By conservative estimates, there are currently enough wrongfully convicted people in prison in the United States to fill a football stadium.
Subscribe and Save up to 55%
Meeting a Chippewa Indian medicine man on a speaking tour in 1982, what do I expect? The images get confused. Three-year-old Lucas comes shyly into the room asking, “Where’s his bow and arrows?” I’m aware of my own prejudices against celebrity medicine men, with easy answers and exorbitant fees. Sun Bear fit neither mold.
His medicine includes everything from traditional sweat-lodges and medicine wheels to electronic colonic cleansing machines, and he readily admits that his answers may not be for everyone. Open-minded and modest, he shares his visions and gets out of the way so others can find theirs. He seemed shy, nervous even, when I switched on the tape-recorder and asked him about the visions that have been the heart of his work for more than 20 years.
“I saw major changes coming in the Earth Mother,” he said, “and I saw people that were surviving, seeking the same path of love and harmony with the Earth.” He’s written: “I saw a hilltop bare of trees, and there was a soft breeze blowing. The prairie grass was moving gently. Then I saw a circle of rocks that came out like the spokes of a wheel. Inside was another circle of rocks, nearer to the center of the wheel. I knew that here was the sacred circle, the sacred hoop of my people. Inside the center circle was the buffalo skull, and coming up through ravines, from the four directions, were what looked like animals. As they came closer, I saw that they were people wearing head dresses and animal costumes. They moved to the circle and each group entered it sunwise, making a complete circle before they settled on their place in the wheel. . . .
“All the people were singing the song of their season, of their minerals, of their plants, of their totem animals. And they were singing songs for the healing of the Earth Mother. A leader among them was saying, ‘Let the medicine of the sacred circle prevail. Let many people across the land come to the circle and make prayers for the healing of the Earth Mother. Let the circles of the Medicine Wheel come back.’ In this vision were gathered people of all the clans, of all the directions, of all the totems, and in their hearts they carried peace.”
Sun Bear felt his task was to help “create a network of people working and sharing together . . . an economy based on harmony.” He sums up his message simply: “Walk in balance on the Earth Mother.”
Well, saying it is simple. But how can we live our visions day by day? For Sun Bear the bottom line is self-reliance. “If it doesn’t grow corn,” he says, “I don’t want to hear about it.” It’s a philosophy he tries to live by.
For 22 years he has edited Many Smokes magazine, a journal of Native American thought and practice. In 1970, he founded the Bear Tribe Medicine Society and established a community in the forest north of Spokane, Washington. There they grow most of their own food, hold workshops on the Native American ways, and support themselves with a mail-order book business — distributing, among other titles, Sun Bear’s books, Buffalo Hearts, The Medicine Wheel: Earth Astrology, and The Bear Tribe’s Self-Reliance Book. They also sponsor Medicine Wheel Gatherings across the country. (For information, send a stamped, self-addressed envelope to The Bear Tribe, Box 9167, Spokane, Washington 99209.)
Sun Bear was raised on a reservation in northern Minnesota. He spent seven and a half months in prison for refusing to serve in the Korean War. In 1973, he helped with the occupation of Wounded Knee, but soon after grew disenchanted with political activism. “You can’t carry the tomahawk and the pipe at the same time,” he says, “and if you really believe in your medicine . . . you don’t need the tomahawk.”
— Howard Jay Rubin
SUN: Were you raised in the traditional ways?
SUN BEAR: I grew up on a reservation in northern Minnesota, the White Earth Indian reservation, and a lot of my knowledge comes from my uncles and older brothers. But a lot of my knowledge has come from traveling and studying with other people as well. My primary teachers, however, are the Great Spirit and the Earth Mother. A lot of my things come to me through visions and dreams. There are major changes coming in the Earth Mother. If we’re tuned in with the natural forces and powers then we become aware of these things before they happen. Many times I’ve had dreams which came to fulfillment almost immediately, and the same way with my visions. I’m doing this work because of a vision of major changes coming in the Earth Mother, earthquakes and great droughts, and I saw people that were surviving these, Indian and non-Indian people that were seeking the same path of love and harmony with the Earth. I was told by my teachers and by the Spirit that I should follow the vision of reaching out to these people. In 1970 I founded the Bear Tribe Medicine Society. We have a community of native and non-native people near Spokane, Washington where we are totally self-sufficient. For the last twelve years we have raised 80 to 90% of our own food. Our fuel is wood from the surrounding areas that would otherwise be causing fire hazards, tops of trees that are left by loggers. We are a medicine in that knowledge is healing, and so we try to teach people how to find a better balance in their lives. This is the beginning of healing to me. I think that the bottom line in spirituality is self-reliance. We try to deliver to people a concrete philosophy that will work for them on an everyday basis. People ask me about my philosophy, or they might ask me about what some other teacher is teaching, and I tell them, “If it don’t grow corn I don’t want to hear about it.” Any philosophy or teaching should help you on an everyday basis. You shouldn’t have to wait until you get to heaven for it to benefit you.
SUN: How does the Indian philosophy adapt to life in modern society?
SUN BEAR: The native philosophy is very much in tune with the needs of modern society. It was one of a total love and respect for the Earth Mother. This is in every one of the native cultures that I know of, on this continent and elsewhere. And it’s one that shows a total respect for the Earth, something missing greatly now. A great deal of the causes of destruction both of the planet and of human beings today is their lack of balance, their alienation from the Earth. We’ve become an unnatural people. In our true state we were a natural people living in harmony with the Earth, respecting the seasons, doing ceremonies for our crops, and acknowledging the spirit forces that were placed here by the creator to help us.
SUN: In the lifestyle of a city like Chapel Hill is it still possible to walk in that kind of balance?
SUN BEAR: Yes. I’ve done a lot of work in the cities, helping people to get gardens in, forming self-sufficient communities. We are doing this successfully in the city of Spokane, which is probably larger than Chapel Hill. We have one part of our community outside the city and the other is in the city. By working and sharing together, the people in the city get good food from the farm and yet we have the resources of the city.
SUN: How in balance do you feel from day to day?
SUN BEAR: Wherever I’m at, I’m at home on the Earth Mother. The philosophy that I’ve lived with all my life is accepting that wherever I’m at, that’s still the Earth Mother. If I’m in the city for periods of time, I need to go out on to the land and readjust. I have certain things I do to bring about the balance.
SUN: What kinds of things?
SUN BEAR: I was in Germany, in one city after another. I was completely wiped out from the energy of the city, so I asked them to take me out to the Black Forest. I found a great big fir tree and I embraced it and held it for about a half hour. It was like a blood transfusion.
SUN: Let’s talk about the concept of healing in Indian society.
SUN BEAR: The native philosophy of healing was probably the truest form of holistic health because they dealt with the whole human being. They were concerned not about the temporary sickness or symptom, but about the life of that person and why they were getting it in the first place.
SUN: Who did they feel was doing the healing — the medicine man or the Great Spirit?
SUN BEAR: Well, true medicine people will acknowledge that they have power coming through them from the spirit forces. And they also acknowledge the power that the creator has put in the various herbs and things that we use for healing.
SUN: So there are special ways of attunement to allow the Spirit to work through you?
SUN BEAR: Yes, part of it is ceremony. You use the ceremony to build energy and create an energy field, and through that energy field you can work toward healing.
SUN: Is the medicine man now mostly a ceremonial function or is there still healing involved in it?
SUN BEAR: No. Many medicine people work as healers. And I say medicine people because there are medicine women as well as medicine men. This is not true in all tribes, but there are several tribes which have very much respected women healers and teachers.
SUN: What kind of training is involved in becoming a medicine person?
SUN BEAR: It varies from tribe to tribe.
SUN: How about the Chippewa?
SUN BEAR: You train and study with other medicine people. You can study herbs, or the sweat-lodge, or the pipe, or you can take on other spiritual practices.
SUN: A lot of Indian tradition in medicine is symbolized in the medicine wheel. What is the medicine wheel?
SUN BEAR: The medicine wheel is very ancient. There were some 20,000 medicine wheels on this continent at one time. They were circles of rocks placed on different hilltops and other areas, where the tribe would gather for ceremonies, for healing and for teaching purposes, for marriages perhaps, birth of a child. All of these were honored there. But the medicine wheel as we are offering it now is based on my vision of a circle of rocks on the top of a hill, and I saw at first what I thought were animals coming to it, but as I looked closer I saw they were human beings. And each one of them was wearing feathers or horns, and as they came to the circle each one was singing a song of their power and their medicine. I heard a voice that said, “Now has come the time for the return of the medicine wheels. Now has come the time for the healing of the Earth Mother.” I shared this knowledge with my people and from it has come the medicine wheel that we have today.
SUN: Was this a waking vision?
SUN BEAR: Yes. I had woken up, the energy had awakened me and then I saw this happening.
SUN: Can you speak about the medicine wheel gatherings?
SUN BEAR: We now have what we call medicine wheel gatherings, where up to a thousand people gather in various areas. We bring in many teachers to share visions and knowledge — whether it’s how to heal an illness like cancer or how to create an alternative energy. We are open to communication with any of your readers that are interested in working with us on this or in any other way. Many Smokes is a dollar an issue if anyone wants to write for it. We also have a catalog, for which you can send a dollar to cover postage and shipping, and it gets you on to our mailing list.
We are also creating base camps in many places, where we teach very basic survival, and we’re building permanent camps in different areas where people will be living and teaching. We have land in some areas and we’re looking for more land, and we’re open to people donating land. We’re trying to put our philosophy on a working level. This is important. People espouse different philosophies, but if it doesn’t work with flesh and blood on an everyday basis then it’s not real. You don’t have sovereignty until you control your own livelihood.
SUN: Let’s talk about the process of seeking a vision, the vision quest.
SUN BEAR: In the traditional way we go out and fast up to four days and nights and ask that the Spirit come and give us a vision so that we will understand what our path is in life. It’s during this time that we feel closest to the spirit realm, which has neither food nor water.
SUN: And then the vision comes?
SUN BEAR: Sometimes it may not. You may just experience the time of being out there by yourself and fasting and seeking. If it’s supposed to come it will happen then.
SUN: What part do dreams play?
SUN BEAR: Dreams are very important. When your’re asleep the Spirit can reach you more readily. You’re not blocking yourself with daily thoughts — your mind is opened up. I’ve had many very powerful dreams that have come to fulfillment, so I respect them very much. In the native people there were dreamer societies. Chief Joseph, a very prominent Nez-Perce man, was of the dreamer society.
SUN: Are there any of these dreams that have come to fulfillment that you’d like to speak of?
SUN BEAR: Well, I’ve had dreams that would be recurring dreams and then would come to fulfillment. When I lived near Reno, Nevada, I’d have dreams that I’d won money on the keno game down there. They would tell me what casino to go to and what numbers. Four times I won $1,100, which I was told in the dream, one time I won $535, and another $112. So I figured when you can bank on your dreams, you’ve got to believe they are real.
SUN: Are there any forms of meditation or quieting the mind in your tradition?
SUN BEAR: The way that I work with it is I send people out to find their power spot on the land up where we live. We all have our place where we go and we sit and make our prayers and center in our energy. Then, if we are ready to receive it, the spirit force will come in and help us.
SUN: So it’s not a particular discipline?
SUN BEAR: No. The native traditional way, as I have worked with it and as I understand it from my people, is one of individual vision and of seeking your own power, and the true traditional Indian people respect each other’s visions. There is a philosophy among us that we never judge another person unless we’ve walked in their moccasins. Of course, among our people some are not holding true to this. They say unkind words against each other. But this isn’t the traditional way, the old way.
SUN: So, what is the way of tapping into one’s power? There is going to the power place . . .
SUN BEAR: When you have worked with the natural forces and powers to where you feel a sense of complete harmony with them, then you can sit down in the middle of a street and make a prayer and it will happen. I work with thunder beings who are forces that bring storms, rainstorms, and if I have a need of their help I make a prayer and offer my pipe, and that’s the way of tuning in and communicating with them. In order to communicate with the forces you have to have cleared out all negativity, all anger, to where you can go out with a clear mind and not have anything else there between you and the forces. It’s important to be at harmony with the earth by knowing in your own life that you’re doing the best you can to maintain a balance with the earth and the forces around you.
SUN: If you find, while you’re trying to clear yourself out, some negativity or anger, how do you deal with it?
SUN BEAR: I have a very effective way of dealing with it. It’s something that comes from my tribe. Other tribal people use it to some degree. I tell people to dig a hole in the ground, lay down on their stomach, and speak out all of their anger, all of their pain, all of their jealousy, all of their frustration into that hole, and then cover it and leave it there. That is the way many of my people do it.
SUN: Let’s speak about how your larger visions have translated into action in your life.
SUN BEAR: We have a national publication, Many Smokes, that has been going on for 22 years now. I had a vision to put this out for people. We also have a large mail-order book business, and this is how we support the tribe. We have 25 people living there. We are trying to encourage people to create communities all across the country, a network of people working and sharing together. These communities will all have their own sovereignty. The tribe will work with them in alliances. We have several communities that we’re working satisfactorily with now, Sufi groups and others. We feel very much harmony with these people. What we’re interested in eventually is creating an economy based on harmony with the earth and with each other as human beings. I have now a program in which people come and study with me as apprentices, and they are not learning just healing but they are learning a whole way of life.
SUN: From your catalog I see that includes vision quest preparation, living in harmony with nature.
SUN BEAR: Yes, and learning how to work with what we call the path of power, which to me is very important. It’s teaching people how to bring their life into balance and centering, so that they can make things happen, literally, on an everyday basis. They are no longer dependent upon the whims of the society for their livelihood or for their life path. And this is very important because I see so many people who have given away their power.
SUN: So it’s a question of empowering ourselves as individuals.
SUN BEAR: Yes. This is the difference between the philosophy I work with and some teachers who want people to become followers and do things according to their particular dogma. I try to teach people to find what is right for them and to carry their power within themselves as whole human beings.
SUN: How can you charge for something like preparation for a vision quest? Aren’t those things that are just passed on?
SUN BEAR: We don’t charge for the vision quest, in the same way I don’t charge for healings or accept money for healings. We charge for teaching. If you go to college you pay for teaching, and the same was true among my people. In the old way, when people would come to study with a medicine man, they would bring him a horse and whatever as a gift and they would work for him for a period of time while they were studying for him. This was acceptable.
SUN: Let’s backtrack a little. Who were your teachers in the medicine way?
SUN BEAR: Odage was an uncle of mine who was one of my primary teachers. His name means “like the wind.” Along the line I’ve learned from many others and I respect their teachings as well. I’ve learned from Paiute medicine men, from an Omaha medicine man, and I’m now in the process of apprenticing with another medicine man. So I don’t feel that I’m all done or that I have all the answers myself. As I said before, I feel that my primary teachers are the Great Spirit and the Earth Mother. That’s very important to remember, because sometimes we get locked into one person and we say, well this is the great teacher, and he has all the answers. And then we get locked into their dogmatic viewpoint and we get locked into their prejudices as well. I’ve seen this happen many times, so I’ve tried to remain open to accepting things from other people.
SUN: What is life like for the Chippewa today? Is there still a tribe?
SUN BEAR: There are several bands of Chippewa in northern Minnesota. Some live very self-sufficient, and some are having major problems. There’s 95 percent unemployment on my home reservation. But some people are seeking the spiritual path again, and in doing that they are also going back to the land. In some areas they are setting up camps that are self-sufficient, where they are on reservations but are living as a group. The unfortunate thing is that among native people, as among others, there is a great amount of division.
SUN: Are there many young Indian people who are following traditional ways?
SUN BEAR: There is more of it. There are some of our native people, however, that are trying to follow the traditional way on one level, and yet they are very political still, and they have a lot of the violence they have carried over from the political movements. But you can’t carry the tomahawk and the pipe at the same time. And if you really believe in your medicine and in the power of the medicine pipe then you don’t need the tomahawk. I’ve watched political things come and go, and I’ve seen the aftermath of it. If you don’t have a spiritual center it’s not a lasting thing. I’ve watched many of the people in the political take up the spiritual path, and take it up completely, while some are sort of skipping with one foot on each path, and as a result of it they aren’t able to center their energy.
SUN: Do you think one can act politically from a spiritual base?
SUN BEAR: I think one can act consciously from a spiritual base. With the pipe and with your teachings you can teach people to find a balance, to create a way of life that is harmonious with the Earth and yet is beneficial to their fellow human beings. I’ve been doing this for many years and a lot of people have gotten uptight because I don’t want to go off and have a political thing anymore. I went to prison for seven and a half-months because I refused to go to Korea. This was an unpopular stand. So I feel very strongly that what we have to do is create a total lifestyle. People can be active in terms of contemporary issues — my daughter is very active in the anti-nuclear movement — but at the same time you have to be grounded enough that you’re producing your own food and working toward self-sufficiency. Otherwise it’s hard to tell somebody that they should stop building a nuclear plant if you are turning on all the electric lights in your house at the same time. That’s what I mean by being totally conscious. I don’t flush the toilet every time I go to wee-wee, because I know that’s water and it might have some other value. It has to be a commitment to a conscious path of wanting to create a different way of living, so you can reach out and touch the man who’s carrying his lunch-bucket to the nuclear plant and show him that he doesn’t have to carry it there anymore to feed his family. That he can become self-sufficient and he doesn’t need to work twelve months out of the year to pay the bills if he can learn how to live together with his fellow human beings. I think that’s where it has to happen. You can create a better world by doing it on an individual basis, each individual moving in a strong positive direction and sharing that energy together.
SUN: Can you speak about what your prison experience was like?
SUN BEAR: I didn’t really feel that negative about it because I was doing what I believed in. When the key turned in the lock I knew I had won, because I wasn’t in Korea. That to me was the reality of it. I may have felt frustration at some of the guards, but for the most part I accepted everyone there as human beings, and I was able to go through it as a learning experience.
SUN: Did you find any special challenges to your normal ways?
SUN BEAR: No. I got more reading in, and after I’d been there a while I started working outside the walls as a landscaper, so I survived it all right.
SUN: If somebody is dealing with you as if you had all of the answers, how would you respond to them?
SUN BEAR: That would depend on the person. I’ve had people come to me who want me to fix their life for them. And I say, “No, I’ll share some knowledge with you and then you go up on top of the mountain and find the answer up there, because you might have something different to do than what I have to do, so my answer might not be for you.”
SUN: Do you find that people confuse you with an image of what they think a medicine man is?
SUN BEAR: Oh, sometimes. Particularly when they first come to me. They may think a teacher has to be a holier-than-thou sort of person. They might evaluate me if they were to see me with a cup of coffee or a Coca-Cola or something like that. I say, “Well, this is what I want right now, and that’s fine.” I’m a human being and I want to enjoy my path on the Earth. What I have to share with people is to teach them that, to learn to experience life and to accept it. A lot of people go through life like it’s a big suffering. I stay happy at least 97% of the time, and I believe that happiness is the greatest medicine there is.
SUN: How have Indians traditionally related to drugs like peyote at the ceremonies?
SUN BEAR: I respect peyote very much, but in the ceremony it’s not just the peyote that has the power but the whole ceremony. When the drum starts beating it’s very powerful. You’ll hear that water drum for the next three weeks at least. I’ve been to two different peyote meetings and right now I’m apprenticing with a man that’s a peyote teacher and I respect their teachings and their path, but I don’t feel that that’s the total thing. That’s just one form of Indian medicine.
SUN: What’s the most important thing you’re trying to express?
SUN BEAR: I see a lot of people that are still beating the wind, literally. They are expending their energy on a variety of things, and they are paying exorbitant rent for something that they will never be able to own, when if they could come together and share they could create something self-sufficient. People give away their power to such a degree that they’re totally at the mercy of the system. We have successfully created an economy, a way of life, that works for ourselves, and this is what we’re trying to share with other people. Because as long as people are continuing to support the system that continues to pollute the earth, they are going against the path.
SUN: Isn’t everyone living within the borders of the system in some way supporting it? Is there a way to step totally outside the system?
SUN BEAR: There is a way of creating a way of life by interrelating and working and sharing our resources, so we take very little from the system. We have been doing this for a period of time. We have 100% employment now, while the system has 10½% unemployment, and the reservations where they are wobbling along in various political ideologies and following the Bureau of Indian Affairs are up to 95% unemployment. Trying to get the U.S. government to do something is like kicking a dead horse and asking it to get up and wiggle a little bit more. If I’m needing help I’ll make a pipe and make a prayer, and I don’t point it to Washington, D.C. I offer it to the Great Spirit and I ask for that to happen and it comes about very rapidly. The people that have been asking the U.S. government haven’t gotten it done, whether they are Indian or non-Indian. You’re living right now in the time which I call the death of the dinosaurs. And the dinosaurs are U.S. Steel and General Motors, the U.S. government, and many other governments that are no longer capable of sustaining their way of operation. But yet the Earth Mother is still there. The price of acorns is the same this year as it was a hundred years ago. And what we have to do is begin to shift our dependencies and join ourselves together on a local basis, a regional basis, a national basis, working and sharing together and exchanging products that we produce ourselves so we’re no longer linked into a system that is destroying us.
SUN: What do the Indian prophecies and you yourself say about the future?
SUN BEAR: We see major changes, what is called earth cleansing. This is in many prophecies. We were told that the Earth would take back the power to make the changes, and we see this happening in the form of earthquakes. What happened up in our country in the Northwest was according to an Indian prophecy — we were told the little sister would speak, and the little sister was Mount St. Helens, and the little sister spoke on May 1, 1980. And they say after the little sister speaks the grandfather will answer, and the land will be swept clean to the ocean. And this grandfather is Mt. Rainier, and this is the beginning of the cleansing in the area that we live in. We see this as part of the major changes that are coming. If mankind doesn’t make the changes then the Earth will make the changes to protect itself. The Earth to me is a living entity, an intelligent being, and we live on it, we’re just like fleas in the hair of a great shaggy dog. And once in a while it starts shaking and we get all freaked out because we realize we haven’t been treating the Earth right. But overall I see major changes coming. Some of them could be man-caused. You could have nuclear disasters. In my own visions I’ve seen areas that had big signs that said, “This area contaminated. Stay out.” So I feel this is going to happen, whether it’s from pollution or nuclear reactors or war. But human beings are going to survive, and the Earth is going to survive. And after it we’re going to see people walking in balance on the Earth in love and harmony again.
Howard Jay Rubin