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Beginning It'll Take Your Whole Life
Many years ago, I was hungering so strongly to find my own Micmac roots that I found myself knocking at the door of a perfect stranger on a Micmac reservation deep in the interior of the Canadian Maritimes. This mysterious stranger was rumored to consider himself a "medicine man," although no one knew much about him at the time. There was no clue that this so-called medicine man, Ben Payson (a fictitious name I use to honor his request for anonymity) was even home, but I kept knocking. Yes, I was nervous, but he seemed to be my last chance and I had promised my family I would try to learn the ways from an elder. My throat was dry as cotton.
The door opened and I stood back. There in the doorway was the most amazing looking human being, his big muscular arms crossing his bare chest. I caught my breath. He had the round, sloped face of the Algonquin and his long white hair poured down in rivers over his big shoulders. His barrel chest seemed impenetrable to spears and arrows, and he looked at me with a warrior's clarity and a warrior's wariness of strangers. His mustache softened the look of his face and his mouth, but not the intensity of his gaze. His upper eyelids had the steep curve of full-blooded Native American people, giving his eyes the apearance of being almond-shaped.
It struck me that he was the chief of his own world, possessing total authority over his own affairs. His feet were firmly planted in the doorway as if it were a gate and he were the gatekeeper. He possessed power of confidence that comes from devotion to his people and total belief in his way of life. "Here is a man of true power," I thought.
"I'm looking for someone ...named ...Ben ...Payson."
"Yure lookin' at 'im!" He tossed the words back at me without uncrossing his arms.
"I thought you could help me. I want to learn about the Micmacs." I figured that my mere interest would win him over.
"Why you wanna learn ...about Micmac?" he growled.
My jaw dropped. I had never expected such a question. Why indeed? I thought, "Doesn't he want to share his personal philosophy with the world?"
"Why?" I paused for a long time. I didn't know the answer, and he wasn't about to give me a clue.
"Why?" I answered, stalling. "Because I need to know. I want to learn everything there is to know about Micmac way of life. I want to learn the language, the ceremonies, the stories...."
He finally stepped forward a little bit. "Ha! You can't just learn about Micmac ways in a few days. That'll take your whole life!"
I had a career, a wife, a family, but at that moment, I couldn't think of anything better to do with my life. I looked him squarely in the eye and said, "I'm not busy."
He responded, "You can't just walk up and say, 'Teach me everything about this Micmac way of life.' What if you're not ready for it?"
An eagle-like power entered me and filled me with fierceness, and I felt as if my feet were to lift from the ground like a raptor's talons. "I am not doing this for myself. I'm doing this for my mother, my sister, my brother, and for all my aunts and uncles.
"I'm doing this for all my relations, every one of them."
What I said next is still a jumble to me now, as it was then. What I wish I'd said was:"This is their way of life, but it has been kept from them. All of them have Micmac ancestors, as I do, and it's time they found a Micmac medicine man to teach them what society has taken away. They need this and sent me to find it for them, and nothing is going to stop me!"
I'd said all of it in one breath of fire. I was shaking and paused to catch my breath for a moment. "...and if you don't teach me, I'll find somebody who will!" I grasped the handrail for balance. Those last words came through me like a freight train. I couldn't stop them.
It looked as if I'd made a mess of everything. I wanted to give up, to leave and run home, having failed in my quest, but something held me there a second longer, a strong inner arm. I felt dizzy.
"You come on inside," he said quietly. I obeyed, and stepped past him through the shadows of the doorway, and into the kitchen. That was the beginning of my training in the ways of "We the People."
Excerpted from No Word for Time by Evan T. Pritchard. Copyright © 1997 by Evan T. Pritchard. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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This is one of the best books on Native American spirituality for many a moon.