Saturday, September 16, 2006

Slow Turtle

Years ago when my life was more complicated and difficult than it is now, I went to see my friend, Slow Turtle, Supreme Medicine Man of the Wampanoag Nation of Cape Cod. I was sure he knew everything there was to know, and in his wisdom and spiritual ascendancy, he would help me to solve my problem.

He was also the Executive Director of the Massachusetts Commission on Indian Affairs with offices in Boston. So I made an appointment and bought some Kinikinik tobacco to take him as you never ask a Native American spiritual leader for help without offering something in return. Tobacco has sacred qualities and is the preferred offering because it opens the door to the Creator.

Some elders say that tobacco is used to connect the worlds since the plant’s roots go deep into the earth and its smoke rises high into the sky. Ceremonies using tobacco invoke a relationship between the energies of the universe and the Creator, and the bond forged between earthly and spiritual realms is not to be broken.

On the appointed day, I sat across from Slow Turtle, feeling a little shy because I had only seen him at pow-wows and a mountaintop retreat in Vermont before. Never in an office, over a desk with a polished glass top.

We talked of this and that, matters of no importance, because you don't just blurt out your request to a medicine man until he indicates that he is receptive. Finally, he reached for the pouch of tobacco I had placed on the desk between us and moved it in front of him.

That was my cue. He was ready to hear me. I could ask him what I needed to know.


"Slow Turtle," I said softly. "What do men really want?"

He picked up the pouch and turned it in his hands. He looked out the window for so long that I wondered if he had heard me. He opened the pouch and dipped his fingers in the tobacco for several minutes. Finally, he turned back and looked deeply into my eyes. His own were filled with sadness. The tension was unbearable.

And then he spoke.

"Nobody knows," he said.

Slow Turtle led his people with great kindness, humor, and humility, and inspired all who knew him to live better lives. He never aspired to be a saint as he believed that the Creator gave us bodies to enjoy as well as souls to elevate us.

One of my fondest memories is watching him frolic in the surf with 3 or 4 small children riding on his shoulders, back, and under his arms, all shrieking ecstatically at the crashing waves.

Slow Turtle walked the Spirit Trail on October 27, 1997. His ashes were put to sea near his home at Mashpee, Massachusetts. He will always be missed by those whose lives he touched, however briefly, including mine.


Michael C said...

Very interesting to hear about that and your meeting with Slow Turtle. Thank you for sharing it here.

heartinsanfrancisco said...

To do him justice would take a lot more space. He was a beautiful person, as quick to laugh as to offer his coat and a hot drink if someone was cold. And he taught me a cure for poison ivy that really worked! For that alone I would love him.

Thank you for your visit and your comment, Michael.

Lex said...

Thanks for this post. I love to hear about different cultures.

The idea about tobacco symbolizing the connection between the earthly and spiritual realms is facinating.

What made you think of him today?

heartinsanfrancisco said...

I thought of him because October is coming. And because I think of him often. He was an important person in my life.

As a non-smoker, it was hard for me to think of tobacco as sacred, but the symbolism is beautiful. Everything in the Native American world is imbued with meaning, and that is beautiful, too.

Lex said...


I'm a non-smoker too. I lost 2 aunts to lung cancer in a year. I wasn't going to bring that up. But the symbolism is still beautiful.

Begs the question, what else is tobacco good for?

heartinsanfrancisco said...

Tobacco is used in prayer and for purification. When taking a plant or animal for human use, tobacco is sprinkled as an offering to show respect and gratitude for the gift, along with prayers of thanksgiving. Honoring all our relations demonstrates awareness of ones place within the web of life.

To offer someone tobacco is to ask that you and the person receiving it be of one heart, one mind and one spirit. Tobacco smoked ceremonially in the pipe is not inhaled, but when sacred herbs are misused, their power consumes. To abuse a scared plant is to risk spiritual disconnection. Some Elders feel that any use of tobacco outside of ceremony is an affront to the Creator.

There is nothing sacred about commercial tobacco, a poison containing over 4000 chemicals. Its use as a drug by smoking or chewing is considered abuse with powerful consequences, of which we are all aware. Sadly, many Native Americans smoke. In many ways, assimilation has not been good for people.

heartinsanfrancisco said...

Oops. I just re-read my comment to Lex and saw an amusing typo. It would really be rotten to abuse a scared plant and anyone who does should be strung up and flagellated.

The poor little thing.

odat said...

Just, wow!

heartinsanfrancisco said...

Odat, thanks for stopping by. Have a great day!

katrice said...

Thanks for this! None of my Native American heritage has been passed down. This is very enlightening.

Christina_the_wench said...

Native American history is so interesting. I also thank you for sharing.

jali said...

I love this. Really great story and so wonderful that you shared it with us.

Today is day 22 (I think) of non-smoking and I agree that tobacco is sacred - sigh.

I would love to attend a gathering someday.

heartinsanfrancisco said...


You honor all your heritages by being who you are.


Thank YOU for reading. :)


Congratulations! You're doing great. Keep it up.

You would be welcome at a pow-wow because the Native way, despite everything, is inclusive, not EXclusive like so much of our society.

katrice said...

May I also offer Jali my congrats!

heartinsanfrancisco said...

We're all proud of Jali. What she's doing is very difficult, but she's a very strong woman. Yayyyyy, Jali!!!


Nice story. Though I was hoping to hear the answer to what men really want. :)

On another note: didn't know you had East Coast ties...

heartinsanfrancisco said...


So was I. I think What Men Really Want is right up there with The Secret of Life. And the Holy Grail.

I'm from New York originally, and have lived in Massachusetts and Vermont as well as several other parts of the country.

Anonymous said...


I am not sure you know who I am. I do not know if I know you.
I have been looking for my old mentors.. MorningSongBird and GreyWolf.
I was looking up the names of all those connected to us at one point. I found your post. You said you were from NewYork/Massachusetts and travelled much. If you did and you knew Slow Turtle than you probably knew those other two wonderful people. I lost them when they moved to Colorado almost 15 years ago.

Can you help me? I am desperate to regain my spiritual rebalance. The creator has worked with me in mysterious ways this weekend I hope that maybe you can assist.

Blessed Journeys.
Ember Eyes
Step-Daughter of Kirk "Asoquata"(sp?) Longendyke and 'grand-daughter' of Rocky Longendyke of the Iroqois Nation. (both of New York)

heartinsanfrancisco said...

Ember Eyes,

Your comment to this old post was a delightful surprise. I wish I could help you, but I have also lost touch with everyone I knew in those days. I think of Cape Cod and the pow-wow scene there with love and nostalgia, but my life has taken me to many other places since then.

The names you mention all sound familiar. I was usually in the company of my young daughter, now grown, and a blind grey wolf named Baby.

I believe that if you are meant to find your mentors again, it will happen. I tried to Google them but came up empty. There was a Grandfather Grey Wolf who claims to be a "registered professional clairvoyant" but he is not a Native American.

If you would like to discuss this in more depth, please feel free to contact me at my email address, which appears on the profile page of my blog.

Sending good energy and may the Creator bless you in your quest.

Jane in Manhattan said...

from "Jane in Manhattan"

dear heartinsanfrancisco:
Would you be willing to share Slow Turtle's remedy for poison ivy? I would be most grateful.

And I would like to share with you---I have a magnificent children's book, by Slow Turtle's brother, Fast Turtle. It is out of print, but you can get copies online.

The title is Clambake: A Wampanoag Tradition (We Are Still Here : Native Americans Today)
Author uses his other name: Russell M. Peters

It is beautifully written, with photographs of Fast Turtle teaching one of his grandsons how to make a clambake.

heartinsanfrancisco said...

Jane, thank you for your delightful comment, and for the book recommendation. I will definitely find a copy. I love the Wampanoag people and also collect children's books.

Slow Turtle took me into the woods at a pow-wow to collect jewel weed for my poison ivy. It grows wild in most parts of the country and is tall and spiky with small orange flowers. Be careful while harvesting it, though, as it often grows next to the poison ivy, oak and sumac. I have learned that hurtful plants and their cures tend to grow in each others' arms, and I'm sure there is some deeper meaning to that. Yin-yang, maybe.

Make a poultice of the flowers, leaves and stems in a blender and apply to the rash. You can cover it with gauze as it's very messy but it does help. Good luck!