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Native Currents: Beginning with a story, the language of our dreams

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Midwifery and women's knowledge remind us of the power of birth and reproduction. This consciousness of continuous creation is one of the greatest cultural resources of indigenous communities. It is embedded in our creation stories, our ceremonies, our languages, and our traditional medicine societies that entwine with the universe of the sky world. It is also reflected in our political, social and ceremonial organization and the micro-verse within us that expresses our spirit through our dreams and visions. Embedded in all this experience of being Onkwehonweh (or Real People) human beings is the knowledge of birth and re-birth. This knowledge of our peoples, invested in individual practitioners such as midwives, healers and women in family building relationships, develops and grows, even through our dreams.

"It all depends on the value you give that which belongs to you," said Maya Daykeeper Roderico Teni, practitioner of the ancient ways of the days known as the Tzol'kin. Don Roderico explained this in the context of his knowledge of Maya birth practices and dreams in an interview at the Iewirokwas Program of Running Strong for American Indian Youth office in Berkshire, N.Y.

As a traditional midwife, I have had the privilege of many great teachers. Don Roderico, Daykeeper and community development expert, generously gave me his permission to share these thoughts.

Don Roderico: "Many people will dream and not place any kind of value on the dream, ignoring what it might mean and what it can give to your life. This is in the same way one might not value your own body's production - you might cut your hair and throw it in the garbage, your fingernails. But things of this nature all have their value. In my tradition, these are things to be taken care of and not something to be simply discarded like garbage."

He reminded me of the why of our customs over the placenta and over the bellybutton, which are buried in the land where the child was born. These things all have their meaning. The thinking is that the spirit, in death, will return and will identify with the place where that body is, where these physical things are. Thus the spirit will not be dispersed but in fact be aligned with the place of the physical manifestation.

Roderico continued, "The language of the spirit is very subtle, and has difficulty arriving in this concrete, physical manifestation - so one has to pay a lot of attention to it. If you don't, the old people have instructed us, it dissipates. Then the spiritual language can't reach you in your living life. That language, or that spirit message, ceases to arrive in your dreams if you don't pay attention to it. If the dreams that carry meaning are not noted, interpreted and focused upon, they begin to not happen."

As with all such Native traditional instructions, meaning and truth are extended as in metaphor. What is true for dreams is true for love within a family, for communication between wife and husband.

"The practice of paying attention to the special dreams is very important. I have seen also in my practice that it adds to an individual's ability to interpret meanings in life and to pay attention to dreams if the family and the generations have never stopped doing this. If your grandparents have paid attention to how to interpret dreams, even if they may not have all the knowledge of it, if they have some elements of it, this makes a positive difference. Again, so one does not discard this knowledge in the same way that one doesn't discard the body or the things of the body, because these things are part of you that your being is producing. The old people paid and pay a lot of attention to fingernails or hair, excretions from the body. None of these things are taken lightly.

"Every night there's dreaming and every night there's a communication but it doesn't always manifest in a way that can be interpreted. The work of the spirit is to provide that communication, whether it is a warning or whether it is a message of some sort, and the message from the spirit comes more properly or more normally in images, not words, so that it's through images that the spirit can provide the mind these messages. So one speaks of the language of dreams according to the intensity of dreams. When you have a real clear dream it's because you have a good relationship going with your own spirit, so the imagery in the dream, the sequence of the dream is clearer because at those moments and at that time in your life you have been able to harmonize with your spirit."

Don Roderico spoke this way from a deep ancient knowledge and I greatly enjoy our long conversations. I often add his knowledge - his ancient science of intuition - to my work with pregnant ladies.

It's difficult to know how to share this kind of knowledge but I wanted to make it known, at least, that this kind of conversation goes on in Indian country. One very important relationship in my midwifery context is that of the mother or grandmother with the daughter or with the daughter-in-law. When things are good, the women of a family can really help each other. The more experienced ones begin to incorporate their knowledge into that new person, that new mother, who can become spiritually aware of this and be able to work with it. But this only happens where the culture is very strong.

In these modern times, the movement of people is so fast and there's so much that comes into the mind all the time that it is very difficult for these things to coexist. There's too much of a concentration on the economics or the individual's desires and these connective spiritual values diminish, especially the values that come to us, the human beings, from the spirits of nature, which has its own guiding forces. As they are increasingly ignored, in time that also diminishes the ability to have these sensitivities.

There's a mutual respect and if you pay attention to that then the knowledge of this can grow and the communication grows. As Don Roderico said "It takes a lot of years of training, of knowledge, of pondering to be able to interpret these things properly, to maintain that level of energy. It takes a lot of time. That's why community is so important. But if you don't pay attention to these things, over time, they die out and you're just walking with minimal energies, on-the-outside level, lost even to yourself.

Katsi Cook, traditional Mohawk midwife, is director of the Iewerokwas Program of Running Strong for American Indian Youth and is a columnist for Indian Country Today.