The Young Men’s Christian Association or YMCA was an important part of my upbringing. There were intramural basketball teams, day camps in the summertime, and the Indian Guides. Before today, I never gave too much thought to the history of the Indian Guides, how they reflected cultural appropriation or whether they even still existed. Thank you to writer Adria Carter with the University of Minnesota Libraries who wrote an excellent article titled ‘Playing Indian’: A retrospective on the YMCA’s Indian Guides program. While I was busy treating patients during a pandemic, author Ryan Bean and co-author Paul Hillmer, a professor of American history at Concordia University in St. Paul, published the book “Inappropriation: The Contested Legacy of Y-Indian Guides,” which examines the program’s 77-year history and how it misrepresented American Indians.  With deference to Carter, Bean and Hillmer, I’d like to share what the Indian Guides meant to me as a boy who was decades away from political correctness and the faintest whiff of white guilt.

Big Wind and Little Wind

My dad was Big Wind, and I was Little Wind. We wore vests and headbands with feathers, and went to weekly (?) meetings with other boys and their fathers. I can’t think of another experience in my childhood where boys and their fathers consistently gathered together in this way. Not church, not sports, not Scouts, realms where there was delegation of parenting and leadership to other adults. In the Indian Guides, we all had to show up. That act, in and of itself was unique, and ripe with both the tenderness and awkwardness of being male, toghether. There was no alcohol, there were no fights, and we often engaged in some act of creation, whether it was painting, gluing popsicle sticks together, or physical play.

The best of times were the camping trips. I remember being in the woods where we could run wild, away from our scolding mothers and annoying sisters. I remember the sounds of dozens of fathers snoring in the cold darkenss of the cabin. There wasn’t any drama. My dad was about as relaxed as he could get, and so were a lot of the other fathers. I’m grateful that they made their way through all the discomfort of being around each other in order to spend time with us, their sons. I wouldn’t trade our names or that time with my dad for all the Wampum in the world.


My first pass at college was attending Susquehanna University (SU) in Selinsgrove, PA. It is a small liberal arts college which began as a Lutheran missionary institute and retained some of those early influences. Things started off well enough. I had a combination of work study, academic scholarships, student loans and Pell grants to pay my way. I was accepted into the SU Honors Program, and was both a Degenstein and Presidential Scholar. Woo hoo!

Dr Susan Bowers taught our Freshman honors English course called Thought. She was a woman with a soft voice, brilliant intellect and steely character. Among the selected works we read in the course was Daughters of Copper Woman by Anne Cameron. The book was out of print at that time, so we had blurry stapled photocopies. It is essentially a feminist collection of Northwest Native American creation stories with female power at their center. That may not raise eyebrows now, but in 1987, at SU, it was subversive.

Susan, that book, and her course changed my life. It was the first time I had a glimpse of the world which was different enough from my own that it was unnerving and thought provoking. I wanted more.

The second year of the Honors Program required that students write a Sophmore Essay. With Susan as my advisor, I chose to write about Native American Women’s Literature. Given that I am a white man who was majoring in business economics that was a stretch. I got started, but I never finished, despite a last ditch trip to visit Susan the summer between my Sophmore and Junior year. I had a case of terminal writer’s block, and as a result I was booted from the Honors Program.

I would never want to let school interfere with getting an education though, and I sure did learn a lot the year I didn’t write my Sophmore Essay. I fell in love with the stories of writer Louise Edrich when I met the fictional families the Kashpaws, Lamartines, and Morrisseys in her novel Love Medicine. Years later I came to appreciate her husband Michael Dorris who wrote about being a single father raising an adopted son with fetal alcohol syndrome in The Broken Cord, and then his first novel Yellow Raft on Blue Water. When he and Louise co-wrote the novel The Crown of Columbus, I was moved to write them a letter of appreciation. I received a handwritten letter from Michael in a reply which I still treasure. He was that exceptional human being who didn’t forget from where he came and reached back to lend a hand to others in much more difficult circumstances. It saddens me that he would later take his own life.

What I was coming to understand over time was that the Indians of the movies were not real. The novel Waterlily by Ella Cara Deloria disabused me of romantic ideas I had of the peacful harmony of early tribal life. The real Indians, the Native Americans, were/are funnier, and messier, and terribly imperfect, just like the rest of us. They are rural, suburban and urban, upstanding, and downtrodden, not a stereotype and certainly not uniform. Literature carried me along until real-life experience and relationships filled in the gaps: salty poetry from Chickasaw poet Linda Hogan, the haunting novel House Made of Dawn by N. Scott Momaday, and the modern novel There, There by Tommy Orange.

God is Red by Vine Deloria sent me into an existential crisis of faith, one which took years to emerge from, out of a climax of disillusionment with Christianity and its myriad contradictions. An Indigenous People’s History of the United States by Roxeanne Dunbar Ortiz lead me to a different understanding of how vastly populated, developed and intentionally managed was the North America which the European settlers encountered.

Near our home of Ithaca, NY, there is the annual Finger Lakes GrassRoots Festival of Music and Dance, which for nearly a week draws capital C Characters from all over the world to dance, sing, eat and make all kinds of great music. In the early 2000s we saw the impossibly fit eighty-year old Jones Benally perform a hoop dance with his adult children. He is a Diné medicine man who at the time shared an office in a clinic with a Western educated medical doctor. It was startling to encounter his children later, performing as Blackfire, the Native American punk rock band.

One of my favorite songs by Blackfire is a version of Woody Guthrie‘s Corn Song. Even if you aren’t a fan of what you consider punk rock, it’s worth checking out Blackfire on Spotify. It’s a useful emotional and intellectual exercise to listen to the words and music of people who have thought deeply about resistance and hope, amidst an ongoing genocide.

In 2017 I began correspondence with a Diné man who was incarcerated for two consecutive life sentences in an Arizona prison. I’ve been a letter writer since I was a little boy. For nearly thirty six years I corresponded with my step grandmother Lee Jones, who was a living Buddha. When she died after her hundredth birthday, it left a big hole in my life, and I was looking for a way to fill it. Around that time I read a book called Locked Down, Locked Out by May Schenwar, which among other things, discussed how letters from the outside helped maintain connections and protect prisoners from abuse on the inside. I found Keith’s name and story on the website of a non-profit that faciliates penpals in this way.

While he was alive and we wrote each other, I never knew, and didn’t want to know what Keith had done to be serving two life sentences. I figured it wasn’t anything good. What I did know what that he had grown up poor on the Diné reservation in Arizona, and had become a mule, running drugs for a cartel from Mexico. He was artistic, a curious person, and spiritual. He struggled with mental ilness. I learned from him how the Arizona state prison system contracts with for-profit healthcare providers who withhold necessary medication and treatment to prisoners like him in order to preserve their financial bottom line. I also learned how the system prevented Keith from receiving an eagle feather, which was meaningful to him in his spiritual practice. It’s fair to say that we probably wouldn’t have been hanging together in “the real world”, but we both found a lot to share during the years of our correspondence.

If Keith had made it out of prison and visited us in Ithaca, there would have been a lot to see and do. The names of streets, bodies of water and landmarks reflect who lived here first: Cayuga, Seneca, Taughannock. We walk, eat and sleep on the land of the First Nations people. They didn’t leave of their own accord. Practically speaking, the tribes of North America have a lot to teach us about how to resist and survive in the face of an ongoing attempt at genocide.


Judge Ben Zvenia is a renaissance man. He was an officer in the military, a paramedic, formally trained as a Naturopath, later becoming a lawyer, and is currently a pro-tem tribal judge in several jurisdictions. With fellow naturopath and lawyer, Dr Daniel Royal, they collaborated with elected tribal leaders to establish the First Nation Medical Board (FNMB) in 2018 as an an economic development project of the Crow Nation of Montana.

The FNMB provides a legal framework under treaty law, dating back several hundred years, as well as constitutional, state, and federal case law. Essentially Native American tribes in the United States are sovereign nations. Kind of like the Papacy in Rome. To a greater or lesser degree they have the potential to exercise independence from state and federal agencies. What Ben and Dan set out to do, was create a structure, under which practitioners could practice indigenous medicine, focused on interventions with roots in traditional plant-based treatment. Still, at times patients may need prescriptions for modern pharmaceuticals which have their origins in plants and elements of the earth. For this reason they also use the FNMB framework to close the circle of tribal affiliated entities practicing medicine under sovereign nation status.

It was very intentional to create licensure with titles that are different than those governed by state and federal agencies. Applications can be submitted to become Certified Tribal Practitioners (“CTP”), Certified Tribal Healers (“CTH”), Certified Tribal Technicians (“CTT”), and Traditional Tribal Healers (“TTH”).

We learned about the FNMB from another FLCCC affiliated provider in the summer of 2022. We began conversations with Judge Zvenia and over the next six months obtained licensure for all of our practitioners and nurses, as well as our practice entities, one of which is an LLC under the Crow Nation.

The model is imperfect. Election cycles result in new leaders, and a previous administration’s commitment to the FNMB model is not necessarily carried forward by newly elected officials. When new leaders and their staff question why the tribe is working closely with a bunch of white cowboys, it throws sand in the works and requires fresh negotiation and new agreements.

My partner Dr Pierre Kory and I have both had complaints filed against us with state boards of medicine, not because of harming any patients, but because of political motivations to block our ability to treat patients with safe, proven medication, like Ivermectin and Hydroxychloroquine. The intentions of the boards are transparent as they reference recommendations from the WHO, CDC, and FDA against using these therapeutics, despite the fact that courts have ruled against the FDA and it’s attempts to tell providers what medications they can prescribe to patients.

Every patient that seeks our care is required to become a public member of the FNMB. The annual cost is $35 for an individual or $50 for a family. Patients are agreeing to receive care within the tribal structure, under our tribal license. In addition to layers of licensing fees, which we pay for providers and our practice entities, we contribute 5% of gross receipts as charitable contributions to the FNMB on a monthly basis.

Organizing our Leading Edge Clinic under the FNMB brings a lifetime of learning to fruition. It is a relation of necessity, but rich in common aspirations and shared resistance to a common threat: government alphabet agencies which seek to destroy the sacred relationship between healers and patients, and undermine our democracy. This is a new chapter in history, when cowboys and Indians are fighting on the same side.

In memoriam, Klee Benally 1975-2023

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