Linda Neale's Blog

Listening with a Capital L

Linda Neale - Wednesday, August 22, 2012

 Here's a little story about ceremony, the first one I've written in a long time.  I asked Big A and Heddi Neale for permission to publish the story on my blog, and they both granted permission.  It's about what happens when we Listen with a capital "L".


He looked like a Sumo wrestler -- a big guy with dark skin and loose shorts barely hanging on to his rear end in that peculiar fashion statement of street kids. When I first saw him in line with the other young people at Earth People’s United Youth/Elders Gathering near the Northern California stream, he seemed familiar to me, like a distant relative I couldn’t quite place.  My husband Rod and I had been served our lunch (elders go first), and the kids were still in line waiting for their food when I noticed the young man's tattoo -- the words “Tohono Oodham” scripted large down his right arm.


He looked at me, and gave a tentative half-smile.


“What’s your name?” I asked.


“Well they call me Big A.”


“Where are you from?” I asked.


“Oakland”, he responded.


“Are you Tohono O’odham?”




“My husband’s Akimel O’odham.  You’re cousin tribes, you know.  You speak the same language.” I told him.


“Yea, well I grew up in Oakland, but I always like wanted to know about my heritage.” he said.  His accent sounded like street slang, not the O’odham accent of Arizona.


“Come over here a minute and meet my husband”, I invited. 


Rod was sitting on his walker near the hay bale circle wearing his neck brace.  Six months ago he’d fallen in a freak accident and broken his neck, seriously injuring his spinal cord.  The doctors told him he’d be paralyzed from the neck down, and now, after surgery, prayer, ceremony, and much physical therapy, he was walking with a walker.  At 81, he was the oldest Elder in camp, and the others were impressed he had driven six hours to attend.  I was happy, because the people here valued Rod's teachings, and he had something important to do and contribute.


When I brought Big A to Rod and introduced him as Tohono O’odham, Rod seemed energized and began speaking to him in his native language.  Big A looked confused.


“He doesn’t understand his language, because he grew up in Oakland,” I explained to Rod. 


Then one of the youth counselors called out, and Big A had to leave to join the other young people. 


“You come around and maybe you can learn something about your heritage.” I told him as he walked away.


He gave me a big smile.  “Okay”, he said. 


“He’s not as ferocious as he looks”, I thought.  In fact, I felt sad for him -- like most urban Indians of today he’d grown up  without a connection to his own culture and elders.


The next morning was the first council meeting.  Held in a round building with no walls and a firepit in the center, the council meeting is when the youth gather to listen to the elders speak from their hearts.  Elders from Africa, Canada, South Dakota, California, Guatemala, Wales, Washington, and Oregon were present. There’s no “agenda”. The theme for this year’s Gathering was “Life is Ceremony”.  The young people kept the fire going 24 hours a day, and took turns on the big drum, beating out a constant heartbeat rhythm.


As the oldest elder, Rod spoke first.  He spoke of many things -- knowing yourself, the original medicine of water, making mistakes, and his own life. I watched as Big A and the other kids focused on Rod with rapt attention.  One of the things Rod mentioned was “it’s OK to copy” in reference to ceremony. 


Then it was my turn. 


A few days prior to this Gathering, we’d been at another ceremony, a sundance. When the dance was over, I asked for one of the staffs that marked the entrance to the sundance arbor.  It was a chokecherry pole, about 7 feet tall, with a large yellow prayer flag tied to the top.  I had clear guidance to bring the staff with me to the Gathering, although I wasn’t exactly sure what I would do with it.  Sitting there listening to Rod, it became clear -- I was to give the pole to Big A.


As soon as the guidance came, I began doubting, questioning, “thinking too much”, as Rod would say:


“It’s too soon in the ceremony to do something like this.”


“Big A doesn’t know anything about the sundance.  Maybe he won’t respect it.”


“You don’t even know this guy -- what do you think you’re doing?”


“Who are you to give him this?  Rod should do it.”


Those were just a few of the thoughts that buzzed through my head.


Then I remembered something Rod often says -- “You have to follow your guidance if you don’t want an ass-kicking.”


I didn’t want an ass-kicking.  I’d had enough of those.  So, after acknowledging my elder teachers, I elaborated on Rod’s comment about copying.  We all learn by copying -- that’s how babies learn to talk, to walk, and how we learn almost everything in our lives.  But if we are only shown one way, then we copy that way, because we don’t have another model to follow.  “What the elders are doing here”, I said to the group, “is demonstrating another way that the youth can copy if they so choose.”


I also spoke about the sundance, and brought out the prayer staff.  I told everyone that Rod had danced in front of a staff like that for many years, holding the buffalo skull and raising it up to the moon at night.  It was difficult.  The skull was heavy and his arms weakened, but he’d done it until he was 78 years old. I tried my best to help them see the beauty of Rod’s prayer that he had danced for over 30 years.  Then I said that all the elders wanted to pass on whatever teachings they had to the young people who were present, and that I had a presentation I needed to make.


“There’s a cousin of Rod’s here, and I’d like him to come forward to receive this flag. Big A...”  The big guy walked around the circle to me.


I told him that although he may not know what this was all about, he would learn if he kept showing up at ceremonies and gatherings like these.  I told him to take care of the staff.  Then Rod spoke to him in a quiet voice that few people could hear.


When Rod was done, Big A returned to his seat.  It was over.


People were very quiet. 


Later, other elders spoke.  When we were done for the day, Big A was asked to lead the people out of the council house.  He carried his staff over his shoulder.  The Gathering continued for four days and I watched Big A.  He took the staff with him wherever he went -- lunch, fire, council meetings.  I never saw him without it. 


The next day,  one of the youth counselors came to thank me for “tuning in” to Big A.  He told me some of Big A’s background, and then he said,


“Just before we walked down to the council house for that first Council meeting, Big A told me he was praying for a sign that this was the right path for him.  I guess he got his answer.”



When I spoke with Big A today, he asked if he could come and visit us in a few months.  I said "Of course."  As Rod would say, "We'll see what happens."


Milt Markewitz commented on 22-Aug-2012 04:58 PM
Beautiful!! Thank you Linda and Rod for redirecting a life. Milt
Hise Sandy commented on 22-Aug-2012 09:12 PM
Linda & Rod - Thank you for your leadership and continuing to teach me how I can make a difference in the lives of others. Thank you for reminding me about the power of listening and being real. Blessings & gratitude - Sandy
Anonymous commented on 22-Aug-2012 11:14 PM
Amazing and inspiring ..such beauty that creator ...set forth when we pray for answers..haawaa creator for your love
warren brodey commented on 23-Aug-2012 02:45 AM
identifying and trusting the voice within has a beauty of its own which can be shared
Carolyn Winkler commented on 23-Aug-2012 06:43 AM
Thanks for sharing your wisdom Linda. This made me cry it so touched my heart.
Ginny Peckinpaugh commented on 23-Aug-2012 10:11 AM
Such a sweet, touching story. The impact of simple acts. Of listening and trusting guidance. Of the importance of just showing up, of willing to being vulnerable. Thanks, Linda, for sharing this.
Christine Staub commented on 23-Aug-2012 06:36 PM
Linda, thank you for sharing this beautiful story and for trusting your Heart.
Jeannette Gailey commented on 24-Aug-2012 01:32 PM
Thank you Linda for noticing, tuning in and & "following your guidance"; Rod's light shines so big that young had to have been touched deeply by what both of you offer up to those who can see.
Kelly Garnica commented on 25-Aug-2012 04:41 PM
Thank you so much Sister and Grandpa Rod. Being at the Sundance you speak of here; and knowing that prayers from dance are being answered and shown in such grand ways, confirms my path as well. You two have touched me so deeply, and I thank Creator for
this. Blessings of compassion have so been granted as per your request??!!! May the blessings of healing continue for both of you. Much love from my lodge to yours, and to Big A's.. I feel greatness with this young man. He shall walk with much honor. Your
teachings and sharing is so beautiful, thank you. Thank you for letting me speak.
Debbie Peckham commented on 28-Aug-2012 08:34 PM
Big A has had the most special gift of all ... being loved by Rod and Linda ! I know this time will impact the rest of his life . Blessings to you both for always listening to Spirit and giving the gift of His Presence. Big A is firmly planted on the red
road ... love to you both!
Judy Schaeffer commented on 29-Aug-2012 08:21 AM
that's the medicine!!!

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