Honouring Relationships

"When we come from the heart, we can't go wrong."


Advice from the Powwow Trail

Advice from the powwow trail

This article was first published in Windspeaker's Guide to Indian Country, June 1998.

By Boye G. Ladd

On several occasions I have been asked and given tobacco to address and comment on issues related to Elders, spiritual leaders and medicine men. First of all, it is with the utmost respect for the true and sincere people that are indeed respected as Elders, spiritual leaders and medicine men, that I share their humble teachings.
 Elders, traditionally, are held in high esteem for their knowledge and experience. As teachers to the young, they set an example of carrying on the traditions of respect, love, honesty and sharing. Their infinite wisdom is based upon a common sense approach to everyday life. 

A dilemma that many young people encounter when searching out an Elder for guidance and direction is that they will base their choice on age rather than experience.

 An individual living in the city or away from his people for most of his life may not be the best person to provide a young person with traditional knowledge. When a person looking for help gives tobacco and the person receiving the gift, rather than show ignorance, creates some made up story, then from that day forward the person or people looking for help will believe that story.


Tradition has deep roots and can be based on rights or on years of service to the people. 

Many times I have seen individuals "showing off" their Sundance scars, tobacco ties or amulets hanging around their necks - exposed. When a person carries protection and/or medicine, it should always be hidden and never be spoken about.

 Spiritual leaders and medicine men should be considered in the same light. For the true and sincere, their reverence is based on humbleness, dedication and sacrifice. Anytime someone stands before you and claims to be a medicine man, do not believe him or anything he says, because he or she has desecrated their oath of humbleness. You will not find a true and sincere spiritual leader or medicine man teaching in a school or university, or seeking public attention.

It was said in the beginning that the Creator gave a certain uniqueness, power and protector of a certain medicine to each nation and tribe. Certain individuals, clans and societies were gifted with this special knowledge and, most importantly, given the right to use the medicine. 

Be careful of false leaders and pseudo-medicine men that charge money for their services, especially of those that take money before the ceremony even starts. To all faiths throughout the world, including those that are Native, consider money as the 'root of all evil. '

Beware again of those that steal your women and daughters. Those that violate women in sweat lodges and during other sacred ceremonies should be prosecuted and ostracized. There are some that have even run off with their adopted daughters and have given them children. This violates and desecrates one of the most respected bonds of our people.

 There have been times that I have been asked to help a family that got 'ripped off' for thousands of dollars from people declaring themselves as healers. Who do you blame? The so-called medicine man that cons the people or the people that were naive enough to believe in the lies?

Many people search the world for, or think they can buy, happiness, when it can be found in one word - acceptance. Acceptance of one's self spiritually, brings harmony and balance to one's everyday life. Balance is essential to life. 

Learn from the teaching of our ancestors. The Elders, spiritual leaders and medicine men are human and charged with the responsibility of preserving those gifts that the Creator has given them. 

It is difficult to try and answer many of questions concerning the Native way of life in one short article. The essence of Native spirituality comes from the heart and works for those that believe.

One piece of advice my late uncle would repeat every time I left home, was:

 "Never try to be something you're not..."

Ah ho!


Hidden Pitfalls of Recording Traditional Knowledge

Hidden Pitfalls of Recording Traditional Knowledge

"Always keep in mind our commitment of sharing cultural and spiritual information with the integrity entrusted to us."

Ruth Brass, Blackfoot

If you're going to talk, don't copy books. Our history wasn't written in books. I've seen a lot of books that they write and they say this is what happened. Some of them are not true, you know, and I've read them and then I tell them you know that these people write them to make money. And, we write them to encourage our younger people to understand and what our culture was about....

I think everybody has to realize, what you learn in books is good, but make sure that they are the truth, because you have people coming in, they say they know it all. Nobody knows it all. Because we were the ones that were here, we were the ones that were told what had happened.

It get into an argument with these writers - I personally know some writers that wrote books and I tell them - they get very upset with me, because I tell them, it's nice that you're doing this, but why don't you tell the truth. Because you're writing history and it's supposed to be truthful, not made up stories.

Kim Recalma-Clutesi, Kwak waka ‘wakw

"It's so hard to work to get the Elders' voice a safe place to have the trained Elders, to give them a safe place to correct people. They are scared. I've been privy to meetings when trained old people are present talking about how do we correct this, and they say that they are very scared because of the aggression of young people. And when we're talking about young people, we're talking about the forty, fifty, sixty year olds, the ones that haven't had training. And you know, young usually is synonymous with unskilled, untrained, still toddlers. And if that means toddlers in the cultural sense, that's what it means.

The whole system that was set up to validate and reinforce the voice of authority has really broken down. A lot of it has to do with the Indian Affairs designation of bands vs. tribes, because the band delineation, I hear people wanting to identify themselves by the Indian Act band, rather than their tribal grouping. You get real confusion when you're not dealing with your clans or your tribal grouping...You get people say, ‘I'm the only chief of this band, of this territory,' where there might be 19 clans.

If I can be so bold, there have been many mediocre academics and some of our people have made these mediocre academics, just by being inside our villages and by being informants to these people, front page people and in turn made peoples who haven't the standing and the ownership, they've made them on top of the world in terms of ethnographical material. And it's really difficult to undo that because our young people are learning about who they are in the academic world and through the texts and what they think are primary sources and now that we're having some of our really skilled people understand what is being written about our culture they are wanting to correct it.

It is essential that we record oral histories visually, and with audio. It's essential rather than the written word, but it has a lot of hidden pitfalls, hidden dangers, and problems with it, associated with it. And I don't think we've even begun to talk about postproduction, editing, and that's where many of the biggest problems come in. People deciding, who have not taken the time as you have here, we all feel really good, often times the editor's not here. And what I found most useful, and demanded, the last production I worked on, was that the editor be here, actually work here, show the traditional people how it unfolded. It takes a little more time, it costs a little more money but unless you have them understand what their obligation is, it becomes a conflict again about being a gatekeeper.


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Recording Culture Following Protocols

Recording Culture Following Protocols

"The traditional knowledge of a community passes into the public domain, our spiritual guardians must control how it is used and who receives it."

Allan Pard, Piikani

There's sacred public knowledge that could be public, and shared with the public but when it comes down to sacred knowledge, or transferred knowledge, it means that in order to understand or share that information, the only way you can acquire that is that you have to live it.

We talk about Rome, about Greece, their culture and that's the reason we can still talk about it because it's been recorded. And I think we have just as much to say about our ways and only our people in this world. We have a lot to offer as people.

"Involvement is key to showing your respect for your culture."

Jerry Potts, Piikani

"The Blackfoot ways and the teachings that are still alive right now that have been learned, those still carry on the ceremonies we have, especially the ones that have been brought back. We don't know what's in the future. We need more people to be involved with this stuff. We need more Blackfoot people to be involved with this stuff because we don't know what they might bring back. Something could come to you at any time but unless you're doing it, you're going to completely miss the boat. There's thinking about it in a hypothetical sense. It's that saying, ‘saying it and doing it are two different things.' And I think our, there's, there's lots of teaching around.

People have to learn it, and I think there's got to be more respect given to it. Our own worst enemy is ourselves. We've got so many different groups that follow different ways, and a lot of times we end up, you end up being criticized or people don't respect what's going on. And that's where we've got to start getting more people involved with this stuff, from the communities and that too. It has to have a higher place, whatever it is at chief and council level or where ever have you, but there has to be more people that respect to keep it alive.


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Understanding Your Own Culture

Cultural Appropriation

Kim Recalma-Clutesi, Kwak waka 'wakw

While this shared information creates a greater understanding between people, there is also the danger of getting things mixed up by appropriating another's cultural and spiritual practices, bringing them home and making them your own. Thus begins the melding of the distinct nations of the Aboriginal people, the creation of the pan-Indian, the hybrid. 

 The people we've interviewed for Buffalo Spirit warn against this appropriation. Learn from your own people, use their teachings, find your identity within your own tribal group.

The difficulty is unraveling people's belief systems from what they've learned in text, from ethnographical material, and in the recovery centres that often use sweats, smudging and other spiritual practices of the plains people to aid in the healing process.

"There is a school of thought out there that if it's helping people, leave it alone. But there is a stronger school of thought from people who are technicians within the culture, how many of us would wash our feet in the holy water? It's akin to that. It's that serious. For some reason we are supposed to forget the rules to help people. But in a lot of ways, they said, forgetting the rules is very dangerous, because these things come as part of supernatural energy. If we are going to have the discipline to know who we are, we need to have the respect to turn the temperature down in our discussions with each other. To respect each other and to respect those people who actually own the teachings. "

Chief Adam Dick, - Kwak waka ‘wakw

"What's happening now with my people is that they're lost. They don't know who they are now. They don't know what kind they belong to. The problem is what we call long arms. You know they will reach into other people's boxes and they play with it. And they do lots of that. I have seen one of our boys where he has regalia on, everything on and dance like your people (plains people), wearing all the Indian blankets and everything. They want to dance like your people back there. There was a powwow and he was right in there with his outfit on. That we don't do."

Mary Thomas, Shuswap

"My grandmother used to lead the sweat. And this is what I find so different today; what the young people are doing today. They are borrowing from other nations and doing it. And that was something our Elders warned me. You don't borrow from other people's spirituality, because you don't understand it. Look at what the Catholic Church did to us. We don't understand that spirituality, and it's destroyed us. So if you borrow from other nations and try to follow it, it's not yours. Be very careful, she cautioned, adding, "respect other people's belief, and respect what they do. They will respect you for the way you believe. "


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Values & Worth

On Payment

"Everyone puts a value on what they receive in this world according to what they can give."

Joe P. Cardinal, Cree

"I put up a fast every year at home. I don't go anywhere. People come. One thing I make sure is they have to have a feast before they go to the fasting lodge, and when they come out, they have to have a feast. Then I make sure to say to buy their own food, and buy what they want to cook. If a guy is going to a fast, he has to hire a cook, so that when he come out. They give me gifts, like a drum, blankets. Boy, you should see the blankets I have at home. But, you know, when somebody comes that comes from someplace else, we give him or her the blankets. We just pass them on. But,you know, that's what they can give.

My mother-in-law had a lot of medicines. When this guy wanted the medicines to carry on, because he was getting old, he gave three cows to her - and cows were worth a lot of money in those days - but to be able to carry that on. But that's the way it goes. I don't think you're buying.

I liked a song. James Cardinal at home, and I went to him, and I gave him some money, I gave him a rifle - a good rifle - and I gave him a lot of other things. I says, 'I want that song from you. I'm asking you.' I could never buy, if it had a price on it, I could never give enough for it. But I gave what I had and what I could give. But one thing he told me, 'just don't bring that money in here. Leave it outside.' The only thing he told me is he didn't what the money in the sweat. Leave it outside. You're not buying. I don't think you could ever buy.

I had 27 fasters last year in Saddle Lake, and then I when went to Fort Fraser, and I had about 13 over there. This guy invited me over there he wanted people to fast over there on his land at the [River]. I told him, I says 'Art, don't give me anything. Just give me the chance to fish here and can fish. I brought quite a few of my grandchildren over there. And they were canning fish. And, holy smokes, that's lots, lots of thing to do to can fish. And there was a lady there that showed them how to cut it and smoke it. You know that's a fortune in itself. What more do you want? These are the things, that is payment.


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