This is the written testimony of my elder brother Michael Heiber. He’s elder in years but somewhat new to tipi ceremony. We aren’t related genetically, but I guess you’d say we have the same Grandfather- the medicine. We also are adopted sons in the same Diné family. And so this is Michael’s story of how we came to be spiritually related, and how he came to trust the medicine. It was not because someone told him to. It was because he had the faith and the perseverance to see how it works, and I love his spirit that way. I also appreciate the continuing efforts he makes in serving the medicine and the Native American Church community.
Michael tells the story of how he and I met on an online chat forum. This forum concerned a well known nighttime radio paranormal show, and Michael always exhibited a knowledge base and memory which made him stand out in the quality of his posts online. And he had a sharp and ironic sense of humor that I found entertaining. So when he shared with me that he was dealing with mental faculty challenges I almost thought he was kidding. With time I realized that this guy is an actual rocket scientist, so his perigee of mental acuity was kilometers above my apogee. It was like a Formula I driver telling a guy on a horse that his race car was driving too slow… or something like that, so that I could not, even after meeting him in person, perceive any issues with Michael’s thinking abilities. But Michael’s story teaches me more about how we can be blind to our brother’s and sister’s suffering when it’s not visible on the outside. And thankfully, the medicine sees. And it helps us, through applied faith and perseverance, so we can then help ourselves. And then we can help others. Thanks mi hermano, for showing me how that works, and for trusting the medicine.
I did not seek out tipi ceremonies and the Native American Church (NAC) for spiritual reasons. After years of declining mental and physical health I was seeking legal access to natural psychedelic medicines in an attempt at resetting my brain to regain independence.
By May of 2018 I was begging my family to put me into assisted living. I was unable to make the simplest of decisions. Driving became something I was terrified of doing. In spite of living in the same home for over 20 years I would get confused and lost in my own neighborhood. Doctors had told me my brain was atrophied, that I most likely would die from Chronic Traumatic Encephalitis (CTE) and there was nothing they could do.
I reached out to someone I had befriended in an internet chat forum. That person is Leo Mercado. The first time I went to Leo’s home I had no idea what to expect. My soulmate, Bonnie, drove me there.
As I approached the house a young couple was on the porch with their little boy. I assumed I was about to meet Leo for the first time. The young boy began running at full speed and dove off the raised porch and flew like Superman towards my unsuspecting arms. I’m blind in one eye and have no depth perception. I usually duck if anything is thrown towards me because I just know it’s going to hit me square in the nose. All I could think at this crucial moment was “Dear Lord don’t let me drop this child!” Little Hunter crashed full force into my chest, grabbed my neck and started saying “I love you! I love you! I love you!”. Bonnie pointed to Hunter’s dad and said “Is that Leo?” As I looked at Hunter, I somehow muttered “I don’t think so but I think I’m in the right place”. About this time, Leo walked out of his back door to see what the commotion was about. Turns out Hunter’s mom and dad were Leo’s friends and they just stopped by while traveling through California.
That afternoon Leo and I had long conversations about my health and my pursuit of psychedelic medicine. Leo spoke at length about peyote medicine while my goal then was to try psilocybin. I was determined to attempt replicating the promising results of ongoing clinical trials to “reset” the brain. I had been studying psilocybin for almost 2 years but had no knowledge of peyote medicine.
We parted ways with no specific plan of our own. I was eventually able to try psilocybin but after several unsuccessful attempts with increasing doses I called Leo and told him it wasn’t working.
“Then you need to join the Native American Church and sit up in a tipi ceremony. I’m sponsoring one here on August 8. I don’t know if there will be room but if you are supposed to be in the meeting there will be room.” I live 2000 miles away from Leo and was unable to drive safely around my own neighborhood. Somehow I made it to Leo’s tipi grounds with no understanding whatsoever of what the customs and traditions of a tipi ceremony were other than it would start around sundown and end sometime after sunup.
I arrived a day early and Leo told me we had to wake up before the sunrise to mark the doorway for the tipi. It had been an unbearably hot summer and wildfires threatened the entire area. The smoke was so thick we could not determine exactly where the sun was going to rise that morning. My expectations of my new Mexican Indian shamanic plant whisperer friend were almost crushed. “Damn. I can’t tell where the sun is rising. I used to have an app for this!” I guess I never expected a “shaman” to rely on an app. Leo reminds me often that he’s not a shaman. Turns out I DID have an app for that. I pulled out my phone and we marked the spot for the doorway of the tipi.
People started arriving and I learned that the intention of this prayer ceremony was to be an annual board meeting of Morningstar Conservancy. We put up the tipi and I was surprised how large it was. It was a 30’ canvas and it looked like many people would fit inside. Other preparations were underway. There was food to prepare for before, during and after the ceremony.
Leo handed me a large paper sack filled with dried peyote medicine. My task for the next hour or so was to grind the medicine into a fine powder and to grind it some more when I learned I had left too many hard pieces in my first attempt. I had never tasted peyote medicine and was more than a bit apprehensive about using a mind altering substance.
I had been sober for just over 26 years. I approached the use of psychedelic substances with extreme caution. The last thing I wanted to do was to jeopardize my sobriety. Leo and one of the women elders advised me to take a small amount of the medicine with me outside, to face the east, kneel, pray for my intentions of healing and to eat a small amount of the medicine.
The taste of the medicine was unpleasant to me and the way the powder stuck to every surface within my mouth and throat caused a bit of anxiety. I tried to remind myself that I was here to be healed and prayed for the strength not to back out.
More and more people arrived. Because of the severe threat of wildfires Leo arranged to have two of his sons sit out at night with Indian tanks and a garden hose in case embers happened to ignite the dry grass around the tipi grounds.
As people arrived and began placing their blankets and pillows in the tipi I began to wonder aloud if there would be room for me. Once again Leo said “If you are supposed to be in the meeting you’ll be in the meeting”.
What transpired next is only something I can say was an effect of the medicine I ate a few hours earlier. The gentleman that was going to be the fire chief began getting himself ready for the ceremony. He took out a piece of fabric and I thought to myself that “he is going wrap it around himself and use it as a waist cloth”. In my mind’s eye I had seen him do it before exactly as he did it that evening. Same thing happened with the next piece of cloth that he used as a head band. I’ll never forget the familiarity I sensed knowing what he was doing.
When it came time to enter the tipi Leo told me to follow him. As we ducked inside I received the only instructions Leo provided as to how I should act when inside the tipi. “See the fire? Walk this way. Always clockwise.” And he proceeded to walk halfway around the tipi to the sponsor’s pole. He stopped at an empty space which clearly wasn’t big enough for the two of us. He said hello to a man sitting nearby, shook his hand and then said “Travis, this is Michael. Michael this is Travis. Travis, there isn’t room enough for the two of us so I am going to give Michael my seat and go back in the house. This is Michael’s first meeting. Help him out tonight.” And he left me sitting in a tipi full of strangers who had traveled from near and far to attend the Morningstar board of directors’ annual meeting. As Leo exited I could hear people protesting. It made me feel uncomfortable and unwelcome. But those judgements were my own perception. I can’t say that anyone treated me any different than they would have if there had been room for Leo.
Travis was a great guide. He gave me gentle guidance and correction throughout the night. The next 16 hours or so left a very strong impression on my psyche. Even though I was suffering from severe mental illness caused by traumatic brain injury I have clearer memories of that night than many of the others I have attended since. I ate medicine and drank the tea every time it was passed. I didn’t understand the words of the native language prayer songs but I sensed the power of the prayers. I watched and listened and did my best to remember things that I had no understanding of. I don’t remember everything. The days of me being able to do that naturally are long gone. But I remember the feeling of community inside that tipi ceremony. I have said that nothing profound happened to me in that ceremony but looking back now it is a landmark in my journey to regain mental and physical health.
In January of 2019 I was invited to another tipi ceremony in Grass Valley. The tipi grounds were different but the sense of community was the same.
After that second ceremony I asked Leo if it was appropriate for me to ask for a healing ceremony for myself. “Well yeah, to be honest I was beginning to worry about you because you hadn’t asked me yet.”
Leo cemented my lifelong indebtedness to him by arranging a healing ceremony in April, 2019. This is where I met Gilbert Long. Gilbert is a Diné Roadman that Leo claims as his spiritual Dad.
I ate a lot of peyote that night and tried my best to sing some peyote prayer songs as the staff and drum made their way around. I spoke to the relatives in that ceremony towards the end of the meeting. In addition to thanking them for coming to pray for someone that most had never met, I explained that while I didn’t feel any supernatural healing at that moment, that my faith told me to claim that healing and not look back.
And that is how I have been trying to live my life ever since. Going to tipi ceremonies when I was invited. Trying my best to become part of the community I had been introduced to.
It hasn’t always been easy. In February 2020 I walked out of a tipi ceremony in the middle of the night screaming at god that I was never going back inside a tipi ceremony again. I was never eating peyote again. I was giving away my fan, rattle, pillows and saddle blankets and I walked off into the desert on the Tohono O’odham reservation at 2am. Shortly after eating medicine in what I had expected to be a gratitude ceremony for Leo and his fiancé something happened that made me relive what was the most traumatic experience of my life.
In January, 1980 I was practicing for our last 4 man bobsled race before moving into the Olympic village. I was slated to represent our country in the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid. This is something I had dreamed about and devoted my life to for 5 years. I was in the Air Force and this was my “winter job”. An accident on our fourth and final training run of the day almost killed me.
During the ceremony, as I knelt and prayed for Leo and his fiancé I was staring at the fire in the center of the tipi. To my absolute horror my bobsled rolled out of the fire and crushed me the way it did back in 1980. I relived every microsecond. I tasted the blood in my mouth. I smelled my flesh burning from the friction. I felt the weight of 1200 pounds of mass while somehow I was going 80 mph on the floor of a tipi. I felt the pain that I experienced 40 years before that my mind had been able to forget.
I left that tipi asking why in the hell I had to relive that experience in the middle of what was supposed to be a gratitude ceremony for my tipi brother.
I can try to describe what happened next in my own words but somehow it will be lacking. I wrestled with god in that desert. Physically, mentally and spiritually. Asking “Why did I had to relive that?” Much to my amazement, I got a question in response to my question. “What were you thinking when you were being crushed by the sled 40 years ago?” “That I’m a warrior and I’m going to survive this.” “You lost that. I need you to get it back.”
In 1980 I was a warrior. I had trained myself to the edge of physical endurance and beyond for 5 years in trying to fulfill my dreams. I was among the strongest and fastest athletes the US had ever chosen for an Olympic bobsled team. And through no fault of my own I was getting the crap beaten out of me while reminding myself that I would survive this. After my accident I was a warrior for awhile. The accident left me with severe chronic pain and changed my personality. When I got out of the Air Force in 1982 I turned to drugs and alcohol as an escape mechanism. I went to work in the space program. I was a high performing alcoholic for many years. Until I wasn’t.
This “conversation” with god had a very profound effect on me. This isn’t the first time I had actually experienced god speaking to me. But it’s the first time I remember having an actual conversation with him. I became aware of how much ptsd I had suffered for 40 years. I was trying to convince myself to return to the tipi when I received a vision. It was crystal clear. I was to go back in the tipi and embrace this medicine and when I returned to Texas I was to build a tipi grounds on my land to be able to host healing ceremonies like the one that helped me so much in 2019. By this time I had become quite content and serene and was meditating on a very peaceful scene of what my tipi grounds would look like. I heard Leo approach and he said “What ever you are dealing with out here you need to go back in the tipi and deal with it in there.” By the tone in his voice, I could sense he was anticipating an argument.
“I’m not dealing with anything out here. I was. It’s over. I’ll go back in and maybe I’ll tell you what happened.” I did try to explain what happened but words will never be enough to describe what actually transpired out in that desert.
When the meeting was over I joined the others in preparing the food for the traditional feast. Someone asked me how I had met Leo. I told the story about Hunter’s leap off the porch. Someone said “Joe’s son, Hunter?” “Yes, I think so”. “He’s around the side of the house right now playing on the swings”. I ran around the house and Hunter came up to me, gave me a big hug and said “I remember you!” What are the odds that this couple just happened to be passing through Tucson and stopped to say hello to their friend Leo. I’ve grown to accept that things like this will occur once we start following this path. I don’t know if the medicine somehow makes what others would write off as a coincidence happen or if it just makes us more aware of their significance when they do.
God has had his hand on my neck ever since that night. Pointing me towards the next right thing to do. When I returned to Texas I began trying to figure out how I could build a tipi grounds. I had been so sick for so long that I hadn’t picked up an axe or chainsaw in 5 or 6 years. In August of 2020 I began trying to get accustomed to working outside in the heat. I knew that someday I if I had a tipi grounds, I would need tipi firewood. So in the August heat in north central Texas I cut a dead oak tree into 5’ logs and began the process of splitting them. Oak logs do not split the way cottonwood logs (that my friends use) split. There is no joy in splitting a 5’ long oak log. I’ve prayed to find joy in it. I’ve cursed. A lot. I’m willing to find joy in it but all that I found was health. Becoming physically, mentally and spiritually healthy in a way that I still don’t understand. 14 months after cutting that first oak tree I sponsored my first ceremony here in Groesbeck,Texas. Lenora Long, Gilbert Long’s wife, adopted me as her son just before that meeting.
This medicine has allowed me to “pay it forward” in many ways that have helped many people. Earlier this year Gilbert Long became seriously ill with what was diagnosed as stage 4 kidney failure. I asked my mom if Gilbert wanted a healing ceremony. In a day or two she responded that he did and he wanted it as soon as possible and it had to be in Tucson. I have very little memory of what transpired during the next 2 weeks but somehow I was able to sponsor a healing ceremony for Gilbert. In Tucson. At a tipi grounds I had never been to before. I was a man on a mission. I cut and split tipi firewood. I loaded up my pickup and drove from Texas to Tucson to sponsor a healing ceremony for the Roadman that ran my healing ceremony just 3 years before. In April, 2019 I was still not comfortable driving around my own neighborhood. Being well enough to drive to Tucson to try and help someone else is something I never would have imagined.
While i was out in Tucson, I proposed to my soulmate, Bonnie, and we got married in June. Somehow this woman has stuck with me during my worst times. She didn’t attend the tipi ceremonies with me for the first 2 years. She saw how much the medicine and the Native American Church were helping me and eventually joined me in a ceremony in October, 2020. Shortly after we got married we returned to Tucson for a ceremony. I announced to the relatives there that I was sitting up in my first meeting with my wife beside me and how proud I was that she had accepted this road that I have been on.
I don’t tell my story out of bragging or bravado. It’s really not about me. I tell my story as a testament to my faith in our creator. The same god that has saved me from myself more times than I care to admit. Once god put his hand on my neck and started to point me towards the next right thing, life became so much easier. Or it became so much harder. I’m not exactly sure which. I do know that it has become more fulfilling.
I can’t say I’ve always been obedient. Sometimes I’ve said no, I’m not going to do that. But more often than not I end up submitting and doing what my spirit was guiding me to do. I can tell you many other stories about things that have happened before, during or after tipi ceremonies over the last 4 years.
And if my brother Leo ever asks me to tell them on his podcast I might fill you in on the continuing escapades of a fellow traveler. Until then I will leave you with some timeless words of wisdom. Trust the medicine.
Click Below For Next Post
Leave a Reply