Interview with Tony Ten Fingers from Primal: Why We Long to Be Wild and Free
Indigenous teachers are now sharing, learning, and taking things back to their own people, even in the face of big challenges in their own communities, such as suicide prevention, a prevalence of fetal alcohol syndrome, the growing number of missing native women, and other issues that are specific to that community. And they are not hesitant to directly address the big issues and ideas of cultural appropriation, decolonization, and even the idea of reindigenization.
Tony Ten Fingers is one such teacher and leader. Tony was born and raised in Ogalala, South Dakota, and was a significant contributor to the early days of the primal movement, especially on the east coast. He has worked across the country helping people heal from trauma by connecting deeply to nature. He has served as a mentor to these people and has done ground-breaking work on suicide prevention in native communities. He has also personally experienced the impact of youth suicide on reservations, having lost family members to the epidemic. I know Tony from my early days at WAS, and he is always a solid presence of warmth, kindness, insight, and deep heart-felt sharing. When I first met Tony, he had the appearance of many archetypal images of Lakota people: strong, long vibrant black hair, and a prominent hawk-like nose. Tony’s Lakota name is Wanbli Nata’u, which means Raging Eagle. The irony is that Tony never rages at anybody; he maintains a peaceful, ironic, and quite funny demeanor.
Much of Tony’s work and the work that he sees happening through survival skills, the primal journey, and deep nature connection is about establishing Identity, especially for Native people. Whether it’s working with troubled teen youth in a wilderness setting, playing with elementary school kids on the reservation, or doing suicide prevention, a lot comes back to knowing who we are. We need to learn to know who we really are and to identify or even re-identify who we are. Tony sees survival skills as one valid path for this quest, and it's important to realize that all people long to be connected to their deep primal nature
So what, exactly, is the connection between survival skills and finding one's identity?
“When we’re in nature practicing survival skills, that’s when things make sense in the world,” said Tony. “It’s not because we sit at a computer or use Google to identify what we need. We go into nature, and we bow-drill a fire because we need to stay warm or cook our food.”
Spending a day outside is when we strip everything down to the bare essentials, and the hyperactive nature of our minds and egos start to melt away.
“In the bigger picture, [when practicing survival skills] at the end of the day you realize what a beautiful day it’s been. There’s a much bigger picture at play. That’s the spiritual nourishment we need that’s lacking in the world,” Tony summarized.
Tony’s view of the interconnectedness between nature and spirituality is a theme often endorsed by indigenous teachers. While it may fall into some people’s stereotypical notions of Native Americans, many of the Native people I've encountered have emphasized the importance of the spiritual aspect of what happens when people spend time in nature or practice survival skills. It’s almost like there’s an inherent primal spiritual way of seeing the world that emerges from doing these skills. I've experienced this directly, as have my friends and family, and there is often a natural, elegant spiritual fulfillment that comes from people exploring their primal nature and a deep connection to the natural world.
Science also shows that a lack of (or deficit) nature leads to a greater sense of disharmony in our lives and on our planet. As mentioned before, Richard Louv has documented this extensively in his work including in his book Vitamin N-. Louv equates nature with an essential nutrient that we need to thrive, be happy, and healthy for both children and adults.Tony agrees and sees a direct relationship to all the turmoil in our society with our disconnection from nature—everything from mass shootings to extreme weather to the anxiety and depression troubling our youth has become all too common.
“If everyone practiced going out in nature two to three days a week or even just every weekend, then those disruptions would not happen. Our lack of spiritual nourishment [from nature] is the seed for the disruptions of hate, injustice...we have problems with these things because our spirit isn’t fed,” Tony said.
Tony knew me when I was in my early twenties and just starting to be a part of this primal movement. He doesn’t hesitate to remind me of the impacts that this work immersion have had on my life.
“When I started doing this work years ago back in New Jersey, I started to see the
bigger picture about the impacts on our lives. You are a product of this kind of work, Nate. You are a result of learning all these things...it’s shaped what kind of man you are, what kind of family man you are, what kind of man you are in the community. Just like it’s shaped me.”
This was in a lot of ways a pointed reminder to me of my own privilege around these experiences and helped me remember how lucky I had been to have these experiences a part of my life for some time.
But what about Native communities? What about the children and adults on the reservation? What kind of opportunities for nature connection are there?
Many of the traditional spiritual practices of Lakota culture are intimately tied to nature and connection. These are the Lakota examples of staying connected to their primal roots and deep ancestral connections. For instance, the Innipi, or sweat lodge, is a purification ceremony that incorporates many different elements from nature, including stones harvested from river banks, plants (such as sage and sweetgrass), water held in traditional gourd dippers, and the lodge itself, which is built from sixteen different willow poles. Every Innipi ceremony is an example of people practicing survival skills by harvesting plants, rocks and other elements from their own land. It's a form of deep nature connection by developing relationships with those same elements, and it's a form of deep primal remembrance stretching back to ancestral hunter-gatherer days before the era of colonization.
Similar things hold true for the Sun Dance, a once a year major religious and spiritual ceremony at the center of Lakota spiritual tradition. The Sun Dance is a multi-day event that involves setting up a huge ceremony on a flat, wide-open plain. The dance requires enormous understanding of local ecology, plants, wood, wind, weather, and materials to pull off successfully. Everything must be harvested and prepared in a specific way that goes back to ancestral, primal times. Even the Hanbleychya, or what many people know as a vision quest (or vision fast), is a nature-based practice of spending four days and night in isolation in nature to focus on praying for all the elements of the natural world around you—a deep nature connection practice for sure. For modern people rediscovering their own ancestral roots and primal nature, the intact cultural and environmental relationships present in the Sun Dance or vision fast can demonstrate what happens when a people hold true to their own primal journey.
I wanted to get Tony’s specific thoughts and insights on colonization and decolonization—a conversation at the heart of many native communities and their allies right now, and that is important for anyone starting to rediscover their own primal longings and nature.
Tony answered this question by bringing up the simple act of putting your feet in wild water. This is a tactic he frequently used as a way to work with teens in wilderness therapy. Often, teens in these programs have become numbed out emotionally due to trauma or abuse or addiction. In this exercise, the water helps them feel again and become reacquainted with the wonder of natural sensation.
“With young people, we take them to a stream and have them experience it and feel it. [Have them] touch the water and wade in it [and] start identifying with that feeling, it doesn’t matter if it’s an ice-cold brook or warm springs. The feelings are what matters...that’s what matters in the world.”
“If a person feels that doing [this exercise] is nonsense, then they’ve been colonized. You have to decolonize them, and you have to learn to communicate with them about this. Where does something like that come from? Maybe from their parents and upbringing. Maybe they learned it is nonsense to stay in the stream, and maybe they’ve been working from 8-5 for too long. To decolonize, you must help people feel good in their heart.”
I’ve seen this numbness time and time again. Sometimes, it’s fear or the shame of getting dirty. It might even be shame at wanting to play or even being outside. But when people spend time really feeling and being, that numbness starts to melt away.
“Colonization and decolonization are both a process. In Lakota, we talk about Dankuskanskan—a natural process. The river is a natural process, it goes where there’s the least resistance. Rain from the clouds falls to the earth and runs into the river and then flows into the ocean. This cycle is Dankuskanskan, and decolonization is a process that we need to learn. How does it work for the people in power, and how does it works for those that are oppressed?” was Tony’s reply.
Tony emphasized how important it is to do this kind of work and how people who are colonized become so wrapped up in the material world, the work world, and media that their lives revolve around traffic jams, money-making opportunities, and the negative new stories on the news. He really believes that there are answers to these problems through these natural practices.
“When someone does Hanblecheya, a vision quest, you go out there for four days and nights, below the stars at night. You see a bigger picture, and are not so colonized. The end result is that [the person] usually sheds tears. It doesn’t matter who they are or where they’re from, they shed tears—not tears of sadness, but tears of beauty...of the beauty of life.”
This was what Tony saw as decolonization: melting our hearts so that the can feel again and unplugging ourselves from the continual high-stimulation of the modern material world.
When I asked Tony about what is needed on the reservation, he didn’t hesitate: “Mentoring, more mentoring. We have the ceremonies and a lot of language and culture. But we could use more mentoring.”
Tony grew up being mentored by his grandmother. While his older siblings faced the realities of boarding school on the reservation (where their language and culture was systematically oppressed), Tony was dropped off by his dad to spend time with his grandmother. A traditional woman who spoke fluent Lakota, English, and Cheyenne and did things the old way, she would sit under a tree with Tony and make moccasins without needle and thread. The two of them would gather and dry plums, chokecherries, and wild turnips. And at night, when Tony stayed over, she shared stories of the buffalo nation, the deer nation, and the eagle nation. These stories stayed with him and informed his work to this day. Their bond was so strong that when the two of them were apart, if Tony willed it, she would show up in his dreams. This is an example of primal culture, skills, and knowledge being transferred from generation to generation, and what Tony describes in his relationship with his grandmother is what many people are longing for. Tony's primal connection and awakening to his own people's roots wasn't just gathering wild foods and making moccasins, it also included stories and deep relationships. It's also very similar to what Tamarack Song and Tom Elpel share of their own awakening to a primal world through time spent with their own savvy, nature-connected grandmothers.
Tony carries on this tradition of passing down the old ways today by sharing it with others. He told me of how, when he returned to the reservation, he was asked by a family to participate in a special ceremony with their soon-to-be-born child. Tony was asked to be present at the birth and to share his breath, or Ni, with the child to form a bond and to pass on some of his strength and attributes. Tony accepted, and was quite surprised when, while he was at a conference over 100 miles away, the call came to announce that labor had started. Tony drove the 100-plus miles to the reservation in the middle of a snowstorm to be present at the birth of his new “nephew,” Jesse James. The ceremony was performed on time, and Tony and Jesse James have been close ever since.
Even when Jesse James was little, he crawled after Tony, following his every footstep. Jesse is in sixth grade now; for Tony, it’s critical for him to be a mentor and role model for Jesse James and to be in his life. And now Jada, Jesse James’ little sister, is getting in on the action, as well. When they all get together, they tell stories and ask questions and play. Jada likes to wear Tony’s hat while she’s with him and will only give it away when it’s time for Tony to leave. Tony is carrying on his people's primal traditions by honoring the ceremony he was asked to participate in and taking on a cultural role with Jesse and Jada.
Tony’s stories give me hope. They remind me of the importance of human relationships and the importance of culture for people. They give insight into the wisdom and mentoring that Tony’s grandmother passed on to him and which he subsequently passed on to young people in his community. Far too often, people think that survival skills like making fire or setting traps or learning to skin animal is what our primal selves long for. This may be the case. But, telling stories, playing, mentoring, and connecting are all ancient primal parts of being human. These are just as important for survival and serve to nourish our primal nature just as much as making fire. They may also be one of the most powerful forms of decolonization any of us can undertake.