The Wandering Free Families

I watched the movie the New World the other day; it concerns the story of the woman we call ‘Pocahontas’, her people, and the Jamestown colony.

While watching the story unfold, something really hit me; something so fundamentally different between the two cultures, something so at the root of everything that matters to me, as a human on a path of cultural healing.

This ‘something’ addresses the fundamental spiritual poverty of the modern world. I use the word ‘spiritual’ because we have no better word (that I can think of right now) for the nourishment that comes from humans holding each other, telling each other stories, playing music together, attending to each other’s bumps and bruises, enriching lives by enjoying each other’s company. Other languages have a word for exactly this…but more on that later.

In the movie, I saw the colonists, all men; sailors, soldiers, an invasion force hungry for fabled gold.

I then saw Chief Powhatan’s people; brothers and sisters, grandparents, aunts and uncles, children, mothers and fathers.

We now call their descendents members of the Powhatan Nation. In this age, in order to honor what we can of their cultural sovereignty, we must call them a nation. To do otherwise would deny them the protection they need. Ironically though, this also masks the profound treasure of the Powhatan people, and indeed the vast majority of Native American peoples…their original freedom from the need for a political state.

Imagine this: you, your parents, brothers and sisters, grandparents, mothers and fathers, children, cousins, second cousins, your whole extended family, has lived the life of a year-round summer camp for as long as you remember. You live together, resolve conflicts, and support one another as best you can, as a family. Your in-jokes have become the stuff of legend, your artistic styles have inspired each other, for countless generations you have collaborated on a vital and celebratory family culture that you enjoy. You make decisions as a community, relying on the wisdom of those you trust. The smallest child contributes to voice of the community as a whole. No police, no bureaucracy, no institutions…instead you have taboos, family consensus processes, and traditions. A Free Family, living your life on the land.

This stands in such stark contrast to the Jamestown colonists: prisoners of a culture they could not escape, compelled by their hollowed out hearts to chase wealth that will never satisfy, obedient to a power uninterested in the simple needs of a human…ease, affection, creativity, peace.

Before the Europeans, most Native American peoples lived as roaming Free Families, connected and rooted to their landscape. Wealthy beyond measure in human relationship. What would many of us give today for an extended family that supports without questioning, provides comfort and connection as often as we need it?

So often I’ve read and heard Native elders say what matters most to them: family and land. The Lakota say: “All my relations”, and when you call the earth your mother, the sky your father, the animals brothers and sisters, your sense of family does extend to the land your people walk on. Native Hawai’ians have a well-known word “‘ohana” that describes the importance and closeness of family.

In the modern world, we have some expressions that honor family connection…”blood is thicker than water”, for example. I know of none that get to the heart of the fundamental indigenous belief, that family holds all the roots of wealth (referring to its etymology): wholeness, wellness, health, and holiness.

Keep your eyes open, and you’ll observe where the modern world diverges, again and again, from the indigenous value of feeding family. Ancient initiations and vision quests served to show the seeker how they fit into their community, what role they would grow into, what unique gift their spirit would provide the tribe. In the modern world? The seeking adolescent hunts for a college in a distant land, a career in a distant city. Co-opting the vision quest and initiation for today’s children, the questors dream of apprenticing with a shaman in an Amazonian jungle, or studying leopards on a faraway continent. What happened to family, in the self-absorbed adolescent quest for a purpose? Will they receive postcards, perhaps? Will they someday get photos of their unknown grandchildren? When a native teenage “walkabout” ends, you return home, and find your place at last. When will we return home?

With hollowed-out hearts we keep the great gears of this modern world going. What have we given up in exchange for all its amusements? What misunderstood hungers rack our bodies, fed by false substitutes, bought by the fruits of our impersonal labors? What if a return to family sated these hungers, once and for all (though I don’t imply this a simple or obvious path…recovering from the loss of family, and returning to the heart of it, requires a substantial amount of work).

Thinking deeply on all of this, I dream of a return to a world of Wandering Free Families. A world where humans can finally come home again.

Written by Willem