Cultural Glimpse

Enjoying diversity

Tag: Native Americans

A Conversation with a Native American about Shamanism


This is a conversation I had with the Native American man I’ve known for decades who I call in my books the Red Indian. This portion is about shamanism and is taken from my memoir series but one day I will write a book solely about him because he has fascinating perspectives worth sharing.

When we spoke about shamanism, he said, “Shamanism was like a society that made sure people stay well. The society policed themselves. All Natives have different societies inside their tribe, a group of people that study the same things, like the plants, the animals, the stars, the rocks. It’s like your writers group. It’s a society.” He paused momentarily before he continued. “You know what the dreamcatcher is? It was a society that disbanded, and the dreamcatcher was given away to the people. That’s why there’s a dream catcher hanging in everyone’s car or in their house or key chains.”

“Why are some natives very angry that people use the word shamanism to describe healing?” I asked.

“Because some people are belittling everything around them to look more powerful than everyone else when in fact it’s the other way around. Everyone is more powerful than them.”

“But if it’s a good thing, wouldn’t it make more sense for natives to share this knowledge with people and educate them?”

“We’ve done this all along. We shared everything with people. We felt it was our duty to share and as soon as they found out, they put us in jails and killed us. As it says in the bible, don’t throw your pearls before swine. We were a very giving people. We fed people and gave information, and what came back to us was some guy hanging on the tree. Wow! It went from giving good things all around the world to receiving back very, very bad things. Most native people that I know are pretty quiet on what they say. It’s not that it’s a secret, but it’s a society, like doctors in the hospital who no one sees. They gather and discuss certain issues and no one knows about it, not even the nurses.”

“I read somewhere that one reason natives get angry about how others use the word shamanism is because Hollywood misuses and abuses this word.”

“Natives had a very hard time with Hollywood,” he said. “You know what Hollywood is? Holly wood is the stick that comes from the holly tree, and Merlin was the king’s magician in Europe who would go around the country like a politician telling people what’s good for them and why they should vote for him. Historically, magician’s wand is made of holly wood. Magicians were good at what they did and made people believe there was magic behind it all when it was really an illusion.”

“Couldn’t an illusion be the same as reality?”

“If you want to believe that way, yeah,” he said. “It’s like believing the sun comes up at six o’clock at night. It’s not real. It’s an illusion. If you believe it, it’s real to you but it’s not real to nature. That’s what an illusion is. It’s a trick. So people who call themselves shamans are for natives just an illusion, trying to call themselves something that’s not real. On the other hand, there are people that can do a cause-and-effect on earth here. It’s usually not personal. Of course, it’s a prayer. You ask the Creator to do something. If people say they can do it themselves, they’re probably a pretty big devil. It’s one evil person trying to cause something for themselves or other people and that’s not good. When you ask something from the Creator, then it’s the best thing for you. It might not be what you want, but it’s the best thing for you. Oh Lord, I need patience, and I need it right now!”

He laughed at the irony, and we were silent for a moment.

“The reason I mentioned Hollywood is because that’s the magician’s wand, and it’s not real. The whole Hollywood thing is not real. They depict something and tell a story, have you believe it’s real and of course it’s not real.”

“It’s like that movie Captain Phillips. They made him a hero when he jeopardized the lives of his crew. Even though the people on the ship came out and told the truth, no one did anything about the non-truth. They did not boycott the film. It was accepted as is.”

“That’s what I mean,” he said. “There are people that relish in the thought of shamanism. Anyone with this much authority that can create the cause-and-effect of things is very humble, and they wouldn’t want you to think of them as a magician. They wouldn’t call themselves shamans to begin with and they would have much experience because they take care of a lot of people, children and grandchildren and those who come to them with problems. They’re normally wiser people. Generations of people make wise, not fifteen minutes of class.

“Just because a person is old doesn’t mean they’re wise. Some portray elderly native people as very wise, bla, bla, bla, but to native people, a baby could be very wise. No one person is greater than another. Wise people make decisions with consideration to the seven generations that are not born as opposed to what I need right now. I can make a decision for something I want right now, but it might not be a good thing for my grandchildren. A decision can be made by looking at the seven generations behind and the seven generations to come. It’s harder to look into the future than it is to look at the history. It’s still a consideration for the future.”

Counterpoint: Religious Intolerance Serves No One

Religious Tolerance

This opinion piece was originally published by The Chaldean News a few days ago

Many of our people, like Californian artist Paul Batou and Chicago attorney Wisam Naoum, have compared the genocide of the Christian Iraqis to that of the Native Americans, who recount how an estimated 80-100 million of their people were wiped out by disease, famine or warfare imported by white men carrying crosses who came here to find gold and to own new land. Those who survived were forced to convert to Christianity and to abandon their traditions and their native language.

Yet, we don’t see Native Americans protesting against our churches in the prejudiced manner we’ve protested against mosques. They keep their ancestral memory and lessons alive through storytelling and ceremonies, not hate speech.

Native Americans mainly blame politics and greed, not religion, for what happened to them. They’re not the only ones with this viewpoint. Ariel Sabar is a Kurdish Jewish author whose father was from Zakho. Currently a professor of Hebrew at UCLA, Sabar is a native speaker of Aramaic and has published more than 90 research articles about Jewish Neo-Aramaic and the folklore of the Kurdish Jews. In his book, My Father’s Paradise, he describes the old community in Zakho:

“Muslims, Jews, and Christians, Judaism, Sufi mysticism, Bahaism, and Yezidism flourished alongside one another and extremism was rare…. Muslim, Jew, and Christian suffered alike through the region’s cruel cycles of flood, famine, and Kurdish tribal bloodshed. They prospered alike when the soil yielded bumper crops of wheat, gall nuts, and fragrant tobacco. In important ways, they were Kurds first and Muslims, Christians, or Jews second.”

Sabar also blames politics and greed, not religion, on the mass exodus of 120,000 Jews from Iraq in the 1950s. Some of Sabar’s accounts are similar to what occurred last year with ISIS’ Christian genocide. If we were to research history, we would see that political greed is at the root of most invasions, massacres and occupations.

If we choose to have a one-sided memory, we will never be able to have a dialogue with other cultures, ethnicities and religions, and yet that’s what democracy is about. It’s the reason this country has such great potential and why people risk their lives to come here.

We remember the 1933 Simele Massacre but we forget the 1991 Gulf War, the unjust UN-imposed sanctions that were enforced on Iraq for more than 12 years, and the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, all which caused the deaths of millions of innocent Iraqi civilians and a refugee crisis for which the world is today paying the price. The Arab world looked upon these wars and sanctions as Christians’ war against Muslims. During that time, many in Iraq began labeling Christians “Bush’s people” and terrorists were easily able to recruit extremists.

Despite all this, Saddam did not permit Muslims to use hate speech against Christians. Batras Mansour, a refugee I once interviewed, said, “I haven’t seen a day of peace since the war. During Saddam’s regime in Iraq, we experienced much better days. Back then, no one could say a wrong word to us Christians.”

Mansour told the story of how an imam spoke against the Christians over the microphone. After he was reported to authorities, the mosque was circled by four cars. The imam was taken away and no one saw him since.

So was Saddam more intolerant of religious hate speech than we are?

Over the years, I have interviewed dozens of people from the Catholic religious order. They never blamed Islam for Iraq’s current situation. In my recent book about the lives of Iraqi American artists, most of the artists expressed nostalgia for the Iraq that was once unified.

Randa Razoky said, “I once painted a painting of mosque, churches, and Mandaean men baptizing women by the river, where the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers flow. This painting represents an Iraq of diverse religions which no longer exists. We lost that Iraq.”

Maybe We can get that Iraq back if we open our hearts and re-learn to co-exist. Otherwise, true peace will never find a home within us.

Sleeping Bear Dunes

We visited Sleeping Bear Dunes last month. This park covers a 35-mile-long stretch of Lake Michigan’s eastern coastline as well as North and South Manitou islands. It was an adventure climbing up and rolling down the sandy mounds that reminded us of Baghdad’s deserts, walking barefoot alongside Lake Michigan, collecting rocks and getting lost while we were at it.

I later learned through online research that the park is named after a Chippewa legend of the sleeping bear. According to legend, an enormous forest fire drove a mother bear and her two cubs into the lake for shelter, to reach the opposite shore. After many miles of swimming, the two cubs wadded behind and eventually drowned. The mother bear arrived to shore and waited for her cups to appear.

“That’s a touching and nice story,” my Native American friend said when I told it to him. “A lot of tourist places have a mythical story which is the attraction.”

The Great Spirit, I continued, created two islands (North and South Manitou islands) to commemorate the cubs, and the winds buried the sleeping bear under the sands of the dunes where she waits to this day.

“That doesn’t sound like a gift from the Great Spirit,” he said. “It sounds like a mother that couldn’t take care of her cubs.”

He said that the Manitou in Canada originally came from the Michigan region, the Manitou Island, which translates as “the Creator’s Island.” When the English and the Americans were fighting during the Revolution and other wars, most Indians didn’t want to join either side so they went to Manitou Island in Ontario, just to get away from the fighting. When the fighting was over, and they wanted to return, the Americans would not allow them to return because they had alliance with King George at that point. So they had to stay in Canada.

“People in the clan system are still here,” my Native American friend said. “They haven’t gone anywhere. It’s the Sleeping Bear. It’s sleeping because you’re not using it. There are very powerful things there, but no one is using them. They can say there were little bears frolicking around there, whatever, but the Sleeping Bear is always here. It never left. It’s still waiting for good things. And these people that make war they don’t want to wake up the Sleeping Bear, because then the truth will come out.”


Can You Help Save the Wolves?


It isn’t every day that someone asks you, “Can you help save the wolves?”

That’s what a woman standing in front of the Sterling Heights Library asked me the other day. My daughter and I stopped and looked at her. She was wrapped in layers of clothes and had on bright red lipstick. She extended a petition towards us and said, “Please, they’re killing the wolves, and it’s not fair.”

Many Native Americans in Michigan oppose killing wolves, an animal central to their spirituality and culture.

“In the Native American tradition, the wolf is my power animal,” I told the lady and signed the petition.

She stared at me and told me a little about “Keep Michigan Wolves Protected.”

Last December Michigan’s Governor Rick Snyder signed a bill that designated wolves as a game animal. After 50 years of protection, the population of wolves in Michigan is still estimated to be fewer than 700. Michigan farmers, ranchers and other landowners are already permitted to kill wolves to protect livestock or dogs, even though cases of wolves killing livestock are relatively rare. And ranchers are compensated for livestock losses from wolves. There has also never been a single record of a wolf attack on a human in Michigan. In fact, wolves are fearful of people, and avoid them.

Jill Fritz, director of the Keep Michigan Wolves Protected Campaign feels that “This shy and very intelligent species is being gunned down for no other reason than trophies.”

The campaign hopes to gather 225,000 signatures by March 27. To date, they have nearly 200,000.

When we walked away from the woman, my daughter cheered, “Yeah! Mommy saved the wolves!”

“Well,” I explained. “Something like this needs a lot of people’s votes.”

To sign the petition, please visit:

The Mystery School, My Little Secret

The Mystery School, My Little Secret

This February I’ll be starting the third year of the Mystery School (it’s a 4 year program). Very few people in my life know that for the last two years I’ve been enrolled in this school. Until now, I had kept it my little secret.

I stumbled upon this school in 2011 after reading Lynn Andrew’s Writing Spirit. Hugely influenced by this book, and because Lynn is an internationally bestselling author with 19 books under her belt, I called her up. I wanted advice on how to move ahead with my writing career. Little did I know then the journey I’d be embarking upon.

Like magic, the Mystery School began transforming my life as a writer, wife and mother. Its ancient Native American teachings were not strange to my ears. I come from a tribal nation that’s thousands of years old. My people are from Mesopotamia, where once upon a time long ago, similar types of teachings were the norm. Then people invented so many new things, that they forgot the value of anything older than 50 years.

Well, my little secret is no more. But what awaits me in the school are a lot of hidden rich secrets, which I cannot wait to unearth and discover.