ITSODI: The Story as told by Gail Greene to Rita Jane Kiefert (formerly Rita Jane Leasure)
Michael Raven Horse ran a trading post in Elon, Virginia. He repaired leather goods for horses, sold local crafts, and rescued exotic birds, wildlife and domestic animals. He was the chief of a local Cherokee tribe by the name of the Raven Band. The Raven Band had their sacred fire and traditional ceremonies in the back of that trading post, but they needed land to garden and camp and hold larger gatherings, and pasture the horses. Their search led them to a 13 acre parcel on Puppy Creek. It was rural, mostly wooded, in a traditional Cherokee area and it called to them when they walked the land. Gail, Michael’s wife, purchased the land and they settled in. They planted gardens, fenced pasture, and built a sweat lodge. This land is referred to as “the Ranch”. In the natural course of things they got to know their neighbor Willie Ruckers.
Willie’s family had lived on land adjacent to “the Ranch” for over a hundred years. They are of African-American descent and they managed to buy the land after the Civil War. This is the land that was to become the Itsodi land. The Raven Band liked their Ranch land but it had very little garden space and no pasture for the horses to speak of at all. Willie had both and a nice patch of stream running the length of the pasture. The pasture land ran right into the Ranch land down by the road and an arrangement was soon worked out.
When Willie was a boy, the Ruckers were a large family of country folk. Every inch of their land was farmed. The only trees were part of the orchard. Most everything they needed came from the land. Willie lived most of his life on that land. His daddy was a blacksmith and the barn was always full of horses to be shod. There was a grave yard and when someone died, the graves were marked with field stone. One larger one at the head and one smaller one at the foot. The funeral home would supply a metal plate much like a license plate with the name and date of death, and that would be put by the head stone. There are very few carved stones in that graveyard. Most of the markers don’t have birth dates, only death dates. Gail dreams of doing the research, buying, and placing those carved stones. Maybe she will.
As time passed, the young folks moved on and the old folks died off and Willie came home to tend to his dad until he died and then Willie was left alone on the farm. The family decided to sell the bulk of the land, leaving Willie with a trailer and 1½ acres that he was actually using. Also in the course of time the trees grew up and were badly logged, leaving large piles of debris. The stream that runs the length of the land was used as a dump of sorts and large barrels and other rubbish clogged most of the length of the stream. The ticks were so dense you could not walk far without being covered in many dozens of them. A careful check for ticks was needed following time on that land. The road was so rutted even a four wheel drive could not drive it. Still it called to the folk of the Raven Band. The animals had been undisturbed for many years. The forest was young but was full of native edibles and native herbals. There was water available the length of the property and flat land periodically along its bank. There were swales of land dividing one piece from the next with a common road. The lands inhabitants were wild life which included deer, turkey, rabbits, squirrels, and such.
They had been saving money for expansion and this land was perfect but they had enough for the land or enough for the repairs but not both. The land was being offered at a bargain rate, and contained approximately 67 acres. After speaking with the Raven Band the Ruckers family realized the land would once again be cared for, and that the family cemetery would be cared for and respected.
Michael Raven Horse had not only heard of the School of Living but had approached us with various proposals several times in the past. The vibe was not right, the communication did not flow with the representatives, and the plans never worked out. This time the School of Living sent Herb Goldstein and Rita Jane Leasure as representatives. Both Herb and Rita Jane had worked with native traditions at their home place at Common Ground Community, a School of Living land trust property. They had attended weekly sweat lodges and periodic vision quests under the care of several native teachers, as well as several of our community-mates who took extensive training to be able to run the ceremonies that they did. That gave us the language to be able to work with the Raven Band and complete a lease. The School of Living bought the land in 2000 and held it in trust under lease to the Raven Band. They paid a quarterly lease fee and took possession of the land.
Then the cleanup began. The road had to be leveled and widened and graveled extensively the whole length of it. Huge piles of debris were dragged out of the steam bed and hauled off to the dump, and the mountains of clear-cut residue of branches had to be dragged to the clearings and burned. It was a monumental effort. It was a great bonding for the folks who came together and it was a chance to get out of their daily lives and reconnect to Mother Earth. There is something about sitting around a fire at night that brings out the stories. There is something about being able to tell your tale and be heard and comforted that brings a bonding that is as old as human kind. There is something about being in the forest and the garden, working together and sharing food that gives the spirit peace. Being in a place where the animals do not fear us and the old stories take on a life they cannot claim in a city or in a house. There is something about being part of ceremonies that are truly thousands of years old, hearing the drums and the chanting in the old tongues. Learning to dance and to walk in the old ways, to garden and can our own food in the old ways. To be a part of this land, in this place, at this time, is to grow your own soul and maintain your balance.
Then there were the gardens to be cultivated, the pasture and garden fences to be laid, and the camp ground and gathering places and trailer sites to be decided on, cleared, and set up. This was to be a place of refuge. A place of healing, a retreat from a world gone mad. All of us living in a modern rat race world feel the frantic need to escape from time to time. Many of us feel the ancient need to bond with the earth and the seasons, some of us have moved into rural places and try in our own way to strengthen our spiritual self, but those of us with Western roots have the capacity to deal with our modern culture since that culture arises from our own history, and in some mad convoluted ways, it kind of makes sense. But Native people do not have the DNA that can accept and live with the results of European history. It does not make sense on any level and it is truly madness that they have been dragged into. The madness of thinking you can own land, the Reservations, the madness of the broken treaties, the endless betrayals and atrocities. The way their cultural hard drives just don’t mesh with the programs they are expected to run. The way their bodies don’t react to alcohol they way European bodies do. The way they relate to time as fluid not linear. On and on over and over they are different and suspect. Racism and genocide are historical and present reality, all against a nature of deep meditative connection to the land and the animals and the seasons and the music of the time before the white man came here. Is it any wonder that so many of the young of the native people fall into drugs and other escapist practices? They need sanctuary. They need a place to step back into balance with Mother Earth. They need Itsodi.
Itsodi means a place of refuge. A place for native people to be re-grounded and get back on their spiritual walk, a place to find your balance. A place for small groups, or single people to camp. A place to cook out, to share their human concerns, to share the land, to be healed. A gatekeeper lives on the land to protect it. One person needs to know who is there, only one. As long as the gatekeeper knows you are there, folks can come and seek refuge from the world as long as they need to. Folks came from far away, from Guatemala, from the Southwestern reservations and the Dakotas, they came from near at hand, local folks came. They came for a day or they came for a month or they came for as long as they needed to come. The land took care of them and they found their spiritual balance and peace in their hearts.
Native people know their own. Although they were many tribes with many traditions, the cultural backdrop they have in their DNA sets them apart from the European characteristics. It makes them quiet with a tendency to giggle and be happy. A tendency to be comfortable with each other. They are not confused. They know their heritage. Yet any who would truly walk the walk of the Indian spirit path would be welcome. Michael often said that every race of humans has roots that are culturally earth and seasonally centered, and actual native American blood lines or percentages of bloodlines were never questioned. Only the true willingness to abide by the ways of the Indian people as practiced by the Raven Band. These include the four Laws of Respect; Respect Mother Earth, Respect the Great Spirit, Respect other men and women, Respect individual freedom. These sorts of things guide the lives of the Indian people, and they have guided the work on the Itsodi land.
The ceremonies were held at the trading post because they were open to all. Some came out of curiosity only, and holding the ceremonies at the trading post protected Itsodi from those not seeking a spiritual path. The Itsodi land has hosted spring renewals and sacred fires since chief Raven Horse’s passing.
Getting the gardens going gives people opportunities as they want them. It gives food and learning about native ways of growing and preserving foods. It gives retreaters something to do. It gave the locals an eyeful, since native women work in the field along with the men and local women do not. There is joy in the sharing of work. It is a different mind set, everyone does what they can. European society teaches a different set of gender roles.
European society teaches a lot of things differently. It was important to the Raven Band that they have the privacy to be Indian people in an Indian place; to learn to put the right colors on the gate, tie prayer ties to the trees, listen to the Mayan priest around the fire circle, hear the old songs and the old drumming patterns, to talk of spirit things, to be Indian people doing what Indian people do, trying to walk a spirit path without fear. A place to peel off the layers of pressures from society. A place to talk openly, to talk about the talk, to talk late into the night. Sharing that is only made possible in a private place. To talk of spirit things that have been suppressed and mocked in European culture. Things that have been locked away can now be shared, and talked about with acceptance and understanding: the white light that is seen coming from the ground between you as you talk, the seeing of the dead, seeing the dark energies leave people as they enter the fire circle, get help to be stronger, and watch those dark energies jump back on as the people leave the circle.
To the Indian people their leaders are both spiritual beings and human beings. They respect the chief, but all decisions are made by all the people in the band. Decisions must be 100% agreed on, and until that happens nothing is done. Voting is done by placing a white or black marble in a container. No one knows how you voted. Sometimes decisions take years. This gives a better perspective on the all or nothing. The only exception is during ceremonies. Then the training of the chief is respected and followed without question. To the Indian people small children are not to be kept separate; they don’t get shuffled off to bed, they get wrapped in a blanket and put on the ground near the fire, to be taken up when the adults go to bed. To the Indian people learning to plant, weed, harvest, can, and care for the land, brings strength and joy to all the people. All these things were done outside. The canning was done on a wood cook stove with picnic tables for everyone to be able to sit and work together.
Itsodi was a place where Indian people could gather and do their spiritual ceremonies and find their balance. A safe place away from religious and legal persecution. It should be remembered that Indian people were not allowed to have their spiritual ceremonies until 1978. Prior to that time they would have been arrested. Sweat lodges, sacred fires, pipe ceremonies, sun dances, and numerous other Native American ceremonies had to be held in secret until after 1978.
Itsodi, “a place of refuge”, a place to be among the trees, streams, meadows, orchards, and gardens. Native people still know that they are only a part, one tiny piece of creation. They remember to take only what is needed. They remember to give back to the land which sustains all life. All life includes the animals, the trees, the streams, etc. When people come to Itsodi they learn that if they work the land, the land will give back to them. It’s a circle, a balance.
Michael Raven Horse was an activist. He was part of most of the major Indian demonstrations and resistance efforts of his time. He was friends with most of the leadership of the Indian movement. So it was very hard for him when the elders told him he would have to choose between the activist warrior or the spiritual warrior, you can’t do both effectively. He struggled with that a long time. He finally chose the spirit path but it was never easy for him, the warrior was very strong in him. In later years he would go on rides as spiritual guide and he made his balance from that. There are not enough spiritual mentors, they all seem to be dying off or are gone from us in other ways. That is what forced Michael to take that role early. He was not yet ready, but he filled the role as he could. It was an inspiration to see someone seek more understanding with such drive and such passion. He sought to understand the ancestors, the spirit world, and where we fit in all of that. His was a fascinating soul – messed up at times – but fascinating. He helped so many people – so much. His medicine worked for so many it would take your breath away to watch him work. It would make you tired just to think of all he took on and the countless hours of preparation each ceremony required of him. When he passed eight years ago, so many reached out to Gail to express their gratitude for his life and work.
When Michael Raven Horse passed, the tribal council carried on as best it could. They decided not to select another chief but to fill his shoes piecemeal. No one was able to do what Michael had been doing for the tribe alone. They carried on for 8 more years, different folk taking on the roles that needed to be done, as they were called to. The stresses of their lives and the passage of time eroded the first rush of commitments and service with burdens falling more and more to Gail. With her retirement she can no longer carry on this dream. Now the land must revert to the School of Living, and with the help of the spirit be passed on to folks who will know and treasure that land and that history.
Gail still lives in Willie’s trailer on the 1 ½ acres at the entrance to the Itsodi land that he sold to her. She says that after 15 years of Itsodi, she knows it made her very happy, and she would not trade it for anything, but since Raven Horse’s passing she has begun to feel old. She got a far greater understanding of the ancestors, the spirit world, and where we fit in all that to. There is lots still going on elsewhere of course, but Itsodi is not being sustained as it should. We had a good run, lots of folks were helped, and that makes it priceless.
Gail sends her thanks to the School of Living for our role in making all this possible for 15 years.