- Matthew Thorsen
- Rachel Whitebear
Rachel Whitebear can empathize with the people who call her at any hour of the day or night when they have nowhere else to turn. Years ago, she found herself on a literal precipice, contemplating suicide. What pulled her back from the brink, she says, was the spiritual guidance she received from her Abenaki ancestors — that and the smell of French fries.
Whitebear, 60, describes herself as a "traditional spiritual elder" who uses ancient Abenaki "medicine" to help others in crisis. From her modest townhouse in Alburgh, she singlehandedly staffs a 24-hour hotline for people who are struggling with divorce, homelessness, drug and alcohol addiction, domestic abuse, sexual violence or suicidal thoughts.
Nearly all of her callers are members of the Abenaki community. Still, Whitebear never asks anyone for proof of tribal membership, and she extends her help to anyone who requests it. People get her number on the Missisquoi Abenaki Tribal Council website or through word of mouth. Most of her calls — she received 686 in 2014 alone — come from Vermont or New Hampshire, she says, but people have contacted her from as far away as Hawaii.
In dealing with callers, Whitebear says, she often draws strength from her own near-death experience and spiritual awakening many years ago.
That transformation began on a warm summer day when, at the age of 15, Whitebear ran away from her St. Johnsbury home. She was escaping from an abusive, alcoholic father who routinely "beat us bloody," she says. After hearing about a commune called Earth Peoples Park in Essex County, Whitebear recalls, she naively accepted a ride in a truck from an older man who claimed he could take her there. He drove Whitebear down a secluded dirt road, raped her at knifepoint, and left her bloodied, bruised and in shock. Whitebear spent the next four days wandering alone in the woods without food or water, sleeping on boulders.
Eventually she made her way to a rocky ledge on Mount Pisgah overlooking Lake Willoughby in Westmore. Standing on the cliff's edge, Whitebear says, she prepared to take her life. That's when she caught a whiff of French fries.
"I thought I was hallucinating," Whitebear recalls with a laugh. (Later, she discovered there was a snack bar below the spot.) After the days she'd spent alone in the woods, that greasy aroma made her hungry and aroused her yearning for human company.
At the time, Whitebear admits, she was unaware of her native heritage or its customs. (Like many Abenaki, her family, which originated in Québec, had been converted to Catholicism by Jesuit missionaries.) She had no idea that traditional spiritual elders routinely go into the woods by themselves for several-day fasts to receive a sacred prayer, ritual or healing medicine from the Creator.
"That was the beginning of my spiritual self," Whitebear says about her transformational ordeal. "I wanted to die but ended up coming out of there stronger than ever."
In the early 1970s, Whitebear ventured out west to join the American Indian Movement in Wounded Knee, S.D., site of the 1890 Lakota Indian massacre at the hands of the U.S. military. When things began "getting more wild than I expected" — AIM members later staged an armed insurrection against the federal government — Whitebear returned home, but she continued searching for her native roots. It took her more than 30 years to learn the sacred rituals, prayers and ceremonies she now uses.
Whitebear moved to Franklin County about nine years ago. There, she offers her spiritual guidance on a strictly volunteer basis. Besides declining payment for her services, she receives no financial support from the state, the Abenaki tribe or any nonprofit agencies. In fact, Whitebear says she's disturbed to see a growing number of newspaper classified ads from individuals offering to host traditional sweat lodges, talking ceremonies or other Native American rituals for a fee. She considers that practice anathema to her culture.
"If you have to pay for their medicine," she cautions, "you don't want what they're selling."
Whitebear reports that substance abuse underlies many of the calls she receives. A former drug and alcohol counselor and nurse, she worked for many years at the now-defunct Dawnland Center in Montpelier. That program used a Native American approach to substance-abuse treatment called the Red Road to Recovery. Though Whitebear is now disabled and unable to work, she can still perform traditional rituals, offer spiritual education and even offer people a place in her home to stay until they can get back on their feet or into rehab.
Last year, Whitebear expanded her operation by setting up a room in her basement where someone in crisis can stay on a short-term basis to sober up, escape an abusive partner or stay clean until a bed opens up in a drug-treatment facility. It has a bed, a stereo and lots of books, but no television. Recently, Whitebear took in a woman in her early twenties who couldn't live at home because her mother was using.
"I've also had young guys who can't stay in their apartment because their buddies are drugging all around them, so they have to be removed from that situation," she says. "Where else can they go?"
Despite her past experience in treating addiction, Whitebear emphasizes that she does not run a licensed facility, nor is she equipped to handle someone in full-blown withdrawal or psychiatric crisis. In those more extreme circumstances, she'll typically refer the individual to a more qualified agency — or, if necessary, call 911.
"I know my limits," she says. "If somebody's really strung out, it's not like I can just sit down and do a ceremony, because half the time they don't even recognize what you're saying."
Unfortunately, Whitebear says, she sometimes hears about someone's distress only from their family members, after that person has committed suicide. In those circumstances, a parent or sibling may call her seeking spiritual guidance, or an interpretation of a recurring dream about the loved one. The Abenaki, she explains, believe that the spirit of someone who has taken his or her own life is trapped between two worlds and must ask the Creator's forgiveness before moving on. In those cases, Whitebear says, families ask her for help, even when they have no idea how she'll address the problem.
"This is all new to them. They've lost their ways," Whitebear says. "I don't mean that in a bad way. They are so assimilated in white society. They know something should be done in their culture, but they don't know what."
Why would someone in crisis who knows nothing about his or her Native American heritage call Whitebear, rather than a mental-health or drug-treatment agency?
"We're taught to not air our dirty laundry," suggests Brenda Gagne, an Abenaki tribal member who runs the Circle of Courage, an after-school program in Swanton that teaches children about Abenaki traditions. "Rachel does great work. She always gives back to the Creator and has always been there when I needed her."
Jeff Benay, 61, is director of the federally funded Indian Education Program in Franklin County and the former longtime chair of the Governor's Advisory Commission on Native American Affairs. Though not Abenaki himself, Benay has worked with Vermont's native community for more than 32 years and has known Whitebear for about nine years, he says.
As Benay explains, Vermonters who don't belong to that community may have trouble appreciating the level of mistrust of mainstream culture that's engrained in the Abenaki people. That leeriness dates back to the 1920s and the legacy of Vermont's eugenics movement, which was devastating to the native population. As a result, Benay says, even Abenaki who work at local mental-health agencies might be reluctant to "make that call" to a facility run by mainstream white culture.
Instead, he says, community members typically seek out Whitebear or find themselves directed to her. Benay personally knows of one young girl who's been in "crisis upon crisis upon crisis," having lost brothers to cancer and suicide. He says she reached out to Whitebear, who instantly made herself available.
"Rachel lives this. She walks this and breathes this," Benay says. "And once you meet her, you realize she's the real deal."
For her part, Whitebear is happy to help however she can. And, she notes, not all her calls come from people in crisis. Sometimes she's asked to officiate at a baby-naming ceremony along the Missisquoi River or to say a prayer at the bedside of a dying relative. Recently, she even heard from a woman who was freaked about a mouse infestation in her home. Regardless of callers' needs, Whitebear says, she tries to be there for them and not make it about herself.
"I don't want to hold myself out as 'Rachel Whitebear, Medicine Woman,' she says. "I'm not going to write books or stand on a mountain shouting out my name. I'm very innocuous. I blend in with everybody. But I have knowledge, and I'm willing to share it if people need me, because I needed it when I was younger."