with Brian Bull
Elder spirits reside in Kathleen Gordon’s heart – spirits that drive her to practice and teach the spiritual values an earlier day. In today’s Elder Wisdom, Brian Bull explores how the Longhouse Religion and the traditional way of life of the Cayuse people have made a lasting difference in an elder’s life:
Clad in a wing dress with purple and lavender ribbons, and a beaded scarf, this elder impresses even before speaking. Ask what her name is, and she’ll first say “Kathleen Gordon”. But a moment later, she’ll smile softly and share a more intimate identity that spans far up the family tree:
I have an Indian name that is after my great grandmother. And that name is Shoush wee-net-my. We carry those Indian names through the generations and they’re passed on to children. When we are told that we are going to be given an Indian name of a certain person that was one of our grandmas or grandmother we’re supposed to try to learn as much as we can about that person, and then try to conduct ourselves in a manner similar to that person.
And they tell me that Shoush wee-net-my was a very devout woman. She was a very respectful woman and that she really and truly tried to follow the ways she learned about the creator, and how the creator wanted human beings to live. And people ask me what (l) means. And ” shoush” in our language, Cayuse-Nez Perce language is “quiet”. And ” wee-net-my” when they put that on the end is usually a woman signifying that it’s a female. So Shoush wee-net-my, I tell them, is “a quiet peaceful woman.” And she was one of the last strong medicine women of our tribe.
Gordon is literally living proof of that strong medicine. Were it not for her grandmother, Gordon’s time on earth would have been brief.
I was born in 1936. And there were two midwives. That cord had choked off my air, and that I was just totally purple. And those midwives unwrapped that cord and I wasn’t breathing. My grandmother grabbed me and breathed into my mouth, just like this. What do they call it now? Mouth to mouth resuscitation. And just blew. And I came to. And then they slapped me on the backside and I started crying. But the doctor visited two days later. That was the visiting doctor to the reservation. And he told my mother, “She’s a very frail child. You’re lucky she’s alive. But she probably will not live ten years.” And here I am now, sixty-seven years old.
When Gordon was old enough, she and her grandmother ventured out on numerous house calls, traveling out into the rolling hills and patchy forests to help out those who were sick. Gordon says these visits clearly demonstrated her grandmother’s reputation as a healer:
And we traveled in an old Model-A car, I remember. Sometimes we’d leave, have to leave in the middle of the night if someone brought a message that someone needed her to go there.
I t was a very, very interesting life to be able to witness those natural healing times. And she was just such a wonderful, wonderful woman, just the touch of her hand was was just so healing. And ah, I always knew if I was very, very sick as soon as I saw my grandmother I was going to be well in no time.
And the people that were near death, when we would go to a home that I could see, they would use hot rocks. They would use hot water. And they would use their songs. And sometimes they would have sticks, either on the floor where people would hit those sticks in rhythm with those songs or they would sometimes have a stick and hit the floor with the stick. Those were supposed to be the healing powers of this person healing. And they’d get well. I mean you’d think the noise and stuff would be disturbing for an ill person, but they would they would improve. I mean it’s, and I’d still say it’s through the power of god that was coming down through the people and the prayers and, and that. That’s what I believe in my heart.
Gordon says her grandmother, and other elders not only used their spiritual medicine to help the sick, but also to preach acceptance among their people. Decades of western settlement had lead to interracial relationships, something that caused rifts among the tribe.
Some of our full blood Indian people were somewhat prejudiced against the “breeds”, they called them. In our Native language we call them ah-limahs. But a lot of our elders that had a lot of wisdom would defend the ah-limahs, when people would try to put our ah-limah people down, they would stand up for them and say, “these are our people. They came from our people. And even though there was a mixture of blood, they are still our people.”
I was real glad that my father learned from his uncle to be very, very proud of your heritage regardless of whether you are a full blood or not, that whatever our Creator made us to be, that we needed to be very, very proud of who we were, regardless of what other people said.
For Gordon, part of this pride is keeping tradition. She knows that during the past two centuries, government agents and missionaries systematically worked to abolish much of the region’s Native cultures as a way to “civilize” and assimilate the Natives. Gordon wants today’s youth to treasure the tribal language, which she considers a divine gift:
And I tell our people when I try to talk to them about our languages, just like every sound he gave every bird. Every different song he gave every bird. Every different sound he gave every animal. Every different sound he gave everything in the waters and the seas. Every sound is so sacred because it’s a very unique sound that comes from us. And those languages that he gave to us were, were sacred, sacred gifts that we were to cherish and teach our young the rest of our days.
However, when the new people that came across the waters and started um, wanting to change our lives and, as they said, “civilize” us. They just could not understand our way of life, living off the land and they could not understand the sounds coming from our mouths, the sounds of prayer, the songs of prayer, the songs of worship.
Even our dances that we were actually worshipping our creator for all of the beautiful and sacred gifts that he bestowed upon us on this land at the time of our birth. They wanted to convert all the Indian people to Catholicism or Protestants, Protestantism or whatever, Methodists, whatever missionary came first, they would try to convert Indian people.
And ah, my grandmother who was a strong, strong Indian doctor, they called her was converted to Catholicism and then became a very strong Catholic, singing and praying those songs in the Native languages. So, thank God I still know some of those prayers and hymns in, in our Cayuse-Nez Perce language, one of the last persons that still can pray and sing in those Native languages that were translated.
So it’s so important to us as elders who have learned through the grace of almighty God the languages that we know now from our dear grandmothers and grandfathers, who were not able to speak to English.
In her efforts to keep the old ways alive, Kathleen Gordon hopes that tomorrow’s generation will take the elder path – whether it’s using strong medicine to help others honoring all colors of their people, or celebrating the spiritual teachings by making those beautiful sounds of music and prayer.
For Wisdom of the Elders, I’m Brian Bull.