I am sitting on a cushion, in a circle of people, shaking a rattle crafted from rawhide, coloured beads and white arctic fox fur, while chanting at the top of my voice something like 'Aya nikiti hey wuaa'. According to my host, Nick Wood, it is a Lakota tribe chant. With his wife, Jan, Nick runs Pathways, an organisation which specialises in the spiritual teachings of the American Indians' Medicine Wheel.
Universal to most North American tribes, the teachings of the Medicine Wheel are based on the four directions of the compass. 'They are an oral tradition,' explains Nick Wood. 'The Medicine Wheel represents the hoop of creation and the four directions represent different attributes. For instance, the south is plants, water and emotion, while the north is animals, air and the mind.' All the guttural singing is preparing us - 'centring people and calling upon the spirits to listen' - for the pipe ceremony, a more sacred ritual.
Earlier I was introduced by means of the talking stick - a piece of driftwood with feathers and buffalo hair hanging off it - to the seven members of the group, who have been meeting regularly for more than a year. A housewife from Morecambe, a holistic doctor and her carpenter partner from Aylesbury, a teacher from Leeds, a counsellor from Poole, a lecturer/painter from London and a graphic artist from Birmingham, they have come to hear about the spiritual philosophies of the Medicine Wheel and learn about themselves. The idea is that they make, for example, a rattle - 'the spirit voice; one of the shaman's primary tools', according to a Pathways leaflet - and during its creation confront themselves.
Some people go to therapists; this lot have turned to the teachings of the American Indian tribes. Nick points out that many, like himself, are therapists who are interested in extra tools for their trade. A trained social worker, psychotherapist and artist, Nick discovered American Indian teachings and crafts nine years ago. 'There are two strands of interest in American Indian culture here,' he explains. 'One, like Pathways, deals with teachings, crafts and ceremonies, the spiritual culture; others dance and dress up in authentically copied costumes, the material culture.'
Carol, from Poole, has done 'a lot of psychotherapy training' and is having a mid-life rest. 'This work is really gentle and goes very deep. Also the teachings don't have dogmatic rules, they are more to do with teaching me to trust myself,' she says. Ann, the painter, who would not have looked out of place at Greenham Common, says: 'I am 63. When you get older, you sometimes wonder what there is for you. I'd had problems with the hierarchical nature of the Church of England and this work teaches you a very respectful way of being.'
Rose, the teacher from Leeds, explains how she uses her newly learnt skills with her 11-year- olds. This consists of getting them to think up their own Medicine names, names that capture each person's particular quality. 'It helps them to focus on who they are,' she says. 'One girl renamed her mum Hands-In-The-Sink.'
But what is the nature of their relationship with the American Indian tribes? 'We are not trying to be Americans Indians,' insists Jan, who is wearing a flowing purple skirt and smock. 'We don't want to live like them, but the knowledge and wisdom in their teachings is very relevant. It is possible to work with this philosophy without prancing around and living in a tepee.'
Later, I discover that they do own a tepee. It is erected in the back garden when, for example, local schoolchildren join them for an environmentally aware Earth Education Day. Respect for the Earth, they explain, is at the heart of the American Indian way of life. They do not react favourably to the impression that they are a hippies. 'We have never been hippies,' says Jan. 'We have had an ex-major, an ex-policeman and lots of teenagers involved in our courses.' They complain that New Age pursuits are too often just hype. 'There's a lot of unreality in the New Age world,' says Nick.
'Come on down,' shouts Nick with an unexpected The Price is Right welcome. We are entering the Pathways' inner sanctum - the office that is the hub of their mail-order activity. Advertising in New Age magazines such as Kindred Spirit, Pathways sells its crafts to an ever-growing number of North American Indian aficionados. The fact that feathers and fringed suede jackets have become the essence of hip lately has helped, says Nick. 'We have been growing slowly.' But there is definitely more interest than three years ago.
Eagles' feathers, bright beads, painted drums, deerskin pipe bags and strange herbal mixtures such as kinnickinnick (mainly red willow bark used for pipe ceremonies), are all here. 'I have to have a licence from the Department of the Environment for these,' says Nick, pointing to the giant eagle feathers. 'I only get moulted ones or ones from road kills.' The biggest sellers of all are Dreamcatcher bags - at pounds 15 each - which protect the dreamer. 'This is a web designed to catch and direct good dreams. The nasties are caught in the web and eaten by Grandmother Spider.'
Why American Indian and not Celtic? 'Their traditions just don't do the same thing for me,' he says vaguely, leafing through glossy pages of a book on extraordinary beaded artefacts and clothes.
'There's something different about American Indian culture because it has been ongoing,' adds Jan, popping in briefly. 'It has kept that vital energy.' Showing me an illustration of an old American Indian suede jacket, Nick confesses that he would really like one. But it is decorated with scalped hair, I say. 'The American Indians didn't start scalping, the English did,' he says with renewed vigour. 'Anyway, they normally improvise with wool.'
The Woods have never even set foot in the United States. But they do have good contacts. Thrown casually over a filing cabinet is a coyote skin. 'The coyote is my totem animal,' says Nick, meaning it is the animal that has powerful connections for him according to the teachings of the Medicine Wheel. 'So my friend, Sarah Littlecrow, managed to got one for me.' Which may sound ideologically unsound but, he explains, 'They are being killed as vermin in the States. I have crafted it into an object of beauty.'
In the front room, two of the Woods' children are watching a video. Do they think their parents are batty? 'Emily, who is eight, is very keen,' says Nick. 'But I don't think Jeremy, who is 19, mentions our pursuits to his friends much.' And the residents of Evesham? 'They seem to accept us. Only the occasional drunk yells up when our chanting gets too loud.'
Upstairs, we are back in the middle of the pipe ceremony, an opportunity to say prayers to the Great Spirit. 'The bowl is feminine,' says Jan, 'and the stem is masculine. First we ask the Great Spirit whether we should join them together.'
After ritualistically turning the long pipe filled with kinnickinnick, then invoking prayers for troubled relatives or to heal world problems, it is smoked and passed on. Unfortunately, I cannot quite bring myself to address the Great Spirit this time.
'I feel complete,' says Danny from Birmingham serenely. 'It is a very peaceful end to the day.' Then I discover what is in that mystery parcel. 'It is special items from our lives which we have given to help bond our group together,' explains Nirupdas, a bearded Bagwan Sri Ragneesh person. 'It's called a Medicine bundle.' I should have guessed . . .
It may sound dippy, but when Jan Wood's letter to me ended with 'May You Walk In Beauty' as opposed to plain old 'Yours faithfully', I liked it. I'm going to try it out on the gas board when it sends me another big bill.
Pathways is based at 28 Cowl Street, Evesham, Worcestershire WR11 4PL.
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