This is a version of a story originally told by a Cree elder named John Crier. The story is about four mountains representing four stages of life. I (Vanessa) first heard this story from John in 2015. The story became very important in a research project that I was also part of, led by another Cree knowledge keeper, Cash Ahenakew. Cash’s project showed examples of how Indigenous education is fundamentally about preparing people, from the day they are born, to become good elders and ancestors for all relations. John has kindly and generously given us permission to travel with this story and to write down this version of it.
Before I start, I need to remind you that, in Indigenous storytelling, stories are living entities that can land in our hearts if we let them, and dance with us. This dance can be short or long. It can also last a whole lifetime. In this dance, different layers of meaning and sense-fullness are revealed gradually and slowly, sometimes over decades. The insights depend on the available space we have inside us. If there is too much clutter, there is often not much space for stories to move, to dance and to reveal new insights. We often need to clear the space before the stories can land.
Some Indigenous stories carry sacred knowledge that can only be revealed to specific Indigenous people. These stories need to be protected within the communities they reside. As an Indigenous elder, John carries many stories like that. Other stories, like this one, are meant to go to places and dance with more people. Some stories want to travel to see the world and be transformed by it. This particular story turned out to be a traveling story. With John’s permission, it travelled to different Indigenous communities internationally and danced with many peoples and places. When this particular version of the story came back to the part of Turtle Island (Canada) where it came from, it had learned different dance moves from the peoples it had met and the places it had been.
With travelling stories, it is very difficult to tell the difference between what was there before it began travelling and what is new. Rather than trying to find the original dance, I just had to allow the story to come to me one day, after a fast. Then I asked John to correct what I could have mis-interpreted. Written stories, who travel on paper, have a different rhythm and dance from the stories that travel through voice and that are told in a way chosen specially for that particular person who is listening. Therefore, if you have a chance, I encourage you to hear this story from John Crier himself, if you can, while he is still around. He will be happy to hear from you. I will tell you the version of the travelling story that showed itself in our collaboration.
The four mountains
This is a story about four mountains. Each mountain represents a stage of life that human beings need to go through. There is a baby mountain, a warrior mountain, a hunter/provider mountain and an elder mountain. If all is in balance, the land, the ancestors, all relations will support the human people to move from one mountain to the other. Humans, like other beings, do not own their time or their life. It is a more powerful force, which many Indigenous people call the Great spirit or the creator, who decides the length of time we will travel through life and the visions we will receive for what and how we are meant to contribute. Some people are meant to travel only so far through the mountains – they may complete their journey early for different reasons. Sometimes, with babies, for example, the time is not right for them to stay, but they still come to visit their families for a bit, as a gift. Sometimes people get lost or find a path in the mountains that leads to a dead end, and sometimes they starve there. Sometimes people, individually or collectively, just get stuck in one mountain without the teachings they need to proceed. When this happens, the guidance of elders is necessary to help people to find the path, connect to the visions, and move in a healthier way again.
The baby mountain
The first mountain is the baby mountain. If everything is in balance, as you come to the world as a baby, you are received at the base of this mountain with unconditional regard and respect for your existence, in the arms of our parents, your elders and your communities who are committed to your wellbeing. Your first rite of passage is your first breadth. You are carried up this mountain in a bundle that strengthens the connection between your baby body and the collective bodies around you, of your extended family. Wise and healthy grandparents, grand-uncles and grand-aunties have a huge role to play in this mountain, and when they are not there, sometimes babies cannot make it to the other side. Once you reach the top of this mountain, you start to take your first steps on your own, on your way down, still held by the hand of older relations. The focus of your learning shifts to your feet on the land. You learn about how to feel and relate to the ground beneath your feet and how to thread your path carefully, with respect and reverence for the land that will hold you for the rest of the journey. Learning that you are part of creation and cared for and guided by the people, the land, the ancestors, and all relations, makes you feel in your bones that your life has intrinsic value.
The warrior mountain
The second mountain is the warrior mountain. Now that you can walk on your own, the rite of passage in this mountain is to learn to set your own boundaries and to encounter your own vision and place in the world, rather than have your parents or other people define it for you. This is the mountain where you find your unique gifts, the unique medicines you bring and that eventually you will learn to put to use as they are needed. When society is in turmoil, it is the young people starting to climb this mountain who feel the consequences the most because they have not yet established boundaries, they have unbound energy and, since they are seeking and learning about self-rule, they also tend to push back against guidance and advice. As young people look for their path on their own, they sometimes end in the wrong path when guidance is not available.
In this mountain you also need to meet and wrestle with your shadows. On the way up, it is like going into a very thick forest in the dark, in the middle of the night, with the half-moon and the stars barely illuminating the way. The trees can see your spirit, they know who you are, but they can’t tell you anything directly – you are still too self-absorbed to listen. They need to shake you out of this self-absorption to communicate with you. As you climb up, you are really impatient. It feels as if you can only be well if you find the answers, if you have certainty. But the role of the land as your teacher is to introduce you to the mystery of your existence. It can give you directions, usually in the form of visions and songs, but it won’t give you final answer for everything you are seeking at this point. The land will always give you what you need to take the next small step, to do the next right thing, to keep moving in a good way as your learning and your story unfold gradually. This part of the mountain path can be frustrating because your body has energy to run, but the ground is uneven requiring you to walk slowly, in order to develop patience.
Those going up this mountain often spend a lot of time fighting with the shadows of the trees. There are also many distractions on the way up: different pathway options, many different voices and choices pointing in different directions. It is like trying to find your medicine, your gift, as a needle in a haystack. Many fears and insecurities show up in this process. Fear of not being worthy. Fear of not finding the “right” answer. Fear of missing out. Fear of humiliation, rejection and abandonment. Fear of loss, pain and death. Fear of making wrong choices. Fear that life may not be worth living. Fear that your life is a mistake. Fear of ineptitude and inadequacy. In order to forget these fears many young people build an image of themselves that prevents others from seeing what is really going on. Some young people focus on building an image where they are strong, invincible and never wrong. Others want to be seen as friendly, caring, and reliable. Some want to be seen as rebellious, transgressive and defiant. But an image is just an image and the larger the gap between how you want to be seen (and also how you want the world to be) and the many things that are actually going on within you and around you, the harder the path feels for you and the higher the chances for making wrong choices. This part of the mountain path is treacherous because you could be just living in the moment, walking in circles without direction for the longest time. It is the job of families and of elders to support you and to guide you, but sometimes they cannot show up because they are lost themselves and it could be that they got lost in the same mountain and never had an opportunity to find the path again. Specially nowadays, many people get trapped in this mountain and we lose too many of them.
Right around the corner from that difficult part of the path there is a clearing, but you can only see it when you are already exhausted from fighting with your shadows and the shadows of the trees. In this clearing you can rest, you can fast, you can breathe, you can observe, you can hear your heartbeat synchronize with the heartbeat of the earth when you calm down. If you manage to quieten your spirit and to become humble before the land, you may be contacted by the spirits that have known and observed you, the spirits who know what you need, the step that you need to take next, and the seedlings of the gifts and medicines you have inside of you. From that point of contact on, your medicines start to grow and to work through you and at least half of the fears and insecurities disappear. On the way down this mountain, you develop familiarity and closeness with your gifts, with your medicines, you learn as much as possible about them, and this feels really good in a surprising way. This good feeling is generally different than you might have been expecting or looking for on your way up this mountain.
The hunter/provider mountain
The third mountain is the hunter or provider mountain. The rite of passage of this mountain is about seeing a much bigger picture and about seeing more than the picture is showing you as well, into the past and into the future. It is also about learning to use your medicines and gifts to contribute towards the wellbeing of your family, of your community, of the land, and of all relations. Now that you have learned to establish boundaries and that you are starting to trust your own gifts, you need to learn how to offer them in a good way to your community. You need to learn when, how and how much to offer; when your medicines are good medicines, and when they can turn into poison; and how to integrate them with other medicines and gifts of other relations. This looks simple, but it is actually a period full of challenges. You will make many mistakes before you learn to work well with your own medicines and gifts and before you learn to integrate them with the medicines and gifts of others. This is a very busy and humbling period of deep learning about discernment. For example, some people may notice that you have good medicine, they may come to you to ask for or sometimes to demand some, but what you have may not be the medicine they need and you will need to know how to respond in this situation.
In this mountain you are learning to be both confident and humble; to be both autonomous and accountable; to be generous and to not allow your generosity to be exploited; to take things seriously and to laugh at yourself; to learn quickly from your mistakes and only make new mistakes as you move to the next learning; to apologise for the suffering you have caused; to not increase other people’s labor unnecessarily; to be accountable to the human and non-human lives that sacrifice themselves to keep you alive. You learn to gift your gifts – a gift is only a gift when it is gifted. It cannot be sold. A gifted gift moves the heart of those who receive it to a place of reciprocity, but the reciprocity may not be directly back to you. You learn to trust that, as long as you are gifting your gifts and using your medicines in a good way, the land and the spirits will take care of your needs too. Sometimes you need a day job to sustain your family while you do the work with your gifts and medicines in parallel. It is important to have a clear idea of the difference between what is the job and what is the work that needs to be done.
There are also shadows in this mountain that you need to wrestle with. You may be tempted to use your gifts in destructive ways. You need to observe yourself and what is happening around you. If there is imbalance, you can turn from a hunter into a predator who takes more than the fair share from the land and who exploits the weaknesses of other beings, taking advantage of them. This happens when there are gaps in the teachings of the previous mountains. That is why it is important that very early you learn what it means to be a helper, to put your body, your gifts, and your intellect to the service of the greater good of the land and the community. Otherwise you can use your life-force to destroy relations and to destroy yourself. When these imbalances happen, there is a natural law that makes you pay the price, sometimes with your life. Be really careful there.
Once you can apply the teachings of this mountain within your own community, you are ready to learn to integrate your medicines and gifts into a much wider ecology, on the way down from the hunter/provider mountain. This is where you may be ready to mentor others who have similar medicines and gifts to your own, so that they don’t have to repeat the mistakes you have made yourself. As you see your medicines/gifts from a different perspective, you really notice how large the world is, how small you are, and, instead of feeling insignificant, you feel the opposite because you see the miracle and beauty of small things – including yourself. You realize how much you don’t know; and how much you can’t know. It is all a mystery, but you are no longer afraid of not having the answers. Shadows no longer scare you and pain no longer haunts you – you have learned to hold the hand of pain and to accept that shadows are everywhere where there is also light. You can see the beautiful and the ugly, the good and the bad, the broken and the scarred, and bear witness. You develop more reverence for the land, the planet, that holds it all together.
You start to hear the songs that move everything: the seasons, the waters, the winds, the clouds, the plants, ourselves, other animals, the cycles of life, death and renewal. You notice the rhythms and movements that transform everything around you. The sky and the stars speak with you differently. You experience time differently. Although you have already been told that everything is interconnected and you have seen glimpses of it, this time it is not just a glimpse – you cannot turn it off. You are ready for the elder mountain, but you will say that you don’t feel ready for that yet (which could be one of the signs that you are).
The elder mountain
The fourth mountain, the elder mountain, is located behind the first three mountains described so far. The rite of passage here is to help other people with their rites of passage, to develop further your hindsight, insight and foresight, and to become a good guide that can help people find their own direction according to the purpose of the mountain they are in. You will also revisit different teachings you received in your life and these teachings will show you deeper lessons. Since there is no book with an encyclopedia of directions you can give to those who need help, you will need to learn to support people who need your help by meeting them where they are at. In order to reach the elder mountain, which is near the baby mountain, you will need to go around all three mountains and visit the places where you shifted from one mountain to the next. There you will encounter people who need your guidance to find the path where they change to a different mountain. You will pass down your own experience of climbing, especially what you have learned from the mistakes you have made as you were finding your own direction. Like the trees in the warrior mountain, you cannot tell people directly what their purpose or direction should be. This is between them and the great spirit and they need to find it for themselves through their connection with the land and with all relations. This is important, otherwise they will not have the energy or the confidence to keep moving. As an elder, you will have to collaborate with the land and create experiences where the land itself can teach, and where you are just holding and protecting the space for those teachings.
As you walk to the elder mountain, you will meet warriors that are ready to become hunters/providers, you will meet children who are ready to become warriors, and you will meet some people who are stuck. Simultaneously, you will arrive at the place where the baby mountain meets the elder mountain. In the baby mountain you will help welcome new life to your community and help carry this life to the top of the first mountain. Elders are particularly suited to carry the babies because, unlike the warriors, they have patience; and unlike the hunters/providers, they have time. Both babies and elders are close to the ancestors and of the source of life-beyond-form. Elders also have the wisdom of hindsight to protect the babies, avoiding the parts of the path that are dangerous for the young ones.
In this mountain, no one reaches the top still carrying their body. Only your spirit reaches the top. At some point along this mountain’s path you will have to shed your body. When the day of shedding the body comes, you are ready to pass away to the place of the ancestors. You are grateful for what you have been taught in this body, you have settled what needed to be settled, you have prepared your family, you have passed down your stories and your songs, the people you have mentored have become mentors themselves, you have helped people to switch mountains, you are at peace with the enormity, timelessness and incessant movement of the land. You go with empty hands. You leave everything behind. You leave no footprints. You become an ancestor and you meet those who have come before, those who are yet to come, and all the invisible relations, both human and non-human, who accompanied you in your path in all four mountains. When you shed your body, you integrate all the experiences you have had in this life and your spirit becomes one with the mystery of creation. End of the four mountain story.
Exercise To what extent has your formal education prepared you for healthy eldership of all relations? To what extent has your formal education contributed to self-infantilization? How many role models of healthy eldership – people who do not turn their back on responsibility and accountability – have you been exposed to in your life? What have they taught that really stayed with you? In what ways did they show you that they were also flawed and fallible human beings? Which mountain were you at when you met them? What did you see these elders at the time? How do you see them now?