My people say that there are seven hills to life.
Each represents a stage, a period, a time frame where you gather experience and add it to the pack you carry across the years, across the breadth of the journey.
Each hill is a vantage point for looking back, but not everyone takes time for reflection.
There is a hill for youth and adolescence, a hill for adulthood and parenting. Then there are the hills of middle life, the teaching time, and on into the elder years, the giving back time. The final hill is the elevation of wisdom where you can look back and see the vast panorama of your living and come to know who you are by virtue of who you’ve been.
From each hill the view is different.
From each hill the feeling changes.
Each climb has its virtues, its struggles and triumphs and the Ojibway say that it is only in the looking back that you discern the trail, identify the climb and rest contented in the journey.
I heard this first from Norval Morriseau, the great interpreter of the Sacred Scrolls, the teaching scrolls of my people.
At that time I was 32 and very keen on learning all I could about the mysteries surrounding the Aboriginal belief system.
That part of my journey was breathtaking and the view was spectacular from the hill of my young adulthood.
I went to a lot of ceremonies then.
It was the late 80s and there seemed to be a tide of people coming back to the teachings, to the elders and the ceremonies for rejuvenation, reconnection and reclamation.
It was exhilarating.
From the sun dance to the sweat lodge, to naming ceremonies, pipe ceremonies and the opening of Sacred Bundles, I found parts of myself I had never known before.
I recall sitting on a ledge of rock in the mountains of Montana with a young Blackfoot elder in the summer of 1987.
We were part of a traditional gathering called Return to the Buffalo.
There’s a sacred meadow there where the people of many nations gathered in pre-settlement times to share teachings and earth knowledge.
Like then, we came from diverse cultures and the time we shared there was built entirely on the true tribal way of life.
The view from that ledge was amazing.
There were mountains all around us that formed a perfect bowl, a circle that seemed to contain everything.
Across the gap of valley was a turquoise lake all green and blue at one time.
The trees were a hundred shades of green, the mountain rock variegated and the sky a visceral blue that pulled your eye upward and away and back again.
The view itself was ceremony.
I was crying.
The experience of living the tribal way was so enormous that I had nothing in my life to compare it to.
It was what I had been searching out for years. It was the most redemptive experience of my life.
We’d been separated into clans and given responsibility for certain parts of daily life.
I was Beaver Clan and we were responsible for firewood and watching over the children.
There were traditional teachings around these responsibilities and we’d gather under a teaching arbor to hear them.
I came to understand community then, came to know what unity looked like, how harmony could feel.
Every night we sat in a round lodge and heard the elders share.
We learned sacred songs on hand drums, were given stories to carry, asked questions and were taught according to traditional protocol.
In every way, it was like living a thousand years ago when the tribal and traditional lives of our people was unsullied by incursion.
It was moving and fulfilling.
But it was time to go.
We’d head out, scattered across the Four Directions to wherever our homes were and the likelihood of gathering together again in this way was slim.
For me it was heartbreaking.
I had just spent time living as close to the cultural bone of my people as possible, gleaned the truth of it, claimed it and for the first time in my life come to know myself as a Native person, a Native man.
But it was time to go.
We sat on that ledge for a long time and I told that young teacher about my journey, how much this time had meant to me and how it hurt to see it end.
He listened intently and when I finished he looked across that sweep of valley for a long time.
Then he told me about the seven hills again.
Nothing is ever truly lost, he told me then.
Everything is born, carried and exists on energy, invisible and eternal.
The highest form that energy takes is feeling because it is born in our hearts and spirits.
The heart has no questions, he said, and the head has no answers. It’s our heads that allow us to believe in finalities, endings, losses and vanishings, but nothing is ever truly lost.
The hills of life are resting spots. You only come to know that when you take the time for retrospection, for looking back. When you do he said, you discover that everything you carry stays the same when you bear it in your heart, when it lives in you as feeling.
We are in a state of constant relationship with everything, he said, and relationships never end, they merely change.
Take this place with you. Breathe it into you. Carry the feeling of it. Someday you’ll unwrap it again and see it like it was, perfectly, truly.
On that day, he said, you’ll see that there are no vanishing points, that you can see forever from those hills and you will never be lonely.
I’ve forgotten that from time to time. We all allow the sublime things in life to shrink.
But when I remember, especially when times are tough or unclear, I realize again that the climb’s been worth it and the view is spectacular.
Richard Wagamese is Ojibway and the author of Keeper’n Me. He recently won the Canadian Author’s Award for Dream Wheels.