As Indigenous Heritage Month comes to a close, I want to offer the following story, lessons and inspiration that might encourage readers to look for unexpected visits from loved ones this holiday season. And before I begin, I promise I’m not crazy.
Over the Thanksgiving weekend, I received a visit from my great-grandparents, Mitchell and Eliose Boudinot. In full disclosure, they died decades ago.
Mitchell, whose name I carry, died before I was born. Eloise died when I was a child. However, when I arrived at Grand Lake in Eastern Oklahoma, formerly known as Indian Territory, they were there to greet me and my family.
Standing majestically on a hill overlooking the lake and gorgeous fall foliage, my great-grandparents presented themselves as two white-tailed deer. Rounding a corner on my way to my parents’ home, we were startled by their presence. We figured they would flee, but neither the buck nor the doe ran away.
On the contrary, they stood tall, welcoming me to the lands our ancestors were forced to inherit after the long and arduous journey known as the Trail of Tears. After greeting me with their brilliant and steely gaze, they bowed their heads and returned to grazing.
The gesture seemed to be one of respect and honor, a feeling that was certainly reciprocal. It was hard to pull away from such sacred majesty, but their actions left me feeling great pride.
Certainly, you are questioning my sanity by now, but let me explain. In the Muscogee (Creek) tradition, groups of people were separated into clans.
The clans were one’s family, following the lineage of the mother. Most Indigenous cultures were matriarchal in structure.
My family was the Deer (Ecovlke) clan. The Indigenous clan systems were believed to be given by the Creator to bring about cultural protections.
Clans were organized by the matriarchs, providing a place of belonging to tribal members. The clans worked together to provide for each other, especially the elderly and orphans.
The unexpected welcome from my great-grandparents offered two comforts. First, their presence reminded me of the long line of Indigenous ancestors from which I came. Second, their blessing of the bow lets me know that when I journey through life, they are always with me.
Some may question my logic at this point, while some may find it intriguing. If you allow me to dive even further into my culture, I will explain why I can say with confidence that Mitchell and Eloise greeted and blessed me last week.
Another mystery within my culture is the art of shapeshifting: the ability of humans to transform into animals. In traditional dances, Indigenous people can be seen dancing as deer, owls, bears, wolves, hawks, buffalos, eagles, etc. Dancers often take on the likeness of an animal to tell a specific sacred story.
The dances are an expression of real life, as there are times when humans take on the characteristics of animals to survive. (“She acted as wise as an owl.”) In other instances, animals also take on the characteristics of humans to survive.
For example, how often have we seen a canine mother communicate with a human to help her pups?
The idea of shapeshifting is a reminder that humans are part of the symbiotic relationship among all of nature. Life takes on many forms, all participants in the force that is life and death.
While life is meant to be celebrated, death should not be feared. Death is not an end, but a beginning of something new. The dead return to the living through the manifestation of animals and other living beings.
And before you light the torches to burn me at the stake, let’s see what Jesus had to say about the dead living and dwelling among us. Speaking about life and death, Jesus said, “But in the account of the burning bush, even Moses showed that the dead rise, for he calls the Lord ‘the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’ He is not the God of the dead, but of the living, for to him all are alive” (Luke 20:37-38).
If our ancestors are alive, doesn’t it make sense they possess the ability to communicate with us?
Also, let’s not underplay the fact we are happy to accept the idea that Moses spoke to Yahweh, who was manifested as a burning bush. As people of faith, we’ve often used nature as descriptors for Yahweh: fire, clouds, eagles, water, winds and deer. It’s not out of the bounds of imagination to think our ancestors possess the same abilities once they are unbound from this world.
Also, I think these visits are not limited to Indigenous or tribal cultures. When my English grandfather died during the pandemic, the family was unable to gather to memorialize him. We were extremely sad about not gathering because he was the most influential family member in my mother’s family.
Days after he died, I was sitting on my back patio enjoying a cigar and thinking about Granddad, when a new cardinal landed on one of my feeders. We usually have one male and one female cardinal every spring, but this good-looking fella was new. I knew instantly that Granddad was stopping by to say goodbye and hello.
This may not make much sense to many of you, but to some, it might make perfect sense. During the holiday season, my prayer is that whoever needs a visit from a loved one will get it.
It may not be two white-tailed deer disguised as your great-grandparents, but it might be a friendly gesture or song at the mall. There are moments in life when we all need to be reminded that we’re not alone and that our ancestors are with us.
Let me leave you with this quote from Linda Hogan, Writer in Residence for The Chickasaw Nation: “Walking, I am listening in a deeper way. Suddenly, all of my ancestors are behind me. Be still, they say. Watch and listen. You are the result of the love of thousands.”
CEO of Good Faith Media.