Interview with Rose High Bear
Inspired by a vision to write the story of Martin High Bear’s life, Rose High Bear ended up buying a video camera instead, and recording the wisdom of this Lakota medicine man, who happened to be her husband. She and her team have been recording elders ever since, to preserve the rich treasure of their knowledge and wisdom and share it with the world. An elder herself, Rose still holds herself accountable to her own grandparents as she pursues this critical work.
These elders’ wisdom is vital for all of us. If we want to achieve true human prosperity, not just mere existence on a beleaguered planet, we need to pay attention. Rose’s story is rich and multidimensional: she leads you from one gem to the next. So make a cup of tea and dig in:
What is Wisdom of the Elders, Inc.?
We started Wisdom of the Elders in 1990 and incorporated in 1993. The idea was to record our elders, to save their messages. Martin High Bear, the founder, was one of the elders. He kept seeing how elders were going home to the Spirit World and leaving the younger generations without that guidance and direction, that wisdom and knowledge.
So we started recording elders and actually got funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to produce Wisdom of the Elders Radio.
One thing about Native people… we have so much historical trauma. There’s so much lateral oppression that a person’s work can be interrupted by someone who tries to stop it from being successful. And what we were doing was good; it was for the purpose of helping people.
At Wisdom we’ve produced:
Wisdom of the Elders Radio, four series containing 26 or 28 radio programs.
Native Wisdom Documentary Film Series, a full-length one-hour documentary featuring the tribes of Oregon.
Discovering Our Story TV program, where we have a special guest from the community and show one of our films.
Northwest Indian Storytellers Association with storytelling gatherings in Portland and Seattle. We think the cultural arts are an extremely important part of our identity, part of strengthening our identity as Native people.
Now we have developed an adult workforce program to help Native Americans achieve prosperity through a career pathway in the conservation fields, focusing on agriculture and horticulture.
Currently, we have eight adults in our three-month internship: Native Americans, Alaskan Natives, Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders. We train them in environmental assessment and habitat restoration. After they’ve taken both internships, one in the fall and one in the spring, then they qualify to work for our social enterprise. We started Wisdom Workforce Development, LLC, a for-profit company, and we get contracts from Metro, City of Portland, Bureau of Environmental Services, Friends of Trees, etc. Our intern graduates work for us at what used to be a living wage of $15/hour. Now with housing costs rising, you can’t achieve a living wage at $15. We’re increasing it this month to $16, but that really still doesn’t help a lot when it comes to the expensive housing that people have to find.
Most recently—and most importantly—we’ve been creating educational curriculum for schools using these videos we’ve produced.
Starting in September 2019, all Oregon public schools will be required teach Oregon tribal history and culture. So we have an environmental science curriculum we’re offering throughout the state of Oregon. It’s a classroom education, but it’s also field trips out into the world of nature. We work with a long list of partners: Portland Bureau of Environmental Services, Portland Parks and Recreation, Johnson Creek Watershed Council, Friends of Trees, etc. Our workforce interns go out and teach young kids how to restore their playgrounds, remove all the invasives (blackberry and ivy) and plant all native species. It’s kind of cool!
It really makes our interns feel good that they’re able to work with young people. It makes them feel like they’re teachers, instead of lost, homeless, low income Natives who have nothing to offer the world. It’s really remarkable.
In the process, we’re training our partners to be more respectful to Native Americans. And we’re not doing it by protesting. We aren’t an activist organization. We don’t believe in protests. We believe in getting out there and being a good, respectful partner to others. And talking to them with respect. Not being angry. Anger is not an indigenous cultural value, I say.
And our staff is constantly learning. They’re often saying, “Oh wow! This is so cool!” Because the response from people is so positive. It’s really fulfilling work. And it’s exciting.
Right now, we have a real problem with wildfires, right? If they would follow Native American habitat restoration policies—our old traditional ways of maintaining the land—they’d have known to do controlled burns and we would never have out-of-control fires. I listen to people talk about starting new practices of burning and they don’t even attribute it to Native Americans. It’s so disrespectful. It’s stunning that they’re totally ignoring the way that Natives watched this land. We didn’t have out-of-control burns. We never put poison on our soil. We never had invasives here. It was heaven. We lived in heaven. And so we’re really trying to reach out. We very thrilled that Portland Parks and Recreation, Portland Bureau of Environmental Services and Metro and the others… they all value working with us and they’re changing their policies. It’s stunning. They’re not doing it fast enough, of course.
We do ceremony here too. It isn’t part of the corporation, but we have Wisdom Tiospaye, our Wisdom Spiritual Community. We do ceremonies once a month, we’ve got a sweat lodge, we go to Sun Dance (“Wiwanyag Wacipi” in Lakota), we go to vision quest. There’s bear ceremonies and buffalo ceremonies of friends that we support.
Our spiritual community is strengthening our cultural values or what we call spiritual qualities. The founder of Wisdom of the Elders had a vision called The Seven Commandments of the Sacred Buffalo Calf Maiden. He wanted us always to share those cultural teachings with the people: to be humble, to be respectful, to have compassion. The spiritual qualities of our people are essential to who we are. It’s about the mind, body, spirit and emotions. To be physically prosperous, yes. And when our values are strong, when our spiritual qualities are strong, it makes us a better worker, a better employee, a better human being.
The mind, the body, the spirit and the emotions… There are four components to a medicine wheel. We need to integrate them all together in our thinking. Then it makes us a more whole human being. I really love the Baha’i principles. A lot of people think I’m talking as a Native American, when a lot of times I’m talking as a Baha’i. The two of them go together: oneness of mankind, oneness of God, oneness of the religions.
What is your own story?
I was born in Alaska. I’m Alaskan Athabascan with a little bit of Inupiat, what they call Eskimo. As a little girl, I was brought to Oregon to be raised by the white side of the family. Apparently, my parents divorced and my father, who was non-Indian got custody. He was a U.S. Marshall and he knew how to do the paperwork, so he got me away from my Mom. I have 20 years of culture shock and abandonment syndrome. But I think it was a destiny thing—I was meant to go through that so I could begin to help people who have suffered similar things. It’s not unusual in the Indian world to have your life disrupted by a marriage breaking up or losing your family, losing your parents, being raised by non-Indians in a very weird fashion; patrilineal and male-dominated. It’s very foreign to me. I never could accept it. I lived in an Indian village that was very matrilineal. The mother controls the family because she lives there, she teaches them the language, she teaches them the skills, she cooks for them, they learn the lifestyle. Subsistence way of life is very rich and beautiful.
So when I came to Oregon, it was very difficult. In fact, they thought I was mentally retarded. We used that word in those days. But I was just simply in shock. I was in a culture that I didn’t understand and I was abandoned from my mother. I had eight brothers and sisters up in Alaska, but I was raised as an only child. So that’s kind of hard to handle. But I did manage to graduate from high school. And I graduated from college.
As an older person who has run a nonprofit for 25 years, I’m saying, “Hey, don’t take that label ‘mentally retarded’ away from me.” Because I want to be inspiration to other people who have been categorized in that way. Native Americans were always put into Special Ed programs. They think there’s something wrong with us. When really, we just have a different learning style. We learn at the feet of our grandparents and out in the world of nature. We don’t learn in books. We don’t learn in school. It’s all experiential. So the curriculum we’ve developed at Wisdom of the Elders is based on the Native American way of learning and uses an experiential learning model. We’re using it in schools with kids and we’re using it in the workforce program for adults.
I worked up in Alaska for the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation (ADEC) on the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Before that, I had a career in food marketing: Armour and Company, Harker’s Wholesale Meats and Seneca Foods. I represented them as a marketing manager for restaurant foods.
The for-profit side was really boring and I didn’t ever find meaning there, but I was in the top 5% of women in America around 1980. It wasn’t because I had a special job, I just had a man’s job—a man’s management job.
But once I got into the environmental world, the nonprofit world, I found myself. I think I was lost up until then. You know, they say among the Cherokee that you don’t really get to be adult until you’re 50. Because you lose decades walking the wrong trail, making all these mistakes. Then you finally find your way and you’re almost too old to do anything about it. (laughter)
But we’ve got a little time left here. A lot of our time is going to be in the Spirit World. This is just a training ground down here. The Baha’i Faith teaches this too. It’s just a training ground. We’re just learning. And it’s our spiritual qualities we work on. Those are the muscles we’re developing. We certainly won’t take our homes or our furniture or clothing with us. It’s just the qualities.
So I have to learn how to behave pretty soon. It’ll be embarrassing to go up there and have to face your grandparents and say, “Gee, I tried… I was a little too stubborn. A little too disobedient. I lack self-discipline.” We think we’re making progress and then we look and think, “Oh my God! I haven’t cracked the egg yet.”
So we started doing all this work and then we found out we needed money, so we had to incorporate and get a 501(c)(3). And then we had to battle… It seems like every time we had to battle… Someone was either trying to take away our corporation or take away our project. They wanted to produce the documentary for instance: “Oh you guys don’t know how do that. Let us do that for you.”
But we just kept on working. I would just keep my nose to the grindstone. I called myself a secretary to the grandfathers. I was always recording and transcribing and trying to do something. After Martin died, I got more serious and we actually got a Corporation for Public Broadcasting grant. And that’s how we got started producing the radio programs. Later on the National Endowment for the Arts started funding us to do radio and videos. But a lot of our work was in-kind at first, so it was a lot of hard work. It took 25 years of learning how to run a nonprofit, just organically, grassroots.
At the same time, I was working on my spirituality, doing ceremonies, going to sweat lodge, going to Sun Dance and vision quests. I had friends who were doing buffalo ceremonies and bear ceremonies and I’d go there. My spiritual life was really important to me. That and my nonprofit, it’s all I did.
What have you learned?
Restoring Cultural Values
What I’ve learned is the importance of the mission and the vision of Wisdom of the Elders: restoring the traditional cultural values. And when I say cultural values, I mean spiritual qualities of Native Americans. Because we lived a very high life, a very idealistic, high-minded life dedicated to selfless service to our people. The best of the people were the most spiritual. The ones who lead the people were the ones who would deprive themselves before they would ever take. Generations and generations ago, you had to take care of your people before you took care of yourself. The whole purpose of Wisdom, and for me personally, is to restore those cultural values: the humility, compassion, empathy, the ability to forgive, the ability to serve other people, to put your own needs aside. That comes first. We have to be a good person.
In my spiritual community, we’re going through a year of what we call a “year of kindness”. We’re dedicating the whole year to being kind and learning how to do that. It takes a lot of spiritual qualities, actually, to be kind. To be genuinely kind, not just act nice. We’re not a ‘nice’ community; we’re a kind community.
Next year we’ll do something else. We’ll have another quality that we focus on. So each year we’re going to take on a certain commitment to learn something at a deeper level.
At Wisdom, we’ve always said if we’re working away and something happens, if our values are challenged and we’re not succeeding as human beings, everything comes to a stop. And we get ourselves right again: be respectful, be kind. We do it gently, of course. You don’t shout back at someone and say, “Don’t shout at me!” Right? (laughter)
Restoring Ancient Traditions
Another thing I focus on is the restoration of our ancient traditions. How do we restore that? How do we restore something that was such high quality? A lot of people look at Native Americans as third world human beings. And it’s just not that way. In our DNA and in our ancestry, we lived a superior way of life. They talk about subsistence people as second-grade people. They call us third world countries. Give me a break! We’re First Peoples here. We did things so well, that when they came here to America, what did they find? A pristine, clean, beautiful environment that we had maintained for thousands of years—in my village, for 14,500 years. But they had to say that we were subhuman in order to take over our land. Because if we had been human, they couldn’t have taken it over as easily. So when we were more like an animal, it was legal to take it over. They planted their flag and then they owned America. But had they recognized us for who we are, they wouldn’t have been successful.
That’s what’s important to me, restoring the role of Native Americans. Even ‘Abdu’l-Bahá had a prophecy about Native Americans in North America:
Attach great importance to the indigenous population of America. For these souls may be likened unto the ancient inhabitants of the Arabian Peninsula, who, prior to the Mission of Muhammad, were like unto savages. When the light of Muhammad shone forth in their midst, however, they became so radiant as to illumine the world. Likewise, these Indians, should they be educated and guided, there can be no doubt that they will become so illumined as to enlighten the whole world. ~ ‘Abdu’l-Bahá
We have a very high station, if we can humble ourselves and achieve our destiny.
Native people have that prophecy too—the day will come when the people of the world will turn to Native people to learn how to care for the earth and to care for one another. For me that’s enough. If I just keep focused on that, then that’s good.
I just really want respect and honor to be stronger among the people of the world. We need to do something about the violence in the world.
And I think it’s really important to do something about the lack of hope. Hope needs to be restored among the people. Some of these deaths you see with the massacres is a result of people losing hope. And in their desperation, they try to do something, even if it’s getting a gun and shooting people. People come to a very low level of thinking when they lose hope. And so for me, keeping hope strong is one of the very biggest activities we’re doing right now. We recognize the importance of hope. Without hope we don’t have power to make transformation. Hope fuels transformation.
What inspires you?
Really good people inspire me. People who are committed to serving people, who have a big heart. People who show their emotions and care about other people. I’m inspired by people who show those cultural values and spiritual qualities of compassion and kindness, who put aside their own personal needs and are dedicated to serving humankind. That’s what inspires me the most about other people.
I recently lost a friend. I think he died because there was mold in his house. So I wrote a long eulogy—everything I could remember about him. How I met him, how we worked together. He was my video producer at Wisdom. I wanted to share my memory so the people, especially his family who were so sad, know that this man was a great man.
We believe those who die travel around for a year before they go home to the Spirit World. They look over all the events of their life and they visit where they were. After one year, we have the Releasing of the Spirit ceremony and then they go to the Spirit World. So he’s in that year. And I just wanted everybody to know, he’s going to be going back over all the events in his life, remembering all the love that he had, all the people he cared for, all the good things that happened. And ask everybody to remember him in their prayers. We have a health and wellness curriculum, where we recorded all these elders and everything. And so we were working on the 5 steps of the hero’s journey. But Peta had found 17 steps and he was working on his 12th step. So I really admire him. He’s just an ordinary person. He was living in New Orleans somewhere and sometimes battled depression. But he was such a giving person.
You don’t have to be like a Bahá’u’lláh or an ‘Abdu’l-Bahá to be a great person. We can find greatness in everybody. And some of the people who are struggling and have a hard time and live with so many tests and difficulties that they can hardly get out of bed… they have greatness in them. We need to find that greatness in people. It could save their life. And we need to remind them that they can have hope. And it’s usually through spiritual practices. Without spirituality, people can lose hope. Even the homeless people on the streets…
Have you heard of the Sacred Buffalo Calf Maiden of the Lakota? She brought the pipe to the people. We think it was around the 17th century—today’s keeper of the pipe is the 19th generation keeper. A few months ago, the Spirit World told me that She is back on the earth again and She’s walking as a poor woman. When I heard that, I said, “Oh my God! I can never look at homeless people again like that. We have to remember to pray for them, even if they are high on drugs. They need prayers.”
What is your hope for the world?
My hope for the world is strengthening spirituality among all the people. And recognizing that there’s a oneness to spirituality. You can be a Buddhist, a Jewish person, a Christian, Muslim, Baha’i, Native American, and we all worship the same God.
We have to recognize that the world is in its young adulthood, so we’re still quite impetuous and very foolish, as a mankind. We’ve got a lot of problems because of our immaturity. But we have to keep hope alive. Now as Native Americans, we have medicine: so mole dirt and Chokecherries restore hope in our people. So in our ceremonies, we always have mole dirt—dirt from under Mother Earth that was never touched by people. It’s pure and holy and it brings hope and also absorbs negativity. And there’s also the Chokecherry: we always have Chokecherry branches or Chokecherry berries in our ceremonies. In the Native American world, in our ceremonies, we pray for hope. And we try to understand it.
I’m thinking that after this year of kindness, we’re probably going to focus on hope. We’re always talking about it. When we go to these four-day Sun Dance ceremonies, we’re strengthening our hope and we go back home then, after that ceremony and we’re giving out hope, all over the place for anybody who doesn’t have it. So I think that’s really big. It always comes down to spirituality and having respect for people. It’s really a commitment to selfless service among those people. I think that’s it, in a nutshell.