White Eagle Woman
It was during a gathering of elders in 1978 that I first met White Eagle Woman where she announced that she did not like me at all! Her rebuke was perhaps well deserved, given how dense and unaware I must have seemed. My disjointed education and experience with the Native American domain of mysticism did, however, slowly evolve into a seamless pattern rather than remain as random knots stretching across an abyss.
The blunt introduction to White Eagle Woman was a prelude to a thirty year period of training and healing under her guidance. She was a heavy set woman with a round face and long black hair, but it was the air of quiet authority that pervaded her presence that immediately struck me. She rarely smiled, but when she did it illuminated the entire room when her dark eyes lit up with mirth. I was very fortunate to be in her hands. She was the first of three incredible medicine people in Canada who provided me with shamanic training and teachings over the next three decades. White Eagle Woman directed the shamanic process of my healing from childhood sexual abuse, and this allowed the mosaic of the past to start revealing itself.
Shamans and medicine people from far and wide came to consult with White Eagle Woman. Elders from the Amazon would come to see her. She was a holder of the Midewiwin lineage, a secret tradition of medicine people which stretched far and wide across the Americas. At that first encounter at the elder’s gathering she told me about a Vision Quest on her reserve in Sault Ste. Marie in south western Ontario. I was to be there, as she had received instructions from her ancestors to train me. That humbled me and was enough for my attendance.
The eight day Vision Quest began and finished with a sweat lodge. In between were six days of fasting, prayer and ceremony in the wilderness. White Eagle Woman located me in a small grove of birch and oak trees and I had to stay within a strictly designated area. The other seven participants in the Vision Quest were located in a different part of the forest, distant and unseen. I found some level ground for my tarp and strung it over a frame built from what I could find within the grove. I placed my coloured ribbons at each of the four directions, also for the realms of above and below. One of the oak trees became the symbolic stem of my pipe. The bowl of the pipe was a clamshell with tobacco in it. As the sun moved the tree’s shadow, I had to be alert and move the clamshell in the same direction around the base of the tree.
I was very still and silent, observing my territory’s nuances, the leaves, smells, insects and the rain, all while in a constant state of prayer and thanksgiving. White Eagle Woman located herself in a trailer close by for anyone who needed guidance. She indicated that a medicine bear would visit one of us and to report that to her. Time passed in a seamless flow, scarcely existing before we gathered for the final sweat lodge once the Vision Quest was over. On coming off the land, a surprise awaited. I had to consume a half cup of blueberries and then drink vast quantities of a foul tasting concoction created by White Eagle Woman. This was a cleansing medicine to make me throw up the blueberries. It was quite disgusting. Especially for me, as it took a long time before I vomited up the blueberries. White Eagle Woman’s comment to me was terse. She pursed her lips and looked at me quizzically:
“Hmmm – you’re holding on tight to resist the truth you need to know!”
I had no idea what she was referring to. White Eagle Woman asked about the medicine bear. Nobody reported experiencing it. In exasperation she turned to me and announced that she had seen the medicine bear visit me twice. What did I remember? I recalled dreaming about a tall, gangly and somewhat goofy creature that was not a bear to my mind. I had also noticed the creature on another day, out of the corner of my eye, sitting next to the sacred oak tree. White Eagle Woman immediately threw tobacco on the fire to absolve my ignorant gaffe and instructed me that a medicine bear can take on many forms. The goofy creature was the most receptive one for an idiot like me.
Though the medicine bear had been easy on me, White Eagle Woman was certainly not. She chastised my lack of insight while we were all in the sweat lodge. Later on, in private, she quietly revealed the door that had been opened wide due to the medicine bear experience. The visit was to assess whether I was capable of receiving medicine gifts from the past. White Eagle Woman identified the female entity that was trying to come through, as a medicine woman from the American southwest, before white settlement. She even named her, Trailing Sky, and indicated that this entity was trying to come through to me in this 21st century. Further, that she would bring powerful medicine gifts and I had to find the wisdom to receive them.
The significance of what my mentor was saying did not penetrate very deeply, as I still placed intimations about the feminine in an intellectual, scholarly frame. The only insight I had was a scholarly one that I was somehow engaging with the anima, a vital reflection of Jungian psychology. The real significance of the anima experience remained buried. White Eagle Woman sensed correctly that I was not open at this time to receive Trailing Sky’s presence, so she advised me to constantly dialogue with the internal feminine, directing me first of all to White Calf Buffalo Woman, a prominent source of Lakota Sioux spirituality. I could grasp that direction along with Carl Jung’s concept of anima, yet did not see that White Eagle Woman was carefully preparing me for a major leap in consciousness.
On a daily basis I followed White Eagle Woman’s instructions. I would come to a stop, look deeply and dialogue with the feminine seeds of knowledge in my consciousness. I listened deeply in the silence to the communications from feminine wisdom within me to address issues and questions. This became my fieldwork of life, observation and understanding the field of consciousness through the eyes of the internal feminine. Silence and skilful deep looking were certainly important, yet I knew that dialogue with the internal feminine was the key. I made diary entries with my questions and dilemmas, doubts and misgivings then waited quietly for a reply from within. I wrote with respect, love and gratitude and anticipated counsel to arise from inside. It was frequently not what I expected, hence my faith in its integrity.
White Eagle Woman also ensured that I trained with other shamans in journeying, so I could eventually create a form that would be acceptable for non-Natives. White Eagle Woman had taught me how to create a mental medicine wheel earlier. I was always to start by bringing into my mind the ancient shaman from the East, then the South, West and North in succession. Finally I was to bring in the ancient shaman from the Centre in. She instructed me to see this as a map in my mind, the foundation for a personal mandala. Next, I was instructed by White Eagle Woman to call forth the animal guides I had personally experienced, again starting from the East. I had experienced many animal guides and told her so. White Eagle Woman retorted with some exasperation:
“Choose the most powerful ones, dammit.”
With that cryptic encouragement, I chose mountain lion in the East, moose in the South, deer in the West and medicine bear in the North, with dolphin and whale below and the great eagles above. The space at the centre of the medicine wheel was a stillpoint, a safety zone and conduit for different time/space conjunctions and the meeting place for my later dialogues with Trailing Sky.
In 1990, I took a sabbatical leave from my job at Carleton University in Ottawa. In addition to teaching a course at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, I was conducting energy and healing workshops in the city. This led to my offering a retreat in the high plateau area of southern Colorado, near Crestone. Quite a few people had signed up for this but all fell away except one: Susan Tatoosh, elder of the Shuswap First Nation. She was very quiet spoken with a gentle smile that lit up her features. She carried her slim frame with great elegance. The power within her was largely concealed, as I later found out when I became the butt of her exasperation. She knew that her ancestors were instructing her to guide me to realizations I had long ago buried. The retreat turned into a major learning experience for me, as Susan led me to deeper revelations not the other way around as I had expected. We spent time in meditation and ceremony. The arid desert scrub of the high plateau, cut through by small streams, was our backyard. Wherever we walked there was always a gathering of eagles. I did not notice this until Susan pointed out our recurring company. One morning after breakfast she called to me
“Ian, there is someone here to speak with you.”
I went to the door. There was no-one there, or on the pathway.
“Who?” “Where?” She pointed to a large golden eagle on the scrubland close to the house.
“He is there waiting for you.”
I slowly walked over, approached the eagle and squatted down.
“Do you hear anything?” The elder was right behind me.
“Stop thinking. Empty your mind. Do you still not hear?”
“He called you by a name you should remember. Did you hear?
There was a long pause from the elder. She continued: “You’re so useless Ian. From the way you are squatting down your name should be Shits with Eagles.” In exasperation she slapped me on the back of the head and stormed back to the house and watched me from the doorway. I slowly rose to my feet and waited for the eagle to fly. He stayed there right in front of me. Then I felt, or heard him communicate, that I should go to the elder. I did. She was still steamed with me.
“Don’t you realize yet Ian? You were here before and could speak with eagles and other creatures? That’s what the eagle told me and you got nothing. I will name you rightly as Shits with Eagles. You are so stuck in your own shit in your mind”
I offered to Susan that I had heard the eagle speak as I stood up – to return to the elder. She put her hands on her hips, still fuming:
“Progress at last. Maybe he will come to you in dreamtime and you had better tell me. For now, get out there and listen without any thought in that shit laden mind of yours. Breathe slowly as I have taught you. Stand apart from all notions. Wait. Listen.”
Still I heard nothing, sensed nothing – I just looked at this magnificent creature.
“Speaks with Eagles, we have been waiting for you.”
Where did that voice come from? Was this some kind of trick? I turned round to see Susan smiling. Was she a ventriloquist playing with me? She gestured that I turn my gaze and attention to the eagle. He was preening his feathers, still there within ten feet of me. I took a small step forward and kneeled down so our eyes were on the same level. Not that eagles smile, but it felt as though this one was amused by my discomfort as I knelt on stones and a small cactus. I found it strange that I had sensed the name “Speaks with Eagles.” That was a name bestowed upon me by an Algonquin elder ten years ago in 1980 during a sweat lodge ceremony to reconnect humanity to the Earth Mother. Susan Tatoosh knew about this ceremony and the naming. It was the source of her scornful sarcasm.
The eagle and I stayed like that immobile for an endless moment.
“We protect and guide your direction.”
The voice in my head was deep and resonant. I felt myself going into a sort of trance and wondered if I was hallucinating. What had Susan put in my food at breakfast? Really stupid things I thought of. The great eagle was patient and waited for my thoughts to fade away.
“We will come to you in ways you cannot know. We are at the pinnacle of the medicine wheel that becomes sanctuary for you.”
What medicine wheel? Aaaaah, the one that White Eagle Woman instructed me to create in my mind of course, I get it. Then quickly I came back to stillness, ignoring the ache in my leg muscles and the cactus needle in my left knee. For long moments I gave myself up to this beautiful eagle, not understanding too much at all. Then he gathered himself and launched into flight. I watched him as he flew with huge wing beats over the scrubland towards the southern hills of the Rockies surrounding Crestone. Even when he was out of sight, I just stayed there. Then there were Susan’s hands gently on my shoulders.
“You can stand up now.”
My left knee was bleeding. She led me to the house and applied ice to the knee, which had become quite swollen. She had heard everything and knew I was now open to being tutored by her wisdom. Susan Tatoosh, elder of the Shuswap nation, educated me about Eagle Medicine, as her ancestors had instructed.
Grandfather William Commanda
Grandfather William Commanda, spiritual elder of the Algonquin nation, taught me about the legends of the Seven Fires Prophecy. He was revered throughout Quebec and Ontario, and created The Circle of All Nations organisation some forty years ago. It was inclusive, as the name implies, and a very unpopular step with many aboriginal groups who had suffered greatly from oppression by the wider society. His vision, however, was clear, to create a global centre for all peoples at the sacred Chaudiere Falls in the city of Ottawa, based on models of healing and reconciliation long established in aboriginal culture. The plans and architecture were carefully drawn together and simply await implementation.
Grandfather had a welcoming spirit and a twinkle of humour in his kind eyes. He was open to everyone who wished to spend time with him and share his wisdom. He taught me what he and other Native American spiritual leaders believe. That present day humanity has entered the Seventh Fire. A time for hard choices, to either remain on the same destructive course or incubate a major change in consciousness so the Eighth Fire can be ignited. This is an internal Fire for basic human goodness to prevail. The Seven Fires Prophecy is meant for all peoples, to encourage a new generation to fearlessly come together and create a society based on earth wisdom and harmony. I was told by Grandfather that it invokes an end to bloodshed and suffering, the beginning of forgiving and reconciliation. He was the holder of the Seven Fires Prophecy Wampum Belt until he died in 2011. The belt was created in 1400 CE and encodes the potential evolution from the Seventh Fire to the Eighth Fire. I discovered from him that the prophecy was both a warning and an opportunity for reconciliation and change.
Grandfather was a formidable figure and influenced me greatly in the writing of Failsafe: Saving The Earth From Ourselves. He provided a generous testimonial. I drew upon the wisdom of the elders to show that human beings are programmed literally with a Failsafe, which will ultimately kick in, unleashed by our very will to survive. The Failsafe I was describing referred to the necessary incorporation of the Eighth Fire into everyday life. He was also a trickster with a wicked sense of humour. Grandfather warned me, with a hint of mischief, that I would receive a visit from the Thunder Beings that would scare the hell out of me and totally confuse everyone else.
Pine Gate Mindfulness Community in Ottawa, where I am the resident Zen teacher, had for some years participated in an annual sweat lodge ceremony. Just before 2004’s winter set in, we entered into an extraordinary inipi experience. On a rain swept day, nine members of the Pine Gate community travelled to a remote location in the Gatineau Hills to meet the lodge keeper, Roy Barnes. Grandfather had first introduced me to him at the sweat lodge I was invited to participate in to reconnect humanity with the Earth Mother. Roy was the fire-keeper for that ceremony on Victoria Island next to the sacred Chaudiere Falls, the location for Grandfather’s vision to establish a centre for the Circle of All Nations.
Roy was trained in the Lakota Sioux tradition and was also a Sun Dance leader. We were joined by four Dene Chiefs from the Northwest Territories as well as by five members of Roy’s First Nations community. I felt these two sets of nine as one body of eighteen. Despite the relentless rain, the fire heated the grandfather rocks beautifully. The ceremony began with blessings and purification. In the first round I was asked to speak about my work for peace and reconciliation and to extend a welcome to the Dene chiefs from the far north of Canada. One of the chiefs replied and honoured me for setting in motion the reconciliation between traditions and cultures. There was an auspicious energy present from the get-go that soon turned into a startling reality. In the third round, as the men offered prayers for the Earth, thunderclaps exploded overhead and a lightning bolt struck the sweat lodge, travelling underground into the fire pit. No one was hurt or injured, but we all felt the ground shake underneath us, like a mini earthquake.
After the completion of the fourth round, we emerged from the sweat lodge quite shaken yet knew something awesome had taken place. The fire keeper tending to the rocks and wood for the fire recounted how the entire sky turned a bright yellow when the lightning bolt struck the sweat lodge. In the weeks and months that followed, Roy and the Dene chiefs consulted with elders and medicine people about the events of this inipi ceremony. They were told that this was a Thunder Beings lodge, a mark of respect for whoever had been honoured inside the inipi. Most elders had only heard of this in legend and offered honour to whoever received this blessing from the Thunder Beings. When this was told to me, I placed the honour on the Dene Chiefs and the lodge keeper. They stated firmly that this was for me also. We had all been marked by this auspicious visit from the Thunder Beings. Roy later related to me that the medicine people and Sun Dancers across the country honoured the work I do by keeping me in their prayers so that I would be protected. I was humbled by this unexpected source of support.