ANCIENT EASTERN CHEROKEE TRADITIONS RESTORED IN THE MOUNTAINS OF VERMONT
FROM THE TRAIL OF TEARS TO THE LEGALIZED OPPRESSION OF THEIR SPIRITUAL PRACTICES, THE EASTERN CHEROKEE PEOPLE HAVE A HISTORY FILLED WITH VIOLENCE AND PAIN. THIS, HOWEVER, IS A STORY OF RESILIENCE, TRUTH-TELLING, SANCTUARY, AND SERVICE.
Nestled in a valley within the Green Mountains of Vermont is a place called Odali Utugi—The Sunray Peace Village. Odali Utugi means Hope Mountain. On this beautiful 27-acre site, Sunray Meditation Society has, since 1987, been creating a Peace Village for today’s world, modeled after the Cherokee Peace Villages of the last century. It is a place where people of all ages, walks of life, clans, and nations can experience the healing power of the Earth. Here one can study the wisdom of Native American and Tibetan Buddhist traditions and learn the skills of peacemaking. It is sacred land.
The Venerable Dhyani Ywahoo is Chief of the Green Mountain, Ani Yun Wiwa, and the 27th generation holder of the ancestral Ywahoo lineage in the Tsalagi/ Eastern Cherokee tradition. She is also a well-respected teacher of Vajrayana in the Drikung Kagyu and Nyingma traditions of Tibetan Buddhism. She founded the Vajra Dakini Nunnery, the first of its kind in North America, and is Director of the Sunray Meditation Society, an international spiritual organization dedicated to world peace and reconciliation. She is also the Founder of the Sunray Peace Village and the Sunray Peace Village Land Trust.
She is the first to share the wisdom of the Ywahoo lineage with non-native people. Through her guidance, the peace village has become a healing sanctuary, spiritual training ground, and community center, which has renewed the spirit and joy of countless visitors.
Elissa Melaragno interviewed the Venerable Dhyani Ywahoo for Anchor in February, 2015. The pages that follow contain the wisdom she shared with us.
EM: I think it would interest our readers to hear some of your reflections on how oppressed our Native American brothers and sisters have been over the course of history. There was a law against practicing Native American cultural and religious ceremonies until 1978, when the law was finally reversed. Can you tell us if and how you were present and engaged in the Indigenous rights advocacy efforts of 1970s and also a bit about the impact of the repeal of that law in 1978?
VDY: Yes. During 1978 and in the three or four years prior, there was an awakening of many people, who are considered the fifth generation to have survived the “coming of Darkness” upon the natural way of the Tsalagi people, which began with the forced removal from our native lands, also known as the “Trail of Tears.” These are people of my age group, who during the 1970s or late sixties were to reawaken the sacred fire and to rebuild the vision of a united Indigenous nation. And so, these ideas were based on the spiritual principles of the Pale One, also known as the Peacemaker, and somewhat from the teachings of Tecumseh (1812). The vision was to remind ourselves that we are all relatives. The door was first opened by Beeman Logan, a Seneca Chief, Mad Bear Anderson, a Tuscorora, Rolling Thunder, a Cherokee Elder, and others who visited remnants of Indigenous communities throughout the Americas. They traveled around and asked people to remember prayers, stories, and anything they could about the old ceremonies. These interviews awakened something in the hearts of many people of my generation.
Although it was not legal for these communities to practice their religion, they found ways to do it quietly. For instance, what appeared to be a cooking pot for camping, when filled with water and covered with skin, would be a drum with which people could share songs and memories.
Native American religion was made illegal in 1863. I think the reason for inhibiting the spiritual tradition was the fact that within the tradition was the concept of the Peace Village as a place of sanctuary. In these places of sanctuary, people who did something against the law—if they were willing to make themselves anew through prayer, transformation, and reparations for whatever harm they caused to others—could become new people. These places of sanctuary were also open to non-Indians, and I get the impression that closing those doorways of sanctuary was the reason for preventing spiritual ceremony. It was around the same time that the United States cavalry also forbade the establishment of Peace Villages. So, my interpretation—as one who has taken years to go over the treaties and look at the illegalization of Peace Villages and of Native American religion—is that the stream of people making correction and reparation for their errors—people making themselves new again—somehow interfered with the plans of the so-called dominant culture.
The Venerable Dhyani Ywahoo
EM: So when the laws finally changed in 1978, did this have an effect on your training as the 27th generation holder of the Ywahoo lineage?
VDY: The primary effect was that we could publicly express our teachings, whereas earlier the teachings had been hidden in stories and in the planting cycle: when we made gardens or harvested, we could share the spiritual teachings about the conscious relationship of the body-mind with the earth, the sky, and the environment. It was the only way we could share the power of our mind as expressed through the prayers of appreciation that enhance the fecundity of the garden.
So, Mad Bear and his team of Elders knocked on the door of consciousness. That was before our practices were made legal in 1978. The Elders reminded us that Indigenous people had made sovereign agreements with the governments—the Dutch, the English, the French, and the United States—and that, because we are a sovereign people, those agreements should have been kept. In 1978, there was an attempt to abrogate all treaties made—that means to erase all of those treaty agreements and to disavow the acknowledged sovereignty of Indigenous people. The carrot placed before the horse was: “We will give you religious freedom in exchange for giving up your treaty rights.” When the rest of the world heard this, they were shocked at the United States, which was considered by many, especially Austria and Germany, a moral authority. When people around the world heard that the Indigenous people of the Americas were not allowed religious freedom, it was a huge, amazing wake-up call. The attempted abrogation of those treaties did not happen, and religious freedom for every American was actualized as a right for the people of this land.
Spiritual sovereignty is the acknowledgment that every group—all people—have direct access to God, to the Mystery, however they name it. In our family, we refer to it as a Mystery that is beyond name or concept because when we attempt to name or define it we only see a small portion of it. Mystery is better understood when we settle into the spirit of wisdom and love that is like energy, or a net, uniting us all. So, this idea that we all have direct access and also, therefore, have spiritual responsibility was a key thread of what my Elders taught.
In the 1970s, while living on Long Island, I had the good fortune to know a Schinacock woman called Princess Noadonna. She was an educator like me, and one day she called me and said, “You can do it. You can do what your grandparents expect of you.” I was struggling with children. I was a married woman with all of the householder responsibilities. “Yes you can. You will,” she said, insisting that I dress in a way that acknowledged my ancestry. I suppose some people might have thought that I was just hippyish.
Princess Noadonna was a jewel along my way. There are wise people who hold the essence and remind the communities, who for safekeeping have hidden their identities, to take off the cloak and step outward.
In a sense, our invisibility was lifted in 1978. More of the hidden communities were allowed to be open. There were many along the Eastern coast, including the Wampanoag and Narragansett communities south and north of where I was living in Long Island.
So, did our lives change after 1978? For some, yes, the recognition of our religious freedom and the acknowledgment that the treaties, dating back to the 1600s, were real was a watershed moment for Indigenous communities. Sometimes people would say, “Oh, the Indians are getting something for nothing.” Actually, the treaties are like lease agreements, and in many instances, they were legal lease agreements. Through forensic accounting, it has become clear what has been paid out and what has not been paid on these agreements. A great deal of the monies owed to our communities has been used for something else.
The awakening for my generation was related to transforming the story of the “poor pitiful Indians” into an understanding that there is a wise and continuous stream of wisdom that has been preserved in spite of our kids being taken to schools far away and it being illegal to speak our languages. After this time, or perhaps concurrently, there was the reestablishment of the languages. In the woodlands, Mohawks reestablished their language from the few, maybe three, remaining speakers. Other nations reestablished their languages by teaching their young, recognizing that they were in charge of their young people’s education. This is all to say, yes; those years had a big impact on the survival of our communities from the perspective of global recognition, rights, and freedoms.
It wasn’t all easy, however; as a result of recently signed treaties with the U.S. government, some began to think their piece of the pie was too small. Divisiveness between groups occurred, which I think is one of the echoes of repression. “Divide and conquer” has been used as a tool to separate Indigenous groups who could together create benefit for the planet. We still have far more Indigenous communities that are not state or federally recognized than those that are recognized. And for many of those so-called recognized groups, it has meant giving up the clan method of government and taking on a majority/minority method of government.
We have learned, though, that when we don’t speak out, everyone finds himself under the same weight. What is the weight? The weight is like a cloud over people’s inner vision and a forgetfulness that we have a direct relationship with the environment and with each other. The weight is an abdication of our spiritual sovereignty and of our direct connection with all that is holy and good.
EM: You refer to this period as an awakening. Do you feel that the creation of the Sunray Peace Village was part of that awakening?
When I was a young person, the plan to go to Vermont was a seed planted by my Elders. They said, “you would do these things and it would have this benefit.” I was told that I must go to the headwaters of the Appalachian Mountains and make a place where the water comes out of the earth. In this place, we were to make a place of prayer and offering so that the water—which is medicine and has memory—can take those prayers of appreciation in all directions. Going to the high places is our spiritual responsibility. I think it translates to “high towers”—the people who make prayers in the high places where the water comes up from the earth. We have a spiritual responsibility to care for this water because it also has the memory of the first sounds of creation. We are explorers, and we made a promise that we would learn about matter and return that learning to the stream so that everyone can recall it.
So, in 1978, when I first came to Vermont, it was like a dream; it was everything I had seen and that had been described to me. I had been invited to teach right at the top of Lincoln Gap. We, those who were called to the teachings and to creating community together, weren’t quite ready to be there, so we went to Hinesburg, Shelburne, and then Huntington. From there, our hearts and minds were prepared to actually see the place in Lincoln where the Peace Village is now. It is in a large circular valley facing southwest and in the foothills of Mount Abe.
It was something that others envisioned, and the seed was planted that these things would be done. They had hope for an awakening of consciousness so that we could dream of a world of beauty and harmony and live out our spiritual duty to see that world here on Earth.
Interestingly, they also foresaw that we would be involved with the United Nations and Tibetan people. I don’t know how they knew. They just knew. Creating the Peace Village is an ongoing process. One of the Elders of our extended family created a Peace Village in Indiana for a time. Another Cherokee Elder and his wife created one in Poland. These Peace Villages are about creating places of sanctuary; places of appreciation; and places of healing; places of unwrapping from the heart and mind constrained thoughts of separation. When the heart awakens, we remember we are all relatives in this dance.
EM: I would like hear more about the meeting with the Tibetan people. You mentioned the prophecy of the meeting–what is the connection?
VDY: Yes, there were prophecies that our distant relatives would come and that we would have a relationship with people who wore red robes. And, it is now true, the Tibetans came, and we have indeed a precious relationship.
His Holiness Drikung Kyabgön Chetsang Rinpoche, told me that as a young boy, when he was a prisoner held in Tibet, he thought about the Indigenous people of the Americas. When he first came to visit us during the winter of 1985 and 1986, he knew our chants. Together, we visited some of the northeast coastal communities. He is now making deep connection with our traditions and sharing teachings in South America, particularly Machu Picchu. He will be giving a series of teachings there in May, and then he will come to the Sunray Peace Village on the last weekend in July.
We can all trace our roots to one source. The dance of form is a wonderful dance—it is an exploration and also the commitment to remember our natural state as well. At Sunray Peace Village, we founded a nunnery when it was clear that His Holiness Chetsang Rinpoche was called to preserve the teachings of the Drikung Kagyu School of Tibetan Buddhism, which were almost lost.
In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, I am considered a Dakini, a sky dancer, and a Khandro, a wisdom being that awakens, and my name as such, given to me by His Holiness Dudjom Rinpoche, is Pema Sangdzin Khandro. I sense a deep heart relationship with the high mountain places of Tibet and the spiritual tradition of exploring the mind and transforming illusions that cause harm and recognizing the inseparability of wisdom, skill, and joy within each moment. Ultimately, I believe that when we look within, human beings have a mission from one source and some wise beings are like tuning forks—they stir the heart’s remembrance; they support our ability to connect within the stream, the dream, and, most importantly, they help us see that the causes of suffering and ignorance are within the mind. And then we look more carefully at the projections that are created, and we make a choice to energize what is wisdom and life force enhancing.
So, what does it mean to be a Khandro? Sometimes it means to be a spark for others, offering pointers or skillful methods through which others can recognize the waves of their thoughts and actions and eventually arrive at the shore free from illusion.
EM: Although there is so much suffering, injustice, and greed in the world, it seems that people in general are spiritually growing at a very fast rate over the last twenty five years or so. From your perspective, what do you see happening spiritually on the global level?
VDY: On a global level, our minds are expanding, and the natural sensitivity to the messages of the water and the wind is awakening, or becoming clearer to us all. The preciousness of something as simple or ubiquitous as water becomes more apparent. We see that in areas where love is withheld there is deepening drought. So, what we see occurring in the world around us is awakening us to be more responsible to Mother Nature. Also, I invite you to do research. Recent discoveries in our galaxy are presenting the possibilities that there are outflows of energy that in a sense are changing the spin of electrons in our body/mind and the projections of the world as we know it. This increased energy, like overtones of music, is enabling us to access deeper levels of remembering that the matter that appears is a projection of our minds.
EM: What do you envision for the Sunray Peace Village for the future?
VDY: I see Sunray Peace Village as a place of study of permaculture, a place for the Elders gatherings we have had for the last 31 years, and, most importantly, as a repository of the incredible teachings and information that has been left by many Elders who have generously shared with us over the years. Sunray is a place to investigate and test the qualities of mind interacting with water, the renewal of water’s purity, the remembrance in the people’s hearts of our unity, and the fact that we are all explorers. We are exploring the possibilities—the ways in which we may energize a healthier environment and a more pristine clarity as a human family. Essentially, we made a promise that we would share what we learned.
EM: Thank you, Venerable Dhyani, for your time.
VDY: I thank you for the invitation to share and also to recollect. As the years go by, being in the moment, one may forget the valuable information of the past. This article and your questions make it possible to leave good tracks for those who are yet to be born. See you in the light.