I live in Portland, a city girl at heart. But for several summers in a row now I have made a journey to a place called Deer Haven. Set against the starkly beautiful Three Sisters Mountains, Deer Haven is a land of Juniper and Sagebrush and red-winged Blackbirds—a land of red dirt, big sky, searing days and freezing nights, where profound stillness takes turns with bone rocking wind. I spend time each year at Deer Haven to unravel my spine and make friends again with my soul, because at Deer Haven there is no escaping it. The wind gets into me, and the hawks begin to talk.
Deer Haven is easy to miss if you don’t know it’s there. Nestled at the end of a long dirt drive just outside Sisters, Oregon, it’s the community center for Four Winds Foundation and home of spiritual leader Sweet Medicine Nation. Choctaw by blood, Sweet Medicine embodies the native teachings not only of her people but of the peoples of the South Pacific, of the Lakota Nation, and of the indigenous tribes of Central and South America. For the last thirteen years she has led ceremony at Deer Haven, where people of all nations come to renew their connection to the earth and to spirit, and to learn about ancient indigenous rites.
When she is not leading ceremony, Sweet Medicine is leading Four Winds Foundation as a non-profit organization that works for the preservation of local lands and waters and provides stewardship education to local youth. She has spoken before state and county commissioners to advocate for the protection of the Metolius River Basin and surrounding watersheds; and, in partnership with local organizations such as Wolftree, she works with youth at six different schools in central Oregon. On day and weekend adventures, children engage with Sweet Medicine in experiential learning programs in water conservation and fish and riparian studies.
Indeed one of Sweet Medicine’s primary focuses is water conservation. Her awareness of ancestral practices as a gateway to the responsible use of water on a global scale takes her on an annual sojourn from Deer Haven to Mexico. There, she meets with the Women’s Coalition of Mexico, religious and indigenous leaders, scientists, educators, and government officials to exchange scientific knowledge, ancestral wisdom, and people’s daily experiences with water. Just this spring, Sweet Medicine returned from a journey both to Mexico and Chile, where she served as an advisor to the Zero Point Organization and to The Global Movement of Water Awareness—all of this with the goal of generating viable solutions to sustainability of water, earth’s most precious resource.
On the heels of her return from South America, Sweet Medicine is working with a 10K grant from the Santa Fe Art Council (though generous, financially this is only a beginning) to produce a documentary that records the living history of elders and water and focuses on preserving and revitalizing earth’s living water.
When Sweet Medicine isn’t traveling abroad, I have the honor of gathering each month with a circle of women to receive teachings from her. In May, we gathered around an altar she had set for us. At the center of the altar was a copper basin from Mexico, engraved with flowers, full of water. She spoke of it as a sacred vessel, just as we are sacred vessels, for life-giving water. “Water is a medicine,” she says. “We have oceans, rivers, creeks all flowing within our bodies.” And always, the altar includes a gift for each woman. These gifts come from all the places she inhabits, including Deer Haven, and they carry the essence of her teachings.
After the summer ceremony every year, I return from Deer Haven to my Portland apartment, shake the dirt out of my gear, and scrub myself clean for work on Monday; and as I do, I feel again the strange and palpable confinement of city life, as if my body itself has expanded and doesn’t quite fit. But some of the ritual of reconnecting with the earth, with Sweet Medicine, and with Four Winds Foundation, is retained in me. It carries me through the rainy winter when—along with the songbirds of Deer Haven—Sweet Medicine heads south again to make more connections and continue her spiritual and environmental work.
Sarah Clark lives in Portland, Oregon. Her work has appeared in American Literary Review and Red Rock Review.