One of the reasons so little of our Native American traditions have been passed down has to do with an unreasonable and even bizarre controversy. The argument is primarily about who has the right to share such knowledge. The United States government began this debate and it has been perpetuated by Native people themselves. The U.S. government made it illegal in 1934 for anyone without a provable blood lineage to a registered tribe to participate in traditional ceremonies. These included, but are not limited to, the “controversial” peyote ceremony. This prompted Native populations to question each other. Sometimes this can make me feel like a dog applying for membership in the AKC. I have to explain to people where my Native blood came from and just how much is non-Native. So, for those of you who care, here is my pedigree:
I was born in Indianapolis, Indiana. I am a registered member of the Southeastern Cherokee Council, Inc in Ochlocknee, Georgia. The majority of my Native American blood comes from mother’s side of the family. My ancestors on my mother’s side can be traced back to John Calvin Lee on the Dawes rolls. These were officially known as the Final Rolls of the Citizens and Freedmen of the Five Civilized Tribes in Indian Territory and began in 1898. They listed the individual’s name, age, sex, blood degree and census card number and page, enrollment number and tribe. John Calvin Lee was a full-blooded member of the Cherokee Tribe. This name was handed down through our family several times. I have not been able to explore the depths of my father’s Cherokee ancestry but it comes from both his mother and his father and includes some Irish blood. I hold little hope of ever finding out the exact heritage.
I was named a Blessed Woman for the Lost River band of the Cherokees in Mitchell, Indiana by their chief, George Miller. Nancy Ward was the most well known of the Blessed Women. There is a Nancy Ward chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution of which my great-grandmother Lee was a proud member. The Cherokees had seven clans. Traditionally a Blessed Woman represented her clan in tribal councils and had many duties including being responsible for deciding the fate and treatment of prisoners. For several years I taught the Cherokee language, songs and traditions to the people of the Lost River Band. I also conducted sweat lodges, and healing ceremonies. I do not hold sweat lodges, healing ceremonies or other such events for money, gifts, tobacco, cannabis or anything else of physical value. I do not sell my culture, it is free to anyone who wishes to learn, just like any other. One does not have to prove Italian ancestry to be Roman Catholic, it should be the same way with our religion.
There was a popular tradition in the late 1800’s called the Ghost Dance. It was given to the people by a man named Wovoka and its purpose was to reunite the living with the souls of the dead. It spread form tribe to tribe. Many believed they were dancing and praying for a great awakening, a major transformation of society when there would be a return to the ways of our people, a time when the earth would be honored. It is suggested that perhaps all the people who have a love of Native culture, whether they have one drop of Native blood or not, are the returned souls of our ancestors. Some believe those who have such a calling are Native in spirit. It may be that the prayers have been answered and we are on the precipice of this renewed awakening.
In the seventies there were several people who tried to share Native knowledge with the world. They were shunned and persecuted. To be sure, these people were flawed, as am I, as are you. It is not about the messenger. The message is all that matters. If we wait for a perfect person to present the wisdom of our elders it will never be done. Our world is quite literally falling apart and everyone in it is suffering to some extent. Only a cruel, evil person would withhold information that could ease the pain and suffering of even one individual. My hope is that the information I have learned can help other people as well. If something does not ring true for you, simply discard it. If only one thing can be of help to you, I will be happy.
I believe all knowledge known to humankind should be readily available to anyone who wishes to learn, regardless of bloodline. I see no logic in continuing a system of discrimination started by a government that tried to exterminate us. Our culture includes such things as the peyote ceremony, cannabis use and the honoring of eagle feathers. Our government wanted to make sure the predominant culture did not take up these practices, as well as many parts of the Native heritage. Since this country was founded on freedom of religion, this continues to be a problem. The Government made it legal for Natives of a certain blood to follow their culture. When the Native blood was sufficiently mixed, the government made it illegal for them to do such things. Requiring Native blood “quantum” for such things is a perfect way to wipe such knowledge from the face of the earth. It works especially well when the people one is trying to annihilate have now taken up that cause and enforce the restriction themselves. If we truly want to leave a better world for our children unto seven generations, the practice of limiting knowledge to those who can prove a certain lineage has to stop. If we can make this world a better place but chose not to because the people in it are not Native enough, what kind of people does that make us? We are then no better than the ones who perpetuated our holocaust. We have just continued their mission for them.
And who suffers from all of this mess? The children today are in terrible distress. The second leading cause of teen death in the United States at the time of this writing is suicide. There are over 38,000 total suicide deaths in the United States each year. Therefore, I am writing this book as a letter to my grandchildren. They deserve to know how to find happiness. I don’t care how diluted their Native blood is. That is irrelevant. They deserve a world that has kindness and hope abundantly available to them. Tomorrow is not promised to any of us. We do not know what the future holds. I may not be available to them when they are ready to receive this information. So it is for them, and for everyone else in this world who draws breath now or will some day in the future, that I write this book.
For those who may assume my life has been easy and that happiness has been abundant in my world, you are sorely mistaken. If you are interested, I wrote “The Secret Lives of Hyapatia Lee” in 1999 about my traumatic life and subsequent mental health issues. I wrote about my abandonment, poverty, homelessness, childhood sexual abuse by my step-father, rape by a stranger who broke into my home, spousal abuse, divorce, loss of house to an earthquake, loss of my home to a fire and three miscarriages. Since the writing of my last book I nearly froze to death due to hypothyroidism, had a stillborn son, was beaten and had my nose broken by an adult son, went through another divorce and was estranged from my preteen son. I have had years of traditional talk therapy, even “buried” two therapists along the way who succumbed to cancer and a heart attack. I have tried just about ever psychiatric medication available. Nothing made my life any easier. Happiness was a myth. I waited impatiently for the day I would die fearing that if I tried to take my own life I would just screw it up and end up maimed. I have had five dear friends from the sex industry in which I was formerly involved commit suicide, including the god-mother of my children who shot herself with a picture of my children in her arms. No, I am no stranger to despair.
My life is far from perfect now. I still have bad days. I still struggle. Do not think that by reading this book you will be able to make your troubles disappear. They will not. It is not magic. Bad things will still happen to good people. Bullies will still play their games. What can change is your ability to remain strong in the face of turmoil. We will still want to cry, but we will be able to take control of our lives. We will no longer turn to others to solve our problems for us. Sure, we will still need others to lean on and share our feelings with, but in our hearts we will know that the answers are inside of us. There is no one who can take away our inner turmoil, but there is also no one that can take away our inner peace. This might have aspects that are both good and bad, but it is empowering to know that you are the only one responsible for how you face the world. It is not possible to make the painful things the world throws at us go away, but we can learn how to live with them in such a way that we can still bring beauty to ourselves and others.
Sometimes we don’t want this responsibility. It is so much easier to say our actions are reactions to how we have been treated. We are who we are because we were raised in such a way. That is true only to the point of independent thinking. Once we reach the age when we can make decisions for ourselves, it is us who decides who we will be and what we will do. We do not follow every piece of advice given to us by our parents. We chose which ones we will follow. Our caregivers may have our lives planned out for us as a successful physician when we decide to take the path of a rock star. It is not fair to say we are who we are because we were raised a certain way when we have taken advantage of free will. Perhaps we were abused, but we can choose how to react to that abuse. We can choose to perpetuate it on someone else in the future in order to feel powerful, or we can choose to spend our life making sure no one else suffers like that again. We have more power than we give ourselves credit for over our lives. Do not give your power away by blaming others for your predicament.
When we daydream about a simpler time in the past when people did not have all the problems we do today, we can forget they had a whole different set of problems. There were unspeakable atrocities in ancient Greece and Rome, in Feudal times, during the Middle Ages, in the taking of the United States, during the depression and the World Wars. There has never been a time in human history when life was truly carefree. How did these people make it? They had fortitude. They had strength. They were not raised by perfect people who gave them a solid foundation for mental health yet they endured without becoming stagnant and blaming the previous generation for their imperfections. If we spend all our time looking back for things to blame for our current situation, we will never address the issues at hand. This is not to say a good handle on history is useless, it is not. If we examine our past, it can be a superb predictor of the future. Once we know ourselves well enough to predict our own actions we can actively work to change them. As always, the focus has to be on our actions and not the actions of others. We have no control over anyone else.