Remembrance, An Intercultural Mental Health Process
by Pam Colorado
Mental Health is a European, western derived construct which, in the context of colonialism, has been imposed upon Native peoples. thus one could question the health of “mental Helth”. I propose that it is possible and timely to create processes and models of mental health which are intercultural and have, as their first order of business, the healing of mental health practitioners…myself included!
Issues of mental health and culture are central to my life. I am a traditional Oneida woman, married to a Hawaiian, Kuhuna Kalai Wa’a and Kii, that is, a man who has the Huna or secret knowledge of how to carve traditional ocean going canoes and images. We live on the island of Maui where I commute to California to teach in the Traditional Knowledge Program—a doctoral program for tribal people worldwide. I am also of French ancestry and travelled to France during my early twenties to make peace with the conflict I felt as a mixed blood person.
In twenty years of activism my model of mental health practice evolved from a largely clinical social work/community organizing focus (with a few cultural touches) to an almost completely cultural, spiritual practice that drew on western psychology when necessary. Although reluctant to draw on extra cultural approaches,I found psychology and its terminology to be helpful in dealing with deadly colonial wounds, notably alcoholism. Counselling methods also became a bridge to the western and professional world and to assimilated parts of my personality. In fact, western counselling helped me to decolonize and to embrace my true cultural identity.
But joining Native and western approaches to mental health has always made me uncomfortable. First of all, there are no guidelines or mutually established ethics to govern the linking. Second, the concept of mental health is inextricably bound up in relationships of domination and power. Prior to the invasion of North America there wasn’t even a concept of mental health! Native cultures sought and were an expression of grounded lives lived in balance and intimate communication with all living beings. third, western practitioners’ denial of the power dynamics between Natives and westerners emotionally charge the counselling process. Fourth, whether we like it or not, there is no part of Native life that has not been violated or desecrated. As a result, we carry enormous and undifferentiated anxieties and pain; often we swing back and forth between western and Native behavior without conscious choice. Finally, as my genetics suggest, there is no escaping the obvious fact that American Indians and Euramericans (with their mental health practices) share a land and a reality. We must address the intercultural mental health conundrum and transform it into something good.
Recently, I worked with a French American person whose wife had suffered with terminal cancer for ore than two years. I began the work in my usual way, as a cultural person who used western concepts to communicate and engage. Four months later, when the work was complete, I had been taught a way of doing Native mental health in the western world; moreover, a westerner had entered my Native paradigm and healed aspects of my life. I refer to the process as remembrance and share some of it with you now.
A stormy twilight sky holds the ocean in an indigo embrace. Moving smoothly through the cold spring ocean, I hesitate for a moment, questioning the wisdom of a swim so late in the day. Hawaiian elders warn against this. As I realise I am alone in the water, a sense of vulnerability rises; I do not recall how I got here. I want to return to shore but am powerless to move. The growing density of the night time sky is matched by a sense of growing danger in the water. Suddenly, I am aware of an enormous and awesome presence—Mano! The shark1
My reaction is instantaneous. Rolling over on my back I lie suspended in the water and I wait. Mano is one of the most powerful animal spirits in Hawaiian cosmology. The shark empowers priests, healers and intellectuals; it is an Aumakua, the head of a major clan system and it is Mano that accompanied and protected the first Polynesian voyagers to settle the Hawaiian islands. Lying motionless is the only act of reverence available to me. I can feel him approaching from my right; swift and smooth. He transverses the length of my body, as if appraising me. Death may be imminent. I am afraid. I am hopeful. The shark turns and heads directly towards me. Bright blue lines of electricity stream from either side of his head. Reaching my still body, he races beneath me, around me, wrapping me in blue lines of vivifying intelligence and power. Then he is gone.
I awake, shaking and weeping with joy. Gathering up my medicine bag, I pull on some clothes and head to Launiopoko Beach to make an offering of thanks. Pulling Indian tobacco from its pouch, I call to Mano. Laying a gift of tobacco in the water, I wait. Was it a true dream? A few moments pass, doubt begins to enter my mind. Just then a movement about fifty feet off to the left catches my eye. It is a shark fin, standing nearly one foot out of the water. This must be a great animal. As quickly as it moves towards me, it turns and disappears from sight.
As I drive home, I wonder at the beauty and power of Native ways. The feelings that went through me when I saw the shark acknowledge the offering! I wonder what the meaning of this experience is and what is expected of me. A few days later, a stranger stops by our house to look at Hawaiian art work. It is Mr. Robert Requin (Mr. R), an elderly gentleman of enormous wealth and great political repute.
It is not usual to greet someone of Mr. R’s standing, so I paid attention to what happened. As he entered our house, he went almost directly to the scale model canoe, “Lele O Ke Kolea”, the canoe that brought the first Hawaiians here. As I approached Mr. R to welcome him a spiritual presence, nearly palpable, filled the room. My traditional training enabled me to see it my western mind interpreted it as a crucial bonding. I was shocked because I had never had such a moment with a non Native person.
Any traditional Native person will tell you that ordinary reality is not real at all. This world is spiritual and beings of great power, like Mano, move through the veil of our conscious minds. Like Creator, Mano touches us. It is only an instant but in that moment we experience something timeless and real—our own truth. Truth, according to Native thought is meant to be lived. When a dream comes, work of transformative nature is sure to follow. Because the work is spiritual and difficult, it is important to interpret the direction of the dream accurately.
In the weeks that followed, I struggled for understanding and direction. I spoke to another traditional person who responded, “A strange thought just came to me—your visitor is Mano!” The truth of the message was so strong, it took my breath.
Identifying the Mano as the spiritual protector and power of my visitor, gave me a beginning point for determining how we were related. For a few days, I struggled trying to remember anything I heard or knew of the relationship between Mano and the Thunderers—my clan. The answer came in the middle of the night when I awoke thinking of a petroglyph from the Northwest Coast (where I learned the process of deciphering the ancient language).
On a large rock, located in the tideline, is a carving of the Shark and Thunderbird, held together by a huge lizard—the protector of water and change of consciousness. This 15,000-year-old carving is predictive of transformative learning—of movement into a higher integration of knowledge which will be sensory or predictive. The Lizard also implies genealogy or ancestral communication. In a western sense we might say I had determined an archetypal relationship. I understood that this was a powerful connection but I lacked a course, or even a next step of action.
One day, during a phone conversation with Mr. R, we discussed our French family histories. Realising that our ancestors had arrived in the New World about the same time, I decided to check my family tree, a lengthy document. Turning to a random page, I glanced down and discovered that a man from my family and a woman from his had married in 1560; furthermore, this couple moved to the New World and became the progenitors of both his family line and mine! This confused me. If I had found a mutual Indian ancestor, I would know what to do or who to contact. I was in for a surprise.
Mr. R had purchased a number of traditional Hawaiian art pieces of my husband’s and had asked me to bless them. I readily agreed, until I turned to do it and discovered the purchases included Lei o Mano—weapons of war constructed of sharks teeth and a wood that women do not touch! How do I, as a woman, pray over weapons of death? Is this proper? Do I have the authority? These questions took several days and the pieces were to be delivered the next day. Finally, I understood the next step.
Moving the weapons into the sunshine, I made my prayer but something didn’t feel complete. So, I meditated some more and realized that I needed to do a night ceremony as well.
That night on the lanai, the spirits spoke in unmistakable messages. Mr. R’s wife had survived because two, vainglorious physicians, eager to win the respect and approval of her wealthy husband, had used extraordinary means to keep the woman alive. She had been tortured. I knew it because for a brief moment the spirits made me feel what she had suffered; it was agony. I was told that her end would come soon and I was given several other pieces of information for Mr. R.
When I came in from my prayers, I was shaking with fear. I knew I had to tell Mr. R but I doubted myself. What if I was wrong? What if I had misinterpreted something? And I questioned my right to even tell someone such news. Nevertheless, the following morning while burning sage, I called Mr. R and shared, as gently as I could, all of what had transpired. To my amazement, he nearly wept with relief. In the next few weeks, everything happened just as I had been told. I was stunned at my self doubts and with the power of these old ways.
I was also pleased that ancient Native ways could help Mr. R—in fact, even seeming to complement his devout Catholicism. But two weeks after his wife’s death I learned that my sister was alcoholic and suicidal. Thee generations of family addiction came crashing down on me. All my work in healing did not seem to stop the destruction and death in my own family. I was terrified.
Another dream came to me. This dream revealed the origins of the family addiction problem. It rested in an event that happened in France nearly 700 years ago—an event that Mr. R’s family shared. I awoke from the dream, it was near midnight. Heading directly for the closet, I rummaged around until I found my baptism candle (although raised traditionally, I had also been baptised Catholic, perhaps to cover all the bases!) I took the candle out to my rock altar and then stopped. I didn’t know where to put it. How could I respect these two ways and still bring them together? Desperate for my sisters life, I finally placed it on the lower right hand corner. Then I began my prayer, in my Indian way, explaining what I was trying to do and why. I asked permission to proceed. It seemed okay, so I picked up the candle, stuck it in the damp tropical earth, and lit it. I wasn’t sure how to pray. I tried all the Latin prayers I could remember but nothing felt genuine. Then I tried it the Indian way, by calling to the ancestors. Suddenly, the sultry, leeward night was hit with a cold wind from the North. It came down on me so hard and fast, I had to cup the flame to keep it from going out. I was scared. I knew I had pinpointed the cause and I knew I needed help.
The next morning, I called Mr. R and asked him to help in the tradition of his French Catholic religion. He agreed and for the next three days he prayed for us.
About a week later, Mr. R and I spoke. I thanked him and told him the astonishing news. My huge French-Indian family had finally acknowledged the problem of addiction in our family and was preparing for a family intervention for my sister. He was not surprised because he had felt a peace come over him the first night of his prayers. We both wept and laughed on the phone. Who would ever have guessed the combined power of a Pagan and a Catholic!
I used to think that darkness was evil but an Elder once told me, that darkness is safety, security, like the womb. In the darkness we are all one; separations cannot be seen. Perhaps this is the Huna, or inner secret Hawaiians know. For Mr. R and I to heal required great risks and trust. We both stepped into our shadow many times but we were not alone. At night, in a dream, the shark spirit came to give me the power to do the healing work. Although I doubted myself, I still went to the beach and made a thanksgiving offer. A real shark came proving the truth of the dream as well as the value of facing self doubt.
Mr. R knew of the terrible things his culture has done and continues to do to Native people, but he stepped through that history when he asked for my help.
I entered the shadow again when I turned to my French genealogy; used my candle and asked Mr. R for his help. It was difficult to do. Yet, the evil visited on my family—the multigenerational alcoholism derived from and depended upon the continuing hatred and divisiveness of Catholic and tribal people.
Most likely I will never see Mr. R again, but in the dark moment we shared, a beautiful healing emanated. Two people—from vastly different political, socioeconomic backgrounds, one traditional Indian, the other Catholic—joined using western psychological language and simple loving prayers particular to our own cultures. We healed. Nothing happened, yet everything changed.
First Reading, Vol. 13, No. 3, Sept 95 ESPC