GRANDMOTHER TWYLAH HURD NITSCH
Excerpted with permission from In Sweet Company: Conversations with Extraordinary Women About Living a Spiritual Life by Margaret Wolff.
IT WAS THREE days after I met with her that I realized Grandmother Twylah Hurd Nitsch is a small woman. Her fathomless eyes, her great good humor, and the magnitude of the peace that effortlessly flows from her heart convey a physical presence that reaches far beyond her diminutive frame. She is warm beyond measure, mercurial, and deeply connected to the Earth.
Daughter of a Seneca mother and an Oneida/Scots father, Grandmother Twylah is a direct descendent of Chief Red Jacket, a renowned Seneca orator whose discourses are still studied by scholars today. The Seneca are one of the original members of the Five Nation Peace League known as the Iroquois Confederacy and are the acknowledged philosophers of the League. Seneca society is composed of various clans. Grandmother Twylah’s clan, the Wolf Clan, teaches the wisdom, philosophy, and prophecy of earth history, namely that all creatures — all creation — are members of the one family born of Mother Earth, and that our destiny is to reclaim that Oneness. Her family has been teaching the wisdom-traditions of the elders since the 1700’s.
Born in 1913 on the Cattaraugus Indian Reservation in upstate New York, Gram, as she is often called, was raised by her grandparents, Medicine Man Moses Shongo and his wife Alice, and trained to become the Lineage Holder of Seneca wisdom and leader of the Wolf Clan Teaching Lodge. This role was prophesied before her birth and assumed after her grandfather’s passing — when she was just nine years old.
As a young woman, Gram worked for a time as a jazz musician, singing and playing the drums, and was once invited to sing with Jimmy Dorsey’s band. She married and raised five children. When she began to teach, Gram brought students into her home to live with her family and learn the ancient ways firsthand. As her work grew, she formed the Seneca Indian Historical Society, a school without walls, and began disseminating her teachings through a home study correspondence course and holding semi-annual councils and workshops around the world. True to her Seneca name of Yeh-Weh-Node — “She Whose Voice Rides on the Four Winds” — she has single-handedly spread her ancestral teachings to Australia, Africa, Holland, Germany, Poland, Canada, Israel, Russia, Japan, the British Isles, Italy, and the United States. In April of 1999, she received the prestigious North American Living Treasures Award in recognition of her life’s work.
I first heard about Gram from a friend who is a great admirer of her teachings. I knew little about her then, but something about her beckoned me, stirred pristine images within me of walking barefoot on the loamy trails of an ancient Redwood forest. I had a hard time finding her for she had recently moved from her home on the reservation to live with her son Bob, the future Lineage Holder of the Wolf Clan Teaching Lodge and the current President of the Seneca Indian Historical Society. Eventually, I contacted her publisher who forwarded my invitation to participate in this project on to her. Several weeks later, Bob phoned. They were preparing to leave for a European lecture tour, but he offered me one brief window of time to meet with Gram and I jumped at the chance. I made my travel arrangements that day and one month later, met with Gram, Bob, and Lee Clark, Bob’s wife and the Society’s Program Coordinator, at their home in Jacksonville, Florida.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
... [ I ARRIVE AT Gram's front door after a long drive from the airport,] take a deep breath, then climb out of the car. Bob greets me with a firm handshake and ushers me inside, past a desk piled high with educational materials, into the simply furnished living room, a room pulled together by a man who has little interest in material things beyond the practical necessities. He introduces me to Lee who welcomes me warmly, then excuses herself to get Gram. For a moment I blanch, wondering if there’s some protocol I must follow when greeting a tribal elder, but my concern evaporates when Gram enters the room. Her long white hair is woven into two braids that sit on top of her head like a crown. Her face is weathered, etched by time. She wears a cardigan over a simple cotton dress and tennis shoes. Lee introduces us and Gram looks squarely at me with crystal-clear gray eyes. She opens her arms in an embrace, and I step inside. I feel as if I am a lost child come home.
We all chat for a few minutes about the tribulations of cross-country travel. Gram is surprised to learn that I came from California to talk with her. “I can not imagine why anyone would want to come all that way just to talk with me,” she says as she sits down on the couch. I settle in on the floor at her feet with my questions and recording equipment fanned out before me. Once I’m situated, I look up at her and smile. She returns my grin. Lee retreats into her office and Bob hunkers down at his desk nearby. Gram and I talk for a few minutes about the fact that we are wearing the same tennis shoes. Then we go from the mundane to the sublime as I ask my first question.
All the great religious teachings presuppose that the everyday world and our individual consciousness are manifestations of an underlying Divine reality. The Hindus call it Brahmin, the Buddhists call it One Mind, the Christians call it The Kingdom of Heaven. What do you call it?
“The Seneca call it Swen-i-o, The Great Mystery. Great Mystery is everywhere. It has no one particular form or manifestation, no criteria or rules that limit or define it. It is present in all creation and is beyond matter. It is spiritual energy, spiritual intelligence, the original source and the creator of all life forms, of all existence. It is the essence of all things.”
The word “mystery” intrigues me — the implications of complexity and secrecy — and I ask her to tell me more about this.
“When something is mysterious,” she says, “there is an energy, a magnetism about it that draws you to it, that makes you want to know more about it. It propels you to ask questions, to explore and, hopefully, to learn. Eventually you understand that you can not grasp the totality of Great Mystery, your Creator, with the small mind, with the logical, linear mind. Great Mystery can only be understood and remembered through the experience of Oneness.”
You said Great Mystery has no one specific form. Does It manifest to each person in the way that most appeals to them?
“It can. It’s very personal. Once Great Mystery nips you, you follow the way you are shown.”
What kind of a relationship do you have with Great Mystery?
“It’s an energy that lives within me constantly. It calls to me internally and prompts me to develop or expand specific information or insights for myself and for others. It talks to me through my mental processes, through my intuition and feelings, and through inner visions. Great Mystery both sends and receives — it’s a two-way street. I talk to Great Mystery all the time and Great Mystery responds.”
She is quiet for a moment, then adds, “I once asked Great Mystery for more understanding about this way of communication and the answer I received was, ‘We speak the universal language of love.’ Hail-lo-way-an is the word Great Mystery used to describe it.
“Everyone has experiences of being inwardly guided like this,” she says, “but most of us simply don’t honor the information we’re given. We say, ‘Not now,’ and let the guidance pass, because we do not want to take the time to enter the silence.”
What is “entering the silence”?
“It’s communion with your true nature in spirit, mind and body. When you enter the silence, you go through an inner portal into the unity of all life. The more you go into the silence, the more you learn about your true self and your capacity to function in society. But you can’t just say, ‘I want to go through the portal,’ and off you go. You have to become receptive; your purpose and intention must be pure. That’s why most of us don’t go there. Initially, it takes work.”
It sounds a little like meditation.
“Well, that depends on how you interpret meditation,” she replies. “Going into the silence is listening within. I have a feeling that when some people meditate, they are busy concentrating on a process or they are daydreaming. They are doing instead of listening. I sometimes sit in a chair in a comfortable position when I go into the silence, but that’s where any similarity to meditation ends.
“When I go into the silence, I have something specific I want to discuss with Great Mystery or with my Band Members, the friends and relatives in the spirit realm who serve as my teachers and guides. To go into the silence, you must first enter what the Seneca call your ‘Sacred Space.’”
What and where is your Sacred Space?
“Imagine a dot in the center of a circle that is located at the solar plexus. This dot represents what we call your Vibral Core, the home of your inner wisdom, balance and stability. A vertical line that starts just above the head and ends just below the feet dissects the Vibral Core. This is your Truth Line. Another line extends horizontally as far as the arms can reach on either side of the body and intersects the Truth Line also at the Vibral Core. This line represents your Earthpath. The endpoints of the Truth Line and the Earthpath rest on the circumference of a circle. Inside that circle is your Sacred Space.”
I close my eyes and visualize what Gram has just described. When I open my eyes again, she is smiling at me.
“In the North, at the twelve o’clock position of the circle, rests your wisdom; in the East, at the three o’clock position, rests your integrity; in the South, at the six o’clock position, rests your stability; and in the West, at the nine o’clock position, rests your dignity. When anything negative enters your Sacred Space — such as an inharmonious thought or a disagreeable person — it disrupts your peace and harmony. You become unbalanced and things begin to get difficult. The only way to restore harmony is to act with wisdom, integrity, stability, and dignity.”
Wisdom. Integrity. Stability. Dignity. I take these words in each time I edit this piece, breathe them into me so that I can move them beyond the ideational realm and make them a part of how I operate in the world. I ask myself: What do these qualities now look like in my life? How can I develop them more fully? How do they relate to each other? To my needs and my desires? I see this questioning as being integral to living my life with more effectiveness and meaning. Gram explains why this is so.
“If you continue to avoid Truth Within, your difficulty lasts longer and hurts more because it also affects Love Within and Peace Within. Eventually, your pain compels you to grab hold of the Truth you tossed aside so you can integrate it into your life and remember the experience of Oneness with all creation that is locked inside your Vibral Core at birth. Hopefully, this experience will provide you with the understanding that prevents you from making the same mistake over again. But you will continue to learn through opposites until you remember that you are a part of the unity of all life.”
Learn through opposites?
“Yes. You confront the opposite of Truth so that you can learn Truth.”Oh, yes, I say, and roll my eyes, for I have ample experience of my opposites. I have learned to be more honest with myself, to be proactive, to take time for personal renewal — the list is endless — as a result of being in intimate communion with the silver-tongued converse of each of these behaviors.
Gram looks at me with a twinkle in her eye as I tell her this and chuckles.
In your book, Other Council Fires Were Here Before Ours, you wrote about the fallout that occurs when we lose that deeper connection to Truth and have to learn through opposites, how we “... unconsciously project our sense of separation from the unity of all life out onto the world and see it as broken.” In the heat of battle, most of us rail against the opposition — whomever or whatever is outside of us — rather than try to reconnect with our inner Truth.
“Yes. Once the bonds of Love Within are broken and you begin to operate outside of your Sacred Space, you forget that you and all of life are a part of Great Mystery and that Great Mystery loves all creatures equally and unconditionally. When you are no longer aware of your true nature, you feel threatened by anyone or anything that is different from you; so, in an attempt to restore your own balance, you make others wrong or the world broken.
“When something inside us needs work, most people generally don’t take the time to look at it honestly or deeply enough because, initially, it can be a painful exploration. So we hang onto false beliefs, false patterns of self-know-ledge because they keep us from making important inner changes or we try to ‘fix’ others rather than make things right within ourselves.
“Truth Within is sacred. It’s whole. It’s a positive energy that unifies and feeds the body and the mind. It helps you digest your food, digest your lessons, and move through your Earthwalk in a focused and positive manner.”
Truth Within is like soul food.
“That’s right. And when you live Truth Within, your challenges do not affect you as deeply.”
Is Truth Within the same for everyone?
“We each have an individual truth that relates to our gifts, to our willingness to develop our gifts, to the time and environment we’re born into, and so on. There’s also a Uniworld Truth, a Whole Truth, derived from our oneness with Great Mystery that is the same for everyone. We have to live in accordance with both aspects of Truth to maintain our inner balance. If we don’t, that imbalance becomes the part of you others will notice most.”
It’s also the part of myself I notice most. And, if I’m not living my Truth, I can’t be of real service to myself or to others.“If you really want to help others, be an example,” she counsels. “A good example is the best teacher. Others admire you and want to be like you. They sense your inner comfort and want that for themselves.”
She leans toward me and says, “It’s like this: If you wear a sharp outfit that makes you feel good, yet you can’t maintain that comfort and wholeness when you take off the outfit — or no matter what else you put on — you’ve got a problem. Your outside image doesn’t ring true. Unfortunately, there are not a lot of people today who feel whole.”
I think, these days, more people are working at it though. Sometimes we’ve got it together, and sometimes we don’t.
“That’s part of the growth process. We learn in increments because we can take in and hold just so much at one time. Attempting to remain in your truth is better than not trying at all. The main thing is to be open to learning and to learn with a humble attitude. Seek more than immediate or exterior comfort. Be true to yourself. When it’s time for you to learn more, Truth is there for the asking. It’s always with you. Unity is always with you. All you have to do is recognize it.”
What blocks our recognition of Truth and Unity?
“Not knowing Who you really are and not understanding your connection to Great Mystery. Not knowing limits you; it compels you to look to the small mind to sort things out. We know there’s ‘something more,’ we hunger for it, but we haven’t the remotest idea what ‘more’ really is! In our ignorance, we create exhaustion, fear or intentional busyness or we passively let others tell us what to do just so we can have something to use as an excuse for why we’re not happy. Once you get distracted and pulled off-center like this, you see only the periphery of Truth. The energy required to navigate through this illusion is immense, often more than we can muster. But the process can be simplified through prayer and willingness to follow Great Mystery’s guidance.”
She smiles at me and I get the sense that she knows that I am both fierce about my own growth and looking for answers to questions I have not yet named. I am not at all intimidated by this. She is so comfortable to be around, so safe, that I’m happy to let her in. She may see parts of me that aren’t particularly attractive, but I intuitively know this doesn’t matter to her. She looks out at me, out at the world, from some cavernous core not molded by theory or opinion — or judgment. I notice how internally quiet I have become just by sitting with her, and I rest for a moment in the Quiet.
Something else I read in her book floats up to the surface of my mind — her belief that all creatures are Relations, members of one planetary family. Humans, she wrote, are the only Relation unaware of this familial association. The animals, the trees, the stones, and so on, have all chosen to endure the harshness of mankind’s delusion of separate existence until we remember our unity with all life and can then, all return to Great Mystery together. I tell her how moved I am by the compassion, the patience, of creatures we consider to be “less than.”
“The sun and moon, the earth and sky are our family,” she says. “The Earth is our Mother, the sky is our Father. It’s Grandfather Sun, Grandmother Moon. White society doesn’t feel this connection the way Native people do. They walk the Earth, they eat Her food and drink Her water, they even love Her trees and mountains, but they don’t feel their natural bond with the Earth.
“Humans have become pushy and egocentric. We do not know that all life is interdependent. Our other Relations can wait until we remember this Truth because they know that within the challenge of separation, lies the promise of equality and unity.”
As I begin to grab hold of these words, Lee emerges from the inner sanctum of her office and suggests we break for lunch. I look at my watch and am surprised to see that three hours have passed. Ten minutes later, the four of us are sitting on stools around the breakfast counter holding hands, each offering Great Mystery our gratitude for something the day has brought. I listen to their effortless words of thanksgiving and when my turn comes, I give thanks for being able to share this day with them. I do not feel as if I am a guest in their home; rather I am a Relation, a member of the family.
The salad Lee prepares is delicious and we laugh and talk as we eat. Lee and Bob giggle as they try to piece together a wonderful story about Gram’s visit from the Dalai Lama. I get the full report several months later from a student of Gram’s who witnessed the event.
It goes like this: During the winter months of 1991, the Dalai Lama and an entourage of Buddhist monks visited Gram for two days at her home on the reservation. She often received guests, people from all walks of life, who came to learn more about her teachings and enjoy her warm hospitality. The two spiritual leaders spent many hours in deep conversation about the state of international affairs and exchanged thoughts on their shared desire for world peace. As was her custom, Gram also invited the Dalai Lama to visit the twelve-sided Wolf Clan Lodge located a short distance from her home.
The two elders walked slowly, arm-in-arm, along the ice and snow-covered path to the Lodge, with members of the Dalai Lama’s party and the Wolf Clan Teaching Lodge following at a respectful distance. Then, without warning, Gram and the Dalai Lama slid on a patch of ice, lost their balance and fell, in Gram’s words, “butt over tea kettle” on their backs into the snow. For a few brief moments, no one breathed. Horrified monks and Wolf Clan members engaged in a mad scramble to assist their leaders, but Gram and the Dalai Lama just turned to each other and burst out laughing. Then, like two mischievous school children, they each gathered a lump of snow in their hands and initiated a snowball fight. From the little I know of Gram, it is not at all difficult to picture this event in my head.
After lunch, Gram meanders back to the couch and I resume my place on the floor. The tape starts to roll as I ask her if there’s one precept, a sort of “Golden Rule” she follows, that guides or inspires her.
“My Grandfather taught me to follow the Twelve Cycles of Truth and the Pathways of Peace to preserve my wholeness and help me walk in balance and fulfill my life’s mission. They are: learn the Truth, honor the Truth, know the Truth, see the Truth, hear the Truth, speak the Truth, love the Truth, serve the Truth, live the Truth, work the Truth, share the Truth and be thankful for the Truth. The Pathway of Peace is living in harmony with this ancient philosophy.”
So, if you live in harmony with these cycles, you fulfill your life’s mission?
“You fulfill your Earthwalk, your Pathway to Peace, the personal pattern that guides you toward wholeness. Each person must develop their dreams and discipline themselves to achieve what they desire for their life in a way that satisfies Truth Within.”
What is your Earthwalk?
Gram looks over at Bob, who is, by now, back at his desk, and chuckles. “Well, my Earthwalk is just about over,” she says. “At this time in my life, I’m happy to sit back and take it easy. But when I was a young girl, my elders told me I would carry on the work of my Grandfather Moses Shongo to spread our teachings and help others understand their connection to the earth. My Grandparents also told me I would experience certain disabilities when I grew older that would help me learn how to carry out the work and better understand others. This too, has been part of my Earthwalk. I was crippled to teach me about perseverance, positive thinking, and faith in Great Mystery’s plan. I was blind to learn to perceive more than what my outer eyes could see and be more sensitive to the energy of others. And I was deaf so I could become aware of a deeper vibration and rhythm of life that extends beyond my sense of hearing.”
I make a presumption and say, “Those must have been difficult times.” But Gram is on a totally different wave length.
“Actually, they were wonderful times! My elders also told me I would fully recover from these challenges, but I had to do my part and be willing to grow through them. I never lapsed into ‘Poor me.’”
Did you ever have periods of doubt?
Lack of faith?
No “dark night of the soul”?
That’s amazing! What do you attribute this to?
“To these teachings. Everything that happened to me was just like going to school. Even when I couldn’t hear or see, I didn’t feel disappointed. I felt like I was being gifted because of what I was learning through the experience.
“When I was a child my elders taught me it was up to me to make myself happy each day, and when I go to bed each night, I should thank Great Mystery for my happiness. Most people don’t take responsibility for their own happiness — it doesn’t even enter their heads to do this! And at the end of the day, they’re not grateful for the good things that happen to them.”
Were your Grandparents your mentors?
“They were my examples. My grandparents raised me before I went off to boarding school. My grandfather was a Seneca Indian Medicine Man. He was always in the woods looking for herbs, and I learned from him how to live in harmony with Nature. Our kitchen constantly smelled like a ‘medicine factory,’ as he called it. He was a brilliant man. All the doctors in the community were his friends. Sometimes they would send him patients who didn’t respond to their medicine. My grandmother was a very quiet person, but when she spoke, her words were packed with meaning.
“Our house was always full of people. My grandparents knew how to make everyone feel comfortable with who they were. I often heard them tell people, ‘You were born with these gifts so use them.’ They showed me how to listen and pay attention to others and to be aware of what was going on around me. They also taught me that I was worthy of having my own ideas and that the answers to my problems lay inside me.”
After your Grandfather died, you assumed the responsibility for carrying on his teachings. You were just a young girl at that time. Did you feel prepared for this?
“His passing was a devastating loss to me, but he had been preparing me for this role all my life — by his example, in everything we did together, and in the ancient stories he told me. In our tradition, wisdom is passed on orally. Those who tell the stories are called the Wisdom Keepers or the Storytellers. They are chosen for their ability to listen and speak, so that the people can be sure our wisdom is passed on correctly. That role, like the stories themselves, is passed on from generation to generation. When I die, my son Bob will become the Wisdom Keeper. I have prepared him in the same way my Grandfather prepared me.”
What advice, would you give to others seeking to live a more spiritual life?
“Be kind. Do nice things for others; speak kindly about others. If someone does something nice for you, be grateful. Say ‘Thank you.’ Be grateful for every day. Be grateful for waking up. Be grateful for being able to breathe.”
“You know,” she says, after a moment’s pause, “gratitude is actually based on love, and nothing is more powerful than love. It’s lack of love, or the misuse of love, that causes many of the problems we have today. People don’t appreciate what they have. They don’t love and respect themselves or each other. They take without giving anything back. They hide their elders — the ones who have the most life experience and can be most helpful in guiding them — in old folks’ homes to get them out of the way. No wonder people today are so confused! No wonder people are not happy!
“In order to be happy, you need to develop and share your inner love. That’s how it grows. If you’re not sharing what you have with others — your gifts and abilities as well as your material possessions — if you’re not helping others to grow, if you’re not a teacher or an example, you’re a user. Users don’t honor what they have. They don’t know how to take care of things so they can be perpetuated. Madison Avenue steps in and tells us to ‘Have it your way,’ so we push for more. Once we get what we want, we devour it until it’s gone. There’s no happiness in that,” Gram declares and shakes her head.
“Happiness — inner happiness — is the goal of life. Most people can’t even look at themselves in the mirror and smile! If someone comes to me and tells me they’re unhappy, I tell them to examine their feelings and figure out what their limitations are and deal with them! You may have a nice house, a nice car, a good job and make $100,000 a year, but if you have all that stuff and you’re still unhappy, you have to ask yourself, ‘What’s wrong with this picture?’”
She doesn’t mince words. The real question then, I say to her, is how do you foster self-love?
“You have to nourish self-love all the time. If your parents or husband didn’t give you the love you wanted, you have to give it to yourself. If something throws you into a slump, look at it right in the eye. Figure out what you didn’t see about yourself that allowed that slump to happen, then change it. After all, we live in a do-it-yourself world!” She chuckles once again.
Looking back over your lifetime, what do you think is your greatest accomplishment?
“I really don’t know how to answer that. If you were to ask me about my greatest experience, I would say being married and raising my five children. But ‘accomplishment’ ... I don’t know.”
She looks at Bob for a way into this question. They talk about this for a while and then she realizes why the question is so difficult for her to answer. “You see, Seneca people gauge accomplishment by where we are on our Earthwalk, how we’ve developed our natural potentials and shared our gifts. Our elders know we’re ready to move forward by the questions we ask. There is no criticism or praise, there is only movement through the labyrinth of experience until we remember Who we really are. A bear wakes up in the morning knowing who he is and what he must do each day. He doesn’t ‘accomplish,’ he just lives in harmony with Great Mystery. This is true for us as well.”
OK, I think to myself. Be bear-like: know who I am — part of the Oneness of all life — and live in harmony with Great Mystery. It’s a good thought to hold on to when I get sucked into the vortex of my To Do list.
When your Earthwalk ends, how would you like to be remembered?
“For greeting people with a smile and for spreading the Seneca Peacemakers’ message of ‘All for One and One for All.’ When you feel your oneness with all life, you carry that with you everywhere you go. You feel centered. Then whatever you do helps others; it unifies life. I believe in these words and honor them by how I live my life. It’s really as simple as that.”
I look at Gram and smile. Is there anything we didn’t cover? Anything else you want to add?
“No,” she says. “It’s been nice.”
It’s been nice for me, too. More than nice. I try to thank her but I cannot find the words.
Bob tells me, with an impish smile on his face, how someone once told him that when you don’t know what to say, you can always ask the other person if their shoes fit right. We all laugh.
Gram, do your shoes fit right?
“When my stockings don’t get all bunched up,” she says, and we howl. As I pack up my gear, Bob suggests I listen to the tapes I made of my conversation with Gram to see if anything needs clarification. He invites me to come back the next day to pull together any loose ends. I’ve so enjoyed being with them, it’s an offer I can’t refuse. Before I leave, Gram takes me into her room and gives me a “wish pouch” she knitted, a small apple green sack she tells me to fill with my wishes for my life. She walks with me to the door. Gram and Lee hug me good-bye and I drive off to a nearby hotel to spend the night.
That evening, I listen to the tapes and come up with a few questions to ask Gram — not really enough to warrant another visit, but I’m so glad to have the opportunity to sit at their table again, to hold hands and express my gratitude at being a part of their sweet family, that I return for a few hours the next morning. At noon, I pack up my gear, and Gram and Lee hug me good-bye for the last time. Though I know I can call up the comfort I have felt here whenever I think of her, I am reluctant to leave. Gram smiles at me and gives me one last gentle word of counsel: “Remember the Peacemakers’ message: All for One and One for All.” I nod and return her smile. My voice catches in my throat as I say good-bye, then I turn and walk out the door.Excerpted with permission from In Sweet Company: Conversations with Extraordinary Women About Living a Spiritual Life by Margaret Wolff.
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