A Native Voice: Honoring the Circle of Life

It is my strong belief that there are people that come into our life by chance, by default or on purpose.

The year 2017 was especially rough for me. Graduation was postponed, I worked two jobs, a colleague and dear friend of mine lost her battle with brain cancer, and my position within a non-profit organization was eliminated a semester before graduation. Along with the day-to-day that comes with being a mother, woman, student – and all the other titles I juggle – this year was filled with numerous setbacks, delays and more losses than I thought my spirit could take.

One of the biggest losses I endured this year is the passing of the first boss I ever had. In her death, the inspiration given was of resilience and a message to “step it up.” In her life, her example was not only one of diplomacy, but impact. Mattie Payne of Milwaukee was truly a woman who knew that being kind was free and that being a servant of the Lord is to be of service to his people.

In each of these difficult moments, I found myself held together by faith and uplifted with support through prayer. Now, the closer I get to the end of the year, I am able to look at some of those things as closing of chapters, fulfillment of purpose, inspiration and blessings in the forms of lessons.

We all have situations where at one point in time, we are stressed, uncomfortable, sad or angry. In these moments,  just as Viktor Frankl would say, “The one choice we have when we have no other, is the attitude we take towards our suffering.”

“The one choice we have when we have no other is the attitude we take towards our suffering.” – Viktor Frankl

This example was set forth not only in his quotes, but is parallel to biblical scripture and in the way Mrs. Payne lived her life. Mirroring those teachings, I remember as a child learning about the “Red Road” from my elders. Those teachings explained what the Red Road is and what it means to “walk” it.

The Red Road

The lack of control and uncertainty in these moments in our life reminds me of a teaching from my Auntie Oralann Caldwell of Keshena, Wis. She used a maple leaf as a visual example of what the Red Road is. The Red Road is living life in a way that is parallel to your faith or belief systems.

The Red Road is not a religion; it is a way of living in accordance to Native American belief systems, values and traditions. “Walking the Red Road” is similar to “being a good Christian.”

Native Americans believe that all things living have a spirit and need to be respected. It is common practice for Native people to give before taking, honoring the benefits soon to be awarded. Whether you are hunting, harvesting,  borrowing or bartering, it is a custom to give offering before you receive.

Circle of Life

Though there have been numerous setbacks and moments where my faith wavered, I believe that the experiences this year are mental and emotional preparations for the next stage of my life. In these moments, some of my biggest accomplishments or blessings were afforded.

Throughout my life, the teachings that were passed on to me from my elders provided context to the world around me. They helped me understand my place in this world and the choices I had, along with the consequences that could ensue. The most constant and important of reference for me was the circle and its representation in the cycle of life.

The circle reference is not just specific to human life, but any life form or cycle  that has a beginning and an end. When completed, the circle repeats, just as the seasons do. I was told that we as people came from this Earth and when our time on this Earth is over, our bodies will return to where we came.

An Oneida Elder who also goes by the name of Jim Kelly used a story to explain the cycle of life and the dues that are paid for and passed on by those before us. While he was growing sunflowers with his granddaughter, it became time to transfer the blooming sprouts from the flower pot inside to the soil outside.  When she made a remark about how weathered and tattered the older larger flowers were, he explained to her why and how this cycle mirrored life.

He said that the flowers that were weathered, breaking down and didn’t look so good, were the same flowers that not too long ago, were strong, bright, full of life and color with leaves and petals intact. He explained that through their cycle of life, they started just like the sprouts they were about to put in the ground, and that over time they grew.  Eventually, they began to lose their color, strength, seeds and deteriorated back to the Earth in which they grew from, just like us.

He explained that those tall flowers shade the smaller ones. That those same seeds within the center of those big flowers, fall to the ground and create new flowers. In the height and shelter of the larger flowers, the smaller ones are protected and nurtured from environmental conditions. Just like we do in life, we grow older and eventually have kids, planting our seeds and nurturing their growth, protecting them from the conditions surrounding them, for optimal growth.  

In this story, he tried to lay context to his granddaughter not only about life, but the things we as parents, grandparents and community members experience. He did this while reiterating to her the cycle of life, the stages in it, what is to be expected and our part in it.

I was fortunate enough to have Mattie Payne as one of those sunflowers to nurture my development while I was sprouting. In the presence of her physical being, she was able to radiate positivity and support to the most humble,  unknowing of souls. In her spirit’s departure from this earth, she left a legacy of love freely given and time spent with genuine intent and effort to help others.

My Native American culture may have alternative ways and provide an array of traditions but in the things that root from my ancestry, I can see that there are a number of beliefs and practices that will intersect in value and meaning.

Praying can transcend religion, race, age and generational difference, and in my belief, it is most powerful and universal. In Mrs. Payne’s transition, I recalled how she was truly a Godly woman and the God she served worked through her and for her, even in her last days.

As I stated in my remarks at her service, she was one who gave the best of herself in service to others and was impactful enough to have you remember the way she made you feel even if you couldn’t remember her name.

In my best memory of her, it was her faith in the Lord as she rejoiced jamming to the gospel hymn, “Break Every Chain” by Tasha Cobbs. That reminded me of the power of faith, even in a hazy moment when things that were out of my control. In that moment, I realized that burning sage, listening to pow-wow tunes or adhering to life on the Red Road were parallel to her service to others and her faith all in the name of the Lord.  She was gracious – even in the face of being terminally ill – and was guided by her faith and belief in the Lord’s will.

Faith:The Belief of the Unseen

In my younger days, I can remember my father’s mother. She was a Bible study teacher at one point of her life, and she would explain the importance of faith while my father echoed the importance of a mustard seed and that faith is the “belief of things unseen.”

When change comes, there are things that human beings turn to to provide understanding, comfort, answers or whatever it is we are in search of at that time.

People can experience the same thing and use different methods or practices to cope, heal, grieve or process.

In Native American culture, it is common for the immediate family to have some sort of “give away” as a part of their grief process after the loss of a loved one

Some tribal people give away the items of the deceased to specific people within the family or close friends. It is also common throughout various tribes in the U.S. for children and/or parents to cut their hair or wear a particular color during a certain period, pre- and post-burial of a loved one.

This is another thing that transcends cultural identity, age, sex, race and religion. I have friends who got commemorative tattoos or pieces of jewelry in memory of their lost loved ones. Whether it is how the body is buried, what process is chosen for the handling of the body or the style of ceremony or celebration, it’s their process and way of honoring or grieving the loss of the life once lived.

With all that I have endured this year, I am learning more now than ever that not only are people put in your life on purpose, but you can learn and be inspired by them. They can also protect, nurture and guide you.

“The experiences this year are mental and emotional preparations for the next stage of my life” – Sandrea Smith

One thing Mrs. Payne did in her death was pass me a message through her granddaughter who I had never met in person. As she came running out of the church at the end of service, she was instructed by her grandmother to tell me to “continue writing, stay focused and determined, and continue to be who I am.” She also said that she loved me dearly. Her advice is part what I am doing now: continuing to write, not giving up and staying focused. Even in her passing, she continued to nurture my development, just like that old sunflower.

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