I Was a Kickapoo Spiritual Leader
AS TOLD BY BOB LEE WHITE, SR.
I was born in a wickiup, a small, Native American frame hut covered with a matting of tree bark and cattail reeds, at McLoud, Oklahoma, U.S.A., in 1935. My Kickapoo* Indian name is Pay-MEE-Ton-Wah, which means “Water That Goes By.” I was introduced to an Indian spiritual life as a little boy. How did that come about?
FOR many years my mother’s father, like his father before him, was the spiritual leader of a Kickapoo tribe of the Water clan of Native Americans in Oklahoma. When he died without a son, the 12 clan leaders, or elders, determined that the oldest son of the oldest daughter of their fallen spiritual leader should fill that vacancy. I was that son.
How I Became a Spiritual Leader
Normally a new spiritual leader would not take up that role until he was 30 years of age and then only after a period of fasting, during which time he would see visions or otherwise become enlightened for carrying out the spiritual functions. From the time I was a little boy, I was taught the traditional religion of the Kickapoo. I inherited the religious garments and the MEE-shon, or sacred bundle. Sometimes called a medicine bundle, it is a collection of religious articles wrapped in animal skin. About two feet [60 cm] long, it resembles an oval-shaped American or rugby football. I spent much time in the most holy compartment of their spiritual tent, where I listened to the revelations of tribal leaders. Thus as a youngster I became the new spiritual leader of the Kickapoo tribe.
All these details were vividly impressed on my young mind. Since none of these secrets were written down, the religious traditions of many generations were now entrusted solely to me. If the clan leaders back then had their way, I would have stayed right there with the tribe, officiating over every spiritual function until this day.
However, I went away to school in Kansas. This worried the older men, as they feared losing me to “the white man’s world.” After leaving school, I went to Los Angeles, California, where I was reunited with my childhood sweetheart, Diane. Her Indian name is Tu-NO-Thak-Quah, or Turning Bear, of the Bear clan. Our mothers and grandfathers had been longtime friends. We were married in September 1956. Diane had a religious background too. Her grandfather introduced the Peyote religion into the Kickapoo tribe.—See the box on page 22.
The Peyote Religion
The Peyote religion is found in many different Indian tribes today. It was Quanah Parker (about 1845-1911), a spiritual leader and chief of the Comanche Kwahadi division, who “was influential in the development and diffusion of the peyote religion in Indian Territory.” (The Encyclopedia of Native American Religions) By enthusiastically proclaiming the hallucinogenic virtues and supposed medicinal powers of the peyote cactus, he gained converts to Peyotism from many North American Indian tribes. Thus, among the Kickapoo, as in other tribes, the traditional religion and Peyotism existed side by side.
Attracted to Hollywood
While in the Los Angeles area, I became quite active in Indian social clubs and societies, becoming president of several of them. Among these were the Drum and Feather Club, the Indian Bowling Association, and the National Indian Athletic Association. I was also on the board of directors of the Indian Center in Los Angeles.
I made my way into Hollywood circles. Among my acquaintances were Iron Eyes Cody, well-known for television public-service announcements about ecology, and Jay Silverheels, who played the Indian named Tonto in the TV series The Lone Ranger. Most notable of the movies I appeared in were Westward Ho, the Wagons! starring Fess Parker, and Pardners, starring Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis.
Both Diane and I worked at Disneyland for a while. I acted in ten-minute skits every hour throughout the day. Diane says with a smile: “All I had to do was dress up and walk around among the crowd all day ‘acting’ like an Indian.”
A Different Spiritual Approach
In 1962, Diane was contacted by one of Jehovah’s Witnesses and was given a small booklet. The Witness kept coming back, but Diane kept giving her excuses. When the Witness asked if she really wanted her to stop calling, Diane thought to herself, ‘Yes! Yes!’ But wanting to be kind, she said: “Oh, no! No!” So the visits continued. She always told me what she had learned. When she sometimes forgot to mention it, I would ask: “Did that Jehovah’s Witness lady come by? What did she say?”
On one occasion the lady told Diane of a special talk at a meeting of Jehovah’s Witnesses at the Los Angeles Forum. She offered to watch our four children while we went to hear the talk. Thinking that I would never go, Diane even failed to mention it to me. But after persistent urging from the Witness, she did. To her surprise I said: “You mean she’ll stay here and watch our kids and feed them? This white woman?”
Thus we went to our first meeting in 1969. I did not understand everything that was presented from the platform. However, what really impressed me was the organization—how 20,000 people could be fed lunch in such a short time through their volunteer cafeteria arrangement. I also noticed the lack of racial prejudice—black people and white people calling one another brother and sister.
In August of 1969, the Witnesses started a Bible study with me in the book The Truth That Leads to Eternal Life.* I admit that I had ulterior motives when I agreed to study the Bible. I was in a number of Indian organizations, and I saw a political career in my future. I thought I should get to know the Bible because the politicians seemed to know it and quote from it. Now I realize how little many of those men really knew about God’s Word.
A Big Change in My Life
Once I began to study the Bible, things progressed rapidly. I resigned from all the clubs and associations I had joined, and I knew I had to sever ties with my former Native American religion. I recall sitting down to write my letter of withdrawal. I put the date at the top of the page, wrote “Dear,” and then paused for a long time, trying to figure out whose name to write. I finally realized that the letter should be written to the traditional spiritual leader—me! I quickly resolved this quandary by writing “Dear Mom.” I then proceeded to inform my mother that I would no longer be practicing that religion or serving as its spiritual leader.
Both my wife and I were baptized as Jehovah’s Witnesses on January 3, 1970. In 1973, I became an elder in the congregation. There I was, a former Kickapoo spiritual leader, now taking the lead in our local congregation in true worship of Jehovah, the Universal Sovereign. In July 1974 we moved back to McLoud, Oklahoma, in an effort to help the Native Americans learn the true hope for all mankind, as set forth in God’s Word, the Bible.
Like other tribes, the Kickapoo used tobacco in their worship. Interestingly, they did not smoke it. The Kickapoo sprinkled tobacco on the fire as incense, believing that their prayers would go up to the heavens by means of the resulting smoke. The oldest leaders among the Kickapoo felt that it was malicious to smoke tobacco, that using a pipe to do so was a mockery, and that the use of a pipe had European origins.
I have been asked if I have any pictures of myself in my former religious dress. Actually, there were never any pictures allowed because of fear of what practicers of witchcraft could do with them. Throughout those years, when my hair was cut, it was always buried, and no one else was allowed to touch it. Thus it could not be used in witchcraft, which is taken very seriously by the Indians.
After I withdrew from the Kickapoo religion, the clan leaders took over the spiritual functions of the tribe. When the 12 who originally selected me died off, new clan leaders arose, and in the course of time, they have made changes in the religion. At present, only one clan leader is still living, and he is quite old. I have no intention of passing on to others what I was taught as a little boy.
I am now busy endeavoring to teach God’s Word to people of all nations and tribes. As a full-time pioneer minister, I have had the privilege of teaching the Bible on many Indian reservations throughout the United States. I have visited, among others, the Osage in Oklahoma and the Mohave, Hopi, and Navajo in Arizona. I enjoy telling my fellow Native Americans that the “Happy Hunting Ground,” an expression long used by us to refer to the hope of life after death, draws attention to “ground.” Therefore, the implication is that they are really anticipating living here on earth rather than in heaven. I look forward to the resurrection of many Indians of past generations so that I might have opportunity to teach them about God’s new world.—John 5:28, 29; 2 Peter 3:13.
The name Kickapoo comes from the word kiikaapoa, “people who move about.”—Encyclopedia of North American Indians.
Published by Jehovah’s Witnesses.
[Box/Picture on page 22]
What Is the Peyote Religion?
The Peyote religion has now come to be known as the Native American Church. Peyote is a small spineless cactus (see right) found principally in the Rio Grande valley in Mexico and also in Texas. The Peyote religion has over 200,000 members in the North American tribes. “Originating in prehistoric Mexico, Peyotism today incorporates elements of Christianity while remaining a pan-Indian affair.” (A Native American Encyclopedia—History, Culture, and Peoples) The two primary ceremonies in the Peyote religion are the Half-Moon and the Big Moon. Both incorporate “aspects of Indian culture and Christianity.” The peyote ceremony is an all-night ceremony, usually begun on a Saturday, wherein a group of men sit in a circle in a tepee. They experience hallucinations while eating quantities of bitter-tasting buds or nodules of the peyote cactus and chanting sacred songs to the beating of a drum and the rhythmic rattle of a gourd.
Courtesy TAMU Cactus Photo Gallery
[Picture on page 21]
Dressed as a Kickapoo warrior
[Picture on page 23]
With my wife, Diane, today