It's Time to Walk Our Talk

by Morwen Two Feathers

Dear friends and readers of Spirit of Change,

I am very happy that my partner Jimi and I have accepted the challenge of coordinating the Harvest Gathering '97 on Present Day Shamanism. In this letter, I want to tell you a little bit about where we are coming from, describe our vision for this gathering, and ask your help in some very specific ways.

As founders and co-directors of Earth Drum Council, we have spent the last seven years working to make drumming and dance accessible to people from all walks of life, because we believe that this form of self-expression is a powerful tool of personal and community change. Although we do not label our work "shamanism," we understand that the experience that is opened to people through the space we create is shamanic in nature. In this sacred space, people co-create a rhythmic synergy which alters individual consciousness, opening the way for profound transformation.

In the course of our work, we have had many conversations with many people about the appropriateness of white people playing and teaching African drums, and about cultural theft and the integrity of African tribal cultures. In a striking parallel to the issues of Native American spiritual traditions being practiced and taught by non-Natives, we have found that African elders of the drum feel it is important to teach anyone who wants to learn, including white people, while the nay-sayers are younger African Americans who feel disenfranchised from their culture. In both cases, the history of European annihilation of the indigenous tribal cultures of Africa and North and South America forms the context of this justifiable anger. And in both cases, healing must begin with acknowledgment of this history, and respectful truth-telling and listening.

When Jimi and I first sent our proposal to Spirit of Change for participation in the conference, we followed it with a call to Carol Bedrosian to tell her that our primary interest, even more important to us than offering a workshop or drum circle, was to support her vision of a Council on the Rites and Rights of indigenous people. So when Carol called us in late July to offer us the job of conference co-coordinators, the first thing we talked about was how to organize the structure of the weekend to emphasize the healing potential of the Council.

The event that has emerged from our discussions with Carol has evolved from the one that was initially advertised. There will be fewer workshops and presentations than originally anticipated, because Council will involve everyone on both Saturday and Sunday mornings. We are still expecting to be joined by some of the major well-known exponents of "modern shamanism," including Brant Secunda, Alberto Villoldo, and Oscar Miro-Quesada, all of whom have been initiated by traditional shamans in Central or South America and charged with the task of bringing the traditional teachings into the modern world. Medicine Story, a Wampanoag elder who has drawn fire from Natives for sharing traditional teachings with whites, will be on hand to share his wisdom. Steven McFadden brings his insights gained from twenty years of traveling the four directions and listening to native elders of many traditions. We are glad to welcome Hi-ah Park, whose work with Korean ecstatic movement and dance is a beautiful example of how the basic principles of core shamanism are represented in traditions all over the world. The conference will also include presentations from several local shamanic practitioners, some trained and initiated in Native traditions, others with a more eclectic background typical of "modern" practitioners of this path, including influences from Eastern medicine and religion, Western psychology, and the Pagan spiritual traditions (including Witchcraft and Druidism) that are the vestiges of ancient European shamanism.

This rich mix of presenters will bring a variety of perspectives to our discussion of shamanism in the modern world. Yet if we want this event to be more than just another new age shamanism extravaganza, if we want to create an opportunity for meaningful discussion of the issues that were raised by Nanatasis in her original letter to Spirit of Change some months ago, we realized that we also need to invite Native people who have feelings and opinions about these issues. Accordingly, we have made a commitment to extend invitations and to welcome a minimum of 20 Native people to the conference at no charge to them. Jimi has been working hard over the last couple of weeks, networking and seeking contacts, making calls, and talking with Native people about our intentions for the event and for the Council. It's not easy, for many of these folks have become accustomed to being disrespected by white people with good intentions (which is a good description of many of us organizing and attending this conference), and there is a desire to avoid confrontation on all sides. We hope that in this Council we can move beyond the naiveté of good intentions and the fear of conflict, and lay a foundation for real understanding, respect, and healing.

In order to walk our talk, the conference organizers are committing money to cover the costs of housing and feeding our Native guests for the weekend. We would also like to offer travel stipends so that these folks, many of whom are living on the edge (or over the edge) of poverty, can attend at no cost to them. To that end, we are asking all of you who have been touched or inspired by Native spirituality to consider making a donation to the travel fund. We want to raise $1,000 for this purpose, and every dollar helps. Please make donation checks out to "Spirit of Change" and note "travel stipend fund" on the check. We will provide a detailed accounting of how much was received and how it was distributed after the conference.

Which brings up another issue. One of the hot buttons around the issue of modern shamanism is money. Discussions about whether and when it is appropriate for money or goods to change hands for shamanic healing, counseling, and ceremonial work can get very charged. In planning this conference, we have never had this issue far from our minds. We have asked all the presenters to accept fees much lower than they might otherwise receive for a weekend gig, and have prevailed upon a large group of talented individuals to serve as volunteers. While we want to acknowledge the value of the work that is making this conference possible, it's not our intention that anyone make a big profit from the event. We've committed to take the profit (net money after expenses) from this event and distribute it in two ways: 1.) small additional stipends to presenters and staff who accepted little or no payment in order to support the event, and 2.) donations to Native groups. [Note: Harvest Gathering '97 did not show any net profit and in fact lost money, the brunt of which was borne by Carol Bedrosian.]

As we have begun managing the multiple aspects of this complex event, there have already been challenges and we expect more. Still, I am excited and energized, because I think that the work we will all be doing at this conference is exactly the work that needs to be done for the healing of humanity on this planet. Jimi and I are honored to be creating the space for it to happen, and grateful to Carol for giving us the opportunity to serve in this way.

For all of us who have been involved in shamanic healing work, of any tradition, for however long and in whatever capacity, it's time to walk our talk. Citing our training, credentials, affiliations or good intentions is beside the point. If we are to be a force for true healing in this world, we must be willing to stand for our values, to teach by example, to be open to truth in all its challenging forms, to listen to and respect each other and to respect the multiple voices of spirit. This conference will provide a space for many of those voices to be heard. I hope that you will join us and add yours to the circle.

Published in the Sept-Oct 1997 issue of Spirit of Change Magazine