Note: Originally printed in SHAMAN'S DRUM magazine, Spring 1991. Re-printed by permission. Shaman’s Drum is the world’s leading magazine dealing with experiential shamanism and transformative spirituality. Write Shaman’s Drum, P.O. Box 270, Williams, Oregon 97544, USA; or, call (541) 846-1313
Please feel free to share this article, but do include all contact and credit information. Thank you.
Northwest Coast Medicine Teachings:
An Interview with Johnny Moses
By Timothy White
The following interview was compiled from several conversations recorded in December 1990.
Timothy White: In your work, you often talk about the teachings you received from your grandparents. Would you tell us about your grandparents and the ways they passed down those teachings?
Johnny Moses: I was raised by my grandparents, Johnny and Mary Moses -- those were their English names. In our tradition, the grandparents actually adopt the oldest grandchild, and I was the oldest child in our family, so they raised me from the time I was three months old.
Both of my grandparents were practicing medicine people. My grandmother was a traditional midwife and a baby doctor. She delivered all the babies in our village, and she could talk to babies. She also did hands-on healing. My grandfather was a doctoring man who worked with the dying and took care of the dead; he was what we call an aprecet. He was also known as a kapchurketl, a ghost doctor. In addition, he conducted ceremonies for people going through other life transitions, such as birth or puberty.
I grew up traveling with my grandparents to ceremonies all across Vancouver Island and even on the mainland. As we traveled back and forth, my grandparents would stop to visit with our many relatives. Because our relatives came from different tribes, I grew up speaking many Native languages. I spent much of my childhood listening to the elders share the songs and stories of our medicine ways.
My grandparents mostly taught us children through the traditional stories, what we call the teachings. We heard many, many stories -- while we were eating, while we were at home, while we were traveling in the car from one gathering to another. After we heard a story several times, they would have us tell the story to them. If we made mistakes telling the story, they wouldn't say which parts of the story were right or which were wrong. They would just tell the story again, and we had to find our mistakes by listening to the way they told it.
We were taught to think of all the animals in these stories as people with animal names, and we were taught that all the characters have life and feelings. As we got older, we found out we were doing more than just memorizing stories. We were learning about people, learning to listen to what people have to say to us, and learning to feel people's sicknesses and to interpret those feelings. We learn so much from the stories -- that's why we call them teachings.
As I got older, I was allowed to help my grandparents by singing for them while they were doctoring. I always enjoyed watching my grandparents do their healing work, because they had such different doctoring styles.
My grandmother was a rough doctoring woman. When she worked on people, it was like she was wrestling with them. Her hands-on healing was like strangling. She either healed people or scared the poison out of them, but they never came back. When people sat down on the chair for a healing, she would ask them, "Do you believe in prayer?" If they said no, she would say, "Then the hell with you." But she would pray and sing for them anyway. She said it didn't matter if they believed; what mattered was that she believed.
My grandfather was more gentle. He used to work with an eagle feather and with smoke. When he worked with a person, he would carefully brush them off and he would pray for them-laying his hands on them, singing and praying. After he was done, he would tell his patient, "If this don't work, go home and take two aspirin."
White: Would you talk more about the medicine teachings and practices of the Northwest Coast peoples?
Moses: It is important to understand that there are many medicine traditions and different ways of worshipping in the Northwest Coast. Many tribes live only ten or twenty miles apart, yet their traditions may be completely different. Among Nuu-chah-nulth and Saanich people, every family has its own traditions and techniques; some of those traditions are thousands of years old. In addition, individuality is very strong in the Northwest Coast area. Different people have their own ways of leading a ceremony, their own songs, and their own traditions.
Of course, our Northwest peoples also have many beliefs and practices in common. We all believe in the Creator and that all things are living. We hold all things sacred and respect them. Our medicine teachings are very simple and close to the Earth. One of our teachings is that when you respect yourself and treat yourself as sacred, you will respect all things and know all things around you are sacred.
I personally follow the Si.si.wiss medicine. In our language, Si.si.wiss means sacred breath, or sacred life. Si.si.wiss medicine has only been shared in the outside world, outside of our villages, for the past twenty years. It's open to all people with pure hearts, but it's a traditional medicine of the Northwest Coast; it's not all mixed up. For me, following the Si.si.wiss medicine means following my family traditions and respecting the teachings of my grandmothers and grandfathers.
White: What are some of the practices and traditions of Si.si.wiss medicine?
Moses: There are many different kinds of medicine for people to practice in the Si.si.wiss tradition. Some people become hands-on healers, some heal with medicine plants, and others heal by singing, drumming, or dancing.
Singing and sound can change the way you think or how you feel. We use healing songs to strengthen people and help them discover the richness of their being. We have songs that can even heal a person who is suffering.
Singing and dancing are very important parts of the Si.si.wiss tradition. They are ways of worshipping and of healing ourselves. We use dancing and singing to regenerate ourselves before we start to work on other people.
Dancing is both a spiritual and a physical prayer. For instance, our stomp dance helps us get the life force flowing. When we stomp our feet in time with the drum, we are connecting our spiritual roots with Mother Earth's roots, her veins. At the same time that we're stomping our feet, our hands are dancing. They're reaching for medicine; they're reaching for healing and strength.
Another dance, the spin dance, helps us untie and regenerate ourselves. We get dizzy from spinning, but afterwards we see things differently.
When we're spirit power dancing, we’re each dancing our own medicine, whatever that might be: a deer, bear, tree, or one of the elements such as the wind. Even when the other people are completely different from us, we don't try to change them. We try to be able to dance and sing with them. The Earth is the house of all living things, so all these powers are dancing and helping one another get back to the strong foundation of the Earth. That's what we're doing in the spirit power dancing.
White: Would you talk about other healing practices that you use in Si.si.wiss healing ceremonies?
Moses: One of the simplest healing techniques we use during our healing services is to work with candlelight. Which represents fire. Fire is one of the great gifts that the Creator gave to the people so they would come closer together and help each other. In our longhouses, we use fire, but when we can't make a fire, we use candlelight.
We use candlelight and firelight the same way many groups use sage and cedar smoke. We bless our drums, bells, and feathers with the light. Sometimes we wash our hands in the light. We put light on ourselves or others. While we're putting light on someone, we pray for help and blessings. We also ask the Creator to help us carry the light to help others.
Another simple healing technique that we use is to brush energy off our bodies. We also help each other by brushing off one another. We brush off the energy and gather it in our hands. Then we throw it upwards, clap our hands, and let the Creator take care of it. Clapping our hands is a way of sealing our work.
White: In your healing ceremonies, you encourage people to do healing work on each other before they have much experience. How do they know what to do?
Moses: In the way we work, people don't have to know. In our tradition, we just give ourselves to the healing spirit, and it's the spirit that does the work. We just pray and ask the Creator to use us to help the person who is sitting in the chair to be healed, and then we follow the spirit with our heart.
There are some people who have special healing gifts, and they do know -- that's their gift. But not everybody does. Most people don't know what they're doing or even where the sickness is. They're just workers, or instruments, for the healing spirit. The spirit pulls them and guides their hands to wherever the sickness is. Their hands touch the sickness and take it out. It's probably good that some people don't know what's happening. If they knew what was wrong with the person, they might get frightened and be unable to help.
Our healing ceremony is a group healing. It's people working together, and it's not a one-way thing. The people who are sitting in the chair for a healing have to work, too. They have to believe and to pray just as hard as the healer. According to our beliefs, when you sit in the chair for a healing, you may actually be helping heal the healers, and when you work on someone who is sick, you may actually be helping yourself, too.
White: Isn't there a danger that people who don't know what they're doing might take sicknesses into themselves?
Moses: In our healing ceremonies, we don't take those poisons into our bodies. We just take them out and throw them up to the sky world, to the Creator. We ask the Creator to take everything from us. It's in our hands for a while and then it's gone. We don't waste time worrying about anything negative happening. We just trust the healing medicine and the love.
White: If you were dealing with a serious illness, such as cancer, would you use this same type of healing ceremony or do you sometimes use other ceremonies as well?
Moses: Sometimes we do healing ceremonies that are one-to-one, but we primarily encourage people to go to open healing ceremonies. That's how I received my healing.
When I was very young, twelve and thirteen, I had cancer in me that was eating up my body. The doctors said that I wouldn't live very long, but I was healed by going to our ceremonies. It took about a month and the doctors couldn't believe it. They kept thinking that they had made some mistake, but I still have the X rays. I believe I was healed with love -- what we call the Great Mystery.
People from all sorts of medicine traditions prayed for me. If it hadn't been for all my older relatives and all the kind people who prayed for me, I might have died. That's why I follow the medicine way as my path.
Although I was raised in this medicine way, I didn't really choose to follow it until I received that healing in my body. Around that time, I dreamt of different relatives who told me, "This is what you are going to do." The dream came true; I had seven teachers -- different types of medicine people. The elders said that if I hadn't chosen to follow this way, I would have probably stayed sickly all my life.
White: Among some northern California Indian tribes, traditional doctors sometimes transfer medicine powers into apprentices. Do healers in your area ever transmit powers into people?
Moses: Among my father's people, the Snohomish, individuals sometimes inherit a power from a grandmother, grandfather, aunt, or uncle. When they inherit it, it's usually not as strong as if they had received it on their own. If they want that power to be strong, they have to fast and go through a lot of sacrifice.
Among the northern Nuu-chah-nulth, some medicine people could put a power into other people to protect them. I have a cousin who was very sickly and wasn't supposed to live very long. Our grand-aunt Philomina put a power into him to protect him so he'd live longer. She had a bear power, which is a healing gift, so she put part of a bear heart into him in order to help him live. The bear taught him how to get through sicknesses, how to survive, and how to rest. He grew up with that power and he still uses it. Once the bear told him that he had only half of its power, but that if he listened to it until he was really old he would get the other half. That power was put into him so he could live-they say that without it he probably would have died.
White: Did your grand-aunt ever talk about how she received her bear power?
Moses: She received it through fasting, singing, and praying. She went out to get her power. She had to go out fasting and praying many times, and each time she went out for a little bit longer. The first time, she went out for three days and three nights; the second time, for four days and four nights. The third time she went out, she fasted and prayed for ten days and ten nights; on the last time, she went out for ten days and ten nights again. That's when she finally received the power in a dream. She dreamt a bear went inside her house and sang to her. Because the bear was living with her in the dream, she knew that the power was going to stay with her.
White: How did she use that bear power?
Moses: She used it for helping people who were sick and weak. She would put some of her strength into the people, then she'd ask the bear to help her replace the strength that she had given. She was quite old before she started putting her bear power into people; it takes a long time to be able to do that. Before that, she'd only used the healing spirit, the love of God, to do her work.
In the Northwest area, people used to wait until they were quite old before they brought out their spirit power in public. People could use their power to help their own family or, if someone in their area became sick, they could help the person in private. One reason they waited to bring out their spirit power was that, once they started to do healing work for the people, it usually turned into full-time work. They tried to finish raising their children and taking care of their homes before they started to do that kind of work.
Of course, some people don't have a choice. Some people keep dreaming that they're supposed to do medicine work, and the dream keeps bothering them until they do the work. Some people get a spirit sickness and have to do their work -- to give themselves to the Creator in whatever way they are to follow -- or they won't get well. Some people receive their gift that way.
White: You mentioned your grand-aunt sought her spirit power through praying and fasting. Would you tell us more about how your people traditionally seek spirit helpers on vision quests?
Moses: Among my people, there is a saying that you don't find the spirit -- the spirit finds you. When we go on vision quests, it's not a question of where to find medicine power but whether we are ready to receive it. We know the spirits and ancestors are always there in the forests and the mountains, waiting for us to visit them, but we are the ones who have to visit and, among our people, visiting is a sacred art.
We believe that people have to show the spirit that they really mean business, that they're strong enough to work with the power. And, in medicine work, we have to suffer to make ourselves strong. The word for suffering in our language is not a negative thing; it refers to forces that are pressing or pushing on us that we can feel very strongly. Suffering helps us become strong so we can withstand the winds and storms of life.
Our people traditionally started preparing for vision quests at a very young age. In some places they bathed in ice-cold water every day. They ate plant medicines and roots to cleanse their bodies. They practiced fasting and praying. Before they went out on vision quests to pray for medicine, they learned to sit up and stay awake for as long as they could. Even after all that, people often had to wait quite a long time before they received a power. Sometimes people in our area will seek out a certain power, such as eagle or deer medicine. They have to spend a lot of time concentrating on that medicine, and they have to concentrate on only one at a time. Even then, that doesn't mean they're going to get that gift right away. Perhaps the Creator has something else in mind for them or is trying to teach them how to be patient. People may even receive other gifts before they actually receive the gift that they want.
A spirit power doesn't have to be an animal power; it can also be what in Western society would be called a talent or a profession. For example, in our area, people usually receive the drum as a gift in a dream or have a special calling before they begin to play the drum. Other people receive hunting or fishing gifts, or a cooking medicine. In the Northwest Coast, such gifts are considered spirit helpers.
White: In the neo-shamanic community, people sometimes talk about having many spirit helpers. How can people tell if their connections with spirit helpers are real or just wishful thinking?
Moses: Our people believe that a spirit power usually comes to you through your dreams or in your thoughts when you are fasting or praying. When the same spirit power keeps on visiting you -- maybe more than four times it's important to ask the Creator, "Is this the gift that I'm supposed to carry?" If it keeps on visiting you, then you'll know that it's your power and that you're supposed to communicate with it.
I don't know anybody in our medicine way who has more than three or four powers and uses them. I know a few people who have received two or three powers, but they're very old people who have very strong gifts. It's almost impossible to have more than two when you're a young person, unless you're very strong.
The reason we have spirit powers is to help us and to help the people; they are not trophies to show off. Our people say, "We know the medicine is real because it works."
My grandmother had a medicine power that she called her "stool pigeon." I remember how she would ride down the highway in her Chevrolet Impala -- her Batman car -- and she would get under the spirit of her medicine. It would talk to her and she would say, "Hai, hai, hai, my stool pigeon is telling me something."
She was always traveling places to help somebody who was sick, so sometimes we needed to get there quickly. Sometimes this ninety-year-old lady just loved to go eighty or ninety miles an hour. As she was driving, she would say, "Hai, hai, hai, my stool pigeon is telling me the cops are hiding a few miles down the road." She'd slow down to sixty or sixty-five and, sure enough, the cops would be hiding down the road. Then her stool pigeon would say, "It's all right now; we can speed."
She knew her medicine worked. She had driven a car from the time of the early Model T until 1981, and she never got stopped -- and she never had a driver's license.
White: Do you encourage people to work with spirit powers on their own, or do you suggest specific ways to help them get in touch with these powers?
Moses: Our people traditionally had certain rules that one had to follow for each gift. After we received a gift, one of our relatives would introduce us to someone who already had that kind of gift, and they would advise us how to take care of our self and our gift.
Today, I encourage people to work with spirit powers but to take their time and not be in a hurry. The main problem today is that people are usually in a hurry to get something or to get somewhere. It doesn't work that way with spirit powers. For instance, some people want to work with animal powers right away. They can't even speak their own human language, and they want to learn the languages of other animal peoples?
In our medicine way, we encourage people to first start working with the healing spirit of God, which is the love of God. We believe that everyone is born with the spirit of God and that this power is what keeps people alive. We also believe that no matter how much anger or poison people may have in their bodies, God loves them so much that they're still living in the circle and they can be healed. That's why we hold all things sacred.
Once people learn to trust in the love of God and to communicate with the healing power that comes directly from the Creator, then they're usually ready to start working with an Earth power, such as an animal or plant power. Then they can see clearly that the love they carry is the same love the trees and the animals have inside them; their soul is the same.
White: There appear to be certain parallels between Si.si.wiss and Christian beliefs, such as your emphasis on the love of God. Were these beliefs always part of your tradition, or did your people incorporate Christian teachings into their ways?
Moses: We have a lot of stories in the Northwest that predicted the Christians' arrival long before they got there. One of the prophesies among the Northwest peoples was that a new medicine that used bells would come to us. So, when the early missionaries brought bells, our people adopted the bell as a way of showing respect for the new medicine.
In the beginning, Indian people accepted Christianity because it was similar to our old ways. The Christians did a few things -- such as praying to Jesus -- that were new to the Indians, but our people already believed in most of what the Christians taught. When the new ways first came to our region, they were welcomed.
People didn't question the new ways until Christians started breaking their own rules. Then the Indians began asking, "How come they're telling us to follow the Ten Commandments and they've broken every one of them?"
Of course, as time went on, the missionaries began to call our traditional ways "devil worshipping." Eventually the churches and government outlawed our traditional medicines and forbade us to practice our ceremonies; it used to be against the law just to drum and sing or to share any of our ways. When this happened, some people lost their medicines, but most people just became more secretive.
In the Northwest area, we were fortunate to have lots of forest land where our people could hide and carry on the ceremonies. Our traditional medicine survived by going underground or into the woods.
White: When people began adopting the new medicine, were there splits between the old and new ways?
Moses: Our elders used to say, "Never fight over religion. God gave those religions to the different people for a reason, and it's not up to us to fight over them." Our people have always been open to new ways. It was only when the government agents and the missionaries started forcing the people into the new religion that problems and factions arose.
Initially, there were some conflicts between people who had become Christians and those who still practiced the ancient longhouse way. Later, there was some tension between the longhouse way and the Indian Shaker way. Many people practiced both ways, but some groups said people shouldn't practice both at the same time.
Even today, there are a few individuals who are stuck in their separate ways, but our people are starting to come together again because they realize that what's really important is to help our young people. Most of our old people today are thankful when our young people join anything -- whether it's Christianity or medicine ways -- as long as it keeps the youth away from drugs and alcohol.
That's one of the reasons why the medicine circles I run are always open. Everybody is invited to come and pray with us. Even if people belong to completely different traditions, they can still come together, because we're all human beings. We have the same spirit and we pray to the same God. That's the way I believe.
Of course, there are new factions among our people today. Some people support what I'm doing -- sharing with non-Indian people -- and others are against it. But I haven't had any problems, because I don't worry about whether people are for it or against it.
Once, when I was working in Alberta, some Indians asked me, "Aren't you afraid that the non-Indians will take your power away from you?" My response was that, in the first place, I don't own this power; it's a gift from God and from Mother Earth. In the second place, my power is love -- if people need more love in their lives or in their hearts, they are welcome to take my power, because God would just replace it.
It's ignorant to think that anyone is going to be able to take away someone's power. That's only temporary and it doesn't last very long. Animal people don't steal power from each other. Animals don't worry if anyone's going to steal the bear's power or the tree's power.
White: Do you have a center where people can work with you and learn more about Si.si.wiss medicine?
Moses: We have a home that we call the Mother House, on the Swinomish Reservation. The Mother House is an old medicine house that belonged to my grand-aunt Addie Williams. People used to go there to hide and practice the medicine ceremonies, and we still use it today -- it's our spiritual center. We have healing ceremonies there every Sunday and sometimes during the week.
(Editor’s note: As of June, 2001, the Swinomish Mother House is closed. It may open some time in the future. To confirm, please see contact information at the end of this article.)
The Mother House also serves as a healing center for people Indians and non-Indians from all over -- who need time to work with spirit. It's open any time of the day or night for people to visit. There are no modern conveniences -- there's no electricity and no telephone -- but if people need a place to stay, they can stay as long as they like. We have a community of Si.si.wiss people who live at the center, but we also encourage people from other traditions to come and visit us, to pray with us and for us. One of our rules is that we don't try to convert people. We don't think it's very religious or spiritual to try to force anyone into anything.
We have also been invited to bring our teachings to many places. There are now groups of people who practice Si.si.wiss medicine living in New York City, Seattle, Vancouver, and other areas. They get together to support one another and to study the traditional ways as respectfully as possible. I'm always amazed that we have so many groups, because we don't try to organize them; they just grow in the places that they're supposed to.
White: Are there other teachings or messages you want to share with our readers?
Moses: There are so many messages, and wherever I travel I always try to share the same ones. First of all, it is very important to honor your elders. I encourage everyone to ask their elders about everything in life, because our lives are so short on this Earth. Some people wait until all their old people are gone, and then they wish they had listened.
I always say that if you don't have a tradition, adopt one. If you don't have any elders, adopt an elder. There must be some way for you to connect to the Earth, to learn the ways of nature. One purpose of these medicine ways is to encourage people to communicate with the Earth, to love the Earth, and to give back to the Earth. One reason I run medicine circles is to communicate these teachings through the ceremonies. We spread that message wherever we go, so that this faith will be here for seven generations after us.
Our elders say all our teachings come from the ancestors, the first people in the first world. They say that even if all the teachers died out -- if we lost everything -- the Earth would still teach whomever was left, but we would have to start all over again, just like the first people. I think that's why some of our elders are teaching outsiders. Even if some of their own children won't listen to them, they know that someday their grandchildren or great-grandchildren will decide to go back to the way, and then it will be waiting for them.
We are really grateful to our elders who are still living, because we know they have strong medicine. At the ceremonies, they're the first ones dancing and they're the last ones out there. Young people get tired after one or two songs, but these little old ladies still keep jumping up and down.
I also like to remind people to be thankful. In our medicine way, we try to be thankful for the simplest things in our lives, such as air to breathe and water to drink. My grandmother used to say, "Thank the Creator for the water that you drink. It will wash away any bad seeds and will plant good seeds in you. And thank the Creator for the air that you breathe, because it's going to blow away the dead seeds in you and blow life into you."
I encourage people to ask the Creator to take care of their problems while the problems are still small. People today forget that the simplest way to heal illnesses is to take care of these sicknesses when they are very, very small. If you let the smallest doubt or anger stay in your body, those dead seeds will just accumulate more dead things around them.
One of the reasons our elderly people were very strong was that they didn't keep poison in their bodies. If they saw someone acting in a terrible way, they just prayed for that person. If something was bothering them, they prayed and left those troubles on the altar. They didn't want to take that sort of energy back to their people.
I also encourage people to listen to their spirit and to start encouraging themselves. My grandparents used to say, "Start encouraging yourself early in the morning, as soon as you get up. Don't wait for someone to encourage you, because you might have to wait for a long time before someone else will encourage you. It's never too early, or too late, to help yourself."
One last teaching from our elders is that there are some that listen and there are some that hear. There's a lot of meaning in that teaching -- that's why we're always praying for spiritual sight and spiritual hearing, and for the ability to speak in a spiritual way.
Timothy White is Founder and Editor of Shaman's Drum.
Johnny Moses may be contacted at P.O. Box 45401, Seattle, WA 98145-0401. He may also be contacted through a web-site run by some of his students, at http://www.johnnymoses.com or http://www.redcedarcircle.org or http://www.sisiwiss.org
Note: Originally printed in SHAMAN'S DRUM magazine, Spring 1991. Re-printed by permission. Shaman’s Drum is the world’s leading magazine dealing with experiential shamanism and transformative spirituality. Write Shaman’s Drum, P.O. Box 270, Williams, Oregon 97544, USA; or, call (541) 846-1313.
Please feel free to share this article, but do include all contact and credit information. Thank you.