Keeping Culture, Fostering Respect

by Stevie Sigan
Photography courtesy of Chillicothe Times-Bulletin

The cofounder of 4 Directions Healing Foundation is on a mission to protect Native American culture and inspire cross-cultural understanding.

When Adam Danner first pitched the idea, his nerves ran wild. He spoke over coffee at home with a few friends, including Lionel Little Eagle Pinn, a respected member of the Mikmaq Nation.

“Lionel just listened and listened and listened as I spoke,” Danner recalls. “I was so nervous.”

His idea: to start an event in central Illinois to share Native American culture with the public in an effort to dispel stereotypes and promote mutual respect. When Pinn finally responded, he said, “I don’t think that’s far-fetched at all,” Danner remembers. Ideas began flowing freely, and soon, the pitch had sparked an idea for an entire organization. “[It] was just the kickstart I needed.”

Fuel for Fire
Danner grew up in Chillicothe, aware that he had some Native American heritage. His maternal grandmother had shared some of this history with him, and later, he discovered that his father, too, had come from Native American roots. And though a direct cultural tie to these origins had been lost, simply knowing “planted a seed to learn more,” Danner says.

In his exploration, he was taken under the wing of several Native American elders and spiritually adopted into Ottawa, Dakota, Mohawk/Abenaki and Sk’llalam families, who shared their history and stories with him, forging a deeper connection to his roots. But along the way, he became troubled by certain encounters: ceremonies conducted without permission from actual Native people, or for a fee; a hodgepodge of traditions sloppily strewn together for public consumption; “new age” teachings being falsely presented as Native American; and more.

“Cultural exploitation has created a situation…where Native American people are not necessarily looked to first and foremost as the keepers of Native American culture,” he explains.

Determined to protect this culture, he began piecing together his first book, Honoring in a Good Way. There, he writes, “This general misinformation and cultural difference… has led to problems for Native American people, not the least of which is authentic Native American voices and traditions being replaced…by a generic ‘bubble culture’ containing Native American spirituality and traditional ways that most often times distort who and what Native American people and traditions actually are.

“What people need to know is that there is a lot more to Native American culture than just ceremonies alone,” he continues. “Things like language, food, families, clans, generosity, humbleness, respect, regalia, traditional dances, and stories, just to name a few.”

Hoping to correct misconceptions and shift stereotypes, Danner began speaking at schools, colleges, museums and other organizations, hoping to bridge cultural gaps and establish a new respect. His work has been endorsed by many native people as a dutiful introduction for those seeking to learn more about native life.

Four Directions of Healing
Danner’s passion to educate others was the power behind his initial pitch to Pinn, and remains the driving force behind the 4 Directions Healing Foundation. The organization’s name encompasses the four cardinal directions—of profound spiritual meaning to different Native groups, and representative of the founders’ roots. One of the directors, Phyllis Singing Bird Ballard, of Mohawk and Seneca descent, comes from the East; Gary Billiot, former vice president, from the United Houma Nation in Louisiana, represents the South; Lionel Little Eagle Pinn, current vice president, represents the West from Washington State; and Tom and Phyllis John of the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa in Michigan are the North.

“Together, there’s this wonderful diversity,” Danner explains. “Every time I talk anywhere or do a program, that’s the one thing I want people to remember—that native people are very diverse. There are 560-plus tribes on this continent, and though some are closely related due to language ties and region…they are all different. To totally respect who Native Americans are, you have to understand that.”

The organization is a registered 501(c)(3) not-for-profit, providing clothing and other donations to Indian communities in need. Along with its speaking and programming schedule, the group’s educational initiatives include writing a new curriculum to supplement resources used by schools today, hoping to amend “misguided” content that portrays Native American people as a group that once lived.

“The new curriculum will cater to different groups from preschool through college, but the core information will be the same—that native people are still alive…and their culture is still alive.”

Native Americans Speak
The group’s biggest project—and the offspring of Danner’s initial idea—is the annual “Native Americans Speak” event. The only Native American cultural event of its kind in central Illinois, this year’s program, presented in conjunction with the Chillicothe Park District, will include speakers representing the Shawnee, Mohawk, Port Gamble Sk’llalam, Yakima, Pima, Yaqui, and Dakota, Lakota and Cherokee nations, among others. The day-long festivities will feature a children’s hour, drum and dance demonstrations, storytellers, ceremonies and music.

“If people really want to learn about Native Americans, there’s no middle man here,” Danner explains. “[The event] says, ‘Here’s what people from a host of different tribes believe, here’s what they think, here’s where they live…’ It’s not just a lecture series—it’s interactive.”

And as he discovered along his own path of discovery, it’s the people dedicated to sharing their culture, opening minds and raising awareness that make cross-cultural understanding possible, Danner says. “If [they] didn’t lend their voices, it wouldn’t be what it is… The event gives different people from different Native American tribes a voice.”

Native Americans Speak will be held at Shore Acres Park in Chillicothe, Illinois, from 10am to 4pm on Saturday, August 25th. Admission is free. For more information about the event or the 4 Directions Healing Foundation, visit