Dearest Youth Passageway kin,
Greetings from the lands of the Arapaho, Cheyenne, and Ute peoples, along with 48 contemporary tribal nations who are historically tied to the state of Colorado – a place I am calling home, again.
As we creep slowly towards the light of the spring equinox, I pause and stretch back in reflection to the days of darkness, this winter, when I came to a decision about how I desired to relate to Youth Passageways in the coming year. Today, I share with our larger network that I have stepped down as the Stewardship Council Co-Chair and would like to take this moment to thank you, the network, the spiral governance and particularly those within the staff circle and stewardship council that I have been in close connection with for the past 3 years. I bow in gratitude for the learning, the sibling-hood, the growth and commitment to help regenerate healthy passages into mature adulthood for today’s youth, witnessed every day within the various projects, working groups and conversations I found myself a part of.
My biggest prayer that I’d like to share is that any body of works I was a part of on behalf of YPW, in an effort to uplift network partners who were and are learning how best to serve and offer programming by and for queer & trans people, that that work built more than burned bridges. My mistakes and edges forge my commitment to learning, advocating, and relationship accountability, repair and transformation across identities and cultures.
Where this network may have fallen short for me or where I failed the network will be a beautiful flaw on the tapestry woven into our story during my time and I pray many of us will continue to grow and stretch in the discomfort and move towards deeper understanding.
My story with YPW began on the island of Hawai’i (from which I just returned recently) in 2015. It was here I met Darcy Ottey, developed my skills as a Guide for Rites of Passage, and became a YPW Ambassador after attending the 2016 gathering in Los Angeles. I then sailed across the Atlantic and lived unanchored until 2018, when I returned to Turtle Island, and participated in two of our network partners’ programs. First, a two week Rite of Passage Journeys’ Leadership Intensive guided by Darcy & Cameron, also our Co-Director & SC Treasurer, in the Pacific Northwest, followed by summertime with Youth on Fire & Melissa Michaels and the rite of passage movement community at Golden Bridge in Boulder, CO. My relationship to YPW deepened in autumn when I made my way to All Nations Gathering Center in Yellow Bear Canyon, SD for a YPW healing ceremony. Invited by Youth Passageways guardians Becky & Dallas Chief Eagle I reconnected with many folks I hadn’t seen since our LA Gathering in 2016. By the end of that year, 2018, I said, “Yes!” to join the YPW Stewardship Council and become the Secretary. I also said “Yes!” to drop anchor in the Bay Area of the Ohlone people, supporting my partner and now fiancé while they finished grad school.
When the pandemic and uprisings happened in 2020, now the Co-Chair of Youth Passageways, I found myself closer to the Leadership Circle. I was lucky to have the ability and time to plug in where I was needed and where I felt I could bring my gifts. We birthed the YPW Education & Consulting Collective in the midst of the fires, offering caucus spaces for both the People of the Global Majority and aspiring and committed white anti-racists in the network. We planned and held our first virtual Stewardship Council gathering in autumn. I was a part of creating systems of accountability and assessment for our staff and leadership within YPW. I supported our “Core 4” in organizing monthly Stewardship Council meetings. And I hope throughout my time my input for website updates, particularly the partner listing classifications and specifically the gender & sexuality search, provide a container of belonging and a tool for LGBTQIA2S+ people and my Queer & Trans kin.
I feel I have served our mission, the organization and the people I call family well. I trust the fruits of my labors will come to bear in deep time and I remain open and curious, with the ability to witness and remain close and supportive to those meaningful relationships I have invested in. I hope that the fires that have forged YPW into our current stage of development (still a young organization!) bring with it an accountability and vulnerability that shepherds us through a collective, regenerative, healthy passage into the conscious and embodied adult leaders serving young people in these uncertain times.
What’s next for me? Well, I’ll continue to be in contact and involved with the YPW Education & Consulting Collective and assisting with fundraising for now. I’m completing my SomaSource Practitioner studies with Golden Bridge and am on the Production team for Surfing the Creative here in Boulder, CO this July. I’m volunteering with OUT Boulder, learning how to DJ, tending to my website queerodyssey.org, participating in a Queer Mirroring training and becoming a foster parent. I’m creating home. If you’re ever in the area, hit me up, I’d love to show you.
In early December 35 women who guide women and girls through rite of passage gathered in Ojai from across the USA and Canada. The gathering was called “Transitions and Thresholds” and was an answer to a call for women to gather and ask questions about what it means to be a woman and to guide women and girls in this time of cultural transition. Guides were supported by three wisdom keepers representing all the five nations. There was singing, celebration, communing and deep questioning about what rites of passage means now, how to define gender as gender constructs are being pulled apart by our youth, what it means to be empowered as a woman and what sort of world we are initiating people into. The gathering brought more questions than answers. These questions and the discussions and resources that women shared are available for all in a book of proceedings. If you wish to receive access to this or are interested in future gatherings you can join our facebook group Transitions and Thresholds or you can email convener, Miriam Jones, at HERE.
This was a trip with two primary focuses that tied to each other, first on behalf of YPW to deepen relationship with All Nations while getting a working understanding of the place, its capacity, and ways of collaboration between our two organizations. Secondly, I went as an individual with my partner to deepen relationship with Becky and Dallas personally and in response to the start of our relationship at the Los Angeles gathering, and in gratitude, for the grief ceremony they provided for me on behalf of my mother.
In keeping in integrity with our core value of not simply seeking permission but grounding and offering gratitude to the place and the people in which we seek to gather, upon arriving we offered Becky and Dallas gifts of tobacco as well as a bundle of cedar and a talisman I had made by a local artist in Kansas City out of Tiger’s Eye, gemstones, bones, and driftwood from the Missouri River. Before arriving Melissa and I wrapped these in one of my mother’s scarves and prayed into it for protection and love for the folks that they had lost recently and for protection on their community. We presented it to them from us as individuals but also in honor of the invitation to YPW from All Nations.
The first day Becky took us on a journey across the breadth of Pine Ridge all the way to Rapid City. We started by visiting KILI Radio, better known as the voice of the Lakota Nation that reaches the Porcupine Butte, Pine Ridge, and Rosebud Reservations before heading to Wounded Knee and offering gifts and prayers to those buried there and again seeking permission to be in and work among the people there. We then stopped at the border of Nebraska in a town known as Whiteclay. Last November, after a decade of advocacy the state Liquor board revoked the licenses of the four liquor stores there. On top of that just four months ago now a Dollar General was opened providing easy and affordable access to food and supplies. Across the street is Camp Justice, where a group of Lakota who were tired of the police not investigating alcohol-related deaths would watch over the twenty mile stretch of road leading back across the border. Next, to the camp, a long tunnel-like permaculture and housing project bears a large painted sign that simply reads HOPE. We ended in the day in Rapid City by meeting one of Becky’s daughters, who is a community liaison for a CDC pilot project focused on surveying young people to inform state agencies what they actually need or want in the aid of creating better communities and she is actively working to raise awareness around traditional teachings as integral to that process.
The next day Dallas and I walked the grounds, learned about the land that All Nations rest upon, the history and life of the practices and ceremonies held there, and various plans and collaborations moving forward. Every other Tuesday in response to the politics of the tribal government, they host a get together of over 30 organizations working in areas ranging from economic justice to energy efficiency, that in coming together are building community in ways that address both the past and the present of their people, it’s a truly inspiring thing. Several youths from the community were there that day to sing traditional songs for a documentary being made on 5 Lakota women at 5 different life stages and after they were finished we sat and ate together and talked about the state of things in their home place. What came out of that conversation was that of the 30 organizations (and more) that are working together across the reservation, many of which have youth involvement, but not one of them is youth-led, nor is there a youth-led movement known by any of the elders, middlers, or young people I talked to.
One of the youth, a 21-year-old Lakota man named Jaylin, who is also a state representative for the Native American Church and I got deep into a dialogue about it and the potential for inviting young people across the 9 districts of Pine Ridge into the question of generational change. A large part of the conversation has been about what YPW can offer, as opposed to take and it seems there is a question there about what those young people want to see changed and what support be that financial, organizational, etc YPW could provide not as a facilitator of that change but simply in support of an effort facilitated and envisioned by them, for them. We were joined in this conversation by Naomi Lost Horse, a teacher at a Lakota language grade school dealing with an epidemic of youth suicide and both have since expressed interest in joining our organizing team.
We ended that evening by talking late into the night with Becky and Dallas about preparation and my overwhelming takeaway is acknowledging that these are not fragile people, but fierce and grounded ones who know who they are, what their ceremonies are, what they mean, and in clear rejoinder of the invitation to come and be with them in it. They have their own protocols that are offered to non-native folks when engaging in ceremony or traditional teachings, agreements about what is to be experienced as opposed to taken and recreated and just aren’t in the mindset of that being volatile of controversial, but instead, spirit led and rooted in a process of tust-building.If anything, it seems our work in preparation is to be with what it means to come into their place and in honor of their protocols while doing the work we need to do to make sure we are also mindful of our own, in trust of each other.
There is so much more both in my the connections I learned about leading up to the SC and those moving forward both personally and professionally but the gist is simple, it was fluid, of ease, it felt like family. They have a facility that can easily house who we would like to bring but that’s for us to decide and in collaboration, they invite us to be with them, as family with the love and also the dysfunction that entails and feels like a perfect next step for us.
*These are just some of the many voices that were present. We’re looking for more, please send your reflections or experiences HERE
Delacina Chief Eagle
The youth gathering held at the All Nations gathering center was an empowering experience within a safe & nurturing environment. I felt free to express who I choose to be all while being comforted with encouragement from those surrounding me. Pilamiya, thank you, to everyone who blessed us with the medicine of their spirit.
The healing balm of generous invitation and gifting supported a cross-cultural contact beyond my expectations… it felt like all participants showed up having done ‘their homework’ to be able to listen, honor and celebrate differences and breathe new understanding into our network and our individual and collective work with youth.
Akicita His Horse is Thunder
It was a great opportunity to meet kind and open-minded people. 1 word is awesome
Marisa Taborga Byrne
What brings together a diverse network? Shared time on the land, stories from elders, ceremony, games, and intention for healing. The gathering at All Nations Gathering Center was joy-filled, soft, and deep. Having been invited by Becky and Dallas, of the Lakota people who first stewarded those lands, created a holistic welcoming feeling, and the Lakota youngers and elders who joined us nourished that sentiment. Such deep gratitude for the invitation, and for how we all showed up, ready to listen, to share, to love.
JO Jett Cazeaux
What stood out for me from the beginning was the strong representation of Queer, Trans & gender non-binary folx in attendance, including myself. There were many moments I recall from our time that, in my opinion, led to mutual understanding and growth edges, safe space to be one’s authentic self and opportunities for allies to carry the labor of advocating for Queer/Trans/non-binary visibility at the Gathering. What stands out for me, personally, began our first night with the sweat lodge when we were instructed that women go in first, then men. Feeling the crux here and the support and opportunity to arrive in this sacred space empowered. Following the women & leading the men, landing in the hottest “seat” in the circle, with grace, humility and strength, set the tone for my time at All Nations. Learning from the Creation Story that the Half Moon is traditionally the time when Two-Spirit members hold ceremony was special to hear. And recognizing that the Lakota people, just like some cis settlers, are open and learning a language that does not erase the visibility of the community members that do not fall into the binary of brother or sister, but that we are all kin. And finally, those cis comrades that went to the table to advocate when erasure was happening, I am eternally grateful. With all that said, reflecting on our follow up call when Becky told us that those Two Spirit community members of Pine Ridge that were in attendance at the Gathering shared that they felt “seen” and saw others “like me”, meant the world to me and lots of relief & joy. A testament to not only those of us showing up authentically but a direct reflection to how our cis friends, mentors & elders elevated our presence and voices.
Lastly, I’d like to acknowledge the courage it takes for those of us who show up in these spaces that still, despite best intentions, face language, history & structures that are visibly binary. Advocating for our visibility to be spoken, incorporated into stories & weaved into ways we move forward in our gatherings is the hope. That the labor is carried by all of us- honoring our ancestors & future generations with clarity, kindness & kinship for all of the YPW family.
Read Dave’s Reflections HERE
Read Dane’s Reflections HERE
Who of us in our digitalized and remote lives has not wondered about our disappearing sense of connectedness — face to face, person to person and within a tribe? The more we find ourselves hitting “send,” “reply,” and “post,” the less connected we often feel and become. The staff, guides, and trainees at Rites of Passage have been witness to a growing longing for real community, for something more than virtual connection. The desire for tribe has been on our radar for some time now, and it has changed how we work in the field and at home.
We hold the container of community in significant and unique ways. We’ve learned that a rite of passage begins and ends in community. A vision quest may look like time spent alone in a wild place—and it is that—but it’s also arriving from home/family/workplace/neighborhood, going into nature alone to seek both healing and recognition of your unique soul-gifts, and then returning to community with those gifts.
From our founding over 40 years ago, we’ve given a lot of attention to the first two parts of the journey—what we call Severance (leaving one’s old life behind) and Threshold (solo time), but it’s only in the past few years that we’ve really focused on the community re-entry that’s so important for a successful return.
One source of learning was our visit to the Mohawk community of Akwesasne in 2009. Three teenage boys went out on vision quest during our visit, and we had the opportunity to sit in ceremony with them the morning they returned, where prayers were spoken that they might find their place of service in the community. Then a gathering was held for them outside the Longhouse, where perhaps 100 community members showed up. Several people spoke about their accomplishment. Our host, a Bear Clan medicine woman, then turned to me and asked me to say a few words. I tried to decline…until a bear-like medicine man looked at me and said: “When a Bear Clan mother asks you to do something, you should just do it!” Despite feeling unequal to the task, I found my place within this community—speaking in support of these young men in their journey toward adulthood. What an event for three young vision questers–and for me!
After the community recognition of their accomplishment, it was time for a feast–moose stew and deer sausage from the Mohawk’s sacred land. Before eating, there was one final task given to the young initiates: to take their places at the end of the meal line, demonstrating that they were now men who could defer meeting their own needs in service to others.
This experience of witnessing a deeply rooted and connected community, in addition to my living in intentional community for many years, changed how I thought about rites of passage. For one thing, I realized that, in contrast to the young Mohawk men, many of our participants did not have a welcoming community to return to after the program ended. In response, we began sponsoring no-cost yearly gatherings for quest graduates in cooperation with our friends at the Condor Clan, building a community of initiated adults we called “ORB,” or “Order of the Red Bandanna” named for the red bandanna that each graduate receives at the end of the program. But these gatherings aren’t just another Rites of Passage offering; they are co-held by the growing ORB community, which continues to unfold. In the Bay Area, there are now quarterly ORB gatherings sponsored and planned by members of this community.
We also made a number of changes to our program in the field, designed to emphasize the power of the community that forms for each vision quest group. As a result, over the course of the program, the group itself often becomes a significant source of healing and support for participants. Many people have commented on how special it is to be witnessed in such a safe and empowering way by a community of peers. As we learned from visiting the Mohawk community, being recognized in this way is a key component of traditional rites of passage. We’re providing a taste of that on each Rite of Passage program—but of course, vision questers still face the challenges of returning to a world where these ceremonies are not recognized and valued. You may wonder, wouldn’t you feel a loss when the group ends? Yes, there can be sadness…but also joy, as you carry the whole blessed experience home in your heart, ready to share your gifts with friends, family, and home. Maybe even ready to help heal the world.
Before entering Pacific Quest and Dragonfly Transitions, and consequently becoming introduced to rites of passage work, my life was devoid of meaning. I was entirely consumed by depression and anxiety. I was barely leaving the house, I had dropped out of college, I was plagued by self-harm urges, and was consistently pacifying my emotional pain by abusing alcohol and other drugs. I hated my life and I hated myself. And I was obsessed with this hatred; it was all I could think about. This went on for months, and after thoroughly and repeatedly contemplating taking my own life, I resigned to signing up for treatment.
I could not be more grateful for ending up at Pacific Quest. Granted, my experience there was difficult, tumultuous, frustrating, and filled with tears… but it gave me the impetus I needed to take the power back from mental illness. My PQ experience showed me my own strength, my own courage, and why I was worth putting in the effort to try to overcome the darkness and shadows. Over those three months, I slowly but surely eased myself into becoming comfortable in my own skin and took back the power from depression, enabling me to save my own life. One of the most poignant experiences I had at PQ was the solo I did. It was my first involvement with a genuine rite of passage. I was forced to sit with myself and be alone for almost two whole days; a scary thought for a person whom previously would dread being alone for even an hour. The experience was incredibly empowering! I overcame my fear of being truly present with myself, free from technology, substance abuse, and the infinite other number of distractions so many of us unconsciously use throughout our lives. After completing my solo, and successfully finishing out the rest of the Pacific Quest program, I was extremely proud of myself and felt motivated to continue to heal.
I then entered a program in Oregon called Dragonfly Transitions, where I continued my recovery for the next year and a half. It was there that I was introduced to rites of passage work in a more in-depth fashion, and I was given the opportunity to partake in two different vision fasts. My first fast, which was three full days and nights spent in the woods, with no food, no human contact, and no real shelter…. Well, it’s hard to put words to such a powerful, mythical experience. The fast was incredibly well-timed; it was to occur right after I was scheduled to move out of the Dragonfly house and into my own living space! I used it, in one sense, to mark my transition out of the transition home, and also to honor all of the work I did while living in treatment. My first fast was a unique challenge; I had never been faced so intensely with myself and my fears. But I’ve come to the conclusion that this sort of turmoil must be addressed, it must be worked with, in one fashion or another, or we will be forced to live forever as uninitiated adults. Maybe surviving, but certainly not thriving. Lacking purpose and fulfillment. Like me, pre-treatment.
My second vision fast was just as meaningful as was my first. I fasted several months after graduating Dragonfly, and my intention was to sever with the idea of being a person who is mentally ill and to come into my own wholeness. The fast didn’t totally go as planned, for me… but it went as it was supposed to go. I ended up being struck with the idea that this work, this rites of passage work, this work of helping people heal by facing their deepest and darkest fears out in nature, is what I am being called to do.
What I have learned in the past two years, throughout treatment and rites of passage work, is that I am a person who is hungry. My soul craves fulfillment, purpose, and meaning. And I won’t be satisfied if I’m not doing this work, this work of soul-searching, of learning, of listening, of intention. This beautiful, strange, mysterious work of healing the self, and, in turn, helping others heal.
The Power of Dirt
When I first met Cece she was weeding a garden bed, knees pressed against the ground, diligently pulling away the sprouting grass surrounding a long row of kale and broccoli. I remember the sound of the trade winds coming in from the ocean as we spoke. I watched Cece’s hands shaking as she dug her fingers through the dirt. It was our first meeting, and it was the beginning of a long journey with the filters and distractions removed, exposing a deep unequivocal yearning for love.
As a therapist, my job is to navigate many different worlds; to work within the imperfect system of mental healthcare while honoring each person’s inner capacity to activate his or her own self-healing. Cece’s journey was in many ways a mirror into the journey that we all must face. Each of us living a story that is about something more than ourselves. Each of us learning to let go, sitting with our fears and silent questions; learning to pray as if it were a simple conversation between the past and future. Sitting together in a garden tending to the weeds felt like the beginning of a ceremony. We talked about the obstacles to love, about fear and self-doubt. I remember the sound of tiny roots breaking as we pulled at the weeds, and the smell of dirt and sweat as we talked about loneliness and the search for meaning.
It’s hard to imagine, but two years later Cece would be sharing her story at the 2016 Wilderness Therapy Symposium. She would join me in advocating for the integration of rites of passage and horticultural therapy and in the process she would inspire attendees to deepen their commitment to ceremony and ritual. Now, with her involvement at Youth Passageways, I feel inspired by the power of ceremony to set in motion a chain of events that is beyond imagination. Cece’s journey is a reminder that there is medicine within the wound, and with this wisdom I see organizations like Youth Passageways forging opportunities for healing and transformation that honor the collective story of this generation and the generations to come.
The Right Kind of Accountability
You could say that I came about this type of work honestly. I was raised in an empty cookie-cutter culture of middle-class suburbia. There was no conception or emphasis on young people having a valued seat in the larger community and certainly no methods of navigating the treacherous road from adolescence into adulthood. Many of my peers fell by the wayside to drugs, crime, or the hollow pursuit of a life that that was prescribed to them by the machine of materialism and popular culture.
I found myself lost in my adolescence, which in itself is actually necessary, but with no Mentors or path to tread which would lead me to understand my place in the world in a real way. By my late teens, I was a drug addict and committed to the only lifestyle that had given my any real validation, drugs, and dealing. By a miracle, life initiated me in a way that was almost as abrupt and jarring as the overdose that preceded it. I got clean and sober at the age of 20 and through this process began to meet people who really saw me and understood my plight. This is where I learned the sacred chain of Mentorship through which we are connected to our ancestors, and must continue this transmission to the coming generations.
I have been working in the helping profession for just under 10 years and it was in this work that I met Cece at Dragonfly Transitions. Cece demonstrated a level of commitment to herself, intelligence, depth, and insight that was noticeable from the beginning. She quickly emerged as a leader in her peer group and took ownership in her growth process. She lit up when I first broached the topic of a wilderness-based rite of passage experience and I could see something begin to awaken in her psyche that had otherwise been lying quietly.
She participated in two Vision Fasts that were offered at Dragonfly. Through these experiences, I saw her grow deeply in her understanding of her past, the purpose of her present, and the whispers of a future in which she is called to a life of healing, service, and leadership. Being a witness to her growth called me to stay committed to my own unfolding as a person and to show-up to this work fully and with authenticity, integrity, and an open heart. I am held accountable to continue to in my own development, asking the deeper questions in my life to bring me to the center of my passion.
This work of rites of passage takes many forms and must fit the context of the community it serves. Knowing that I am part of a larger movement in bringing this work to youth brings me a flicker of hope and the inspiration to continue to draw from the well of Mentorship and wilderness based rites of passage. The poverty of true initiation for young people in the larger culture can bring a bitter taste followed by feelings of doubt and disheartenment. It is through this larger web, my own Mentors, and people like Cece, that inspire me to hold this seat.
Over this next year we’d love to publish as many Impact Stories as we can find, if you’ve got one, reach out HERE