The eminent American psychologist and Jungian analyst, James Hillman, once remarked that all countries have ancient roots and ancestral teachings that define the soul of all the people who inhabit that country. Though we Americans may search the world for our gurus, going to ancient lands in the East to find, connect, and reacquaint ourselves with our soul, he suggests, that our true soul lies right here, in the ancient practices and teachings of the Native American Indians. This land that is America holds within it everything we are searching for. Our soul is here, waiting for us to discover it.
As a child growing up, whenever I’d ask my mother what our ancestry was, she’d bluntly state: We’re American. I knew that I was part Swiss because I knew the story of my paternal grandmother, how she came to America from Switzerland as a child of seven with her mother, in search of her father who had deserted the family. He’d gone off to America to make his way, promising to send for the rest of them, which he never did. My great-grandmother set off to find him, taking my grandmother, her youngest child, with her. Though my grandmother tended to embellish her life story as time went on, the story of her early entry through Ellis Island and her uncle’s boarding house on East 22nd street in Manhattan, where she grew up and that her mother took over running, never changed.
It was not until I was much older that I learned that I also had English, Irish, and Welsh blood in me. Some of my ancestors had come to America even before the Mayflower arrived; their blood, sweat and tears are part of this land. My immediate family, however, had no rich cultural traditions, no ethnic attachments.
In the 1970s I lived in Sweden, having moved there when I fell in love and married my first husband. Upon that land I became Swedish, learned to speak like a native, embraced the culture and traditions, learned to eat herring, salmon, potatoes, sour cream and dill, learned what good bread and cheese was, learned to drink aquavit, and supped on tea and open-faced sandwiches every evening.
I so completely embraced the culture that I felt more Swedish than I had ever felt American. When the Swedes would ask me what traditions we had back home, I’d feel lost, homeless, disconnected. I could think of nothing, no special foods or traditions, for none had ever been part of my life.
While I was also living there I met a guy who ran a record shop in Stockholm; he’d landed there as a Vietnam war deserter. He had the largest collection of Swedish traditional music in the city. He always bemoaned the fact that all the young people came in asking for American records when they had a rich musical heritage of their own; fantastic stuff that he blared out into the street, songs of love and loss, of sailing adventures and longing for home, for the cool air, the rocky shores and calm waters of the archipelagoes of Sweden. The musical riches are all at their feet, he’d say. I took this to heart and fell in love with many a Swedish troubadour, poets of song that sang to my own soul’s longing for a true home port.
Eventually, I left Sweden and the rich culture I had embedded myself in so thoroughly. I returned home, back to America, back to searching for my own home, my own sense of belonging. The funny thing is that my favorite books, books on Native American Traditions, had accompanied me to Sweden, the myths of the Indians, long before the white man ever set foot on the land that belonged to everyone and to no one. I read them while living there, searching for what I knew not, but I had always been drawn to their myths and teachings.
In one of those books, Rolling Thunder, the author Doug Boyd, back from his own sojourns to India, writes of sitting with Rolling Thunder, a medicine man and spiritual leader. It’s the early 1970s. “A lot of things are on this land that don’t belong here,” says Rolling Thunder. “They’re foreign objects like viruses or germs. … A lot of the things that are going to happen in the future will really be the earth’s attempt to throw off some of these sicknesses. This is really going to be like fever or like vomiting, what you might call physiological adjustment.”
“It’s very important for people to realize this. The earth is a living organism, the body of a higher individual who has a will and wants to be well, who is at times less healthy or more healthy, physically and mentally. People should treat their own bodies with respect. It’s the same thing with the earth. Too many people don’t know that when they harm the earth they harm themselves, nor do they realize that when they harm themselves they harm the earth. Some of these people interested in ecology want to protect the earth, and yet they will cram anything into their mouths just for tripping or for freaking out—even using some of our sacred agents. Some of these things I call helpers, and they are very good if they are taken very, very seriously, but they have to be used in the right way; otherwise they’ll be useless and harmful, and most people don’t know about these things. All these things have to be understood.”
“It’s not very easy for you people to understand these things because understanding is not knowing the kind of facts that your books and teachers talk about. I can tell you that understanding begins with love and respect. It begins with respect for the Great Spirit, and the Great Spirit is the life that is in all things—all the creatures and the plants and even the rocks and the minerals. All things—and I mean all things—have their own will and their own way and their own purpose; this is what is to be respected.”
“Such respect is not a feeling or an attitude only. It’s a way of life. Such respect means that we never stop realizing and never neglect to carry out our obligations to ourselves and our environment.”
As I reread those words of Rolling Thunder, so many years after my own sojourns to other lands, I realize that to access the wealth of knowledge of the ancients of our own country, of the Native American Indians, we must take full responsibility for living here. We must learn the first lesson of any novice, to love and respect the teacher, the earth we live upon. We must be mindful of and questioning of every action we take. Am I being respectful and loving toward this land I live upon, toward the earth, toward the Great Spirit—which is all life in all living things—and toward myself?
Whether we are of Native American ancestry or not, we live here now. Just as I became a Swede when I lived there, embracing it with love and respect, so is it our responsibility to treat all living things in our own country with love and respect, as we too wish to be treated. As we seek our path of heart, we must remember this.
Our soul is here. In everything we do, we must give back to the soul of the land we live upon. If we are to heal, we must also heal the land.
Respectfully, from our shared home port,
Excerpts from Rolling Thunder by Doug Boyd, pp. 51-2