over its loss, then suddenly “see it” hanging in a tree or other strange places. I could “feel” that there was nothing vicious or nasty about the process, but it still puzzled me, so I asked my new teacher to explain.
I watched his lovely dark face soften as he nodded slowly, clearly understanding my dilemma. I felt utterly drawn to Native traditions. I knew that I needed to come into what Sun Bear called “right relationship with all that is” but this system of seemingly harsh teaching puzzled me.
“Well you see, little sister, the coyote is the most powerful teacher. To us, the traditionals, (the native people who still follow the old ways) it is an honour to be “coyotied. It is an expression of love and companionship,” he said laughing at my puzzled face. “It means we like you!” he laughed again.
His eyes softened with kindness and gentle love. He gestured to the door and we walked out into the warm sunshine. In the distance Mount Rainier sparkled with fresh fallen snow, and the tall pines swayed in the afternoon breeze. It was utterly breath-taking and I could see he was soaking in the beauty of Mother Earth’s spectacular spring. Right on queue a coyote yipped and cried loudly in the distance. I turned to look at him and watched as his dark face wrinkled into a deep chuckle. His warm brown eyes met mine with such kindness, compassion and brotherly love.
“Yep. You guessed it,” he smiled as my brain creaked with the sudden knowing that Sun Bear carried the Bear medicine of the healer but also that of the Coyote. This meant he was indeed a powerful medicine man and teacher. I groaned for a moment, feeling more than a little foolish but he just laughed at my stricken face.
“You see, little sister, we have many teaching stories about the coyote and all our teachers. We believe that what your people call “just animals” do have a spirit and that these “people” are our teachers and guides. It is an honour to be guided by them. They are wiser than we are. They know more than we know. This is why I do not “own” the medicine. It is gifted to me to serve and honour Great Spirit who knows more than everyone. Great Spirit’s gift to me, and to all “two-leggeds” is the medicine path. That path is guided by the totems of the Medicine Wheel.”
I had heard many teachers refer to humans as the “two-leggeds” other animals as the “four leggeds;” birds are the winged ones; trees were the “standing ones” and rocks were ancient ancestors. This was not “new” to me, but the understanding that the “animal” spirits, or totems were actually guiding our earth pathway was still very challenging to my mind. I assumed it was because, like most westerners I had learned, at Sunday School, that God had given humans dominion over the earth and all the animals. We were superior and animals had no souls and were thus subordinate to human-beings. This was why it is not a “crime” to kill an animal or destroy a forest.
Yet, I learned very quickly, that this was a crime to these beautiful people who often looked at me with sad and yet kind eyes. They knew I struggled with this concept because they too had been dragged off to missionary schools and forced to listen to the western vision of life; yet they simply, lovingly, beautifully and with full understanding, simply rejected the “story.” These traditional people knew something we westerners did not, and despite the fact that most Native people lived in abject poverty, had been forced from their traditional lands; their traditional livelihoods ripped away from them, the “traditionals” had no bitterness, no anger, no animosity, just understanding and love.
There were other native people who did not see “eye to eye” with Sun Bear and were highly critical of him teaching non-Native people ancient wisdom. Even twenty five years after his death, there are still websites and blogs attacking his actions, yet all I found in him was love and humour. That day, so many years ago, I learned something new. I learned that Sun Bear, and many others also had infinite patience with our collective amnesia, which is tantamount to mental illness (I am being kind here!), and the whole process humbled me.
The Medicine Wheel is in fact a sacred spiral that teaches wisdom at many levels concurrently. I have written my book: Spiral Dance on the basics of the wheel and include the sacred herbs, crystals and much more. Much of this wisdom was gifted to me by Sun Bear and my other Cree Teachers (please see the other books in the Shaman’s Door series).. yet, some thirty odd years later I still find myself having sudden and no so sudden insights into the meaning of the Medicine Wheel. This may be because I am now entering the North of the wheel.
The Medicine Wheel exemplifies the “great year” of our lives, both physical and spiritual. The beginning is the east and our birth, from there we work our way through to the south, the place of learning, then we go deeper into our soul-purpose in the west and finally to the wisdom and purification of the north. This is a soul-pattern that assists us all to grow, overcome difficulties and become the pure spirit person we are all meant to be. Yet there is also a reflection within the physical body. To the traditionalists, this is the Earth Wheel, reflecting our physical journey around the medicine whine. We are born as a baby in the east, the birth is celebrated as an expression of new life. From there we move into learning who we are, where we come from and what we must learn from our culture and background. At some stage we go through a “dark night of the soul” and enter the west where we discover our karmic or deeper spiritual meaning, and this leads to the North where we live in our wisdom.
So very often people leave this world and walk the “blue road” before settling into the North of the wheel. My old teachers would say they come back to us as spirit grandfathers and grandmothers to guide us from spirit. But in modern times so many more of us are remaining within the physical, or on the “Good red road” of this world well into old age.
At this moment it appears our world is teetering on the precipice of destruction, with global warming and the control of the mega-powers of war, yet we also have the largest number of “elders” embodied within this world since the dawn of time! think about that!
Sun Bear knew this time coming, and often spoke of the “power Elders” of the future. He felt his job was to prepare the “non Indian born” people to become Elders and live within their various communities as thinking, loving elders rather than grouchy, self-centred old men and women. This is the time, he predicted, of the Buffalo people. The Buffalo is the Totem spirit keeper of the north. As more and more of the “baby boom” generation step into Elderhood we are once again being influenced by the Native Indian people.
The Sun Bear movement began during the 1960s. At that time there was a mass awakening of young people. Many of us turned to the wisdom keepers of the Native traditions for guidance. We grew our hair long and straight, wore beads and took pride in our “sun tans!” Yet by the 1980s it seemed to have fizzled out. I asked him if he was disappointed but he just laughed and shook his head, his eyes twinkling with mischief and love.
“How can my brothers and sisters disappoint me? Great Spirit and all the Grandmothers and Grandfathers told me that nothing much would happen until we had all walked the Medicine Wheel and allowed the totem spirits to gift us with their wisdom. My job was to write that book. My job is to offer the pathway; the coyote pathway,” he laughed, smiling across at Mt Rainier, also known as Grandfather.
“Grandfather will speak to us again one day,” he said pointing up to the volcano. “Mother Earth will speak to us through Grandfather.”
If the Shamanic pathway calls you, you will find my series of books: THE SHAMAN's DOOR offers many insights into the spiritual journey of the shaman. Please check out my bookstore or go to Amazon where they are available as eBooks.