31 May 2008


lll ) llllllllllllllllllllllll Mo'toyaohkii…

Nitsiikohtaahsi’taki those rare occasions when disparate bits of knowledge ki experience unexpectedly coalesce to transform my understanding. I’ve asked a few naahsiksi if there is a way to describe this phenomenon in niitsi’powahsin, ki their suggestions so far have included: tonihp (I recognized s.t.), nikaomatapotsistapi’tsihp (I’m beginning to understand or be aware of s.t.), ki annaahtsiksi (oh, that’s how it is… an uninflected expression of surprised agreement or recognition, represented in our sign language by reaching out with a hooked forefinger as if physically grasping the strand of an idea that has been offered). All of these suggestions approach what I’m looking to express, but somehow miss the mark. Certainly though, the end-product of this coalescence experience is what we would call mokakssin. Often glossed in English as wisdom, mokakssin is actually a very descriptive term, developed off the verb roots okahsii (to congeal) and okaa (to snare). These same concepts are brought together with certain inflections to form the word mookaakin (or pemmican), which is a traditional food comprised of fine-ground dried meat, mixed with various berries, ki bound loosely together with fat. Mookaakin is highly nutritious, not only as a result of the chemical constituents of its ingredients, but due also to the manner in which they are processed, ground so fine as to make them very easily digestible. Following from this, I believe mokakssin carries similar qualities. It involves collecting or gathering disparate pieces of knowledge in the form of stories, language, songs, experiences, ki working these through a kind of milling process inherent in cyclically renewed practices, until the resultant particles – like the ingredients of mookaakin – are ground so fine that they spontaneously congeal into a greater, more thoroughly embodied whole.

In the cognitive sciences, this coalescence phenomenon is described as the moment when one becomes aware of a gestalt – a whole that constitutes a functional unit with properties not derivable from the summation of its parts. A somewhat impoverished example typically used to illustrate this concept in psychology is the silhouette image that may be perceived alternately as a beautiful young woman or a ragged old hag. The experience of gestalt perception that unfolds when a viewer recognizes the presence of both aspects of the image is often referred to as an “aha” moment, a flash of sudden insight, or a breakthrough. But I wonder if framing the experience in this manner is not somewhat biased by the Western focus on autonomous intellect. Having “aha” moments outside of the obviously contrived context of introducing such images, many people tend to feel as if the insights they gain are something of their own genius manufacture… perhaps even going so far as to claim these “discoveries” as their personal intellectual property, unique ideas that they themselves should be recognized for authoring. No doubt this perspective is related in some way to the rituals of mainstream education ki research in general, where people are taught to strategically pursue answers to particular questions, even going so far as to impose arbitrary time-schedules upon their learning, predetermining specific dates for when their data will be collected, analysed, ki reported as complete. It’s a shabby intellectual practice, in my book. Participants in such rituals grow more ki more prone to artificially construct knowledge through exercises of logic. Moreover, with this standard as the measure for validity, much important knowledge derived from more organic methods becomes dismissed. Ki when, inevitably, someone does experience a spontaneous coalescence phenomenon, the new understanding they gain becomes objectified ki commodified as an “idea” in a market schema for intellectual exchange.

In my experience, the coalescence, or gestalt perception, or whatever we want to call it, is of an order more humbling ki sublime. Rather than perceiving this kind of event as a personalized “aha” moment, I’m always very conscious of the manner in which an invitation for my participation in this greater perception has been in some way extended by those who have proceeded me… akaitapii, the ancestors. In fact, I marvel at the subtle ways they’ve encrypted complex understandings into our language, our stories, our ceremonies. At the same time, I’m also aware that mokakssin is not to be appreciated as something the ancestors developed, as though through some history of logical exercise like the Western scientific method. Rather, mokakssin comprises koitapiiyssin, life-bearing gifts, that we have been given in the context of relationships with non-humans. In other words, coalescence is the outcome of a socializing process, or getting to know others. It’s the organic result of making, maintaining, feeding, ki renewing relationships that expand to incorporate community at a cosmic scale. We human beings are but the youngest children of that community, for the most part yet unaware of the significance of the gifts we’ve inherited. But every once in a while, as we mature as a species, we get a little glimpse.

Recently, I felt as though I’d gotten one of those glimpses, ki the image posted along with this journal entry speaks to what I learned. This photo was taken at dawn a couple years ago, while driving along my commute from sikoohkotoki to mi’kai’stoo, near ma’si’tommo. When I downloaded it onto my computer ki was able to view it enlarged, I immediately had a sense that I should invert it. Upside-down, the image functions as a kind of gestalt illusion, much like the silhouette models of cognitive psychology. In this instance, the image appears as though it were of ksaahkomm, taken from a perspective somewhere in the stratosphere or beyond. This, I realized at the time, must have been mo’toyaohkii, the expansive body of water described in akaitapiitsinikssiistsi as having been occasionally traversed by human beings (with the assistance of naatoyiitapiiksi), to reach the world of the stars. I considered the inverted photograph to be an interesting visual illusion, with a bit of significance as a place described in the old stories, but that’s about it.

Around the same time I took the photograph, ki almost certainly influencing my decision to flip it on end, piipiiaakii ki niisto had begun to put some energy toward improving our understanding of two akaitapiitsinikssiistsi: the origins of both iihkitsikaamiksi ki miohpokoiksi. Now, our reason for doing so was related to having just that winter renewed two counting systems of the traditional niitsitapi lunar calendar (which had been defunct for who knows how long… at least several decades, if not a century). If I were to continue back from there, I could easily trace a path leading through our transfer of ksisskstaki amopistaan, naatoyiipapao’kaanistsi, repatriations, our marriage, ki events in both of our lives prior to meeting that would seem to suggest there has been a continuity of experience that led us to where we are, ki which I’m certain will continue to guide us.

Anyway, in order to renew the lunar counts, we had to rely on multiple sources. There were archival records: a winter count drawn in ledger form by stamiksisaapo’p at the turn of the century, a few lists of the names for each cycle, ki vague mention here ki there about how iiyaohkiimiiksi had a calendar maintained through the use of counting sticks. Akaikkinnaamm, the last iiyaohkiimi who might have really understood these systems, parcelled out his knowledge between the very few he mentored. From one of these fortunate individuals, naaahs mi’ksskimmiisoka'simm, piipiiaakii ki niisto were transferred ki’sommainihkssiistsi, the new-moon ceremony, ki rights to make ki paint the slender sticks that count winter nights. Then, from nitaatowa’pakka piitaikihtsipiimi, who had also been trained by akaikkinnaamm, we were transferred a second set of sticks, those that count the appearance of first crescent moons throughout the annual cycle, ki the song order that accompanies them. Working with these two systems, what we’d read in archival records, ki those akaitapiitsinikssiistsi we’re familiar with, we’ve come to appreciate a four-year pattern of naato’siiksi numbering 12, 12, 12, 13, 12, 12, 12, 13, 12, 12, 12, 13, etc.

Somewhere along the way, I’d contemplated ki practiced these systems enough to recognize that they are related to iihkitsikaamiksi ki miohpokoiksi. In the former story, there are seven boys, children of naato’si ki ko’komiki’somm. They were living together on ksaahkomm, in an era long before human presence here. Ko’komiki’somm had befriended a many-legged, serpentine creature who lived in a log, ki who could shape-shift into a form resembling their own. Naato’si planned to kill this interloper ki, if he had to, ko’komiki’somm as well. But before setting forth to do so, he gave each of his boys a gift - small but powerful items that they could carry with them at all times, to use if they should need to escape danger. Then he went to the log where the creature lived, ki when it tried to scurry out naato’si cut off its head. Placing the head back on the body, he left it there for ko’komiki’somm to find, ki gathered his boys to wait in the brush nearby. They watched as their mother approached the body, ki witnessed the terror that rose in her when she found that it was dead. Ko’komiki’somm had known immediately who killed the creature, ki her terror quickly developed into rage. She ran back to their lodge screaming, prepared to take revenge. In the mean time, naato’si ki the boys gathered a bunch of deadwood near the creature’s body. Soon they heard ko’komiki’somm making her way back from the lodge, still screaming in fury. She threw herself onto the creature’s body, crying. Ki just then naato’si ki the boys jumped out of the brush, pinned her down, ki cut her to pieces. They threw all the deadwood on top ki started a fire. Naato’si instructed the boys to remain by the fire until the last ember died. They were given forked sticks to use if any coals escaped. He told them that if even the smallest bit of their mother failed to burn to ashes, she would have the power to resurrect herself.

It took a long time for the pyre to burn down. When it looked like all had turned to ash, naato’si ki the boys returned to their lodge. He told them to be alert throughout the next four sleeps. If a live coal had somehow gotten away from them, ki ko’komiki’somm was able to resurrect, it would occur within the span of four sleeps. So they waited, ki the days passed. On the fourth day, they heard the sound of someone coming toward their camp. They knew it was their mother. The boys ki their father made a run for it, letting the youngest lead the way ki set their pace. Behind them, ko’komiki’somm drew closer. Naato’si reminded the eldest of the seven boys of the gift he had given him, a bladder bag full of water. He threw the bag over his shoulder at his mother, ki there it began to rain, making the ground muddy ki slippery. It slowed the enraged woman down, but she used her own power to make the rain stop, ki soon was catching up to them again. At that point, the next oldest brother turned ki drew a line in the sand with his finger, creating a massive canyon. This slowed ko’komiki’somm down considerably, but she eventually made her way to the bottom ki up the other side. When she’d almost caught up with the boys again, naato’si shouted to the third eldest to throw back his gift, a rock. A huge mountain range erupted out of the earth. Ko’komiki’somm called upon the ants, who came in droves ki bore a tunnel through. The next boy to use his gift, the middle brother, threw a short stick. It became a dense forest. Their mother ran back ki forth along its edge, trying to find a passage. Eventually, in her fury, she just pressed her way straight through. The fifth brother carried a bladder bag of air. He untied it ki threw it over his shoulder. When it hit the ground in front ko’komiki’somm, a massive wind erupted, sending her tumbling in the opposite direction. She grasped at all kinds of plants ki objects as she blew along, until finally getting hold of a tree with deep roots. There, she held tight to the tree ki waited for the wind to die down so she could pursue once more. The boys were running out of obstacles to set in front of her. When she’d almost caught them again, naato’si told the second youngest to set free the vibrantly-colored bird he had given him. The bird flew up in the air, ki immediately a black cloud formed. Loud sounds boomed out, ki electricity streaked toward ko’komiki’somm. She dodged ki ran to hide amongst some trees. This was the first time any of them had experienced thunder or lightning. But almost as quickly as the cloud had formed, it disappeared, ki the woman ran on after her sons. They had one gift left, another bladder bag full of water, carried by o’kiinaa, the youngest. As their mother closed on them, o’kiinaa threw it back, ki as soon as the first drop of water hit the ground it began to spread in all directions. Naato’si used his own powers so that he ki his sons could levitate above the expanding water, ki out into the void. Down below them, their mother ran as fast as she could along the earth’s surface, trying to find some way around mo’toyaohkii, this ocean. But it had no end. Naato’si ki his boys continued to drift away until they were out of sight.

Ko’komiki’somm sat down, desperate, trying to think of how she could overcome this obstacle. Then it came to her. She had received many gifts from her husband, ki there was one that just might take her to the other side. She hurriedly gathered up some dry wood ki made a small fire. Then she took a coal from this fire ki set a pinch of sweetgrass on it. The aromatic smoke from the sweetgrass drifted up toward her husband ki the boys, ki when ko’komiki’somm stood ki stepped over this smoke, she too began to ascend. Soon she had crossed through the water ki was on the other side. Up there, high above the earth, her movement was not limited. She could sense everything, including the location of her boys, ki she could go to them as slowly or as quickly as she wanted to. Certain that she would have her revenge, ko’komiki’somm rushed to the site of her children, ki almost got hold of o’kiinaa, the youngest, when she felt a blow to her left leg. Naato’si had seen her coming, ki at the last moment threw his hatchet with such force that it went clean through her leg, chopping it off. Ko’komiki’somm crumpled, bleeding. This was an opportunity naato’si couldn’t afford to miss. He stood over his wife, speaking softly, running his hands from the top of her head down her shoulders ki arms. He was stripping away many of the powers he had gifted to her in the past. At first, she fought against him, but then relented. When naato’si had finished, ko’komiki’somm held her dismembered leg back against the stub of her thigh, ki it reattached. Naato’si told her that the leg would continue to fall off periodically from then on, causing her to bleed. As she bled, so too would all of the women of ksaahkomm, so that what had happened between them would always be remembered. Then, knowing that his wife would still want to seek revenge, naato’si made night ki day, so that his boys would occasionally have a period of darkness to rest in, while their mother sought them out blindly. The boys thereafter have been called iihkitsikaamiksi (the seven), known more widely as the Big Dipper.

Now, when I first encountered mo itsinikssin, I really didn’t think that deeply into it. All I saw in it was a mythology relating the origin of geographic features. It wasn’t until practicing the two lunar count systems we’d been transferred that my thoughts returned to iihkitsikaamiksi, ki I began to wonder about how we might still use the gifts naato’si had shared with his boys. There were seven, just like the seven winter moons. Ki most of the time, when their constellation is drawn on tipi designs ki the like, they appear not as a dipper in shape, but as a crescent. I began to consider what the seven gifts might offer in terms of helping people survive the seasonal trials typically associated with each moon of the winter season. Ki I also realized that if iihkitsikaamiksi was connected to sstoyii, then miohpokoiksi (which almost always appears on the south ear flap of painted lodges, opposite iihkitsikaamiksi) must be connected to niipo. Because indeed, there are six stars in the paintings of miohpokoiksi, arranged in a sun-like design with five clustered around a central member, rather than appearing as the Pleiades constellation actually does in the night sky.

In the story of miohpokoiksi, there are six brothers who were neglected by their parents ki relatives. Every spring, when the otsiikini were in bloom, the people would hunt iinii ki give their children the red robes of new calves. But these six brothers never received red robes. All they ever got were brown ones, or robes made of mature iinii. The other children made fun of them. When another spring season came to pass ki their desires were ignored again, they decided to leave the human world. They went off to a hill by themselves. There, the older brother took hair from a white weasel ki placed it on the backs of each of his siblings. Then he put some of the same hair in his mouth, told his brothers to close their eyes, ki blew the hair up toward the sky. When the boys opened their eyes again, they were in the lodge of naato’si ki ko’komiki’somm. Naato’si asked the brothers why they had come. They explained how their relatives had neglected them, ki that they would like to see them punished. They asked naato’si if he could take the water away from human beings. Hearing this request, naato’si just sat quietly. Then the boys asked ko’komiki’somm, ki she felt bad for them. She pleaded with her husband to help her take the water away. She had to ask him seven times before he agreed. The next day, the earth was very hot. All the lakes ki rivers began evaporating. Ki the following night was warm as well, with a strong moonlight. By the second day, the water was all gone from the surface of the earth, ki people began taking their dogs to the riverbanks, having them dig holes to find more. This was how many springs were created along our rivers. Within a matter of days, it became so hot that people had to dig holes in the hillsides ki crawl inside to keep cool. They would have died if they’d remained above ground. Each time the water in the springs gave out, the dogs would dig new holes. It seemed like there would be no end to the heat. But the leader of the dogs had some powers. He was old ki white. After seven days of suffering like this, he gathered the other dogs ki together thay began howling at the sky, calling to naato’si ki ko’komiki’somm, explaining why the six brothers received no red robes, ki asking that they have compassion at least for the dogs, who had never done anything to hurt them. The next day, naato’si ki ko’komiki’somm brought heavy rain. It rained for a long time. Ki the six brothers remained in the sky as miohpokoiksi, bunched-up to keep warm.

There are actually several different versions of mo itsinikssin, but I won’t summarize the others because really I don’t have much to say about them at this point. All I understand at present is that miohpokoiksi are the moon cycles of niipo. Their significance, as related by many kaahsinnooniksi, is as a reminder to treat our children with respect. But I think this is only a fraction or aspect of the wider lesson to be gained... or maybe an understatement. Both of these akaitapiitsinikssiistsi – iihkitsikaamiksi ki miohpokoiksi – describe events ki relationships that have unfolded between cosmic beings. As such, they can’t be fully appreciated simply in human terms. But if we understood people to be representative of a particular cosmic being, say ksaahkomm, on the other hand…

Annohk we’re approaching nearer my recent coalescence experience. During aapistsisskitsaato’si, as mentioned in a prior journal entry, I’ve been experimenting with an exercise that brings me to a certain awareness of noistomi ki its connection to aohkii - most immediately that of kitawahsinnon, but also by extension to that which flows throughout ksaahkomm as a whole. In this state, like in sstsiiysskaan, notions of time ki separation by distance no longer exist. I can travel via noistomi, aohkii, wherever I please, instantaneously. Ki anywhere this aqueous wandering takes me, I am able to engage with others in a dialog that occurs not quite by way of voice, but rather more through imagery ki sensation. This exercise is my iiyaohkiimi variation on a collective effort that is being explored by a group I’m involved with, which is helping all of us to grow in our respective practices toward some common ends.

One of the questions this group has been addressing most recently in the context of our expanded states of awareness pertains to imbalances between ksaahkomm ki aohkii, body ki mind, as registered in the reconciliatory forces at play in our current climate shift. Ki through an interesting synchronicity, I happened to be preparing the delivery of my first presentation for The Climate Project at the same time as our collective project moved in this direction. For me, public presentation always prompts accelerated learning. In this particular case, I wanted to make some changes in the presentation Al Gore had developed – reframing some of the science in niitsitapi terms, ki offering solution suggestions that break away from the current, consumption-driven models. Working my way slide-by-slide through the presentation, I found myself leaning heavily on the story of iihkitsikaamiksi to talk about the atmosphere, its functions ki characteristics. Going back to omi itsinikssin, it’s clear that the bladder bag of water thrown back by o’kiinaa was that which became our atmosphere. A seamless body of aohkii positioned between ksaahkomm ki the world of kakato’siiksi. Omi mo’toyaohkii was a gift from naato’si, meant to help his children escape from danger, the revenge sought by ko’komiki’somm… whether this is ko’komiki’somm the celestial body, or the forces she wields, or both.

In niitsitapisskska’takssin, ko’komiki’somm is associated with the cold of winter, the dark of night, ki aohkii. Mo’toyaohkii, in effect, can be thought of as a protective robe that shields the life of ksaahkomm from being overcome by these forces. Our robe must be permeable enough to allow the radiance of naato’si to penetrate ki warm us. It must also be permeable enough to allow some of that heat to escape, retaining only that which is most optimal for life to continue to flourish. One of the things I realized, in preparing for my presentation, is that there is a certain cycle, maintained by the life of ksaahkomm, which functions more-or-less to periodically smoke-treat our protective robe, ensuring that it won’t become too porous. However, human beings over the last five decades have been subjecting the robe to such an intense ki prolonged smoke-treatment that it has basically become a sooty mess. It’s no longer permeable to the radiance of naato’si in the manner that it was meant to be. But by no means is it entirely ruined. We don’t have the power to destroy this gift, because it was not given to us specifically. It was given to the youngest son, the generations furthest down the line. This robe is sacred, powerful. Iikaatowa’pii. It will induce a balance to ensure that the organic life of ksaahkomm continues. Ko’komiki’somm has found her way through it before, in an era when such balance was upset. She can certainly come through again.

This is where the affect of coalescence goes far beyond any of the fancy thrills of surface illusion presented in cognitive psychology. Rather, true gestalt experience compels us to completely reconceptualise everything we thought we knew. There is so much that could be extrapolated from the association between what is happening to our atmosphere ki the story of iihkitsikaamiksi. When I even start to consider the implications, my mind just reels. It would be of no use to try elaborating too much on how my awareness has shifted from this experience over the past few days. However, there are a couple of significant lessons I should mention before I close.

Given the perspective that our atmosphere is a sacred ki powerful gift, inherited by the future generations of earth life, ki meant to act as a significant obstacle to our being completely overcome by the threat of imbalance or disharmony... what might also be understood of the gifts naato’si gave to his other six sons? In the context of the present climate shift, how might we draw from this story to reframe our appreciation for the protective role of rain, canyon-lands, mountains, forests, wind, ki electrical storms? Each of these, like mo’toyaohkii, iikaatowa’pii – they are very powerful in the unique manner in which each can deter danger.

Another related thought… considering both iihkitsikaamiksi ki miohpokoiksi, ki revisiting the earth-is-to-water as body-is-to-mind corollary proposed ki presently being explored by the group I’m involved with, what understandings might be gained? For myself, I am reminded of the observation naaahs ki’naksaapo’p has often made, which is that we are in a sense abusing some of the abilities we have. Ki’naksaapo’p tells a story about the time he caught a fish ki brought it to his grandfather. The old man lavished him with praise, ki immediately set to work cleaning ki cooking the fish for dinner. Not long after that, ki’naksaapo’p went back to the river ki caught nine fish. He was so proud. He brought them to his grandfather expecting to really be appreciated. The old man looked at the fish with regret ki aaniiwa, “Why did you do this sonny? We don’t need this many fish. One or two is all we need. Don’t ever do this again.” Ki’naksaapo’p has carried this experience with him to this day. Ki he points out that a child, learning that it can do something, often does not consider whether he or she actually should. This is the same way mainstream society is negotiating its newfound technological knowledge. Rather than considering what the actual benefit of each technology can be, ki therefore to what extent it should be used, we are just catching as many fish as we possibly can. We are so proud of our perceived accomplishments, it’s going to take the spirits of future generations speaking through our sacred grandparents, naato’si ki ko’komiki’somm, to scold us for our carelessness. This is precisely what happens in the tale of miohpokoiksi. We are neglecting to consider the desires of our children, however many generations away. Their spirits are feeling this neglect. They may very well go to naato’si ki ko’komiki’somm, cut their ties with us, ki seek retribution. Maybe this is what we are seeing in the surge of radiance intensity coming from naato’si today.

As both stories infer, our appreciation of ksaahkomm should not be reduced to just ourselves. We have a presence here. We are of this body, to be sure. But ksaahkomm is not necessarily of us. Are we its voice? Apparently not as far as the dogs are concerned. Ksaahkomm itself is a gestalt, a coalescence…. a whole that constitutes a functional unit with properties not derivable from the summation of its parts. Like any-body, it comes into being in relationship to others of its order, as defined by an even wider system that encompasses all of the cosmic bodies. If we hope to contribute to a strengthening of the relationships between ksaahkomm ki these other beings, including naato’si, ko’komiki’somm, all of the kakato’siiksi, perhaps we should recognize that there is a pre-existing ki ongoing dialog amongst them. Opening ourselves to hear what is being said in that discussion may be our first step toward significant participation ki maturity.