Indigenous Peoples Exchange - 2003 August
Two Worlds, One People
In August 2003, Bill Pfeiffer, SEN’s founder, accompanied Navajo elder, Leon Secatero, to the Altai Republic on a unique, and some might say, historic mission. This came about largely because a group of Native Americans and Native Siberians advised SEN in 2001 that it was crucial for spiritual leaders of both nations to meet and set the direction for future collaboration. Bill was able to introduce Leon to the spiritual leaders and lifeways of the Altai’s traditional indigenous peoples. What they discovered in addition to wonderfully hospitable people was an anthropological, cultural, spiritual, and archeological goldmine. To the best of our knowledge, this was the first time such an exchange had taken place in this remarkable region of Siberia.
Leon, Maria and Arzhan
Read Bill Pfeiffer's short article, Leon and Maria.
Upon Bill’s return he wrote to Shelley Gabriel at Kalliopeia Foundation seeking partial funding for a reciprocal exchange: “It is rare that I write a cover letter for a proposal with so much enthusiasm. I’ve just returned from the magnificent Altai mountains of Siberia where we were able to complete the first half of Sacred Earth Network’s 2003 East-West Indigenous Exchange. As I mentioned over the phone, funding has been tight, so we were only able to bring one Native American instead of the originally planned three or four. However, in hindsight, I believe this was a blessing. The person we chose, Leon Secatero, Headman and Elder of the Canoncito Band of Navajo, was so extraordinary that additional Native American leaders might have detracted from the depth and intimacy that was achieved by introducing just him to dozens of Altai citizens. Leon, who is a storyteller, a medicine man, and an interpreter of petroglyphs shared the richness of his heritage with his counterparts in the Altai who matched his depth and commitment.”
Chagat Almashev (center) translating for two brilliant elders,
one Altai, Nikolai Shadoev (left), and one Navajo, Leon Secatero
One of the highlights of the trip was meeting Arzhan Kezerekov and Maria Amanchina, outstanding medicine people of the Altai. Arzhan has been receiving visionary information since childhood and says that “The spirits told me to sing, to be a kaichi (shamanic throat-singer and story-teller), I am supposed to tell my people what the ancestors said about how to live.” Arzhan spent about 6 days with Bill and Leon and his songs still come to them in dreams and memories. Maria is a powerful shaman who has devoted her life to healing. She is often visited at her home in Ust-Kan by those in need. She also travels from village to village by request conducting ceremonies for the health and protection of her people and sharing her sacred teachings. It was spending time with these two gifted people that the many similarities between the Navajo and Altai tribes became so evident. For example, they both live/worship in 6-sided dwellings called hogans in Navajo and ai-eels in Altai with the door facing east. They also both use juniper for smudging, a practice of removing spiritual impurities. And the words for sun and fire are practically the same in both languages.
Thanks to the Trust for Mutual Understanding, Kalliopeia Foundation and dozens of generous individuals, Leon would later introduce some of his newly-made Altai friends to his tribal members in New Mexico and Arizona (see article on page 5). When introducing the Siberians, he would jokingly say “These people are Navajos from Siberia”. But beneath the joke was his profound understanding that the Altai and Navajo tribes (and to a lesser degree other Native American and Siberian tribes) share many similarities in customs, language, rock art, spiritual practices and world-view.
Petroglyphs at Kalbak-Tash
This exchange further emphasized that this life-affirming world view shared by traditional indigenous peoples all over the world is a crucial antidote to the unsustainable behavior of Western civilization. Working together Native Americans and Native Siberians stand a better chance of positively influencing the larger world they inhabit.