Founded in 1993 by the late Lakota spiritual leader and medicine man Martin High Bear and his partner Alaskan Athabascan Rose High Bear, Wisdom of the Elders in Portland, Oregon, is a small nonprofit that has created powerful health and wellness curricula, a cultural radio series, a television show and storyteller events.
Wisdom has walked carefully, thoughtfully and slowly, producing materials for its website based on audio and video storytelling that is rich, effective and universal. The organization is celebrating its 20 years in existence.
“We are very busy right now just working on our regular work but we have to take time and give thanks to Great Spirit for 20 years. It’s not easy to be a Native American nonprofit and be as small as we are, but we have made a lot of friends over the years. We just want to take time to thank them,” High Bear said.
Wisdom of the Elders records and archives oral history, cultural arts, language and traditional ecological knowledge of North American Indian historians, cultural leaders and environmentalists for projects with cultural and educational institutions.
These projects aim to heal prejudice, correct misconceptions and bring wellness back to Native people, emphasizing the richness of Indian culture and its centrality in world cultures.
To promote race reconciliation, Wisdom also shares its material with all people through books, documentaries and its media productions.
Created in 2004, Wisdom’s Discovering Our Story program is a multimedia mental health curriculum designed to confront addictions, Type-2 diabetes and domestic violence problems.
The Discovering Our Story pages of Wisdom’s website shares personal stories from many elders as a vehicle for learning. Viewers often find inspiration in these stories to recall their own. These recollections often bring people more clarity about their lives when they are feeling lost, High Bear says. The videos have become particulary effective with treating the effects of historical trauma.
“They’re all up on our website for the communities to enjoy and to learn from. When I say enjoy—it’s painful to hear these stories—you can sometimes cry when you hear them,” she said. “Some of the stories are so sad, but they’re rich because someone is telling their story and they’re revealing their wisdom when it comes to understanding what this [historical trauma] did to them in their life because every one of these people took that and they healed from it and they became a model to their community.”
The Discovering Our Story curriculum has four parts: Recovery, Prevention, Career Pathways and Discovering Our Story TV.
The Recovery materials are called “Healing Circles.” They use storytelling, which is part of the larger circle of healing traditions used in mental health recovery such as ceremony, celebration, listening and humor. The curriculum was written by Lower Elwah S’Klallam educator Roger Fernandes who uses storytelling as medicine for depression, anxiety, low self-esteem and self-harm.
Fernandes uses the narrative form of the Hero’s Journey, documented by the renowned Joseph Campbell in his book of the same name, which is a leading classic on world mythology.
Along this journey, the Hero meets an elder, a guide and a teacher. “You need an elder to guide you, to help you to figure things out. In the story, Elder appears to help you, the website explains. “And so that’s the hero’s journey of transformation—of transforming from one person who’s alone, confused and wandering into a person who has a place in their culture and has an understanding of who they are.”
Discovering Our Story TV has 20 episodes posted to-date, which offer authentic tribal stories and histories through a co-hosted talk program.
“We have 36 sets of curriculum up—that means there are over 70 videos. Plus, we have all of our TV shows up. Right now people have open access to it and we certainly welcome them to take advantage of it,” said High Bear, who is also executive producer.
Historical trauma is a cumulative wounding, spanning not only a lifetime but several generations, noted scholar MariaYellow-Horse Brave Heart, Hunkpapa, Oglala, has said.
“We usually don’t share our spirituality openly,” High Bear said, “but I feel this is a matter of life and death for our people and I’m willing to risk my reputation to tell those people that prayer really works, and that when we pray for our ancestors in the Spirit World they will heal, whether they are Christian, Moslem, Jew, Baha’i, Native American Church, Sundance Way, the Pipe Way, Longhouse Way, any way that we have of approaching Great Spirit. May they walk in that garden of happiness. May they heal from historical trauma.”