Arnold Thomas may have been the most ornery of the people I’ve spoken with for this blog, but that’s in a good way. He properly punishes you for asking a yes-or-no question by giving the one-word answer and stopping there. Over the phone, I could practically hear him smiling. We spoke last month.
I came across him in a recent article in Indian Country Today about his work in Native American ceremonies and with military veterans. The article says that two years after his father killed himself, Arnold put a hunting rifle under his chin and pulled the trigger. It left him blind. For the first two years of his recovery, he was unable to speak. One night after his first surgery, he says in the article, “I was so frustrated that I packed my bags in the middle of the night, grabbed my mother’s car keys, went out to the car and started it up. My mother came running out, and she was crying. She said, ‘What are you doing?'”
He has since become an incredibly busy public speaker. He draws on his experience to connect with the veterans who continue to come home from Iraq and Afghanistan. “Trauma is where you lost your innocence,” he says. “And there’s different ways that people lose their innocence.”
Please introduce yourself. Who are you?
The quick response is, I could send you all this information by e-mail.
But I like to ask questions! And make you talk.
Well, that ain’t no fun! Oh geez, I have all kinds of hats. Son, grandson, great-grandson, you know, husband, father, grandfather, great-grandfather, great-great-grandfather, brother, uncle … I’m Shoshone and Paiute and part Irish. Last October there was an ordination that was performed, and I was ordained as a holy one by my elders and ceremonial leaders out here in the West.
What does that mean?
As it was explained to me by one of my elders, it’s that as an individual, we live a certain standard of spiritual life that is in accordance with spiritual and natural laws. And he states that everyone is holy. And sacred. I’m also the first-ever chaplain of Native American faith tradition as far as I know in the world right now.
Military chaplain, or overall?
Overall. There are chaplains, and there are chaplains who are Native American, but none that have claimed to be from the Native American faith tradition.
What do you do?
As a chaplain? Well, I conduct various traditional Native American ceremonies for the veterans medical center in Salt Lake City. I conduct a traditional sweat lodge ceremony, traditional pipe ceremony, as well as other ceremonies for veterans and family members of veterans.
I came to you because of your suicide work. Are the ceremonies related to that?
The other thing I am is, I am the business owner of a motivational consulting firm and offer various presentations throughout the world addressing the issue of suicide. So yes to your question regarding how does my work with the veterans population intertwine with the topic of suicide. Because of my own suicide attempt and losing family and friends to suicide, all the experiences have brought me to this point where I am able to help individuals who have experienced traumatic experiences.
How did you get into this work?
Well, it chose me. Yeah. I began volunteering, speaking with youth in a juvenile detention center in Salt Lake City, and after graduate school I created my own proposal and was able to get some funding to create a web page and complete an autobiographical video and my first CD and brochures and marketed myself, and that’s where it began. And it’s taken me, from that first conference, to countless communities and throughout the world.
How many years has it been?
That’s a decent amount of time. Have you noticed attitudes changing about it, in talking about it?
Well, like the one article I sent you from Indian Country Today, I don’t want to say it’s a prime example of making efforts to eliminate the stigma that surrounds suicide. I think the manner in which I have presented this issue and topic over the years has allowed individuals to want to discuss the various experiences that cause them trauma and want to discuss some of the loss that they experienced because of suicide. And I think because I’ve been able to speak about this issue, it’s allowed others to be comfortable and OK about talking about their losses and their own depression and grief.
When you first started, how you feel and how did people respond?
I was scared as hell. Really nervous. Actually, the individual who encouraged me was a motivational speaker and he went gold at, I think, one of the Olympics for freestyle ski jumping. Yeah. And so he took me under his wing when I first began and he coached me along. It was pretty nerve-wracking.
What was his best advice, the most useful?
He just said, “Tell your story. And be OK with it.” That was back in the early ’90s.
How did people respond?
I had a captive audience, because a lot of these youth were locked up for petty crimes they had committed. And I think more than anything, you know, to me over the years it’s a story of resilience. As people, we all get down and we all fall down, and the beauty of it is, we have the ability to bounce back. And I’d like to think that, I’m an optimist, I like to believe that everyone has that ability, when they do fall down that they can bounce back. But unfortunately, for different reasons, not everyone does.
There is a chief, he’s passed away, he was a chief of chiefs for the Six Nations Confederacy. He said, “You choose your path in life, and when you choose your path in life, the creator will give you your mission on that path.”
But why this path?
Why this path? The same reason why you choose your path. I’ve heard elders speak at traditional tribal elder gatherings. They say you chose your family, you chose to be here in this time in history, we continue to choose. Sometimes when we’re children, there are experiences that happen to us and we have no control over but when we are adults have that ability to choose. I know some people who aren’t able to because of their bipolar or whatever, some different mental illnesses. And so we have the ability to choose where we are now. The way I look at it is, we have the ability to choose how we want to work with what’s happened in our past, how to deal with those experiences to make it a little better today and into the future. So we’re looking at that statement, we choose our path. When I say creator, I don’t mean God but the one who created everything back to the beginning. The creator will surround us with the people we need to be surrounded with to reach our full potential as a spiritual being and give us the tools we need.
Do you have the right people and the right tools now?
I believe I’ve always had them. I guess the way I look at it is, all my experiences helped cultivate me into the spiritual being I am today. I believe I have everything I need to make my life how it is.
I read that it took a long time for you to be able to speak. And I’m wondering how you got that back.
(Pause.) So, who do you think is going to win the presidential debate tonight? … As a Native American, I guess the way I look at it is, our spiritual faith tradition, it’s not religious, you know, and you look at the indigenous people, their spiritual lifeways are governed by natural and spiritual laws. And in religions, there are beliefs that men created, and you look at the first part of the Bible that says man has dominion over everything. And for the indigenous people of North America, it’s like that understanding that man has ultimate power has caused great devastation to our earth and our lands. That mentality has raped and almost destroyed our spiritual belief set that originated from the mother earth.
How would that lead to suicide?
OK, so how does that lead to suicide? Well, how has that impacted the indigenous people of North America? It goes right back into that doctrine of discovery, that, number one, you’re not people if you do not believe in a Christian god, therefore you’re like the rabbit and the deer, so we’re going to control you, we’re gonna kill you. So to the point where the language was stripped from tribal people, and our tribal languages connect us with the natural elements and natural laws and spiritual laws and intertwines us with everything in life that we know. And so when your language is stripped from you, and you’re forced to speak another language and believe in a foreign god, it’s a pretty difficult task. And we’ve seen how it has devastated people’s minds and culture as a whole.
Do you remember why you were so quick to jump to what you thought was the solution, meaning suicide?
It goes back into that mentality, that belief that suicide is a valid solution. And it goes back many generations, back to my great-grandfathers and great-great-grandfathers and what occurred with them, you know, during the wars with the calvary and the military. And how eventually they were forced to give up and then forced into concentration camps and forced to give up their language, their traditions and ceremonies and way of life. So when an individual is down and depressed, sometimes what other options do you have? So what indigenous spiritual ways of life teach us is, life is a gift, life is precious, be thankful for what you have. So when all that was taken away from my forefathers over time, it had an impact on who they were. And so there’s still suppression, oppression that still occurs towards indigenous people in the world, and so for me, being young, you know, there was some of that rage in there, there was some of that unresolved grief that was passed down from generation to generation.
The last person I talked with for this said a lot of suicide comes from injustice.
One of my uncles explained, we are people of memory. And you really look at that understanding of genetic composition, all the genes that comprise who we are, so there’s different aspects of who we are that need to be healed, going back many years. And here we are, we’re given the opportunity to process through this information and memories from our bloodlines, and so we’re given this opportunity to process through it and to heal.
… So who do you think is gonna win the presidential race?
Let me ask about the veterans. Do you have to talk to them a different way, take a different approach?
I’m dealing with my traditions. I’ve made it clear that I’m not conducting a Christian spiritual service, made it clear and they’re aware this is a traditional ceremony I conduct, and I’m going to maintain it in the way it was passed down to me. A lot of veterans are aware, a lot of Native American veterans, a lot of black veterans, of various populations that attend the sweat lodge, the ceremonies I conduct. And they’re aware of the history. And I mentioned earlier that all the experiences I’ve been through, and my people, everything we’ve been through, for myself I’ve been able to process through these different experiences and make my effort to heal, to forgive, number one, myself and number two, my father and number three, my grandfather, all the way going back to what happened between the calvary and my tribal people. And going back to forgiving some of the first peoples who came to this land. Yes, they had good intentions, but my belief is they went about it in the wrong way in that they tried to force the people into believing in their way. And so I had to go back and forgive. So I wouldn’t be walking around angry.
You know, what you said is what some people say about Iraq and Afghanistan …
Yeah, I’m slowly working my way up to it. You get the picture. And some of the combat vets I speak with, they don’t agree with what they did over there.
Is that what messed them up, or what they think messed them up?
To me, war is not a common experience. I look at that as trauma, you know, and what’s trauma, they call it PTSD, it was explained to me this way. Trauma is where you lost your innocence. And there’s different ways that people lose their innocence. Take a soldier. You go into war and are shot at. That’s not what you do on a daily basis. Get shot at, people die. At what point do you stop enjoying life? So that’s the understanding, the loss of innocence. One of the teachings is, we must enjoy life. And we must give thanks for what we have. My elders told me, if you’re not enjoying life, you’re not thankful. You’re out of balance. Something’s going on. They went on to explain that, what’s going on, so you go back to that trauma, where was innocence lost. And you go back and look at that, what experiences were there, did you have that space to express your emotions and thoughts, did you have that chance to forgive and let go. Not forgetting that experience but letting yourself be OK with that so it doesn’t have power over you and paralyze you. Sometimes the memories are triggered by different dates during the year. We gather the memories through various experiences, and they can be triggered at different times of the year. Also, the memories can surface up in our dreams. So he says all people have the ability to reason unless you’re grieving. So, what is it you’re grieving? Then once we begin to address those issues of loss, our understanding that life is beautiful, is a gift, you know, where did that stop? Work with it and heal.
The people you work with, do they ever get angry with you?
What has been told to me and the way I look at it is, a veteran is a warrior. And who’s a warrior? A warrior is the one that carries the bag of bones of his or her ancestors on his back. The bones represent the traditions, the language, the ceremonies, the people’s way of a spiritual life. The warrior is standing up for the community. And what the community’s beliefs are. And to me, you know, looking at that warrior, these soldiers, when they enter the military they’re signing their life away. And they’re trained to think and react, and there’s an emotional aspect that’s taken out from who they are. And what I noticed working with veterans and soldiers is that some of them enter the military to avoid being placed in correctional facilities, some joined because their family’s in poverty, and others joined because of military family loyalty. And so oftentimes there’s unresolved emotional issues that some veterans carry with them from pre-military experiences that haven’t been dealt with. So with the combat veterans, in addition to those premilitary experiences or trauma, now they have combat trauma added to that. And so oftentimes some of the veterans get upset with me because of some of their own issues rise to the surface and they don’t want to deal with it.
But then what do you do? What happens?
What do I do? I listen to them. And just like you, ask questions. And listen more. And if I’m working with a veteran who’s not from my faith tradition, I’m sensitive to their religious spiritual beleifs, and if it’s a veteran that is seeking guidance from me as a chaplain from my faith tradition, I’ll offer prayers and use certain ceremonial instruments and items and herbs to help them with the healing process.
On NPR, they aired an eight or nine-minute piece on the work I do with veterans.
(He asks why I attempted, and I tell him about it.)
The training I’ve been through as a spiritual leader, some people call me the medicine man. My education background in psychology, the chaplaincy, all that training just makes we want to go deep. I’m always looking at processing through why, how come. I don’t spend my whole day doing that because I’m constantly working with people like yourself, people in the community, people outside the state, and for me, it makes me process through and find words where certain thoughts and emotions are because people want answers, right? So oftentimes I want to talk about the importance of water and all the different teachings that come from water and do that for a whole hour, and I have related it to the sanctity of life. As I told one of my mentors, I’m tired of talking about suicide! That’s all they want me to do, is tell my story!
Not to be pompous, but as a professional, I’ve been doing this since 1999. When I was at the height, I was speaking six times a day in a city in different schools. So I’ve been on TV, on radio, some really remote regions of the world. They say, “We’ve got 30,000 listeners” and I’m like, “OK.” At a certain point in the year I’ll talk to some of my mentors, and I am reminded it’s not about me, there’s a lot of messages in there. It’s about bouncing back. It’s about resilience. They want to hear that. They want to have hope, have faith.
You saw me on the web page, I’ve been through a lot of surgeries to reconstruct my face. It was a long time, a year and a half, where I was not able to communicate so people could understand me. I had to use a notepad. A frustrating time. 18 or 19 years old and having to deal with the guilt, the shame of a failed suicide attempt, that we don’t talk about as people. The grief, losing the eyesight, also dealing with the loss, you know, of being unable to speak. So. A very trying time. To be honest, back then I didn’t foresee myself ever being able to speak again. But with patience and … Patience is a word I have now, but then the emotional anguish was excruciating. And you’ve been there. And there’s nothing to do to make it better. Waiting it out. And especially when you’re not able to talk to anybody about it. So, with patience and prayers from family and friends and music, I love music, and I’ll make an effort to figure out what my life was gonna be. Somewhere in there some hope, some faith came forth. I moved to the city and began attending the school for the blind.
The counselor I initially saw at the blind center, he’s now the director of the whole state, he said, “I’m letting you know there’s only two things you can’t do. You will not be able to drive independently or read printed material independently.” There’s other ways to accomplish those tasks. But he said anything else you want to do in life is possible.
You must have believed him.
Well hell, what else can you do when you’re blind and depressed?
You make a good point. You talk about this over and over. Tell me about the rest of you. Who else are you?
(Pause.) Sorry, my dogs are barking. I love music, so I’m a musician. I have 30 CDs out …
Three! So far. My life, when I’m not conducting ceremonies, which is very rare, I attend other ceremonies. I enjoy attending ceremonies and activities. I enjoy movies, being out on the land, in the mountains, I enjoy going out and gathering the roots that we use for ceremonies. I enjoy being on the road a lot. I get to learn a lot of historical information about sites, land, information about different cities. Yeah. So I enjoy history.
I don’t know how you could live in New York! At least it’s home.
Anything to add?
No, nothing right now. From the first time I began speaking about my experience, it’s really evolved into a presentation when I do speak. It’s really evolved into something I never thought it would. I attribute that to one’s willingness to work on themselves and be open. And not allowing pain to move you to the next place in life. Too often we allow pain to be the motivator to move us to the next place in life. But to allow enlightenment to move us to that next place in life. The reason why I say that is, when I do a presentation, oftentimes individuals, I guess, had no idea how to take the presentation because they think that all suicide prevention presentations are depressing and have that heaviness to them, you know. And I’ve done enough research and traveling and working with people that when I do work with people, it’s more grounded in spirituality, entertained with humor. Everything I speak of is all connected together. The presentations often are about life.