Edited interview with Paula Underwood By Roger Breisch June 25, 1998. First published in Entre Nous: a publication of the Midwest Organizational Learning Network.


Roger: How did you come to learn the “ Old Ways?”

Paula: My Grandfather’s Grandmother was a healer in Kaskaskia on the Shenando River in what we now call Western Pennsylvania. She was seventeen and had just been given her first patient, an elderly gentleman. She did all the things you do to see what’s going on. There was not a thing in the world wrong with him . . . he was dying anyway.

She was a healer and a spirit healer – combination of priest and psychiatrist – so she decided she needed to hear what we call his “sorrow song.” He had taken a great trip to visit the Erie who were famous for their ways of strength and spirit . . . spent twenty years learning these gifts. He would bring them back to his own people and help them. Now he was the last keeper of these “old things.” He tried for decades to find somebody to learn from him, but everyone was so busy moving West to survive the onslaught of the pale ones . . . no one had time. This was why he was dying.

She thought, “I’ll learn some of these things from him. By the time I have learned very much, I will have found someone else.” She began learning and he got a little better. She learned more and he got a little better. She learned more and he got well! He lived for seven more years.

She never did find anyone to take her place. When he finally did shuffle off this mortal soil, she was the only one who knew these things. Her agreement with him was that she would make of her family a bridge of five generations so he could speak through us to the seventh generation hence. Do you know about the seventh generation hence?

Roger: I would like to hear it from you.

Paula: No major decision can be made without considering its impact on the seventh generation hence: The grandchildren, and once again the grandchildren, and more than
that . . . seven generations. That’s really an environmental impact statement! You also look seven generations back. “Why did people not do it this way in the past?” Maybe because nobody thought of it, but maybe there is a very good reason you haven’t considered.

Her daughter died in childbirth. She did not find anyone until my grandfather began learning at the age of sixteen. Then my Father learned from him and I have learned from my Father.

Roger: Was it your duty?

Paula: In my tradition it is never, “You’re the eldest child, so it’s your job . . . sit down and listen.” Instead, it’s, “There’s something our people have done for a long time. You might be interested in hearing about it.” If you’re the sort of person who immediately says, “oh what?,” then maybe it’s the appropriate thing for you. If you are the sort of person who says, “I’m busy playing right now,” that’s okay. You never give a major task to someone who lacks the natural talent or sustained interest.

I learned these things in what I call the deep, dark forests of South, Central L.A.! In my generation, this was the time to write it down in English, the language of the broader nation and to give it as a gift to all Earth’s children with listening ears. Those were the instructions from my Grandfather’s grandmother and that’s what I am trying to do.

Roger: You said earlier it was foreseen that when you got to your Grandmother years the world would begin to listen.

Paula: Black Elk told my Grandfather it would be so. When somebody has a major-life task, which I think this is, you do everything you can to ease their circumstance . . . you look forward and see what’s lying around the corner, to the best of your ability.

My Dad was always encouraging me to pay attention. We’d go to a movie and he would nudge me, “Look at that, Honeygirl, you’re going to be doing that someday.” He told me I would be spending more time in the air than Emelia Airhart.

He was always looking at the wholeness . . . balancing left brain logical sequence with right brain wholeness. In my tradition it’s called the forest and the path. If you only walk the path – logical sequence – and never take time to look at the forest – the wholeness of your circumstance – where are you going? You don’t know where to find fresh water or beechnuts. On the other hand, if you get so entranced with the radiant beauty of the wholeness that you never move down the path of life, what have you done with your time? The idea is to go back and forth.

Roger: You have been given a life task, to be the Keeper of the “Old Things.” How do you feel that is developing?

Paula: My ancestors predicted that people would begin to listen when I reached grandmother years. I have every reason to say it probably will be so. Societies open up for new ideas then they close down and digest. This is the fourth time the children of the West have opened up and learned from their Native American brothers and sisters . . . it won’t be the last.

Now I can walk into almost any major corporation and there’s going to be decent receptivity before I leave . . . people are open to some of the basic ideas. I’ve spent time teaching myself ways of saying things the Western Ear can hear . . . that was a job.

Roger: Are there a few key things you would like people to learn from your tradition?

Paula: I thought a long time ago that if I could take one idea from my tradition and spread it world wide over night it would be the Rule Of Six. The Rule Of Six says that for every perceivable phenomenon devise at least six plausible explanations. There are probably sixty, but if you devise six it will sensitize you to how many there may be and prevent you from locking in on the first thing that sounds right. My Dad used to say, “The most pernicious nonsense ever loosed on the human race is the idea that one way is right and all others wrong.” Also, if you want to be clearly understood, you must say what you have to say three times in three different ways . . . once for each ear and once for the heart.

Roger: When you say once for each ear, you mean the left brain and right brain?

Paula: Oh yes, you do it once in a logical, academic way . . . once where Central Fire is flaming up and then once as a balance between. You want to invite all of your listeners to hear what you have to say. Usually, when we explain anything, we give listeners the information we need to understand. That may have nothing to do with what they need.

Roger: Can you tell me more about the metaphor of Central Fire?

Paula: Each of us bring the logs of our own experience to Central Fire . . . different kinds of logs cut in different ways . . . and we bring the kindling of our willingness to consider new possibilities. If we listen to the possibilities, that may light the kindling, which may indeed ignite the Central Fire. In my tradition, fire is considered a transition . . . the willingness to go from one condition to another. The flames show us the variations in our understanding together. The smoke that rises from the fire tells others that learning is occurring here.

Roger: You are now discovering some advanced symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. Has that changed or deepened your insights into your work and your life?

Paula: Anything that can get you to stand aside and look at yourself is an advantage. This is nothing I would’ve volunteered for, but it certainly has been an education. I never worried about getting things done or getting any place on time . . . I just moved faster. I can’t do that now. When you see me slowly getting up, its because the right side of my body will not move at the same speed as the left side any more. You learn to function at the speed of the least common denominator.

I have learned how to deal with disabilities. I call it semi-abled because you can lose track if you focus only on the things that you can’t do anymore . . . develop a “Sorrow Song” that will last the rest of your life.