Below is an interview with Native elder David Courchene, Jr., from the online newspaper Austin Daze, August 13, 2007. David took part in SEN's Eighth Fire Gathering.
AUSTIN DAZE: We would like to know, what is the most important and meaningful message you could offer all of us living in these times?
ELDER DAVE COURCHENE JR.: I think one of the biggest struggles that we have as humans is trying to understand the fullness of what constitutes our being. According to the teachings of our people and our understanding of our humanness, there are four elements that represent what a human being is: the first is what we refer to as the spiritual, or the spirit of our being; the second part is the emotions that we reflect as human beings; the third part is the physical part; and the fourth part is the mind. I think that as human beings we have evolved in many ways intellectually. I think we have also come to understand more of what our physical being represents in terms of our physical nature. As for the human aspects of our nature I think we've begun to feel as human beings but we don't know how to express the feelings that we have. We do go through a lot of emotions as human beings. We have not been able to handle our emotions in a more balanced nature. The spiritual part of our nature is where I believe we have really failed as human beings. The belief of the Native people has always been about spirit, and the ceremony that we conduct is a continued acknowledgement of our connection with the spirit. I believe our biggest challenge as human beings today is to come to recognize the connection that we should have with spirits. Because out of the spirit world comes visions, dreams, inspiration, and how to reach a greater level of existence as human beings. As Native people, we have always been a people that dream, we have always been a people that have allowed our visions to guide us in our lives. From vision we are given purpose; we are given meaning to our existence. Vision comes to us from a higher power of the great spirits. We don't have the intellectual capability to fully grasp the greatness of this great spirit that we refer to. It is in our belief system that this greater power of spirit is available for anyone that wishes to secure a vision which will offer them purpose and meaning in life.
I believe that the biggest challenge that we have today as human beings is to come to understand the significance and importance of that spiritual reality that exists whether we accept or deny it in our lives.
AD: How can we make it happen?
EDCJ: I think if we follow all the laws of nature in terms of growth. Things aren't going to change over night, it's going to require the individual to have a strong need to want to know the truth of one's own existence and meaning of life. And it's going, I believe, to take people that have this great urge within themselves to see it through. There is something much more than what we see, something much more than what we have created as human beings. We are beginning to realize that what we have created is not helping to sustain life, that we are damaging the environment, we are damaging our home. We need to derive a way to live as human beings. I would say that the Native people have a model for the way of life that helps people have a link with the spirit world. How we are able to do that as a people is to show the land and show nature. Nature is a reflection of that manifestation of the spirit of life. Many of our people make refer to nature as the faith of our great spirit.
AD: What makes Sacred fire different from regular fire? How has this affected people?
EDCJ: It's interesting that you asked that question. I think as human beings we have to rediscover the real meaning and power of fire. If we look at the way fire has been used in technology, I believe it's an element being used to destroy. We see it in weaponry, in warfare, in technology-not necessarily things that sustain life. Sacred fire is an attempt of the individual to understand the real essence of the spirit and the real spirit of the sacred fire. Once you light the sacred fire you destroy your own intent, and invoke the spirit of prayer. You call upon the spiritual realm to come and offer guidance and inspiration to you and to the other individuals around that fire. It is our belief system that beyond the cynical human world there is a central council of fire where all the great leaders sit around the fire and watch over the human being. The Sacred fire manifests that council fire into this world to create an opening so that they are able to come forward and offer guidance and nurture that part of our being that we call the spirit.
What makes it a sacred fire is really one believing in the spiritual essence of what it can provide. And by offering the fire to invite the spirit to become a part of the human world, it becomes sacred.
AD: What is the significance of the 8th fire? How is the 8th fire prophecy related?
EDCJ: The 8th fire is a prophecy that has been handed down to us by the Native people. The belief is that a time would come when the earth would enter into a change. And our people refer to this as the rebirth of the earth because a rebirth would have to take place if we are going to prevent the destruction of our own planet. The 8th fire, according to our people, says that there would be individuals that would come from all different cultures and they would gather in some way to seek greater advice and direction or to collectively seek out a vision that would lead what is referred to as the "new people." The new life will be represented by many different cultures and somehow they would gather to share the uniqueness of each of their strengths and give teachings and knowledge that they have gathered from their cultures. So the 8th fire is the coming of the new people who will somehow find a way to create a new understanding of how we should live and behave as human beings-where we will go beyond the division we've created amongst ourselves. They will find a way of life collectively to prevent the violence we see in our communities, on the street, and in our homes. It would be a spiritual understanding that would go beyond the divisions and the separations that have caused the violence and wars today.
According to our elders that are performing ceremonies, they have confirmed that the new life has arrived. The 8th fire is really a confirmation of the new life that the elders are talking about that has arrived.
AD: How does music play into the Native culture?
EDCJ: Probably the most significant instrument that we have would be the sacred drum of our people. The sacred drum, we believe, has been given to every culture in the world. And I see, as I travel around the world, that all the different cultures have been given the sacred drum and the understanding of the rhythm. To us the drum has its own protocol for understanding the power of what it really can mean. When we are talking about the way of the drum we are talking about a gift that helps carry the prayers and the hopes of the people. When we say our prayers with the singing of the drum, we are reenacting the first voice we carry when we come into this world as a young child that is being born. We cry out, we give thanks to that greater power of spirit and say, "I have made it and have arrived and I am being given the opportunity to be a human being." The sacred songs of our people are only reenacting that first sign of thankfulness that we have as we are first being born. The drums of our people are extremely important and are going to be even more important as we come into being a part of the fulfillment of the 8th fire. The drums, we hope, will be coming from every direction. The sound is the voice of the natural rhythm of the earth-of our own natural heart beat. The drums will carry the voice of all people. We are hoping that the voice will be heard as the voice of love and the voice of peace for all life. The drum is essential to fulfilling the 8th fire prophecy.
AD: Tell us about the Turtle Lodge, the Healing Lodge, and what's happening there. People are coming from all over the world.
EDCJ: I had that vision about 25 years ago when I was a little younger. I was encouraged to go on a vision quest and it was out of that quest that I was given the vision of this lodge and a turtle. I told the dream to the elders and they were very excited that the spirit of the grandmother turtle had come to bless me and the people of this lodge. And the elders told me I would have to bring this lodge into this world, that I was given a vision and now it would become a mission in my life to manifest that and make that vision come true. In the past five years of course we have constructed that lodge and I was told by the elders that many people would come from all walks of life, and they would enter that lodge. They would come to heal their spirit and the essence of the spirit of the turtle, which is the symbol of truth. The foundation of the lodge is part of the 7 original teachings that were given to our people. There is the law or teaching of love, which is represented by the eagle; the law or teaching of respect, which is represented by the buffalo; the law of courage, which is represented by the bear; the law of honesty, which is represented by Bigfoot or Sasquatch; the law of wisdom, which is represented by the beaver; and the law humility, which is represented by the wolf. They say that the truth carries the essence of all of these laws, that you live these laws once you know the truth. And that's the symbol of the lodge itself. People from all over the world have been able to experience coming into the lodge and feeling the essence of the spirit of those laws. The lodge itself is a place where we are able to experience the spirit in a universal way. It doesn't matter what people are in terms of their religion or the ideology that they believe in. As Native people we have come through some really challenging times: by law we were prevented from having anything to do with anything that reflected our culture. It's only been in very recent times that we have made a return back to our teachings, even though many of them were held underground by our spiritual people. The lodge is even more significant for the survival of and the reclamation of a way of life. But as we reclaim this way of life we are extending an invitation to all people to come and join us as we celebrate our own survival. We extend the invitation to learn the knowledge and wisdom that has helped my people to survive for 250,000 years.
AD: Tell me about the gathering you organized called Igniting the Fire, and the significance of this.
EDCJ: One of our most sacred sites is called Manitou Abi which means, "where the great spirits sat." I was inspired by the spirit to call the people back to that sacred site. Historically our people used to gather at that sacred site and everything would be shared by people that would come from all over North America. They would gather to join and celebrate life in the most spiritual way. And because we were prevented by law from going to these sacred places, people stopped going there. So when we conducted the first gathering last year it was absolutely a miracle that we had finally come back. There were grandmothers that had visions of the ancestors who appeared to offer joy that we have made it back to the sacred site. It is told by our elders that in order to reactivate our own spirit as human beings we have to go back to the sacred site, because they are places of spiritual power. When I say spiritual power I'm making reference to the strong influence of spirits that guide us to greater conduct as human beings. The sacred site itself is very, very important because many of our elders are saying that the sacred site here is the center of North America and the spiritual center also. With all of the sacred sites there is an opportunity to come and receive the ancient teachings that the elders are prepared to offer to anyone.
AD: Why did you feel you should come down to Texas? After all, it's a long way and it's pretty hot down here.
EDCJ: I thought about that and all I can say is that I really felt a strong spiritual influence to go there. I probably will not fully understand all of this until later on, but what I was able to experience so far is the openness in the people that I have been able to meet. I just found that there was something there that lent itself to the message-to the vision-that we carry as Native people. I'm sure within time it will make sense.
AD: One last question: we wanted to know about your name, and what Leading Earth Man means.
EDCJ: First of all I was given that name, Nii Gaani Aki Inini, in ceremony, and according to the elders it was the spirit of the grandmother turtle that came forward to bless me with that name. I still struggle somewhat to be able to honor the name in the way that it was given to me in ceremony. I believe that the name itself also represents my ability to speak on behalf of the earth as much as I am given that opportunity and to share the knowledge that we have of the Native people. I believe that we are a very spiritual people and that spirituality is connected to the deep profound love that we have for the land. Everything, to me, is connected. I think that the name itself represents the work or the vision that I have in my own life to call and inspire my fellow human beings. I live trying to fulfill that name everyday.