The first time I met Fred Wahpepah I was 15 years old. He came to my liberal Northern California high school to do a presentation on Native American culture, ceremonies and history. He brought a table full of traditional accouterments- an eagle head, eagle wings, a tortoise shell purse, handmade drums, rattles, and various other items that I can't remember. He talked about sweat lodge ceremony, teepee ceremony, sundance and vision quest. All of it fascinated me. What stuck in my mind was how pulled I felt to Native American culture. It was as if he was speaking directly to my core and my core responded with a resounding recognition of truth. I signed up to receive newsletters from his foundation Seven Circles.
Seven years later I had become very close friends with a girl I met at a truckstop at 3am off I-5 in the middle of nowhere who happened to also be an addict in recovery... named Kim.
"I am going on a vision quest- four days three nights up on a mountain with no food and no water- will you eat and drink for me? Just keep me in mind while you are eating. Especially meat. Hamburgers. Anything." This struck me as funny since she had just become a vegan. Not because she was asking me to eat for her energetically, which perhaps should have been the comical part. It turned out that she had been heavily involved with a Native American community in LA that was headed up by Wolf, one of Fred's sons. However this specific vision quest she was doing under the guidance of Fred himself.
A year or so after that my friend Podge called me and asked me to attend a sweat lodge ceremony with her. I jumped at the opportunity. It was held Sunday at 5pm in a residential area in Berkeley. We crept through the gate of someones house and found about a dozen people standing around a fire pit with Fred obviously in charge. This was my second time meeting him face to face. Fred is a funny, lighthearted man that egged-on participants to share inappropriate jokes. He talked about the importance of sharing his heritage with anyone who felt a calling to it, regardless of age, race, sex or any other factor we use to separate ourselves from each other. I began attending sweats on an inconsistent basis.
In 2010 I met my biological father and siblings. As it turned out my oldest sister Cheryl lives just north of Austin and works in Austin for the Air Force, so I've been given a chance to get to know her since moving here. For her birthday last May her co-workers organized a lovely lunch. On the way home Cheryl told me that I would really get along with her co-worker Jessica since we had similar family issues. I asked what nationality she was since she was obviously exotic looking. Cheryl said Native American and... something else... I'm not sure because I got stuck on the Native American part. I began to tell Cheryl that I was really pulled to that culture and when I lived in California I had been doing sweat lodges with this guy Fred Wahpepah... Cheryl interjected- "That's Jessica's last name!" It turns out Fred is Jessica's Great Uncle. So get this- the guy I had been doing sweats with for years has a great niece who had been working in the same room for years with my sister who I didn't know existed. Wild.
Last October I got hired to shoot a friends wedding in San Francisco and on a whim decided to buy a one way ticket. I hopped online to see if I couldn't find some other reason I should be in San Francisco- perhaps a writers conference or something. I didn't find a writers anything so I went to http://SevenCircles.org to see where the sweats were scheduled since they rotated between about four locations. It turned out that they were doing their fall vision quest in Mendocino starting the Wednesday after I arrived. My heart raced and picked up the phone to call Fred and ask if I could join them. It was late in the game, with less than a week to prepare but Fred said yes and told me to come see him as soon as I got in.
In a moment of panic I thought- What if I'm too white? Or what if this is wrong? I called up Nikki Scully who is a friend of my Aunt Jerilyn and does Shamanic Journeys for a living. My Aunt had been telling me to contact Nikki for years, any time I mentioned Shamanism or Native American anything. I called her and to my surprise she picked up.
"Hi Nikki, this is Frankie Brandelius, I am Jerilyn's neice. She had told me to call you a while back, but I am just getting around to it because I wanted to ask you a question. Do you think it's okay for me to go on a vision quest?"
"Frankie, hi. I usually don't pick up this phone after hours. You should be fine doing a vision quest as long as you are going with someone who knows what they are doing. Who are you going with, what community?"
"Fred Wahpepah of Seven Circles." Nikki let out a laugh.
"Fred took me on my first vision quest... what... 25 years ago... actually, 25 years this fall, right now. Fred is great, you will be fine. What are your fears? And how is your Aunt?" We talked for a bit longer and I felt affirmed. This was universal timing.
I got in to town I met up with Fred at his house in Richmond. He asked me why I wanted to go on vision quest and told me how the whole thing worked. I felt thrilled and nervous, convinced that I would somehow mess it up.
At the wedding the following day I told my friend Alecia about the vision quest. "Whapepah? That is my daughters doctors name. Ask him if is wife is a pediatrician! We love her." And indeed, of course, his wife is.
I met up with my Aunt while I was in San Francisco and she told me about Lit Quake- a writer's convention that was happening that week, that for some odd reason didn't pop up in my internet searches. I only made it to one of the panels where five new authors discussed what it takes to be in the industry. The next day, after much preparation for the ceremony that I'm not going to get into here- I arrived in Mendocino and met Joanna- she would be the woman cook in charge of the kitchen throughout the vision quest. "I recognize you- were you at Lit Quake?" She asked me. Wild. I also learned later that day that Fred had been on tour with Rolling Thunder who was a good friend of my Aunt as well. All of these elements affirmed that I was right where I was supposed to be.
So- why I am I blogging about this? Fred is 80 years old. His daughter- Kasha Wahpepah is 18 and has decided for her senior project to take a road trip with her dad from Richmond CA to Oklahoma where they will go to the reservation where he was raised. Kasha will be making art, taking photos and recording all that she can about her roots on this once in a lifetime trip to meet her family and see where she came from.
A part of the money is going to get Kasha the equipment she needs for the trip and for college- a camera, laptop etc. And did I mention she got admitted to Dartmouth? She is one smart cookie. This project sits close to my heart- everybody knows that my Grandparents are the world to me- I wish I could drive with them to where they were raised and record it all. Fred is like a father to so many people. He has opened up ceremony to everyone regardless of demographic and I hope we can all pull together to help them make this trip happen.