A ReVisioning Medicine Council

The first ReVisioning Medicine Council and a pilgrimage to Uranium

Sunday, April 13, 2008
By Deena Metzger

In late March and early April 2008, Mandlovu/Topanga Daré hosted a ReVisioning Medicine Council followed by a Pilgrimage to the Navajo Reservation on behalf of healing the land devastated by uranium mining.

In the old days, when a people were gravely threatened, the Chiefs, Medicine people, Shamans, and Elders called Councils.  They looked for solutions to their problems by aligning themselves with the ancestors, the natural world and their wisdom traditions. Recognizing that illness is often the consequence of violations of the earth, the community and the spirits, they searched for systemic responses to assure healing.

This was an invitation from Mandlovu for such a Council for the ReVisioning of Medicine. This is an invitation to take part in the activities and rituals of healing for human beings and the earth.

The small ReVisioning medicine council of physicians/health professionals/ healers was extraordinary.  We entered, more easily than any of us could have hoped, into work based on removing the barriers between the different ways of knowing and on working from the heart and wisdom that are the essence of indigenous mind.

Another medicine emerges from different assumptions.  Carol Sheppard, a song healer who lives on the land here, had a dream in which she saw three panels with three fields each comprised of different liver cells –healthy, cancerous, and in flux – but in which direction?  Toward pathology or toward healing?   Then a moon-faced man appeared on a curving path and pointed to the earth at his feet:  “This is where all our assumptions lie.  All our assumptions!”   We understand from this that our assumptions about what can be healed, what can regenerate, are limited and thereby limit possibility.

What occurred and what might be portended is contained, inevitably, in story.  The story of the 9 days of council and pilgrimage to the Four Corners area is long, complex and beautiful.  To tell the entire story will be to write a book.  So I will relate only a few moments here but those of you reading this will certainly understand their implications.

The question that was emerging among us is contained in the last lines of a poem I wrote a long time ago:  Can the world heal in this body?

Can the earth heal as we heal our bodies?  How?  In our times the human communities and the communities of the earth are equally ravaged. What are the gestures, activities and rituals that bring healing both to the human and to the earth and its other creatures? What medicine emerges when we recognize that our most common and most deadly afflictions, as well as the earth’s most common and deadly afflictions, are the consequence of a dangerous war oriented culture?  What medicines, rituals, responses heal the body, mind and soul while also healing the culture and the earth?  What can happen when we are committed to and look for the medicines that serve all? We have become aware that peace can’t exist unless the natural world is also at peace.  What medicines can we offer to invite peace and to invite peacefulness and restoration into the natural world?  How, rightly, can all medicines, including western medicine, respond to these concern?

One afternoon, we engaged in what we here at the Topanga Daré call Indigenous Grand Rounds.  It is our intent to discover the entire story and then to meet it in the way we have developed that can be described as an improvisational jazz Healing Way or Song Way ceremony: the community gathers, the story is told, prayer is central and the healing is concerned with reconciling the individual with the community, the earth and the spirits and ancestors.

The ‘patient’ was a 37-year-old Arikara woman – 1/16 Welsh.  She lived in the Tuba City area from infancy until she was 14.  She played in the area where the uranium tailings are now capped and fenced, as is the pool of water there.  She had childhood leukemia, a recurrence when she was a teenager and a flare-up four years ago.  Her suffering from chemo was so extreme that she stopped the treatments and ‘fired’ her oncologist.  Her kidneys and joints were devastated.  She was in constant pain.  We met last October at an everyday gandhis council that annually gathers Liberians, West Africans, Americans, peacebuilders, trauma experts, environmental advocates, and speakers for the animals, plants, stones and the natural world, medicine people and healers of many traditions, community builders, dreamers, writers and visionaries to weave through their stories and experiences, together and individually, a new culture that is a complex, active, hands on reflexive answers to the questions:  How can countries and people heal from war?  How can ex-combatants and war-traumatized people become guardians of the peace and the natural world?  How can the sacred world be restored?

Our correspondence began when R started dreaming in the old ways, learning healing and right living from the ancestors and spirits.  After that council and a surprise phone call from a brother on the Reservation she hadn’t heard from in years who offered to drum for her though he couldn’t have known she was ailing, she went into remission.  There it became clear that I was to bring her back to the Reservation for the healing of her body, her story and the land.  She had been exiled from the Reservation for twenty-two years.  When we began to imagine the ReVisioning Medicine Council, it was apparent that she was the one we needed to focus upon and then I invited anyone who wished to participate in this journey to join us on the Reservation.  A dream that came to me – as well as other connections gave us permission to do ritual on behalf of R., the water and the land.  R. came to the council with her husband and her three-year-old granddaughter, Nuehsa; she has just had to gain guardianship of the child.  Guardianship of the future is one of the subjects of her dreaming.

Since her return home, she is pain free after 4 years of agony, her kidneys are functioning better, and she believes in her future.  Now she believes that she will live.  Accordingly, we believe, though we do not understand the ways yet, that the earth will live.

Because of our experience and the presence of the spirits, those of us who went to the Reservation are entertaining the belief that it may also be possible to heal the land of radiation – or rather for the land to heal — if we live differently, if we ally with the ancestors and spirits, if the medicine we offer and the lives we live are in alignment, if, as you might say, we offer ourselves to the possibilities of miracles.

Tragedy exiled R. from the Reservation.  Tragedy that is rampant as it arises from the assault of western culture and governments against the lives and culture of the native people.  When she left, she had to take on a new identity though she was only 14.  When she first left the Reservation, she had to take on the name and identity R. but on the last day we spent together on the Reservation, she wrote her original Arikara name in a guest book as Ki’na Dark Cloud.

Dark cloud also figured in our pilgrimage.  At one moment when we were looking down on the uranium cap, a cloud covered that entire contaminated area of sand and water.  R. knew we were being given a sacred opportunity.  I heard the words, “The mined uranium are the bones of the mother.  They have been disinterred improperly.  This is as criminal an act as digging up the bones of the people and placing them in a museum.  The bones must be reburied in a sacred manner in the body of the mother.”

I broke a split rattle for the stones inside the way one might break the pottery bowls at someone’s death.  We buried the stones with three other stones brought to us in silent intuition by the geologist that was with us. [She had spent ten years at Los Alamos trying to protect the earth there.  The uranium mined at this Navajo site had gone to Los Alamos to build bombs and later to build nuclear power plants.] Then the clouds cleared entirely.

You see how the story deepens and expands.  But now we must return to the beginning.  Our Indigenous Grand Rounds inquiry lasted several hours.  We came to many deep understandings, but there was a final healing figure.  I asked for a medical definition of leukemia.  A doctor responded by saying leukemia implied a war between the red cells and the white cells with the white cells dominating.

This is the way R. spoke of it:

“During our talk, it had been asked what leukemia WAS.  With axes and knives the group hacked it down to its simplest, leukemia is the red and the white at war.  In Rhispeak this translates to a Holy Shit moment.  Years, YEARS, of fighting this cancer, and the effects of chemo, and it boils down to the red and white at war.  My my my.  These people are good.  No wonder they are healers, they understand the illness.”

The war between the red and the white configured many different stories that R. had suffered including uranium mining, poverty, alcoholism, abuse, family feuds, land feuds, activism, schooling, Christianity and native religion, as well as the struggle inside herself between her native background and the Welsh.  As it happens, R. looks like a white woman.   Healing leukemia implies bringing healing to all these other aspects.  After the Music Daré, R. marveled that this group had offered her what amounted to a Healing Way ceremony and that afterwards they brought her home.

During the Music Daré an Aleut woman and a Brazilian woman worked simultaneously, one with an eagle feather, the other with a condor feather. An ancient prophesy states: Peace will come when the Condor and Eagle fly together.   When the Brazilian psychiatrist asked for a healing for herself and received it through calling the spirits and elementals around a fire in her own [prohibited] way, a bald eagle circled overhead, entering from the south and leaving to the north.  In 27 years, I have never seen a bald eagle here.

The miracles on the Reservation were not unlike the awesome moments during the Council.  They do not consist of the events per se but in the undeniable awareness of being guided by spirit.  Events we could not have possibly designed or willed occurred one after another in a sacred pattern and led us.  We followed each other in two separate cars for over a thousand miles without losing sight of each other.  The same happened in regard to spirit.  We managed to follow spirit for days without losing sight of each other.  When we came to the Reservation we deliberately had no plans except to follow instructions that had come to me in a dream to offer corn meal to the four directions at the threshold.  The days unfolded, however, precisely.  Before breakfast the first morning, we met hydro-geologists from the US geologic survey that guided us to the sites we might want to visit and solicited assistance from R. in identifying secret uranium tailing burial sites.  They were tracing the burning waterways and looking to protectively fence the poisoned earth. That day we passed four gates looking for an entry way to the observation site.  None were right.  We made our way back and found that the first gate that had been chained and padlocked thirty minutes earlier was now open without the lock or chains in sight.  After divination and conferencing, we took the middle road to the overlook from which we saw the dark cloud covering the uranium cap.  Similarly, we found the open path to the waters where we offered water blessed during R.’s Healing Way [Music Daré] ceremony to convey our prayers for restoration throughout the contaminated water table.

On the last day, when R. announced herself as Ki’na Dark Cloud, a Navajo man politely asked her story.  “Have you been ill?” he inquired.  She noted the past tense.  When she had been a child the Navajo had not welcomed her because she is Arikara.  But this man, learning that she had returned for the first time in 22 years, reached for cedar while another brother came with sage and they both welcomed her home ceremonially, while declaring her their sister.  Another conflict over.

We are in the process of imagining and then acting on behalf of an earth healed of radiation.  When I returned, I consulted the I Ching over a painful personal issue.  The response was Radiance.  I understood that I was receiving a teaching that would become a path.  Radiation to Radiance – rigorous and tough-minded ritual, medical and healing activity on behalf of peacemaking and restoration.

Council depends upon diversity.  We were red and white and black and brown. We were from North and South America, from Curacao, Brazil and Romania, of different European, mid-eastern, Native and African ancestry.  Some of us work in Africa, in the Caribbean.   Some practice oriental medicine.  We have different training but related hearts and ethical concerns.  We invited the ancestors, the spirits of the land, the animals, the orishas.   As two of the participants were invoking Eshu Elegba, the partner of the M.D., formerly from Romania and a student of Malidoma Somé, arrived – her name is Oshun.  The whales came and the dolphins.  The dreams were rich and generous.  We moved fluidly together, grateful for the guidance, for our increasing abilities to read the signs together, for the possibilities we saw for the future.

The dreams, events, experiences of ReVisioning Medicine council and the Pilgrimage all wound into one story that included R.’s history and all our histories, even history itself.  As the story expanded it became a story of possibility that includes the earth’s future.  Posting this, I asked R. if I could or if she wanted anything changed:

“There is nothing that I would want taken out.  And of course you may send it.  You might want to add that through this strange and wonderful tale has come yet another healing.  My daughter called this morning.  She heard my tale of wonder and homecoming and that I had taken Nuesha.  She heard my telling of Nuesha stamping her foot and saying “this is my land, this is my mommy’s land; this is my grammie’s land.”  She heard me talk of the Healing Way and how much it meant to me.  She heard me laugh for the first time in a long time.  And she was HAPPY for Nuesha and me.  She was so very soothed to know that we had been baptized by the sand and the Spirit.  She wants to come see us for a few days, and she would like to know if she could request a Healing Way also.”

On the last night of the council, we had a fire circle.  We each spoke of the original covenants that underlie medicine, the covenants that we had made and that our peoples had made and the necessity to live according to these covenants again.  We were invigorated by knowing we could each practice medicines that truly heal.  Western medicine, non-western medicine and indigenous healing became a unified compassionate response to the suffering of all beings.  We had gathered enough evidence from our own histories and from our common experiences to trust in the possibilities of a medicine that does no harm to people or to the earth.  We gathered the courage to live accordingly as patients and as medicine/medical people.  We began to imagine the formerly unimaginable – that the deadly radiation that is decimating Native American land everywhere in North America and so many war-ravaged and nuclear oriented countries might be transformed as R. was also transformed, by sacred means we do not dare to understand yet.

“We met in the kitchen and had snacks and fellowship.  We went to bed.  And then I woke up, stood out of the bed, took a shower, got Nuesha dressed, went to Carol’s for coffee. …On the way to Deena’s I realized I had woken and stood and showered and got Nuesha dressed and was awake and alert and DID NOT HURT ANYWHERE.  I had no pain.  It was odd how the absence of pain felt. Empty, but good.  I did not, and still don’t have a slight limp from my hips aching so.  I didn’t, and still don’t, have to coax my hands into movement.  I didn’t, and still don’t have to slowly make sure my spine will hold me.  I had no pain.  And Jeff was obviously relieved, and rested.  Nuesha was in a good mood.  And so we went, looking at everything in a light that came from inside.  I stopped in my tracks when I realized we were at peace with the day.”

We pray that the work of ReVisioning Medicine will continue and expand for the sake of all people and beings.