3. The Program Backbone


When the Native Indians wanted to teach a lesson, they did it by the round about way of coyote teaching. Through coyote teaching, a teacher would first set up a situation where the student would be tricked or otherwise hooked into a problem or challenge. The student would then be given a minimum of direction and would be expected to solve it. This learning provides a motivation, then some instruction, then an active challenge, all of which results in a true learning experience. Not only has the student learned the lesson, but he/she has also learned much about learning itself and about independence.

Tom Brown writes:

Grandfather (Stalking Wolf) never answered any of our questions the way most people would answer a question. He would either point us in the direction of the answer or ask us a series of questions, all designed to make us think. A "coyote teacher" makes every learning experience exciting, something we desperately want to know. He planned each lesson like a chess game or jigsaw puzzle, where one teaching led to another. But he never forced any teaching on us; instead, he maneuvered the situation so we had to know, had to go on.

This is a great ideal, but two factors make it difficult for us to always use this tactic. The first is time; the time we have to plan lessons, and the time we are given with the members to present it. In most cases our exposure to our participants is one night a week and one weekend a month. The second is that it takes a lot of energy to continuously generate a program of this quality. (As a teacher, I can tell you that it is not often that I come close to this ideal; but when I do, it is very rewarding.)

Because of these constraints, the presentation of skills and concepts often have to be presented in a straight forward manner. In a formal meeting, one might demonstrate the proper technique for a bow and drill, however this must be followed up with active practice, and with application in the field. Tom calls it "dirt time", which is the time spent out in the wilderness practicing.

Seton's Woodcraft Indians used the role model of the Native Indian Ideal. What exactly did he mean by that? I summarized in chapter one what some of these ideals were. I think they are further exemplified in the "Laws" of the Seton Society, which is included in a later chapter.

It is common, however, to regard the Native Indian in a negative light because of the degradation they have experienced over the past two hundred years. Chapter two of The Book Of Woodcraft deals with the questions of Indian cruelty and torture, Native cleanliness, or treatment of their women. A small publication called The Gospel Of The Red Man is more readily available and deals with the same information.

One of the most absurd criticisms for the red race is that they were lazy. This past summer I visited the mesa town of Acoma with my Venturers. This is a town built upon a high mesa, with sheer rock walls on all sides. Surrounding it for many miles is nothing but desert, The nearest forest is at the foot of mountains which are dozens of miles away. And yet the wooden structures of the town are all built with trees from that forest, carted across the hot miles, and laboriously raised to the top of the mesa.

Native Indians were no stranger to hard work or hardship. They sought it out often enough as they thought that ordeal was a form of self purification.

As I said before, most of our preconceptions of Native Indians is a product of history written by treacherous whites. One truly interested in history would read the primary sources, and surprisingly find a totally different story.

The promotion of these ideals within the Company is a big challenge.

A helpful tool in this task is ceremony. Ceremonies are a language of symbolism. A native sunrise ceremony starts the day with respect and thought and thanks. You experience the sunrise a marvel, and thereby become more aware and appreciative. Any ceremony has an imbedded message within it, that gets absorbed by the participant. Ceremonies are important as a form of teaching, and also as a pageantry to give the group identity and pizazz. Choose your ceremonies well, and conduct them seriously. A part of appropriate ceremony is the "Laws" of the group. These should be emphasized, and their spirit be kept diligently.

Service is an important tool for promoting positive ideals. By helping other people or by helping nature through a voluntary project, participants learn important values which, if all goes well, become internalized.

And finally Silence is an important quality to impart positive characteristics. Being alone in the wilderness builds character, encourages introspection and quiets the constant static in our brains from day to day life.

What will never promote positive values is just expounding them. At best, telling a story which involves the trait may make a good introduction. But it is only through experience and real social interaction that these values can be truly promoted.


Reverence is a key concept in Native Indian tradition and in our program. It permeated the life of the Indian. When things were done, they were done "with prayer". This has a double meaning. It means giving thanks to the Creator for all things, but it also means doing it thoroughly, carefully and with a positive attitude, so that it will be worthy of the Creator. When a shelter is made "with prayer" it means that it is constructed carefully and to specifications so that it will do its job. When a pipe is crafted "with prayer" it means that it is infused with love and pride, and respect for the very stone it is made of.

Reverence for the Earth means following good conservation practices. It means not wasting food or producing unnecessary waste of any kind. It means treasuring all resources and respecting all life. It means being able to enjoy the spectacles of Nature as they are. To see beauty in the colours of a rock, or the stars in the sky. The Earth is our Mother. She gives us what we need, and if we treat her badly we will surely suffer the consequences.


The key to comprehending much of Indian tradition and ceremony is the understanding of the Medicine Wheel. While simple in structure, it is a rich and dynamic symbol which has particular relevance to our modern lives.

The Medicine Wheel begins with a circle. This is the shape of natural things. The sun and moon are round, as is the horizon. Trees, birds' nests and weathered rocks are all round. The concept of cycles is also important. A day is a cyclical, circular event, as are the seasons of the year. And, similarly, lives and deeds are cyclical.

Within the Medicine Wheel circle there is a horizontal and a vertical line, dividing the circle into quarters. Each place where the lines meet the circle represents a stage in the cycle. This also represents the four directions. If the cycle has a beginning, it is regarded as the East. This is where the sun rises to begin each day. In general, the East represents beginnings. In the seasons, it represents the Spring. In life, it represents infancy and childhood. In deeds, it represents the vision or the inspiration of the idea.

Movement around a Medicine Wheel is always clockwise, possibly because that is the motion of the stars in the night sky. Therefore the next direction upon movement around the circle is the South. This is the direction of summer, the time period where things are most vital. As such, it is also the direction of youth and the physical strength and industriousness that usually comes with it. In deeds, it is the direction of action. (In the Native Indian view of things, it is necessary for action to come after vision. In this case, vision is the inspiration which comes from the Creator, stating that a particular task is desirable. They believe that this is an important deficiency in the way that the rest of us do things.)

The West is the Autumn. It is the time for gathering things together, -for collecting and consolidating. It is a time of reflecting and learning from the past. In life, it is middle age.

The North is a time of endings, and its season is Winter. Deeds and tasks are concluded and fade into the past, to make way for a new cycle of tasks. (Dialectics, anyone?)

Winter gives way to spring, as night gives way to dawn. Most Native tribes believed that death was just the beginning of a new spiritual existence. It is the process that is important, -the idea that everything is a journey around this wheel, going through a pattern of stages. To know this is crucial if we are to know harmony in our lives, deeds and societies.

My treatment of the Medicine Wheel is very superficial here. I cannot hope to do it justice within these pages. In fact, I strongly believe that each person must come to terms with this powerful symbol on their own. There are, however, several good books in the bibliography which will help clarify the concept. The best of these is likely The Sacred Tree.

For our use, we accept the convention that the colours of the four directions are as follows. East is red, South is yellow, West is black, and North is white. This is the Sioux convention. Animals are also connected with each direction, but the particulars often change from tribe to tribe. Do not be concerned with the minor differences between tribes and books regarding details of the Medicine Wheel. The important thing is the essence, and that is always the same.


This is the second important ceremony of the Native People. Legend states that the pipe and tobacco were given to the red man as a gift from the spirits and creator, so that he may communicate his prayers through the smoke. (See The Sacred Pipe, by Black Elk.) The pipe becomes a portable alter, and the ceremony is one of reverence. The smoke is the vehicle by which the thoughts and prayers of the individual are carried to the Spirit World. The ceremony cannot be completely described in words.

It begins with the pipe being lit from a fire which is preferably ignited with a bow and drill. Once lit, the seven arrows are conducted. This is a tribute to the Creator, the four directions, the Earth Mother, and finally the Creator again. The pipe is smoked, and the smoke is exhaled in each of these directions.

Once this is done, the pipe is passed around the circle in a certain manner and each person may smoke of it or hold it for a moment before passing it on. (Either action is equally inclusive and reverent.)

Once the pipe has returned to the beginning, the person conducting the ceremony speaks briefly about the reason for the ceremony having been done. It may be to welcome members into the circle of friends in the tribe. It may be to pay tribute to something special which has been achieved.

The most memorable pipe ceremony conducted by my company was at sunrise in New Mexico, beside some ancient Pueblo petroglyphs. The previous night my boys had been outraged by the senseless killing of a rattlesnake by another group camping near us. The pipe ceremony was held the next morning in memory of the snake and with "prayers" for those who had mindlessly destroyed it. Afterwards, the outrage was quelled and a sense of harmony returned to the group and (I feel) the land.

Circle ceremonies involving groups are capable of solidifying bonds between the members. In an investiture pipe ceremony, it is proper to speak of the nature of friendship and commitment in a medicine circle of friends. It is proper to use the ceremony to reinforce the ideas of brotherhood and mutual assistance.

There may be some concern about exposing the boys to tobacco and the habit of smoking. I do not feel that this is a danger if it is done properly, and this has been borne out by my own experiences with my groups. It must be emphasized that the use of tobacco is ceremonial only, and was so for the Native Indian as well. Outside of ceremony, it was always used in moderation, and always with the idea of sacrament in mind. If the boys understand this, it gives them a perspective on tobacco and smoking which actually may help them avoid social smoking. At any rate, I have never seen ceremonial exposure to tobacco lead to smoking any more than I've seen the use of wine in other sacraments lead to social drinking.

Smoke can also play another role in the form of smudging. For this ceremony, cedar, sweet grass, and sage are mostly used. Sweet grass is said to attract good, while sage is supposed to repel evil. Cedar does double duty in doing both things.

To perform this ceremony, you require a non-combustible bowl (I use a large shell), a burning coal of some sort, a feather and the smudge mixture. The burning coal is placed amongst the smudge mixture so that it burns and gives off smoke. The feather is then used to waft the smoke towards the body, usually starting at the feet and moving upwards. If the person is encouraged to relax while this is going on, the smell becomes a powerful stimulus which will create similar feelings of relaxation in the future.

This is a ceremony of self purification, and is often conducted before other ceremonies are started. People can smudge themselves, or one person can go around and smudge the entire group.


Sweat Lodges can be ceremonial or social. Even the social ones should show respect of the Lodge, but the one I will describe here is the ceremonial one.

A Sweat Lodge is built from freshly cut trees and assembled in a dome shape. The entrance must be to the east. It the centre there should be a deep pit dug into the ground, with the dirt from the pit piled about a metre from the entrance in a mound. (A good hint is to burn out the pit so that there are no roots or other burnable debris inside when you put in the hot rocks. This is to avoid getting smoldering smoke during the ceremony.)

This dome skeleton is then covered with a plastic tarp, and finally with blankets, old sleeping bags, or any other insulating material which will keep in the heat, and darken the interior. The inside should be totally dark. Anchor the base of the covering with rocks so that the heat does not escape through the bottom.

In a large fire pit near the Lodge a fire is prepared by a "fire chief". Keep in mind that a big fire and a lot of fire wood is required for a sweat. Locate the pit appropriately and make sure that the area can provide the necessary wood without damaging the environment. In the fire there should be placed about eight to twelve cantaloupe-sized rocks (not gathered from rivers or banks!!). The fire should burn for one and a half to two hours, and should preferably be started with a bow drill.

While the fire is burning, a smudging ceremony can take place.

Once the rocks are hot they are removed from the fire with a pitch fork and brushed to remove embers and coals. They are then carefully brought into the Lodge (before the participants enter!) and placed into the centre pit.

Participants should drink large amounts of water during the hours previous to the sweat. It is feasible to loose four litres of water through perspiration in a Sweat Lodge. (But, also be sure to have them properly relieve themselves before entering, so that the need to urinate does not spoil the experience for them.)

At this point the participants are ready to enter. Traditionally, participants are not clothed, and surprisingly, I have found that this is the way most boys prefer doing it. A person can have a towel wrapped around themself if necessary until they enter the lodge. Your policy on attire is up to you, and may depend on a lot of factors. The occasional mixed groups may pose a challenge. Bathing suits or boxers are sometimes an alternative.

They enter from the left hand side of the mound, through the entrance and then clockwise around the Lodge as far as they can go.

The "sweat chief" is the person who will conduct the ceremony and pour the water onto the rocks once the participants are seated inside. He should be the first one through, and the fire chief should be the last one in and act as a door man.

The ceremony inside begins with the seven arrows. After each tribute the sweat chief pours water on the rocks (so they will need a bucket of water and a cup or ladle to pour). After the seven arrows there are three rounds. The sweat chief will present a topic to think about. Each person, going around the circle clockwise, has an opportunity to comment on the topic or to just think quietly about it before passing to the next person. whether vocal or quiet, the person should signify that they are finished by saying "I have finished" or "shuna" once they are ready to pass. After each person has passed, more water is poured on the rocks, increasing the temperature inside.

Once the comments have gone full circle the door is opened briefly to allow the Lodge to cool off. Then the door is closed and a second topic is proposed for the second round. This is then followed by a third round.

The Sweat Lodge is meant to be an ordeal. It is a personal sacrifice for the Creator. More importantly it is a personal sacrifice for yourself. By pushing yourself through the discomfort you learn a self-discipline and a self-detachment which may bring about personal realizations. It may put you in touch with parts of your mind that are often dormant. (This will be dealt with later in this chapter.) I have never met anyone who has not been personally moved by a Sweat Lodge ceremony. In the past, the Sweat Lodge has been the heart of the group and the program. Its importance can not be underestimated as it is the most honest and authentic part of the program.


The native view of psychology is one where the mind is divided equally into a "logical" mind and a "spiritual" mind. It is similar to our scientific view of left and right brain functions. In this scientific view, the left half of our brain controls the activities related to language and logic. This appears to be the dominant hemisphere in day to day life and activities. It is the critic and the analyser. It is the home of language. It is the part of our brain which sifts and sorts and labels everything that comes us through our perceptions. Finally, it is almost exclusively the part of our mind in which we are educated and in which we live our lives.

On the other hand (literally), the right hemisphere of the brain deals with those things which are not easily related to language. It is the home of intuition, of symbols and ceremonies. It is the place from which comes art and music, as well as the emotions. While it is not used for language, it is used for poetry. Finally, it is the place spoken to when you alone in the beauty of the wilderness, deep in a forest or meadow, and you feel at one with nature.

In another philosophic tradition, -that of Taoism-, these two brain modes correspond to the yin and the yang. All good programs should include a balance of these two aspects.

The function of many of the ceremonies in the Native Indian traditions is to quiet the left brain functions, which are normally dominant, and allow the right brain functions to get through. This is the function of many ceremonies. The pipe ceremony and the sweat lodge are both examples of this. The pipe ceremony provides a focus of attention, allowing the participant to shift into a different type of thinking. The sweat lodge physically pushes the participant into an ordeal which occupies and stifles the logical mind, thereby, again, allowing the right brain, intuitive part of the mind to make an appearance.

And, of all the native traditions that are designed to bring forward the right brain, the Vision Quest is the most important. Briefly, a Vision Quest is time spent alone in the wilderness. It can take many forms. It can be a night in the woods with a sleeping bag, or it can be a 4-day ordeal in a five metre circle with minimal food and water. One of the first challenges of the Seton venturers is the 15-hour solo. This challenge is intended to be a "rite of passage", -an ordeal of will and determination, resulting in greater self-confidence in the wilderness.

The solitude of the Vision Quest should act to sweep away the trivial concerns of the logical mind. The boredom and the ordeal put to sleep the constant static and internal chatter of the logical mind, allowing other things to surface.

In the Native Indian scheme of things, the intuitive mind and the spirit played a very important part. It was in balance with the logical part. The logical mind took care of the hunting, or built and devised new tools and shelters. It was the intuitive mind, though, which was in tune with nature sufficiently to make the hunt successful. It was the intuitive mind which experienced visions of new ideas, or hunting grounds, or which told whether a particular idea was good or bad.

This vision or intuitive mind is the first stage on the journey around the medicine wheel. It is the East, where new ideas are born, but also where your intuition tells you whether the idea and task is a desirable one. The Native Indian knew that just because something could be done did not mean that it should be done. This is a stage that we often leave out of our own thinking. As soon as a new idea is dreamed up by a physicist, scientist or developer, we immediately launch ourselves into exploiting it. Few stop to consider whether the idea will be a positive contribution to our world. If it is a viable idea, we assume that it is inherently good, since we've been taught that all development and progress is good. This is the attitude which has produced drinking boxes, prime time TV and nuclear bombs.

There are several purposes to the meditation which is taught in this program. The first purpose is to teach the individual how to quiet the logical mind. Doing this has many benefits, such as allowing the intuitive, creative mind more activity, as a means of stress control, and as a way of slowing down the individual's pace so that they can better reflect and appreciate the things they encounter in nature. Another benefit is that it opens the door to many body control techniques that are a part of native wisdom. And yet another benefit is that with more balance in the hemispheres of the brain, there also comes a different, more contemplative approach to life. We often tell young people that they must think before they act. We seldom tell them how to do it.

The technique of meditation which is used relies on strengthening three main things. First, there is instruction on how to relax. Second, there is practice in clear and vivid visualization. Third, there is an emphasis on concentration and purpose. When using this technique, imaginations do not just fly uncontrolled, but rather are disciplined towards certain tasks.

It is beyond the scope of this manual to cover the details of the meditation technique. First hand knowledge and exposure is the best teacher. However, here are some important points of information about this process:

1) This form of meditation is not connected to any religion or religious beliefs, but rather can be used as a reinforcement and reconfirmation of any religious beliefs.

2) This form of meditation relies heavily on bio-feedback and left/right brain research done by psychologists. We are dealing with specific physical and mental skills, not personal problems or emotions, and so are not invading an individual's privacy.

3) One practical aim of the technique is to teach body control, such as regulating body temperature.

The meditations, the traditions and ceremonies and the attitudes and values which they represent, are all an important part of the Seton Society program. They dove-tail with the survival skills in creating an individual of high awareness in the wilderness. -A person who is respectful and mindful of the environment and his fellow man, who is sensitive to feelings and emotions and who can experience the fullness of moment.

This mentality was far more common in the lives of the Native Indians, than it is in our modern culture. We feel that it is important to recapture some of these values if our young people are to be able to work towards correcting some of our environmental and social mistakes.