Monday, December 19, 2005

A Christmas Visitor

(Written one year ago.)

4:00 am 12/24/04

There was a knock on my front door which startled me awake. My dogs were barking which required dire threats to quieten as I answered the door.

Maybe you have heard of our weather and the unusually cold temperatures (16 F) and large amount of snow that has fallen, (18"), in the last 24 hours. I live just south of Interstate 64 in Southern Indiana and you may have seen the news about the closed Interstate and stranded motorists on the national news.

A man, about my own age, (early 50s), stood at the door. He was wearing tennis shoes, jeans, a field jacket and sock hat. His glasses were frosted and he wore no gloves.

He told me he was lost and asked where St.James Blvd was. I told him it was about a mile and a half to the West and asked him where his car was. He said he was walking.

I asked him in and sat a chair for him by the furnace vent. He was shivering uncontrollably, a faint whiff of alcohol was on his breath. I asked if I could fix him something to eat and he refused but he accepted a cup of coffee.

My wife talked to him as he warmed himself and I made some coffee, I could hear him speak as I made his coffee ready.

My son heard him and came into the living room to sit and listen, to keep an eye out, just in case.

He was homeless, he had been sleeping under a bridge on the Ohio River about seven miles away to the West. He decided that it was too cold and he might freeze to death if he didn't find a safe place to stay.

About midnight he left his meager possessions, a few clothes, and headed for his sisters house on St James, but he had walked past the street in the dark. He was lost and confused, probably somewhat drunk, and hypothermia can add confusion to even the sober mind.

As he talked, I realized that he had mental problems, as do many of the homeless. There are places that take in the indignant, I'm sure he knew it too, but they won't accept anyone who is intoxicated, which I'm also sure he was aware of.

He drank his coffee then asked me if I would drive him to his sisters house and offered me two dollars. Of course I refused the money but offered to take him where he wanted to go, I intended to take measures to see after him anyway. He seemed anxious to leave.

As I drove, he told me that his sister was out of town but he had permission to use her house in an emergency. I was worried that he was just lying to me for reasons of his own but I was determined to see the thing through, even if I had to call the police to ensure his wellbeing through this cold weather.

We drove up to the house and there was a porch light on and smoke coming from the chimney vent, even though it was apparent that there was no one home as the snow was undisturbed. I asked him if he was sure he could get in, he said, "Yes, she told me where the key is." He reached out his hand, as if for a hand shake, and when I offered mine, pulled it to his lips and kissed it saying, "God bless you".

I was profoundly embarrassed but stayed long enough to see him dig around in the snow and find a key, then unlock the door and wave goodbye.

I drove home, my thoughts disturbed, by the events that had taken place.

My wife was relieved as I came in and I started preparing food (very early) for this Christmas Eve. As I cut up fruit for salad and prepared the turkey for baking, my son came up behind me and hugged me, kissing my head, and said, "Dad, you did a good thing."

Again, I was embarrassed, not by my son's hug and kiss but by his praise.

I hadn't did it for praise, I did it because it was the right thing to do.

Then he told me that he tries to help the homeless ones that hang around his place of employment. We spoke of how little we can actually do for them and I was proud of my son for doing the right thing, he is a good man.

As I continued to prepare, my thoughts drifted to a couple seeking shelter in Bethlehem and the birth of the Lamb of the New Covenant, and I felt God's Peace.

May God's Peace be with you all!
Merry Christmas.
(and a Happy Hanukkah)


Saturday, December 03, 2005

Snake oil and pea bug misunderstandings

The other day, I was listening to talk radio, a commentator made a reference to "snake oil". Very few people know the origins of that phrase but I believe it has its origins in Cherokee legend.

(note:) a larger account of the snake legend(s) can be found here!

The ancient Cherokee believed that the snake was a supernatural being. Some snakes were once human and turned into snake form but all had an intimate connection with the rain and thunder gods and the plant and animal "tribes". The most feared and respected, of the snake "tribe", was the rattlesnake.

The rattlesnake was named (utsa'natii) which can be translated as, "he has a bell", referring to the rattles. Most Cherokee went out of their way to avoid killing a rattlesnake and if one had to be killed, even by accident, the action had to be atoned for by asking pardon of the snakes ghost, through the mediation of a priest, according to a set formula. Otherwise the dead snakes relatives would send one of their number to bite the offender or a member of his family so that they would die.

The rattles, teeth, flesh, and oil were prized for occult or medical uses. Certain priests, (shamans, medicine men) who knew the necessary rituals for pardon, killed the snakes for this purpose. This also provided a lucrative business for the less than ethical, (both Indian and white). The oil was prized for its healing properties and was said to relieve the pain of rheumatism and sore joints among the Whites as well as the Indians.

The shamans and priests lost favor among the Indians after a couple of smallpox outbreaks in the 1700s that almost killed off the tribe reducing it to one point to a number of less than 9000 from estimates of a population that I have seen as high as 50000. I have heard there were reprisals taken against surviving shamans. As far as I know, (and I freely admit that my knowledge is far less than complete), nothing substantive remains of the original religion(s) and rites although there is still a herbal tradition practiced in the eastern and western bands.

unscrupulous traveling salesmen would wonder from town to town selling their, "genuine Indian snake oil cure", and who had any idea what it really was or what was in it!

On a more humorous note:

Pea bug, what Warren "thought" his wife called a wood louse (e.g. pill bug, sow bug, rolly-polly bug), what she actually called it, was pee bug.

I realized my mistake when ol' Shortfuse .357, (i.e. my wife Jackie), said her grandmother made pee bug tea and made the kids drink it if they peed in the bed. Her grandmother, (half Apache), apparently learned the recipe from her Apache mother, (by accounts, a little, dark, scrawny woman with a hot temper and skin like tree bark, only refered to as "granny").

I asked my wife if it worked and she said, "Well... I didn't pee in the bed, but I didn't go to sleep either. I'd rather stay awake all night than drink pee bug tea!"

Interestingly enough, wood ice do not urinate; instead of excreting urine, woodlice excrete their nitrogenous waste in the form of ammonia gas. Sounds homeopathic to me but how would Indians know that "pee bugs", don't pee?


Update: I found this interesting letter from Richard L. Allen:

Psuedo Shamans Cherokee Statement

By Richard L. Allen, EdD Research &
Policy Analyst Cherokee Nation

Copyright © 2001 RLAllen
All Rights Reserved


The Cherokee Nation is overwhelmed with those charlatans who fraudulently claim to be shaman, spiritual leaders or descendents of a Cherokee princess. Such individuals make such claims without ever having lived within the Cherokee communities. They claim to be descended from some nebulous and mysterious ancestor who was from "a reservation in North Carolina" (there is only one) or "a reservation in Oklahoma" (there are none). The ancestor is never just a plain ordinary everyday Cherokee citizen but a "Cherokee Princess," a "Cherokee Shaman," or a "Cherokee Pipe carrier" none of which actually exist or ever have. Those who claim to be "shaman" do not reside within the known boundaries of the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma.

Cherokee medicine people and spiritual leaders are known to the Cherokee people and do not practice medicine for a fee nor sell "shamanic" lessons to anyone. They do not advertise their services through any form of media and certainly not over the internet. Traditional Cherokee healers and spiritual leaders provide their services to the Cherokee people. A Cherokee medicine person or spiritual leader is fluent in the Cherokee language and would conduct any medical or spiritual practices by using the Cherokee language. Therefore, our medicine people are those who were born of a Cherokee mother and a Cherokee father and would have been reared within a Cherokee community speaking the Cherokee language. Our traditional Cherokee healers and spiritual leaders are humble people and would not present themselves as such nor "hang out a shingle" so to speak. Cherokee medicine people are acknowledged and recognized by members of the Cherokee community as effective healers and leaders. It is the recognition of the Cherokee people that validates these persons as medicine people and healers not self-proclaimation. We may provide them small gifts, a token amount of money or foodstuffs in payment for their services. They do not charge for their services nor would they withhold their services when asked and they certainly would not prescibe payment by credit card. Cherokee medicine people may provide services to recognized members of other tribes or may provide services to non-Indians who would seek them out for treatment, but certainly would not mix their spirituality or medicine with that of other nations. Cherokee medicine and spiritual practices do not include tarot cards, palmistry, psychic readings or sweatlodge ceremonies.

One may assume that anyone claiming to be a Cherokee "shaman, spiritual healer, or pipe- carrier," is equivalent to a modern day medicine show and snake-oil vendor. You have my permission to print this response as is.

Richard L. Allen. EdD
Research & Policy Analyst
Cherokee Nation
P.O. Box 948
Tahlequah, Oklahoma 74465