This article first appeared in Mother Earth 1981 and is presented here as a contribution to the National Native American Heritage Month...November 2011. Please enjoy.
To his neighbors and coworkers in Carlin, Nevada he's John Pope, a veteran brakeman for the Southern Pacific Railroad. But his family, friends, and tribal brothers and sisters—as well as the hundreds of people who've witnessed demonstrations of his remarkable healing power—know him as Rolling Thunder, a native American Indian and heir to a traditional role among his people: that of intertribal medicine man.
In the manner of most such healers, Rolling Thunder deals more in matters of the spirit than of the flesh and—although he doesn't "do anything for show"—evidences of his ability have been said to astound the most skeptical of observers. For example, it's reported that several years ago Rolling Thunder agreed to conduct a healing ritual for a research group at the Edgar Cayce Foundation in Virginia Beach, Virginia. In addition to curing three patients with documented medical histories (who were selected before-hand by doctors at the conference), he treated a man who had severely crippled hands. However, Rolling Thunder first had to describe the individual's ailment so that the reluctant patient could be located in the audience and brought forward to be examined. After the healer told the audience to look for someone with gnarled, twisted hands hidden in his pockets, the "volunteer" was found, brought to the stage . . . and cured of his handicap. When he was questioned later about the incident, Rolling Thunder explained that the sick man's spirit had come to him the night before the ceremony and insisted that he promise to treat the man, since the unfortunate individual wouldn't have the courage to come forth and ask for help at the meeting himself.
Born in Oklahoma to Cherokee parents, reared in hardship, and later married to a Shoshone woman . . . Rolling Thunder is a modern-day Indian who's trying to preserve the heritage of his ancestors. Therefore—throughout his adult life—the medicine man has devoted his energies to various Indian causes (such as opposing the Bureau of Land Management's systematic destruction of pinon trees on Shoshone Indian land), as well as to easing the pain of persons who come to him asking for assistance.
Rolling Thunder's traditional name means "speaking the truth", and he does offer a message about native Americans that's sometimes grim and sometimes optimistic . . . but that always represents his true beliefs. The tribal healer's vision of reality is based upon the tragic past of his people and upon their close relationship to the earth . . . a special kinship between humanity and its environment that can provide inspiration for the simpler, back-to-the-land lifestyle so many folks yearn for these days. However, this native American offers an unusual attitude toward living lightly on the planet . . . one that is entirely spiritual in its origin.
Like most American Indians, Rolling Thunder has a profound respect for Mother Earth and for all of her life forms. During the course of his training in traditional native healing arts, the young Cherokee developed an awareness of and sensitivity to the spirit contained in all living things . . . and Rolling Thunder has words of wisdom for the modern homesteader who wants to return to his or her "roots" in the soil, and to live a life that's (quite literally) close to the land. He advises: "Love the earth, treat it gently, and it will reward you. "
I had the pleasure of knowing RT, as many of us close to him referred. He was one of my many teachers and more than just a friend. It is Native People like RT that has inspired and driven me more into my own tribal roots and motivated me to search out the truths and the histories of all Native Peoples so that I will be able to keep these things alive by passing them on to our youth through education, activities, crafts, ceremonies, etc.
The Plowboy Interview continues with a conversation with Peter Coyote.