A Quarterly Newspaper By & For Friends Of Sacred Fire

2nd Edition   |   May 2022


A Quarterly Newspaper By & For Friends Of Sacred Fire

2nd Edition   |   May 2022


Welcome to the 2nd Edition of The Fire Gazette

By Larry Messerman | New beginnings that emerge after change and loss

Firekeeper Spotlight: Roger Menadue

By Chris Griffin | An interview with Roger about his journey as a Firekeeper in Australia

Honoring Eliot (1946-2022)

By Patrick Hanaway, Amanda Kerner, and Scott Reid | How Eliot Cowan was honored and how we can continue to honor him

The Transformation of Inclusion

By Annie Furze | Annie’s Encounter with Malidoma Somé at the Blue Deer Center

Finding Fire: How it Began!

By Annie King  |  The beginnings of Sacred Fire told through the story of Annie’s journey with fire

Feature Article: Life Transformed by Fire

By David Wiley | The Huichol Medicine Path: How an ancient shamanic tradition came to the West

Welcome to the 2nd Edition of The Fire Gazette

By Larry Messerman

Dear Friends of the Fire:

It is a great pleasure to welcome you to our second edition of the Fire Gazette!

The Fire Gazette is a new, quarterly publication we launched this past year to provide a news-worthy view of all that is happening within the broader Sacred Fire community–including the various medicine paths and projects that are being engaged by Sacred Fire members. You will discover that Sacred Fire is moving through the world in some amazing ways and that bring trials, tribulations, and some remarkable successes along the way.

The current edition includes a special essay by Don David Wiley, who is an initiated elder in both the Huichol and Nahua traditions. In this piece, Don David describes the great challenges that one faces in trying to follow a spiritual tradition in the context of our ever-changing, modern, ‘immediate gratification’ consumer-oriented culture.

Each edition will spotlight one of our firekeepers and their dedication and experience of bringing fire to the people in their region of the world. This issue will introduce everyone to Sacred Fire Board Member, Roger Menadue who has been nurturing his fire community in Perth, Australia the last couple decades. 

The Gazette is a way for one person’s story to become a community story. 

Integral to Sacred Fire is the transformational experiences we each have through our engagement. The Gazette is a way for one person’s story to become a community story. In this issue, Annie King shares her personal journey that was an integral part of the beginnings of Sacred Fire, and Annie Furze invites us to share in a powerful experience she had while at the Blue Deer Center.

In the face of great change, there is inevitably loss. Many of us feel the loss of a healthy natural environment or in the social sphere, the loss of stable communities. Among the most dramatic of changes in the world of late has been the advent of the Covid-19 virus. And with it, has come great loss: of life, health and livelihood for many millions and the sometimes less appreciated—but vital—need for in-person connection.


Happily, we seem to be emerging from the worst effects of Covid. Mortality and infection rates are declining. People are returning to work–even if more of it is being done ‘remotely.’ And yet the loss continues in other ways. As you will see in these pages, many of us are feeling the loss of dear elders who have introduced us to heart, connection, and wisdom.

Here at Sacred Fire, we are especially grateful that we can begin offering more in-person programs including our regular community fires. Like the rest of the world, Covid forced us to be creative and develop more on-line offerings. Like so many individuals and organizations, we found our economic situation become more precarious. Like all of you, we individually felt anxiety around health, well-being and the uncertainties of the future–for ourselves and our loved ones. And like all of you, the enforced physical isolation made it that much more difficult to face these challenges.

For myself, this included heightened anxiety about whether Sacred Fire could continue to help people when we were so severely constrained in having in-person programs. But I drew my strength and inspiration from my relationship with Grandfather Fire. Lit up by the mission of Sacred Fire and Grandfather’s vision, and feeling the support of my elders and colleagues, I found a way to continue.

The past two years have not been easy. One of the gifts of what some have called ‘The Great Pause’ is to help us appreciate what is really important in life. That includes something that was most difficult during this time: Connection. Covid certainly highlighted how much we need one another–particularly when ‘the going gets tough.’ Now that many of us are emerging from Covid-enforced seclusion and are wanting to re-engage with each other, we at Sacred Fire are ready and eager to bring more connection, heart, and fire to the world. I look forward to having you join us in this great endeavor!

In Gratitude,

Larry Messerman,
Sacred Fire Executive Director

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Firekeeper Spotlight: Roger Menadue

By Chris Griffin

Alice Springs, Australia is not a place for a faint-of-heart Firekeeper. When residents of North America and Europe experience winter, central Australia is at the peak of the summer season. For Roger Menadue, that means that some days are 110 F (43 C) during the day, but fortunately it drops down to 94 F (34 C), at least in the evenings, for his sacred fires.

These balmy evenings are perfectly fine for Roger, who has been Fire Keeping in Alice Springs, Australia, for the past decade. I recently spoke to Roger to learn about his journey with Fire Keeping, how it came into his life, and his experience of Fire Keeping in Australia.

As well as the monthly Community Fires that Roger and his wife Reyna share, Roger also holds regular men’s fires while Reyna holds monthly women’s fires. The community that has grown in Alice Springs is fed by their participation in the Australian Songline Journey, in addition to a series of Men’s and Women’s retreats which happened in the years before the pandemic. The Songline Journey is a deep, month-long project, sponsored by Grandfather Fire, that has been conducted in the Australian Outback for over 20 years.

Before moving to Alice Springs, Roger and Reyna lived in Sydney, where once a month they would sit by a fire burning in a large cooking wok set on bricks on an apartment balcony and enjoy smoking tobacco and connecting with the fire.

After they moved to Alice Springs they began a family, having two children, Rafa and Nina, who are now young adults. They also discovered that the central Australian desert provided space for a bigger fire, with Grandfather Fire coming to their home in Alice Springs repeatedly over many years. The first fire audience there happened before their house was built. It happened on vacant bushland with a fire pit and drew just one other person – Phil Roberts from Perth. That all changed when the Songline Journey started.

“When I fiirst met Grandfather in 1997, it brought my whole spiritual life to a very grounded place.”

When the option of being a Firekeeper first came up, Phil voluntarily put his hand up and said “Oh! I want to be a firekeeper!” However, Roger said, “There’s no way I’m going to do that!”

Roger shared with me, “A couple of years later, at a Grandfather Fire at the end of that year’s Songline Journey, late in the evening, Grandfather suggested that I take up Firekeeping. I thought ‘Hmm ok that seems to make sense,’ I could now imagine taking on the role of Firekeeper.”

“When I first met Grandfather in 1997, it brought my whole spiritual life to a very grounded place. It was practical, earthy stuff and it seemed much more aligned with the life I was now living. I loved that we would sit around the fire sharing our life stories and loved the fact that a nonpolitical abandonment often manifesting in outrageous laughter was very present! It felt like a good place to connect, whether you are spiritual or not. I realized that this was the place for me.”

Roger’s experience of Fire Keeping is very connected to his experience of the Songline Journey which is all about fires: Cooking with fire, communicating around the fire at night, and always coming back to the fire. He shared that now all seven Australian Fire Keepers participate in this Songline Journey.

Roger has found that those in his community receive numerous benefits from regular participation in fires. He notices that people spend less time in their heads, but rather speak from their experience, expressing feelings and emotions. He describes this beautifully: “We do go to our heads to tell our stories, but people are communicating in a different way. They listen with their feelings and emotions more. It’s really a game-changer. In fact it’s the game-changer that I think the world needs!”

Roger Menadue at his Community Fire hearth in Alice Springs, Australia


“Fire is a place where I can be authentic, learn to listen on a deeper level, be heard, and care for others, and these have been the real gems from what Grandfather Fire has set in motion.”

“Even so, at times all people do still struggle with the mind because it’s so dominant. When they experience the wisdom of the heart, they sometimes really think it’s them, their ego being smart and intelligent, even when they are moving into their emotions. They pop out and think That’s me, gee I’m intelligent! But when a person finally gives up and starts to feel and be caring, heart-connected and selfless, that’s when the change happens. Those who are dedicated to the community fires go through a transformation where they can be present, serve, listen and really hear others. I am also talking about my own ongoing shift and growth! I couldn’t have had this experience without others in the community reflecting back what I couldn’t or still can’t see.”

“I still struggle with resistances and the belief that I know best, in short: the ego. In time I am realizing that vulnerability and a willingness to participate with people and the environment around me is the key to being a more connected human. This work that is available for me around the Fire, is an invaluable gift that will deepen me throughout my life. Fire is a place where I can be authentic, learn to listen on a deeper level, be heard, and care for others, and these have been the real gems from what Grandfather Fire has set in motion.”

Roger and his community have found something magical and inspiring in their connection to each other and to Grandfather Fire. If you find yourself traveling through the central Australian desert, make your way to Alice Springs to share some of that magic!

Roger Menadue is a trustee of Sacred Fire and Firekeeper in Alice Springs, Australia.
Chris Griffin is a Sacred Fire Trustee, Firekeeper and co-editor of the Fire Gazette

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Honoring Eliot (1946-2022)

By Patrick Hanaway, Amanda Kerner, and Scott Reid

Eliot Cowan passed away early in the morning of March 5, 2022. On March 9, as we gathered at the Blue Deer Center in Margaretville, New York where his body laid in state, we connected to our grief. We were reminded that not only is life wise, sacred, and mysterious, but so is death. Therefore, we came together to experience death as an important, enigmatic, and extraordinary part of life, rather than something to be denied or defeated.

In order to wisely touch and relate to this difficult-to-fathom transition from living, dying and beyond, ancestral wisdom traditions conduct spiritual rites to help the deceased, the family and the community to transform and benefit from this divine process which we will all eventually experience. Eliot founded Plant Spirit Medicine and was a devoted tsaurirrakame-mara’akame and elder in the Wixárika (Huichol) tradition. The ancestors, the elders, and the Gods establish that the rites of müüqui cuevirra, (“bidding the dead farewell”) be performed. These funerary rites help the soul embrace the accomplishments of life, and also assist in confronting and resolving one’s life-blindness, while facing remorse that was not addressed during one’s lifetime. Through the intervention of a trained mara’akame who locates the confined spirit and escorts the departed through a journey of their life to a resolution, the soul may move onward to the House of Ancestors.

…we came together to experience death as an important, enigmatic, and extraordinary part of life, rather than something to be denied or defeated.

This work was sponsored by the Blue Deer Center and was performed by the attending shaman and tsaurirrakame-mara’akame David Wiley, with the support of mara’akate as well as the funeral padrino and madrina, Patrick Hanaway and Lisa Lichtig. Many people had a chance to come to the Center and pay their respects, share loving memories, place offerings and items on a special altar (müüquitapestiéva), and sit around the fire while watching the gentle snow fall outside. Many others joined virtually via Zoom.

The community came together in a beautiful way with diversity and unity. Everyone stepped up, stepped in, and discovered their way to help. We could feel and appreciate the support of many people expressing emotions, holding vigils, and sharing stories around the world. What was offered at Blue Deer and through our communities helped everyone to be present, feel their grief, and embrace the process of ‘letting go.’

The sacred river Saskawihewine at the Blue Deer Center

The memorial service and funerary rites happened in phases, continued through the night and into the early morning. They were potent and complete. The soul and spirit of who we knew as our beloved has moved on. In the experience of the tradition, for a period of one year a special space is created to allow the deceased to move more fully into the House of the Ancestors. To assist this process, the living are asked to refrain from engaging in stories about him, from using pictures, videos, writing, recordings, and even caution in using his name. Expressing grief without ‘grasping’ for the one who has passed, helps support the ‘ancestralization’ process, through letting go of the individual. To engage otherwise creates attachments to the person, which can interfere with this spiritual journey. After this time, the memories, teachings, and gifts that we have received from his life will return in a more potent way and will fully honor him for his service and sacrifices.

In this way, we can let the wisdom of death be present in our lives to transform and help us.

Patrick Hanaway, Amanda Kerner and Scott Reid
Blue Deer Center Trustees

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The Transformation of Inclusion

By Annie Furze

During my Plant Spirit Medicine course in 2001, our wonderful instructor (the prudently-conservative Eliot Cowan) surprisingly endorsed two spiritually-minded people he considered safe, and who might be of benefit to our healing paths. One was Malidoma Somè (1956-2021), Elder, Traditional Dagara Shaman, author and teacher from Dano, Burkina Faso, West Africa. I was intrigued with the prospect of meeting him. I was at a very low ebb then, but had been lucky enough to have just my nose above water and to find Eliot. My dysfunctional relationship of 16 years had ended. I left the family home after having lived there and nowhere else for 45 years (my parents died when I was in my early 20s, and I stayed there.) I was severely depressed, but beginning to depart from my heavy alcohol and ganja habits. Eliot was one of the greatest catalysts for getting me on the other side of things.

The Plant Spirit Medicine class was being held in Colrain, Massachusetts, at the Roundhouse. The cook couldn’t make it one day, so I filled in, during my class. It went well. One thing led to another and I moved to the retreat center to cook for other workshops. I stayed there about four months. I made my exit to Ashfield, Massachusetts, about 30 miles away in the Berkshires. Unbeknownst to me, Malidoma’s 9-Mountain Retreat Center was just three miles down the same road. Soon I landed a job at a small local café/deli that sported a life-sized plastic cow on its roof.

During my stint at the Roundhouse, Michael Locke from the UK lived and worked there. He took the Plant Spirit Medicine course following mine. We became good friends and drinking buddies down at the local pub. I barely remember travelling with Michael to somewhere in Vermont one night to hear Malidoma speak and meet him, I was very impressed by him. A bit later, Michael went back to the UK and I was in my first apartment in Ashfield. Malidoma came to a bookstore in nearby Northampton to promote The Wisdom and Healing of Africa. He spoke brilliantly and was so absolutely interesting to me. The standout from that meeting was when he said: “In order to be a good healer” (everyone pulled their asses to the edge of their seats) “you must be very, very, very fucked up.” I loved him immediately.

The next time he stepped into my life was at the Blue Deer Center, in 2003 or so. Kathy German and Scott Reid were the current directors, and lived at the center with their young son Justin. Malidoma had come to do a Water Ritual. I had just finished cooking for a Healing Camp and Malidoma’s event came right afterwards. There were probably 50 or so people, but I was alone in the kitchen and most likely prepping for that event all during the Healing Camp.

“In order to be a good healer…you must be very, very fucked up.”

Everyone was busy outside all day, preparing for the Water Ritual which would begin after dark. One of Malidoma’s staff came into the kitchen about 5 o’clock and said, “I have good news and bad news.” The cook does not want to hear that statement when dinner is to be served at 6 o’clock. He said, “We are going to have dinner a little late, after the Water Ritual. It could be anywhere between midnight and 2 am.” For some reason, this did not phase me in the least. I knew very well how to hold food at proper temperatures from my years of cooking at Roger Williams University in Rhode Island, and I could just assign someone to take the food out of the oven later. I quickly envisioned an early night in bed. That was the bad news. “The good news:” he said. “Malidoma always includes everyone, so we want you and the office staff to please take part in the Water Ritual.” The tears came and they still come now.

Includes –

This was so huge for me. Not only because I was the fat, gay girl with glasses and braces growing up, but also because of many recent group experiences that did, and still do, promote kinds of subliminal, patriarchal-type, exclusions and elitist attitudes.

This particular Water Ritual was one of the most beautiful I have participated in. In the Dagara tradition, everyone belongs to an elemental clan, depending on the last number of your birth year. Each clan has a purpose. I was born in 1953, so I belong with the Nature Clan.

0 and 5 Earth
1 and 6 Water
2 and 7 Fire
3 and 8 Nature
4 and 9 Mineral

Dagara Medicine Wheel showing the Elements


During the day, an “ark” had been fashioned out of all natural elements including tree branches, pinecones, pine fronds, leaves, and river rocks. It was quite grandiose, with a lot of height, and color, and was about the size of a small car. Four people put the ark on their shoulders with everyone following. We began the procession from the main building of the Blue Deer Center, down the path along the river, and through the woods towards the River House where we would be entering the water. We all followed in silence in the dark night. The whole path was ablaze with hundreds of candles, attracting the appropriate spirits and lighting our way. It was mesmerizing and breathtaking, to say the least. The sounds were that of the Saskawihiwine River gently rolling along, and the shuffling of many feet upon our pine-needled Mother.

As always with these rituals, “home” is represented by Fire.

We arrived at the home base. As always with these rituals, “home” is represented by Fire. We all gathered around the Fire, naked now. And the drumming began in a specified rhythm, directed by Malidoma, accompanied by our singing the relevant Dagara songs. We turned toward the river, which was below the high bank, and again, I was mesmerized, awestruck, by hundreds of candles lining both of her shores, and also perched on the smooth, flat glacial slabs, shiny and glistening with the wet of her splashes. We were each led one by one to the edge of the water by a “helper.” My helper was Justin, only about 10 or 11 years old. Like I said, everyone is included. He took my hand, not at all phased by my big, naked mama body, and carefully led me down the packed-dirt path to the edge of the water.

Depending on the choreography of a ritual, the entrance to the natural element is always different. This is the method of creating a crack in the door, through which you can be totally immersed. When I came out on the other side, there was Justin waiting for me. His little hand grabbed my wet and shaking palm, and he carefully and lovingly led me up the other side of the candle lit path to the Fire. There, at the Fire, everyone greeted me, hugged me warmly, and said “Welcome home!” The welcome home part always happens in these elemental rituals. When I saw Justin the next day, I told him that I was honored that he had been the one to lead me down and back on the path. He said in his little boy voice: “Oh Annie, the honor was all mine.”

That was my first of many beautiful rituals led by Malidoma that enriched my life so greatly and helped to clear the way to my realization of the right to belong and truth in authenticity.

I envision those Dagara ancestors have been waiting a long time for Malidoma to come home. Imagine the greeting. Thousands of them, standing by the Fire with open arms and open hearts!

Thank you, Malidoma.

Annie Furze has been part of our community since its beginning, and has catered many retreats and events for Sacred Fire.

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Finding Fire: How it Began!

by Annie King

Looking back, I see how my personal story fits into the larger story of how Fire came to us, and how it is part of the story of Fire’s work in the world, of bringing us back to what life might be like if we can grow in heart connection and wisdom.

My story was an organic unfolding, as happens in the tapestry of our life.

It really began when I, along with a group of other students, was studying Plant Spirit Medicine. We discovered that there was a loose network of people connecting with Grandfather Fire and being helped by Him in various places around the world. We said, “Let’s all get together and meet!” Thus began a series of yearly meetings which included an audience with “Grandfather”, the spirit of Fire, where Grandfather began to guide us as a group.

Around the beginning of this time, a group of us, mainly in the US, offered fires for people in our local areas in September of 2001. The original aim was to support the manifestation of a home for Plant Spirit Medicine (which later did come to fruition with the Blue Deer Center). However, in this particular month, the 9/11 attacks happened.

Suddenly these fires became about something else – they were a place for people to come to find solace, to be with others and express the welling of emotion. And the people who came to these fires didn’t want them to stop. They wanted to keep sitting by the fire together every month, to have this support as an integral part of their lives. At this time, I was simply keeping a list of those holding fires! Little did I know how this would unfold and change my life!

In 2003 many of us journeyed to North Carolina for an opportunity to be together and to hear Grandfather’s guidance. Grandfather gave us a vision of this group being the Sacred Fire community – a group devoted to fire and heart. He said that many people would join us in the coming years.

Looking back, there was a certain innocence in the newness of it all and having no real concept of what this was going to grow into.

As it happens, the next day I was sitting in a lobby – with some kind person giving me a massage – when David Wiley passed by. He suggested I join a group that was about to meet in a room nearby. And so began another phase of this journey. A small group guided by David Wiley and under the leadership of Susan Skinner, began the work to create some organizing structure to support the discovery of who we were, and what our work was, as Sacred Fire community. My role developed into tending those offering fires. Looking back, there was a certain innocence in the newness of it all and having no real concept of what this was going to grow into.

But grow it did from the humble beginnings of keeping lists, and my joining those holding fires in their local areas. Grandfather explained the need for Firekeepers to host and facilitate Sacred fires – people He would initiate into this ancient art to open sacred space and support the work so people could benefit.

The need for training and initiation into this work emerged, and in 2004, on July 4th, on a warm and clear Georgia night with fireworks exploding in the background, Grandfather initiated the first 13 Firekeepers at the end of our first training with David Wiley. Although I didn’t realize this at the time, as I recollect that night, this felt like the beginning in some formal way of the Sacred Fire community, and its work.

Four more trainings were held in 2005, and the international fire community continued to blossom in the years to come as people were attracted to offer the gift of bringing people around sacred fire. Within three years, we had over 60 Firekeepers from Australia, the US, England, Wales, and Mexico. At the time this seemed amazing to me!

The organizational Firekeeping area grew with those working to provide this support, and I found I was continually facing a learning curve as I tried to keep up!

David Wiley was and is today the principal teacher and mentor of Firekeepers and holds the vision of the work. And I found myself working hard to support, organize and keep track of all that was unfolding. Somewhere along the way someone came up with the title of Fire Chief for my role, and it stuck.

Gathering around the fire in Asheville, North Carolina, USA

As the group of Firekeepers grew into an international family, many needs became apparent. We needed regular Firekeeper Retreats and ongoing continuing education and support in the work, and structure for Firekeepers to connect with each other, and to support their groups growing into connected communities. The organizational Firekeeping area grew with those working to provide this support, and I found I was continually facing a learning curve as I tried to keep up!

With each step Grandfather was giving guidance and inspiration. David anchored Grandfather’s vision, and over time we began to understand more deeply the medicine of Fire, and the work needed to support it.

And so, today, we have this amazing web of dedicated Firekeepers, the blessing of Grandfather’s guidance as we continue to unfold this beautiful gift, and an unwavering organizational group supporting the work and the unfolding of more people coming into this path of Firekeeping. The dedicated work others have done on parallel initiatives to grow Fire Speaks and LifeWays programming has enriched and supported our firekeepers, hearths and community members as we together tend the Sacred Fire in our lives.

It has been over twenty years now since Sacred Fire and Firekeeping came into my life, and I have discovered that along with all the outer growth and development of the community, there was huge learning for me internally. Some of it was fun. Some of it was hard. All of it was important. I’m so grateful. I’m grateful for this web of people whose lives I’ve shared, and who I have come to love. In and of itself this has enriched my life. I am grateful for the wisdom and patience of Fire, and its influence in my life.

In my wildest dreams I never could have imagined how this has deepened my experience and connection with this world of nature that we walk our lives as part of, and how the spiritual aspect of Fire plays such a crucial role in waking us up to heart and connection. Along the way the many experiences have helped me grow and mature!

And although we have come a long way, I realize that we are still at the very beginning of this work of Firekeeping and Sacred Fire unfolding in the world.

Grandfather has often told us that the good news is that he has come to us (as he is here to help us) …. and the bad news is that he has come to us (as it is because we as people are in such dire need of his help at this time).

As I see growing division and suffering around me, I am reminded of the value of what Sacred Fire offers – a place to feel the richness of our emotional/spiritual expression, to be touched by each other and our common humanity and find more heart-centered ways to live and resolve our differences to live a good life. To be involved in Grandfather coming to us in this way has been quite a journey so far! It will be fun to see how this continues to warm hearts and touch lives in the future.

Annie King is currently the Fire Chief for Firekeepers around the world



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Life Transformed by Fire

An ancient shamanic tradition comes to the West

By David Wiley

 My Story

As I stood in the maze-like garden of Villa Calmecac, a retreat center in Cuernavaca, Mexico, my heart was pounding and my mind was reeling from disbelief, as the form of a short, deeply-aged indigenous man materialized in front of me. He had skin the color of coffee, small brown eyes and was wearing a crude, brown-dyed manta tunic and pants. Only moments before, I thought I was talking to myself in a fanciful conversation about deep subjects of life, during a break in my first-ever meditation retreat. What was now manifesting as the source of that voice confronted my sense of reality in a way that I hadn’t been prepared for by my forty-three years of life. My initial reaction was to scurry away in fear, only to return again in 20 minutes to see if what I had experienced was real or a fiction of my mind. The figure appeared once again.

This happened on the warm Sunday afternoon of March 17, 1996. I had moved to Mexico in 1994, to engage in a new relationship and to start a job as a trade consultant, as part of a treaty between Mexico, the U.S. and Canada. I was in a difficult situation. The Mexican economy had tanked in late 1994, cutting off my potential for income. This precipitated financial and legal problems with my ex-wife and prevented me from seeing my kids. There seemed no possibility for resolution. This led me into to a deep sense of futility, grief and despair. I found myself marooned in Mexico. This motivated me to accept an invitation from Jaimie Velez, a Shambhala Buddhist practitioner, to attend a weekend meditation program with my new partner, despite my deep skepticism regarding all things spiritual.

On that afternoon during that break, I found myself conversing with this apparition who was offering me a way out of my difficulties if I committed to what I would come to understand as a shamanic path and sacred promise. I made the promise and from. that point on, my life and, I would discover, the lives of many others, would be greatly changed.

As I moved into my life, the specter presented himself one more time, then became a voice-like thought-form that spoke to me periodically. Besides being guided to a miracle contract that solved my previous struggles, I was asked to seek out a man named Eliot Cowan, an author and accomplished teacher of Plant Spirit Medicine. It turned out that Eliot was being apprenticed by a Huichol mara’akame, Don Lupe González Ríos. Don Lupe was waiting for my arrival to begin an apprenticeship in that tradition. Through Don Lupe’s help, Eliot and I discovered that this insistent spiritual presence was Tatewarí, “Our Grandfather Fire”, the deity of Fire, the very first and supreme Mara’akame, the teacher of this tradition for all of the mara’akate since the beginning.

Never having been a “seeker,” I began wondering who the Huichols were, what was behind all this effort by this divine Spirit and how could this tradition matter so much?

The Huichols

The Huichols, or the Wixáritari (sg. Wixárika) are a group of indigenous people, with a population estimated to be around 42,000, who live in the remote canyonlands of the Sierra Madre Occidental of northwestern Mexico. Their lands are spread amongst the states of Durango, Jalisco, Nayarit and Zacatecas. Their way of life is extraordinarily old and distinctive. The archeological evidence points to a presence of over 15,000 years. They have maintained a history of eluding outside influences beginning with the Aztecs, through the cycles of attempted Spanish-Catholic conquests, all the way through modern western industrialization. Despite their quiet, reclusive manner and meager way of living, they reveal no evidence of feeling oppressed or conquered. Often the Huichols are associated with peyote, a sacred, hallucinogenic cactus. However, within their villages and ranchos they are also acknowledged for their “spiritual specialists”, known as mara’akate (sg. mara’akame), or shamanic healers, counselors and ceremonial leaders who help guide the people in their relationship with Spirit along with the plant.

In the Sierras, the work of a mara’ akame is supported by hundreds of generations of social-cultural continuum.

At Casa Xiuhtecuhtli in Tepoztlán, Morelos, with (from left) Don José’s son Refugio Sandoval Cosio (Cuco), Don David Wiley, Don José de la Cruz Sandoval, and Torres Maurilio Ramirez.

The word “shamanic” can prompt many different responses. Frequently, it inspires feelings of hope, of a kind of connection that feeds an inner longing to once again experience something mysterious that we intrinsically know about the spiritual quality of being alive. For others, it contrives a romanticized “Carlos Castaneda” fantasy of wielding power over nature, spirits or other humans. It can provoke skepticism or cynicism for some who have turned their thoughts to only the secular. Regardless, the fact that these people have persisted in the face of unimaginable difficulties for thousands of years through the efficacy of their tradition and their otherworldly relationship with the gods is remarkable and undeniable. This has provided them with an abiding connection to and humbling experience of a divine, living world articulated through a diverse pantheon of mysterious yet familiar gods and goddesses. As I continued on my path, I began to experience a greater and mysterious vision that was connected to all of this for me and for others in the Western world.

My Path Unfolds

I began my apprenticeship with Don Lupe and started my work in earnest that fall. This precipitated another series of events. “Grandfather”, as we sometimes called Him, the specter, the voice, sent me to Don Lucio Campos Elizalde, a well-respected Nahua Weather Worker (quiapaquiz-granicero) and healer. He also confirmed the reality of my relationship with Grandfather Fire. They call Him Xiuhtecuhtli or Huehueteotl in Nahuatl. Don Lucio recognized me as a “Worker” and called me to also begin a commitment in the Nahua tradition.

Through another surprising, spontaneous event I then became an axituatakame (Wixárika for “god-speaker-man”, or teotlixiptla, “god-expressing” in Nahuatl). This is a traditional role, a form of “channeling” which is produced through a dramatic physiological state that includes a high fever and a coma-like condition. In this state the voice that provided guidance and instruction to me could now speak directly with others through my body within a particular ceremonial setting. I began serving in this role for Grandfather Fire. This would prove to be a game-changer.

Before Sacred Fire came into existence, students inspired by Eliot’s Plant Spirit Medicine work yearned to connect to spirit and nature, looking for a deeper, more meaningful way of life. Because of this, Eliot sought out Grandfather’s help to benefit those who felt they were struggling with all the disconnecting ways of modern society. He solicited Grandfather’s willingness to provide rare but helpful audiences to his students and friends. In the late 1990’s Grandfather encouraged people to start sitting around a fire, His primal form. He then provided a way to train Firekeepers in methods to host fires in order to deepen relationships. Grandfather’s guidance gave rise to four non-profit organizations—the Blue Deer Center to support Plant Spirit Medicine and traditional healing, Sacred Fire to reestablish a heart-centered way of living through the connection of fire and community, the Sacred Fire Foundation to assist indigenous wisdom traditions and the Temple of Sacred Fire Healing to legally protect indigenous healing practitioners in our modern society. It was clear that this was World-Fire aiding us. However, for this story of us as mara’akate Grandfather, as Tatewarí, had a foundational influence in supporting us to begin bringing the medicine to our people.

In the course of the work, Eliot and I would receive inquiries as to whether a person had a soul calling to the path. This could show up as special dreams, experiences or illnesses pushing the person towards healing through the path. Eliot would bring these requests to Don Lupe and later to Grandfather for confirmation. If they were confirmed the person would be engaged as an apprentice. In this way Grandfather, as Tatewarí, had a foundational influence in supporting us to begin bringing the medicine to our people. This medicine, addressing the spiritual roots of illness, providing healing and wise counsel, is only possible through the traditionally guided relationships with the living world and with the specific help of divine beings and forces.

Becoming a Mara’akame

How does one go about becoming a mara’akame after the potential has been identified in a person by the great Maestro Mara’akame, Tatewarí? No matter how spiritually talented people may believe they are, this is going to be profoundly challenging for them to comprehend when they have been raised in a non-indigenous culture.

In the Sierras, the work of a mara’akame is supported by hundreds of generations of social-cultural continuum. The work is extraordinarily demanding intellectually, physically, emotionally and spiritually. It requires great knowledge of the customs, forms, teachings and sacred stories along with a huge range of applied experiences. This all shapes the interpretative “lens” through which the mara’akame sees the world so that they can spiritually support and decipher life to address specific illnesses and difficult situations. It requires mature social skills in order to work with individuals and the community as a peacemaker, facilitator and leader so that the community can move together into an advantageous future. It takes a steady mind to deal with the destabilizing effects of interacting with the spirits and the intertwining divine forces that make up existence beyond the order that characterizes the human realm. It also requires an understanding of the values that are important to the Huichols and therefore the mara’akame. Living existence is experienced as a complex counterbalancing of antagonistic forces such as hot-cold, light-dark, dry-wet, life-death, and productive-destructive. While nature does this instinctively, this is not so for humans. Therefore, to walk through life as a Huichol—and, I would argue, as a human being—is to understand that the mind has the capacity, through a dark side of human nature, to produce imbalance. This requires a practical sacred wisdom to both discern and navigate the difficult complexities of spiritual and communal life. Consequently, the Huichols, and therefore the mara’akate, are deeply moral people.

One of the last essential qualities of becoming a mara’akame is a relationship to personal sacrifice. Sacrifice, as embodied through the sacred deer-person and deity, Kauyumari, represents this principle as a mysterious and transformational commitment. Mara’akate epitomize these qualities as a “Kauyumari” themselves. This is more than the giving of offerings, which is common during pilgrimages and ceremonies. This is more than a negotiation for blessings or outcome. The quality of the deer-person is the giving oneself up, one’s life, for the highest purpose, just as the deer does through the sacred agreement of surrender. Its blood will anoint the offerings and therefore help insure they are received by the gods. This ultimate act of giving and courage is necessary for life to transform. Hence, the mara’akame chooses to give his or her life to the community. This involves engaging their personal physical, spiritual, emotional and mental struggles as a willing and difficult choice for the rest of their lives. This includes facing the perpetual challenges of the dark side of one’s inner voice. All of this presents itself as a complex, interconnecting “package deal” that identifies what it is to endeavor to be a mara’akame. This serves as a way to understand that this undertaking is met with reluctance by the one who has been identified by the elders. Yet, all of this is necessary to achieve even a modicum of authority and efficacy to appeal and receive the help from the divine forces of life itself, for healing, advising and in ceremonies.

The Ceremonial Tuki at Casa Xiuhtecuhtli in Tepoztlán, Morelos, MX


Even with this deeply rooted understanding, not everyone makes it. Huichols consider those who make their commitment to achieve the status of mara’akame but fail, or those once initiated default on their personal-spiritual-social agreements as dangerous to the community and the elders.

The Medicine Path Unfolds in the Modern World

Keeping in mind what I have outlined, as though this isn’t daunting enough, it is important to speak about the headwinds that are present within our current society. Cultivating truth, beauty and good, which are essential moral values, can be seen as quaint and irrelevant. Wisdom can be seen as being only about information or it might be left to one’s personal interpretation. Social accord, concern for common good, and cooperation are often subverted for individual benefit. Respect for elders and teachers can be met with contempt and envy. Spiritual life-purpose can be countered with rational-secularism, cynicism and resentment. Sacrifice and courage to work, releasing the whims and insecurities of the ego, can be replaced with desire for ease, avoidance or blame when one is confronted with difficulties that require personal responsibility. Most of this is the result of the outsized authority our society has granted the frail ego-mind and its impulsive desire for certainty.

…the apprentice mara’akate make sacred promises to the community, to the guiding elders, to themselves, to the gods and goddesses they will be petitioning, to Tatewari, and to the deer that will give up their lives to actualize the offerings. 

In reflecting back to the beginning of my journey and the journey of others on this path, was it possible to grasp all of this when we began? Was it possible to grasp any of it? Emphatically “No!” None of us can see what we can’t see without seeking help outside of our own echo chambers, even with the support of Grandfather’s teachings.

So, how did Grandfather deal with this? He did it in the same manner that it is done in the Sierras, because, despite the Huichols’ cultural and historical advantages, as humans we have natural blindness. It is a vulnerable place to be in. Therefore, as mentioned before, the apprentice mara’akate make sacred promises to the community, to the guiding elders, to themselves, to the gods and goddesses they will be petitioning, to Tatewarí, and to the deer that will give up their lives to actualize the offerings. Therefore, they choose trust so that they can be shown what isn’t possible to see through their own agency. This is what was done through Don Lupe and then directly through Grandfather. This always has been the price of admission. One grants this permission or declines. Our word, our integrity, our commitment is a bonding force and not provisionally dependent on our minds’ desires or justifications.

So, what was the process? There seemed to have been an implicit understanding between Don Lupe and Grandfather. Don Lupe would lead the pilgrimages and show how to make and place offerings. Grandfather would provide prayers, songs, guidance, protocols and teachings. A pattern began to arise that Grandfather has called “the method in the madness,” a way to learn and grow towards something beyond our understanding: “becoming mara’akame.”

The Five Phases of Becoming a Mara’akame

To frame all of this as five “phases,” I can identify the first phase as learning-to-pilgrimage. This required applications, interviews and then making the sacred promises to begin. The apprentice then receives a special basket (takwatsi) with feather wands (muvieris). These could eventually become primary healing tools. The apprentice learns to fast, journey and then “meet” and sometimes receive from a sacred, living divine-form known as a kakayari, such as a special mountain, desert or the ocean. Typically, there would be two or three sacred sites identified by Grandfather as calling the apprentice. To the extreme, Eliot had nine sites and I would have twelve. Eliot graduated and was initiated by Grandfather in an initiation “fiesta” in 1998. Don Lupe retired in 2000 and Eliot took over leading pilgrimages. He conducted initiations in 2002 and 2003 for me and others, facilitated by Grandfather and with Grandfather’s ritual instructions. At Don Lupe’s passing in 2003, Grandfather enlisted senior mara’akame and singer (tsaurirrakame) Don José Sandoval de la Cruz to take over the initiation ceremonies. At some point I began to lead pilgrimages as well.

To “initiate” means “to begin.” It isn’t a point of permanent accomplishment or a final destination.

It’s important to take a moment and talk about “initiation” since there is often a common misunderstanding about this ceremony. To “initiate” means “to begin”. It isn’t a point of permanent accomplishment or a final destination. It’s like becoming a doctor. It gives the initiates certain rights to begin their practice and start gaining experience in the medicine. If they stop doing what it takes to be a doctor then they are no longer doctors, except in history. The same is true for being a mara’akame. Initiation is a validation of the completion of a certain level of learning, not a finality. There is a great deal to learn about the forms, stories, songs and the “lens” of the traditional perspective. To grow you need peers and elders to support your learning, to mirror and reinforce ethical behavior. The mara’akame needs to serve a community and challenge themself. The feather wands need to be fed; ceremonies need to be participated in. The mara’akame’s role requires ongoing responsibilities and accountability. This led to our traditional group’s obligation to meet, discuss, debate and engage in gatherings in order to grow, learn and align. Sadly, it also began the process of some choosing to leave rather than continue with the effort and devotion necessary to keep their promises and understanding the wisdom behind the promises themselves.

The second phase involved establishing relationships and ceremonial places. Grandfather sent us to the Sierras to establish relationships with the Huichols and their mara’akate. If we were to benefit from the culture, we needed to know and experience it. Through Grandfather’s help our medicine group received recognition as part of the San Andres Cohamiata lineage as Grupo Tatewarí. We have a compound near the village where we do our work and have our own Huichol temple (Tuki). Outside of the Sierras, we established another, more accessible Tuki in Tepoztlan, Mexico. It has been consecrated and registered by elders of San Andres. Grandfather provided the authority for us to establish our own council of elders, called kawiteros or kawiterutsirri, to guide and support the integrity of the medicine and path. With Grandfather’s support the non-profit Temple of Sacred Fire Healing was established to provide protection for our work and the work of related spiritual healers.

We also recognize our obligation to give something back. We created the Huichol Art Project, which provides a stream of income to artisans in the village. We also provide financial support for various pilgrimage groups, ceremonies and construction projects in San Andres. Part of our work has been to be of service to our communities as well as to those in the Sierras. And, while Sacred Fire is a community that supports the lives of people of all traditions and of no traditions, to be of value we volunteer our efforts and hold various positions in Sacred Fire, the Blue Deer Center and the Temple of Sacred Fire Healing.

The third phase is working with the mind-ego to learn the difference between heart and mind. Grandfather brings us many challenges to learn from and to do our best to see the difficulties that the ego produces. A particular problem of our Western culture is to use the mind in service to heart or NeNepureumaimirrke (to think with a good heart). Don Lupe spoke about Tamatsi Parisika, the god of “taking away,” of emptiness. With the influence of this spirit on one’s mind, something holy and important can be taken away and not be returned. Studies in ethics, honesty and good processes for resolving conflicts are vitally important.

In the fourth phase we’re working on incorporating and building on all of the previous phases by learning the history, customs, forms and wisdom to build the perspective that this tradition uses to see the world. Our present culture has the flotsam and jetsam of many spiritual views. Which ones are authentically of this tradition? Who are we as mara’akate and why? What are our values? For this phase, I have received teachings and transmissions with Grandfather’s help, so that I can teach the other mara’akate.

It ultimately doesn’t belong to us, but to future generations that can build on what has been wise, sustainable and hard-earned by the sweat, blood and sacrifice of our forbearers and ancestors.

The fifth phase, five, the sacred number in our tradition, is the phase of succession. As Eliot neared the end of his life, he embodied the later stage of his elder role, working diligently to pass along his duties so that the path can endure into the future. This acts as a reminder to me as the path teacher and to others that we are getting older and that this is a rare and precious gift. It ultimately doesn’t belong to us, but to future generations that can build on what has been wise, sustainable and hard-earned by the sweat, blood and sacrifice of our forbearers and ancestors. There is now a process for handing off responsibilities to other mara’akate who hopefully will become spiritual leaders, teachers and guides in the future championing this work into a blossoming contribution to others and society.

Our community’s group of initiated Mara’akate

Life Transformed

My life has been transformed. While the path is challenging it has been rewarding beyond my imagination. It is a real and authentic work with deep connections to Spirit. I’ve learned that as part of life, we anticipate future adversities along the way. Grandfather has brought us many challenges so that we can learn through our difficulties. This produces real growth. There is no other way. There are brave men and women who remain devoted to bringing this medicine to our people through this path. This medicine holds unique and important benefits in these times. This is why is it so important that the Great Maestro, Tatewarí, called on us to commit our lives, to be granted the chance to embody Kauyumari, the sacred deer, to serve the Gods and to give these gifts to our people. Just as it is in the Sierras, there is a higher purpose behind all of this— to wake up to this experience, to feel and understand the World and all the aspects of reality as being alive.

This is our divine vocation. This is the path of the mara’akate.


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