Tag Archives: wampum

Remembering Who We Are: Recovering Indigenous Mind (PDF)

Traditional Greeting

It’s good to be here. My name is Apela Colorado; I will open this talk in a traditional Native way with a chant — a prayer. Foster Ampong, a Ka ko’o, or helper, is going to do that for us.

(Hawaiian chant, “E ho ‘i Mai,” a request to enter and to merge with the sacred wisdom.)

Can you feel that good, strong feeling in the room? It seems like Foster’s been doing this all his life, right? In reality, Foster just came back to his culture in January. I’m acknowledging this because the most powerful thing I can share with you is the belief in ourselves as native people and the proof that anything is possible when we’re in our indigenous minds. We can remember our power. We have an hour and a half to spend together and when I’m done with my presentation, I will ask Choctaw Elder, Pokni, Mary Jones, who has worked with me, taught me,and helped me for so many years, to listen, to reflect, and to close off our session prayerfully. We’ll also have a question-and-answer time at the conclusion.

I was excited to hear about Coumba Lamba; in fact, I’ve waited for more than 20 years for this day to happen. In the 1970s, I was doing my doctoral research on native alcoholism. I believed, and was trying to prove, that the answer to healing Native American addiction, which is the leading cause of death, was the return of true culture and spirituality. At the time it was a very radical claim to make. But I faced a difficult personal reality, one that ultimately brought me to this gathering. I wanted to find out why almost everybody in my family that I loved was either actively alcoholic or had died of addiction, and I didn’t want it to happen to me or to my children. So I started researching everything I could get my hands on. I read every study I could find, not easy in the pre-internet age, and besides I was living in a remote Native community without library or bookstore. After reading more than 250 scientific studies of Native alcoholism, I found out there were 247 differing opinions on what caused Native addiction. It seemed more like personal opinions than rigorous research. My sense of this was heightened by the fact that all of the research was conducted by non-Natives. None of the millions of dollars for the studies ever went to Native people, and certainly, none of it went to treatment for our suffering. The context of cultural control and domination evident in the research process drove home the point that addiction among American Indians had to do with being an invaded, oppressed people. Before contact we didn’t have addiction, after contact we did have addiction. Not hard to figure out, but none of the studies addressed it.

When I began my doctoral dissertation research, experts were telling us, “It’s your biology. You

lack the proper genes to metabolize alcohol – you are weaker, that’s why you become addicted.”

The subtext being that drinking alcohol is normal (at the time the Harvard University had

received a multi-million dollar grant, the largest ever to look at the genetic causes of alcoholism.

The donor was Seagram’s whiskey company.) I wanted to find evidence to support the view that

Native addictions resulted from invasion and expropriation – loss of culture, spirituality and life.

I succeeded, but what happened to me in the search, and how it happened, opened up the mystery

of the ”Great Knowledge.”1


I grew up in Wisconsin, and the one cultural person left in my family was my grandfather, who

chose me from his grandchildren and taught me Native values and ways. I wasn’t aware that was

what he was doing. I just knew that I loved him and wanted to be with him. Out of all of his

grandchildren, somehow, I was the only one that was born with a cultural leaning, with that kind

of calling and role in life. He saw it.

My grandfather died when I was just a young teenager, but before he died he relapsed and went

back to drinking. So, I actually lost him much earlier in a terrible way. The one person, in our

huge extended family, I could connect with emotionally was taken from me by alcohol. And then

I was alone. But because of that, I became totally committed to doing something about addiction.

But my grandfather was cultural and knew he should pass on what he knew of the Great

Knowledge. Just before he died, he made my grandma drive him three hours through a

dangerous snowstorm – to come talk with me. I was about twelve years old and really angry with

him for drinking. I did not want to be with him and he knew it. He sat in the easy chair, looked

hard at me (this made me madder) and leaned forward on his cane, and began to speak. What he

said scared the wits out of me. He described my life, naming things he could not possibly know,

and then laid out my future. He wanted my attention and he got it! Then he said, “Remember the

Pipe, Remember the Pipe, Remember the Pipe,” the Pipe being a central way to American Indian

Great Knowledge.

I didn’t even know what he was talking about. I had never seen an Indian pipe in my life. Until

1978, it was illegal in North America for Indians to practice our spiritual ways. It was made

illegal through the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Administrative Codes and Practices. You could get

penalized, be imprisoned, or have food rations withheld for practicing indigenous ceremonies.

The ceremonies went underground and missionaries made certain that we grew to fear our own

ways. They justified this to stop the “reckless giving away of things.” A Blackfoot woman once

said, “the worse thing the white man ever did was to kill the buffalo and put us on welfare. They

only give us enough to live and we can’t share with each other.”

As I matured, I felt such loneliness. I kept looking for my reality, for the unconditional love that

underpins Native culture and that I felt with my grandfather. I recalled that he had wanted me to

go to university. So I did. Even though I was not conscious of it, I kept pursuing advanced

education trying to find him and to realize that love in my life. At age 27, I was accepted into and

entered a doctoral program at an Eastern Ivy League school. The wealth and privilege of the

place was beyond any experience I had had. I wondered why I had been accepted and learned

that the personal statement to my application is what did the trick.

1 Private conversations with Credo Mutwa, Great Sanusi of the Zulu, he refers to the ancient

indigenous wisdom as the Great Knowledge.

I had been afraid to apply, thinking I was not smart enough or good enough. The fear was so

great that I procrastinated until the night before the deadline when I picked up a pen (I didn’t

even type it) and wrote about my grandfather and I, and how he wanted me to go to university.

This was a completely unexpected thing and paradoxical. I was sitting in a busy airport, using

my lap as my desk, but was in a liminal state—a light, energetic, feeling came over me. I felt

alive again, and I had a hunch that I would be accepted. I was.

Getting in the door was one thing. Surviving was another. I didn’t know much about being

American Indian. There were no other Indians and few people of color. My identity and values

were challenged in every way. I did not fit and became more and more angry. This was a Jewish

university filled with brilliantly educated people, who were also intellectually competitive. In

class discussions, I never said a thing. I kept waiting for my chance, but was in a culture that

operated by different ways. People argued, asserted, cut each other off, and never, ever, left a

space open for someone like me to speak.

So, I started to fight. When the professor lectured, up went my hand, the only way to get the


4 April 1988 Personal Correspondence on Anger (PDF)

On Anger


Dear Pam

This is the second part of the letter to you on Violence/Anger. I presume you, as a Bear, are testing my Peace Research. I can assure you that by doing Peace Research I have come to know “nothing”. Peace is a kind of gem that you cannot “Possess” nor can you “Manufacture” by Science. It is not a question of Knowledge, but more to do with “Grace” in Christian term, or “Cosmic Love” in Buddhist term. You might call it “Gii Li” in your favorite term. I tell you about this later.

Last weekend, I went to Calgary and saw the “Spirit Sings”. It was a poor show. It was said to cover from 1600 to 1800. But the choice of the period was Political, as if from unconscious Cultural Bias. It neatly avoided the violent history of Invasion, Oppression, and Genocide. It evaded pre-colonial Native Culture. The main body of the show was Bead Work. The cheap glass beads were European imports. Indians sold two continents for these damned glass beads made in places like Firenze, Italy or Amsterdam, Holland!!! There was no display of native Copper Work etc. It implied that Natives had no culture before Europeans “taught” and supplied materials.

A few artifacts were genuine Native American. Several canoes, wood crafts, stone carvings, and one earthen pot, etc., were there. But they were the ones Europeans liked and collected. And the famous Sacred Mask was not placed properly, but crowded with other displays around. The arrangement of the surroundings was like a supermarket commercial display. The Mask deserves a room to itself, and it has to be placed appropriately in a “sacred” context. The Glenbow bookstore ought to sell books like the Vanishing White Man (Stan Steiner) to educate about what is happening to the World. The “Civilized” people who celebrate the Olympics only in Narcissism make me sick.

The only one that caught my attention was a “Wampum” made of natural seashell beads, purple and white, depicting people joining hands. It is a documentation of a Treaty. Perhaps it was from Iroquois, or from East Coast. The Museum does say it is a Treaty Document, but does not tell what the Treaty was. Nobody wants to remember the Treaty. White Culture is indifferent, or rather does not wish to know. The Natives would think it too painful to remember. So it sits in a Museum as a dead artifact whose meaning is lost forever. I wonder if anyone now can read the Wampum. (Purple is a sad color, but it is my favorite color. It appears just before the Red of Dawn. I can feel the kind of people who made the Wampum.)

Looking through Glenbow show, my niece commented that the Japanese would not have traded nothing for the cheap beads. She could not understand why Native Americans were “crazy” about the damned beads. I do not understand that either, and could not explain to her. I thought of explaining it in terms of “Pride” which blinded Natives. But I stopped short of saying that. I have to check that with you. [*1.]

Old Japanese did not have a taste for “bright colored” stuff. Europeans who came to Japan apparently found that out soon enough and did not even try. Japanese art designs had to be “simple” and unobtrusive. They did not like the “Complexity” of Chinese Art much either, when they came in contact with it before the Europeans came. Their sense of beauty demanded “subtle authentic elegance”, half-hidden in “ordinary practicality”. Until recently, they despised “show offs” as superficial. they did use ornaments, but valued “gems” in purple more. Stones and metals may be valuable enough, but they praised “Artists”, not “Artifacts”.

Tea ceremony, Flower arrangement, Poetry, and even Cooking, are typical of Japanese arts which are performance-centered, non-objective and ephemeral. They are “done”, just like Love-making, and that’s it. Or they are like the punch-line of jokes, there is no “justification”, no “explanation”, and nothing more can be added.

They are “Gems of the moment” created and gone, just like the momentary smile of a beautiful girl. There is nothing more to be asked. Nobody can “keep” the Gems as such, let alone “possess” it. And because they are ephemeral, they are most precious.

The above story has to do with your question. It is not Japanese art that I wanted to tell you about. If I could, I might have tried House Made Of Dawn to bring you here. Unfortunately, I don’t know enough about the House Made Of Dawn to do the same. I guess there must be Anger behind House Made Of Dawn. You know it and that is why you can read it. But I cannot find Anger in the story. There are many references to “drinking” in Momaday’s story. You know what it is. But I do not know what “drinking” means. Perhaps, to understand contemporary Indians, one has to understand Alcohol. I fail in that.

So I talked about Glenbow Show to Japanese Arts to say the following.

Peace is like the passing of a Gem of the moment. When Pam looked at the Oklahoma Moon, that was a moment of Peace in this sense. She might say “Aha”, or Weep, but she cannot keep it. She cannot display the “gems of the moment” as such in Museums either. The only thing she can do is to try to create moments. It may take a great anger to bring out such a moment. Then, one is obliged to act out the anger.

I heard Woody saying “It Hurts. It Hurts”, on CBC broadcasting from the picket line against the Glenbow show. It was a “primordial scream”. For that moment, CBC crews must have sensed a meaning in Woody’s “scream”, for otherwise it would have been “edited out”. but then, how many people heard it as a scream? I mean Natives. It is offensive to say this, but I wonder if Natives are “sensitive” enough. To be sure, if a lot of Natives scream loud, I would be frightened. After all, I am a parasite on the dominant power structure that oppresses the Natives. Yet, I cannot understand why Natives are not angry.

At the beginning of knowing You, someone referenced you as “She is one angry woman”. I thought it very interesting. But, so far, you disappointed me. I have not seen you angry in any big way. Why aren’t you angry? Are you getting too old? I say this to you, because not angry means that you don’t love enough.

I am not a great guy to talk about Anger. I am too “intellectual” to be angry. But you should not use my failure for your exercise. By writing to you, I am guilty of making an “intellectual” out of you. I know that. But I count on your Spirituality to resist that. And what happened to your “Aquarius Conspiracy”? You are supposedly a “Believer”, “Revolutionary Doer”, and “Passionate Lover”. I am a “doubter”, “technician” and “critical analyzer”; a typical “Virgo” which is the dead opposite to Aquarius. We have to make the best out of our bad match. And I think it would be best that you be in anger.

It is strange for a Peace Researcher to say such a thing. But, I don’t see a point in being just another nice guy who would dare not go beyond his reasonable defensive safety. Peace is not the keeping of Defense. It calls for the creation of a Defenseless World. For that, the world needs extraordinary, crazy guys. Any fool can be “reasonable”. Don’t be one. In anger, You can have all the fun and excitement that alcohol can give and extras such as creating something and giving it to the World.

[*1.) As to “Pride”, I have a suspicion that it also has something to do with Alcoholism. Sometime ago you said that Alcohol makes the drinker feel “Powerful”. That was a clue.

The “Power” in the sentence is not the “power” in the sense of “Facilitator”, but rather the “Power” of those who seek domination. It is the same Power that The British Empire sought. It is a denial of vulnerability. British called it “Invincible”. But Alcoholics seem to take it in a defensive sense. They “forget” defense, but there is nothing to give out. the Pride in Power there is empty of authentic content and does not facilitate creation of Love-Eros. They seem to not be aware that all human beings as bodily existences are just passing things, and no better off than alcoholics. Non-Alcoholics are just as miserable beings to whom alcoholics need no alcohol to feel superior. I would think of “En-noblement”, beyond “Empowerment” for Natives. And to avoid the romanticism of the “Noble Savage”, I recommend Fallible Man. By understanding Vulnerability, one gets into a state of mind called “Caring” which is needed to substantiate being “Noble” in daily life beyond ritualistic moments. The Power sense from Alcohol is superficial ritual, romanticism without authentic content, and worse, alcoholics know it, and hence are defensive. Life in anger and love is unconsciously full and overflows its limitations, and hence is “unreasonable”.

Alcoholics may be very sensually sensitive people, more so than others. And they are vulnerable because of the sensitivity. But they may also have more “Pride” than others. And because of it, they get hurt more. As a result, they are Defensive all the time. If Alcohol gets them to feel “invincible”, that is a welcome relief, however momentary it may be. An alternative would be the acceptance of vulnerability. But that is apparently not an Option to Alcoholics. Somehow, they feel being vulnerable is incompatible with their Pride.

I hesitated to ask you about this. I sense that you are an Aquarius to whom “Pride” is very important and at the same time it is the stumbling block. It is called “Pigheaded” — Pigs have big pride, if you know them —.

Now that I made you somewhat angry, I would like to introduce you to a book; Fallible Man by Paul Ricoeur. It is not a book on Science, but rather about Metaphysics of “Subjective Mind”, I shall send you the introduction and the table of contents. If you are interested, I shall copy the rest for you. It looks very “snobbishly intellectual – it represents the best of “European Academic Intellect” at the moment. I do worry it might “brainwash” you into an intellectual Snobbism. the combination of snobbism and your stubbornness (pig-headedness) would be deadly. You might become not only incomprehensible to People, but also “arrogant”. But being “arrogant” is not the same as being “angry”. I hope you know the difference, and do not forget that you are a poet.

Please not the term “Affective Fragility” appears in the table of contents as a “mistranslation” of “Vulnerability in being Sensual”. “Pride” is the dialectical opposite to Sensual vulnerability.


Sam K.