As a kid, medicine had some pretty negative connotations for me. It was yucky tasting, that spoonful of cough syrup that my parents insisted I take. “Taking medicine” was the most common reference that I was aware of it — that meant toughing it out to do something that was good for you.
It was working with Navajo community, beginning in 2008, when I first encountered a different sense of “medicine.” I was able to be involved in a few gatherings that supported Indian Health Services in the New Mexico area. I remember sitting one early morning, staring into surrounding landscape, trying to make sense of the experience that I was having of a Navajo way of being — the beauty way — that I was being welcomed into. The most lasting words that I remember the elders speaking included, “Thank you for the medicine and gifts that you bring.”
I, and my colleagues, didn’t bring cough syrup.
Medicine can be many things. Medicine can be people. Medicine can be teachings. Medicine can be joy. Medicine can be quiet presence. Medicine can be a good question. Medicine can be time together in a well-held container.
Recently, I wrote this poem, thinking of medicine.
It is some of the best medicine
Move the caked and dried mud
that has covered you.
The bumblebee at dusk,
hovering in echinacea flowers.
The welled tears you get,
as you watch the bee in backlit beauty,
Yes to joy. And laughter. And beauty.
Thank you Navajo relations.
I continue to learn many things this week from my Navajo colleagues and friends. One of the things that I love about Navajo culture is the way that teachings are shared from elders, grandmothers, and grandfathers. Many stories begin with, “my grandmother taught me as a little girl…,” or “one of the teachings from my grandfather was….” Teachings, and these kind of stories, are treated as medicine.
Carol Leonard is one of those colleagues and friends, herself now an elder, that shared a teaching yesterday that she received from one of her elders. It was that she only needed to know four words in Navajo that would cover what she needs. She knows many more, to be clear, and it is a focus of significance for indigenous people to relearn and retain their languages. Carol exudes a wisdom in many elder-shared teachings.
Here’s the four words and what she said (without apology for absence of accents in the Navajo font):
Welcome / Ya’a teeh — It is the first job in starting a meaning. Either a welcome that comes from an elder, or from the elder that lives in the particular land. It is an essential greeting with one another, an etiquette.
Thank You / A hye he’e — We must be able to thank people for coming out. It is a practice of generosity and kindness, respect.
Beauty / Ni zhoni — This is one of the Navajo traditions that has most impacted me. There is such a commitment and appreciation of beauty, the beauty way. For a culture that has suffered much, has had much taken away from them, many hardships, it is amazing that beauty remains a fundamental invocation and way of life.
Please / t’a shon di — This is a practice of invitation and asking for help. Please will you help us. Please will you join us in supporting this good brother. Please will you help the aunties and the fire they need.
Four words. That represent four practices. That represent a cultural pattern. That represent a people I’m profoundly grateful for.
Yesterday I was involved in a very good and very helpful design day. I was with Teresa Posakony, Chris Corrigan, and Caitlin Frost. It’s a treat when we get to do this work together.
We are in Gallup, New Mexico, preparing for an event with our Navajo friends and colleagues: The Art of Leadership in Restoring Resilience. We are teaching and offering many things with them (I love how they reference shared teachings as medicine). We are also learning from — these people and this culture have much, much to offer.
Teresa, Chris, Caitlin and I talked about purpose. We gave good attention to reading bios of the participants coming. We shared some of our current learning with one another. Asked each other questions. We shared many thoughts and good words together. It’s good to evolve edges together isn’t it.
At the end of the day, we treated ourselves to a 90 minute hike. Two pictures from that hike are below. We began at the Gamerco Trailhead just north of Gallup, and walked in two miles. It’s a sandy kind of trail, often about three feet wide, used by both hikers and mountain bike riders. It’s a big sky landscape, in the high desert that winds through juniper, sage, and the occasional flowering cacti. Though we talked in little pockets along the way, it was mostly a space of “enough words.”
I need those kind of times and those kind of friends. When the winding, quiet path helps integrate the good words of the day. There are many mediums for good learning individually and collectively, aren’t there. And for resilience. I love the ones that cap with a sunset like this, when really nothing needs to be said.