Liv and the Kontomble by: Cliff Taylor
When I was fifteen I went to my tribe's -the Ponca Tribe of Nebraska- powwow for the second time. I was shy; I mainly just hung out with my dad and my grandpa and uncles by our tents, sitting quietly and listening, looking around at all of the land and people. But somehow I found myself talking to this old Vietnam Vet from Denver named Logan Bear and he was in charge of the cooking and he asked me, “Do you think you could go around and get a rough head count of about how many people we'll be feeding tonight so that I've got an idea of about how much food we're going to need?” Our tribe had just been reinstated as a federally recognized tribe about five years earlier; we were a small tribe just getting our wind back and our revived powwow was pretty small too. I paused. The idea of going to talk to a hundred or so strangers made my shy self nervous. Then Logan Bear said, with some tease in his voice and a sparkle in his eye, “What? You're not bashful, are you?” That's exactly what I was. “No,” I said, trying to be brave against my shyness. “Here,” he said, handing me a clipboard and pen, smiling, “then go and find out for me, okay?”
Mostly everyone had their tents set up on this strip that was between the road that circled the arena and the barbed wire fence that partitioned off our buffalo pasture from the grounds. I went from family to family, tent to tent, and asked about how many people were there, telling them I was trying to get a number for about how many people would be eating that night, the first night of the powwow. It was nerve-wracking but I did it, writing down little numbers on my clipboard to add up when I was done. But the thing I remember, that I was thinking about recently on my flight out to Kauai where I planned to meet up with my friend Liv and some others, was that about two thirds of the way through there was this long-haired, glasses-wearing, rough and almost kind of dorky looking man who was camping by himself, and when I asked him how many people were there with him, he said, “Well, it's just me, unless you want to count my invisible friend. Do you want to count him?” I stood there with my clipboard and felt a weird feeling. Something inside of me felt like he wasn't kidding about his 'invisible friend', that he was being serious. He shook his head and laughed. “Don't worry about it. It's just me. Put me down as one.”
I finished up, counted up the numbers, and returned back to Logan Bear. I hung out with him by the cook fire a little bit and listened to him talk and tell stories as he worked on the big grill. It was all good. Everyone ate well that night.
About ten years later I found myself doing some traveling, going to Sundances and powwows, doing some soul-searching, deep in the beginning of my own spiritual journey. Some young singers invited me to a Sundance that was being run by the father of the one of their girlfriends. I met up with them and followed them along some gravel roads to the Sundance grounds, parked behind them and got out.
The dance was already in progress and it was the smallest Sundance I've ever been to: there were only three dancers. Later, hanging out between rounds, the Chief, trying to honor his father's wishes by keeping it going after he'd passed, told me, “On the third day ------ ------ is coming over from across the river to do the piercing.” I'd heard of this medicine man, he was the uncle of some cousins of mine; he had his own Sundance across the river.
On the third day, late morning, this man rolled up with his nephew in his dusty, junk car; he got out and came over and hung out with the five or six of us who were all sitting by the sweat fire. Right away, I recognized him: he was the man who was camping out by himself all those years ago when I did that head count for Logan Bear. He was chubby, older, sensitive-faced, quiet-eyed, kind of regular-seeming in his manner, conversational, humble. Over the next two days he just hung out with us, did the piercing, helped out. “I like small Sundances like this,” he said, “it gives everyone a chance to really get to know each other. It's more intimate.” I liked when he said that. It stoked some sense in me. It wasn't all about a grandness in size; it was all about relationships, the depth of connections, the intimacy with the sacred all shared in together; that was what fed the soul, not necessarily measurable or visible bigness, per se, not at all.
I think the memory of hanging out with this particular medicine man at this Sundance came to me for a couple of reasons. One, I was flying out to Kauai to meet up with Liv and the others because we were going there specifically to connect with the Menehune, the little people of the islands there, as a part of Liv's work of bringing knowledge and awareness and respect of the little people back to life and back into people's lives all around America and the world, and I was remembering a story this medicine man told about our little people, known as the Chahochina where I come from, around the fire one night. It went something like this: “A few years ago I was here at this Sundance and I told the guy keeping the fire to wake me up at four thirty so that I could get all the dancers up and get ready. Man, I remember, too, the look on his face when he woke me up that year. He was all wild-eyed and excited, breathing heavy, panting almost. He woke me up at almost exactly four thirty, or maybe just a little past. He said, 'Uncle, I fell asleep in the sweat. I think I would've kept sleeping too but then I felt this hand on my shoulder, shaking me awake. I woke up, realizing I had fallen asleep, and then when I opened my eyes I saw two of those little people! They were in the sweat, just laughing and having a good time, telling me to wake up, to get up, and to go wake you up. They were running around in there and then they left. When I looked at what time it was it was exactly four thirty.' Man. Those little people woke him up right when he was supposed to wake me up so that we could get things started. You come to the Sundance and you never know what's going to happen. The spirits are all around. They're even here with us right now.”
For about a decade I spent all my energy and all of my vacation time (haha) going to ceremony and trying to learn the culture and spiritual ways of my tribe and our people. I wanted to try to learn how to help our people, to be a part of their healing from all the trauma over what's happened over the last five hundred years and all the widespread problems that're a result of and that're perpetuating that trauma, this plague of spirit-illness, diminished quality of life, and shortened lifespans. To do that, I went to our elders, our medicine men, our Sundancers and pipe-carriers, to all the relatives who were actively trying to practice and consult our ways to do the same. And during that time many spirits came to me to help me, with the main ones being the little people, these ones that woke up that fire-keeper at this Sundance that medicine man was telling us about.
As I traveled I soaked up a lot of stories, all of them containing valuable truths worth remembering, considering, contemplating, retelling, holding onto for their preciousness, making a part of your being for the spiritual richness and food and healing they brought to you. Inside, I had a huge filing cabinet of sorts where I filed every kind of story that I heard away, building up files on every sort of thing the elders and our people talked about, from knowledge of various sacred sites, dreams, descriptions of the different ages, Bigfoot (a personal favorite), medicine men they learned from, and of course, because they were my friends, the little people. On some level I knew that I was collecting as many stories and as much indian knowledge of the little people as I could because I wanted to not only know as much as possible about them because of all the help they gave me but also because I wanted to renew and make the body of what they were, of what they have always been, available again amongst my people so that they could more consciously, intentionally, prayerfully and lovingly, get the help that these sacred little beings had and were giving and ready to give more of, so that the healing of our people could be aided more robustly by these spirits that I was was receiving help from. Stumble-bumming around, building up my knowledge of the little people was one of my projects. I didn't really talk to anyone about it, still pretty shy to the core, but everywhere I went, every once in awhile, someone would tell a story about them and I'd add it to the internal file. I kind of loved it. It was like a quiet slow-burning passion. I couldn't get enough. I wanted to learn everything I could about the Chahochina, about the little people, and I silently, appreciatively, welcomed every little morsel, every sentence spoken inhabited by their remembrance, every story shared that was filled with their spirit and their doings.
I think that maybe the other reason this memory of my moment with this dorky man and his 'invisible friend' as a teenager and then my running into him ten years later and learning that he was a medicine man came to me on the plane to Kauai, was that it was an example of the kind of peculiar and beautiful ways that we can see that the Spirit, Wakan Tanka, the Great Spirit, the Great Mystery, has been weaving through our lives all along; purposefully, poetically, pointedly, compassionately. Reading our lives backwards, we can see the handiwork of the Spirit, of the spirits, see how seeds were planted, connections were made, crucial choices were guided, interests were encouraged, skills were instilled, gifts were nurtured. Reading our lives backwards, we can see that our future was being grown in us and tended mysteriously from the time of our youth, brought to our awareness in so many small and sometimes maybe big ways, so that when we were ready to embrace it as our purpose and work, we would be to some degree, ready to embrace it as our purpose and work; we would remember all the times it was experiencing growth and getting some sound attention and now clued in, we would be ready.
A few years ago a page came up on my Facebook feed; it was called Kontomble Medicine; familiar with the books of Malidoma Some and knowing that the Kontomble was what his people in Burkina Faso called their little people, I cliked 'like' and found myself as one of about a hundred members of that group. Through that page I befriended a woman a little older than me named Liv Wheeler.
Liv and I began corresponding, chatting, emailing each other, talking on the phone. I learned that she had trained with Malidoma and that she was a Kontomble Voice Diviner in his people's tradition, meaning that she essentially did a ceremony very similar to what our medicine men do, that in her divinations she called these little people and they would come and speak and share their wisdom and medicine with the person or people in the divination. After a bit of our getting to know each other, she did a divination for me. I really had no idea what to expect. I was at a point in my life where my writing was my focus and I wasn't pouring all of my energies into just ceremony anymore. Looking at the way it all came together, I decided to just be open-minded about it, to trust in this thing that the Spirit seemed to pull together for me, in this person and growing friend that had come into my life. And I'm glad that I did, because the divination was life-changing, fruit-bearing in the most special and sacred of ways, a true blessing from the spirits, from the little people.
The divination itself was surprising to me in how content-packed it was, in the sheer amount of material that the Kontomble delivered; it floored me and a few minutes into it I felt like I was in one of our ceremonies; I closed my eyes, listened, and prayed. A lot of things were told to me and I could write about a number of them but maybe the biggest result of the divination was something that happened about a week later, something completely connected to the divination and Liv and I's meeting and friendship. It's something that still is kind of amazing to me, astonishing even, and it is a testament, I believe, to the good and help and healing their team is working tirelessly and magically and beautifully to bring into the world.
Maybe a week after that divination, falling asleep on a poet friend's couch after a night out, the spirits came for me and we spent a few hours going through this like vast warehouse of my memory, grabbing, picking, selecting, and gathering up all of these choice pieces from my life and experiences and travels in Indian Country relating to the little people. It was a wild experience. When we were done I woke up, reflected on it, was bewildered and kind of stunned, and then I went back to sleep. The next night it happened again. The spirits came for me, we gathered more material, more bits and pieces, but then we took all of those armfuls and armfuls of memories and we started stitching and sewing and muraling them into a small book, lining them up, and assembling them, organizing them all into a book about the little people. When we were done we had a small complete book all laid out. Then I woke up. This time when I woke up I understood. There was a finished book inside of me, done in the spirit world, put together with the spirits, and now all I had to do was write it quick. It was all clear as day to me. The next day I started writing it, and in a month and a half it was finished. In twenty years of writing I'd never had that happen before. Lightning had struck. The little people had delivered me and my people and many others a gift.
For years I'd always wanted to write a small spiritual book for our young native people, and in many ways that's what the resulting book, The Memory of Souls, is. I always wanted to make a small book that they could stick in their back pocket like a talisman to protect them and give them strength and courage for this life where it is so hard to be day-to-day who you really are deep in the truth of your soul. For years I carried the dream of writing this kind of book. Then, I got that divination from Liv, and it happened. My one friend likes to quote Garth Brooks and say that sometimes God's greatest gifts are unanswered prayers, and that's true, us humans being so mixed up and the Spirit knowing so much better than us, but I guess I want to say that sometimes God's greatest gifts are the answered prayers, too, right? That book, the divination, meeting Liv and getting to know her and call her a true friend, has all been one long answered prayer, has been a great, beautiful gift, as Liv would say, for sure, for sure.
The spring after I wrote that book Liv went on a cross-country tour doing ceremony from one coast to the other in the name of reviving awareness about the little people among all of us modern, spiritually searching or disconnected humans; the tour was called The Folk Medicine Revival Tour, a name the Kontomble themselves gave her for it one day when she was out jogging. It was an eye-opener from what I hear, full of ups and downs as one would expect, saturated with learning and experiences that really seemed to paint and provide a more comprehensive picture of what's going on with the spiritual landscape of America in general and the place of the little people in people's lives and consciousness in particular. She kept me abreast from the road. What I heard from her was inspiring, beautiful, heartening at turns but then also concerning, perplexing, frustrating, and curious as well. I had spent my whole life in Nebraska and Indian Country and it was fascinating to get some first-hand reports on what she was experiencing on her tour of this country and culture. People were having their lives changed by the Kontomble in her ceremonies but there was also a sense of how deep the problems and conditions separating people from their souls and communities and the earth and the Spirit and each other ran. It was a lot to think about. I think we're all, everyone touched by that tour, still thinking about it.
Liv had told me that she'd never been to Nebraska and with me living there and our having yet to meet in person, she planned a stop there and came to Nebraska. It turned out to be a high point in the first half of my thirties for me. The woman I met far exceeded my expectations. I was not only impressed but seriously humbled, deeply humbled. We hung out for a couple of days, doing a divination for about ten of my friends, poets and activists and nature-lovers and long-time coffee shop pals, and then we went camping for a few days, driving up to our Sundance grounds and then over to my tribe's powwow grounds. We talked up the most beautiful storm, made fires, shivered in the rain together, rode my friend Barbara's horses, visited my people's cemetery, and told stories like there was no tomorrow. I'd never met a non-indian medicine person, never met a medicine woman, to be honest. Liv turned out to be legit, on par with the medicine men I had learned from and done ceremony with during all my years of doing ceremony. She was beautiful-hearted, incredibly gifted, spiritually strong like I'd encountered only a few people truly being, a lovely, loving person. I felt so lucky to have had her come through Nebraska after she left. I received so much from her visit, from our time together, way more than I could've ever anticipated. She was real, a bona fide medicine woman, just a rare soul and a beautiful person. I feel so lucky to call her my friend, to have met her. Some of God's greatest gifts are answered prayers, are the people that're brought into our lives. Truly, truly.
Since Liv came through Nebraska on her tour I've been lucky enough to attend some of her rituals and as our friendship has grown we've done some traveling together as well. This has all grown my file on the little people pretty fat, and extended its contents far beyond just their place and doings amongst my indian people. I've come to see how the little people, the Kontomble, are working and involved in people's lives all over America and worldwide, people of all sorts of ages, backgrounds, ancestries, religions and spiritualities. I've come to understand some of the larger picture of, I believe, what's going on with them and Liv's work and their quick and dynamic, inspiring and organic, enlarging re-emergence into our world at this time. It has been a very sacred and beautiful thing to witness, and in my own small way, as Liv's friend, to be a part of. The word that comes to mind is hope. Seeing what's happening with the re-emergence of the little people gives me hope.
Last year Liv and I went to Standing Rock.
On short notice, my employer gave me five days off and Liv and I and another friend drove twenty four hours straight to go and give support to all of the water-protectors there. We stayed with my brother there, who lives in Standing Rock with his family. It was a trip and an experience that I can't pretend to totally understand everything that we were in the middle of. It seemed like the true stakes of what is in danger and being fought for here in America and beyond was in full, brutal focus, and just for how long so many forces were engineering their dominion over what was at stake was utterly clear as well. The earth, alive and loving in all that she gives to us each breathing day, and all of her living, sentient 'resources', our relatives, the waters, the plants and animals, the mountains and trees; our rights and abilities to practice good harmonious living; the entire heritage of sacred sites set up by our ancestors that lattices over the whole of the land everywhere; what we are leaving the unborn, our grandchildren, the future generations; the culture that we are all participants in and creators of and its steering and architecture and the heart and humanity in it as opposed to the blind corporate interests and dark greed and materialism and colonialism working to control it; our souls and their needs; our communities and their well-being; the welfare of all the invisible beings whose Nations are also threaded into this world and earth we share with them; the health and fate of all the life here. Standing Rock brought into very real, heart-rending focus the story that we are all a part of, that we are all influencing one way or another, that we are all carrying in our chests and deciding with our lives in this age. It is a story that our indian people and indigenous people all over the world have been weathering and making their stand in for a long time. It's the story of life wanting to live, of ancient practices informed by ancient beings wanting to continue for the sake of the life-vivifying and honoring and supporting wisdom that circulates within them, of the old and beautiful and human and innate and soulful trying very hard, very courageously, to carry on and find a place and survive in the face of so much wrongheaded, insensitive, forgetful, oppressive, and in some areas, straight-up malicious modernity. Our experience in Standing Rock hit on every part of the animal we're all living with, this same animal that the little people, along with a lot of other beings, seem to really be stepping out of the human-centric perceived background to aid us in dealing with and navigating because of the precariousness of the times. Our ancestors and many other beings are finding their way back into our lives to wake us up and get all the juices in our hearts flowing again and to empower us to become more active in this story that we're all in the thick of, that we're determining the course of even as we're handing it off to our children in real-time; the spirits are doing all that they can to call us back into remembrance of them, of the sacredness of our Mother Earth, of the Spirit, of ourselves, so that we can live like our greatest ancestors did and so that we can become helpful to the future generations in the same way that those old ones, from the other side, continue to be for us; and this includes, especially, the little people.
I recall one morning when I was standing beside this elder by the sacred fire before we all talked about what we were going to do as a group that day. Whenever I get to talk with an elder something inside me always says, “make it count,” so I was silently thinking about a question to ask this man who had already shared so much with Liv and I and our group. Looking at all the people gathered there to protect the water, this gift that none of us could live without, that we were all literally made of, a question came to me and I asked it: “Do you think that there's anything slumbering way back in the indian toolbox that we haven't called on yet but that'll finally be called into action just because of the sheer magnitude of this gathering, of this fight, of what we're up against?” This elder, who I hadn't yet gotten a chance to speak with alone and who didn't know that the little people were guiding us, thought about it for a bit and then he said, “Well, when we first set up this camp, we called in the little people. We made them a small bow and arrow and gave them some food, asking them for help. The next morning the bow and arrow and food was gone. They came and took it. They received it.” He went on to share more that I will not share here but it really sparked with a lot of what my personal thoughts about the little people have been pondering on. Curious. You can guess where my mind went next: maybe the little people are that big slumbering 'tool' that the insanity and magnitude of everything that's going on right now are going to call back into being, into conscious awareness and public life, into our world to help with what's happening, with all the problems and conditions that're dimming people's souls and hurting and destroying the earth and just diminishing life and making it so much less than what it could be for so, so many. Maybe, and not just among our indian people, the time for the little people's return is now.
When I first met my brother we stayed with in Standing Rock he was going to a lot of conferences, talking with a lot of academics, scientists, physicists, and he told me that almost all of them seemingly did not know how to say or admit that they just didn't know certain things, that they just didn't know. “When you're talking to them about things they will almost never say, 'I don't know.' That's the difference between our culture and theirs; our elders, our indian doctors, they'll say 'I don't know' when they don't know things. It's a measure of humility, being able to admit that you don't know. There is just so much in this life that we don't know, that we don't know about.”
So, I can only guess and know a little bit about what's going on with the little people but it does seem like they are making a concerted, energized effort to come back into people's lives, to make us and the world realize that they have been here all along. Reflecting on their ways and gifts and prescriptions and riddles and joys and history and worldview with Liv, a grand multidimensional portrait of their origins and understanding of us and our Mother Earth and this life has been forming and cohering together in a radical, inspiring, piece-meal sort of way. They are like an indigenous spirit-people spread across the earth who come from the stars. They're here because they so love and are devoted to the majesty of the utterly care-filled being that is our Mother Earth and all the life that is a part of her and upon her. They have been laughing and speaking with and wisdom-sharing with humans for as long as humans have been here. Their love for us is unconditional, they say. They say that generosity is the whole point and open secret of life, what we're here for, to give, to care, to look after, to tend, to express the love that is at the center of all life by making generosity into our daily way of being. They are not afraid to share their criticisms or point out any of the multitudinous ways that our civilization has gone amiss, but it is generosity and a love of the earth that they seem to keep coming back to time and time again as two of the main trees we should all keep growing big and strong in the precious country of our hearts. The little people have ways and wisdom and it echoes the same thing our spirits and the animals and our ancestors tell us in our ceremonies: our strength, our health, our healing, will come in a return to the ancient waters that're streaming through all of us, that'll continue to be streaming through all of us even as life changes and mutates and takes on unimaginable new forms in the heretofore unwritten future; we help the future and ourselves by discovering those ancient waters in us now, by picking up the practices, the creativity, the helping work that's a part of them, that vibrates with their soul and life and light. The little people are encouraging and catalyzing this movement of return, of remembering, of getting back in touch with what the mind of our soul, so muted and neglected by this current culture, already knows. The little people are coming back to bring us back to these ancient waters of life and wisdom that they've been living in since the beginning (“How old do you think Nature is? We're about that old.”), that our ancestors once had at the heart of all their villages and life-ways and best arts and practices, that our greatest hope in these times is a brave, prayerful return to. The little people have a lot to say but this seems to be their main thrust, their main message: it's time to pick back up that ancient life-loving wisdom you already have in your heart and body and to begin to apply it, thoughtfully, creatively, craftily, sincerely, and deeply.
In Kauai, as our small diverse group, all touched and guided by the little people in one way or another, shared stories and pooled together our findings and intuitions and understandings, recounted our dreams and analyzed the results of their mystifying, sometimes hilarious influence (my Garth Brooks friend says, “I love hearing about the little people's covert ops.”), something else became clear: in this movement of the little people's re-emergence into the world and people's organic, concomitant reawakening interest in them, all of the distinct place-based Nations of these little people seemed to be coordinately working together to not just come back into the lives of their local human populations, such as the Chahochina with my indian people back in Nebraska, the Leprechauns with the people in Ireland, the Huldufolk with the people in Iceland, the Menehune with the people in Hawaiian Islands, and so on and so forth with the little people in all the lands across the globe where a relatively strong awareness of their existence has remained and survived into the present day, but to come back into the lives of people worldwide, even where knowledge of them has almost completely faded away, where they've become purely the characters of fairy tale and folklore, or not thought about at all anymore. Sitting there in Kauai, we saw that it seemed like all the little people Nations across the earth appeared to be synergistically ramping up their interactions and activities towards the end of regenerating the network of their human relations back to what it once was when it saturated and spanned the whole of the livable earth a long, long time ago. We saw that the little people are making their comeback, like spirituality in general, amongst our species and there are so many out there who're a part of this regrowth, of this renewing of relations, of bringing this flower of their being, indigenous everywhere, back to so many places and lands that haven't seen their flower in ages. We saw that the flower of the little people is sprouting again all over. These beings who've blessed so many of our lives are returning like a species thought by many to be extinct, and they all appear to be uniting, the Kontomble, the Chahochina, the Leprechauns, the Menehune, the Huldufolk, and others, to effectuate and to pull this off. Every living creature on this earth is here to make their music, to play their part, and it looks like the little people, after centuries and centuries in many places, are ready to be welcomed back and pitch in and do their best in playing their part with everything our earth is very seriously facing, too.
These are scary times we're living in, loaded and unstable, but ripe with possibilities. Maybe it's time we all make our tiny bows and arrows and set them out with some food for the little people as we all make our camps and begin to stand up and pray and unite together for the earth, our ancestors' legacy, our children and grandchildren, and everything that's sacred that we really believe in. Maybe it's time to call on the little people. Maybe it's time. In ceremony, in dreams, they've told us that they're listening, they've told us that they're here and ready to help, they've told us that it's time and they're ready. Maybe it's time to call on the little people.
In Kauai, with a friend I think I've been waiting my whole life to meet again, the Menehune came to our ceremony. They shared a story, told a riddle, talked about their technologies, praised the natural temple of mountain rock we were on, and recounted the spiritual history of the land. When they were about ready to leave, acknowledging some of the serious challenges of the times, they said, “These times are dark but you must continue to let your hope keep blooming you into the future.”
We all sat close together up amongst the trees and listened to their parting words.
“Hope blooming,” they said, “is the way.”