Charles Thom Senior, The Red Hawk Walking Backwards, chief medicine man of the Karuk nation, left his body to join his ancestors today.
When I heard about the passing of this man, who had saved my life, I had to stop and cry. I could barely breathe.
This is a man whose kindness, peacefulness, generosity, and wisdom sets standards that I can only aspire to.
I believe that I have already told the story of my meeting with him here; it will only enrich this site for me to tell it again.
Twenty-five years ago I was staying in the eastern United States, in a rather ... difficult situation. I was under a lot of tension, and was having a very hard time. I was getting suicidal, and my wife was worried about me.
A friend called me and told me that Charles Thom Sr., also known as Red Hawk Walking Backwards, was giving a sweat lodge in Kerhonkson, about twenty miles from where I was living. I said to them "Pour on the rocks, pile on the wood, I'm coming over."
I told Rita, my wife, what I was doing and she said "Go!"
I drove to Kerhonkson, and in the car I was screaming and angry, so much so that I almost tore the steering wheel off the car.
I got to the forest near the edge of the river and parked, got out of the car, and as I walked across an older man came out of the woods holding some eagle feathers. He greeted me, and said that they had all been waiting for me to arrive.
"What are you waiting for me for?" I asked him.
"Everybody here is so healthy, so clear, that we haven't had strong medicine come into the lodge; but now that you're here we'll really get some STRONG medicine, 'cause I haven't seen ANYBODY as sick as you!"
I went into the lodge with him and a bunch of other people who already had gone through and wanted to feel what strong medicine was like. They all knew of my condition, and couldn't wait to see what would happen.
Well, the lodge was closed, and darkness came over everything, lighted only by the faint light of the red-hot rocks. Charlie began to sing, and the songs had an ancientness, a simplicity, and a beauty that were breathtaking, and the medicine began to happen. The thunder beings spoke overhead, and it was like a conversation between them and Charlie. I still remember the songs that Charlie sang, and especially what he said. At one point he said:
"Each living thing sings its own song, but there's one song that everything sings, and it's the Song Of Love. Because you have to know that everything has love, even the branches that make the lodge, even these rocks, and this water..." and he threw water on the rocks at that moment, and there was an explosive sound, and thunder right at that moment, and then he sang the Song Of Love, which went right into my heart.
Other songs came out that day, and at last I crawled out and went to the river and immersed myself in the water, which at that moment truly became the water of life for me, and I felt re-born. I cried, there by the river, overwhelmed by the love and generosity of the universe and also by Charlie's goodness and kindness. In fact I'm starting to cry as I write this, remembering the generosity of this great medicine man towards someone that he had never met before.
Well, I went home to my family, and Rita looked at me when I arrived and she smiled. "You look re-born!" She said. "I am." I answered.
A day or two later, Charlie and his helper came to visit. It seems that they wanted to do recordings of Charlie's songs, and I had recording equipment, so we started right away.
Now you have to know that I had just 'graduated' from twelve years of music school, and I had been trained to pick up music very fast, so I said to Charlie:
"Look, if these songs are secret, you better not sing them in front of me, because I will get them and sing them immediately"
He laughed and said:
"No, my friend, they are for you! They are for anybody that feels the call to sing them!"
We recorded about fifteen songs, and I did learn them; and when Charlie had his next lodge, a week later, I sang some of them to him in lodge and he was very pleased.
I studied with him for a cycle of apprenticeship, seven years. I have rarely met a man with such generosity, humor, and wisdom. He is now the chief medicine man of the Karuk nation, and has gone backwards in time to bring songs, ceremonies, and healing tools to the Karuk and their neighbors, the Yurok, Tolowa, and Hoopa. That's why he is called "Walking Backwards".
The first Karuk word that I learned from him is "Yotu'wah", which means "Thank you".
Thank you, Charles Thom Senior; your songs will never die. I will sing them as long as I live, and pass them along to others, as you did to me.