Medicine Man, Modern-style

May 05, 1994|By Suzanne Loudermilk | Suzanne Loudermilk,Sun Staff Writer

Edgewood resident Sam Thomas has two business cards -- Samuel Thomas, investigator, Public Defender's Office, and Sam Caocoochee Thomas, medicine man.

Yes, medicine man, as in tribal healer.

Mr. Thomas, whose Indian name means Wild Cat, is the leader of a diverse group of adults and children who meet monthly to learn about Native American traditions.

But forget the old-time Hollywood stereotype of illiterate, painted Red Men, chanting around the campfire. Mr. Thomas' group is composed of parents, corporate types, doctors and schoolchildren who have been drawn to his teachings.

The teachings center on a philosophy that balances the material and spiritual sides of nature.

"Our culture is so afraid of its own spirituality," says the ex-Army sergeant, former Pennsylvania state trooper and one-time private detective.

Despite his towering persona, this full-blooded Seminole is quite grounded in the real world. The 40-year-old father of four daughters, ages 7 to 18, lives in a middle-class neighborhood of townhouses and works 40 hours a week.

But he is unusual in one way, His Florida grandmother, Beulah Wise Owl Lorry, taught him to be a medicine man.

"Originally, it was to keep the old ways intact," Mr. Thomas says.

Being a Native American in the United States hasn't always been easy. His own parents wanted to be considered black, rather than Seminole, because no one would hire Seminoles, he says.

As a child, he also felt prejudice. "In second grade, I tried to tell the class I was Indian," he remembers. "But I didn't look like Tonto, so the kids tried to beat sense into me."

It wasn't until last year that he realized he had another mission. "It was time to find those looking for spirituality," says Mr. Thomas, as he sits on a flame-colored couch in his living room -- or "museum," as he and his wife, Cindy, refer to it.

Beaded necklaces

It is indeed a place of treasures. Feathered headdresses, coconut rattles, beaded necklaces and pipes are tucked amid the TV, VCR and aquarium.

At a recent meeting in Abingdon, Mr. Thomas passed around one of those Native American artifacts -- a beautifully beaded medicine pipe filled with an herbal smoking blend. "There's nothing narcotic in it," assures Mr. Thomas. "It's not that type of crowd."

The gathering of about 25 met at the suburban home of Mario and Melinda Recchioni to clear the woods of debris and fallen branches after the icy winter.

"It's like a family reunion every time," says Mrs. Recchioni, the mother of two teen-agers, referring to the congeniality of the people in her home and backyard. "It's like we've always known each other."

But they haven't. In fact, most of them have known each other less than a year.

It wasn't until last April when Mr. Thomas went on a vision quest -- a solitary, outdoor retreat during which a person fasts and meditates -- that he realized he needed to share his knowledge.

"I was feeling stagnant," he says. "I had no more physical teachers."

A rainbow in the sky was a sign, he says. And so began the Whirling Rainbow Lodge, the name he chose for his group of followers.

"Most people find out by word of mouth," Mr. Thomas says.

Or by fateful encounters.

Artist joined group

Artist Barbara Volk, the single mother of three children, crossed paths with Mr. Thomas at a gem show. "I wasn't looking for a teacher at the time," says the Glen Rock, Pa., resident, who has tried a variety of religions.

"I had fears about who this person was," says Ms. Volk, who is now a student of Mr. Thomas'. "But he told me things that no one else knew."

Cindy Thomas was also cautious about his calling. "When I met him, he was in the Army," says the Iowa native. "I thought that was going to be our life."

Even when Mr. Thomas was setting up a stone medicine wheel -- a structure representing the circle of life -- in their yard, she thought he was just making an interesting design in the garden.

"I was the biggest skeptic," says the former Protestant, who said she grew up in a strict, puritanical family. "But there is truth there."

Those knowledgeable about Native Americans admit there are frauds out there.

"There are all kinds of pretenders," says Joseph B. Mahan, historian, anthropologist and president of the Institute for the Study of American Cultures in Columbus, Ga.

But that doesn't mean there aren't true medicine men, Mr. Mahan says. "They are trained by an elder, have a great deal of perceptions, have a certain amount of drawing up of the subconscious and have knowledge of herbs and medicine."

No registry exists of how many medicine men are in the United States, where, according to the 1990 census, there are almost 2 million Native Americans, of whom about 13,000 live in Maryland.

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