A Conversation With Native American Sun Bear

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Actor, medicine man, rainmaker and "reverse missionary"—Sun Bear.
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At Medicine Wheel Gatherings across America (and in Europe), Sun Bear shares his teachings and leads native ceremonies.
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Every potential apprentice is carefully screened by Sun Bear and his tribe instructors.
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"I'm trying to teach you to learn how to feel from the earth."

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.”

Today, the Tribe is a small community of 15 full-time members on Vision Mountain outside Spokane, Washington. Sun Bear travels extensively, speaking to more than 10,000 people a year. And he has 320 apprentices, all of whom have graduated from the same screening program I’m attending, the one that starts with Raven telling us to shut up and listen.

Raven finishes explaining the program’s ground rules. Then he piles a mixture of sage and sweet grass in a flat sea shell, lights the mix and, with his hands, draws the smoke first to his chest, next over his head, then down each arm and down his body. This act, called smudging, is an age-old Indian purifying ritual for cleansing negative energies and thoughts. Silently, he passes the herb-filled shell to the trainee on his left. One by one, we bathe ourselves with smoke.

After we’re done, Raven points out how many of us smudged with incorrect motions or in the wrong sequence-failing, already, to follow Rule Number One.

Soon after our smudging lesson, Michelle, another instructor, sends us off into the surrounding woods on the first of a series of earth awareness exercises: finding a power spot. Away from all the other trainees, each of us is supposed to physically sense among these rocks, trees and grasses a place which calls to him or her. I duck into a bone-dry gully (the entire region looks parched) and try. I walk with my eyes closed, wave my hands like antennae and “shop” intently among several spots. I end up right next to the little creek’s dry bed–but am unsure if I was pulled to the spot or just settled for it.

Sun Bear: “In the apprentice screening program, we teach people how to begin to reconnect to the earth. Everything around us is alive and has energy forces in it. I’m trying to teach you how to learn to feel from the earth-so that pretty soon, you’ll say, `Hey, I felt something that’s real.’ “

SUN BEAR TALKS TO US OFTEN IN the first few days. He swaps back and forth from philosophical to practical: from the damage Christian immigrants did to Indians in the name of religion (“First they fell on their knees, then they fell on the Indians”) to harvesting road-killed deer for free meat (“It’s a matter of knowing when they’re still okay for you and when they’re ready for some other parts of nature to eat”). One time he talks about the nature of the supernatural (“I believe there’s one Supreme Being. But he has lots of helpers or angels”). The next time, he’s describing how to leach the tannin out of bagged acorns.

To Sun Bear, all these topics are important: “The spiritual path should be something that answers for all parts of your life, not just something you do in church on Sunday. The only spirituality I ever want to hear about is one that will grow corn. It has to work here and now upon the Earth Mother, or it’s not real.” He lives his creed, organizing native arts and crafts shows to provide income for unemployed reservation Indians, publishing Wildfire, a native networking magazine, and organizing a self-reliant community that grows two-thirds of its own food. His mind teems with other practical ideas: a bed-and-breakfast tipi network for travelers, a seed exchange, wilderness retreat centers, “conscious capitalists” who will run businesses on reservations, and more.

Michelle tells us to go out for an hour and hug some trees. She specifically says to hug both softwood and hardwood trees–yet she doesn’t say why. I find a stout pine, then sit down and wrap myself around it. I used to hug trees when I was a kid; I know it’ll feel nice. I don’t realize, though, that after several minutes have passed, I’ll start feeling, uh, well, a bit of sexual arousal. From a pine tree?

I get up, find a big oak and hug it for a while. It feels strong and reassuring, but the sexual reaction is absent. I go back to my pine. Whoops, there’s that feeling again!

When we share our experiences back with the group, it turns out that several other people experienced sexual stirrings when tree hugging. We’re told that softwood trees tend to give soothing, emotional energy and hardwoods more firm and strengthening energy. And then the discussion turns to sex itself.

Sun Bear: “The native people acknowledge the life force that is in all creation. The South American and Mexican Indians use one word, kipura, to mean both life force and sexual energy. If there isn’t any kipura, any fertility, in your crops, you aren’t going to have any vegetables.

“I use that energy for my creativity, for my work and for loving. When I embrace a woman and feel this good, surging energy in me, I say, `Creator, who put it in me to feel like this? Oh, oh, you did. Well then, it’s all right.’ But this society has neutered people. It’s taken power from them by repressing sex with holier-than-thou or pictures-on-an outhouse-wall attitudes and created neurotic, screwed up human beings.”

SMUDGING IS A PREREQUISITE TO almost all activities during the program, but we experience many other native ceremonies, notably those involving the sacred pipe and the sweat lodge. As our instructors explain, the pipe is considered a sacred altar; a way to get in touch with the whole universe and to reach the spirit forces of the earth. Indeed, this prayer tool is considered alive once it’s been initially blessed, or awakened, by a medicine person. And the smoke from the pipe is considered the breath of prayers traveling to the Creator.

Our group smokes the pipe several times. Each time, we sit in a circle and smudge ourselves. The leader smudges the two pieces of the pipe-the long wooden stem and big clay bowl-along with all accompanying equipment (such as matches and tamping stick). Then he or she holds the pipe pieces up, silently asks permission to smoke, and joins the two parts. The pipe is filled with four pinches of kinnikinnick (a mixture of mullein, raspberry leaves and other herbs) or tobacco. This is done in a careful ceremonial sequence, offering each pinch to the Creator, Earth Mother and other forces.

The leader lights the pipe, offers specific dedication prayers with the first seven puffs of smoke, holds it up to make his or her main prayer, takes the puff for that prayer and passes the pipe on. We each, in turn, take a puff and make a silent, individual prayer. At the end, we all sing a sacramental song said to be so sacred no one is supposed to ever repeat it outside a pipe ceremony.

Sun Bear: “A lot of people feel spirituality is a nambypamby thing. They don’t think of it as a real power. To me, prayer is my first line of defense. I pray all the time, and if it’s not working, I pray harder.

“We pray with the pipe and use ceremonies for calling living powers–live, intelligent forces. And they respond to us when we pray in their way, the ancient way. When we pray for rain, we’re calling for real power in a sacred manner. It’s not enough to know how to plant the garden, without knowing where the rain is.”

SUN BEAR SAYS HE’S FREQUENTLY used his pipe to bring rain to an area-in fact, that rain often follows him when he travels. He claims to have a special relationship with “the thunder beings”: “I blend totally with them, my energy works with their power, and I can direct their energy.”

He relates many rainmaking exploits, such as this one: “A few years back, I was participating in a seminar at Mount Hood in Oregon, where it hadn’t rained for a year and a half. The people there asked me to make a prayer for rain, which I did, and by the time I got up to make my first speech, it was thundering so hard the building we were in shook from the power of it. There was a big storm that night, the biggest they’d had in many years.”

One morning, Sun Bear gives a lecture about hunting, then sends us outside to practice perforating a coffee can with a .22. It turns out that he has an important reason for teaching skills such as snagging game and road kills: He believes the world is beginning a drastic planetary cleansing. “We’re in a time of very major earth changes, and each one of you is going to need all the skills you can learn, to survive and get through it. The earth is rearranging the real estate, doing what’s necessary for the survival of the planet.

“Up until the year 2000, there are going to be continuing major changes. The earth will start to withhold her increase. One place will be too wet and another place too dry. We’ll have earthquakes measuring 10 and 12 on the Richter scale instead of 7 or 8. Great tidal waves will hit parts of Australia. The East Coast may be moved farther west, and Spokane, Washington, 190 miles inland now, may end up on the West Coast.

“Before any changes happen upon the earth, the Spirit gives warnings. My good sister Wabun and I were in a town in Illinois one time, when we both suddenly felt that something bad was coming. I said, `Let’s get out of here quick.’ We did, and 10 minutes later a tornado smashed the town. Those of you who learn to work with the earth will feel and understand such warnings. This is one reason I’m trying to teach you to feel from the earth.”

Sun Bear: “Most people have the ladder approach to life: First there’s God, then man, then woman, then the children, then the cat and the dog and then the rest of creation according to how useful it is for mankind. The native philosophy is altogether different, because to us the earth is the mother of all living creation. All creation is part of a circle, so everything has the same right to be here as we do. The plants, the animals, the crawlers, the creatures that swim in the water and that fly in the air are all our relations.

“When I get up in the morning, the first thing I say is, `Thank you, Great Spirit, I’m alive.’ After that, I thank the Creator for all the creation around me.”

IN A TONE OF DISGUST, RAVEN TELLS about a vegetarian visitor to the tribe who absolutely refused to help butcher an animal but then yanked cabbages from the garden without once apologizing to the plants. After making sure we well understand the importance of harvesting animals and plants with respect, Raven leads us out for what, to some trainees, turns out to be the most traumatic event of the program: chicken killing. Each person has to hold a chicken, make prayers to it and use an ax to chop of its head. Then we have to pluck and clean the birds for the day’s stew.

Everyone is solemn during the multiple butchering, and many are tearful, but none are excused from the activity. Afterward, a few clearly shaken people complain that their necks feel sore.

The sweat lodge is an even more intense and prayerful ceremony than smoking the pipe. Even building the lodge, a small dome of saplings covered with blankets and tarps, is done with solemn reverence. We fast before each sweat and do a preparatory pipe. Then we build a large fire to heat the rocks that will go in the dome’s central pit to get doused with water to make steam.

Before entering this “womb of the Earth Mother,” we circle it, making prayers to the four directions and leaving an offering of tobacco near the entrance. Then we each offer an acknowledgment to “all our relations” in the rest of creation, enter the dark dome and sit cross-legged on the ground.

The ceremony goes on for several rounds. At the start of each one, red-hot rocks are added to the pit, a different spirit is invited in, the door flap is closed, and water is splashed on the stones. As the moist heat spreads through the blackness, we sing Indian chants (in English translation) and offer prayers for the earth, for other creatures, for loved ones, for ourselves. At times, the 16 or more people crammed in the lodge all pray out loud at once. The heat, the prayers, the noise, the energy are all very intense.

At the end, we emerge, thanking all our relations. Most of us then go over to the nearby river and plunge in.

The sweat ceremonies are deeply moving. I never notice any “supernatural” happenings during the ceremonies (though others assure me that they do), but I often feel differently afterward.

Indeed, lying face down in the river after the second sweat, I begin to feel expanded with energy, like a balloon with its skin stretched to its tightest with air. I stand up and look around. Everything seems somehow sharper, as if my eyes are out there with what they are seeing.

I can’t really describe the sensation. There isn’t any verbal or mental content to it, just this whole-body overcharge of energy. And it doesn’t go away. For hours afterward, I can’t eat or settle down. I can hardly talk. I cry. That evening, during a guided group meditation that I can barely follow, I end up with knees, hands and head on the ground, trying to cycle some of this still-powerful energy back into the earth.

I’m ready to swear that something has happened to me.

The days rush together. One moment, instructor Wabun is holding a pendulum over some bottles, letting its motion choose the right homeopathic Bach flower remedies to treat my emotional imbalances. The next, I’m tangling up my fingers doing tiny Indian beadwork. Here, we’re getting a lecture on prehistoric matriarchal society; there, we’re learning the basics of food drying. One time, we’re getting a demonstration of crystal energy (one trainee is so physically upset by being near these shards of quartz that he runs outside and vomits repeatedly); another time, Raven entertains everyone with a humorous–and earthy–native legend. We continue to do various ceremonies and more and more advanced earth awareness exercises.

Looking back, two experiences stand out. I’m out at my power spot, and I’m supposed to be concentrating on seeing with my eyes, without letting my brain predetermine what and how I see. Instead, I find my sense of hearing heightened. It has finally rained, and the gully next to me is swollen with water. For the first time in my life, I hear the sound of the splashing water as literal song. The old poetic metaphor is no longer a means of description; it’s real. As I listen, another song, complete with words and music, comes to me–a song I subsequently take home and sing with others. I’ve never had anything quite like this happen before.

The other experience is the pipe consecration ceremony on the last day. Several trainees have asked and received permission to keep their own pipes. In a large group ceremony, Wabun consecrates these pipes, marrying them to their keepers. One by one, each pipe is handed down the circle to her. She calls the owner before her, joins the pieces, prays silently, then, with her hands, binds the person’s hands to the pipe and gives words of specific, distinctly appropriate, personal advice. When all have been so bound, we pass the pipes around the circle, and as each one comes to us, we give silent prayers for its owner. I’ll never be able to describe the power of this solemn ceremony. But the same sort of feelings that make people nervous and weepy at weddings certainly swell up in me here.

At the program’s end, Wabun gives us a summatory word: “This program is all about reconnecting to the earth. The rest is just tools.” And although I feel that, compared to the more dedicated trainees here, I’d rate a C in spiritual aptitude, I believe that I have, indeed, felt some energies beyond my normal existence.

A fellow attendee and I then drive down to Washington and step into a Mexican restaurant. I immediately feel weird, giddy, light. I stumble twice. I have trouble tuning out all the urban stimuli of people, music, air conditioning and noise. I hadn’t realized before just how different from normal I’ve been feeling.

Something has happened to me.

A FEW OVERALL IMPRESSIONS: I’M leery of New Age trends, so I was a bit put off by how many of the Bear Tribe’s activities fit that category. That’s a personal preference–I’m simply more comfortable butchering a chicken than attempting to feel energy from crystals. Some other attendees clearly felt just the opposite.

I was completely impressed with the skill, commitment and compassion of the main instructors. And their program makes fine sense in environmental terms. If you can learn to really feel connected to the earth, you certainly will do a lot less to harm it.

What about Sun Bear himself? I was initially somewhat skeptical about him. After all, he could be just another spiritual huckster-a sort of Native American Elmer Gantry. I soon realized, though, that Sun Bear doesn’t fit that mold. He rides around in a beat-up Volkswagen van, lives on practically nothing (a $100 a month stipend from the tribe and half of his book royalties) and has done a great deal of simple, quiet work from organizing community house paintings to national arts and crafts shows-to help native people. He quite eagerly takes his apprentices to learn from other medicine men and women and declares that all people should go on a vision quest and find their own path, not blindly follow his.

But is he really a medicine man, a man of power-an earth prophet, as Michelle once called him? I can’t prove that one way or the other. But let me describe one last event from the screening. On three occasions during the days Sun Bear was at the program, I privately asked him to make it rain. I told him a real storm that he brought in would add more credibility to my article than if I just reprinted a few of his rainmaking stories. Besides, I argued, the land in the region was clearly in the midst of a serious, summer-long drought. Sun Bear always replied that using power just for show is wrong, and a good way to lose it. Finally, though, on his last evening, he told me he might think about praying for rain in his room that night.

The next morning, a half hour after Sun Bear left, it started raining. It kept raining, at times very hard, for the next two days. The owner of the retreat, a retired fellow named George Sekel (who has no personal connection with the Bear Tribe), dropped by to thank the group for bringing rain: “Three times you’ve come here, and each time you’ve broken a drought.” Impressed, I ran out as soon as the program was over and bought the local newspaper, Northern Virginia Daily, for the past day, September 9, 1987. I gazed at a photo of a washed-out highway bridge, saw that school openings in several counties had been delayed by heavy rains, and read that, in some areas, “More rain fell over the Labor Day weekend than in May through August combined.” Then just to be sure, I checked the official weather reports of Sunday through Tuesday at the National Weather Station in nearby Woodstock: a total of 2.46 inches in just over two days.

No wonder the creek was singing.

For information about Sun Bear’s programs and activities, write The Bear Tribe, Spokane, WA. Sun Bear’s autobiography, The Path of Power, is available from the Tribe for $11.45 postpaid.

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