Interview with Erika Gagnon.
Updated: Jul 7, 2019
Erika Gagnon is a Canadian ceremonial leader and wisdom keeper of mixed race ancestry, who has walked the “ Camino Rojo/Red Road ” for 25 years, working with Indigenous elders of North & South America and their ceremonies, traditions & medicinal plants. We caught up with her just after her arrival in London.
WK: How did you become involved in this initiative to Reignite the Ancient Ways?
E: Well, it was maybe two years ago, when I was a wisdom keeper at the Oregon Eclipse Festival in the United States, and I met Ben Christie who invited me. It’s been about four or five years that I am a wisdom keeper at these kind of music festivals - so I’m excited that this is the first year to bring this to the Glastonbury festival.
WK: Well, Glastonbury has always been more than just a music festival; it’s also a sort of chaotic initiatory zone, so to have wisdom keepers coming from all over the world is something really special, and something I’m really thrilled about. Tell us, how did your wisdom path begin?
E: Well, actually it began pretty late in life, because I only really began my medicine path or Red Path walk when I was nearly thirty years old. Even though I am of mixed race ancestry, it really is my medicine path walk that has allowed me to carry the wisdom, medicine, traditions and ceremonies that I carry. That was nearly twenty-five years ago and I have been fortunate to have Indigenous Elders from both North and South America; from the United States, Mexico, Ecuador and Peru. So I guess it came a little bit later in life, but since the moment I sat in my first sweat lodge and heard prayers for the Earth and the Sky and the Waters and our ancestors, I knew that this is what I truly believed in, in my heart, my spirit and my soul.
WK: That sense of finally feeling at home, of coming home, is something common to several of the Wisdom Keepers we have spoken to who started somewhat later in life. Do you find now, in your experience of working with younger people, encountering younger people at festivals and on your medicine path, that this is a common thing? A lot of people coming into ceremony for the first time feel this great connection?
E: You mean specifically at music festivals?
WK: Not necessarily at music festivals, but in ceremony generally, what would you say is the conversion rate of people really feeling, “Oh my God, this is really a part of me”?
E: Well I actually wish it was more people, because then I think we’d find humanity at a very different place and I know that there are so many different paths out there. There are people chanting, yoga, and doing so many other things, so I actually wish that there were more making this connection, but whatever people find that connects them to their true being and allows them to heal and understand the connection between all humanity and the Elements and the beings on this planet is fine by me. In terms of the medicine path, or the Red Path, obviously it’s become quite “popular” right now and very romanticised as well. I think that any time that people can connect to the “Red Path”, or medicine path - with its connection to the Elements, to all creatures, to the Indigenous wisdom that still exists in the Americas and has been held by people since the beginning of time – is a positive thing. But it also has to be done in a really good way, with a connection to Elders and lineages that are authentic.
WK: How can people tell if they are dealing with the real deal, or if the waters are somewhat muddied, in terms of their encounters with what purports to be Indigenous wisdom?
E: Yes, there seems to be much ego, money, power, greed and predatory behaviour in the medicine path, and that includes people who are non-native, mixed, and even fully Indigenous. So I hope most people will be able to tell from the energy they’re feeling from a given person who is carrying medicines - and when I say medicines it can be wisdom, it can be the sacred plant medicines, sacred ceremonies. Hopefully they’ll be able to tell just from the energy, but I always invite people to really know who you’re going to sit with and ask the questions: How long have they have been on this path? Who are their Elders are if they themselves are not Indigenous? So, I think it’s worth doing a bit of homework, because it’s a big business right now: a lot of people making a lot of money off of this all around the world.
WK: How central do you think the Native American Church is to the Red Road as it is being, so to say, shared out today?
E: Well, it’s central in that it actually allows, to a certain degree, the legal rights to work with plant medicines. I’m not an expert on it but the Native American Church originally came to be - and is still in existence, because it allows certain plant medicines to be used as a sacrament legally if you were a member of that church, or a branch of it. The Santo Daime (Brazilian ayahuasca religion) also have legal recognition. In fact, recently – and this was a really good sign – the city of Oakland, California, last week made the use of psychoactive plants legal. So that’s very exciting, and I’m hoping that it spreads. That would be really nice. Now that they might become legal, the pharmaceutical companies are investigating how to synthesize them into a chemical - but when you try to pull out the chemical component to make a synthetic chemical drug from what is a natural sacred master plant medicine you lose the spirit of the plant. So, yes, there’s a whole planet that is, I think, really open to this. And it’s important to bear in mind that most of the world’s sacred master plant medicines all come from the Americas - Ayahuasca, San Pedro, Peyote, Cacao plant, Coca leaf and Tobacco are all native to the Americas. Mushrooms, the ‘Children of Light’ (although there are mushrooms in other places in the world) are all native to the Americas, which says a lot about this land.
WK: Indeed. In what ways are ‘American’ Indigenous cultures relevant to our modern lives?
E: Well, I’m obviously not an expert. I’m of mixed-race, and only have a small amount of Indigenous blood, but what I can share is that originally (pre-Columbus) there were over five hundred Indigenous tribes what is now known as North America. I think that the Indigenous people hold a wisdom of how to live in balance with the natural world. And they are still here. So it’s important to truly honour this, because the genocide of the people of the Americas was one of the greatest genocides of this planet - they still can’t calculate it, estimates of 50 – 100 million? There are tribes and medicine people that risked their lives to keep the traditions, the ceremonies and the connection to Indigenous wisdom alive over the years. And in North America, really up until the last hundred years, many of these ceremonies were illegal. Some people don’t even think that there are still Indigenous people alive here, still fighting for their rights, still fighting for their land. But the wisdom that is coming out is really important for the planet, because we are living, as you know, at a very precarious moment on this planet, and we don’t have a hundred years to figure this out. So, if the Indigenous wisdom and the plant medicines are going out to the rest of the world, it has to be honoured in the right way and brought by the right people. I think that’s one of the most important things right now.
WK: What do you think is the easiest way for people in modern societies to incorporate aspects of Indigenous culture into their lives as a way of connecting?
E: Hmm, yes. That’s a really delicate question, because there is the question of cultural appropriation, and there is a lot of money being made off of these traditions, sometimes carried by people who are not fully of the lineage, not even in part, or who haven’t even walked this path. I can’t tell you how many people there are who go into the jungle for a 6-week dieta and say, “Oh, I’m going to run Ayahuasca ceremonies” (makes disapproving face). I really feel that you have to be connecting with the plant medicines for at least a dozen years to begin to understand the spirits of those plants, and then study with an Indigenous teacher for another dozen years at least. Be careful who you sit with, I would be very cautious… but I think the medicines are absolutely necessary for where we are right now on this planet in terms of it being a point of crisis, emergency. I’ve always been taught that anyone and everyone should be allowed to come to a sacred ceremony, and there will be other Elders or traditions that don’t agree with that as they believe that only a 100% Native American can sit in a particular ceremony or carry a certain altar; and I will always honour whatever the leader, or tradition is, if that’s what they’re asking for. And yet many Elders are also recognizing where we are at this time on the planet and we don’t actually have a hundred years, and if even scientists are coming down to not even twenty-five now, but fifteen years or less as the turnaround point for living in harmony and balance upon this planet to stop the destruction that humanity has caused, then we need all the help that we can get, to be honest with you.
WK: What do you think causes the greatest resistance to understanding the truth, or the greatest disconnection from the truth?
E: Of where we find ourselves as humanity on the planet?
WK: Yes. Why are we all missing the point so badly? What do you think is driving that more than anything else?
E: Well I think the possible destruction of humanity, as we know it, is not such a pleasant thought. I think it’s also come upon us very quickly. I’m only fifty-six and I did not imagine that in my lifetime we would have gone downhill so rapidly, in terms of our destruction of our environment. And so, I think right now we are living in a moment of time where we have access to so much, in terms of cross-cultural, global travel, material goods, consumerism, comfort. I mean, right now we’re on Skype, and I can do this, and I can talk to my relatives back home. It’s really incredible - It’s a luxury and a privilege to have all we have, so not many people want to lose that. My Elders believe, as do so many Indigenous traditions, that we have to hand down this planet to future generations in a better way than we received it, and at this moment in time that’s not going to happen. I think that the change of mind-set of the way that we are living, and in terms of consumerism, is asking that people change their lifestyle in a way that is not as comfortable. And yet, we’re all in this together, so it won’t be just a few people with all the money or power or accumulated wealth that will survive: no one will escape this. I was really disappointed to hear Stephen Hawking, before he died, talk about finding another planet to live upon – there is nothing else in this universe. We are actually on the one that has the greatest gift of everything that we could ever want in terms of being human. And we’re here for a reason, so let’s do our best right now to not only save what we have but guarantee this for generations to come. So I’m excited by the young people showing up and realizing. There’s a little bit of stubbornness from the older generation, especially from those in wealth and power, to give up some of the comfort, wealth and luxury they’ve created, but we’re all in this together on this one little planet.
WK: Do you think it’s possible for us to have a technological future, a completely wireless 5G, 6G science-fiction future as a utopia, as opposed to a purely dystopian vision? Can we have both; can we rediscover our proper connection, safeguard the future of the planet and still have thus utopian science-fiction future?
E: Well, I hope so! Because we aren’t really getting a choice. I would say that there needs to be a little bit more intelligence in terms of going into areas that have not been tested yet, in terms of the effects upon the human body, upon the animal world, upon the plant world. So, I’m very concerned about the 5G energy from all that I’ve heard and read. I don’t think it’s necessary either; it’s just this modern desire for more and more, quicker, quicker, immediate… I mean do people really need to download some movie in a way that might cause physiological and physical and chemical alterations? They already know enough to know that certain things are causing cancer, are causing diseases, rearranging DNA, especially in the most sensitive, which is pregnant women and children. When I see people walking around with those Bluetooth headphone things in their ears, I don’t know if it’s just that they don’t realize that it’s right next to their brains? But there are people that believe that the human body is going to adapt to whatever presents itself, so I’m hoping that is true. But we need to be careful. I think a lot more scientific testing has to go on before we go any further because once 5G goes out there I don’t think they’re going to able to take that back – put antennas on every street corner, and they want to put so many satellites up that we’ll be covered, and then you can’t even escape, even if you wanted to. I’m concerned about it, and I’m just hoping in the power of the people to say, “Wait a second. Stop. Let’s check this out.” I think believing in the health of people and non-human life forms on this planet is the most important thing.
WK: Given the potential problems of working with master plant medicine traditions, in terms of access to authentic sources, and other things that you’ve mentioned, are there techniques out there that you can suggest that can help people re-establish their relationship with Nature?
E: Yeah, absolutely. The simplest is just to spend more time in Nature. People forget that living in the city, for example, with cement below our feet, surrounded by walls and a roof; when we go out there’s cars, buildings, pollution....cell phones, wifi, etc. So, I think the connection to Nature immediately allows us to understand our interconnectedness with plants, animals, with the Elements, the Earth, Air, the Fire, the Water. That’s universal. The understanding is that we are just atoms of this Earth. This anthropocentric thought that we, somehow, as human beings are better than, and should govern over animals, insects, birds, plants, trees and the earth is ridiculous, and the way we use them all for our own personal gains. We are all in a symbiotic relationship. There was a beautiful quote in the movie The Matrix, where they described human beings as essentially a virus on the planet that just spreads and spreads and consumes everything around it; when it has consumed everything, then it just moves to another area to do the same. Any higher wisdom or anyone truly connected to their heart, spirit or soul can see that truth. If the Earth suffers, and the Elements suffer, we are going to suffer. And we are suffering. So, I think going out into Nature and truly understanding that life is not about more, more, more and faster and better, and taking a little bit more care in terms of what we eat, what we drink, our connection to one another as human beings; love and compassion and respect; I think this is extremely necessary right now for these times.
WK: If you could give one piece of advice, say to a young teenager you might meet at Glastonbury, maybe an urban teenager, someone who’s really bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, about seventeen years old, but somebody who could really benefit from your wisdom; if you could give them one piece of advice, what might that be?
E: I think what I would probably say to do their own healing, because we all carry the ancestral traumas, current life traumas, cultural traumas; so to do one’s own personal healing, and understanding that individual healing is collective healing. In the Indigenous traditions, when we heal we help heal the seven generations behind us and the seven generations yet to come. Being here in this physical incarnation at this time on the planet is a privilege - not a racial privilege, religious, gender or wealth privilege; it’s the privilege of being alive at this moment in time. And to enjoy the Earth, the Air, the Water, the connection to the people, all of it.
With that privilege comes a responsibility and for me the responsibility is not a huge weight; it’s not like Atlas burdened with the globe on his back; it’s understanding the ability to respond; and the ability to respond to these times means that we need to do our share; every single human being needs to do their share, to ensure that all of us have equal rights and are living in harmony and balance with this planet. That means that we need to wake up; we need to march in the marches, vote for what we truly believe in, spend our money in ways that truly support harmony and balance on this planet. And I really believe that the children that are coming in today, the souls that are coming down know what they’re getting into. Definitely the young people have the energy to change. There are many movements now, like Extinction Rebellion, that are coming from the younger people. These are really necessary, and we all know that when we work together it’s a power that can move mountains, that can change governments. I believe that young people are a power to be reckoned with by society right now: they can easily work with the technology and science that is here. They are leading the charge, like the tip of an arrow in many ways. So, I’m really encouraged by the youth, but they need still to understand that they maybe need to check in with the wisdom that comes with age. It’s not guaranteed that older people have wisdom. Although you may gain a lot of knowledge, it is only when it is put into practise that it becomes wisdom. So, I have a lot of faith and hope for the future otherwiseI wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing.
WK: With regard to the music festivals, how do you feel we can best bridge that gap between hedonism on the one hand, the desire to dance, fuelled by drugs that people take to feel good, to get a really strong physical hit, and, actually connecting on the other hand with something really rootsy, really universal, that connects with an ancestral spiritual heritage? Because it’s not necessarily an obvious join.
E: Yes, so this about the fourth or fifth year I’ve been doing this and some wisdom keepers never come back because they just say, This is nuts. People are here for the music, they’re here to party, but the truth is that the only reason I keep coming back each year is that I believe that people are searching for connection to spirit on a deeper level. So, when we work as wisdom keepers at these festivals we’ve had people tell us that they can feel the impact when they stumble across one of the sacred offerings.
This the opportunity for wisdom keepers to connect to and reach people who would normally not be looking for this; otherwise they may be at a yoga festival or a meditation retreat or in a medicine ceremony. And so this is actually where you can connect to the masses. And there’s a very thin veil at these festivals, sometimes because they’re vibrating at such a higher level, with the music, with the dance, or if they’re taking any other substances, which I hope they’re taking in a good way. This is where we, as wisdom keepers, can connect to them, and I’ve heard people say that they attended a sunset gratitude at the fire, or a talk or ceremony and heard prayers for the Earth, or for the Water, or the ancestors, that it changed their life. And so that’s why we do it. I know that’s why most of the other wisdom keepers are here too, knowing that whoever happens to be present for any of our offerings can receive good medicine for their lives, can be changed forever. The impact of each individual person spreads; it’s like ripples in a pond. The healing and/or wisdom, or transformation they experience will affect everyone around them. So, I think that’s why wisdom keepers are brought to festivals. This is our first year at Glastonbury so we’ll see how it goes.
WK: Well, as I said, I’m very excited about it. The Glastonbury site is itself an initiatory zone. It’s on the great ley line, between the female energy line and the male energy line, which literally hold it in a womb-like ellipse, and I personally had breakthrough initiatory experiences there, while seeing bands, taking drugs and out there for fun, and I think you’re absolutely right: I didn’t realise it, but what I was looking for was spirit; I was looking for connection, so I made myself rather chaotically available and had these remarkable encounters and experiences, which were definitely part of my path to waking up. And I think this happens to a lot of people at Glastonbury, because a lot of them are away from home for the first time, are taking substances they’ve never tried before, and as a result they are really available for breakthrough encounters. It’s actually a miracle that more of them don’t suffer bad experiences; it’s as if there is some kind of energy in the landscape that seems to midwife more positive experiences than negative experiences.
WK: But I’m hoping that having you wisdom keepers there will certainly make it more likely that those breakthrough moments will be positive.
E: Well, I’m hoping so, and that’s the purpose of having us at an opening circle, or opening prayers on the first night of the festival. People’s intentions and prayers are everything. We can influence, which I think is part of what I call the ‘responsibility’, reminding people of humanity’s plight. Sometimes it takes very few words to change people’s lives and as wisdom keepers we’re going to be trying to do our share. I’m really hoping that some of the musicians at the festival have that consciousness too. So let’s hope for a beautiful festival, a colourful festival that helps change people’s lives in a good way, that raises the vibration of compassion and respect for humanity and for all beings upon this planet.
Because it is time, this is the great turning away from an old way of living that has not worked. Some people can call it ‘patriarchal’, but the abuse that humans have inflicted upon this planet cannot continue, so we need everyone showing up at this moment in time if we are going to survive in a good way. I have no doubt that the Earth will survive - it has survived other extinctions – but for humanity to survive and pass the planet on in a fit state to future generations is imperative.
WK: Absolutely. Erika, thank you so much. We look forward to seeing you on the line and at Glastonbury.