Have you ever wondered what ancient wisdom might be hidden in plain sight? What if the key to living a good life was right in front of us, encoded in the languages and stories of ancient cultures that we completely ignore in the name of trying to find the next hack, technology, platform, supplement or intervention?
My guest today, James Vukelich Kaagegaabaw (ka-gay-gah-bow), a descendant of the Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibwe, has dedicated over 20 years to studying, preserving, and sharing the indigenous wisdom embedded in the Ojibwe language.
James’ journey is an inspiring one. After being largely estranged from the Ojibwe language, stories and wisdom of his heritage until his mid-twenties, a seemingly inconsequential decision led him back to immerse himself in not only the language, but the rich cultural treasures and deep wisdom hidden within it. His quest led him to work on the Ojibwe Language Dictionary Project, recording and translating wisdom from Ojibwe elders and fluent speakers across North America and, over time, uncovering, archiving and sharing unconventional, yet deeply resonant and powerful insights about what it truly takes to live a good life.
In his fascinating new book, The Seven Generations and The Seven Grandfather Teachings, James reveals how the Ojibwe notions of truth, humility, respect, love, courage, honesty and wisdom can guide us all to living a good life. You’ll be fascinated to discover how similar, yet profoundly different, these concepts are from Western notions.
His insights and stories and deep passion for his culture and the wisdom that derives from it drew me in powerfully, and delivered just the antidote our modern souls need to heal, disconnect and rediscover purpose, meaning, and inner peace.
It’s an incredible offering of everyday wisdom for living a good life, with a different take, hidden in plain sight within indigenous languages and stories.
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James Vukelich Kaagegaabaw (00:00:00) – If you really want to know the culture, the history, the spirituality, the ethics, the philosophy, it’s all in the language. And what I think is so ingenious about this is that human beings are hardwired to speak. So we will put the teachings in a, in an environment, in a medium that everyone has access to, and that maybe you reach a point in your life where you’re asking, well, what is it to really love someone? What is it to be intelligent or to have strength of heart and courage? And you could look into the word itself. And for me, when I began understanding that, it felt almost like I could hear the ancestor speaking to me, that I could hear their voice, that we too have had these experiences and we would like to pass them to you.
Jonathan Fields (00:00:45) – So have you ever wondered what ancient wisdom might be hidden in plain sight? What if the key to living a good life was right in front of us? Encoded in the languages and stories of ancient cultures that we largely ignore in the name of trying to find the next hack or technology or platform supplement or intervention.
Jonathan Fields (00:01:04) – Well, my guest today, James Vukovich Gabo, a descendent of the Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibwe, has dedicated over 20 years to studying, preserving and sharing the indigenous wisdom embedded in the Ojibwe language. And James’s journey is a really inspiring one. After being largely estranged from the Ojibwe language stories and wisdom of his heritage until his mid-twenties, this seemingly inconsequential decision led him back to immerse himself not only in the language, but in the rich cultural treasures and deep wisdom hidden within it. And that quest led him to work on the Ojibwe language dictionary project, recording and translating wisdom from Ojibwe elders and fluent speakers across North America and over time uncovering, archiving, and sharing unconventional yet deeply resonant and powerful insights about what it truly takes to live a good life. And in his fascinating new book, The Seven Generations and the Seven Grandfather Teachings, James reveals how the Ojibwe notions of truth, humility, respect, love, courage, honesty and wisdom can guide us all to living a good life, and you’ll be fascinated to discover how similar, yet profoundly different these concepts are from Western notions and his insights and stories, and deep passion for his culture and the wisdom that derives from it truly drew me in powerfully and delivered just the antidote.
Jonathan Fields (00:02:25) – Our modern souls need to heal and reconnect and rediscover a sense of purpose, meaning and inner peace in these days. It’s an incredible offering of everyday wisdom for living a good life, with a different take hidden in plain sight within indigenous languages and stories. So excited to share this conversation with you! I’m Jonathan Fields and this is a good life project. I recently was watching, I guess, something that you were sharing that from the charity with Ojibwe language was there younger, but it wasn’t actually something that was spoken and truly understood for you until your mid-twenties. I’m curious about that journey.
James Vukelich Kaagegaabaw (00:03:11) – It was fascinating. It has been the most exciting intellectual, spiritual philosophy journey of my life. But it didn’t begin until I was 25. I had originally intended to be a French teacher, and I had studied film and video English, and I discovered French literature, became totally enamored of it, and decided the best way to learn was to become totally immersed. And so I moved to Quebec. For a year I studied at the University de Quebec, Trois-Rivieres, and when I came back to Minneapolis, I needed to take another course to get my full financial aid package.
James Vukelich Kaagegaabaw (00:03:46) – And I saw Ojibwe was being offered. And at this point I had studied French, Italian, some Latin in middle school, but I’d never heard the Ojibwe language. And my mom’s Ojibwe, my grandma’s Ojibwe. And I thought, well, I’ll give this a try. And I recall going to the bookstore, picking up this book, Portage Lake by Noah Camargo on the late model, opening it up and seeing this word ishka Menominee. And when it was written on the page, it took up half of the page in double vowel. And I was taken aback. I was like, who uses a word this long? What does this mean? And that’s where I began learning about the Ojibwe language. It was the first time in my life I had ever heard the story about me, told in the language pre-K through university. I had no exposure at all, really, to the language, to the history, to the culture, to the spirituality. And then it began. So I went all in at that point, despite having moved to another country to learn another language, whenever I had a chance.
James Vukelich Kaagegaabaw (00:04:51) – And I was a young man so I could spend, you know, 12 to 18 hours a day working with the language, I was lucky I had learned how to learn a language going through the immersion process in Quebec. So it was a little more streamlined for me, but I delved in wholeheartedly.
Jonathan Fields (00:05:09) – It sounds like the pull for you. It wasn’t just the fascination by the language, but there was something bigger that was drawing you, you back into it. Well.
James Vukelich Kaagegaabaw (00:05:20) – When I lived in Quebec, I had saw people who were, you know, at that point proposing to secede from Quebec in acknowledgment of their language, of their culture, of their history, and that it wasn’t being, I think, in their opinion, acknowledged enough by the citizens and government of Quebec. And when I came back to the United States, I asked myself, well, these people have come here to this country with their language, with their culture. Why isn’t our language and why isn’t our culture? First and foremost, it’s been spoken here for thousands upon thousands of years.
James Vukelich Kaagegaabaw (00:05:59) – So I went all in in trying to revitalize the language. It wasn’t saving the language, it was breathing life back into the language. And that part was very important to me in the first part of my journey.
Jonathan Fields (00:06:12) – I know you shared that your mom and your grandma were brought up, but neither of them shared the language. Yeah, I’m curious what the why is behind that. I think I may understand it, but I’d love for you to share more. And also, even though the language wasn’t present, were the traditions. The story is present in your upbringing.
James Vukelich Kaagegaabaw (00:06:31) – The language wasn’t present at all. And there’s a very good reason for this. My mother went to a boarding school. My mother grandmother went to a residential school. There’s a little difference in the nomenclature there. In Canada that referred to as residential schools in the United States as boarding schools, and these were total institutions. A lot of people aren’t aware of that. For for, you know, since the late 1800s, all the way into the late 1970s, children were removed from their home and they went to compulsory boarding school.
James Vukelich Kaagegaabaw (00:07:08) – The mandate was to kill the Indian in order to save the man. That’s how it began. So in these total institutions, the clothes they wore, the food they ate, the language they spoke, the books they read when they went to the bathroom, when they went to class, when they lined up, when they woke up in the morning, all of these things were determined for them by the institution. This is very similar to other total institutions like the military prison and like many other indigenous kids who went to these schools, if you were caught using the language, if you were caught practicing the the spirituality or the culture, you’d be punished in some cases rather cruelly and harshly. So, you know, my mother and my grandmother did not. Grow up with that. They grew up at the boarding schools, so it was hard to deal with what they had gone through. I really couldn’t appreciate it until I began learning the language and then hearing the history. All of my Ojibwe teachers were boarding school survivors.
James Vukelich Kaagegaabaw (00:08:10) – Each one of them had gone through that experience, and they had some very dark stories that they shared about their experience with it. There were a number of kids who did not survive the boarding school era, and a number of them went through. It’s a dark topic, but it’s I think it needs to be acknowledged, uh, mental, emotional, physical, spiritual and sexual abuse at these places. So I didn’t really have a chance to to grow up with the language because the language is so tied in with the stories and with the culture that wasn’t there as well. So it was a new approach for me, and it was one where I began when I began learning the language, I began learning the culture, a totally uninformed place. I was just taking my first steps there.
Jonathan Fields (00:09:00) – I’m curious, as you start your journey into really understanding both the language and the culture and the stories, did that serve in any meaningful way as a bridge to really understanding the experience in the stories of your mom and your grandmother?
James Vukelich Kaagegaabaw (00:09:19) – It did.
James Vukelich Kaagegaabaw (00:09:20) – Having heard the stories from the people who are teaching me Ojibwe, my mom and my grandmother, DIDN’trillionEALLY share a lot about their boarding school experiences.
Jonathan Fields (00:09:29) – Which is fairly common from what I understand.
James Vukelich Kaagegaabaw (00:09:31) – It really is. There was this one occasion I recall, and I really appreciate it as an older man in middle age where I was maybe 11 or 12.
James Vukelich Kaagegaabaw (00:09:42) – And.
James Vukelich Kaagegaabaw (00:09:43) – I was doing laundry with my mom on the weekend. I was Saturday afternoon and I was complaining about it, of course, because I wanted to be outside playing my won’t get very angry for a moment, you know, just natural with a child who was complaining about doing chores and say you should feel lucky, you get to live at home, that you have a chance to do laundry at home. And as when I became an older man, I realized that she hadn’t had that experience and that so many of the people I would run into who are learning the language were returning to the culture, to the history, and to the spirituality. Where had gone through that similar experience, where they weren’t raised at home, they weren’t raised with the language, they were raised at the boarding school.
James Vukelich Kaagegaabaw (00:10:29) – And so that part I really became sensitive to it and empathetic and compassionate, and it became a point for some people who were maybe resentful about not having the language or not growing up with it. For me, it became a moment where I was like, ah, you had gone through this as well. So I had my grandmother. Those were two links in the chain that didn’t have exposure to the language.
Jonathan Fields (00:10:56) – When you start to really immerse yourself in it, and I know this leads to almost rises to the level of quest for you initiates at some point, the Ojibwe language dictionary project, which really brings the wisdom and the language and the culture of of elders into a centralized place for a lot of people. And it sounds like you start to really find yourself dropping into the wisdom in a much deeper way and distilling it, and then at some point feeling like this is really important. And even though it comes from thousands of years old, this is ancient, distilled wisdom. It’s so poignant and relevant to our lived experience today.
Jonathan Fields (00:11:39) – And you start to share in many different forms and many different ways, effectively turning around and becoming an educator or a teacher yourself. I think it’s so fascinating. I want to, of course, drop into so many of the ideas here. But, you know, we live in this world now where we’re so caught up in, how do we tap technology? How do we tap tools, how do we tap science to to get the things we want to feel the way we want to feel? And yet we so often largely ignore this deeply embedded and embodied ancient wisdom that would not have survived if there wasn’t something in it.
James Vukelich Kaagegaabaw (00:12:18) – Oh indeed. And your points about technology I agree with of in the beginning days, what I wanted to do was make Ojibwe kind of a one click, have a source so it could be one click. Like so many things I noticed with our youth, although there had been kind of an internet divide at that time, most of them had a cell phone and them an opportunity to hear their language in the same place they listened to music, the same place where they watch videos on YouTube.
James Vukelich Kaagegaabaw (00:12:49) – That was really important. But a. Yeah. The idea to pass on the language through a dictionary project. I feel so grateful I had a chance to work on that project. I really began learning a lot. There were moments when I had a chance to talk with elders with fluent first language speakers, and this is when it really began to click about what was actually in the language. Because when you’re writing a language, I mean, when you’re writing a dictionary, the goal is to, you know, be as comprehensive as possible and with a language as vast as Ojibwe that those are. That’s a lot of words. It’s a lot of work. However, when I would begin speaking with elders, we would get on one word, and in some cases they would have teachings that would go on for, you know, maybe 20 minutes with one word. It was the history of the word. It was when it had been used in ceremony. It’s what it had meant back then and how you could reinterpret it today and how those ceremonies had changed, how people may do them today.
James Vukelich Kaagegaabaw (00:13:59) – And this would be one word. So as I began, there was this a little bit of conflict inside because I’m like, I really want to know all of these words at the same time. I really want to get a whole bunch of citations down for the dictionary. So I really began to take note that, oh, there may be something I’m not paying close enough attention to in the words I had been told ever since I began learning the language, that if you really want to know the culture, the history, the spirituality, the ethics, the philosophy, it’s all in the language. And here I was listening to and learning from real time examples of that, of people taking me back thousands of years and all the way up to the present moment. I had become, at this point, totally enamored with it.
Jonathan Fields (00:14:48) – Yeah. Is Ojibwe largely a spoken language, a written language, or is there or is it just a blend of both? Because I know a lot of indigenous wisdom. Often it travels through generations in an oral way.
Jonathan Fields (00:15:03) – So I’m curious what your experience was of that.
James Vukelich Kaagegaabaw (00:15:06) – Of course, been spoken for thousands of years. The first published written text is in the 1630. This is a French and Ojibwe document, a letter that’s sent to to France. So as a written language, it is only a little bit younger than Finnish, maybe 100 years younger than Finnish, and maybe 300 years younger than Russian in the old Cyrillic alphabet. So there is a tradition of writing the language, but it has been passed down orally, and the main focus was on the oral tradition. And when I began thinking about that statement that if you really want to know the culture, the history, the spirituality, it’s all in the language. I discovered what I think is an ingenious investment in us, that people, in order to pass down these teachings, embedded them in the words that we use every day. They too, must have gone through these experiences and ask themselves, well, how will I pass this down to someone I’ve never met? I’ll never meet, I’ll never speak to, I’ll never listen to or hold.
James Vukelich Kaagegaabaw (00:16:13) – How will I pass this down to someone seven generations from now? And knowing that anything they create will one day turn to dust? It’s the nature of life here on Earth. How did they decide to pass these teachings down? We will put it in the language, in. What I think is so ingenious about this, is that human beings are hardwired to speak in our minds. We learn. I learned this in a during my graduate studies in linguistics. We speak for the same reason that we can touch, we can smell, we can see, we can hear. It’s hardwired into us. So we will put the teachings in a in an environment, in a medium that everyone has access to, and that maybe you reach a point in your life where you’re asking, well, what is it to really love someone? What is it to be intelligent or to have strength of heart and courage? And you could look into the word itself. And for me, when I began understanding that, it felt almost like I could hear the ancestor speaking to me, that I could hear their voice, that we too have had these experiences and we would like to pass them to you.
James Vukelich Kaagegaabaw (00:17:17) – You you’ll have them as well as a human being. And I think that’s where that relevance shows up, that a language that, despite being thousands of years old, is has some very important teachings to share with us, is, you know, in this modern age, in 2023 on how to seek out a good life, how to find a life of peace and balance.
Jonathan Fields (00:17:38) – This at some point turns into what starts is a much broader, immersive quest for you around developing a literal dictionary to distilling down to, I guess, a select set of. Teaching seven teachings in particular. Really, around the way that I experience it. I’m curious if this was the intention, you know, the Ojibwe lens on what it means to live a good life. Am I getting that right? Yeah. And there’s a word that translates roughly to the good life, which can you pronounce that for me? Because I was trying and trying and trying and like, how do you actually say this properly?
James Vukelich Kaagegaabaw (00:18:14) – Menopause mattawan menopause.
James Vukelich Kaagegaabaw (00:18:16) – Mattson.
Jonathan Fields (00:18:17) – Mattson. Okay.
James Vukelich Kaagegaabaw (00:18:18) – That is the goal. That is what we are seeking. And I found that from time immemorial to present, to seek out the good life. That would be the goal. And it can really mean to to live well also to have good health and also to lead a good life.
Jonathan Fields (00:18:39) – You describe the notion almost as a preamble to the teachings of. There’s a concept of seven generations. Take me into that.
James Vukelich Kaagegaabaw (00:18:49) – The concept of seven generations is one that shows up internationally in Indian country, in Anishinaabe working, for example, the the Lakota warrior and holy man haka Sapa. And you’ll have to forgive my Lakota. It’s poor at best. He spoke of a time of seven generations after that terrible battle and massacre at Wounded Knee. For him, this would be a unit of time. It would take seven generations for the Lakota to make the hoop of life whole again. The circle of life whole with the Americans, with the whatchu. I heard of seven generations for the first time in my life, in high school, briefly with Dagon, a widow with the Great Peacemaker.
James Vukelich Kaagegaabaw (00:19:29) – And there I had heard that in every one of our deliberations, in every one of our decisions, we will have to think seven generations into the future. And when I heard that as a as a young person, that was very profound, a little confounding, like, how do we do that? How do we come up with an action, a choice, a decision that affects someone seven generations from now? And what I approach in the in my book, The seven Generations and Seven Grandfather Teachings, is an Ojibwe perspective of it. And for our listeners who don’t know, Ojibwe, Dakota, Lakota, Nakota, and Iroquois Haudenosaunee, they’re as different from each other, comparatively speaking, as Mandarin Chinese, Somali and German. Three different languages spoken on three different continents by three different nations of people. So I always like to point out that I’m speaking about an Ojibwe Anishinaabe perspective of that. And there’s this word that shows up in Donna Corbett, in Donna Corbett, and it really means my great grandparent.
James Vukelich Kaagegaabaw (00:20:36) – It can mean my ancestor, but it also means my great grandchild. And when you look at that logically, if it implies my great grandparent and my great grandchild, you have a span of seven generations that are punctuated by this word. In Donna Sheehan, when I discovered what that word means in Donna Cowichan, this was a case where I was looking into the words and not just a translation, but an interpretation. I found this small word, part Onic and, you know, having learned from it by listening to and recording these elders, I began looking at what that meant. And it meant to be interconnected, to be interlinked, like a bike chain or a thread woven into a tapestry or blanket, to be interlinked, to be interconnected. So when I spiritually interpreted that word rather than just the translation into English, when I interpreted it, it really meant that one I am inextricably interconnected to that being I am inextricably linked to. And in Ojibwe, it’s our word for my great grandfather, my great grandchild.
James Vukelich Kaagegaabaw (00:21:42) – There I saw seven generations that are punctuated by this concept of being interconnected, of being interlinked.
Jonathan Fields (00:21:49) – What’s so fascinating about that, to me, also is the way that you’re measuring time. It’s not just in one direction, you’re going backwards and forwards and embedded in. That is the assumption. And maybe it’s my assumption. Tell me if this is accurate or not, that the way that we move through the world in this moment, in our present, has the ability to ripple out in both directions?
James Vukelich Kaagegaabaw (00:22:12) – Indeed. And this was something I had kind of discovered about myself, that I had only been looking at it in a linear fashion, that we begin now, and everything we do affect someone seven generations from now. But when I understood that word all of a sudden past, present and future, we’re all taking place now. It’s like all happening right now. And where I knew if I could lead a good life, a life of peace and balance, life without conflict with my environment or my relatives.
James Vukelich Kaagegaabaw (00:22:44) – Life without contradiction, where I’m saying one thing and doing another. Everything I do would be positively beneficial for someone coming seven generations from now for my great grandchild and their great grandchildren. What I learned as I looked at it holistically wasn’t that by seeking out a good life now, we may be able to heal someone who is no longer with us. In my case, I could be my great grandparents. That could be my grandparents or even my father. He is no longer here. We have a chance to heal those people who who may not be here with us, because we’re still inextricably interconnected to them. We’re still living out their story. And so that that became a different perspective for me. It became, how can I heal those who may no longer be here, as well as live in a way that I can bring peace and balance to people I’ll probably never see, speak to, listen to, or hold.
Jonathan Fields (00:23:38) – It’s such a powerful concept in that, at least for me, you know, the notion of if we have somebody who’s no longer with us, who we love dearly and who we saw suffer, struggle, deal with demons, whatever it may have been, and left this place, this plane, this moment in a state where that was never resolved.
Jonathan Fields (00:24:00) – The notion that choosing to move through the way in a particular or through the world in a particular way, now, that may not only ripple out to children or children’s children and many generations forward, but in some way in some ethereal, energetic, intergenerational way, that there is a mechanism to reach back and help somebody close a chapter. Of course, you know, some people will hear this and roll their eyes and say, that’s absurd, silly, like the doors closed. But I think others will be more open to at least some notion of the ability to be a part of a process of peace that is multidirectional and healing. That is just deeply appealing in many ways.
James Vukelich Kaagegaabaw (00:24:45) – And for me, yeah, there was great appeal to that because having met so many people who had gone through, through colonization, through, you know, when I look at my great grandfather’s example, who was born 100 years before me and how things had changed for him, he would see the creation of a reservation, a place he couldn’t leave without express written consent from an Indian agent, where he could be arrested for practicing his spirituality or even speaking his language.
James Vukelich Kaagegaabaw (00:25:14) – And whereas children removed those people who went through that experience, those people who went to the who are boarding school survivors and may have dealt with that pain and anguish in ways that weren’t healthy, who may have suffered from alcoholism through substance abuse. To have the opportunity to say the life I’m living wasn’t necessarily determined by the struggle you went through and by leading a healthy life. Now, you know, we’re still living out your story. We’re still interconnected. That wasn’t the end of of the chapter. It wasn’t the end of the book. It was. It was another installment.
Jonathan Fields (00:25:53) – That’s beautiful. One or the other. I guess an ethos is around the notion of the perspective of the self as a part of a collective which rings is just profoundly different than a more mainstream Western notion of that really elevates the individual as the fundamental unit of life. And it seems like a lot of the stories in the culture and the teachings wrapped around the ancestral wisdom that you come from, it really is everything is anchored in the idea of interconnectedness and also the your role, not just as an individual but as a part of something bigger.
James Vukelich Kaagegaabaw (00:26:35) – It was one of those light bulb moments when I was learning about the seven generations. Finally, I had I had understood what I had heard about so often in English. Seven generations think seven generations ahead. And I recall speaking to an elder who had related this story to me, that when he was growing up, we would call them Anishinaabe. That translation he provided as an ESL speaker was an old time Indian. These were people who were born on trap lines where they hunted, fished, and trapped. They lived in cabins or may have been born in a wagon or gone in a domed lodge, a wigwam. And he was telling me that that generation of people, when they became elders, they would try to avoid using this word neen and ninth means I, me, myself. And I was really intrigued by that. As a linguist, I knew that it serves a perfectly logical linguistic function. The teaching I had gotten out of it was when I translated that word neen into Latin. It becomes ego.
James Vukelich Kaagegaabaw (00:27:42) – Ego. The teaching. What they were trying to share was that this idea of I, me, myself. It might be a myth, it might be an illusion for them. I’m a link in a chain, going all the way back and going all the way forward. I am all of my relatives. I’m inextricably interconnected to all of my relatives, and everything I do will affect them through that connection. For them, the spiritual teaching was that only to only the kind spirit, the benevolent mystery God the Creator can say I excluding you. Human beings couldn’t. We are at this point interconnected. We’re interlinked.
Jonathan Fields (00:28:18) – And when you come from that place, you make decisions differently. Absolutely. It just it completely changes your orientation with the way that you move through the world in every way, especially when your regard, when you say, do I do this or do I do that? Do I say this or do I say that? Thing a lot of the sort of like the modern Western like lens on that is, well, how will it affect me? And this really asks you to say, how will it affect us before doing or saying any of those things, which I think really leads us nicely to the seven grandfather teachings that you share.
Jonathan Fields (00:28:56) – I’d love to walk through some of these with you. The first one UTP, is I guess it translates to to truth, but it’s not necessarily the way that that I might understand the notion of truth.
James Vukelich Kaagegaabaw (00:29:10) – I love truth, that’s why I wanted to open up the the seven grandfather teachings with that particular one on a weak point. And it’s yeah, when you’re making these decisions and you’re using these grandfather teachings that show us how to lead a good life, you’re making decisions for people who will not be here. And one of the sacred laws, it’s truth. And I’ve heard a couple of different etymologies for it. And etymology. It’s the the history or story of a word. One of the first ones I heard came from the late Elder Marlene Staley, from Gonzaga squadron, from the Leech Lake Reservation, and for her that word had in it date heart and way to speak. I’m speaking to you from the very center and the core of my being, and that one I found very profound because I have seen petroglyphs and I had seen birch bark scrolls, which is how ancient Ojibway people traditionally carried knowledge through pictographs and petroglyphs, where you would see this image carved into stone or birch bark with a heart and a line coming through it.
James Vukelich Kaagegaabaw (00:30:16) – And this is coming from the very center and core of me. Another one I heard came from the late linguist Basil Johnson. He was an Ojibwe man, and for him he described truth as being DB to a certain extent, an extent that you really can’t surpass. You can’t go beyond in way to speak. I can speak to a certain extent. And he had a rather a very charming anecdote about this when he spoke about this at the University of Minnesota. He had talked about an isolated yet insulated community. It was a flying community, so there were no roads that led here to be able to get there. You had to fly in and land in the lake. And so once a month, court would come to this isolated community, there would be a judge, there’d be legal representation, and they would need interpreters. Because this was an isolated community, it was still insulated. So the people who lived there still used Ojibwe on a daily basis. They had no reason yet to use French or English.
James Vukelich Kaagegaabaw (00:31:20) – Everyone they spoke to on a daily basis use Ojibwe. And when they were asked in court to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, some of them said, I can’t do that, and it was a problem in interpreting what they were saying is, I can tell you everything I saw, I witnessed I was a party to, but that may or may not be the whole truth. I can speak my truth to you. So that was one interpretation I got of the word boy as I began to look into it more. I found like another level of teaching with that, to be able to speak to a certain extent. I wondered if, like, maybe the spirit of the language was censoring itself here, if maybe the language was saying, I can’t define something eternal to you using words which are the sounds of our thoughts. You’re using the wrong tool for this. This is something that has to be experienced. It has to be a it has to be lived rather than using a word to describe it.
James Vukelich Kaagegaabaw (00:32:25) – And it’s great because we can get in our lives, you know, get mistake the word or the thought for the thing. And I wonder if a word like truth in Ojibwe is saying, don’t mistake the word for the real lived experience. You’ll have to have this to really understand it.
Jonathan Fields (00:32:41) – And it’s like it builds a certain amount of inherent subjectivity into the notion of truth, which is our lived experience. Like five people can witness and be a part of the identical moment or experience and describe it very differently. And it sort of acknowledges the fact that this is just the nature of reality. I can speak to what I have perceived, but I cannot tell you that that is indeed the fact itself, or what anyone else would have experienced in the exact same moment or or circumstance, which I think is pretty cool that it allows for that. Actually.
James Vukelich Kaagegaabaw (00:33:18) – I was absolutely fascinated by by the insight and by the knowledge, and then to embed that teaching into a word that we would use and again in everyday conversation, the what a genius investment indeed.
Jonathan Fields (00:33:32) – And that leads to the notion of humility. Another one of these seven teachings. In really framing it up from what I could perceive as this notion that our dependence on other beings for survival is at the core of who we are. It relates back to that notion of interconnectedness, relatedness that we were talking about.
James Vukelich Kaagegaabaw (00:33:53) – So one of my questions when I realized, well, if truth isn’t something I can speak about, I may not even be able to comprehend and thought it must be experienced. I asked myself, well, how did our ancestors seek out truth? And that’s when I began examining the spirituality and the ceremony of our ancestors. And one of the most ancient ones I found. It’s called Examine the Vision Quest. And it is when a young boy will go out on a fast. He will fast from food, in water. He’ll be in isolation for up to four days and three nights. And while he’s by himself, he will seek out a dream. He will seek out a vision. As from the Anishinaabe perspective, as the physical self becomes weaker, the spiritual self gained strength.
James Vukelich Kaagegaabaw (00:34:45) – So as he’s negated all of his relationships with with food, water, the medicine, even with his relatives, as he’s in solitude seeking this out, I wonder if this young boy who is out on a fast begins asking himself, well, where do I get my food? Where do I get my clothing? Where do I get my shelter from? And it’s all coming from the earth. And as the animals who are feeding us and clothing us, the trees who are giving us fire, they’re giving us the very oxygen we need to breathe. The earth, the plants, the musky. I love this word in Ojibwe musky medicine. It really means muscle strength in utke the earth. When the human being needs healing, when or nourishment, they seek out the strength of the earth and the water. The Nabi is giving life to all of it. But I think this boy is realizing is that in this word for humility, in this ceremony of fasting, for a vision, on going on a vision quest, he realizes that he has a relationship to each one of these animals, to the fish, to the birds, to the plants, to the trees, to the water.
James Vukelich Kaagegaabaw (00:35:57) – And in that relationship he becomes a relative. So I think from some perspectives, to be a relative, it’s either to have, you know, a maybe a DNA connection to someone here. Becoming a relative is is through relationship. And he realizes, well, what happens to a human being without food, water, clothing or shelter, you will perish. You will certainly die. At this point, he realizes, I can’t live without my relatives. I’m interconnected with them. Whatever’s going to affect them will affect me. And then he realizes humility. And that word in Ojibwe, doesn’t he? Or she is humble. It has an it dubus, which is low ane, is to think in desires of oneself. Now I think lowly of myself may sound like low self esteem in modern contemporary English, but what I think he’s trying to do is put the human being with a human being belongs in relationship. I am not more important than the relatives who give me life. In fact, I know without them I can’t survive, I can’t live, so therefore I, I think lowly of myself.
James Vukelich Kaagegaabaw (00:37:07) – I don’t exalt myself above my relatives. What an important teaching to have for your environment, your society, and also of people who may not be here yet of generations who are coming to think I’m not more important than you. I am one of you, and I can’t live without you.
Jonathan Fields (00:37:24) – I feel like that ties very closely in this third teaching offer around respect as well. Those two really seamless. Well, I guess all seven of these honestly tie really powerfully together, you know. But respect in the notion of it feels like gratitude is embedded in this notion of respect, the way that you describe it.
James Vukelich Kaagegaabaw (00:37:44) – And that word for respect, it’s doing. It means like to go easy on. And the moment you realize that, ah, when I’m harvesting corn or my I have taken the ear of corn off of the stock, it’s no longer alive. When I’ve knocked the grain of rice, wild rice into the canoe. I mean, it’s no longer growing when I’ve gone hunting for deer, for moose, which is our Ojibwe word for moose, for homozygous for elk, you know, they’re no longer alive.
James Vukelich Kaagegaabaw (00:38:16) – In order for me to be clothed in order for me to eat. The idea is that you go easy onto them. You take only what you need because you acknowledge that they’re giving their life to you so that you can you can survive and you harvest only what you need. It would almost be catastrophically stupid to go in over harvest to to kill all of the buffalo, to to decimate the moose populations, to over fish. And in that though that word for respect, it’s reciprocal from an Ojibwe perspective. They go easy on each other is really what that sacred law would translate to from an. Perspective. It’s the animals, it’s the plants, it’s the environment. Who is going easy on us, who is looking at poor, pitiful human beings and saying, if we do not clothe and feed and shelter our younger siblings, they’re not going to survive. We are going to go easy on them. We’re going to acknowledge the sacredness of their lives. For me, I really think of of humility being like to acknowledge the sanctity of our relatives lives.
Jonathan Fields (00:39:19) – And the by directionality of that is really powerful also. The teaching that you build on on that is one of love, which is at the center of these seven teachings. I’m assuming that you actually chose the order of how why you would present them in a particular way. I was curious how intentional it was that this was at the center of the seven.
James Vukelich Kaagegaabaw (00:39:48) – As I began doing this talk in the first time, this was a natural flow. When I began looking at them. But I think love was for me the most. They all work with one another. They’re all interconnected, but I could find each one of these grandfather teachings, each one of these sacred laws in love. If you truly love someone, are you. Are you humble? Are you trying to exalt yourself above the person you love? Are you respectful, you know? Or do you speak the truth to someone you care very deeply about, or do you deceive them with words? And it struck me. And in the middle of this, it and I was giving this talk.
James Vukelich Kaagegaabaw (00:40:26) – It was like, oh, well, who would feed us? And why would they do that? Why would they look after us? Why would they nurture us? Why would they give us medicine when we are ill? And it must be because they love us. And that’s when I began, began really looking at that what that word meant. And it was hard because when I spoke about truth in the beginning, I was saying, you can’t define something eternal, and love is certainly eternal. The love we feel today, I don’t think is different than the love someone felt thousands of years ago, or the love someone who hasn’t been born will feel. So how do I describe that? And that was it. I wasn’t seeking out a definition. I don’t think the language tries to define it. I think it tries to describe it. It’s almost like something that emerges from deep within us. It’s not something that’s thought about. It’s not coming from an intellectual pursuit. It’s something that that emerges from deep within us.
James Vukelich Kaagegaabaw (00:41:19) – And when it comes out, it’s for the benefit of all of our relatives.
Jonathan Fields (00:41:22) – Yeah. I mean, it’s so powerful, as you’re describing, that what flashed into my mind was a conversation I had not too long ago with somebody who was a foster parent and had brought a child into their family, who had known nothing up until that moment that could be described as love. And they were trying to actually explain to this kid what love was. And the kid simply had no concept of it. They couldn’t relate to any of the descriptors to to a feeling that was within them. And we were talking and sort of like saying like, how do you explain love to someone who has no lived experience of it? And it was a really profound moment because it really made me realize it is one of those words that I feel like you know it. When you feel it, you know it when it’s conditional, it’s taken away from you. But it’s so hard to put language like truly descriptive language. And even if you could, it would only be relevant to you.
James Vukelich Kaagegaabaw (00:42:27) – Absolutely. And like along the same lines, I’ve never read a novel or a poem, or heard a song, or saw a sculpture or a painting that captured that feeling, like I have for Grandma and grandpa, that I have for my parents or for my son. It’s ineffable. It’s literally beyond words. And what I found in the language, in the Ojibwe language was a description, the description of how something eternal can move through something impermanent, a human being, something with a beginning and an end. And when I saw that came out in different examples, like a like the sun coming out. So I got away and the sun rising and shining on everyone and everything I found in that same morpheme sog. So I got away. That was in socket when that was enough, and I thought, well, there it is. It has to be something for everyone and everything. And so rather than coming up with maybe these rules and definitions of love, our ancestors were sharing a description. Maybe.
James Vukelich Kaagegaabaw (00:43:30) – What does she want to do? What does the kind spirits, unconditional love look like? And it’s it’s got to be something for everyone and everything. And then acknowledging that, yeah, that’s something that can come through you as well. It’s not reserved exclusively for the spiritual. You can you can have that as well in your life.
Jonathan Fields (00:43:48) – Building on that, we move into courage, which is interesting because often I feel like people think about the notion of courage, and there’s a certain aggressiveness to it. And certainly there are stories of courage in the face of violence, in the face of battle, in the face of fighting. But the way you describe it is also a much more heart centered experience.
James Vukelich Kaagegaabaw (00:44:14) – Indeed, it has that word heart in it. Our Ojibwe word for courage is a. It’s literal translation would mean he or she has a strong heart. And the example I use in my book, and it was an example that that transformed the way I looked at, that came from maybe even a centuries long conflict that was here in Minnesota, in the state I live in.
James Vukelich Kaagegaabaw (00:44:40) – And this was between two different Indian nations, the Dakota and the Ojibwe. And they had been fighting over contested land for some time. Some people say 100 winters. It may have been even 200 winters. And these nations hadn’t known peace. Every year, sometimes only 5 to 10 people on each side would perish. But there wasn’t peace. There was imbalance. There was always the threat of violence. And the story I tell comes probably after the Great Dakota uprising here in Minnesota in 1862. And a Dakota village is, is comes under attack by American forces, by American soldiers. And it said a woman hides for her life. We are catching tail feather woman. She’s hiding in the water, completely submerged. She’s using a hollow reed debris through. And it’s said she’s hides for a life for 3 to 4 days. And when I say hiding for a life like the soldiers who had attacked her village, you know, they weren’t there to take prisoners. They were there to to destroy the village. And it said she has a vision from Wakan Tonka, the Great Mystery, the Great Spirit, who tells her that the spirit is very disappointed in how human beings are living their life.
James Vukelich Kaagegaabaw (00:45:59) – There’s a great deal of violence at this time. The wars for the Great Plains are raging, and the Dakota aren’t just fighting the Americans. They are also engaged in a war with the Ojibwe. She’s told that if you were, if the Dakota were to bring a drum, a very special particular drum to the Ojibwe, it would bring peace to both of their nations, and she’s able to mystically escape with her life. She brings this vision back to the nearest Dakota village. She relates it to the to the holy men. There they begin at once creating this drum. And it said when they present it to the Ojibwe. In some cases this is at Mississauga Gunning at Lake Lacs. The original Wakan Mystic Lake and the Ojibwe accept it. They’re able to sit at the drum. And our word for drum is very beautiful. It hasn’t it day like in truth, the heart way is the sound in a gun. It’s like an implement, an instrument. It’s the instrument that makes the sound of the heart, the drum beat.
James Vukelich Kaagegaabaw (00:46:58) – And these two nations who had brought the very worst of what war has to bring poverty, bereavement, anxiety, rage, terror. We’re able to sit with one another. And when they sounded the drum, it represented both of their hearts beating together. The smoke that was coming up from the from the gun, from the sacred pipe. It represented both of their their prayers and aspirations raising up to the heavens. And when they were seeing, they were speaking with one voice. And I saw an example of what true strength of heart was. It was no longer for me to to be totally unafraid to go and fight Dakotas. It meant to be, to have the strength of heart, to treat Dakotas as relatives as they had always been. It had been our perception that was wrong and that was true. Strength of heart. It was an example of how reconciliation was possible when when it’s done the right way. But it absolutely demands strength of heart for it to be successful.
Jonathan Fields (00:47:59) – I love the notion that courage is intertwined with empathy in this understanding of it.
Jonathan Fields (00:48:07) – It’s a little counterintuitive, by the way, that we’ve heard courage described so many ways, but it also if part of what so many of us are looking for these days is reconnection and reconciliation and the courage that it would take to do that, how can that courage not embody empathy at the same time in some meaningful way? Which leads us in interesting way to teaching around honesty, which I thought it was fascinating because we started out this journey with truth, truthfulness, and you make a distinction between truth and honesty.
James Vukelich Kaagegaabaw (00:48:45) – And it was an interesting one to make because in standard American English, you know, if you tell the truth, you’re honest. If you’re honest, you tell the truth. These are kind of synonymous terms. The way the Ojibwe language described it didn’t have to do exactly with what you were saying. It had everything to do with how you were living. When I looked at what that word, what is he? Which is that sacred law, that grandfather teaching of truth, he or she lives correctly, I think would be the best literal interpretation of that.
James Vukelich Kaagegaabaw (00:49:17) – He or she lives correctly. Garcia. Straight, right, proper, correct and aussi is to live. And when I looked at examples of what it meant, to be truly honest, it meant to are my words in actions and alignment. Do I walk the walk or do I just talk the talk? And I think everyone has the experience at one point in their life. For another, where you have someone who’s telling you to act a certain way, to dress a certain way. To speak a certain way to do a particular ceremony, and then you see them do something completely different. Unlike a Friday or a Saturday night, everyone goes through this. It’s hypocrisy. It’s contradiction. And I think in the language you’re saying is, if you truly want to know if I’m telling the truth, observe how I lead my life, the truth invariably comes out. It always does. Am I leading a holistic life then? A life where my my words are in alignment with my actions?
Jonathan Fields (00:50:17) – Which really brings us to the seventh the teaching around wisdom.
Jonathan Fields (00:50:22) – And again, it’s so fascinating to me because each of these words, we’ve all heard you countless times, and yet you describe them with some overlap, but also with some really powerful distinctions. Wisdom, at least it sounds like to me, is I don’t want to say enlightenment, because I don’t really understand what that word means, to be honest with you. And to me, that’s always been this ultimate aspiration that has been connected to certain eastern traditions that allow us to, quote, opt out of the cycle of birth and rebirth, you know, reincarnation or out of a cycle of suffering. But I don’t think that your teaching this word up really in that way.
James Vukelich Kaagegaabaw (00:51:05) – And see, I liked the word enlightenment because I think, though, that word wisdom, its origin, has to do with a white light. And when you see it show up in different languages, Indo-European languages, it seems to deal with vision, with sight, with light, which you absolutely need to be able to see in ancient Sanskrit will become the Veda knowledge.
James Vukelich Kaagegaabaw (00:51:32) – It’ll become video or video in Latin, it will become idea in ancient Greek, that moment where you have sight, where you are able to see something as it is. In Ojibwe, it has something very similar. The morpheme, which could be light, which could be energy. I wonder if this is to be able to to see something, to be able to have vision, to be able to see things exactly as they are. And I wonder if that is enlightenment, that you will actually just be able to see things as they are without the delusion of, or prejudice that you’re carrying along with you. One of the examples I use in the book is a lightning, and I don’t know if the listeners have ever had this experience where you’re outside at night, whenever there’s a thunderstorm, I’ll go outside and offer tobacco. I’ll set down tobacco and acknowledge the thunder beings that are flying overhead. Let them know there are human beings down here and it can be night. And all of a sudden there will be this magnificent flash of lightning, and it can even become brighter than midday.
James Vukelich Kaagegaabaw (00:52:45) – And you can see everything as it is, and you’re not really thinking about what you’re seeing. You just see it. You have vision, you have a moment of enlightenment where you have just seen it as it is, without again, that baggage of prejudice in your opinions and your judgments of everything around you. You just see it as it truly is, and then maybe be able to relate to it in that way.
Jonathan Fields (00:53:08) – I love the notion of it. It’s almost like turning on the light bulb. Oh, oh, this is the reality. Or at least as close as I’m capable of getting to that. Because indeed, we so many of us live in a world that is semi delusional, semi delusional, partly factual and partly fabricated, and I often feel like the closer we can get to seeing clearly, more clearly the reality of our own inner experience and external experience and bridge that gap that we move through life in a more genuine way, and we can make decisions and take actions in a more clearly informed way, and that the net effect of that has got to be more good in our worlds and in the world.
Jonathan Fields (00:53:54) – You know, as we reflect back on these seven different teachings and back to the earlier part of our conversation, these are teachings that just help us move through each day, probably to a certain extent, relieve a certain amount of suffering, some of which is self manufactured. But zooming the lens out, you know, is really goes back to the beginning of a conversation, which is these are things that would help us experience a better life. And by that also that can happen in solitude, you know, like this is a bigger thing. So I feel like that’s a good place for us to come full circle in our conversation, because it leads us to the question that I always end every conversation with, which is in this container of good life project. If I offer up the phrase to live a good life, what comes up?
James Vukelich Kaagegaabaw (00:54:45) – I’ve had a chance to listen to your podcast, and I’ve seen this question time and time again, and I’m so delighted to have had an opportunity to share with you that people in North America who have lived here for thousands of years, for indigenous people whose main goal, the main goal was how can I lead a good life, Jim Young, how can we lead a good life and to have that opportunity, that a good life is one that’s led with truth, with humility, not exalting yourself above your relatives to acknowledge you are your relatives, to live with respect and acknowledge the sanctity of your relatives lives, the sacredness of their lives.
James Vukelich Kaagegaabaw (00:55:23) – To have unconditional and compassionate love and blessing. Love for your relatives. To lead a life with a strong heart, with courage, with bravery. To lead a holistic life where your words are in alignment with your actions and honest life. To lead an intelligent life. Life with truth. A life where all of your actions, a good life, will be positively beneficial for all of your relatives, not just now, but for someone coming seven generations from now. And for me, is is truly living well, living a life worth living. Thank you Midwich Magpies and DeLeon, thank you for listening.
Jonathan Fields (00:56:03) – Hey, before you leave, if you love this episode, safe bet you’ll also love the conversation we had with Violet Duncan about the power of indigenous wisdom. You’ll find a link to Violet’s episode in the show notes. And of course, if you haven’t already done so, please go ahead and follow Good Life Project in your favorite listening app. And if you found this conversation interesting or inspiring or valuable, and chances are you did.
Jonathan Fields (00:56:26) – Since you’re still listening here, would you do me a personal favor, a seven second favor, and share it? Maybe on social or by text or by email? Even just with one person? Just copy the link from the app you’re using and tell those you know, those you love, those you want to help navigate this thing called life a little better so we can all do it better together with more ease and more joy. Tell them to listen, then even invite them to talk about what you’ve both discovered. Because when podcasts become conversations and conversations become action, that’s how we all come alive together. Until next time, I’m Jonathan Fields signing off for Good Life project.