An excerpt from The Shamanic Powers of Rolling Thunder (Bear & Co.) by Sidian Morning Star Jones and Stanley Krippner, Ph.D.
It had not rained for weeks. This is how it is in the desert in northern Nevada. A few sporadic rains in the wet season, and then parching heat for months. We had been in ceremony with Rolling Thunder for three days. That night we drove to the desert, far from the city lights and power lines to a sandy flat surrounded by clipped dunes, the place for our fire ceremony. Already about forty of us, whites and Indians, had gathered to pray and gaze quietly at the stars in the cloudless night. A bit later RT, as we called him when he was not watching, pulled up in a beat-up pick-up truck. The Shoshone medicine man stepped out of the cab, adjusted the straw hat that never seemed to leave his head, and strode to the circle.
As one of his helpers lit the fire, RT explained that we were going to do a serpent dance, circling the flames slowly, releasing with each round the lifelessness inside each one of us — the way the serpent sheds her skin.
“All at once,” he said. “Not like white people like to do, one scale at a time, so they can feel something.” I could imagine him grinning under the starlight, chewing on his pipe.
“Shed the old skin,” he said.
I thought we had already done this two days earlier, when he led us in an all-night sweat lodge. I had a bad sunburn and was literally peeling off my skin as we spent hours sweating and singing.
But he meant the other skin, the one we wear over our hearts, the carefully crafted personas, the face we “keep in a jar by the door,” as the Beatles said.
We danced into the night, circling the fire, with each revolution shedding a little of the past that festered within us like an old sore that would not heal. With each song we became less “civilized,” less invested in the ways of the city, and reclaimed our aboriginal souls. As we danced the way our ancestors had done for millennia, we slowly discovered we are all children of this earth.
The serpent has gotten a bad rap in the West. But for the medicine man the serpent was the primeval life force, sensuality and earthiness. Like so many ancient cultures, RT considered the serpent sacred. Its power and medicine allows us to heal ourselves and others. Perhaps this is why even in the West it is a symbol of healing in the caduceus of medicine.
When we were done I felt lighter than I had in years.
“It’s customary after a dance to have a brief shower to erase our footprints,” the old Indian explained. “Just so the white man does not think a bunch of savages have been out dancing and drinkin’ and howling at the stars….”
And then the seemingly impossible happened. A light drizzle began, but there was not a single cloud in the sky. And then a full-blown rainstorm, so that all of us were drenched as we ran to our vehicles.
When we returned to camp, I looked at Stanley Krippner, my professor at the time, wondering if I had dreamt the whole scene with the rain. Yet, he was as soaked as I was. That’s when I realized that the weather responded to Rolling Thunder, and I understood how he got his name.
RT would speak about the white man the way a father speaks about a wayward child. He had no bitterness, although the European settlers had taken his people’s land and relocated his ancestors to disease-ridden reservations. He could see the folly of the ways of the Europeans, how greed and lust for power drove them even to spoil the Earth on which they live. No other creature fouls its own nest the way we do.
Someday we will all have to explain our actions to the Great Spirit, and our brief stint on earth will be weighed on the scale of divine justice — or so I remember RT saying. He explained that this is why it is important that we use our medicine, our gifts, for good. That we touch everyone with a blessing. That we bring beauty to the world every chance we get.
His message did not remain confined to the reservation. Many of us were touched by the audacity of a brakeman for the railroad who was a master healer and medicine man, a poor Indian who dared to have a dream bigger than himself, or than his own people or his era. Even in the nightmare of that moment in history, with the growing oppression of indigenous peoples around the globe, he held fast to the dream of a world-that-could-be.
RT would occasionally visit Mickey Hart’s Ranch in Novato, California. Mickey, one of the drummers for the Grateful Dead, would later produce an album titled Rolling Thunder, in which the medicine man’s distinct voice can be heard on the first track. In the wild and uninhibited music of the time, the album carried the medicine man’s haunting message to millions of people. He was equally at ease with musicians and Hollywood celebrities as he was with the poor who came to his humble home in Carlin, Nevada, for hope and healing.
His missive that Spirit responds to your intentions, that nature supports your acts of courage and answers your prayers, was brought to the world by the Grateful Dead and by books such as the Realms of Healing, which Stanley Krippner, Ph.D., and I coauthored (1976). RT’s message was offered freely, gently, to everyone who met him. It was not only the thunder and wind that responded when he called. He had a way of summoning the storms within you and leading you to the calm eye at the very center that cleansed your wounds and healed your heart.
He did that for me.