Spencer Martin, whose Indian name is Se Olum, has survived virtually every tragedy that can befall a human being. His people, the Methow, were driven from the valley named after them less than three months (July 2, 1872) after the United States government officially granted them the right to it (April 9, 1872).
Martin was born to an alcoholic mother and a father he never knew, and was raised to the age of seven by his grandparents, who taught him the old ways—until sending him to a Catholic boarding school where he was physically, emotionally, and sexually abused. That same year he also lost his grandparents, without even the chance to say goodbye. By the time he was a teenager, he was so angry and bitter he rebelled into a life of drugs, drunkenness, drug-dealing, and other crimes—a lifestyle that ultimately resulted in the deaths of his closest friends. Years later he also lost four of his five children—to accidents and other violence. Finally, after 30 years of living hell, Martin returned to himself and to the traditional medicine that has sustained Native peoples for centuries: vision quests, sweat lodges, purification, and—above all—prayer. “I thought I had beat my abusers,” he says, “but the beginning of my recovery was realizing that they had won. They put hatred in my heart.”
Martin is free of hatred now. For the last 30 years he has led many of his people—as well as non-Natives and members of other tribes—to spiritual, physical, and emotional health. He teaches the spiritual ways of his ancestors: leads vision quests, conducts initiations, and helps the dead cross over. He has worked to reconcile whites and Natives in the Methow Valley, creating with sympathetic whites an annual Reconciliation Pow-Wow that features Native dancing, drumming, handcrafts, food, and council circles. In 2007, that reconciliation work resulted in a film, Two Rivers—A Native American Reconciliation, an award-winning PBS documentary. Martin now works with the Methow Valley Interpretive Center to include Native American history, rituals, and rites of passage in its programmatic offerings to the people of the Methow.
I met Martin when I was looking for a Native American to bless the land my husband and I had purchased in the Methow Valley. There was no listing under “spiritual leader” in the Okanogan County yellow pages. I had to find my way to him by asking around. Before conducting the ceremony, Martin sat with me and asked why I was interested in blessing the land. I said I had recently become aware that humans could help to heal the Earth simply by raising their consciousness. I said that I’d like to learn how to do that if I could find someone to teach me.
Slightly offended, I asked, “Why are you laughing?”
“Because you’re sitting next to someone who could teach you,” he said.
I took him up on the offer and, over the course of the following three years, had the opportunity to conduct numerous interviews with him. He often laughed at me for being “such a European,” while I would get impatient with him for being “so Native.” The Native reliance on humor vs. the European default to impatience was one of many lessons Martin taught me.
— Leslee Goodman