Of Navajo-Ute heritage, R. Carlos Nakai is the world’s premier performer of the Native American flute. He began playing the traditional Native American flute in the early 1980s and has released more than 50 albums in his career, earning Platinum status with his album Canyon Trilogy, the first ever for a Native American artist performing traditional solo flute music.
R. Carlos has received eleven GRAMMY nominations in four different categories and has traveled the world, making sound sculptures, he calls them– collaborations with artists from other countries and cultures, hearing stories similar and different to his own and transcending the common stereotypes presented in mass media.
On the personal side of things, R. Carlos is wise, gentle, inspiring, a man that values listening, mentoring younger folks and simply BE-ing in this world and enjoying the journey of becoming more of himself every day. In this conversation, we walk through his lifelong musical process–beginning with clarinet and trumpet then discovering the Native American flute when a car accident left him with injuries to the muscles in his mouth that prevented him from playing brass instruments.
He speaks of the flute as a vehicle for telling your authentic story, the self expression that allows you to put yourself in the center of your life, to realize that the gifts and tools you were born with are exactly what you need to be who you are meant to be in this world. He opens up about a near death experience that guided him even more towards service through teaching and mentoring young people, and he leaves us with the question: Who Are You and How Do You Belong?
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Andy Vantrease (00:17):
Welcome to the Dandelion Effect podcast, a space for organic conversation about the magic of living a connected life. Just like the natural world around us, we are all linked through an intricate web, a never ending ripple that spans across the globe. Here we explore the ideas that our guests carry through the world, remember who and what inspired them along the way, and uncover the seeds that help them blossom into their unique version of this human experience. This podcast is a production of the Feather Pipe Foundation, whose mission is to help people find their direction through access to programs and experiences that support healing, education, community, and empowerment.
Hi friends. Welcome back to another episode of the Dandelion Effect podcast. I’m your host, Andy Vantrease. And before we get into talking to today’s guest, I have to share this incredible email I got the other day from a new listener that quite magically stumbled upon our podcast last week. It’s too moving not to share. Here’s what Michelle said from the UK. “I just wanna say how thrilled I am to have found your Dandelion Effect podcast. Dandelions are particularly significant to me, a medium I visited in 2018 after my son-in-law passed mentioned Dandelions to me, and she said I would understand their meaning. But at the time, I only enjoyed watching my dogs eating the seed clocks and disappearing them into thinner. I listened to the interview with Lauren Walker and I also studied energy medicine with Donna Eden. I have signed up to a trauma course.
“I’m studying Reiki life coaching and archetypal readings, preparing myself for my time. I’ve been praying for a release to become unstuck, to see my path more clearly. And your podcast has been another pebble in the well that is rippling and gently awakening something. So I sincerely thank you for that.”
Now for today’s guest, R. Carlos Nakai of Navajo Ute Heritage, R. Carlos or RC as his friends refer to him, is the world’s premier performer of the Native American flute. He began playing the traditional Native American flute in the early 1980s after it was gifted to him by a friend. And he has released more than 50 albums in his career earning platinum status with his album Canyon Trilogy, the First Ever for a Native American artists performing traditional solo flute music. RC has received 11 Grammy nominations in four different categories and has traveled the world making sound sculptures, collaborations with artists from other countries and cultures, hearing stories similar and different to his own and transcending the common stereotypes presented in mass media.
On the personal side of things, RC is wise, gentle, inspiring, a man that values listening, mentoring young folks, and simply being in this world and enjoying the journey of becoming more of himself. Every day in this conversation, we walk through his lifelong musical process, beginning with clarinet and trumpet, then discovering the Native American flute when a car accident left him with injuries to the muscles in his mouth that actually prevented him from playing any more brass instruments. He speaks of the flute as a vehicle for telling your authentic story, the self-expression that allows you to put yourself in the center of your life to realize that the gifts and tools you were born with are exactly what you need to be, who you were meant to be in this world. He opens up about a near death experience that guided him even more towards service through teaching and mentoring young people.
And he leaves us with the question, who are you? And how do you belong? I hope you enjoy this conversation as much as I did. I’d love to hear your feedback, what you learned and how it landed. And for now, please help me welcome my friend, R. Carlos Nakai. The way that I like to start a lot of these conversations is with a reflection. And I’d like to ask you, you know, after all that you’ve accomplished as a musician, a composer, teacher, partner, how would you begin to describe your origin story? And that can be, you know, how you were shaped by family culture, the generation you were born into, what comes up for you when I ask about your origin story?
R. Carlos Nakai (04:48):
You know, if it would be, um, how I began doing what I’m doing. It was actually many, many years ago living with, um, extended family in a former, um, internment camp community that was on the Colorado River Indian Reservation and Poston, Arizona. I was pretty fortunate because I had been listening to music for most of my early years, and my parents always made us aware of different kinds of music. But our principal at the time, Mr. Lap, decided all of us farm kids needed a music program. So he hired some friends from Blythe, California and they came up bringing a whole pickup load of musical instruments. And I tried to select the flute tower, the piccolo, which is what I really wanted. And I had listened to a lot of flute music, you know, classical music as they call it, and other popular musics. And I decided I would, would like to do the flute. Well, I was handed a cornette instead <laugh>, and I said, um, no, I really don’t like this. You know, it looks like a piece of plumbing to me. <laugh>,
This is the most important instrument in the orchestra. You should take it home, try to learn how to play it, and if you like it and you can begin taking lessons. And well, I took it home. I worked with it for a while, and I still thought, well, I really want the flutes. That had always been my dream from the beginning. And as a nine and 10 year old, you know, I thought, well, let me see. So I spent most of my time with people who knew how to play the instrument and got to Parker High School, went into the beginning band program and then moved to Flagstaff, Arizona from there. And then came back and learned about a group called the, um, Colorado River Indian Band. And I began taking lessons from some of the trumpet players. And so the, the world had been varied, but it was always oriented towards music.
After moving from there and going into a very small community that my father wanted us to move to, because he was a politician. I went to school in Fort Defiant, Arizona and got involved as a soloist with a group called the Navajo Tribal Band in 1966. Played as soloist with that band for a number of years, and then got drafted by the military when I started at Northern Arizona University. Of course, the band director wasn’t too happy with everything, so he gave us a few words, threw the letters down off the, um, conductor’s podium and said, we’ll see you if you make it back. Wow. You know, that was quite surprising. And I said, well, everything’s going to change. I attempted to continue my music studies and audition for the military schools in Washington, DC but they said, well, there’s a long list of people and you’re at this time, number 26 on that list, but we’ll go ahead and put you on the list as having auditioned and everything.
And I thought, wow, that’s great. Maybe when I get out of my four years, I can check on it and see where my name has come. Well, it was still down on the list, and I continued playing with this, um, tribal ban, traveling all over the United States and representing the Navajo people and playing with the other tribal bands that were nearby to us and, you know, working primarily brass. And in the meantime, I had suffered a traffic accident. So that ended my dream of ever playing brass effectively with any band anywhere. And so I came home, found a wall hanger of an instrument that I didn’t know about, and that was about 1971. I asked my friend at that time, what is this thing? And she said, well, I bought it in Cortez, Colorado, but it’s, um, an instrument that the u people use in the old days, and it’s called a flute.
And I said, wow, that’s strange. And it looks kind of different, you know? I said, I wonder how you play it. I wonder what kind of sound it makes. Everything about the instrument itself, you know, began to intrigue me. Went out and began studying and learning what it did, and found that in order for me to really understand it, I have to apply the discipline of the Western European music that I was learning and take the instrument apart, try to craft one, and then put it all back together and see how it worked. And in the meantime, southern plain, some native flutist said, you have to find a flute maker somewhere and somebody will give you an instrument. You can begin working with it. So I found a couple flute makers from the Comanche and Kaiwa tribes, and they began telling me, well, if you wanna learn the instrument, you’ve gotta learn traditional music. So go find someone who teaches about the tribal music and learned to sing at the drum. And so I did that for a couple of years and I began working with the, probably the, uh, more well known contemporary, traditional flute player named Tommy Ware. And he said, now take the long you’ve learned and find how you can play them on the flute. My ambiture was damaged enough, I couldn’t relax, you know, my lips to play the C flute. And I said, well, this flute fills that gap.
Andy Vantrease (11:15):
And that was from your car accident?
R. Carlos Nakai (11:17):
Yeah. And that was after the car accident that happened in 1969. And so after all those years, you know, and hearing from other trumpet players who suffered the same kind of accident, they said, you’ve gotta play all kinds of scales and, and work to try to build your ambusher back. And it takes at least five years to do that. And I said, I don’t have that time.
Andy Vantrease (11:44):
And the ambiture is, is it a muscle?
R. Carlos Nakai (11:47):
It’s using the muscles around the mouth.
Andy Vantrease (11:50):
R. Carlos Nakai (11:51):
And then down through to the throat and how they control how you open and close, um, the lips to speak words or to make noises or to allow air to flow through between your lips in a manner that will allow, you know, to play different kinds of musical instruments. Once you’ve lost that, it get, it’s very difficult to regain.
Andy Vantrease (12:19):
When you had that car accident, you were playing the trumpet, and then was that a part of the reason why you switched instruments? Or was it just as hard when you began learning the flute being in the midst of that injury and that healing?
R. Carlos Nakai (12:34):
Well, when I found the instrument, I found all I needed to do was develop a sense of breath control. And I found that the instrument only plays by blowing air into the instrument at a certain, um, intensity. In music, we call it piano or meso forte or meso piano in that range, but it never goes any louder than that, um, unless you’re making noise, you know? And so I thought, well, this thing will fill the bill from me to retain my music work that I’ve always wanted to do music anyway. So that instrument came in very handy at that time. Mm-hmm. <affirmative> and learning how to make it work well was another intrigue of mine because I wanted to see what else it was capable of doing rather than just playing traditional music.
Andy Vantrease (13:31):
Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, you know, you mentioned where music began for you in school, but did your parents, or did your family focus on music? Was it part of your upbringing?
R. Carlos Nakai (13:46):
Both of my extended family and my own nuclear family, they took us on weekends and whenever they could to different ceremonies and ceremonials that would happen during the calendar season. And so we traveled to Southern Colorado, we traveled to California and other places just to attend different kinds of ceremonial and listen to the people singing, dancing, and doing their own thing. And I said, wow, you know, I think I can learn how to play these and these songs on the flutes that I use. So that was part of the fulfillment. So rather than spending my time learning amazing grace and rock of ages and all of those songs, you know, I decided I’m going to see what else I can do. And I began composing pieces for myself, for my instrument.
Andy Vantrease (14:47):
Did that just come really natural to you to want to learn more of the traditional music?
R. Carlos Nakai (14:52):
Well, a lot of it was finding a way, a methodology where I could transfer those tunes into, um, the sounds that the flute was capable of doing. I’m probably the only one in my nuclear family who began working primarily in music. Many of the others were working in other areas, you know, as they were going, going to school or living their lives. So even living down in Poston, you know, I didn’t have much except going to churches. Um, I attended a lot of the Christian churches in that region so I could sing. And then when I got into the parochial school that I attended in Flagstaff, that was actually a boon because I began learning, um, Gregorian chant. And the Gregorian chant actually was not based on any music discipline, but it’s more like freeform chanting that was done by people in the old days.
And so some of the history started burgeoning at that point. And I said, well, I wonder what Native American flute music, uh, where did that start? Well, many of the flute makers said, well, sort of like, well, when you were going to this Catholic school, um, people just chanted all the time. And so we take either the songs we use in ceremonies, we take some of those, or we make our own songs up and we play those. And I said, well, how do you write them down? Well, we don’t, we have to memorize them cuz we don’t belong to a culture that writes things. And I thought, again, you know, I spent most of my life reading music, um, being able to transpose music for different instruments for B flat brass. And I said, well, let me see. I’ve gotta find a way to do this, to write down what I do.
I scribbled out all the all 10 pitches of the Native American flutes that I had, and I found, well, there’s 1, 2, 3, the third is missing the major third, so I can’t play that pitch and it’ll play all the way to the octave. Plus if I mess around with the fingering, I can do two or three more, or trying to get to high C. And then I said, wow, all the fingering I’m finding with the different pitches of flute that I play is all the same, but I have to find a way to memorize or remember what their scales are. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. And that’s another problem. I mean, all musicians in the concert music world, I mean, you spend most of your life working with the piano. If you can’t play piano, you can’t play music. And so luckily I had some piano training and so I would sit down and I’d go, let me see, let me see, let me see.
Uh, there’s a thing here. The traditional Lakota and Woodlands flutes play around the key of E major, which is C sharp minor. And the southern plains flutes in all their variety play somewhere around B flat. And I found that if I wrote all the scales of the flutes that I owned at the time down on a grid, I looked down at that beginning flute chart again and I said, wow, close all six or all five holes and I have the lowest sound I can produce, and it’s this on this, in this scale, it’s this pitch and that other scale, it’s this pitch and the other scale. And I said, oh, there’s a system here. It’s very easy. I write in what I call my tableture system. It’s all in the same, at the same level. It tells me how to press my fingers down to get all the in between pitches and everything of each of the flutes that I’m using in your orchestra. But I don’t read music. I’m reading finger positions, <laugh>, I don’t get it. I don’t get, I said, listen, don’t try to figure it out. It took me two years to get this thing going and it really works.
Andy Vantrease (19:32):
Just trust me. <laugh>.
R. Carlos Nakai (19:34):
Andy Vantrease (19:36):
I’d love to hear a bit more about what you know about the history of the Native American flute and where it originated. You know, I just see you as somebody who not only has found a very tangible way to bring all of those different traditions together and allow them to be played together, but in a sense, you’re also bringing the decades and decades of creativity and art and people together with what you’re doing.
R. Carlos Nakai (20:08):
Mm-hmm. <affirmative> in much of the research that I’ve been doing and continue to do, the instrument came into the social world of Native peoples in North America about the mid 17 hundreds before that time. And what I can deduce from all the different museums I’ve visited in Europe and here in this country that deal with, um, native American music, the, um, instrument was actually introduced by a number of flute pipe makers who entered either Maine Nova Scotia, Massachusetts. And the influence was primarily through the, um, Northern Mohawk Confederacy when according to one of the stories that flute makers took all the pipes that worked back to Europe to craft the early, uh, pipe organs. And they left behind the flute pipes that were quite in tune. And according to the story, in fact, all the stories are are similar with this one. Flute makers took the, um, flute pipes that they didn’t want, and one of them, or maybe a number of them, took hot pokers and burned finger holes, three, four, what have you in the, um, square part of the, um, flute pipes and said, cover this sound producing mechanism.
But they called a language, cut it off, so it’s a little bit below this, this, um, rectangular hole, cover it with piece of wood or something, and you can make tunes. The Mohawks were the first ones to accept these instruments, and they spread them throughout the east coast. And people in different tribes started going, I can make one, but I’m gonna make mine in this shape. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. So it turned into what I today call a sound sculpture. And they burned more than three or four holes in it. They put sometimes six, sometimes five. And they learned how to play them and vary this diameter of the internal bore and the length of the pipe so that they could, um, play something that sounded, I would suppose, like different keys, different scales. And then they began matching them to the sung voice of their tribal communities or the sung voice of an individual who said, I would like to have a flute, but I want it to match my voice.
And so that’s a quick history of everything that I’ve discovered in different research. And probably the earliest one I found was made around 1730 and was collected in that time and now is housed at the Folk Arts Museum in Austria. And I played it and the professor who was in charge of the museum, you know, he said, I don’t know, you can play it, but it was soaked in arsenic and so it could be very poisonous. I said, well, arsenic, you know, is a natural forming mineral and people use it in baths to deal with arthritis. So maybe I’ll Yeah, that’s
Andy Vantrease (23:44):
True. True. Give it a shot at that point. I love the idea of creating and shaping the flute to match the individual’s voice. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. And last time we spoke, one of the things that really stuck with me was you telling me that when you were interviewing some of the traditional flute players and asking about their music and whether any of it was written down. And a few of them said, all we do is play our vocal music on these instruments. We tell our stories. That to me is so powerful in the realm of self expression and how each one of us has a different voice, has a unique story to tell. What would you say is the story that you’ve been telling through your flute all of these years, and how has it changed for you over time?
R. Carlos Nakai (24:42):
Well, a lot of what I do today, of course, is always encouraging people to find your voice in the flute. And when you’ve found that voice, you’ll know that you can sing whatever you intend to do, or you can recite poetry and then play the same movement of sound on this instrument that you own. And then you can branch out and play in other tunings too. What I do is, um, play mainly in my own personal music, the sounds of the dreams that influence me as I go around in the world. So I play about being myself, uh, is probably the easiest way to put it. When I’m within a powwow group or a family of powwow people who want me to play for them, then I will do primarily traditional music of the tribes, you know, that I’m visiting with. And then I’ll say, you know, I do this, I do this kind of music that talks to me about the time when I lost a very close friend and I wanna play it for you right now.
And so I’ll play that song and they’ll go, wow, that is so movie. It almost makes me cry. I said, well, that’s really neat to know. I said, because I put so much of myself into that sound, I make that personal sound that talks in story in sound about how I feel from way debt one day to the next. And now what I’m doing is, you know, I’ve combined that with the sounds of birds and animals that live nearby in my world. And when I travel to different communities, I mean, I even play music when I’m in the city. And when I hit New York City, I’ll get down to Central Park and I’ll just be there and I listen to children playing. I listen to birds, I listen to the traffic going around, I listen to people talking, and I’ll play melodies that are based on those sounds.
So I carry three or four flutes with me all the time. And, um, it’s very personal music. I don’t call it sacred because the instrument didn’t come in a sacred manner. It came as a throwaway item that natives took and turned into a sound that I would say emulates how they feel about being in the world right now. And so I’m always telling people, find that voice, that’s your other voice. That’s the voice you will use to allow people to understand why you feel the way you do at certain points in time. And I guess from that sensibility, it could be sacred music, but it’s personal, highly personal in nature. And I just enjoy that cause I don’t do everyone else’s music.
Andy Vantrease (27:50):
Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, you’ve collaborated with people from all over the world. What has that experience been like for you to bring so much of yourself through your music and meld that in and, and co-create with people from other parts of the world that are, I would imagine also bringing their full selves and their stories? What’s that experience like for you?
R. Carlos Nakai (28:19):
Well, I study at University of Arizona in cultural studies and one of my interests, you know, started with, um, comparing American India, the culture to the world and saying, if they did this, they would be like us. But the problem is we all come from many different, I like to say multicultural histories. And so in this country, in the United States, you know, we’re a mishmash of many different traditions all at once, but we’ve done things that are just totally amazing. And in the music when I travel, I still approach talking to people from that cultural anthropological perspective. And I used to ask questions and talk, and then I thought, this doesn’t work too well because I know they’re not telling me the rest of the story. And of late, I came upon, let me play a song for you and I’ll play one of my tunes, and then I’ll say, that’s a personal song.
But in the cultural tradition of the people that uses slt, they play this song. And so I’ll talk about that history and my history, and then all of a sudden they say, you know, we do that too, and we wanna show you our instruments and we wanna tell you the story of how I think we’re very similar to you are. And I said, well, you probably are. So let me hear it. And that opens so many doors for me. You know, I don’t write any of this stuff down anymore because the individuals that I’ve interviewed, they all say, you know, these are family stories. There are no general stories in our cultures. I say, yeah, I know that, but if you interviewed my neighbors, they’ll tell you an entirely different story. If you go over to another place and another community, they’ll tell you a similar story, but it’s entirely different.
So every family has their own story. And I said, I need to respect that and I’m not gonna learn your songs. But the sharing is the important part. And I’ve learned to use the music as a way to break down the barriers and to share how I feel about being in their space. And I’ll, you know, once in a while they’ll invite, invite me to dinners or events and they’ll say, we have this American Indian here visiting us. Um, we’re going to share our food with him, but we would like for him to play and talk about his way of being in the world. And that’s so refreshing to me. It’s like everyone on the planet, we have the same stories of suffering and travail and hardship and having good times at certain times. You know, it’s, it’s, it’s all similar being in Africa, being in Scotland, being in Germany with Bavarians and listening to by songs, you know, and then being in the United States and traveling to the south and the East Coast and up into Canada and out into the Middle East or what they call the Midwest. And um, on the West Coast, you know, meeting even tribal people, it’s like, God, just playing this simple instrument allows me to learn their stories and to tell my story too. There’s never any sound, there’s never any story that’s the same. They’re all varied, you know, because of our life experience of moving through time. And it’s just like, wow, show me something. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>,
Andy Vantrease (32:22):
Wow. That just has to be such an incredible experience. And I feel similar when it comes to hearing people’s stories, sharing, you know, like this. And as I’ve done the podcast and been a writer and a journalist for a decade, it’s like we all have our own unique beauty walks and the essence of so many of them are the same. It’s like Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, you know? Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, we’re all on this journey and we’re all on this path and the trials and tribulations that we experience are different. But being able to share in all of those things, and especially through music, something that isn’t necessarily verbal, um, I think language can sometimes get tricky, but music, it just hits you so deeply.
R. Carlos Nakai (33:14):
Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. Oh yeah. And I think it’s a real good thing because then the wall and the wall of how we’ve all suffered through time, you know, and how families have been disrupted in their journey, you know, for various reasons. It’s like, it all comes together as what do we really know? <laugh>, we, it sounds like the whole community of humanity is just, is all just one suffering being, but the goodness comes with the storytelling, the dancing, the music. And even with one of my friends who’s a poet, you know, he’s gone into doing mask making and telling his poetry and the story of what the masks represent to him, you know? And I go, yeah, you’re doing what I’m doing. But you’re doing it with, with masks that you have people bill, I’m doing it with the sound of the music. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, you know, so
Andy Vantrease (34:22):
Yeah, I think, you know, that’s such a special thing about being involved with the Feathered Pipe Ranch too. It’s like each workshop that comes, it’s just a different avenue to really that same journey of recognizing that you are the medicine, you know, your life is the answer that you’re looking for and that all of it is within you. And just that whole, you know, all of the struggle of the self-expression and the self-worth, everything that we go through. There’s so many ways in to that journey. And to be able to collaborate and just hear from people who are doing it in different ways, I think it’s so wonderful that there are so many paths to take.
R. Carlos Nakai (35:10):
Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. Well, you know, when I first became involved with the Feathered Pipe, um, India was very guarded about, what are you gonna do now? Are you gonna hit people over the head and tell ’em you’re an authority on this and that? And I said, do I look like a fool,
<laugh>, no, I’m going to reveal myself to people. I said, there are no authorities. Only a fool would say, I speak for everyone. I speak for every cultural concept and philosophy. He said, that doesn’t work. I said, Joseph Campbell even never said that to anyone. He just said, the diversity of life is such that we live in our own dream. You know? And I told her that and I said, why don’t you come to one of, one of the workshops when we do them here? And she got really excited about it. She said, I want you to come forget the flute stuff. I want you to teach the philosophy things. I said, well, I don’t know everything, but I do know what I know about myself and I encourage others to learn about themselves. And she said, well show people that, because in the United States, we all think in lockstep.
I said, yeah, we have a $24 novel call American History. We all subscribe to a bigger novel, um, that we called a Holy Bible. I said, but it was written by a number of different people and they all that had their dream. But we’ve taken it and we’ve turned it into this is the only thing that works. And you go, no, it doesn’t. Because the people who teach at the Feathered Pipe also teach a way, which is quite important. How to get in touch with your soul, how to get in touch with your body, how to realize that breathing in and out of air isn’t just an automatic manual thing, but it’s a healing process. And understanding and learning how to be in that, in that sensibility. You know, you can heal yourselves. You don’t have to go and find some drug or some combination of drugs to make yourself well, it’s un inside of us.
All of us. We’re our own healer, but we have to learn how to go into our very being rather than looking outside of ourselves. Cuz there’s nothing outside of us. You know, it’s all inside of us. We were born to make a difference in the world, but we were also born to be of service to others. And so we carry tools. We were born carrying tools. When we came out of that doorway of our mothers, we had a little tool bag that we brought with us. This is what I’m going to do in this world. And it’s an adventure. It would become everything we say to ourselves, I wanna go back and I’m going to do this because it’ll be fun to do and it’ll help people. So we continue our journey through time in that manner. I think, in fact, I almost know, because I came close at one time and I said, I would love to leave this plasma bag and come back in a new one because it’ll be very different. It’ll be a very different adventure, but it’ll be more of service. Although I won’t remember what I did before, but I will know what my toolkit will be.
Andy Vantrease (39:02):
When you say that you came close, was that during your car accident or a different circumstance?
R. Carlos Nakai (39:09):
No, I had an accident where I thought I passed out for maybe a couple minutes and they said we had to resuscitate you and you were out for 30 minutes and we had to bring you back and we thought we had lost you, but all of a sudden you came back awake, you as you did, jumped up and you got blood all over the highway, patrolman’s uniform. And I said, I’ll, I’ll get it cleaned. I’m very sorry. And he said, don’t worry about it, you’re alive again. So you got, you have to continue your journey. And I said, you know, that’s what I heard when I went wherever, I don’t know where it was, but it was a nice warm spot. And a voice told me, it’s not your time. You have to come back. You have to go back and do what you came for.
And I’ve heard that from other people who’ve experienced that kind of near death experience. They all say, we all say the same thing. It’s not your time, you have to go back. You haven’t completed your journey yet. So I’m still on my journey and I think India completed her journey in a way where she didn’t want to leave from here. So <laugh>, you know, it was forced to do so. It’s time to continue down the road and do something else. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, it’s an amazing thing. A map with a freeway on it, and then all these off ramps and you can choose whatever off ramp you want to go to at one moment or another in time and discover what might be down in that area. And you get back on the freeway and you go to the next off ramp, you know, and it’s, that’s what life should be about. It’s, it’s being childlike, not childish, but childlike. When you’re 95 years old, you should be still discovering, I want to go and do this. Well, you’re so old, you can barely move. No, no, no, I’m going to do this. So I’ll see you all later <laugh>. And if anything happens on the way out or on the way back, you know, you’ll know about it. But it’s just one, one adventure in what we call life. Mm-hmm.
Andy Vantrease (41:32):
<affirmative> <affirmative>. When you had your near death experience and you heard that message that you weren’t quite done yet, that this wasn’t your time and you needed to go back and serve, what have you done with that second chance? Almost?
R. Carlos Nakai (41:48):
I think it is a second chance. Um, we experience it in many different ways. I’m finding now I almost relegate much of my life and my livelihood to hearing and listening and seeing and being in the world. You know? And I may react to one or more. Social disruptions are another, but then I have to think about it and go, I think as humans, they’ve lost their way. I think as humans, they need to understand little more. I think as a human myself, I need to begin to understand why we fear. Fear is probably the only thing that keeps us from becoming what we would like to be in which, which is childlike in the discovery of the rest of our lives. Use that as a way to live the livelihood that we envision ourselves having enjoy everything because the moment doesn’t last too long.
But that’s what I surmise from all of this. So I spend a lot of my time just being, being in the world and people go, uh, you know, you’re just sort of aimless. You just do this and that. I said, no, I don’t. There’s a very specific direction that I’m going in from one moment to the next. And I love it. I said, because I’m actually teaching myself how to be human beings in the world because my mental space, my philosophical space, my educated space, my fine art space, you know, all of those spaces of myself all together, the way I think that little microcosm of being, I’ve got to exercise that.
Andy Vantrease (43:48):
I know that you mentioned to me that you find yourself wanting to spend time and engage younger people and share the lessons that you’ve learned in how to be and also to openly explore that and allow that exploration to be seen. Like, not that you have all the answers, but that you are even after all this time and all of this life lived, you’re still childlike and you’re still exploring
R. Carlos Nakai (44:19):
Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. Well, you know, when I came on the awareness and everything and the accident occurred, it was also during a time when I, I lost many of my peers. We had all studied in schools together. We had lived our lives close to each other. We remembered each other over time. But now because of different conflicts, let me say that they’re no longer here. And I think about that. It’s probably one of the feelings that inhabits me when I play my flutes. You know, that feeling of extreme sadness and remorse and, and longing to be together with these people again, but I know it’ll never happen because they’re on their own journeys now, wanting to find those who are willing to listen to what I have to say to enjoy your life right now, because this is the only time you have, you will come back differently.
But you will never remember this period. And like an elder told me, he says, don’t go out there and start preaching to people. He says, this is how it works with us. We never teach our young people unless they come to us and say, grandfather, father, brother, who am I? Tell me who I am. Help me with this problem. He says, then you can begin the process of educating them into becoming their own person. He says, and not all of us, you know, as elders or as middle aged people or youngsters, even children teach. He says, we don’t all teach the same story. It all varies because we see the picture differently. So that’s what I do.
Andy Vantrease (46:30):
You have younger folks who are asking those questions these days.
R. Carlos Nakai (46:36):
They’ll ask or they’ll say, you know, I’ve been thinking about this and what do you think? What do you know about this? Or, you know, it’s, it’s not showing me how to be a better human being. It’s um, just explaining how I’ve dealt with certain either personal conflicts or questions about myself over time. And this is what I’ve done, man. This is how I’ve dealt with that. And you might, you might find it useful in your life, cuz I notice you do this, you do that and, you know, um, make it all worthy of your time. Don’t waste your time being in the world.
Andy Vantrease (47:16):
R. Carlos Nakai (47:16):
<affirmative>, I’m another individual like you are, but I’ve been on this particular dimension for a little bit longer time than you have. And even though you’ve come from another one and you’re here now, you don’t remember unless something telling comes in your dream to remind you of. Don’t do that. And you wake up and it’ll either be a nightmare or a funny dream and say, I had the weirdest dream last night. And you go, someone will say, so what did you think? Well, I don’t know. It just, it’s a weird thing. I could be a nightmare. No, you’re teaching yourself, you’re teaching yourself. So I always try to get them to do that, to become aware on a personal level who I am. I said, say that I am. That means you are the center of your own existence. There’s nobody else on the planet like you. Although we do comparative things, but we are all individuals within our own worldview. I said, there’s nobody like you anywhere. So why are you wasting your time trying to compare yourself to somebody else? Why do you listen to people who are authorities tell you there is only one way based on their philosophy? I said that, that doesn’t work. Learn to be yourself. Learn to live in your dream. Learn to have a good time, and that’s all that matters.
Andy Vantrease (48:59):
Who were some of the people that you asked those questions to? Did you have elders and mentors to look up to when you were younger and perhaps even still? I mean, I don’t think that need for support and listenership ever goes away.
R. Carlos Nakai (49:18):
Yeah. I’ve always asked of people either older or friends of mine, you know, you know, I feel this, that, this, that, and what do you think? I mean, have you ever experienced that in your, where you’re, where you’re at, where you live, you know, wherever. And then we begin comparing notes. So it’s sort of like we try to divine where we are relative to the freeway of life. <laugh> mm-hmm. <affirmative> on a personal level. And we’ll share those life experiences and we go, oh, that’s really neat. You know, I’ve never experienced that. I feel the essence of what they imparted to me. And I’ve experienced that feeling and I really like it. I really thank them for having done that with me. Not for me, but with me. You know?
Andy Vantrease (50:14):
Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, your style of teaching is not one where you are standing in front of a classroom saying, this is the way and this is what you have to learn x, y, z in order to become, it’s much more transformative. It’s much more self expression and psychology almost. How do you weave all of these things that we’ve talked about into the way that you teach and allow people to unfold and be vulnerable and be in their process while they’re learning.
R. Carlos Nakai (50:51):
Getting them to discover whom they are in themselves, rather than being comparative. And a lot of them, of course, will come back with, I wanna learn to play like you. I said, no, you can’t. You will never learn to play like me. You will learn to play like yourself though based on the principles I’m gonna impart you. That will allow you to go into yourself rather than outside of your being. You know, even being at the Feathered Pipe, I won’t be teaching, I’ll be wandering throughout the space because, um, I’m going there primarily to honor the wish of, of India. That she wanted me to come there and do these things about the ranch and about our relationship as two people offering a space to others to teach what they know about themselves. And so I’ll be doing that sometimes alone. Sometimes I’ll gather a group and say, let’s go for a walk. Cause we used to walk together up the trail, up to the rock place, you know, and then look down into the valley on the west side. And I would sing, I would chant, I would play flutes. We would talk about deep subjects about our very soul, you know, our, our being and why people are afraid to understand themselves in that manner, you know? Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. So that’s how I work. I don’t do a broadcast teaching about things because not everyone thinks alike. And I have to respect that individuality all the time.
Andy Vantrease (52:43):
I’m really looking forward to that. And so many others are just to having you back at the ranch, and it sounds like a real beingness being with you and being with each other. Um, I’d like to just ask if there’s something or a few things that you want, you know, my generation or the younger people to know about how to relate to one another and how to relate to Mother Earth. Based on your experience in your life, what is the message or a message that you find yourself sharing or would like to share?
R. Carlos Nakai (53:20):
I think much of the understanding has to start with the question. And it’s a question that both must answer. We say, who are you? What kind of people are you? And for me, I would have to answer with how I belong in a nuclear and extended family system. Um, based on marriage. Every family has a symbol of one kind or another. In Europe, they call it a heraldry symbol or a shield or something. A flag that has animals and birds and, you know, diagrams of one thing or another, and you inquire with them and they, they’ll tell you a story. It came to us this way, um, you know, or in another fashion. Um, uh, we use it because it describes how we have grown into the world. Um, and then we married into another family and this family symbol is that. So we’ve included that.
Um, how do you explain the stories? Do you know the stories from your parents, your grandparents, your ancestors? Do you know the stories of their travel through life? We all stand in front of a single candle in total darkness, and you light the candle and the light shines onto you. But when you turn around, you see the light shining and there’s this long shadow that extends way, way out. So that’s you. And that long shadow is a shadow of your journey through time and how you belong to family. So envision that and tell me who are you, how do you feel about being here? And I have to answer too, from my way. Well, let me tell you my story. Let me tell you about my shadow. And so now we’re communicating as real people
Andy Vantrease (55:52):
R. Carlos Nakai. There are so many gems of inspiration in this conversation. One of the phrases that stuck with me is when he said, fear is the only thing that keeps us from becoming who we would like to be, which is childlike in the discovery of the rest of our lives. I was just recently speaking to a friend about wanting to bring more silliness and play into my life and to really honor, laughter is one of the most potent medicines. The world can feel so heavy sometimes. And talking with RC felt like a unnecessary slowing down, like my whole body received permission to rest in the miracle of who I am and who we all are just as we are. Another phrase that I’ve heard from Navajo friends is putting yourself at the center of your life or putting yourself at the center of the medicine wheel.
RC’s music can be found on Spotify and I listen during restorative yoga. I listen before I fall asleep, and my acupuncturist even puts RC’s music on for me during sessions to help settle into my body. So I highly recommend checking it out. For more information on his work, please visit rcarlosnakai.com/.
A special thank you to Matthew Marsolek and the Drum Brothers, whose music you hear at the beginning and end of this podcast, as well as Dr. Jean Shinoda Bolen, who first turned us on to the phenomenon of the Dandelion Effect and how ideas move through the world.
This podcast is a production of the Feathered Pipe Foundation, a 501c3 dedicated to healing, education, community and empowerment. If you’d like to help support this project, please visit FeatheredPipe.com/gratitude or leave a review on Apple podcasts and share with your friends. Be sure to tune in to our next episode in two weeks. We cannot wait to share another amazing conversation with you. Until then, have a beautiful day.