A Conversation With Native American Sun Bear

Actor, medicine man, rainmaker and "reverse missionary", Native American Sun Bear returns to share his views on Native American enviornmentalism and spirituality.

| September/October 1988

A conversation with Native American Sun Bear on his work with the environment and spirituality. 

A Conversation With Native American Sun Bear

Despite society's recent attempts to control its abuse of our planet, the health of the earth seems to be steadily getting worse. Many environmentalists believe that reactive legislation and technical fixes may not be enough to cure the full array of human-spawned ills. They feel that a fundamental attitude shift from neglect and abuse to global responsibility and care-taking may be impossible without a spiritual base. This series reports on some of the developing linkages between religious beliefs and environmental concerns. It begins with Native American spirituality-because, in a unique historical reversal, many Indian religious leaders today are spreading their message of deep kinship with the earth to nonnative people. We focus here on Sun Bear, perhaps the most prominent of these culture bridgers and one who has deliberately tried to adapt Indian ways for the use of non-native's. Since religion is a sensitive subject for many people, we feel obliged to include a precautionary note: This is a piece of reportage. We are not trying to convert, offend or unduly influence anyone, but rather to present new environmental ideas that are not being widely reported elsewhere. We, of course, respect indeed, cherish your right to have spiritual beliefs different from-or even in opposition to-those portrayed in this series. 

"YOU ARE GOING TO BE HERE FOR quite a while, and the first thing you need to know is Rule Number One: Shut up and listen." The scene is the sun deck of an attractive weekend retreat house in rural Virginia. The speaker, Raven, is a stout, crew-cut male with a strong German accent.

Born Hans Wilhelm Leo in Germany, Raven is one of the principal instructors of a 10-day screening program to teach Native American ways to people who may become apprentices of Sun Bear. Sun Bear, a 59-year-old Chippewa medicine man, has dedicated his life to sharing Indian spiritual, earth-caring and survival skills. In effect, he's become a "reverse missionary," teaching native ways to all comers-most of whom are middle-class whites. Thus, the surprising fact that this course is taught almost entirely by non-Indians (Sun Bear being the sole exception) and has only one Native American attending it seems actually appropriate.

Sun Bear: "Up until 1970, I worked only with native people—as a medicine man and helping them in different ways. The only time I went out to talk to non-natives was to raise money. Then in 1971, the Spirit told me it was time to start working with nonnative people. So I formed the Bear Tribe Medicine Society. At the outset, I got flak from some Indians, but now I have a lot of support from native people."

SUN BEAR HAS GOTTEN FLAK—HIS nose was once broken by a white man who didn't like Indians, and then again a few years later by an Indian who didn't like his working with whites! Yet he's persisted. In fact, his life is a testimony to persistence. He was born to a white mother and an Indian father, raised on a poor Minnesota reservation during the Great Depression, educated through only the eighth grade, imprisoned for deserting the army when he decided he didn't want to fight in the Korean War, and employed at various jobs (including playing Indian parts in TV series like "Broken Arrow" and "Cheyenne"). Then, in the '60s, he watched his first attempt to form the Bear Tribe fail because a lot of people, in Sun Bear's eyes, "wanted to play Indian, rather than learn to live in harmony."

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