A Spiritual Hurricane: Vern Harper in Memoriam

Vern Harper, Har-Prakash Khalsa, and Shinzen Young, courtesy of Har-Prakash Khalsa


As some of you know, for many years now I’ve been privileged to have several wonderful connections with the Native American community. Based on that, I’ve written and spoken much about the relationship between Native American practices and Buddhist meditation.

This weekend I was saddened to learn that the respected Cree Elder Vern Harper, one of my Native American friends, passed through the West Door. According to Native American idiom, just as the sun completes its task by setting in the West, a human being completes their task when they pass away.

As is the case with many Native Americans, Vern’s life was one of much hardship and loss, but thanks to his intense involvement with ceremony, all that hardship was transmuted into purification.

He was one of those people with whom I did not need to use words much. Mostly we would just sit together in a knowing and unspoken Connection Through Emptiness.

For many years, participating in a sweat lodge ceremony with Vern was an optional feature of my Canadian retreats. The picture you see above was taken after one of those sweats. The man in the center is Har-Prakash Khalsa, who created my main YouTube channel, Expand-Contract, and who, along with his family, serves the Ontario community both as a teacher and an artist.

I thought I would take this opportunity to honor Vern’s life by recalling a few memories from our long relationship.

Vern was what the Lakota Indians call a heyoka. This term is sometimes translated in English as “contrary,” or “thunder clown.” As the name implies, heyokas are humorous people who receive a divine calling to sacramentalize the role of oppositeness in the universe. (In the olden days, they would do things like ride backwards into battle.) Vern was, as far as I know, the only non-Lakota to ever be officially initiated into the Lakota Heyoka Society. His mentor was none other than the famous (and, if you ask the FBI, infamous) Leonard Crow Dog. According to Vern, the authorities eventually let Leonard out of prison because mechanical equipment would constantly fail and plans would always go awry when he was around. Of course, I can’t attest to the veracity of that story but, I have to admit, it’s a great story. And I can attest to the fact that there was a vibe of sacred chaos always surrounding Vern.  🙂

I remember him telling a group of students whom I had brought to a sweat lodge, in an adamant, almost possessed tone, “You people are a bunch of wimps, and I don’t want you coming around here anymore!” I understood but I realized my students didn’t. I had to explain. When a heyoka talks like that, it means the exact opposite: “I’m impressed by your courage and you’re welcome here anytime.” And my students had shown courage. Vern’s lodges could be quite challenging. In fact, the phrase “Burn with Vern” was well-known in the Toronto Native American Community.

I remember another time when I had to do a cultural translation. Before going into a lodge, Vern asked all my students to make a special prayer for him because, in a few months, he would be facing something challenging, and he needed all the support he could get. He was to be officially honored by the Lakota tribe for his service to the community. I could see that my students didn’t understand the connection. What does being officially honored have to do with facing something challenging? I explained. During the Sun Dance ceremony, people get pierced in various ways. The most spectacular (which you may have seen portrayed in the movie A Man Called Horse) is to be hung by your own flesh from a sacred cottonwood tree until the flesh breaks and you drop. Sometimes a person earns the privilege to be pierced in that way by having done a special service to the community.

As you might imagine, Vern was a really tough dude. He’d been incarcerated, seen combat in the Korean War, been systematically tortured, and at one time made his living as a professional boxer under the nickname Hurricane Harper. Because of the nickname, he always felt a strong spiritual connection to the famous US boxer Hurricane Carter. In fact, he told me that once when he was in jail, really depressed and hopeless, Hurricane Carter came to him in a form of a spirit vision that pulled him out from that pit of negativity.

Apropos of boxing, the last time I saw Vern was a few years ago. Jeff Warren and I invited him for an upscale Chinese lunch at this restaurant on the Toronto waterfront. Vern, who I believe at that time was already in his 80s, told us that the day before he’d been riding on public transportation in Toronto with some young guy who was acting like an a-hole—annoying the passengers and such. Vern cold-cocked him—knocked him flat out with one punch! Jeff and I couldn’t stop laughing.

Other stories I remember are him reminiscing about circumventing FBI barricades to provide guns for the American Indian Movement. Like I said, tough guy.

As a heyoka, Vern felt a special relationship to Spider. You’ll notice his spiderweb tattoo. In fact, he put spiders on most of his belongings. Spider is one of the standard trickster figures in Native American spirituality. (The other two are Raven in the Northeast and Coyote almost everywhere.) In Lakota, Spider is called Inktomi. Inktomi has some interesting cultural links. In terms of the modern information age, Inktomi was an early browser that played a significant role in the development of the Internet. It was named after the Lakota trickster god because it could crawl the web and defeat larger adversaries through wit and cunning.

Once when Vern was in an airport, a man from Africa saw the spider decals on his luggage and immediately understood the reference, because the Spider trickster is also an archetype in West African religion under the name Anansi. Anansi was brought to the Americas and became part of Afro-American folklore in the form of Aunt Nancy stories.

I love things like this, where we can see the connectivity of the world. Native culture in North America, native culture in West Africa, and the computer science that has brought us the Information Age have a link. Links like this are a surface reflection of something deeper. Emptiness is the omphalos mundi, the universal connection point. Vern is gone from our sight and I’ll miss him. But deep down, there’s a connection that can never be severed. It’s the same connection that I have with my mother, brother, and all the other loved ones I’ve lost. That connection is eternal . . . adamantine.

Aho Mitakuye Oyas’in.

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