An interview with Bear Heart
Have you ever wanted to hear a shaman talk about his work? Well, today’s your chance.
Those of you who’ve been following my blog for a while know that I worked closely with Bear Heart – a full blood, traditionally trained healer of the Muskogee Creek tribe. I was one of his apprentices and I co-authored his best-selling autobiography, The Wind Is My Mother; the Life and Teachings of a Native American Shaman. Published in 1996, it’s been translated into 12 languages and is still in print, and as an audiobook, too. You can buy it on Amazon here: https://amzn.to/2W2pRJc
Bear Heart was a powerful healer. In our culture we would call him a “medicine man” – but the thing is, the real medicine men and shamans don’t call themselves that. One of the requirements of their profession is humility.
One of the remarkable things Bear Heart did was bring snow to Colorado when there was a snow drought.
The fall of 1988 had very little snow and it didn’t bode well for the opening of the ski season around Thanksgiving. The owner of the Copper Mountain ski resort invited Bear Heart to come to Colorado and pray for snow. And he did. With no snow in the weather forecast, it started snowing as he did a prayer ceremony. And it kept snowing, getting the ski resorts off to a good start.
Bear Heart made the front page of the Rocky Mountain News and the TV news show A Current Affair covered the story. Journalist Mike Watkiss took the opportunity to record an unaired interview with Bear Heart. I’m deeply indebted to Mike for giving me permission to include this interview in my podcast.
2:08 min What is it you do? It’s a way of life of seeing to people’s well-being and making them feel good.
2:54 min How do you go about administering to the needs of people? It’s according to the techniques you have to fit the situation: herbs, bark, leaves, a chant, touching somewhere on the body or remove a foreign object from the body. There are many techniques: using live coals, fans, using sage, cedar or sweetgrass to fan people off. Or maybe they just need a certain kind of conversation to change attitudes they carry around. It depends on their needs.
3:55 What did you do in Colorado? What was that all about? They asked me to open the ski season for them, weatherwise. I told them I would appeal to the Great Spirit for the kind of weather they wanted. So I went through my special ceremony that I have in order to communicate to the Great Spirit. And the results were the way they wanted it. I hope they still want it. I hear it’s still snowing.
4:30 Did you make it snow? I didn’t make anything. I just made an appeal. I don’t take credit for whatever the Great Spirit does. I give credit to my teachers who taught me certain ways to do it. It’s my job to be honest with the trust they gave me by entrusting certain knowledge of these things that I dispense from time to time. I have never done anything snow-wise before. This was my first time but it didn’t worry me. I just knew it would be that way and I just went over there and did my thing and came back.
5:20 You were confident it was going to snow? Yes. Not in myself. I’m confident in the one that provides all weather. That’s the Creator. He’s never made any failures. If I had any doubts, that would be within me. I don’t doubt His ability.
5:40 So your role in that is communicating a wish? I’m sort of a mediator. But there are certain ways that you employ to do these things and that’s where the sacred things come into play. I don’t play around with it and just use it and abuse it. After that incident I had calls from different states. But I’m not in that business. I’m not a weather man. I wasn’t after publicity either. I don’t advertise myself. I don’t call myself a medicine man or healer. Others can call me that. I don’t call myself that.
6:30 A lot of people would see that and, in this day and age, when religious leaders are found for taking money or embezzling, I think people doubt religious figures. You’re not like that. I don’t like to compare myself with anyone else. Or if they’re in the healing arts. I’m not in competition with anyone. As long as they help people, that’s o.k. with me. If I’m asked for help then I do my thing. It’s not our business to judge one another or point a finger of scorn at one another. Our traditional teaching was, never point a finger of scorn at your fellow man. When you do that, there’s three fingers pointing back at you. You might be three times worse than the one you’re pointing at so be careful. That’s part of our teachings.
7:30 You say that you possess powers…. I take care of powers. I’m a caretaker. I don’t possess. It’s not mine. I’m just handling it until the need comes and I dispense it to fill that particular need. That’s about it.
8:00 You say you’re not a healer, but you can be called in and help people. I would rather be referred to as a spiritual leader. That covers a lot of things. The Creator that I believe in is the one that heals. He’s the one that created, makes it, the one that gives life to us. He’s the only one with power who can heal. That’s why I don’t take credit for healing that’s done. I just thank the Great Spirit for healing certain people, or providing certain weather. I gave thanks after I came back home safely. I gave thanks in my own private way. I’ve been taught to always say thank you for everything. Even in adverse conditions. Let’s say you got sick and almost died. They say, be grateful and you might ask, “why.” If you’re going to help somebody that’s sick and you’ve never been sick before, how can you have compassion unless you’ve had that experience? It’s not just the technique, it’s the rapport that you gain through the caring of your very being and to the life of this person. You maintain a certain relationship there as you dispense these things.
9:50 How does one go about becoming a medicine man? There are many, many techniques, many tribes. How did you become a medicine man? I was chosen. I didn’t choose to become one. I never asked anyone. But two elders of my tribe… one came to me and offered to teach me his ways. And I accepted. And a little while later, another one came. Between the two, I trained for 14 years to learn what I know now. It’s not complete. There are many more things to be learned. But both of them have gone on. So what’s left for me to do…. Where did they get it? They fasted, and communicated directly with the Great Spirit. So that’s what I need to do. We didn’t have near as many diseases within our group until the population increased and different cultures came in. We’re not like the ones that, if they don’t know what’s ailing you, they call it a virus. We don’t do that. We try to learn what causes it. We try to treat the cause, not the effect.
11:15 What’s the difference between what you do and the modern day doctor does? The doctors will ask for your symptoms. How are you feeling, what’s wrong. First, we try to determine whether your illness is psychosomatic or a real physical thing that’s wrong with you. Then, we gain a rapport with the inner consciousness of the client. And then we tell the client what’s wrong with them. We don’t ask for symptoms. There’s the difference. The MD will ask what’s wrong with you. We tell them what’s wrong with you, without asking.
12:15 Could modern day doctors learn something from you? Oh, yeah. Anyone can. To learn to communicate in that way.
12:22 I want to take a step back. You told me about the incident where you were being tested as a young man. Tell me about the snake incident one more time. The snake medicine comes in handy… I’m not at liberty to tell you how it can be used. A snake seems to have a hypnotic effect. You’re walking along and see a snake and it startles you and it sends chills through your body and your hair stands on end. You don’t really react by jumping or running. You just stay there. It has that kind of effect on you. I was taught this song. And to test the power of the song, my teacher said to come in my third day of fasting. So I went there way out in the country. And my teacher said to take my shoes and socks off and he took them around to the other side. He said come straight to me on the fourth time I sang that song. And I came around the hill and there was a rattle snake den. They were ready to strike at any time. But I kept singing, kept singing. Towards the end was the biggest rattle snake I’d ever seen. My teacher said, pat him on the head four times before you come up. And that’s what I did. That’s to break the trance I had placed on those snakes with that song so they would revert back normally.
14:27 That was a test you must have passed. Yes, I must have because I’m still here.
14:33 Tell me, what is a medicine man? What kind of role can they play in modern day society? First, I’m a father, a husband and a grandfather. Then I have an extended family of people through our Indian way of adoption. I have many relatives all over the countryside. I look at myself as a spiritual leader rather than some big-sounding name like a medicine man and so on. I hate to look at myself as a medicine man. I don’t make medicine. It’s already here. It’s how we use it and take care of it. There are a lot of people who would like to be called a medicine man and there’s a supermarket type of training. You pay so much and someone tells them, now you’re a medicine man. Without ever going through the type of testing I’ve gone through in our traditional way. But I don’t say anything. If that’s their way of life, o.k. I go around with a concern in my heart for people to be aware that each person has something great to offer, something good, something positive. From the smallest infant to the oldest person. I look at them as a human being that the Creator made. I don’t care what color. They have life within and I try to live in such a way that I can enhance within that person the desire to do the very best they can do.
16:36 What can modern society learn and take away from what you practice?I think to take time out once in a while from this dog eat dog world with a helicoptic society, going around in circles at a fast pace. We just had an election. Tell me about that. When I first visited Washington, D.C., I got to see the president of the United States, Harry S. Truman. I was supposed to be in there 10 minutes and I was in there 22 minutes and had a prayer with him before I left. It’s one thing to criticize, one thing to present an alternative of something better. But those that criticize the President, without ever praying for him, what right do they have to be critical. If you have a prayer interest in that person… so while I stood in that Oval Office, I realized it’s not really the individual alone that I pray for. I pray for the office that he represents. Every signature he puts on a document represents me as a citizen, for the good of our country. Why can’t I ask the Great Power of all Powers, the Creator, to imbue His wisdom into the leader of our country. And the leaders of other countries so that they might tolerate one another. And when you hear about little countries fighting one another, my heart goes out to those little boys and girls who are made orphans overnight. Who will care for them, who will love them, who will feed them? Those are some of the things that I think about. I live as part of the total of all living things. And I strive, even in a little sweat lodge. The sweat lodge is a tiny universe and when I pray in there I include a lot of things. Even the fire we have, the trees have life giving substance behind the bark. They were being destroyed. I sent a prayer over there. It’s going to take a long time to rebuild. There are many positive things that fill our days. Sometimes I see a drunken Indian passed out in an alley in downtown Albuquerque. When I see that, I don’t know who that person is, but I send a prayer that that life will not be totally lost and something good within him can be salvaged and one day he might be a contributing factor rather than be a drain on society. So things like that I shoot out little love, little concern everywhere I go. In the airport, on the plane, wherever.
20:20 What do you see… the way things are going now in the world, people are giving up and feel they have no control over it. What do you see? It’s a repeat of past history. People lived and moved. Among my own people, we were moved from what is now Georgia and Alabama by force. Our people walked with soldiers on horseback driving them. They came to the Mississippi River and they purposely overloaded 12 ferryboats and many of our people died in the crossing of the Mississippi. The they came to Indian Territory which later became Oklahoma. My great-grandmother was on that march. It was cold; she had no shoes and her feet froze and probably gangrene set in. She’s one of the many, many hundreds of graves in Fort Gibson, Oklahoma with no name on the marker. Just a cross. That’s where she lies. When you talk about injustice… but when it’s your own flesh and blood. She was forced to undergo this. Then, I could have taken the other side and become very angry. But later in life I knew about this great love the Creator has for all His creation. And to appropriate that love within yourself, it’s easier to have that universal love that crosses many cultural boundaries. Many religious boundaries. Some of my denominational brothers have been critical of me for working in different areas. I’ve been to a synagogue, a mass, Pentacostal, Baptist church in the country, Methodist. People are people. How is heaven divided up; anyway. Is there just a little place for Methodists over here? And Baptists over there? Where did the word denomination come from? It’s an interpretation of the Bible as they look upon it. Pentecostal… they had a Pentecostal feast 50 days after the feast of the Passover. That’s where the denomination came from. We can go on and on and on. Yet we have a universal God, one God. One Creator, one Wisdom, one energy. It doesn’t matter to me what people believe in as long as they are made aware that He is still here.
23:50 What do you say to people who look at you and say, here’s just one more guy, a showman, phony religious man claiming to do this and that. The news reports are full of people doing just that. Most people are skeptical of that. What do you say to people who think you’re a phony? I respect that. People have a right to believe anything they want to believe. If that’s their bag of tea, it’s o.k. It’s their problem, not mine. The Chinese had a saying, as long as you stand straight, you never need to fear a crooked shadow. So I just go on. I don’t retaliate or anything. If you believe that way, go ahead and believe that way. I’m not here to change people’s mind. If it pleases them to think that way, let them. I go my way and do my thing and that’s it..
24:50 You don’t take money for what you do, do you? I will take it if it’s offered. But I don’t charge a fee. I can always use it. Money actually is a personality. It expresses what kind of person you are when you have it and when you spend it. And why. Just to amass it as a means to an end, it becomes your master. You must control it. For the things I do… In my training, every time I went to my teacher, I never went empty handed. I didn’t get something for nothing. It was their livelihood. I would take food or money so they could buy what they wanted. I would give them food. In our way it’s said when you give someone food, it extends their life for another day. When you do that to an older person, some of the blessings come back to you down the road. And so we always do that. There’s always an exchange for our services. And it’s known. So we didn’t have to charge a fee. But non-Indians, not knowing about our tribal traditions, I hate to go around and say it’s going to cost you this for me to do that. Like the reporter asked me, how much are you going to get paid for that Colorado deal. I said, I know they’ll pay my expenses. Beyond that, it’s up to within a certain budget if they have something for such services. If nothing else, whatever their conscience says. I’ll probably get something. They did take care of my expenses there and back and said I’d be hearing from them. In that, there’s no set amount that I am expecting.
27:00 And you don’t worry about it. I’m not worried about it. Worrying is like sitting in a rocking chair. You can sit and rock. It gives you something to do but it doesn’t get you anywhere. You can care, and be concerned, but you can do something about it. So things like that I don’t worry about.
27:20 What kind of lessons can we learn from what you guys do? Modern society, mainstream America… what would you like to see. First, anything that you strive for begins with self. Self-knowledge, know who you are. What is your identity? What is meaningful to you? The things that you want, the things that satisfy your heart. The next step is self-control, self-discipline. There are a lot of things you’d like but you have to control yourself because of ethics, morals, the laws, you have to stay within certain bounds by learning to live with it and learning to have control. After you’ve controlled, you can open yourself to communication with a higher being. You can amass a lot of knowledge. You can be a double Ph.D but if you don’t have wisdom to guide that knowledge is nothing. There are many Ph.D people in penal institutions, but they don’t have wisdom to guide their knowledge.
Bear Heart went home to his ancestors in 2008, but you can learn more of his wisdom by reading our book, The Wind Is My Mother; The Life and Teachings of a Native American Shaman, available on Amazon at this link: https://amzn.to/2W2pRJc
Molly Larkin is the co-author of the international best-seller “The Wind Is My Mother; The Life and Teachings of a Native American Shaman.” She is passionate about helping people live life to their fullest potential through her classes and blog at www.MollyLarkin.com