Alex Mathews

Alex Mathews – writer, bared naked dude blah blah blah

The Tobacco Wrap

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A few months ago I went to Oregon to conduct an interview with the son of a noted Native American medicine man for a book project I am working on. I won’t reveal at this juncture who it is, because I promised he would have first look at anything I wrote, but this story isn’t about him, so I will skirt that part of the tale and risk sounding weird and awkward. The way in which this particular person relates to the subject matter of my book is quite tangential anyway, and I knew that I was basically traveling many miles for what would likely amount to a digression in the text of my book, if I made mention of it at all. But the impetus was greater for me. Not that I wouldn’t devote such effort to a tangent in a book, but I was more interested in the idea of moving, both physically and symbolically—of going where the muse took me, if you will, in the name of this project.

I made initial contact with the son of noted medicine man by email, and I broached the subject of my book and asked to conduct an interview. Time passed. I was finally graciously invited to conduct the interview after an application process. I was informed that I should bring a warm sleeping bag and a tent, of which I had neither. It was cold at night in the Fall in Oregon, and the chance of rain was high. I rented a car at the airport and drove towards the Oregon coast. I was looking for a piece of land off one of the service roads. The directions dealt in mile markers more than street names. I arrived close to dinner time, and I had just enough time to pitch my tent in my choice of locales on the property. I suppose as I tell this I assume everyone knows me enough to be quite surprised by all of this, for I am not a camper. I like to stay in hotels with cable tv. When I pulled onto the property the wife of my interview directed me where to park, or rather, told me to move because one of the elders parked in the place I had pulled into. She gave me a tour of the property, showing me the small crops they were growing, several structures that were either domes or teepees, as well as sites they had selected for future additions, such as a teepee for when the women were “on their moon time.” I made a mental note to ask my wife if she would like to be sequestered in a special tent at the back of our yard for her moon time. I tried not to behave like a white man/city-dweller, but it was hard because I am. She left me to pitch my tent outside the greenhouse, and so I struggled to get my tent up as only a city-dweller would. After I finally got the tent standing, I sat outside the main house talking to the son-in-law of my interview, who told me of a news piece he’d read reporting that the government had contracted for the production two million coffins, the pine box kind. We speculated on why. Then the dinner bell rang.

We joined in a prayer circle before the meal, where everyone welcomed me formally to the community, and then we sat together in the living room of the main house on the property, where I got a chance to get to know everyone a little bit better, and to learn a bit more about where I was. It is a place where the son of the medicine man who bares tangential relation to my subject matter has, with his family, created a place where people may come and stay for a day, a week, a year or more to learn the native ways. It is called a native guided community. At the time of my visit there were three longer-term residents in addition to the family. I tell the story as if I was meeting aliens, because in a way it felt like that to me, but I think all people have that effect on me. The granddaughter was on Facebook during the meal. I got no cell reception, but the wi-fi was humming. I was interrogated after the meal by everyone, beginning with the teenage boy. I made the mistake of referring to noted medicine man as a “shaman,” and while I was quoting someone else, I was lambasted for it. I did my best to explain why I was there. I felt they were all being very protective of noted medicine man’s son. I did my best, and they all got tired except for his wife. She grilled me for an hour. Then she sent me to my tent. I hardly slept. Roosters crowed before dawn.

The next day was my interview, and I was excited to do it. After breakfast, noted medicine man’s son told me he had some business to tend to, but since I had earlier asked the elder whose parking spot I took why he was there—there being the native guided community—my interview told the elder to tell me the story of how he came to be where he was. The long version.

We went to his camper. He not only parked his camper in the spot I had brazenly taken, but he lived in it too. We sat in there and he told me how he had come to leave his life as the manager of a strip mall for the pursuit of his own personal calling. His life changed, and took a path he never could have chosen. His grandfather, he discovered, had written a book about a native chief, Chief Black Hawk. He took it upon himself to republish the book, and he began to learn about his tribe. He was consumed with something—an attraction to native people, and the quest to finish something his own ancestors began. He sold everything—his cars, his condo, his possessions. He bought a camper. He traveled to reservations and tried to begin to talk to people about Black Hawk. He began to be moved by the people he was meeting, to discover (more emotionally less factually) the white man’s abominable treatment of native people. His path in life became clear, distinct, with purpose. He surrendered to Creator, he told me.

I listened to all of this with both envy and contempt. I told him I understood what he was doing, not logically but somewhere else. In my heart. I understood what he was doing. I told him how much I wanted to have the same kind of thing happen to me. I told him I was having trouble letting my passions guide me. I mean, here I was, looking for inspiration with a book project that is the center of my passion, and I was struggling to find it everyday—struggling to nourish and maintain it. Knowing that I am doing something that means so much to me, and yet having doubt about it, feeling listless, perhaps alone. I felt comfortable enough to tell him this.

He asked if I would like a tobacco wrap. A tobacco wrap is a prayer of sorts in native culture. It is tobacco, which is supposed to contain powers of memory, as well as other plants like sage—wrapped in a cloth and tied. The thing is to be held by the person whose prayer it contains. So he did this thing for me. He wrapped the tobacco as he spoke of being guided by Creator to find my passion. He handed it to me and told me not to let anyone else touch it. And he said that whenever I didn’t want to hold it anymore, I should burn it. The smoke rises, the tobacco remembers, and the prayer is carried aloft. I asked him why I would not want to hold it anymore, and he said I might not want it anymore, might not want the responsibility of it. I didn’t understand. But I agreed. Then we left his camper and I went and conducted my interview.

It wasn’t until the other day that I began to feel I didn’t want the tobacco wrap anymore. It was as though holding on to the thing suddenly felt different. I wanted to let it go. It made more sense to me than to keep it, whereas before it didn’t. I wanted to see the smoke rise up to heaven, and not bare the responsibility of the wanting anymore. Of a prayer. It will be such a relief to watch the smoke rise. And let go.

 

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