Floating Eaglefeather loves a good story.
For the past ten years, he has traveled the world, gathering and telling stories that express “a love and respect for the differences among us.”
He speaks English and Spanish and French, and tells stories in words and in sign language. He recites poems and he sings, punctuating his tales with demonstrations of origami, as he deftly folds little pieces of paper into frogs, rabbits, and cranes.
With his beaded necklace, an eagle feather in his headband, and his hair woven in a single, long braid, he looks proud of his heritage. It wasn’t always that way.
Born in Honduras to Mayan Indian parents, he was brought to New Orleans when he was still a baby. Told nothing of his background, except that it was shameful to be an Indian, he was a young adult before he discovered for himself his Mayan heritage and its rich oral tradition.
Eaglefeather (which he goes by for short) is a graduate of Tulane University in New Orleans, with a degree in comparative literature and theater. His travels during the past decade have made him knowledgeable about folklore from many cultures. Yet, while his repertoire includes many North American Indian tales, he knows relatively few Mayan stories. “Much was destroyed by the Europeans,” he explains. “They burned countless Mayan books, which were hand-drawn on tree bark.”
I talked with Eaglefeather when he was in Chapel Hill recently. He’s a friendly, outgoing man, with a keen love for children and for nature. His new book, And the Earth Lived Happily Ever After, is a collection of “old and new traditional tales to wage peace.” Excerpts from the book follow the interview.
SUN: Your book, And the Earth Lived Happily Ever After, is dedicated to world peace. In it, you emphasize that individual and cultural differences should be respected. Yet in a world in which there are many deep and dividing differences — economic, political, religious — can there be peace?
EAGLEFEATHER: Those of us who value gentleness and kindness have to start thinking in a new way. We have to become more assertive, to take the hands of the military off the levers of power. We can’t simply wait for them to change. Just as there are people who compulsively drink or gamble, there are those who are compulsively hooked on war. We are paying for their addiction. A gambler might bet on who can spit the farthest; a drinker can have a glass of beer and be satisfied for a while. But these people need intercontinental ballistic missiles and Star Wars. We have to realize we’re being tricked, that this is not the way to power and glory.
I prefer nonviolence, because it’s been my luck to be able to ask for things in a way that is both assertive and gentle.
THE SUN: Do you think it’s luck?
EAGLEFEATHER: Maybe luck isn’t exactly the right word. But it’s something like luck. I was born in Honduras. Had I stayed there, I could have been one of the many who disappeared or were killed. But when I was four months old, my parents moved to New Orleans. Consequently, I’ve had the possibility of getting a good education and traveling. The freedom that a United States passport gives would not necessarily be mine if I had grown up and lived in Honduras. There, I might have been very intelligent but unable to do what I wanted.
THE SUN: Do you feel any loss about having left Honduras?
EAGLEFEATHER: What was lost was my sense of my own tradition. My parents and grandparents were ashamed of having Mayan blood, because the Christian Europeans brought with them the message that European culture was the best culture, and Christianity was the only religion. My grandparents didn’t talk about their culture to my parents, so my parents, in turn, had nothing to tell me. But as soon as I learned I was Mayan, I began to study Mayan culture and civilization. Now I try to live more in keeping with the Mayan spirit.
THE SUN: In what way?
EAGLEFEATHER: For example, I have a strong love and respect for calendars, the Mayan intoxication with measuring time. Every moment is a deity. Every day is a deity. If I tell somebody, “I’ll be at your house from June the first to June the fifteenth,” I arrive on the first and leave on the fifteenth. Sometimes people are astonished, because they assume I meant I’d be there around that time. But if I say I’ll be there, then I’m there. If I’m not, then I’m not showing respect for their deity of time, for the spirit that’s in them.
THE SUN: In your book, you refer to a Cretan proverb. “The road to peace and freedom is paved with many small stones. Each stone represents one struggle.”
EAGLEFEATHER: Peace is something you create every day: going back into the kitchen and washing the dishes for the thousandth time that year; taking care of babies; educating children; trying to find a new idea to put on canvas or into a poem. All that takes a great deal of courage. That’s working for peace. Our society doesn’t value that as much as the glory of a general, followed by two thousand young men in snappy uniforms, taking over a city. But I think it’s much harder to work for peace than for war. It’s easier to point a gun at somebody and shoot him than it is to take care of the same child from birth to young adulthood. The first takes one second, while the second requires a commitment of many, many years.
THE SUN: As a storyteller, you’re concerned with language. What are your thoughts about the power of words?
EAGLEFEATHER: My friend Heather showed me a book of Chinese nursery rhymes. The book once belonged to her great-grandmother and had been passed from one generation to the next. Each rhyme was written in both Chinese and English, illustrated with lovely little pictures. Some of the rhymes were stunningly beautiful; others were ugly beyond measure. For example: “This little girl was always very naughty/Now her feet are bound and she’s always very nice.” This kind of poem was used to teach little girls that when their feet were bound and they couldn’t run, or skip, or be boisterous, then they were “nice.” We use high-heels and makeup to immobilize women in our society. Language contributes as well. For example, “All men are brothers” seems like a lovely idea, but it makes all our sisters invisible. In the same way, the statement, “Christopher Columbus discovered the Americas,” makes all native Americans invisible. Only when a white, European, Christian, heterosexual male arrives does our continent begin to exist. So language can be a subtle transmitter of dubious values. Language can also be beautiful. It can be poetry and song, and a way of exchanging joy. Evi Seidman is a poet who helps people enjoy life. She wrote a poem called “It’s a Good Thing I’m Not in Charge Here”:
It’s a good thing I’m not in charge here. I could never have thought of a pine cone Or a pomegranate or a porcupine, And even if I’d thought of one, how on earth Would I have engineered a comet Or organized life in a pond, And where would I have found the energy To make each and every snowflake different? (It’s more like me to come up With one or two passable models, Make a mold, and crank ’em out.) And it’s not like me at all to finish up An entire mountain range, then go back And carefully touch up with tiny forests of moss On the north side of every stone. I’ve got a pretty good head for details But it does seem likely that I’d have Left off the dots on a ladybug’s back, And neglected to tie in each and every Strand of silk to every kernel Of every ear of corn; Why, I lived in a house for two years Before I hung curtains in the bedroom — I’d probably never get around To making a waterfall.
Isn’t that wonderful? She creates an essence without naming it. She doesn’t say who’s in charge here but “it’s a good thing I’m not.” It’s magical not only because of what’s in it, but also because of what she leaves out.
THE SUN: How do you memorize so much?
EAGLEFEATHER: I don’t memorize. I’ve memorized maybe five poems by heart, because poems must be said word-for-word. I never memorize stories. I use different words each time I tell them, although I chain together the same images. The chain is made very lovingly, so that the ideas remain intact. If I hear a story that I like and want to tell, I just start telling it, and that’s how I remember it. If it’s a long story, I take a few notes. I then tell the story as soon as I can after hearing it, using the notes until I don’t need them anymore.
This might go back to my lifelong passion for words. When I was a kid, I had heart trouble. When I was two years old, I went to Chicago for my first heart operation. In school, I could never run or play with the other kids. Reading became my saving grace. As a result, I made good grades, but I was shy and didn’t have many friends. So I enjoyed life vicariously, through reading books. To this day, when I read a good book or hear a good story, I can see it unfold inside my head. My mental world is full because my heart trouble closed off the physical world.
THE SUN: Are you restricted physically now?
EAGLEFEATHER: I had a second operation when I was seventeen years old, so that I only have a slight heart murmur now. I’m a vegetarian, which is very good for the heart, and I’m very active. I don’t run ten miles every morning, but I walk a great deal, and I play with kids. I can wrestle down a five-year-old with the best of them. (Laughs.)
THE SUN: How would you describe your spiritual beliefs?
EAGLEFEATHER: I try to see the beauty in all beliefs and the basic truth they share. I have a hard time with Christianity, because it claims to be the only truth. I know it has some stirring elements, but because of its unyielding nature, Christianity has an ugly history of aggressive intolerance toward other cultures and religions. And it continues today. A friend of mine who lives in Fort Lauderdale recently wrote to American missionaries in Africa, asking them to send her some sculptures from the village where they were posted. They wrote back explaining they couldn’t, because to buy sculptures from the Africans would be to sanction their idols and their idol worship. This is a modern example of the same self-righteousness that caused Christians to burn the Mayan books and suppress the Mayan culture.
THE SUN: How did you get your name?
EAGLEFEATHER: I was sitting and meditating next to a stream in the Ozarks — my definition of meditation is sitting still with your back straight and eyes closed, concentrating on the spirit. I had an image of an eagle feather in my heart. Then it fell from my heart into the stream. The stream took it to the river; the river took it to the ocean; the ocean carried it around the world. It gathered more and more love and wisdom as it went. Then the spirit picked up the feather, brushed both my cheeks with it, and put it back into my heart. That’s how I got my name. I had never before had a vision, or any sort of training that might have prepared me for one. I didn’t know what it meant, I only knew that it felt very powerful.
This was thirteen years ago. I still feel honored by such a gift. I remember that it was given to me as a possibility; I could have chosen to reject it. But instead I give the vision my trust and my love, and for that, it has given me the strength to keep traveling, gathering love and wisdom, and passing it on through storytelling.
THE SUN: What else gives you strength?
EAGLEFEATHER: The feeling that everything is part of the same life force — that all of us, whether we’re rocks or plants or animals or people, are joined. We have different ways of conceiving of it and feeling it. The way a plant perceives the universe is very different from the way a badger does; in turn, a badger’s experience is very different from that of a human being. Humans have the very wonderful gift of being able to learn from all other life forms. A rock is patient, a plant is resilient, and an animal is reliable — loyal to the people it loves, or to other animals. Humans can learn from all this and they can also learn from each other. It’s very strange to me that given the possibility of communicating with each other and learning from other life, we choose instead to use each other for something as small and petty as money. When I was in Thailand, a monk said that we have such awful wars because we don’t seek to know ourselves; we find it easier to control monstrous weapons than to control our own desires. I see what he means, because there are monsters inside myself — some of them very frightening.
THE SUN: How do you deal with your monsters?
EAGLEFEATHER: I understand that these forces come from the same life force. The yin-yang, the black and white of the eagle feather, the positive-negative — all these opposing forces are inside every particle of being.
For example, when I get sick, it helps to remember that sickness is part of health, that my body is getting rid of something unhealthy. Unfortunately, I can’t see what the totality looks like. I can only try to find my place in it based on my imaginings.
Life is a tapestry. We are aware of individual threads, but we can’t see the whole. And while I can’t see what you’re weaving, I know your life is somehow connected to mine.
One of my hopes is that by telling stories from different cultures, I’m weaving closed some tears in the social fabric of a society that values the white, Christian, male perspective, and shuns and suppresses other ways of seeing. By telling stories from different parts of the world to children all over the world, I hope I’m uniting people by expanding their awareness of each other.
Once I heard it said that the universe isn’t made of atoms but of stories. I like that.
The following stories are adapted from Eaglefeather’s And the Earth Lived Happily Ever After, which is available for $7.50 postpaid from Wages of Peace, 309 Trudeau Drive, Metairie, LA 70003. All profits from the book are donated to Greenpeace and The Peace Museum.
The Meditation Teacher and the Warrior
There once was a meditation teacher who received a request from a warrior for lessons in Vipassana meditation. He gave him instruction in breath awareness, mindfulness, and effort. For several years, the warrior tried to meditate, but he seemed to make no progress. The warrior went to the meditation teacher, who said, “You are not putting forth enough effort. Try harder.”
The warrior tried harder for several years, still failing to progress. The teacher prescribed greater effort still. But the warrior returned after another few years of practice with another tale of failure.
“Very well,” said the teacher. “Name something you really like to do.”
“Well, I like chess,” responded the warrior.
“Good. Then we’ll play a game of chess together,” said the teacher, and he prepared the board. “The one who wins will cut off the head of the one who loses.” They started to play.
At first, the warrior played normally; however, as the reality of the stakes set in, he began to fear for the loss of the game and the loss of his head. He panicked, made bad moves, and started to lose. He then realized that only by concentrating fully on the game could he hope to survive. He centered his focus on the board, thus shedding all his fears. He became the chess game; he gained the advantage. As he neared victory, the warrior remembered that he would have to cut off his meditation teacher’s head.
He looked into the wise man’s face. There, he saw no trace of fear. Reflected in the teacher’s eyes were many young people led along the path of wisdom. The warrior said to himself, “Who am I, who have done nothing but destroy; who am I to take the life of this wise one?” With this thought, he decided to lose the game, making bad moves on purpose.
The meditation teacher got up, turned the board over, upset the pieces. “Now,” he said, “you have truly won — for at the moment wisdom is born, compassion is born also.”
The Quaker’s Stroke
The Friends, or Quakers, believe in putting their actions behind their words, in witnessing for the tenets of peace by being courageous and actively pacific.
Once upon a time, there was a Quaker on board a U.S. trading vessel which was attacked by a French privateer. Everyone on board except the Quaker fought desperately. Hands clasped behind his back, he walked calmly and quietly up and down the deck, in the midst of the bullets.
Then the vessels came alarmingly close together. As the sides of the ships bumped and grunted together, the Quaker continued his quiet vigil. The French, preparing to board the U.S. ship, cried out in triumph. The trading vessel’s sailors loaded their guns and stood ready to sell their lives dearly. The French captain rushed forward to lead the attack, leaping from his ship onto the trading vessel.
Just as the captain hit the deck, and before anybody quite knew what was happening, the Quaker slipped up to him and put his arms around the Frenchman’s body, saying calmly and reprovingly, “Friend, thou hast no business here.” With that, he lifted up the French captain and, as if handing a baby to his mother, dropped him gently over the ship’s side.
The Samurai and the Monk
(As told by Reuven Gold, who heard it from Ken Feit.)
A samurai, big and strong, walks into a Zen monastery, fine swords hanging from his belt. He approaches a little monk, who is eating. “Monk,” he says, “teach me the difference between heaven and hell!”
The monk puts down his food and looks at the samurai. “I cannot,” he begins calmly. “You are much too stupid.”
The samurai feels anger boiling in his belly, steel’s cold taste between his teeth. He gives a grunt of rage and grabs his sword.
“Furthermore,” adds the monk, “you’re ugly.”
The samurai bellows furiously and, arms trembling with rancor, lifts his sword over his head.
“That is hell,” says the monk.
The samurai realizes that the monk, with a few words, has defeated his self-control and driven him to the point of killing. He sees that the monk is teaching him benevolently despite the harsh-sounding words. He slowly lowers the sword, tucks it into his belt, and bows his head in humility.
“And that,” says the monk, “is heaven.”
Fighting Leads to Losses
(A Jakata story from India, told by Cathy Spagnoli.)
A newlywed jackal lived near a riverbank. One day, his bride asked him for a meal of fish. Though he didn’t know how to swim, he promised to grant her her wish. Quietly, he crept up to the river, where he saw two otters struggling with a huge fish. After killing their catch, the two began to fight about how to divide it.
“I saw it first,” said one otter, “so I should have the larger portion.”
“But I held you while you caught it,” said the other, “and thus saved you from drowning.”
They continued to fight until the jackal emerged and offered to settle the argument. The otters agreed, promising to abide by his decision. He then cut the fish into three pieces. He gave the head to the first otter, the tail to the second. “The middle,” he said, “goes to the judge.”
The jackal walked happily homeward, saying as he went, “Fighting always leads to losses.”
Life Is a Cosmic Bivouac
(As told by Evi Seidman.)
Life is a cosmic bivouac. Blindfolded, you get dropped off in the middle of the night, with no skills or supplies: no maps, no information, nothing to wear; you don’t know the language; you don’t know the people. You parachute down, alone. This phase is called Project Birth.
Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to complete the cycle and return to home base. This phase is called Operation Survival.
You are expected to negotiate a difficult obstacle course. Half the people you meet along the way have instructions to deter, detain, or confuse you. Several will offer you cigarettes and glazed donuts. Fortunately, the other half have instructions to assist you: children, skid-row derelicts, grocery store clerks. When you least expect it, they toss you a line: someone returns your lost wallet (with the cash still in it); another lets you make a left-hand turn from the right lane (with a smile, even!).
Operation Survival takes approximately sixty-five to ninety years to complete. However, you may be dropped from the rolls early in the program because of genetic slip-ups, highway collisions, asbestos in the drinking water, radioactive chicken pot pies — any number of unfortunate accidents.
And of course, you may simply resign from the program by leaping from a tall building without a single bounce. But this isn’t advisable, since you must repeat Project Birth until you get it right. After all, the program is voluntary only to a degree.
Operation Survival is successfully completed at the natural end of the obstacle, which you generally reach at the time of old age.
The third phase of Cosmic Bivouac is Project Death. (Notice I did not say the “Final Phase.” No need for this subject to be grim.) Project Death is the least understood part of the program, though it’s simple, really. It’s like a mud puddle drying up in the sun after a rain. The soil stays on the earth, while the water rises into the clouds as vapor. But people are funny. They don’t mind at all being the rain, but they don’t want to experience evaporation. Perhaps they fear getting lost in the clouds.
If birth is raining and death is drying up, what then is life? Life is a river. What is the meaning of this river?
Well, we each cross that bridge when we come to it.