Continuing my story of my personal journey, in the summer of 1990, after I graduated from college, I finally met other heathens. I went to a heathen festival in Northern California near my home town of Sonoma. I happened to find a welcoming group in its historically most accepting and diverse stage, so I was fortunate that my first encounter with organized heathenry was a group that was totally OK with me showing up in half heathen garb (Viking Age re-enactor clothes) and half powwow regalia (Native American dance attire) which was how I chose to honor both sides of my heritage and spirituality. The Asatru group I happened to encounter welcomed me, and if my being part Native American was even noticed, it was something to celebrate, not something for which to exclude me. My first impression of other heathens was of a fun-loving, friendly group of people who welcomed me with open arms and open bottles of mead.
To summarize the events of the past few posts, 1989 was an eventful year: I became Priestess of Freya, and immediately my father died, I got into a street fight in the Soviet Union, I was in the Quake of '89, and then my randomly assigned college roommates summoned Satan with a ouija board and I had to get rid of him. Then I faced my most horrible opponent of all: bylaws (I co-founded the official UCSC campus pagan club, Circle of the 13 Moons.)
It had been about a year since my father's death. The chance to find out more about the Native American spirituality he had taught me as a child, directly from him, was gone. I decided to go on a road trip in my truck—my late father’s truck—to find my Cherokee roots. At the time, I did not yet know that dad also had Shawnee ancestors; it took the internet age to find that out. Back then, being of mixed European and Native heritage and trying to honor both sides of my ancestry was seen as more than a little odd. Even the government got in on the disapproval, by having no census category for “mixed” and by only allowing people to choose one checkbox among the standard categories. But since I only met other heathens in person after college, I already felt like I was in a category by myself anyway. As the only heathen among pagans whenever I was in any sort of pagan space, whether the college pagan club or the Spiral Dance or whatever, also having my family Native relationship with the land spirits, not to mention also the Eastern martial arts meditations that had become part of my spiritual practice before I discovered that heathenry was my path, plus all those American celebrations like Yule and Halloween and birthday customs and so forth, plus all the little Austrian family traditions from mom’s family, that was all just me and my path. That was just unique me, on my own path, unlike anyone else’s.
Paraphrasing from my memoir, Greater Than the Sum of My Parts, about my first heathen festival:
The Asatru festival showed that heathens really knew how to have a good time, with lots of music and food and jokes and a welcoming atmosphere. In the daytime there were seminars and discussions, and on the main day a ritual followed by a feast, with plenty of time to see the vendors’ booths and participate in shenai sparring. Nighttime brought singing and dancing around the campfire, or for those who were curious or had a question about the future, Diana and her women apprentices performed seidh in a tent in the woods. Seidh was an old word for magic which could mean oracular trance, shapeshifting, or bewitchment; Diana and her apprentices meant it in the first sense. The remarkable thing about the seidh tradition was that it was specifically a women’s magic, and although men could learn it, it was considered improper for men to do so, unless they either were transsexuals (living as women) or transvestites (cross-dressing as women only for ritual performance.)
That was the old Ring of Troth, before it split into The Troth and The American Vinland Association. It was a very welcoming group of heathens. When I attended the old Ring of Troth's festivals in northern California in the early 90s, there were several other Native Americans in powwow regalia, a few black and mixed race people, several male-to-female transsexuals, and several gay and Lesbian singles and couples. Nobody even considered excluding Loki. Back then, if someone had proposed banning the worship of Loki during the festival, the Trothers would have stared at them like they had two heads, just like European heathens today scratch their heads about that peculiarities of American Asatru. I did not come to realize it until a couple of decades later, but all of those things go together. One can gauge how much racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia, and transphobia there is in an American Asatru group by its attitude toward Loki. How welcome is Loki? How welcome are gay people? How welcome are strong women who expect to be treated equally with the men? Where Loki is welcome, they are welcome. Where Loki is relegated to the sidelines, so are they. Where Loki is hated, so are they. I happened to encounter the Ring of Troth during the time when he was welcome, and so were people like me. It was lucky, or perhaps it was weird (karma/ destiny / the will of the gods / whatever.)
At the heathen festival, I met heathens who would become my lifelong friends. We sang around the campfire all night. Fog rolled in among the redwood trees, those trees that went up into infinity, their tops lost in the dark beyond the campfires over which the drummers heat-tuned their bodhrans. Flame lit up the fog in an orange glow. The night smelled like sea and smoke. We filled it with singing voices and the sounds of drums and guitars and laughter.
I was immediately part of the community. By contrast, when I went to a Powwow, I could dance the Intertribal dances (the dances that were neither competitions nor ceremonies) but I was basically alone in the crowd the entire time. At the heathen festival, I was included in all the activities and ceremonies, and was never made to feel that I was doing it wrong (although I probably was, at that point.) Heathens talked with me freely, and never once asked me my blood quantum.
It didn't matter to the heathens that I showed up to my first heathen festival never having heard the word heathen before. (Prior to meeting other heathens, I had not been using the words heathen or Asatru. In college I had been calling my path Germanic Paganism. Sometimes I called it the northern way, because I followed the gods of Northern Europe; this was long before there was a separate path called the Northern Tradition, but I imagine they probably came to use the word northern for the same reason I did.) I was instantly accepted by the other heathens there, just because I was there, and everyone was part of one big community. In contrast, at a Powwow, everyone is either there with their relatives or there alone, and only the vendors talk to anyone other than their in-group. I felt so much more welcomed by the heathens than by the Natives that it really affected which way I went with my religious life.
Going to my first big heathen festival and then going on the road trip to Qualla Boundary, the Cherokee reservation in North Carolina, happened in the same summer. I was not consciously choosing between the two paths. I was already Priestess of Freya, chosen by Freya, initiated by Freya, and if there were no other human beings on Earth, nothing would ever change that. I was also already honoring the land spirits the way my father taught me in early childhood, and nothing else I learned about Native American ways would change that, either. I wished to honor both sides of my heritage, not choose between them. Every cell in my body is both Native American and Northern European. That would not change no matter what I found at the festival or on my road trip. However, which path I ended up working with the most did depend on how much I could find about how it was actually practiced and whether there was a readily available group of people that practiced it and were ready to welcome me into it.
Driving, I achieved a state of flow. I connected with the Southwest desert to which I later moved.
A quote from my memoir ("we" is me and my mom. She invited herself along on my road trip.):
“When we hit the deep desert, and the broad horizon opened up all around, I felt myself relaxing and expanding. I had always thought I hated deserts, but I realized what I really hated was Ripon. Deserts themselves were restful to my eye.
There is a serenity in the desert. It is bright, but not uncomfortably so. The dry air felt good on my skin, and in my lungs.”
When we reached the Qualla Boundary Reservation, I was incredibly disappointed. Quotes from my memoir:
“I realized the costumed men posing for photos with tourists were all dressed in Plains Indians garb, not in traditional Cherokee dress... The shops mostly had T-shirts and the kinds of blankets and jewelry made in the Southwest." There was a re-enactor village for tourists and a stage play, both of which showed authentic history and culture, but they were performances, and the people performing were actors, even if they were portraying their own ancestors. It was like a less interactive Renaissance Faire: costumed actors performing for the public, not people living their authentic way.
"I failed to find a single non-Christian Cherokee. I had been practicing Tsalagi, but I encountered no one who could speak it with me. After days of this I finally asked a shopgirl if she knew anyone at all who spoke Tsalagi, and she directed me to the museum. This 'person' turned out to be a machine which spoke a few sentences of Tsalagi when I pushed a button. It was a cylinder recording kept behind a glass wall.”
There was nothing there for me. There was no path for me to follow, no group to join, nothing to learn that was not in books and museums.
I went camping in the Great Smokies, but the land felt strange and the humidity bothered my asthma. I hiked the Road to Nowhere and back, climbed over a huge fallen tree, followed a tree-lined river to a placid lake and watched the lightning bugs flick on in the evening. The green trees and hazy blue hills receding into the distance were beautiful, but I did not feel a connection to the land spirits.
I was born a creature of the desert. It was to the desert that I wanted to return, and if I was to formally belong to a religion, it would be Asatru. The Asatruars I had found had no problem with me being of mixed race, and I found that what my father had taught me about having a relationship with the land spirits fit perfectly into heathenry, since Asatruars in California were connecting with Native American land spirits anyway, since they lived in American land. I gave up on trying to find anything more of Native ways beyond what dad had taught me.
On the way back to California, we stopped in Missouri and I saw the log cabin where dad was born. I did not connect to the land there either, although I did meet some relatives. Then we passed through the Southwest again.
A quote from my memoir:
“Mom and I camped in Sedona in the red desert, at a site known as a spiritual power spot, and a double rainbow appeared over the river in a clear blue sky. Other than that, all I sensed was people, the spiritual seekers full of longing and the locals full of hucksterism.
The open desert was another matter. Once again, as on the way east, I found a peacefulness to the desert that made little sense, logically, since trees and water were the usual things which came to mind when picturing a spot to commune with nature. However, the most perfect test of one’s logic is whether one can accept data that do not fit one’s theory. In this place where little lived, where rock stretched from horizon to horizon, I felt most keenly aware of the Life-force. I loved the desert.”
I had found my place, the desert. It would be a few years after that before I finally moved to the desert in 1995, but from that summer I knew I wanted to live in the desert. I had no connection at all with the land on which my Native ancestors had lived. My connection was to the land I was born in.
I had reconfirmed that Asatru was the path for me. I had driven 6,000 miles round trip, and had come back to where I had begun