Finding mentors in unusual places

Erica Littlewolf is from the Northern Cheyenne tribe of southeastern Montana and currently lives in Albuquerque, N.M. She works for Mennonite Central Committee Central States with the Indigenous Visioning Circle where she is committed to the work of decolonization, authentic relationship and healing. She has a Bachelor of Science degree in Psychology and American Indian Studies and applies her schooling to social justice issues and how they affect Indigenous people. Erica is a member of the steering committee for the Women in Leadership Project of Mennonite Church USA. THis originally ran as a #wearemenno blog post on the Mennonite Church USA site. 

In thinking about this post and the Women in Leadership Project, I felt compelled to write about mentors in my life.

As it came closer to write though, I found I didn’t really understand the word mentor. So I looked it up in the dictionary.

Four words stuck out for me—wise, trusted, counselor and teacher.

Of course I immediately started naming important people in my life, some traits they instilled in me or some lesson they taught me. Then my mind drifted in another direction, perhaps cheesy to some, admittedly even to me at first also. I started thinking of the mentors that go unmentioned – whether they are people, animals or anything within our natural environment.

I first thought of my nieces.

One wouldn’t attribute mentorship to children but they have taught me so much. I trust them because they are raw-honest, and they are wise beyond their years. They have counseled me by their presence alone and have taught me just by living their lives.

My three nieces had an older sister who passed away in her mother’s womb before the girls were born. We have talked to them about their older sister Serena—how old she would be and what grade she would be in. They never cease to amaze me in their certainty of seeing her again. They understand she passed on and they also understand they will see her again. They say it without question and with excitement that I do not understand because they have never met her.

Through them, I am reminded that one day we shall all pass on and be reunited with loved ones.

My thoughts then drifted to the grandmother tree outside my apartment. I wonder how long it has lived—what it has witnessed and the stories it could tell. I watch the tree bloom every spring, wilt with summer heat and lose its leaves every fall, only to fall dormant in winter. I get excited to see its leaves fall and am amazed at how they stay on at all, it seems like such a frail point of connection, yet so essential for the tree’s well-being.

Beneath it all I long for the groundedness and rootedness that the tree represents and the courageous spirit it takes to let go every year. I long to let my leaves fall freely and set my control aside.

Through the tree, I am reminded that I am not in control.

My thoughts on mentorship went full circle and ended remembering the times I was able to ride a horse, the most recent being a week ago. I was with a relative from my reservation who worked with me in a round corral teaching me about myself through using a mare. I saw my need for change and my inability to give clear direction to the horse. The horse was a mirror of exactly who I was at that point in time.

I remember the trainer saying, “You cannot remain neutral on a moving train.” I didn’t get what that meant at first but I came to realize the truth it had in my life. After an hour had passed, my brain was free of anxiety and I felt like I had gone to therapy. I am so thankful for the trainer’s guidance and the mare that showed me myself.

Through horses, I am reminded of who I am and who Cheyenne people have always been.

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