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One Native life

Sun showers, rainbows and the medicine wheel

The rain is a fine sprinkle through the trees. Against the sky, the sun pokes its head through the thin crust of cloud and there;s a happy conjunction of energy everywhere around you. The land breathes and you can almost feel the huff of it, the great lungs of Mother Earth receiving and releasing. The rain is a mist of jewels in the ebullient slant of the sun.

Standing on a rock on the shore of the lake, there's a rainbow that links the mountains. It touches down on one and extends across the water to ease into the ruff of trees on the other. Glimmering. Shining. Beneath its layered parabola, birds wheel and dive, exuberant in the mix of rain, shadow, sun and the huge bending arch of color.

There's a certain feel to mornings like this. It's like the way you remember feeling as a child when you burst through the back door after breakfast, freed for hours and the world exploding into view, fresh and new and filled with wonder. The child in you celebrates the force of the world proclaiming itself.

If we're lucky, we find things and people that spring open the doors to perception that way. If we're lucky, we encounter folks who guide our eye and teach us to see all over again, further, deeper into this reality, this world, this life. When it happens, we're awed by the sudden presence of a world that eluded us, an entity whole and complete and shining like a dream.

That happened for me when I was 27.

His name was Cliff Thompson. He was a huge bear of a man who laughed easily and loudly. He was a spiritual teacher from the Sioux tradition. We were in the Qu'Appelle Valley in southern Saskatchewan, surrounded by sand cliffs, water, sage hills and rangeland as far as the eye could see. Cliff was teaching a group of us about the Native way of seeing the world.

When he spoke, you could feel the passion in him. He talked of Sun dances and spiritual ceremonies he'd been blessed to attend and take part in. He spoke of elders who'd graced him with teachings and how his life had changed since that time. And he spoke of the land like it was a person, a loved one, family, kin. The brown of him, his skin, his eyes, radiated that affection.

The second night we met, we gathered in a darkened room. Candles were burning and there was the sweet smell of burnt sage in the air. In the center of the room, Cliff had set up an altar. It was round, the lines of it drawn by hand and painted in what I'd learned were the colors of the four cardinal directions. There were stones on it, roots, a pine cone, eagle feathers, a wooden bowl of water, a swatch of deer hide, antlers, a hand drum and a red stone ceremonial pipe.

In the hushed lighting of the candles, it seemed to breathe. None of us spoke. All of us were awed by the quiet power of these articles and we sat humbly, respectfully awaiting the teachings.

He sang a song with the drum. Then he prayed and smudged all of us with the sacred smoke from an abalone bowl using a huge eagle wing fan. We sat again and he closed his eyes and breathed. I could feel the energy of him then, could feel the energy that lived in the room and it unsettled me some, this huge fibrillation of power all around me.

When he began to speak, the flicker of the candles lent his words a timeless feel, so that closing my eyes I could imagine myself back a thousand years with that same light dancing on the skin of a tipi, the land hushed around us.

He spoke of the medicine wheel. There were no flip charts, handouts, diagrams or long, detailed texts. Instead, there was only the power of his words, the energy of his belief, the quiet of that room and the enduring strength of the teachings themselves. This was the way it was told in traditional times, orally without props, each of us discerning what we could and carrying it with us.

When Cliff talked, I could feel myself opening up. What he spoke of was relationships. Within the great wheel of energy that we live in, everything is related. Our journey is many journeys because everything we do affects something else, someone else. Learning to travel with dignity, with respect and humility for the creative energy within all things, is the heart of the Indian way. That's what he taught us.

There is life force in everything, and because of that everything is alive, animated, moving even if we can't see it. But we can learn to feel it. When we learn to feel it, sense it, intuit it, we have come to true awareness of our ongoing state of relationship. That awareness lives beyond the brain. We can only know it by the way we feel it in our spirits, our hearts, and it is only there that teachings live and learning occurs.

The medicine wheel is a process of coming to know your feelings. Medicine, a sacred word that means ''something that joins you to the world,'' exists within the realm of feeling and speaks the truth always. Learning to travel with the feelings as our guide is a difficult thing, an arduous journey that few have the courage to make. But knowing and wisdom can only come from making that trek.

My life changed that night. I learned that being Indian was an inside job. It didn't matter a whit what I looked like on the outside - it was what I carried within me that had weight and consequence. There was no tripped-out, New Age, post-hippie mystery to the medicine wheel. We are all medicine wheels when we learn to journey with our feelings.

Simple truths shining in the sun of a new morning - and the world awaits us.