Collaboration and cultural respect
By Bob Quinn and Lauri Elizabeth
Our teishin and other non-insertive tools are made for us by two Diné (Navajo) master silversmiths, Ernie and Jon-Michael Lister. We credit them exactly the way they wish to be recognized, which is to say that we acknowledge them by name and talk about their role in the manufacture of our tools.
The way that Bob Quinn met Ernie has the feel of serendipity to it, and we trust that. Bob spent three years looking for the right partner for this shonishin tool project and had all but given up on it. He had just come from the Garchen Buddhist Institute in Chino Valley, AZ where he had given treatment to two lamas (he has written of his life-changing encounter with Garchen Rinpoche on this visit in a NAJOM article). He stopped in Prescott for a cup of coffee on his way back to Phoenix and wandered into Ernie’s shop in the town square. They ended up spending the entire afternoon together. Luckily Bob had numerous examples of teishin with him and could demonstrate to Ernie how they are used. Ernie himself is often a participant in healing ceremonials, and he was drawn to this project because of its focus on producing tools to help others. Ernie took the project very seriously from the start and really invested his energy in it, so we had our first three designs three months later. From there we have continued the work of expanding the line.
Ernie designs the tools we sell, and it was his decision, entirely unprompted by us, to use some Navajo motifs. Ernie told us that, as artists, they control the design elements, and consequently many of these tools reflect their inspiration of the moment --- not Dine medicine secrets but reflections of their appreciation and admiration of their own culture.
When Ernie talks about the process of forging teishin, he says the tools will take on his prayers and songs because that is part of who he is. There’s no way around it, it’s like leaving his fingerprints behind. He says that each tool is going to be used by somebody with their own unique energy, and through their spirit ways, he and his son, Jon-Michael, pick up on that message and it goes into the hammering and creation of these tools.
Although Ernie is well familiar with the healing traditions of his people, these tools are not represented as carrying any significance in his tribe’s system of healing. Please be clear on this point. They are simply teishin crafted by Native Americans. We could have chosen to work with a silversmith from another part of the world, but we have deep respect for Ernie’s and Jon-Michael’s mastery of their craft in silver.
All this is to say that we do not support thinking of these tools or the symbols on them as being part of Navajo healing. They are not. The Dine cosmology is sophisticated and should be respectfully left alone by others outside their culture. Their tribal worldview and beliefs do not enter into how these tools are intended to be used. We hope this makes our position clear with regards to cultural appropriation and our Gentle Spirit Tools.
As an aside, we want to mention that our own respect for the artistry in these tools is echoed by numerous Japanese master acupuncturists who have been introduced to them. They tell us you can’t find anything quite like these tools in Japan these days, although obviously there are many well-made teishin being manufactured there. Beyond the feeling of clear qi transmission and the presence of spirit (sorry, there is no other good way to describe the unique feel of Gentle Spirit tools), they notice in them an element of the Japanese aesthetic of wabi-sabi. In the wabi-sabi sensibility perfect symmetry is never sought. Instead the idea of the “perfection of imperfection” holds sway.
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Blog posts are written by Onkodo practitioners.