Friday, January 06, 2006

Playing Indian - Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Article

That photo just about says it all, no? More photos from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article below are HERE.

Song of the Wilderness

American Indian traditions guide seekers who learn of the land, and themselves, in Oneida County

By Peter Maller
of the Journal Sentinel staff
Last Updated: Aug. 24, 2000

Three Lakes - Squatting at a campfire deep in Nicolet National Forest, Tim Nelson prepared the evening meal: barbecued garter snake.

It promised to be tastier than the grub he ate last spring while lost in the wilds at Teaching Drum Outdoor School, where he is a student learning wilderness survival skills rooted in ancient American Indian spiritual traditions.

Nelson, 20, raised in an upper-middle-class family in Cape Cod, Mass., chewed down raw leeches, frogs, worms and assorted bugs during a week spent wandering. Instead of cursing his luck, he recited prayers thanking Mother Earth for the bounty of the land.

When he finally located his home in the forest, a birch bark wigwam, he feasted on road-kill deer supplied by the school's headmaster.

"It's a rich life we live here," said Nelson, who recently completed Teaching Drum's apprenticeship program and signed on for another 12-month stint. "My existence didn't have much meaning before. I'm beginning to understand things better now."

Teaching Drum, a non-profit institution at an 80-acre nature preserve in northern Oneida County, was founded 11 years ago by Tamarack Song, 52, a former Fox Valley area businessman. Born Daniel Jerome Konen, the eldest of three outdoorsy brothers, he changed his name to one he felt better suited his spiritual identity.

Song launched Teaching Drum after growing up inspired by his mother's knowledge of wild plants and later living with a pack of wolves he rescued from a private zoo. He ran a water bed shop and a natural foods restaurant, while conducting a 20-year odyssey to learn traditional American Indian culture from tribal elders at reservations across the United States.

Teaching Drum, about 20 miles northeast of Rhinelander, offers dozens of courses aimed at students who are disenchanted with America's emphasis on materialism. The school accepts about 75 students a year. The cost of classes ranges from $50 to $350.

Even weekend workshops in hide-tanning, medicinal-herb gathering and building shelters from materials scavenged in the woods have a strong spiritual theme.

"There is a deep unfilled yearning in people that can be answered by going to a place that is stress-free - far from the routines of normal life - so we can hear the voices within us," Song said. "Lots of students are searching for their inner selves."

A student of anthropology, philosophy and wildlife conservation before dropping out of the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, he also performs marriages and baby naming ceremonies.

Pupils at Teaching Drum are often empty-nesters and corporate professionals who are changing careers and searching for a new path. Other students, such as a psychologist and an electrician who took a recent course in basic Chippewa Indian culture, came looking for soul-satisfying vacations.

Students learn to make spoons, bowls and clothes from materials found in their surroundings. Lessons are also offered in shelter-building, mushroom-hunting, wild rice gathering and firemaking. Fire classes are taught using handmade bows and drills, drawn from ancient practices traced to early cave dwellers.

"Almost all the materials, including the tinder, come from cedar trees, which the native people of this area call 'the grandmother tree,' because it has such a sacred tradition," he said.

Song also leads boating adventures in dugout canoes. He sprinkles the voyages with tips on finding drinkable water, cooking without pots and locating "great natural toilet paper."

A self-effacing man who sports a bushy white beard and a braided ponytail, he is reluctant to accept payment for some courses because he considers them so sacred.

Each spring, students who sign up for a course entitled "Song of the Mosquito," are asked only for a free-will offering to the school's building fund. He promises to teach students "the rhythm of the forest, so we won't stand out as aliens ripe for bloodletting." Song calls the mosquitoes "guardians of the farther places." No bug spray is allowed.

Lodging at the school is provided at wigwams. Or visitors can bring their own tents. Class size averages from 4 to 10 students, to ensure personal attention.

Between school sessions, Song writes books and magazine articles for New Age journals. He also travels throughout the Midwest to present demonstrations at public schools and community festivals.

Nick Gale, 21, of Kenosha, a student in the apprenticeship program, said the year he spent under Song's tutelage deepened his reverence for nature.

"The most important lesson is to trust the landscape," he said. "Once you learn the basic skills, you don't need to worry about yourself. The land takes care of you."

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