Frequently Asked Questions

Following are answers to several of the more common — and poignant — questions we receive. Because we’re charting a unique and often-challenging course, it’s not surprising that some confusion might arise around our focus, our programs, and our relationship with Native Americans. To fit this format, answers have been kept short, so they may not reflect the entire spectrum of views we hold, nor will they explore these questions to the depth they deserve. If you would like more complete answers, or if your questions are not answered here, please contact us and we’ll be glad to talk with you.

Q: You use the term native a lot; can you define what you mean by it?

A: Not only are there native plants and animals, Native Americans, and native traits, but the term might have political and cultural connotations, it can be used as a noun or adjective, and its usage is evolving. Is it any wonder that someone would be confused as to its meaning when coming across it in a sentence? Or if you haven’t been puzzled before, try this sentence: Are Native Americans still native if they are not on their native land living natively: eating native food, employing native wits, and involved in native occupations?

Although we might use native in any of the above-listed ways, we employ it often in reference to what is natural, innate, and instinctive; i.e. inborn, as opposed to learned or acculturated. A wolf has native traits — characteristics that define her as being a wolf — no matter whether she is running free or trained to do tricks in a circus sideshow. A human, whether living in modern Atlanta or the wild Amazon, has native traits as well. Imprinted in our DNA, they are intrinsic to being human and exist no matter what a person’s circumstance or beliefs. This is the native self we commonly address and work to reawaken, in the same sense that a caged wolf, when released, would again come to know her native self.

To further eliminate confusion, we capitalize the term native when referring to a specific people, such as Natives of Samoa or Native Americans.

Q: Are you really a primitive skills school? You don’t seem to be much like the others.

A: A more appropriate label for us might be native lifeway school. Where most schools of our ilk focus on crafts and skills, we teach them within the context of the way of life to which they belong. Living in a primitive camp, students learn not only shelter building, but how to live in a shelter; along with wild food foraging they learn how to gather respectfully, how to prepare it with primitive cooking methods, how to dry and store it, and so on with other skills. Perhaps more important than hard skills, students learn what we call qualitative skills: re-sensitizing, becoming a shadow, the talking circle, how to live with mosquitoes, bears, and cougars, and much more.

Q: You teach a year-long wilderness immersion program: are you suggesting that we all go to the woods and live primitively? Do you think this is the best thing for us when you don’t live it yourselves?

A: Our lifestyles are merely reflections of what’s in our hearts. Living primitively solves nothing if we take our oppression, woundedness, and numbness with us, as we will only re-create what we are trying to escape from. Wilderness is not a place, but a state of mind. When we awaken to who we really are and remember the ways of living respectfully with all our plant and animal relations, we can’t help but make changes that enrich our lives immeasurably and reflect in all we say and do. Whether or not we ever live the Old Way, we will be healing the wounds of our failed experiment to run the planet.

Rather than dropping out, we encourage students in our programs to go back where they came from and make a difference. No matter what their life direction, they benefit immensely from our programs’ theme that life is not just what you see, but what there is to discover.

We see the human population returning to primitive living as a romantic illusion. It would take dozens of Planet Earths to support all of us if we were to try living as in the Paleolithic era. There is only the now, and we have work to do.

This is not to say that we cannot again live life as it is intended, and in fact we at the Teaching Drum, along with many others, are taking active steps to do so. This is not trying to go back to what once was, but rather living in the here and now according to the voices of our hearts and the programming of our DNA. We are evolving extended family groups where we embrace our children for who they are rather than who someone thinks they should be, where we honor Earth again as our mother and Sky as our father, where we accept their gifts of food, clothing, and shelter rather than plundering them to feed our egos.

If for some of us this comes to resemble the Paleolithic lifeway of our ancestors, it will have to be different in one big way if it is going to be anything other than “playing Indian:” it will be done consciously and responsibly. We must heal all the wounds our kind has created, and we have to carry the stories of how we went there and came back again. Anything less would only be playing.

With the exception of the couple of Teaching Drum staff people who live at Mashkodens, most of us on staff lead a hybrid life: we hunt and gather some of our food and live communally, and at the same time we are on phones and computers, taking students to and from airport and bus depot, and so on. We have chosen not to be isolationists and take care of just ourselves, but to put a foot in each world so we can help and support others on their journey home.

Q: How is tuition determined, and why do you ask for a per-day visitor/volunteer donation?

A: Some can’t see how we can run the school on so little money, and on the other end of the spectrum are those who wonder why we have to charge any tuition at all. Either way, it would help you to know the economic structure of the school. We are a 501(c)3 nonprofit corporation, which means we, like a typical school, are not owned by anyone and are governed by a board of directors. Strict federal laws prohibit anyone from profiting personally, and our financial records must be made available for public scrutiny. If the Teaching Drum were to cease operation, all assets, including property and cash on hand, must be transferred to another similar nonprofit corporation. As a nonprofit, we do not have to pay sales tax or income tax, and five acres of the school’s land is property tax exempt. We can conduct fundraisers and accept tax-deductible donations to help support the school.

For those of you who wonder why we charge tuition, we have much of the same overhead you (or your parents) have: electricity, transportation, maintenance and repairs, and property taxes (on 120 acres of land). In addition, there are computers and phones to interface with the outside world, library upkeep, canoe fleet purchase and maintenance, emergency vehicle for Wilderness Guide Program, printing and correspondence, and staff stipends. We run five freezers and four refrigerators to handle all the food we go through. We provide all our own meat, along with wild rice and many greens and berries in season, and yet we purchase nuts, eggs, root vegetables, and most of our winter food. Virtually all of our food is organic and we don’t serve any cheap filler foods such as pasta, grain, and beans.

Even though Wilderness Guide students learn to hunt and gather all the food they need, it takes more than a year to become proficient enough to support yourself and have time for other things. Participants forage all their own food for a small part of the year and receive food drops for the rest.

For those who struggle to make the tuition, financial help is sometimes available, and we may be able to help you raise the money. We usually talk about this during a prospective student’s preliminary week-long visit. Some students have found that earning the tuition helped them with the commitment and perseverance it takes to successfully participate in the Wilderness Guide program.

Food expense (which for us includes pickup and storage costs) is the main reason we request a per-day donation from visitors and short-term volunteers. They usually need an adjustment period and input from us before they are able to significantly contribute. If a volunteer has a needed skill or is long term, we cover their entire room and board.

In response to those of you who wonder how we make ends meet, we run the whole school, supporting ten staff people and their families, the program participants, and maintaining eight buildings, along with a fleet of four vehicles, for $65,000 a year — less than it takes to support the average family of four in this country. It’s not magic, just simple living. All buildings but one are heated with wood we cut ourselves, all staff people (including Tamarack) receive only a $200 per month stipend, and we do all our own construction and most of our maintenance and upkeep. Much of our equipment is donated, and we shop thrift stores and buy used whenever possible.

Q: What about gender, race, and nationality demographics of the people who participate at the Teaching Drum?

A: Gender: The School’s staff is comprised of six women and five men, and we have three children. At Nishnajida, our wilderness camp which is home to the Wilderness Guide Program, there are presently four men and two women. Although primitive skills schools generally attract many more men than women, our gender ratio is usually close to even.

Many women say they feel comfortable here. In our relationships, gender comes second: we consciously recognize the female and male in each of us. Attention is given to healing and spirituality, along with our holistic approach to native living: cultural, social, and personal-development skills are learned right along with crafts and survival skills.

Race and nationality: You’ll see people here of all the four colors, in roughly the same ratios as in the dominant culture. Students of all colors come from across North America, as well as from South Africa, Australia, Sweden, the Netherlands, Germany, Japan, and other countries.

Q: Your school receives some criticism; that raises a red flag for me.

A: We actually invite criticism — it is an honor to receive it and a confirmation of our reason for being. It shows that we are challenging convention and encouraging people to think and question. If we received no criticism we might as well disband, as we’d just be maintaining the status quo.

Q: Have you been accused of cultural appropriation? If so, how do you respond?

A: First let us state that there can be no simple answer, as the question begs a dozen others that need to be addressed if the issue is going to be done justice. Here we will touch upon a couple of what we consider to be the main points.

Cultural appropriation is the deliberate borrowing of aspects of an alien culture. Cultural appropriators are often viewed negatively when their aim is personal gain or they act without the consent and involvement of the source culture. (In our circle of involvement, the term cultural appropriator is applied to those who adopt and practice the ceremonies, crafts, or dress of Native American, Australian Aboriginal, Native Hawaiian, and occasionally other cultures.) In these cases, usually there is sparse understanding or honoring of the traditions around the practice, and there is little or no relevant connection with the culture or its people. This leads to romanticizing, misinterpretation, cultural displacement, and even commercialization, all of which most Natives consider to be disrespectful of themselves and their cultures.

The irony is that most appropriators are sincere, as they are merely responding to a deep longing to reconnect with their native selves. They just don’t know any better, because they are accustomed to a pick-and-choose culture and an hour-on-Sunday-only approach to spirituality. They therefore see nothing wrong with injecting a Sweat Lodge or Pipe Ceremony into their everyday lives or hanging a Dreamcatcher from their rearview mirror.

Appropriation is so much a part of the dominant culture: imports of resources, cheap sweatshop goods, dress and hair styles, and spiritual practices are so commonplace, and the vitality of the culture is so dependent upon them, that it usually takes someone from outside the culture to point to the fact that it is parasitizing. Yoga is an example most are familiar with, as it is a highly regarded exercise regimen. However in South Asia, from where the practice was usurped, people don’t “do yoga.” Rather, it is a way of life, of which the exercises we know as yoga are only a small part.

Once people are educated on appropriation, many of them want to be respectful, and they want their involvement in native ways to be relevant. Others are so desperate for meaning in their lives that they will cling to what they have found regardless of Native People’s opinion or relevance to actual native ways of life. And those who are involved because it is trendy have little concern for what anyone says or thinks other than their peer group.

If those sincerely drawn to native ways only knew that few traditional Elders would refuse to guide someone from outside their culture who was sincere, humble, and respectful. These seekers need to take the time to learn the ways of the culture, and they must be willing to give without expectation.

At the Teaching Drum, we admit that we are appropriators, and that will not be changed until we are fully connected with the means and ends of our existence, whether it be spiritual, social, or physical. To that end, we feel comfortable with the guidance of our Elders, both Native and non-Native.

Learning the ways of the indigenous people is a matter of respect. We find ourselves in the land of the Ojibwe, and so we look to them to show us how to live here respectfully fully immersed. History shows us that going elsewhere to find ways of living in any area would undermine the culture and adopting those of the native culture would support it. Other ways wouldn’t fit, because they evolved in a different environment. Here, we adapt to the language and culture of the land, and respect the original people as the area’s Earthkeepers.

Q: What right do non-Native Americans have teaching Native American skills?

A: Many Native Americans approve of what we do, regularly teach and guide us, and encourage us to continue our efforts. We have a long tradition of working with our Native neighbors, friends, and elders, and we are currently involved in cultural restoration projects with some of them (language, oral history, and artifact preservation, land acquisition, reestablishing traditional diet). And yet our focus is not on trying to be like Native Americans or on teaching their skills, but on relearning what it is to be a natural human.

Of course the skills and awarenesses are Native American, and at the same time they defy labeling because they are so much more than that. Natural-living people the world around embrace the principles of living with honor and respect, as well as the core concepts governing adaptation to climate, available foods, and craft materials. The plant and animal relations do not discriminate; they speak to all who come to them with humility and openness. Every human carries ancestral memories from aboriginal times that can be drawn on for guidance.

Much of what we teach is not what Native Americans know, but how to reach their source of knowledge. When they want to learn something, they will usually go to eagle, otter, or another knowing relation before another human. The Inland Inuit, for example, ask wolf to teach them how to hunt caribou. Being a common practice with Native people everywhere, it was probably also the way of our ancestors. This is why you hear of native people who have the eyes of hawk or the cunning of cougar.

Knowledge is viewed differently by modern humans, who tend to view it as a commodity that humans have a corner on, and it can be owned. Many are doubtful that it could come from an ancient memory, much less an animal or plant.

Q: Aren’t you teaching Ojibwe Culture and Language?

A: Yes and no. More accurately, we teach human culture, as this is what the traditional Ojibwe call it. Clan living, wearing the baby, fire by friction, hide-tanning, the drum, the talking circle, native names, the vision quest, storytelling — these in all their variations are the skills, practices and traditions of native people nearly everywhere, on every continent. Like all people, the local Ojibwe have adapted these practices to this particular environment. And like all people, we are doing the same, in part by learning from the Ojibwe.

Imagine that for some reason you ended up living in the Amazon: would you try to maintain the same lifestyle you had in New York or California, or would you go to the local Natives and ask for guidance? Would you learn the local language? When we asked ourselves these questions, it became obvious that perpetuating our alien culture was imposing it upon the local culture and destroying it.

To natives, the language they speak is the language of the land: it is the voice of the wind, the murmur of water, the chatter of animals. For example, in this area deer is called Wawashkeshi, because that is the sound she makes when moving through the brush. As with most people from another culture, many of the Natives we have known have been honored that we have attempted to speak with them in their language and follow their traditions, rather than expecting them to adopt ours.

Kamgabwikwe, one of our Ojibwe elders, is delighted that we are learning the language. She says that very few of her people are interested in speaking it anymore. There are over 100 endangered languages in the world, including 11 in Canada and 13 in the U.S. Around 250 have gone extinct in recent history, including 72 in the U.S. For many of you, the “Ojibwe language” is the repository of some of your ancestral language. It contains many old Norse words, as well as some Celtic. (The same is true of the culture; for example, the five primary Norse clans are the same as those of the Ojibwe.)

The native way of relationship, which some call the Gifting Way, embodies this awareness of sharing rather than boundaries. It is reflected in the non-isolationist terms most traditional people use in reference to themselves, which for the Tarahumara of Mexico’s Sierra Madre is Raramuri, for the Mescalero Apache is Nde, for the Australian Arnhem Aborigines is Yolnu, and for the Ojibwe is Anishinabi, all of which mean The People. These terms do not distinguish them from other human people, but from the Deer people, the Raspberry people, and the Bee people.

A footnote: There does not exist, and there probably never has existed, a pure, isolated culture. Early Chinese pottery has been found in Mexico, elements of Polynesian culture exist in South America, Roman-era Spanish traders took Lake Superior copper to the Mediterranean, the Pima of Arizona have a sacred chant that comes from the ancient Libyans, Phoenicians visited New England, and so on. The drum belongs to all people; it is found in every culture on the planet. The outside rock-heated sweatlodge may have come to this continent from the ancient Germanic peoples of northern Europe. The bow and arrow appears to have originated in Eurasia and was brought to the Americas only a few thousand years ago.

Any Other Questions?

If you are considering one of Teaching Drum’s programs or are interested in volunteering and you have a question that hasn’t been addressed, please email us at Balance (at) teachingdrum (dot) org.