Before You Go: A Conversation with Anishnaabe Firekeeper Bruce Hardwick on Leadership

Ned Hamson

Ned: Would what you say if the next few moments were your last. What would you want to say about being a leader to your peers or children before you go?

Bruce: That’s an easy one: To me, in leadership, the very leaders that I’ve looked at in my lifetime never lost the vision of their selves. Even with the daily functions of whatever family problems. If I figured that I was dying and I wanted to say something I would say it like this, “The great leaders of all time are the leaders that never lose the vision of themselves. Within that, to me was the study of my greatness. And I never looked at that for a long time until probably after I was 50 years old. And I came up with one thought as you said that, “There are no great leaders left in the world, they’ve all come and gone.” And how I would say that is, “Follow the greatest leader of all times, and that’s yourself.”

Ned: When you talk about vision, is that how you see yourself, how you see the world?

Bruce: The vision is what comes through me. The vision I talk about is the vision in my teachings of the three-fires people that come from the woodland Indians. How I keep that in alignment is in our prophecy there’s eight grandfathers – there’s seven in the teachings but I know that there’s an eighth one to come – in the seven teachings to keep me focused and keep me in line with my leadership, they came to me in this order: the first one was respect, the second was love, the third one was truth, the fourth one was wisdom, the fifth one was bravery, the sixth one was honesty and the seventh one was humility. There’s an eighth one to come with that eighth fire and I have an idea of what that will be.

Ned: The grandfathers, or the teachings, the abilities the values, the principals are also embodied or thought of as the seven grandfathers of the nation. You talk about the free nations is this the Ojibwe, Potawatome and the Odowa. As a whole, do you all three refer to those as Anishnaabe.

Bruce: Yes. And the seven grandfathers and the vision I had was that there’s an eighth one to come and that structure is to bring back what we were originally given by the creator and that’s in leadership again, that would fall back into the first teaching of a natural way of life, instead of those seven words. If we were to write them out of the dictionary and write them out of each one, that would be a very minute explanation. In other words, the structure of each of the words is vaster than we can understand. And that’s the spiritual aspect of humans that has taken time to do.

Ned: Then the eighth that you believe is to come, is maybe not so much a word, but it’s something that encompasses the other seven?

Bruce: Yes. It will be a structure of all seven plus one, which will go into the eighth fire of eternal peace.

Ned: When you say, “living a vision” it’s living with those seven leading thoughts.

Bruce: Yes, those are what keep me in focus and alignment with being a great leader. Whenever I get wobbling around or thinking, I go back and repeat them to myself. I was told that each word has over three hundred meanings to it. So there is a spiritual realm to each one of those words.

Ned: It’s like any great writing that has a lot to it. Each time you read it, a new meaning that you can apply may come forth. In the Inward Bound program, is this something that is tied to the young people?

Bruce:  Those are the foundations of Inward Bound – to go within yourself. Another teaching of being a great leader that I believe, is that each person and their individual vision has to forgive themselves for whatever reasons. And I cannot put forth my great leadership. I have no business to do that unless I forgive myself for what I am.

Ned: For what you believe you’ve done or not done. I was talking to my South African friend, Ketan Lakani, yesterday and there’s another question about a story that illustrates it. One of the things that he thought of right away was that during their truth and reconciliation commission hearings there were a couple young men, 20-21 years old, a similar age I think that you get to your Inward Bound program, and what they came to confess was that they felt great guilt and shame for not having done more. Which he did not expect and he thought that showed that the 20-21 year old had learned a lot more than people two-three times their age. You believe that to be in practice, a first step, but always a first step before acting or deciding is to let go of any guilt or shame to forgive yourself. What is the consequence if you don’t?

Bruce:  The consequences of when you don’t forgive yourself is usually wrapped up in fear, misery, and eventually it drops you into death with a sickness or eventually you will turn to make that easy with drugs, smoking or abuse to your body. When you don’t forgive yourself you’ll drop into that.

Ned: Sometimes when we see a leader that has done well for decades, all of a sudden takes a tailspin and you would see that as being probable.

Bruce: Yes. When we don’t live in a natural way of life then we don’t see our greatness because we either fall into alcohol or drugs, or greed or fame and money, which leads directly into not functioning as a great leader.

Ned: Is there a particular story that illustrates leading with vision, or the actions a great leader?

Bruce: Great leaders to me were the native chiefs of our country. One that sticks in my mind is Geronimo. When they had over 25,000 European soldiers looking for this man in this country and they couldn’t catch him, they couldn’t contain him. He was a great leader because he was a visionary. He never lost the vision of being mistreated like that. When you live within the realm of spirit, the common world is no match. With Geronimo, he had the spirit on his side. He was a visionary, spiritual person. There were times that soldiers were within 30-60 fee of him and they couldn’t even see him because there are gifts given to you when you live in a natural way of life that is spiritual and they said that they couldn’t catch him. If he really didn’t want to give up, his destiny was put in place. Secondly, Crazy Horse, his whole vision is his leadership. There’s no picture of him. There’s no picture of him because he went beyond the nature way of life and led his people in spirit. His vision was, “I will return in stone.” And they’re doing that right now.

Ned: There is a rendering, no pictures, no painting, no drawing.

Bruce: Right. There isn’t one. And when they get done with that, that will be as close and true to him as it will ever be, because that’s being made spiritually.

Ned: I don’t remember specifically, but there were some Europeans that were always traveling or close, that could have drawn him or painted him, and almost all the other chiefs and leaders we have some pictures of. It’s interesting. What about the leader that was credited with forming the federation of the three tribes.

Bruce: I’m not sure. It’s the longest name in the chief’s book.

Ned: Other than Geronimo or Crazy Horse?

Bruce: Well naturally, Sitting Bull. I had the opportunity to smoke one of Sitting Bull’s pipes.. As that pipe smokes and the ceremony goes on, you can feel the greatness of him as a spiritual leader. It’s very, very strong because it’s as spiritual as Sitting Bull made it. I have had the opportunity to go out there and share on that in a ceremony at Bear Butte. It was awesome to share where the great chiefs were. I’m sure there’s some that I’m forgetting right now, but another one that’s helped me greatly was Chief Joseph. In his statement, “I fight no more, forever” that means he realized that it was useless to fight. He reversed that on me, and my leadership and my vision was to become part of the great prayer. The only gift that was ever given to humanity, in my opinion, was the gift of prayer. They like to say that the pipes, and the eagle feathers, the staffs, and the shakers, those are all extra to our people to heal. To me, the only gift that any one of the great leaders ever carried, that was automatically, naturally given was the gift to pray. Though I never knew him, through what he had said, “I fight no more, forever,” that was gift given to him as a young boy and I can’t speak for the  Indians, but through writing that done and trying to understand it, it helped me.

Ned: Because it didn’t mean just not fighting Europeans.

Bruce: No. It meant that he was going to go the opposite way. It triggered in me the opposite, that instead of fighting no more, he started to pray. It helped me understand the gift that each human being has. I was 43 years old, I still don’t how. Even through my catholic upbringing and my repeating of prayers, I was at 42, 43 years old and knew not how to pray. Through searching out these great chiefs and looking at the chiefs of this state now that I’m studying, I understand now. The chiefs of this state, the Pontiac, Tecumseh, and the Iroquois nations, who formed the 13 original colonies that was actually formed by the fires people. It went from the three fires people, when we quit living in a natural way and it broke into the 12 nations down there and it went to form the 13 colonies. Then naturally we quit living in that way. Right now, what is trying to be put back in place in these tribes, including the one I belong to, is they know something is wrong. It’s the same thing I governments lack, and our states lack, and our counties and schools lack and that’s the spiritual aspect of what the movement is. Our government will collapse if it does not listen.

Ned: If you take that message, “Fight no more forever,” it’s opposite. Almost what Gandhi taught, or Buddha taught, or the passages that Jesus and others have said, in terms of non-resistance, that’s really what it is. It’s a message that came through one of your chiefs, but it’s the same message that’s come through to each people, through the leaders of similar stature. Religious leaders, sometimes they’re a combination. In your people’s history, quit often leadership is shared because there is leadership for different activities or functions.

Bruce: Yes. It was a spiritual leadership, in a different time. And it was different and that’s ok, but they were structurally all the same. We can go back to the beginning of time and come all the way back through and it was all structured the same.

Ned: What I was saying was that where some people might look at Sitting Bull as being a war chief or fighting chief, is not accurate at all. He was thought to be the embodiment of his nation, where Crazy Horse was a combination of both because he was a warrior chief, which is more of what we might think of along political lines, or a military leader as well as a spiritual leader. In your tradition, it’s an interesting twist on leadership. Leadership never was embodied in one person. It was like; what is it that has to be done; what is the community doing, and then there was a generally recognized leader for each one of those things-is that correct?

Bruce: Right. They said that the structure of this country, the government, the fires people were set up in the same way, with the senate, the congress. The safety of it was the council of the chiefs, the same as our Supreme Court. It was set up the same, so that it wasn’t embodied in one say, but once the 12 chiefs ruled, that was it, that was the final say. The structure of the United States was set up the exactly the same way as the Iroquois nations great law had said.

Ned: Let’s switch a little bit here, this is something that you already mentioned a little bit about somewhere between age 42-50, you started to take a look at things. The last question I had here was, a friend of mine gave me these two questions, to her she always felt that they were worth asking: Thinking 20 years ago, then today, how would you answer these two questions differently: What’s worth having and what’s worth doing?

(Generally she asks if it is worth having, it’s worth doing)

Bruce: Twenty years ago, my answer would have been very primitive. Twenty years ago, I didn’t know. Twenty years ago I was just getting older and I didn’t know why and I didn’t understand. I understand that’s how the creator made it, so I’m not worried about those 20 years

Ned: Then today, how would you answer that: What’s worth having and what’s worth doing?

Bruce: Today, I would answer it this way, it’s the only thing I need, “There are no great leaders left in this world, and I have to follow myself.” The real truth of the three fires people is that’s the way that is was taught and it’s not taught anymore in our schools because we were christianized and brought into this, but I’m sure that structure is changing now.

Ned: So in other words, “What’s worth doing is following yourself.”

Bruce: Don’t lose the great leaders: The one who follows his or her vision, and like I said, when you follow yourself, that is hard to do. That’s to go inward and forgive yourself because you’re going to have the memory of all these old chiefs. They would like to say that’s going back in time or going into the future and traveling time and it’s very easy for me because I know the spirits of my ancestors and I know the spirits of today, but I also know the spirits to come. They refer that as bad, or witchcraft, or voodoo, when they don’t understand. They give it a name and try to understand it when the spiritual part is just there. The great leaders still don’t lose the vision of their self. In that word, where I said, I tell anyone in today’s language would say, “There’s no great leaders left, follow yourself.” That still means, “I fight no more, forever.” That still means to me that there are great leaders doing their thing and that’s called destiny. There’s a difference in what you would have done twenty years ago. That’s my destiny and I accept that and forgive that. Now you say, how would it trip today? I would say, “It’s worth it. It’s worth it now, to now that I’m a spiritual person.” The whole illusion that we’re talking about is that, we think as human beings, that we are human beings looking for spirituality, when it’s the opposite. We are actually a spiritual being, looking to understand and forgive our materialistic selves.

Ned: And the question of “What’s worth having?” is very little in material types of things. What’s worth having is being a peace with yourself.

Bruce: What you’re trying to say there again to me, “what’s worth having” is something that came to me through the great chiefs that I study and now I’m studying the ones of Michigan, and what came was that through 42-54, which I am now, through the teachings of the seven fires, I understand that I am the luckiest man on earth. What I mean by that is: I have and understand that I am a spiritual being and I fight no more forever. I’m content with where I am and I understand my spiritual structure to my liking. I have faced lots of things and I have forgiven myself, not fully and that’s ok and I’ll get through this. What I would say to what you asked me is that, “As of today and right now at this moment where I fit, is that I am the luckiest man alive.”

Ned: Having that knowledge is really the gift.

Bruce: Yes, the gift of knowing that I’m the luckiest man on earth.

Ned: I think that’s what usually happens. When you asked what’s worth having, it’s related to what’s worth giving or how should one be-it has nothing to do with external things.

Bruce: The seven grandfathers that we referred to, trying to understand them spiritually and unconditionally is a whole other realm.

Ned: You work with people of all ages, and you’ve worked with young people, in different parts of the world. Do you think there is any different in how the challenge comes out, between men and women? The young and those of your age?

Bruce: No. To me there is no difference. None at all. It’s just a different time. Two may not agree, and I see where they do.

Ned: Between generations, there’s always a struggle to communicate.

Bruce: To me that struggle is forgiveness. It’s part of a destiny to understand each individual human being.

Ned: From working with many people, many young people from many different countries at the same time, does their response give you hope?

Bruce: The response worldwide, the response to me from people from all over is that it’s all the same: That we are all Anishnaabe.

Ned: Anishnaabe’s original translation is “the people.”

Bruce:  The people, once lowered from heaven down. The whole thing of a nationality, a country, a sex, a group, a religion, whatever they want to say, means nothing to me. What you’re asking me is: Are all the people of this world the same?” and yes, they are to me. To me they’re all Anishnaabe.

Ned: Yes, but are they finding that people believe that they are separate and different.

Bruce: They’re realizing as young group left here, a young woman from South Africa realized that we are all the same, even though she was a female. And that part is going to accelerate here in the next few years to 2004.

Ned: I think we talked abut this one before: among most indigenous people, whether the language is written down or not, when you ask or find out what the words that they use to describe themselves, which all sound different, all have the same meaning. They’re all saying, “the name for us is ‘the people.’”

Bruce: I think where we’re headed is: does the world understand that we’re all the same. The people that have come here in the spiritual realm understand that now. It’s just not something, a theory, a description or an identity, it’s the truth. If you go back to one of those words it’s true. It’s not going to be like the books in “all things say” because it’s going to be a spiritual understanding that we are all the same.

Ned: I don’t know how much you hear back from folks who have left, but there must be quite a change in what they choose to do and how they live their lives.

Bruce: We hear back from a lot. We used to get phone calls, now we get a lot of email. In fact we’ve got a woman coming up from Detroit who just went through a dramatic divorce, lost her job, her house, the whole works and is now moving up here to do some work. To me, what we’re talking about is: do I see the change? And yes I do of understanding, unconditionally – worldwide. Did I ever think I would see it? Not in my wildest dream. When this started and in the last 12 years I thought one place I would probably never end up seeing in this lifetime is Russia and I ended up there. I know it’s spiritual. Even this interview- we might like to say that you and I are doing it-it’s not. This is inevitably a spiritual moment and the human race has lost their touch with the spiritual movement. They become sexual. They become pacified with drugs and alcohol. If we let all of that go and listen, then there would come a time that’s already in place that John Lennon sang about and that’s call the place of imagine. Some people call it heaven. Some people call it the spiritual world. Different structures for different times, but it’s all in place.

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