Archive for the ‘spirituality’ tag
When I met Rita Pitka Blumenstein for the first time last winter and she hugged me, I thought, “Oh. This is what I’ve been waiting for. This is the hug I’ve been thinking about and needing for years.” And I knew that she knew that.
For those of you who do not yet know her, Rita Pitka Blumenstein is a traditional healer, the first tribal doctor in the Alaska Native Health System, a midwife, an esteemed elder, a spiritual leader, and founding member of the 13 Indigenous Grandmothers. She is Yup’ik primarily, from Nelson Island, Alaska, but also part Athabscan, Aleut, Russian, and a smattering of other European backgrounds. She speaks, sings, and prays in Yup’ik, in the complex and deep understanding of the Yup’ik language that I am told only the elders still have. She is called around the world to pray for people, to lead ceremonies and songs, to heal people from diseases and injuries in the body, the mind and the soul. To heal, she uses her hands, plant medicines, talking and prayer.
Recently, she was invited to attend our Domestic Violence/Sexual Assault training for rural Behavioral Health Aides held in Fairbanks in order to provide prayers, songs, stories and guidance. Since I work with Rita and have had the honor of learning from her in the past, I had the even greater honor of spending nearly every waking hour of that week with her walking to restaurants, attending the training, preparing salad in her hotel room, making sure that the baggage handlers treat her drum well, etc. I feel bless to have learned so much from her in our time together and want to share with you, dear readers, some of the wisdom Rita offered me. I think I also share this story of Rita because in writing it I reinforce what it meant to me on a deeply personal level in my own growth and becoming.
Two important notes
1.) I asked Rita if I was allowed to share her teachings with others on my blog and she said yes. She said she’s publishing them all into a book anyway, so they will become public soon. Furthermore, she sees it as her duty—as a spiritual person, as an elder, as a member of the 13 Grandmothers, and in her job at ANTHC, to teach—directly and through others, including non-Alaska Native others. She also consented to me using this photo that I took of her. If I have misunderstood or missquoted her, however, I apologize and will make changes if they come to my attention.
2.) I am sharing her teachings because I think she has great insight into the world. It’s not because I claim she is speaking directly for God or Truth. I won’t join any religion because I can’t just believe whatever it is that its leaders or books tell me. But I am inspired and moved by what Rita has observed about the world, which is different than believing that it is the one and only truth. In fact, I don’t think Rita claims to have the one and only truth either. She works to heal the world; that is her priority.
The traditional word for creator in Yup’ik is ellam yua, which sounds something like “Chhhhamyua” though with a more g sound and throaty sound to the first consonant. As Rita explains it, the word means means “awareness of the universe.” The “yua” part refers to the person being aware, the Chhham part the universe—the dust that makes up life. It can be awareness of pain, awareness of all that is around us, awareness of that which can’t be seen, presence.
Rita begins prayers with a call to ellam yua and to agayuun. This is the idea of creator that is more the Christian idea–a creator or king that rules. Yuun means ownership, so all is owned by the creator.
She also calls out to the ancestors. As Rita explains, our ancestors are our bone marrow, our parents our bones. We are made up of them. As she wrote in a poem:
We are free to be who we are—
to create our own life
out of the past and out of the present.
We are our ancestors.
When we can heal ourselves,
we also heal our ancestors,
our grandmothers, our
grandfathers and our children.
When we heal ourselves, we heal mother earth.
Rita also includes “Mother Earth” in her prayers at times, both praying to the Earth and for the Earth. What it seems she is teaching us is that that we ask agayun—kin, ancestors—to be a part of our healing and blessing, and the healing we do affects them. Likewise, we pray to the creator/awareness of the universe and to Mother Earth for wisdom and healing, and in healing ourselves we share that healing with the Earth and universe—perhaps because, as healed people, we take better care of the Earth.
Rita tells me a lot about her life story, of going from a rural village on Nelson Island to Montessori School in Seattle and staying there long enough so she could make sure to be able to write her dreams and visions (yes, she was having spiritual visions as a young child). She was then raised in Catholic schools and in a community with Russian Orthodoxy and Catholicism all around her. But her grandparents never converted and always practiced the old ways, and I imagine this is part of what made Rita’s connection to the faith traditions of her land and people so strong. She quotes her grandmother—and this is one of the best articulations I’ve ever heard of what I believe—who said, “I don’t understand why we would need to go worship God inside a building, facing only one direction, when there is the land and ocean and the four directions all around us.”
In conversation, Rita teaches me bits and pieces about the medicine wheel and the four directions. She tells me how the colors (gold, red, black and white) relate to the elements and how some believe that they relate to the continents of people. She told me that all journeys start in the East. The gift of the East is the ability to concentrate fully on what one is doing, the way that children can concentrate so fully on the object in their hands, the way that our mouse sister concentrates on her work. It is the gift of presence, of not being distracted by the past and the future. I tell her that I struggle with being present. She smiles with understanding.
To heal, Rita says, is to become ourselves, to become the light within. It is to accept ourselves and what we feel, and in doing so accept others. It is to be a real person.
Rita tells me that she loves me and trusts me to learn about healing, and that I have a good Native spirit. This is because I am a real person, she says, because I am not pretending, not fake, not closed, but selfless and real and open. I tell her thank you, and that I don’t know how to be anything but open and anyone other than myself, but that I do struggle with accepting myself fully. She says that struggle is okay, and quotes the elders who mentored her, who said that it is okay that things are not okay, that I should just feel what I feel. What I suppose this means is that to be a real person, to be someone good for the world, you have to be open and giving, but you do not have to be perfect, you do not have to have arrived. Rita says she is always learning more about herself, always becoming herself more and more. And if Rita, at 78, is still in that process, that must mean that I’m okay.
I ask Rita what is the importance of faith, because it is not something I always have in abundance. She tells me:
“If you believe in yourself, you have faith. Faith provides the courage to face the present with confidence and the future with expectancy.”
Rita also reminds me that faith and acceptance are not about accepting all behaviors or accepting injustices. Rita, like me, has always had a big mouth and has spoken up to people when they are being racist or cruel or unfair to women. She has always been unafraid to express her opinion and disagree. This is not antithetical to loving acceptance. In fact, it is crucial to creating a better, more healed world. This is why I can learn from this woman.
Rita tells me that childhood is the time for children to learn from the legends and stories of elders, and from the plants and animals and rocks and air, from all of life. Rita tells me about the wild vegetables they harvest:the lovage and Eskimo potatoes, the grass and horsetail roots. She tells me about the knikinik (labrador tea) they use for smudging and that the shamans (herself included) smoke in order to ground themselves after spiritual travelling. She tells me how to brine, dry and smoke salmon strips and how to boil down fireweed syrup. She tells me about plant medicines made from Devil’s Club and raspberry bushes and yarrow and birch. As I learn all this like a child, I think, “Yes, this should be in every child’s education. If it were, we would see so much less environmental devastation.”
We talk about childrearing and potty training (Rita potty trained her children after a few months by keeping them on her body and putting them on a little pot whenever they squirmed around like they needed to go). Rita tells me she is very excited for me to be a mother, that I will be a great one. I tell her I’ll be calling her up for advice on this potty-training-in-the-first-few-months practice.
Rita talks about race, cultural difference and colonization comfortably, neither shying away from its ugly history nor writing off all white people (after all, she was happily married to a Jewish man from New York for over half her life, until he passed). This is a good example for me of how to bring these conversations into groups where they don’t currently happen without triggering people’s defensiveness.
If any of this resonates with you, you can follow the 13 Indigenous Grandmothers online (http://www.grandmotherscouncil.org/), read Rita’s book when she publishes it, or look for other opportunities around Alaska to learn from her or from other teachers of indigenous worldviews. If you have the chance, I highly recommend attending a presentation by my Cup’ik colleague, Uyuriukaraq Ulran, who speaks beautifully about Cup’ik worldview and ethics. And certainly pay a visit to the Alaska Native Heritage Center.
Regardless of your faith tradition, I think it’s okay to be open to Rita’s teachings and to Alaska Native worldviews. Rita’s idea of becoming yourself, of knowing yourself, is something heard in Buddhism and parts of most other world faiths. Her idea of thanking the universe for what we have and asking for blessings from the universe, kin, the Earth and the directions, is not unlike thanking God or Allah, in that it is an act of appreciation of all that is larger than us. It is an act of prayer and thanks that is grounded in the land, water, air and fire, an act grounded in the preservation of this planet. In that way, it is particularly salient for our rapidly-changing world.
On a personal level, one powerful thing I take away from my week with Rita and from knowing her is a more firm sense of who I am. If I fail, if I feel desparate or sad or find myself making mistakes, I am now more likely to say, “I am a real person. And this is a struggle” rather than doubting my integrity and worth. This is a gift from Rita, as well as a gift from my best friend Jessica Laura who always helps reinforce to me who I am. It is a gift from my husband, Oscar, who always reminds me of why I am worth love, and a gift from my parents and friends who know me and believe in me. And we have to believe in ourselves (in a deep way, not in the way of the popular self-esteem movement) in order to move forward and do the work we must for the world.
I will end with Rita’s words (paraphrased because I could not write fast enough for the exact quote):
“Some people dwell on their past lives to look for answers. But all we need to learn will be placed before us. Our job is to move forward.”
Post-script, December 6: Rita just gave me the proper spellings of ellam yua and agayuun, and a bit more clarification of those concepts, so now I have added this to the original post. The old version had my phonetic versions only, and a mishearing/misunderstanding about agayuun.