Reflections on a Keeper and her Tradition:

I was first introduced to the learning program, Past Is Prologue, in 1995. It was based on Native American learning stories and a vast oral history purposefully handed down for thousands of years. Needless to say, I couldn’t put down this vibrant account of our past. Page after page described what prehistoric America looked like through the eyes of those seeing it for the first time, long before it had been altered by the hand of man. I felt the present fade into the past as I witnessed these people learning how to cope with an ever-changing environment. I followed along their migratory path in the heat and desolation of the dry places, along river’s edge, in the woodlands, and on high snow covered mountains. I relived their endless walk through grasses so high one could only see by standing on another’s shoulders. My heartbeat quickened as I experienced their fear when they heard and felt the thunderous stampede of buffalo for the first time. This, for them, was a reminder of the day of “Rocks Like Rain.” A day when the Earth shook and destroyed their first home. A day when a great tidal wave crashed down on their beaches and washed out to sea the Keepers of their Wisdom. The devastation of this fateful day precipitated their journey to find a new home far from this angry, unyielding ocean. Those who survived, who had not been crushed by many falling rocks, who had yet to come down from their mountain shelters to the presumed safety of the beach, were left to start over. What remained was a small band of people, perhaps not more than thirty-five in number. They were left to grieve their loses, to eventually decide how they might organize themselves and move forward. They would need to rediscover through trial and error the wisdom that was lost to the sea. They would become a people who interacted with those already settled and living along their journey’s path. They would be a people who came to value the wisdom of a different way, a people who saw the importance of passing on all they had learned to any among them who would listen. It was their intent that never again would they find themselves in such a circumstance.

The rich historic record of the Walking People survived over thousands of years because time and time again a determined people sat patiently, listening to Ancient Songs around a central council fire. The art of accurate oral transmission continued to develop through a changing time because one or more in each generation accepted the responsibility to commit the visual images of the past to memory, the gathered wisdom of a whole People. It is here today, for all those willing to listen, because Paula Underwood sat quietly to learn from her father. Sat for endless hours on a beaten earth floor in the most unlikely place of southern Los Angeles around no central fire at all, save the one that burned in her heart, the one created by a father and his daughter. Paula Underwood had accepted the responsibility for this oral history.

With the help of her friend and colleague, Jeanne Lamar Slobod, Paula completed the task of putting the images, containing the wisdom of the People, into a manuscript. Paula provided the “dance of words on paper,” insisting it be, “accurate always, beautiful if possible.” Jeanne’s literary and editing expertise allowed the Oral History to take form. The result of their vision and dedication was the publication in 1993 of The Walking People, A Native American Oral History. It was a compilation of “Old Songs” spanning some 10,000 years. It chronicled the migration of an indigenous people from the east coast of Asia across “Walk By Waters” in the Bering Strait, to the western edge of Turtle Island. The descriptive narrative continues with the saga of the people’s trek across the pristine continent of North America, through a “grass ocean”, and dense woodlands, arriving at last on the eastern shore, settling, after countless generations, in and around Lake Ontario.

This was more than an historical account, it was the intentional sharing and keeping of all that the people had learned. The “Old Songs”, shared around a council fire, were learning stories. They had devised a way to insure that all those willing to listen would have the opportunity to share in the wisdom. Never again did the people wish to be left without the means to survive following a catastrophic event. Never again did they wish to loose all those who understood medicine, food, shelter, land, and the nature of both “two and four leggeds.”

Among the many lessons contained within the Keeping was a sacred respect for learning, ordered council, and consensus. Immediately obvious was the value this would have as an educational tool. Less obvious, initially, were the many prehistoric details that were surfacing as I read and reread The Walking People. For within the ancient telling was also carried the history of other peoples.

The longer the memory, the greater the added responsibility to seek a deeper understanding of the story being told. When all eyewitnesses to an event have passed on, there remains the task of accurately telling their stories with precision, emotion, and perspective, helping others to see “the reality behind the words.” There is an inherent commitment to explore the circumstances surrounding the historical account. Such is the nature of oral tradition and such is the dedication of the Keepers.


How over many ensuing generations

those responsible for such things

devised and redevised

the learning of memory,

as well as ceremonies

appropriate to such learning.


They devised also

the possibility of a Sacred Way to Understanding

filled with such purpose

that it came to be known as a Sacred Journey . . .

or perhaps a Sacred Mission . . .

through which any Learner of Memory

might see

with those eyes given to him, given to her,

the accuracy

of at least some of that memory.”

Paula, her father, and her grandfather were each willing to explore possibilities. They would embark on sacred journeys to learn how it was these Old Songs described the people, places, and events of the past. These “sacred road trips” continued throughout her years in Washington, D.C. Paula and her dad were known to pack up the old Chevy wagon, odometer long since passing 100,000 miles, to head up and down the east coast, across the country if necessary, checking out the landscape. A river bend, a granite hilltop, a mound, a section of coastline. These were all likely destinations. They would inquire about the known history or local archaeological finds. Their intention was to make connections between the geographic features so aptly recorded in the oral history with those discovered during their sojourns. This father-daughter team took their adventures very seriously. With Paula at the wheel, her dad would once more begin to tell the age-old stories she had heard since childhood. He reminded her that they needed to be spoken three times in three different ways to enable greater understanding, “once for each ear, once for the heart.” These were memorable times for both of them. In later years, Paula’s children, friends, and members of Past Is Prologue would be invited to join her on these sacred, investigative treks. She invited all to experience for themselves the reality contained in The Walking People. It has set in motion a quest to learn what may be hidden in the historical record, and what science and scholarship might yet uncover. It is in this spirit of adventure that we seek to learn from others the nature of their stories, traditions, and gathered wisdom, weaving together a human story of migration and great learning.

Joanne Dondero Lambert