When I first met Medicine Story, he wasn’t himself. He was in the character of Black Elk, recreating the great Indian visionary’s story before a large and enchanted crowd. As I listened, I became as fascinated with the teller as with the story. His eyes spoke of ancient wisdom, yet he moved with a youthful excitement. His manner was soft and his words were powerful, grounded in both tradition and a deep personal commitment.
Medicine Story’s rendition of Black Elk has become a cherished part of the Rainbow Peace gathering, an annual week-long experiment in cooperative living (he calls it a “New Age summer school”), that he has been participating in since its beginnings a decade ago. Though he was constantly active at the gathering, in his roles as storyteller, children’s center organizer, and leader of Indian sweat-lodge ceremonies, we found time for a brief interview over a camp-fire breakfast one morning. His message was an old one, concerning the need for people to reach a spiritual harmony between themselves and their environment, but his thoughts seemed refreshingly new.
For years, Medicine Story, a medicine man of the Wampanoic nation, has been a peace worker, lecturer, and teacher of traditional ways as they apply to modern problems. But his way is not one of words divorced from action. Since his work in the 60s with the San Francisco Diggers, he has helped to organize everything from poor peoples’ growth centers, schools and communes, to countless healing gatherings and inter-tribal unity conferences. He has been a playwright, a poet, a storyteller and a poetry editor for the Indian journal Akwesasne Notes.
At 52, Medicine Story says that he is trying to recreate the tribal way among people who seek it. His work is centered around Another Place conference center in Greenville, New Hampshire, and the Metanokit community of New England, which he hopes will “eventually grow into a network of communities working together towards the goal of self-sufficiency.”
The final parts of this interview were conducted in the back of a rainbow-colored school bus, traveling east on highway 90.
— Howard Rubin
SUN: Being raised in an assimilated culture, what eventually led you back to your Native American roots?
MEDICINE STORY: That was a two part process. When I was young, I was instilled by my grandfather with stories and history, but they were all stories from the past, without particular meaning. But after I grew up, I realized that neither my college education nor my subsequent studies nor anything else that I saw around me was a sufficient response to what was going on in the world. In 1967 I had completed some of the theater work I was doing in New York, and I decided to go back to basics, forget everything that I’d learned and try to find out from scratch what was really going on. Well, not quite all of my learning. One teacher I had in school taught me to question everything. That was a very remarkable teacher and teaching for me. I asked myself where we’d gone wrong, and did human beings ever know how to live on the planet? The little voice in the back of my head said, “Sure, don’t you remember those stories? According to them, people once lived in harmony and balance.”
So I began by going back to my own people and finding that there was something still there in terms of tacit understanding of how to live with the natural forces, but a lot of the connections were lost. There was an ancient thing happening among people who had not been completely pulled away from the land where their people had lived for ten thousand years. Much remained in people that they didn’t even realize because it wasn’t on the verbal level, it was in the attitude and the way of life. I read Black Elk at the time. Now Black Elk only died in 1951, so I knew that there were people still around who were in touch with that tradition. That was something I wanted to find. There were many other things happening in the world that I was learning about also. I had met Alan Watts in 1958. That turned me on to a whole new way of looking at things from an Eastern perspective that I hadn’t even dreamed of before. At the same time, my sister was getting involved with a lot of spiritual investigations on her own. She was into Sufism, and Ramakrishna, among other things. This helped to spark my interest, and then I went to the West Coast, which was a lush garden of wild and exotic spiritual disciplines. I explored many different paths out there, including humanistic psychology, psychedelic drugs, communes. I worked with the Diggers and thought about their concept of free stores and free services. Later, when I began to learn first hand about the old ways of this continent, all those things began to fit into place. The give-aways and communal ways are part of the old way of tribal living, involving the spiritual connectedness of the tribe.
SUN: Despite good ideas and intentions, so much of the communal movement failed. What did you learn from those failures?
MEDICINE STORY: We all come out of a lot of distress, and we move very quickly towards what looks good, carrying that distress inside us. When a group of us get together, we combine our respective distresses and have to learn how to break through them individually and as a group. The only communes that have done it with any degree of success over the years have been people with a very powerful spiritual commitment. This is also what the Indian traditions say: the only way our social institutions really work is when there is such a commitment, to the creation, to the earth, and to each other.
SUN: What eventually led you to put faith in the answers of your own culture?
MEDICINE STORY: Most spiritual traditions are geared towards some future place or time or enlightenment. Almost none of them deal with life on earth as it is. So many contain chastisements of basic human functions such as eating, pleasure, using material objects, sex. Those aren’t a problem in the Native American traditions. They’re just part of life, and don’t need to be denied or mortified. As a religion, Native American spirituality seems to be the only one that is really concerned with the earth, with survival, with the other species and with the idea that everything in the universe has a spirit and is thus equally sacred. There seems to be a sort of hierarchy in many disciplines, where the little ants aren’t quite as sacred as the bigger creatures, and so on up to man.
Indian religion has things to offer that no other religion does, and needs to be considered among the great religions of the world. The only other religion that I can compare it to is the ancient Chinese religion, Taoism, which was also involved with the earth and the natural way of relating to the creation.
It’s a very personal, do-it-yourself religion. Of course there are ceremonies, but there isn’t any mediator required for the average person to receive the message from creation. Anybody can seek a vision, or have a pipe, or build and use their own sweat lodge. The sweat lodge is the closest thing to a church that we have and it’s something that a person can build in an hour.
SUN: What is the process of seeking a vision?
MEDICINE STORY: It begins by purging oneself, through fasting and taking a series of sweats. Then you get down with the basic four elements of earth, air, fire, and water, naked in a little place in the dark, and purify yourself in body, mind, heart and spirit. There you seek the ultimate realities. Sometimes the vision happens then. Or you may go on from there, fasting and cleaning yourself out, and finally go to some place in the wilderness, listening, sensing, feeling.
SUN: Is there a direct message?
MEDICINE STORY: More times than not. Usually some messenger or spirit being gives a message that can be very clearly understood. Sometimes it just takes the form of a sense of rightness, of moving in a certain path. Someone with a specific problem may not come out with a detailed message; usually though, it’s a detailed response from a spirit helper who acts as a guide. Often this same guide will return over and over again in one’s life and dreams.
SUN: Are there many who still seek visions?
MEDICINE STORY: Yes. It’s a growing thing, especially among non-Indian people. It’s being used with young people who have alcohol or drug problems, and for people with emotional and spiritual problems. I was invited to speak to an alternative high school in Rochester, New Hampshire. They told me that they take those young people up for a weekend to Maine, and they fast all weekend and then go out on a vision quest. These are the hard core drop-outs, last ditch rebels who don’t know much more than what television and pop street culture tells them about alternatives. Here they are out in the wilderness, fasting and without any training or tradition behind them. For many of them it seems to have had a very powerful transformational effect.
SUN: We’ve just passed the Black Hills [South Dakota] and the Yellow Thunder encampment. Could you speak about what’s happening there?
MEDICINE STORY: The Black Hills belong to the sovereign Lakota nation. Although the government papers will tell you differently, they’ve never signed it away. There was a treaty signed by the United States government and the Lakota people in 1868 at Fort Laramie that laid out the land for the great Sioux reservation. The provisions of that agreement stated that the land would be theirs as long as the grass grew.
SUN: How long was it before the treaty was violated?
MEDICINE STORY: The treaty stated that no other treaty could be made without the consent of three-fourths of the adult male population. With no regard for this, the government began taking land back in 1872 and has been doing so up to today.
SUN: What is happening there today?
MEDICINE STORY: Some members of the Lakota nation have set up the Yellow Thunder encampment to claim back a portion of the land that is rightfully theirs. This is an active protest to the corporations that are trying to strip-mine uranium from the Hills. This is a sacred land. It’s like drilling for oil in the Vatican! If the government should try to forcibly remove them it’ll mean a fierce incident. This is their land and they’re resolved not to leave without a struggle.
Most spiritual traditions are geared towards some future place or time or enlightenment. Almost none of them deal with life on earth as it is.
SUN: I’ve heard of several incidents that reflect a tension between the Native American culture and the counterculture. Where does this tension come from?
MEDICINE STORY: Many people read Black Elk and other Indian classics and identified strongly with the Indian spiritual ways. They let their hair grow long, as traditional Indians do, they took to wearing moccasins and beads and began to seek out Indians. They were full of psychedelics and, of course, a lot of carry-over craziness from their culture. When they would move in upon the Indian homes, they were often not as respectful as Indian visitors would be. They didn’t know how to visit another’s home. The Indians would welcome them with open arms, and there were even prophecies that said that the children of the white people would begin to dress like Indians and adopt Indian ways. Many still welcome the seekers but others got burnt out. Also it was very frightening to the Indians that people would go off on their own and just space out on drugs.
SUN: How does that differ from the Indian use of psychedelics in the peyote ceremony?
MEDICINE STORY: That is a highly regulated thing. The ceremonies are very exact as to how the peyote is to be used and what the people are to do at every moment.
The peyote ceremony begins traditionally at sunset and lasts till sunrise. It’s all rigidly controlled, so that nobody ends up freaking out or otherwise misusing the medicine.
I have gotten in trouble sometimes with other Indians because I do things for so-called hippie people. I think that the disrespect that has been shown has been purely out of ignorance. I meditated upon the question of whether I should conduct sweat-lodge ceremonies for non-Indian people, and decided that these young people were going to be doing this anyway and there had to be a reason why I was put into the particular position of being able to communicate in two different worlds. I act as a kind of bridge to teach the sacred way of using the sweat-lodges, the vision quest, peyote, tobacco and so forth. I’ve done it for a wide variety of people, from elderly Jewish intellectuals in New York to people living primitive lives in Canada and the Northwest. How can you discriminate? People are people. I think of the Native American ways not as Indian ways but as human ways. Those of us who have been fortunate enough to retain and revive some of it have a responsibility towards the earth and towards other people to share it with them.
I invite people to take a look at the world around them, then at the world of North America 400 years ago. At that time we didn’t have any big institutions to take care of us, such as big governments, big corporations, welfare states. We didn’t have food stamps, jails, prisons, old age homes, police, lawyers. We lived by a natural law, and we understood what natural law was. You see, people really know how to live until society starts to make them stupid. The civilization we’ve grown up in hasn’t taught us the things that we really need to know. It doesn’t teach us how to live on the earth, or how to love one another! It doesn’t teach us how to take care of our children and our old people and all of their problems. It shunts the problems off to professionals. So we end up powerless, being governed by experts.
SUN: How is a tribal culture better able to handle these problems?
MEDICINE STORY: Everybody grows up learning how to take care of themselves within the framework of a family. Each person has his own particular responsibility to support the family, just as the family supports him. The tribe then takes care of whatever the family isn’t able to. For instance, one family gets all of its hunters wiped out. They’re going to need support from the rest of the tribe. So, the basic unit is the family, but the family itself is supported by the larger band of families in the tribe. There are interlacing family responsibilities which make the tribe a sort of extended family group itself.
There are no separate professionals who derive their livelihood in one particular area. A healer has to make his own meat and plant his own corn. Anyone who takes on extra tribal responsibilities still knows how to take care of himself. In our present-day society you often grow into a specialty, and while you may become an expert at pulling teeth, you know very little about taking care of yourself and the world in which you live.
In the tribal way there is a concern not only with the family and the tribe, but also about a continuum that began with the ancestors, with maintaining a way that has been passed down, a good way, a sacred way, and passing it on to the unborn generations. This is the only major world viewpoint that has such a heavy reliance upon the unborn generations. There is a tradition always to plan for seven generations ahead. If this type of concern were built into the world’s consciousness, people would have thought a lot deeper about dumping radioactive wastes that are going to take a quarter of a million years to wear out. That’s just not an inheritance you’d want left to your grandchildren.
There’s a very great consciousness among Indian people that one of the things that makes a place sacred and emotionally vital for people is the fact that their ancestors are buried there. So they do feel as part of the land. We consider ourselves born of the earth and we give our bodies back to the earth again. We’re recyclable into other forms of life. We’re always intimately tied with the earth and have to pass that consciousness along.
The natural way that people have lived for millions of years is in a tribe. It’s in our physical makeup and we pass it on to our children. We don’t know how to live in a tribe, but there’s that longing inside for the tribe that’s been lost. The children grow up having to fight their way through a competitive, dog-eat-dog world. Whether they end up rich or poor there’s a tremendous sense of loss. Many rich people at some time in their lives stumble into some poor peasant’s home, and marvel at the simplicity, and the love, the richness of the poor peasant’s life living close to the earth. But it’s a hard way to live unless it’s in the tribal situation where people can take up the slack for each other. Where they can help each other when the extra energy is needed because of trouble, or the need to raise a barn, or something like that. Or when they just need the social reinforcement.
We are basically social beings, we’re not meant to be hermits. We’re not meant to live in little isolated nuclear families away from everybody. That’s why we go to town on Saturday night and dance. But as much fun as it is to get together for a good time, it’s not socially reinforcing like the old tribes were.
SUN: You’ve said that only the tribe is a social system geared for love.
MEDICINE STORY: Our other social forms are basically hierarchical and competitive, whether they’re communistic or capitalistic. There’s a ladder that you’ve got to climb to prove yourself. There’s an implied criticism going on all the time that you’re not good enough, that you’re not making it. In a tribe, however, you don’t have to pass any tests, you don’t have to have any kind of degree in order to be accepted and fully appreciated as a human being. All you have to do is be respectful and help to carry on the ways of the tribe. Everybody is honored.
Capitalism, especially the right-wing versions, always talks about individualism. They don’t like socialism because it’s supposed to be conformist, which it is. But capitalism is also. There’s just as much pressure for people to think and look and act in a certain mold in capitalism. God help you if you look different or if you come out with some ideas that outrage the community. You end up ostracized from the social system. However, in the tribal ways, there is plenty of leeway for people to be as crazy as they want to, to dress or speak in any outlandish way they want. And if you’re really over the edge and your sense of reality is very different from the standard, you don’t get put away with a nurse to look after you, you’re still treated with respect and reverence, sometimes you’re even thought to be a very holy spiritual being.
SUN: In what sense do you use the word love?
MEDICINE STORY: You can have love for anything or anybody. I prefer to talk about a couple of aspects of love that are ways of being together socially: one is trust, and the other is generosity. Trust means you believe that the creation is really okay and therefore that people are basically okay. If they’re acting crazy, or greedy, or on some kind of power trip, this is a symptom of some great distress they have in their lives, and are acting out. By trust I mean that we trust in creation. We trust that if we treat each other right, and we treat our children right then we’re not going to have many of the problems that we have now.
SUN: Even in the most compatible and well-intentioned groups, problems often arise. What has your work at Another Place taught you about maintaining group unity?
MEDICINE STORY: We try to keep appreciation of each other foremost. If there’s a conflict, we seek a no-lose solution. When there’s a problem, we put together a problem-solving group to find the most creative way to alleviate it. We don’t decide things under the premise that majority rules, because that can leave many in the group unsatisfied and ignored. We reach for a consensus and a compromise that will satisfy everyone as much as possible.
I think that the continuing emphasis on the children is the most important aspect of our community, especially as those who are childless learn to relate to the children and as the community gets transformed by the power of children who are growing up free, and loved, and appreciated.
SUN: How do you view the place of children?
MEDICINE STORY: The children are really the most important part of restoring the sense of humanity to our culture. We can make it easier for the next generations by withholding a lot of the trips that have been passed on to us. We can think about the ways that our culture has oppressed us, and not allow that to happen to our kids. Oppression like withholding love, approval, and acceptance, and communications like, “If you do that you’re bad,” “Why do you keep doing that?”, “I told you a million times, are you stupid?” Too often it is implanted in kids from the very beginning that they are unlovable, incapable or stupid. Whereas quite the opposite is true. Children as they are born are very intelligent, very capable, and of course very lovable. But we soon start making demands on them. We demand at two years old that they act like five year olds, then of five year olds that they act like ten year olds. Then we jump all over them and make them feel inwardly terrible about themselves, and wonder why they start fighting with each other.
We have a chance to reverse that. In my own children I can see the proof of what I’m talking about. When I met my wife, Emmy, we recognized that the most important thing for us was the way we believed we should parent. We’re bringing up our two boys with all the support and appreciation we can give them. If they make a mistake we try to encourage the good parts of what they’re doing rather than jump on them for their mistake. We try to make them feel good about themselves. This is what we’re doing in our community also. All of us have had so many messages of depreciation all of our lives. We spent time in our community sitting in a circle and appreciating each other to try and counter the effects of a life of depreciation. The whole secret of happiness can be found in that word, appreciation. Whatever you appreciate you add on to, what you depreciate you take away from. If people in a group are really appreciating each other for their unique gifts, everyone stays high and can work together well. When they start depreciating each other the whole thing starts to crumple at the edges and bad feelings arise.
SUN: I’ve heard you speak of your hopes for the spiritual movement and for the children and yet also of the impending fall of society as we know it. Do you see it as only a partial fall?
MEDICINE STORY: I see it as a drama that nobody knows the answer to until the third act comes along, but I definitely believe that there’s going to be a catastrophe of some size. How great a catastrophe depends upon how soon the transformation now underway takes hold and creates its effects upon more than the handful of people that it affects now. If it only affects that handful of people then those are going to be the ones to survive. This would be very terrible, but I can’t think or speak in any terms except hope, otherwise it’s not worth acting. This is the only game to play right now.
SUN: In the face of all that, how do you think we can really create change? Do you view it as an internal or an external process?
MEDICINE STORY: We were talking about love before. It’s a truism to say that love only begins in the person who is able to love himself. That means that a person has to allow himself to feel secure. Being an Indian I tend to think in terms of fours. I look at the relationship of the four forces as we go around the medicine wheel. I see four relationships that people have to have together in order to be powerful, and healthy.
The first relationship is the one that they have to themselves. If you don’t feel good about yourself then you can’t move forward, you get stuck right there, and become anti-social in one way or another: you either become destructive to yourself or to other people.
The second is the relationship with others, with your family, with your tribe and the people that you deal with in your life. When you’re together with yourself then you can go outward.
The third relationship is with your life-support systems and with mother earth. You have to know how to take care of it and keep it clean and pure, so that it will nourish you.
The fourth relationship, which is one that many people go through life seemingly able to ignore, is with the entire creation, what you’re doing here, and what it’s really about. Until you’re able to answer that question for yourself, and all of those questions for yourself, and feel good about all of those relationships there’s going to be a hole in you that will cause pain.