Sun Bear’s Breadcrumbs

In 2010, a move to a new home in the bucolic, historic village of Batesville, about 20 minutes south of Charlottesville, Virginia, triggered a series of inner and outer events which led me to create the Great Medicine Wheel of the New Earth.  I now call them with much humor and affection, “Sun Bear’s breadcrumbs.”

Sun Bear was a well-known, Ojibwe author and teacher.  Starting in the 1970s, in the face of much controversy, including recriminations from the American Indian Movement, he stepped out to teach a spiritual way based in part on principles adapted from Native American spirituality.  One of the central tools of his system for developing personal awareness and community building was the ancient system of the Medicine Wheel. He had co-authored a book by that same name with his long-time friend and collaborator, Marlise Wabun Wind. Sun Bear courageously left a rich legacy instrumental in opening a pathway for people of all cultures and races to learn earth-based spirituality.

I never personally met him, nor had even read any of his books until that that fall of 2010.   In fact, several times over the years, I had looked at Sun Bear and Wabun’s books, but did not feel called to working with the system of personal growth and spiritual exploration they espoused, as beautiful and rich as it was.   Yet 3 years after leaving my full-time, academic career, Sun Bear suddenly began to call out to me.

Batesville sits in the very center of a river valley between two mountain ridges to the North and South in a sweet, inviting, rural landscape.  The village was founded in the 18th century, and is the very essence of the best of American country living. Neighbors mingle casually along the single central village road and offer help and a listening ear.  From my desk near an open window in my home office, I could hear the happy sounds of Schoolhouse Creek.  My giant, white Great Pyrenees dog regularly barked from the front porch at a large herd of deer that grazed in the field across the creek.

Upon settling into the turn-of-the-19th-century farmhouse in late October of 2010, I kept seeing in my mind’s eye the image of a stone earth wheel in the capacious backyard.  At first, I did not pay much attention.  It was just another free-floating idea in my mind always filled with random ideas, thoughts, and sometimes distracting chatter. Further, I had never built a stone wheel, even though I had worked for many years with the medicine wheel teachings adapted from South and North America.

What I later called the trail of “Sun Bear’s breadcrumbs,” started in November when I sat down with Nancy Miller, a dear friend and gifted intuitive reader.  I occasionally went to her for her excellent and inspiring guidance about my life.

Prior to that day’s meeting, Nancy did not know that I had recently started digging into a number of books by Native American authors as part of my research on their messages of peace. One of them was Sun Bear’s autobiography, Sun Bear: The Path of Power, co-authored with Barry Weinstock and Wabun.  In fact, I had voraciously torn through the book in two sittings due to how captivated I was with his story.  I had also been reading Gandhi’s autobiography and excitedly noticed some parallels in their worldview.

Upon completing Sun Bear’s book, I thought to myself how sad it was I never met him in person.  I had a feeling he and I would have enjoyed one another and been friends.

After Nancy’s introductory prayers, she put pen to paper (her way of connecting in) and promptly said, “Sun Bear is with you.”  I was surprised and disbelieving.  However, over the years, I had learned to overcome my tendency to discount and question moments like these and to try to listen with an open mind.

So, I said with skepticism in my voice, “Why would Sun Bear be with me?!”  I was humble enough to have no illusions that someone as well-known as he on the “other side” would have any interest whatsoever in an unknown, middle-class white woman.

Nancy replied, “He says, ‘She has a good head, a good mouth, and she walks her talk.”  She then interpreted: “I think he means that you are smart, that you are a good speaker, and that people like to listen to you because you are so interesting and knowledgeable.”  She then said, “He is giving you support to step out and do your work.”

I laughed with some irony. OK, I decided, I would tentatively work with the idea that there was something more I could learn from this long-dead spiritual leader. As my teacher, Alberto Villoldo puts it, I would “serve the experience” and see where it led.

Several days later, I arrived at the home of a new friend named Maureen.  She had heard about me from a mutual friend and wanted to talk meet me. A brief phone conversation had prompted her to invite me to tea.  Once inside the front door, and after a greeting and a hug, she asked if I would like a tour of her home. I said yes, at which point, PMH led me up to the second floor.  The walls were covered with intriguing framed photos, drawings, paintings, and what seemed like sacred objects from various traditions, a number with a Native American theme.

On the second flight of the two-tiered stairwell, Maureen casually pointed to a beautiful, hand-woven, wool Native American blanket hanging on the wall to her left and said, “Sun Bear gave this to me.”  She then told me that they had been good friends for many years and asked if I had ever met him.  I was once again surprised, but couldn’t help but pay attention to the peculiar synchronicity that Maureen would pick out this particular item to point out to me, just several days after Nancy’s message from Sun Bear.

A week after my visit with Maureen, I arrived at the Charlottesville home of an elderly woman affectionately called Grandmother Mary Duty.  Nancy had connected me with Mary about a year before.  We had become friends, and I then made a point of making occasional visits to this warm, interesting and dignified woman.

Mary’s ancestry reached back to several Virginia tribes.  In one visit with her, she told me the story about how, when she was a young girl, her father had sat her upon his knee and said, “Mary, you must never talk about your Indian ancestors to anyone.  We must hide who we are.”  We then discussed the terrible legacy left in the early 20th century by Walter Plecker, head of the Virginia Bureau of the Census for 40 years, who had systematically wiped out all records which could prove the ancestry of Native American families.  And about how it became very dangerous to admit you were an Indian. Mary explained that, due to many members of her family having light skin inherited from the few European ancestors also in their bloodlines, they were able to cross the color line and keep a secret their Indian identity.

In this late fall visit in early November, I sat down on the ancient and partially collapsing sofa in her disheveled living room.  Mary was holding a Native American drum between her knees. The first thing out of her mouth after a kiss on the cheek and a hug was: “This was Sun Bear’s drum. He gifted it to me many years ago.”  She then proceeded to tell me about their friendship and about how much fun they had laughing together.

At this point, I myself could only laugh. There had now been three strange synchroncities about Sun Bear, unprompted by anything I had said or done.  I told Mary what had been happening, and about my doubts about being a white woman using Native-inspired healing practices and teaching about Native American spirituality.  Mary on the spot generously gave her blessing to me for the continuation of my work. She said, “Sun Bear would have fully supported you.  He would have seen its importance to the world.  Both of you have a similar message. Tell anyone who challenges you that Grandmother Mary Duty believes in you and your message.” With tears in my eyes, I hugged her and said how grateful and honored I was to have her support.

But even after all this, Sun Bear was apparently not yet done with me.  His presence came even closer to home after the meeting with Mary.

Due to these weird events, and how captured I had been by Sun Bear’s autobiography, I went out in search on the web of anyone who had been directly connected to him.  I discovered that his close friend and collaborator, Wabun, had a website.  I sent off an email to her from the contact page.

By Thanksgiving Day, I sat at the holiday table of old, dear friends, Hildy and Woody Baldwin.  Hildy and I had met and become bonded some 20 years before when we were both studying the practices offered by Venerable Dhyani.   She and I shared a keen interest in Native American spirituality and I had, in fact, gotten Sun Bear’s books on loan from her several months before.

It had been two weeks since I sent the inquiry to Wabun. I had gotten no response. So, as we ate turkey and stuffing, I asked Hildy if, in her own spiritual journey before we met, she had ever personally met Sun Bear. I knew he had come to teach in central Virginia a couple of times before he died in 1992.

Hildy said, “Oh, yes! Woody and I went to one of his gatherings north of Harrisonburg about a year before he died. He was very nice.  His teachings were powerful.”

This did not surprise me, given their long decades engagement with Native American spirituality.  But what followed did.  I explained to them that I had tried to contact Wabun in hopes of interviewing her for my research, but that I had received no response.  Hildy then said, “Oh, well, we were close friends with Barry Weinstock, who helped write Sun Bear’s autobiography. He actually lived with Woody and me for about 6 months after he and his wife separated.”

I was in shock. I had not imaged that Barry even lived in Virginia.  Not only that, but that Hildy and Woody, who had also taken me in for 9 months after my house was foreclosed, had also given safe shelter to Barry.  It was one of the generous things they both did for friends in need.

I said, “Are you still in touch with him?”

Hildy replied, “No, we have not heard from him in, oh, maybe 16 years. We are not even sure he is still alive.”

I asked, “Well, if he is, and living in Virginia, where do you think he would be?”

Hildy said, “The last time we heard of him years ago was that he was in Waynesboro.”  Wayesboro was a mere 20 minutes from Batesville.

At that point, I decided that I needed to find out if Barry Weinstock was still alive, where he was, and figure out why Sun Bear was dropping these breadcrumbs.

Two week later, I was invited to an evening, Christmas repast with neighbors, John and Mary, across the street in Batesville.  Since late summer, three couples had moved into the three houses closest to theirs. They decided to get us all together for a meet and greet.

With the other guests, my partner and I drank wine, and noshed on appetizers around the capacious island in the center of the kitchen.  Mary had mentioned to me prior to the evening that one of the invited men had an interest in Native American beadwork.  He was standing near me.  We had been introduced, but I could not remember his name.  Trying to start up a conversation, I said, “Mary says you collect antique, native beadwork.”

He quickly responded: “Yes, I do. Actually, for many years, I studied Native American spirituality. In fact, I co-authored the autobiography of a teacher named Sun Bear.”

I said in shock, “Are you Barry–Barry Weinstock?!”  He nodded his head.  I said again, “You are the real Barry Weinstock?!” He again nodded his head, obviously a bit amused by my reaction.

I could not believe it. After all the mentions of Sun Bear over the past 2 months, here I was standing in a kitchen across the road from my house with my new neighbor, Barry Weinstock. He and his wife had bought and rehabbed the cute house catty corner from mine.

I was in shock. All kinds of thoughts were racing through my head. I told Barry I was doing some research on the writings of Native Americans on peace and had been looking for someone who knew Sun Bear.  We agreed to get together soon to talk.

Clearly, at this point, I had to completely surrender to the fact that I had some connection with Sun Bear, that I needed to take it seriously, and to pay attention.

At first, I conjectured that this all was meant to happen because Barry was supposed to teach me Sun Bear’s spiritual system. But when he and I finally got together for a chat, Barry shared with me that he had not been doing anything connected to Native American spirituality for a very long time.  In fact, he said, “I had a realization many years ago that I was a Jewish man from New Jersey, and that I had no right to teach anything about Indians.”  I sadly recognized my own inner conflict in him.  Barry had succumbed to white guilt.  It was clear he was not going to teach me anything.  A year and a half later, he tragically died of lung cancer.

In the meantime, I kept looking at the Medicine Wheel book by Sun Bear and Wabun. While I admired its incredible detail and depth, it nevertheless did not call to my heart. I thus continued to be confused as to what this connection to Sun Bear was all about.

The holidays passed. It was 2011.  In February, I received a phone call from a couple named Larry and Charlsie Baer from Timberville, Virginia. They were looking for someone who could help them complete some previous, cursory studies in the mesa tradition from the indigenous people of the Andes in Peru. They had been referred to me by another shamanic healer and friend in Charlottesville named Sue Wolf.