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AN INTERVIEW WITH JOHN CRIER
June-July 2006, by Alyce Barry
John Crier is a Certified Shadow Work® Coach in Hobbema, Alberta, Canada, as well as a mentor to adults and young people within and beyond the Cree community. For eleven years, he has been on the faculty of Maskwachees Cultural College in Hobbema and currently holds the position of Dean of Cultural Studies. After raising six children, John is finding it strange to have no little kids running around, at least until the grandchildren and great-grandchildren come to visit. My interview with John spanned several phone calls to work around his busy academic, community and family schedule.
AB: Most of us who do Shadow Work came to it in mid-life or later. But you grew up doing spiritual work in the Native community.
John: Growing up, I observed my parents and their peers in activities in and around spiritual ceremony and ritual, so I grew up and participated in it. As a boy, when my dad was sweating in the sweat lodge with other men, I would go in sometimes. And because we knew the people personally who were conducting the sun dance ceremony, we played in and around the ceremony and became intimately involved with ceremony as part of our growing up. I took participation in ceremony for granted as I was growing up; it had always been there. It was my unintended personal work that was part of growing up.
It wasn't until I went away from my own community that I met people who had been deprived in cultural, spiritual, and ceremonial experience, and I began to realize how much ceremony has been a big part of my life, and a gift.
AB: How did you come across the ManKind Project (MKP)?
John: At that time in my life, I was in construction. I wasn't happy with the way things were going, and I wanted to do something different, so I went to school to complete a university degree. When a friend showed me the brochure for the MKP weekend [the New Warrior Training Adventure], it looked interesting. It wasn't that we were planning to do a men's weekend. I saw the brochure and said, Let's do it.
For both of us, it made quite a change in our lives. It was the first time we did a weekend with non-aboriginal people. Most of our work up to that time had been within our own tribal group. It was the first time we saw people other than Cree people experiencing emotional, personal development work. It opened our eyes up, that these guys were doing their work while we were doing ours. It was the first time I had seen white people using a sweat lodge, which is kind of a home event for us.
When I came into the MKP, I wasn't thinking about working with other people, I was working on my own spiritual journey. When I saw these men doing the ceremony and ritual, I was curious about their intentions. I didn't come there as a novice about sweating or smudging or doing the four directions. I understood them differently.
AB: What was your reaction to seeing white people doing sweat lodge?
John: It was the first time I'd seen white people smudging and honoring the four directions and also doing the sweat lodge. I went along with it, and I neither rejected it or gave approval. I participated in it knowing that I had seen it done differently within our own tribal group. It was kind of a novelty for me; I wasn't offended in any way, I didn't feel threatened. It was almost like a pleasant surprise. I thought it was quaint. I could see that they weren't used to doing it.
Afterward, I brought my sons to the weekend, and my brother, and whoever would listen to me, those close to me. I put them through the weekend and began recruiting other people from Hobbema. I wanted them to experience the joy and the healing effect that I got from the weekend; I wanted to share it with others.
AB: What was it you wanted to share? What did the weekend change for you?
John: I think the greatest effect was that I was looking outside for fulfillment or for direction, a sense of purpose, and that weekend opened up my eyes about me. It became a journey of discovering me and accepting myself and my limitations, and also the gifts that I could offer. I began doing a lot of my own Guts work.
After the weekend, when I came into the sweat lodge, I had such a profound experience just sitting in the dark. For the first time, I realized that growing up I had taken for granted all those times I had participated in ceremony, as an observer and as a participant. I had done that almost as if I was on automatic without purpose. It was as if I woke up for the first time and realized what gifts they were, what gifts the old people had been in my life. It was such an effect of gratitude, of having had that experience of being able to sit with the old men that other people referred to as elders in the sense where they hadn't had a personal experience with them, and I had had that experience growing up. It was almost a feeling of shame that I had taken them for granted, of guilt, but also a feeling of gratitude, and how lucky I was, or how privileged I had been to have been able to have that experience. So the weekend opened my eyes about myself and my sense of coming home to spiritual connection.
AB: At what point did you decide to get trained as a facilitator so you could work with other people?
John: When I staffed the weekend, I was also facilitating, doing Guts work, and I began to realize that I was able to work with people. I wanted to do a little more of that, and to have a little more understanding of what I was doing.
AB: How did you hear about Shadow Work?
John: I did my initiation weekend in 1995, and I believe in the summer of 1996, I saw somewhere a brochure advertising Shadow Work. That's how I and two other Cree brothers ended up at your brother Tim's place in Mount Horeb, Wisconsin, to do the Basic Facilitator Training. I already understood what facilitating Guts work was like on the carpet, so the brochure captured my attention. At the time, it wasn't about setting up a practice; it was about working with men on the weekend, that was the first intention.
AB: What are your memories of your Basic Training?
John: I thought every Shadow Work training was like the MKP weekend, so I approached it from that perspective let's get this done right now! It was only after a while I began to realize that some of the people attending had never gone through the weekend. I was in the hard energy of the MKP weekend. So I tuned down the energy a bit so I wasn't being disruptive to the group.
AB: It must have been a bit of a shock to be sitting in a room with a manual on your lap and taking notes.
AB: You've mentioned that you feel that you have to walk on eggshells if you describe yourself as a shaman because the Native community uses that word differently than Western culture does. Would you tell me what that difference is?
John: In the Native communities, people who do the work of a shaman, or sage, do not advertise themselves openly or even at all. The People have the understanding that those who are not from the aboriginal community are the ones who advertise themselves openly. There's an underlying negative judgment that anyone who is portraying himself as a shaman is only doing it for self-benefit.
There's a history behind that. People who did the work of the shaman a long time ago did not advertise; they did not go intentionally to be a "shaman." However, there were some people whose own personal work, whose journey led them towards the work of "shaman." People in the community came to understand that if you wanted to do work around your own spirit or your own emotional work, perhaps you could go see this person who did the work of a "shaman," and he could help you.
There was also a colonial understanding of what a shaman was. When the missionaries first came into the country, anyone who was identified as a shaman was covertly and overtly defamed by the missionaries because they were a threat to their missionary work. Over time, the missionaries taught the People that the shamans were worshipping the devil, worshipping the dark side, and practicing superstitious ritual. So a lot of people who became converted accepted the missionaries' teachings about those who did the work of a shaman. That belief became integrated into the community so that the people who did the work of the shaman were looked on suspiciously sometimes. The meaning of shaman was redefined so that today, coming from the Native community, the label of shaman is almost derogatory. But I understand the belief is different coming from the non-aboriginal community.
Another aspect to that is that with the recent new spiritual movement, where a lot of non-aboriginal people have suddenly become very interested in the spiritual aspect of Native culture smudging, the four directions, the sweat lodge, and ceremonies such as drumming the Native communities see non-aboriginal people doing this with the judgment that they don't really understand what it is they're doing. There's a certain amount of skepticism. Anyone in the Native community who is accepted as a shaman by the non-aboriginal community, who is seen offering these services, may also be seen as selling out for recognition and for money. So quite often one who does work resembling a "shaman" has to walk on eggshells.
There's something else as well. Those who do the work of the shaman, if they have not paid their dues within the Native community, then there's a judgment that the work that they're doing is not real. If they are seen to have paid their dues in the community, then if they offer their services to communities outside, their work can be seen as real. It's a very gray area. Part of the work I'm doing is paying my dues. Beyond that, anyone can call me whatever they want, you know. I understand that this is what I want to do. It's about becoming rooted and committed to what it is that I have set out to do, and not worrying about the fears that people may have and the projections they may have on me. Nobody's going to satisfy everybody in the world. Those kinds of negative projections are going to come whenever a person steps out of the community.
AB: How do you define a shaman?
John: I don't use the word shaman. I use the term "medicine person." A medicine person is an experienced/wounded healer or facilitator. When people go to see a medicine person, they want to go see a person who can facilitate some healing for them, who can facilitate a ritual and a ceremony to help them with any emotional or spiritual or physical health work that they want to do.
A long time ago, people became in experienced in healing people, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Physically, they knew about medicine plants, and they knew about protocol and how to mix them. Emotionally, they began to facilitate the emotional work that people have. Spiritually, they facilitated ritual and ceremony to reconnect or reclaim the spirit, to do soul retrieval, to do soul healing.
A person who helps people in these ways has a life experience of gathering this knowledge, and gaining wisdom. Sometimes they don't do it intentionally at first. They do it as part of their own personal work, to a point where they become so proficient in the teachings that they're able to offer their experience and knowledge to other people who want to learn about it and become apprentice to their teaching. The "medicine people" are people who have become masters in facilitating the spiritual, emotional, and physical healing work that people need to do.
AB: That's very interesting. I think that I have held a definition for myself, and maybe my definition is from Western culture; I'd be interested to know what your reaction is. My definition has been that a shaman is different from another kind of healer in that for a shaman, the realm of spirit and symbol is more real and has more impact in this world than the physical world has. That a shaman is aware of the spiritual realm in what's happening for a person and is able to convey that in the healing process. To give someone a sense of something larger that's happening in their life beyond what's happening in their daily life. I don't know if that makes sense.
John: Yes, it does. I think we're both saying the same thing. People who became medicine people were people who started with the physical realities. The more they got into it, the more they came to understand in depth the gifts of the plants, the gifts of the ritual. They became more advanced in understanding the spiritual realm, so a lot of their work essentially advanced into spiritual work. What they did in the spiritual world was aided with medicines. After a certain graduation of life experience, most of their work tended to concentrate in the spiritual realm, and their healing of people then came from that perspective. So it's not much different from what you're saying.
What I'm trying to say about the medicine people is that they didn't set out to be "shamans." They started out in life learning some aspect of personal healing work and gradually became more proficient in effecting healing for people and helping people. Over time they developed their own style of working with people, physically, spiritually and emotionally, and this became their trademark. As they gained more knowledge in life experience, a lot of their work graduated into spiritual work, soul work.
AB: In your essay My Personal Vision, you wrote that "our work today is to interpret what [a] commitment [to being in harmony with Mother Earth] will look like" for us today. In your life right now, what does a commitment to being in harmony with Mother Earth look like?
John: It's becoming aware of the spiritual in everything that we have around us. I live out in the country, so I've become aware of the life that's around me: the trees, the grass, the flowers, and the animals. I become part of it, I am not a visitor, I'm not a tourist.
I was talking with a lady yesterday in the city about this, about how aboriginal people in the city can be in harmony. Even in the city, if they gather and do ceremony and ritual, that's a way of connecting. Even walking to the park, appreciating the sense of life in the trees and the grass, and being outside, that's a way of reconnecting, of being in harmony. If they become deprived of that, a sense of loss or confusion sometimes results. To be able to reconnect regularly with the greater life force is being in touch with Mother Earth.
AB: A few weeks ago, you were conducting a sun dance ceremony. Is that part of your service to the community?
John: Conducting the sun dance is part of my own journey, but it's also a service I see that has been done by other men. There is no obligation of reciprocity from the community. For the man who mentored me, hosting the sun dance was his act of service to the community.
AB: Do you perform other kinds of service as well, or is the sun dance such a significant contribution that it is payment enough?
John: I work with youth at risk, I run youth camps during the summer, and I also do counseling with kids who are at risk in school, and for these I'm compensated. I build a safe container so I can work with them on their own life issues.
AB: What do you do at the youth camps?
John: Mentoring kids, active participation for initiation, and I also work with them on personal issues, using skills from Shadow Work, to work with anger issues, abandonment issues, some gang-related issues, all kinds of abuse issues. When I take them out camping, part of that is the intent is to work with their individual issues and also to build teamwork, and also to build trust in each other as a group and also to build trust in themselves personally.
AB: Do you enjoy that work?
John: I think so. [Laughs.] I enjoy going out into the mountains. Every summer I go out, and that's one of my treats, to go out into the mountains and work with people.
AB: How big a group of kids are you usually working with?
John: Normally about 25 to 35 kids and students, though I've had as many as 75, with a lot of staff.
AB: I believe you offer mentoring in addition to Shadow Work coaching. What kind of mentoring do you do?
John: People have asked me to mentor them in some particular activity. They want help in gaining knowledge and proficiency, either in the ceremonies or within the culture.
AB: The students you teach at Maskwachees Cultural College, are they primarily from the Native community?
John: Most are, yes. Most of them come here specifically to investigate or reclaim a part of themselves. Many aboriginal students have been culturally deprived, and they come here with the intention of taking the program but also of reclaiming some part of themselves that they can identify as being Native. Reclaiming their Native identity.
But for five years now, we've had a lot of non-aboriginal people, including Asian people, and people from Europe, coming to experience our social work program. They come here specifically to experience the program from an aboriginal perspective and also to gain some understanding in the way things are done in the Native community.
I teach courses within the program: traditional healing, Cree philosophy, Cree language and the cultural camp in the mountains. I bring my personal life experience with me, and also the skills I've learned from Shadow Work and MKP and other trainings, and I investigate my own way of applying these skills. I enjoy fairly good participation by the students.
It's a unique program, but recently its funding has become uncertain.
John: I call it a war. A constant battle. Some time ago, the elders in the community had a mandate for the college, and the mandate for the college was to transfer cultural knowledge so that people could come home into the culture and that could be their foundation, and from which they could then study different programs.
So this was their mandate, and sometimes the intent of the college gets lost, where people want to develop the college as another post-secondary institution, the same as a public institution. Potentially the mandate can be lost, and we have another post-secondary institution, which loses its unique Native perspective. This is really, I believe, what it's about, that people who have lost perspective or don't understand and appreciate the Native perspective, apply a conflicting attitude towards the college. And people who understand the perspective or understand the mandate of the elders, who understand the intent of the college, then are at odds, trying to preserve the Native uniqueness, trying to preserve these teachings, in an environment where money talks. Unfortunately, money also doesn't really care about the aboriginal perspective or the mandate. The bottom line is the bottom line.
AB: It must be hard to watch that happening.
John: Yes, it is. We've lost a lot of good people here. We've lost quite a few faculty members, and I'm probably going to be one of the last ones to go. At this point, working at the college doesn't weigh a lot. The college has served a purpose in my life, and it's time to do the next thing that I want to do.
AB: I first met you at an MKP conference some years ago, where we were both in a workshop about doing work in prisons. I understand you've been able to work with inmates outside the prison walls.
John: I have permission to take up to four men at a time and bring them outside and work with them in some fashion. When I do a ceremony or ritual there, I also have them help so they become helpers. The intent is for them to experience a cultural activity outside, and it gives me the opportunity to work with them outside the prison environment.
There's some good work that happens inside, and in ten years I've never had a bad experience. I understand that some of the guys in there want to con their way out, so sometimes it's quite an interesting challenge to meet and relate to them in a true way, to get beyond the con. After a while, we let them understand that it's really up to them how they want to conduct themselves, and whether they want to do it for real or whether they want to do it for the benefit of appearance.
AB: Could you imagine the men in the prison gaining enough perspective to work among themselves inside the prison?
John: Yes, and I proposed this idea to the former warden, and he thought that we could do it. We began making preparations, but there was an opening in Saskatchewan for a warden in another prison. He applied and was accepted, and the idea went with him. Quite often it all depends on the wardens and how they look at the work. I've talked about it to the new warden but because he's not as familiar with this work as the other guy was, he's not as enthused about it. Perhaps he will experience this work soon also.
AB: What are you most excited about right now? Do you have a personal cutting edge right now?
John: A friend of mine came to see me about a month ago or two months ago. He has several different black belt degrees in martial arts. He began working in our social work program as an instructor. He approached me about wanting to offer martial arts training in the community, and I thought it was a good idea.
He asked me, What style of fighting do the Cree people have, related to martial arts? What kind of martial arts did the Cree people have a long time ago? I never really thought about it, so I began doing a little research. There's a fellow in Oregon, who also is a Native guy, who had been in the military, and he asked himself the question also. He began researching some of the ways that the People had a long time ago, and he developed quite a style. What that led to was the question, Who were these people?
Where this leads to is that you begin to see a group of people, for instance, like the Toltec you know, the teachings in the Four Agreements and a group of people very similar to "magicians/shamans," a group very similar to medicine people, but they had a different term, and the term that these people had was covered over by the word "warrior." These were men who practiced the tradition of living life efficiently or proficiently, who then became masters in their unique practice, who became masters in their ways of being themselves.
What I'm beginning to see and understand now is that thoroughly researching this group of people and then beginning to develop structure in it, that becomes my cutting edge. As I develop the structure and understanding, it becomes unique to my perspective that I offer to the community, and to the world.
AB: What kind of research will you do?
John: It's a personal research talking with the tribal elders, and then also doing my own inner work, how I come into synchronicity with that energy, and what is needed to come into synchronicity with the energy of these people. So there's inner work involved in it, and also connecting with energy required to walk on that path. I don't really think there's going to be a lot of tribal records, written records, because they would not be well known to people writing history at that time.
People of many tribes would find themselves attaining the same level of mastery in their inner journey, their life journey. They didn't belong to an organized society per se; however, they became familiar with other people who attained the same mastery of life journey that they were on also. Mastery in their shadow, mastery in their gold and dark energies.
These were people who traveled the country, to search for gifts to bring back to their communities. They also stalked what needed to be killed that did not serve them any more.
When the Europeans first came here, these masters were the ones who went to see who these Europeans were. When the colonial Army came after the People, the masters were the first people they met resistance from, and because they threatened the occupying forces, they were the first people to be killed off. Anyone that appeared strong in the Native community was a threat.
So in order to survive, they came secretive, very covert. Their ways became so secretive that a lot of their tradition was also lost to those who did not have immediate contact with them. It became a lost art. I am researching and recreating the model that expresses that way of living and offers it to the community. Life goes in stages. This has become the next leg of the journey, to investigate and research these masters. I am researching their intent, their purpose or direction and meaning, and also their transcendence.
The more I understand and think about it, developing this concept of mastery from these people who are there but don't make themselves visible, it is something that I want to put into book form.
AB: That would be fascinating to read. When you say they are present but invisible, do you mean in the sense of ancestors?
John: The Ancestors are always present, but also the energy of these special people. They attained a status where people had fear and respect and admiration for them. People did not mention their names casually. I see now that the knowledge has been there all this time, but I never had the understanding. I'm beginning to see now that a lot of things that the old people talk about people doing certain feats were done by these people.
I become adept at understanding their world, and as I understand it, accept it, and practice the way, I change my life. The more I look for it, the more the way begins to reveal itself.
See also John's essay, My Personal Vision.