June Magic in the Altai
I'm just back from the first of two ’06 exchanges between Native Siberian and Native American elders and shamans. It was quite successful, even extraordinary at times. The majestic and mysterious Altai Mountains of Siberia have so much to offer. After an initial bumpy start where two elders from Canada were unable to make the journey, four other very dynamic Native American leaders and elders were able to meet their Altai counterparts. A documentary filmmaker and myself joined them.
After a 10-hour layover in Moscow we flew to Barnaul, the northernmost city in the Altai Krai, which serves as a buffer zone between the Altai Republic and south-central Siberia.
Journeys like these are tests of stamina, especially the ability to do without sleep. A few of the participants from the West Coast US would travel 2/3 of way around the planet, taking a full 3 days, and sleep only a few hours. Finally after passing through the beautiful city of Gorno-Altaisk, capitol of the Altai Republic we ascended into the mountains and landed in the Karakol Valley. Here, in the very center of the Altai Republic, we acclimated to our new environment at an incredibly beautiful “tourist camp” recently built to handle the influx of tourism. This is both a blessing and a curse in that it provides income but so many of the tourists are culturally and ecologically insensitive. This camp consisted of 4 hexagonal log cabins structures (similar to a Navajo hogan) and a banya (Russian sauna).
We were surrounded by mountains, with the largest being Uch-Enmek. This is also the name of a 60,000-hectare, Native controlled "Nature Park" headed by our host, elder and geologist Danil Mamyev. Right away I noticed the delighted expressions on the faces of the American Indian elders to see so many things that reminded of them of home, or the way home used to be. This was a theme that would play out repeatedly; a glance here, a petroglyph there, a song there, all being held by the power of the land that reverberated in everyone's souls. We experienced a certain timelessness as if we had all taken this journey, or a similar one before. Don Alejandro, Quiche Mayan, who was the eldest elder on the trip would say many times, “they keep killing us [Earth people], but we keep coming back. We love the land and insist upon singing Her song”.
After a doing a few preliminary ceremonies to bless the exchange and the film about the exchange, we went to a nearby town to meet with the locals. We were enthusiastically and generously met by Olga, a middle-aged woman shaman whom like a surprising number of women from her generation have heard the call of her ancestors to take a key role in the revitalization of her peoples rich tradition. Olga’s day job is a teacher of English to schoolchildren. She welcomed us into her ai-eel, or ceremonial wooden yurt, where the central fire burned and spreads its warmth not just inside the confines of the space but also to gave light and warmth to the world.
In Olga’s ai-eel was our next test of stamina: how much could we eat?! She and her helpers kept feeding us all kinds of different foods, meat, meat, and more meat, and a few vegetables. It was in this village I noticed local sustainability and a “soft” energy approach in action. The human population is low. The cattle and sheep graze for the short summer in huge valleys. Hay is collected in early September and is fed to the animals during the long cold winter. The people eat the animals. This pastoralism has been going on for millennia.
It was in this ai-eel that Arzhan Kezerekov was first able to showcase his exceptional musical talent for our group. Arzhan started receiving visionary information from childhood and was told to sing. Precisely he was told to be a "kaichi" which could be translated from the Altai as a shamanic-throat-singer-story-teller. He is considered to be the successor of the legendary kaichi, and recently deceased, Aleksei Kalkin
The next day, and not far from Olga’s ai-eel, Danil took us to a mountain pass that enabled us to see the beauty and scale of the Karakol Valley in its full grandeur. During the steep walk up, 78-year-old Don Alejandro seemed to relish drinking in the fresh mountain air while resolutely keeping up with his younger friends and colleagues. His Maya name is Wakatel Utiw, which means Wandering Wolf. He has been traveling extensively crossing borders and oceans for over 40 years carrying the messages of his Ancestors to benefit all. After we tied sacred prayer cloths or chalama to the larches at the summit, Don Alejandro, would emphasize the critical importance of uniting indigenous peoples all over the world. He would repeat this many times.
That afternoon Arzhan took us to what I later referred to as the “magic waters”, seven small sacred springs, nothing more than pools, with the cleanest, purest water, I have ever tasted (and I’ve been all over Siberia!). The very palpable energy of healing and restoration seemed to wash away all fatigue, doubt, and sadness lingering from the “Grandmothers” from Canada not being there. We did a small ritual of thanksgiving before drinking and then quickly left the place.
The next day was a much-anticipated ceremony with about 60 villagers from the Karakol Valley. It was a postcard perfect day in a landscape similar to Montana and Colorado with a little New Mexico and Arizona thrown in. Upon arrival all the shamans and medicine people were wearing their finest regalia. The contrasting colors of Altai greens, purples, and reds with the Mayan’s rainbow spectrum against the landscape was epic. At this point I was particularly grateful that the filmmaker Steve Copeland was filming. The visuals were spectacular!
Don Alejandro wore his most sacred peacock headdress. One woman asked him innocently if his people revered the Earth in the same way as in her Native Altai. He assured her they did. There was a magnetic attraction between the two groups, but before a worldly conversation could really take off the Altai elders made sure we were all ready to take part in an ancient ceremony.
The Siberian elders—which included several men who lived through most of the Soviet period and even protested against desecration of burial mounds--- instructed everyone to stop talking and separate into their respective genders. First the men walked a short distance to a sacred spring and made offerings, followed by the women. Next we climbed up a huge hill for a ceremony at the top.
Stone cairns were arranged proportionally and positioned in such a way to symbolize the surrounding mountains. Milk and bread were offered to each cairn. A central fire was lit. Everyone passed by it and then placed a prayer tie on a horizontal string behind the hearth. Songs and chants ensued. Arzhan did some throatsinging while a pair of eagles circled curiously and protectively.
We headed south out of the Karakol Valley and stopped briefly to visit Arzhan’s family. It was good to see them again. They were the main hosts for the exchange with Navajo elder, Leon Secatero, in 2003. It was also good to really travel again. In heading south we were going into dryer more desert like conditions. I was looking forward to seeing a small city I had not been before, Kosh-Agach, not that far from the border of Mongolia.
A few hours later, we stopped for lunch at Grandmother Elena’s ai-eel. She is a Buddhist following the Diamond Path. She is also the guardian of a valley where the mighty Katun River is met by a tributary. After a traditional tea and small meal, she gave a lesson in Soviet history. It’s good points-- widespread education and literacy, relative economic stability---and its bad points---terror and repression. She mentioned that all the shamans in the 1930’s were killed and their close relations sent to gulags as “enemies of the people”. This coupled with a widespread campaign to assimilate indigenous peoples led to vast numbers of Altai people to abandon their culture and tradition. Like so many others, she said “ Its so important that Native Americans have come to share their struggles. We admire them greatly.”
After eating, Benjamin Jojola, from Isleta Pueblo, gave her some special gifts from his land. Benjamin, an outdoor educator who specializes in working with adolescents, was in “prayer mode” (offering gratitude, honoring the land, the spirits, and the ancestors) from the first time I met him on the plane to Moscow. He is a traditionally minded Native American who really walks his talk. He is constantly thinking about others and how to “walk softly and respectfully on the Mother”. Awakening to our first day in the Karakol Valley, he and I really connected while experiencing the peaks that some call “the Alps of Siberia.”
Continuing to travel alongside the spectacular Katun we all began to doze. We were relaxed and in the flow. We awoke to the confluence of the Katun and the Chu, a powerful place full of legends I have yet to learn. Shortly thereafter we arrived at Chui-Oozy Nature Park. Chui-Oozy, a small officially protected area, has a similar status as Uch-Enmek. Both are rare cases of indigenous oversight where places of environmental and cultural importance allow compatible human activities.
Galina and Ruslana Toptigina, a mother and daughter team, are the guardians of Chui-Oozy. Galina and Ruslana's ancestors have been living in the area for thousands of years. What makes the place unique, in addition to the surprising amount of endemic species, is the huge petroglyph complex Kalbak-tash. Unfortunately, the petroglyphs are located near the main road so vandalism is an ever-present threat. Near Kalbak-Tash. Ruslana invited each of us to plant a tree in a very dry section near the Chu. What a tangible gift for the future!
The town of Kosh-Agach turned out to be a struggling relic of the collapse of the USSR. Abandoned buildings alongside new shops. Long wide streets with no trees. It reminded me of an Old West town. Living in this hardscrabble existence are a group of indigenous scientists, artists, small business owners busy at the momentous task of cultural revival after centuries of Russian and then Soviet domination. They served as guides, leading us around to various households full of extraordinarily generous people. We traded stories, laughed, sang, and ate (and ate and ate). The people, poor on the material plane, brought out fruits and vegetables that came from other parts of Russia (none seemed to grow in this parched valley). Benjamin, Kelvin, Elizabeth, and Don Alejandro were treated like celebrities. It reminded me of being in Russia 15-20 years ago when from the vantage point of most Russian (and Soviet) citizens, any American was an exotic species that was critically important to meet and befriend.
Ever since I saw a photo of the megalithic standing stone circle about an hour south of Kosh-Agach, I knew it would be a powerful sacred site. What I was not prepared for was the size and grandeur of a few of the stones, rather boulders, and the sheer space of the area. Many of the stones were strewn with petroglyphs. The place just oozed with the spirits of the ancestors.
Here I noticed Kelvin Long --young in age, 30 something, but old in wisdom and power—being particularly moved. He is adept in the modern world and in the traditions of his grandfathers. He is currently executive director of ECHOES (Educating Communities while Healing and Offering Environmental Support) based in Flagstaff Arizona, which is leading the fight to prevent desecration of the San Francisco Peaks, one of the four mountains sacred to the Navajo, Hopi, and 12 other tribes of the US Southwest. But his core focus is Native unity and cultural revitalization. Many times on our journey he would break out his drum and sing social songs that would immediately send me back to that magical land in the US Southwest sometimes referred to as “red rock country”. After drumming for a short while he joined our group circled around Don Alejandro who had actually found a previously undiscovered small petroglyph close to the center of the huge stone complex.
Indigenous Altai archeologist, Maya Erlenbayeva, who had guided us to this site was surprised and grateful for this find. She asked our impressions of the place and everyone shared from the heart. The circle of stones felt like it was embracing the circle of people.
This was as far south as we would travel. Looking at the huge Ukok plateau in the distance I remembered what the shaman Maria Amanchina had told Leon Secatero and I in August, 2003. “Maybe you know about the Ukok Princess? She was buried on the Ukok plateau, right at the border of Mongolia, about 2500 years ago. She was a shaman and warrior, buried with six of her horses. In 1994 a team of Russian archeologists found her perfectly preserved body in a tomb underneath the permafrost. She started coming to me in my dreams. I had to go visit her body in Novosibirsk (a large Siberian city north of the Altai). She was in a vacuum chamber and her incredible tattoos were starting to wear off. More importantly, the spirits of the buried are sensitive. They need to be respected and left alone. The Princess told me, ‘It is of crucial importance that I get reburied because I am losing my power and my power is part of the power of the Altai. You must figure out how to get me back.’ I've done ceremony, prayed, talked to hundreds of people and collected thousands of signatures for the Princess's release. If she is not re-buried I’m certain it can only mean bad things for the Altai.”
Upon leaving the megalithic stone circle, Maya had pointed out the re-building that had taken place after the huge earthquake leveled a good portion of Kosh-Agach in September of 2003. I could not help thinking about the Princess….
This was about 10 days into the journey and about the time in previous trips where I seem to wear an ongoing altered state. Again and again while traveling with people who have lived and revered their land for thousands of years one comes to realize there is a parallel reality to the one we have grown accustomed to in the Western world. All the accepted definitions of how the world works and what is of value come into question.
The return drive north seemed effortless. We made very few stops except at Chu-Oozi, the only place within 200 miles with udobstvo or comforts: banya, firm bed, good food, cold beer, that kind of thing.
It was here that I noticed how badly I wanted the “outside world” to be able to look into and feel this extraordinary exchange. Film appears to best method if you are not actually present. An essential ingredient in any documentary film is the interviews with the participants. We were running out of time together and it was crucial that maverick filmmaker Steve Copeland interview long time friend and colleague, Erjen Khamaganova. Erjen has been a Russian-English interpreter for Sacred Earth Network’s Indigenous Peoples Exchange for 6 years. She has experienced the project’s inception and has been a key advisor during all phases. One of her comments during her interview stood out.
We started out by talking about the the power and meaning of having two First Nations, that are marginalized by the larger society, so similar in culture, and miles apart, have an opportunity to participate in mutually created ceremony. I asked her directly: why do ceremony? Why is it important? She responded passionately: “It is really the foundation of our culture. This is how we bring strength to each other by collectively honoring the Earth. When we are able to do this often enough we remember who we are as a people. It helps us heal the wounds of the past. In the West, everything is separated and people think they can solve problems by working on the parts. We don’t think of land, culture, language, spirituality as divided” In listening to her I wondered what if we really listened to them? Perhaps we could access a level of power and intelligence, or at the least see a pathway that could help us humans find a way to pass through the ever narrowing tunnel of survival. And this listening has to be based on humility and the willingness to let go to uncharted, unknown, often uncomfortable ways of perceiving the world.
On the final day before flying back to Moscow we gathered in Uch-Enmek Nature Park’s main base camp, a modest assortment of small hexagonal houses surrounded by mountains of all shapes and sizes. The rain was pouring but everyone’s spirits in our group of 7 were high. We were joined by about 20 other Siberians. Some from as far away as Lake Baikal. After various shamans and medicine people blessed the gathering, everyone introduced themselves around the shared themes of indigenous self-determination, cultural renewal, and land rights. Danil Mamyev talked about the planned gas pipeline from China to northwestern Siberia that would be constructed along the same road we had just traveled.
Tatyana Kobezhkova, a shaman from the Siberian province of Hakassia, who the night before led us on a powerful drum journey, spoke of the manipulative behavior of the Russian government and how they have threatened to reject the status of the Altai Republic if the Altains do not submit to the pipeline’s construction. There was a general consensus that in addition to conventional forms of protest they needed something different. One approach would be to write what the participants are tentatively calling the Karakol Declaration. This would be a document meant for policy makers and the mass media to openly declare the emerging unification of Native Peoples the world over and the rights they have to determine what happens on their ancestral lands. I was amazed at the gifts and talents of each of the participants. As each person spoke the energy in the ai-eel kept increasing. One journalist, a Russian named Nikolai Vitovtsev said he felt like an indigenous Altai because his people had been in the region for 300 years. No one argued with him. He also subsequently published an article about the Gathering in the city newspaper.
Overall, there was significant sharing by the two sides on ecological, cultural, spiritual, archeological, anthropological, and historical issues. All who participated came away enriched and eager for more.
We all left the Gathering with the sense that anything is possible.