NORTHERN MINNESOTA: Traveling around the U.S. in search of values that might help heal a divided nation, Native American Ojibwe teacher and practitioner of traditional medicine Morris Blanchard was a challenging but essential voice to add in this national conversation. After an hour of driving through wooded back roads in northern Minnesota, Blanchard finally said that our quest really comes down to five skills that most Americans have never developed.
Kent Nerburn, a Minnesota author of books about Native American culture, guided us on this winding, back-roads journey that left us directionally disoriented enough that our story would not point curious readers toward Blanchard’s enclave. Down a final little dirt road, the forest opened on a paradise: a mobile home with a big screened porch attached, elaborate flower gardens, 39 rabbits and 27 chickens. Or, at least, 27 chickens when we left late that afternoon.
“That one’s supper with dumplings,” Blanchard said as he enumerated his livestock, pointing to a plump white hen. “She’s supper, so there’ll be fewer chickens tonight.”
Even if an outsider found Blanchard, they wouldn’t guess his full identity, dressed in an old T-shirt with his cigarette lighter clipped to his shoulder. Only after Nerburn had presented a pouch of tobacco and Blanchard carefully accepted it and the two men spoke a few words in Ojibwe, did Blanchard finally look us over. He nodded, then switched from the Ojibwe he had spoken with Nerburn to English to say: “Come.”
Over the next hour, he took us into the woods, where he had been pressing birch bark on mats under cinderblock weights. “With this bark, my sons and I now have enough to make two, 14-foot birchbark canoes in the traditional way.”
Farther into the trees, he showed us a series of medicine lodges he had built of ironwood boughs with cedar and a wide range of herbs dried and tied in various spots. “No photos here,” he said and we put our cameras away. Nearing his trailer again, Blanchard organized some visual aids to show us just a few examples of his primary calling.
As he prepared, Nerburn said, “I know lots of Indian guys throughout this region, but Morris is special. He’s the real deal at what he does. He was raised in these traditions. Speaks fluent Ojibwe most of the time. His whole family speaks it and tries to live in the old ways as best they can. Just listen to him.”
To give us a feel for his work, Blanchard showed us a spirit painting he made after a 10-day fast through which he believes God gave him a vision of two deer sharing their spirits, overall an iconic image of a healthy relationship. “These wild strawberries around them are important medicine,” he said, shaping his fingers into an inverted cone. “That shape of the strawberry is the shape of the human heart. The wild strawberry is a heart food. Very important for a healthy relationship.”
He picked up a handful of blond wood strips he was seasoning near his house. We asked the type of wood and he repeated several Ojibwe words. “I can’t recall the English word right off,” he said, “but we prepare it to help cure poison ivy and poison oak. I’ll show you how we make a bundle to start boiling it.” Then, he flipped the strips around into a tightly woven bundle. Finally, he said: “Basswood. You call it basswood. After our preparation, this really helps clear up the skin.”
We sat down on his porch to consider a far bigger challenge: healing America. First, Blanchard said he is afraid about the future. “I wake up every morning and I look at God in the trees, in the grass, the wind, the rabbits. And you know God is in you, too, as I’m talking to you. God is in all of us and in this world God has created. I am afraid that most people no longer are seeing God in this way. They just might destroy this world that we all need for our children. People are destroying it without even knowing what they are doing.”
Unlike many American Indian families who now are Catholic or Protestant, Blanchard’s family did not convert to Christianity. He takes no money from government programs. He is determined to survive in a close-knit network of families, friends, teachers, neighbors. “My children know how to go out in the woods and come back with ingredients to make soup in a birchbark bowl the old way. My work is to teach them how to understand the real world like this, before all these ways are forgotten. My children could survive even in the woods.”
He said, “But, now, you’ve come to talk to me today. And, by talking to you, some people may read what I am saying in some land on the other side of the world. I think that’s good. We need to talk to each other. Even if they were sitting here on my porch, I would tell them: five things.” He held up his hand and counted them off. “In your language, they’re: Look. Listen. Learn. Live. Love.”
Clusters of those words show up in various spiritual and educational systems, so we wanted to know what they meant in his Ojibwe context. “Look?” we asked.
He slowly moved his hand around his clearing in the woods. “I see God. Do you? People don’t know how to look at the world anymore. We can’t save all this if people don’t understand what they’re looking at.”
Listen? “People don’t know how to be silent. We all want to talk. It’s when we listen that we learn.”
And learn? It’s not just a matter of accumulating facts and skills, Blanchard insisted. “We should learn from people in all ways,” he said, then pointed at Benjamin, sitting on the edge of his seat. “Right now, even this young man is teaching me something about listening. Look at how he is listening to everything happening right now. He is learning, but I am learning from him, too, just seeing how he listens.”
Love seemed clear, but “Live”?
“We have to live together,” he said. “Christian people come here sometimes and they want to pray. We don’t pray that way, I tell them. But their prayers are from the heart and I can see that. That’s not my way, but I don’t put them down. We have to learn to co-exist. When you showed up at my home here with Nerburn, I could have said: ‘Oh, no! No newspaper people. They are no good. They will just bring people to disturb us. Get out of here!’”
Blanchard fell silent for several long moments. “Just hearing those words from me, the air around us changed, didn’t it? There are bad feelings in that way of talking about each other. But, what I said to myself when I learned who you were was this: These are guests. We must not be stingy with our wisdom because it might help someone else. We have a good life here with the wonderful wisdom the elders have given us. How can we refuse to share our goodness with the world?”
Blanchard held up his hand in silence. “Feel it? Can you? Just repeating those words of hospitality now, I think we have made things just a little better in the world around us.”
(Story and photos by readthespirit.com Editor David Crumm and his son Benjamin Crumm, who are spending 40 days and 9,000 miles exploring what divides and what could unite Americans.)