I am a psychotherapist, educator, and visual and theater artist. I live and work in Burlington, Vermont, which is nestled snugly between Lake Champlain and the Green Mountains. Most days I can see the Adirondack Mountains across the lake. In childhood I had a catastrophic case of Polio, an event that taught me much about challenge, struggle, isolation, and healing. For the past forty years my teachers have been shaman.
My mother’s family identified as hailing from the British Isles, while my father’s family identified as Native American, although our elders refused to speak with us about our tribal identity. I do not have tribal affiliation.
I try to honestly speak about, and understand, our family stories and history as we know them. The lives of people of Native ancestry in Indiana have historically been difficult, and fair-skinned families frequently chose to pass as European. I grew up in a family that said they hid and passed. Not surprisingly, our birth certificates and military records, list us as Caucasian, even as our elders identified as Native. That did not stop others from degrading us as Native.
I grew up confused about my heritage. Only on his death-bed did my father finally, proudly, say outright that we are Native, insisting both his parents were Native. Still, our aunts and uncles continued to refuse to speak further about our identity, other than to say my grandparents were Native; they passed without helping us to understand who we are. The events of the past few years have reminded me that, as my father, a career military man, insisted, there is still danger in being Native in the United States.
It seems likely we will never know the true story of our heritage. I have decided to accept my father’s statement, and our family stories as true, even as they are incomplete. There is no doubt my father and grandmother understood themselves, and me, to be Native. I never met my father’s father who abandoned the family.
After I unexpectedly survived Polio, it became my family’s expectation that I would honor and work with Spirit. It was only much later, in adulthood, that my journey into shamanism began; that was more than forty years ago. In the years that followed I was graced with teachers from many traditions. Some of these teachers, like the late Amazonian shaman Ipupiara (Bernardo Peixoto) and the Andean shaman Clechia, have been greatly honored by their people, and some were controversial. Together they represent the wide range of approaches to shamanism, the good and the bad, and shamanic paths that seem beyond either. Each spent precious time with me, and helped to mold my vision, and I feel enormous gratitude to each. I deeply miss Ipu’s random late evening phone calls and constant encouragement.
As a Polio survivor I was also encouraged to pass as non-disabled. Passing for me proved to be an impossible task. From an early age I faced ridicule, bullying, and prejudice as both a disabled boy and as someone, although I am light-skinned, others perceived as Native.
Today my work in shamanism, and as a psychotherapist and educator, draws from what was gifted to me by my teachers, rather than a singular tradition. It is also informed by the teachings passed on by my father’s family, teachings that reflect their life experiences and circumstances. This is itself a well trod path for those who practice shamanism. I am not a carrier of any secret knowledge. I am just an elder human being, doing my best to help others, and striving to be a good person and “a good shaman.”
Growing up in this family launched me on a lifetime of learning. I am grateful to have met other individuals with similar family stories and histories along the way. As a result of my family experience, Polio, and my occupation as a psychotherapist, I think a good deal about identity, colonialism, inter-generational trauma, disability, and healing. I write about these topics frequently in this blog.
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