In Memory of Bear Heart. Part 4.

June 23, 2013 by Jerry Alatalo

Bear Heart would come to be introduced to the medicine world during his youth. Not many Indians used physicians as there were medicine men and women who could cure most diseases with herbs and chants.  This is hard for those who have always seen a traditional doctor to believe.

At eleven his mother contracted a disease and requested help from a relative who was a medicine man. As he waited on the front porch for the medicine bundle he could hear his relative singing and preparing the medicine. The man gave him a Mason jar and told him when his mother should take the medicine.

He did not know that later he would begin to learn and become a healer.

Bear Heart’s mother told him how medicine people would show off their power to each other now and then while drinking. They would drink as a way to stay connected with the Earth and humanity. She saw as a child one of them take a whiskey bottle, say a chant and twisted the glass in his hands to the point that the bottle was reshaped.

Another one took his belt off, threw it on the floor and it turned into a snake. They were like boys who would top each other. “I can do this!” “That’s nothing, watch this!”

When a delegate went to Washington to represent the people there would be a herb fixed that would make the delegate’s words eloquent and clear. The medicine was fixed so that the audience would find his words worthy.

Bear Heart had no idea that he would learn the medicine way.

He described a time where a relative was accused of killing his wife and his mother thought he would go to prison. The relative knew a lot of medicine ways , used them during the trial and he was eventually free without charge.

He came to meet an elder man named Daniel Beaver who was a medicine man. He told Bear Heart “I’ve noticed you, I know your folks, I know where they come from, their clans. As I’m getting on in years, I find I may not have too many days left. But of all the people I’ve known over the years through the medicine ways, I have been watching you, how you carry yourself, how you keep your word. One day there was an old man who came to visit your family. You saw him way down the road carrying his satchel and you ran all the way down on that hot August afternoon. You carried his satchel, you sat him down and gave him some food and water.”

“We know how you treat people and care for them. You may not think a lot about these things, but it means a lot for us. What I have in mind is this-I have to turn my ways over to someone who is qualified. I’ve looked around in our own area and I haven’t found anyone except you. Everywhere I look you keep coming back into my line of vision, so I know that you are the one to carry on. I would be honored if you would allow me to turn some of my medicine ways over to you.”

Bear Heart would explain something. In our tribe, we are taught early in life to be good recipients. When someone gives you something, whether a big thing or a small thing, our people say, “The Great Spirit doesn’t look at size, only at how that gift is given.”

I said to Daniel Beaver, “Grandfather, you’re going to give me something wonderful because, through your ways, you make people feel a little better, physically, mentally, or spiritually, so I would be the one honored to learn your ways. I will do my best to take care of your gift in a good way.”

That is how Bear Heart got started with Daniel Beaver.

Daniel told him “I chose you because you are not a vengeful type person. You are going to be in charge of powers that can hurt people. If someone slights you, you must not be tempted  to use that power to get back at them. That’s not always easy, because we’re human beings-we have feelings, we have hurts. And yet at that time we can look to a Higher Being who has wisdom. We have small knowledge but he has knowledge beyond that, so let him take care of acts against us. To turn it over to Him, saying, ‘You know better, please take care of this for me,’ is actually the greatest warfare we can engage in. It takes great character to be able to say that and mean it.”

Even though it all comes from the same source, a medicine person goes in one of two directions: either working to help others, or working to help himself. Whatever the choice he has to stay with that.

Bear Heart would have to learn the ways of those who chose to practice dark medicine to treat those who were their victims. He did not want to learn any chants that would take a human life and said so. Daniel Beaver honored his request but did teach him how to take the life of an animal. Daniel did not tell Bear Heart that humans were animals so in effect he did teach him how to take a human life. Daniel let Bear Heart figure it out for himself.

Creek medicine persons will usually pick a minimum of four, but ideally seven apprentices. Each then passes the knowledge to seven more and this is how the wisdom gets passed on to future generations. Bear Heart began learning many lessons and faced many tests including learning about herbs, tree barks, inner parts of trees, leaves, and how to see the differences during each season of the year.

He learned chants which carry power from a long time ago that contain words of power which have an effect. He would fast for seven days even though traditional medicine says no person can live for more than four days without food or water. He knew of men who would fast for fourteen days to get the teachings and that they were powerful medicine men.

He described one of many tests of his character and faith. He went with Dave Lewis, another medicine teacher, to a river at midnight and stood chest high in the water. He saw something like a cow with small bells attached to its horns approach him and then go under the water. Then he saw two giant arms with tentacles for fingers coming at him, and then at the last moment pass him by. He stood firm when he saw a four-headed snake come toward him. As the snake passed he heard a song which he could then remember.

He told Dave he heard a song and then sang it for him. Dave said to Bear Heart “That snake gave you a song that you will be able to use in court situations. You can use it to fix tobacco to help our people be treated fairly.”

He had to go through the tests to  be able to receive the power of the songs. The songs were so powerful that sometimes no herbs were not needed. To heal an earache he would sing a chant and blow into the ear. His grandson cut his hand slicing cheese, he went outside, got some dirt and put it on the cut. It healed in a short time with no infection. Bear Heart said it took a great deal to learn those things.

He said it took a great deal of training to learn how to suck poison from a person’s body. His teeth went bad early and at times his gums would be sore for days after performing the procedure. The smell of the substances pulled through sucking it out were bad and often caused him nausea.

Then he had to learn how to close the opening where the poison came out. He learned how to sing a chant that closed the openings like it was never there.

He described a test that an elder named Bear Paw put him through. Bear Paw told him “I’m getting sickly now and way up in age. I don’t have much time left to spend with you, but I want to put you through this one test because it will carry you through many situations where you will need to be able to exert self-control.”

Bear Paw brought him to a huge anthill and told Bear Heart to lie on it. The red ants crawled all over Bear Heart and he just lay there and let them crawl. Not one of the ants bit him. This was a test of self-control. Bear Paw said to him “The Bible says, if someone slaps you on the cheek, turn the other cheek. It means that you don’t resort to force, you don’t have to defend yourself when you have faith. If you didn’t believe that, there would have been resistance on your part and the ants would have bitten you. This lesson in self-control is to condition you to have acceptance and faith in your own life.”

His training with Daniel and David lasted fourteen years, learning from Daniel one month and David the next.  Dave told him “Be honest in dealing with people and let them see the humorous side of you as well as the serious side. The two go hand in hand, and if you make them laugh, they’ll forget their troubles for a while. Then you can explain to them what you’re going to do with the medicine, how they’ve been affected by the illness, and how this medicine will offset this illness. Explain everything to the patient before making the medicine. That increases their belief that you know what you are doing and that is healing in itself.”

Dave told Bear Heart “You’re going to go through many, many fasts because you can only retain when you’re not full. When you’re full, distraction comes. You must be a clear channel in order to learn the songs and the chants. Sometimes I’ll teach you a chant, later on I’ll tell you what it means. We’ll put many of these chants to the test to see if they have accepted you and will work with you.”

In his second year with Dave, Dave sent him on a four-day vision quest and told him to visit him on the fourth day. When he came down from the mountain after four days and came to Dave’s house, Dave asked him if he was ready. He told him that he was going to find out if the snake song was known by Bear Heart or not.

Dave brought him to a small hill and instructed him to start singing the song, and after the fourth time to come toward him on the other side of the hill. It was a hot August day and there was a rock with oil on the top which Bear Heart came to know was a rattlesnake den. Dave had taken his shoes and socks; Bear Heart found himself among many rattlesnakes with fangs exposed and ready to strike. He was walking among them and did not stop singing.

His faith in the song which came from way back in time with great power  made the snakes move back and create a path for him to walk through them. Dave pointed to the largest of the snakes and told Bear Heart that it was the grandfather, and to pat it on his head four times and come back to him. He kept singing, patted the grandfather on the head four times, and returned to Dave. Dave told him “By singing that song four times you put them in a trance. By patting the grandfather, you broke the trance so they could all go back to normal, to the power of the snake.”

Bear Heart said that knowing that song was why no one he sent on a vision quest was ever bitten by a rattler, even in rattlesnake season. It was one of many tests he had to pass.

Continued in Part 5…