Robertjohn gives me a riddle.
“You cut off your hair, toss it on the ground. Alive or dead?” he asks.
“Dead,” I answer.
“You cut off your fingernails, toss them on the ground. Alive or dead?” “Dead.” “You look at the earth from outer space, alive or dead?” For a moment. I’m stymied, stumped. I don’t get it. But then the fog lifts a little and it begins to grow clear. He’s talking about being disconnected from a cycle. When I throw things like my hair and fingernail clippings away, I assume they will have no more impact, where they are discarded, they will simply disappear. From outer space, though, the earth and everything on it is alive, even the dead and dead things, for they feed the living.
* * * Days earlier, Raymond Stone had died. Robertjohn Knapp, a Native spiritual leader, part East Coast Seneca and Tubotolobol from Central California, met the renowned Paiute elder and artist when he moved out to California in the ‘60s. The man became his teacher and, for twenty-some years, was like a father to Robertjohn.
“What he showed you,” he says, “was how to be. How to be with all life, that way, just by him being.” In his voice is a low tone of respect, the way someone speaks of an experience that’s altered them. I can hear it. More than that, I can feel it, in the depth of the quiet, of the hush all around. Robertjohn’s voice carries a slight hint of sadness as he describes his teacher and the time in this life that changed him, that sent him on a path he could never have predicted when he was working odd-jobs and cleaning outhouses in the Army.
This path has helped hundreds.
“That old man,” he says of Raymond Stone “is the one who really took away all the bitterness.” People must say the same thing about Robertjohn Knapp. After learning the ceremonies from Stone, who he calls his third father, and after Stone told him that he “couldn’t hang around no more, that I had to get out and get in trouble…risk who I thought I was,” Robertjohn began working in prisons. Up and down California’s penal system he would do the ceremonies with incarcerated Native people.
“The Peacemaker said ‘all people have the ability to reason, unless you’re grieving.’ If you’re grieving, you can’t get to this so our ceremonies are about healing. If we help you with the healing, we’ll get you to this place,” he says. This place is the ability to reason. Reason, for Robertjohn, and for the traditional Native way of life, is seeing one’s relationship with all life. It is to become aware of Natural Law – a law that tells us, for instance, that if a tree takes 300 years to grow and is cut down in ten minutes, it will take 300 years to grow another like it.
Seems basic, but in this day and age, it isn’t. Instead, in the Western world we are often mired in our arrogance and our inability to say no to ourselves. We are split apart by greed, prejudice, and a decided lack of respect for the ground we stand upon that gives us space to spread our cement and housing developments and roads. Traditional native beliefs teach that the world is not segmented like this. Our hair clippings, thrown away, will be used by other creatures – birds will build their homes with it, for others it is food. Death leads on to life.
* * * Robertjohn believes it is each person’s choice.
“There’s only one decision – to stay awake or go to sleep. If you’re awake, then you can’t deny the truth. If you can’t deny the truth, there’s no decision in it. So, if you’re angry or jealous or depressed, you’re going to sleep. You’re caught up in this other stuff – drugs, alcohol, everything else. All you do is bounce around…Your choice is to go to sleep. You can’t see. You can’t see that this is a little ball spinning through space, 65,000 miles an hour. We call it our mother, the Earth. They still think it’s flat. They treat it like it’s flat. They’re pre-Columbus. They think it just goes on forever.” Without changing this attitude, without waking up, we’ll remain trapped in an ideal of exploitation which has devastated Native people in a way that continues to unfold. This notion of ‘progress’, of destruction, of meaning found in material wealth, wreaks havoc on the earth. It creates grief and darkness, and thus, the inability to reason.
Robertjohn’s work, in all its forms, is about addressing this grief and healing the resulting rift. These teachings have affected and inspired Annex-based Native filmmaker Danny Beaton, who invited him to Toronto to speak at the screening of his documentaries “The Iroquois Speak Out for Mother Earth” and “Mohawk Wisdom Keepers.” Beaton has also started shooting a documentary about Robertjohn.
Despite his deep concerns about the state of the world and where we’re going, Robertjohn maintains an attitude of hope for his people and for all life. How can he not, I wonder, when for him the connections between ocean and air, human and star, all seem so clear. From this position, he extends his teaching to those who ask, just by being himself.
“The Elders,” he says, “they teach us this thing or that. When you’re ready you’ll come to this place and they’ll show you, you’ll be shown these things…[but] they’re not the fire, they’re not the spark. You’re the fire. They light the match. You have it all in you. You’re the seed,” he says, his voice alive with awe.