As a member of the Ottawa Tribe and someone who’s worked with over five hundred tribal nations, my guest has long been inspired by his Native American culture and heritage, particularly the tradition of native warriors. And he thinks those warriors have much to teach all modern people about work, life, and leadership.
His name is D.J. Vanas and he’s the author of The Warrior Within: Own Your Power to Serve, Fight, Protect, and Heal. Today on the show, D.J. explains what the warrior spirit is, and how important it is for everyone to cultivate, especially those who want to lead, serve, and live with a purpose bigger than the self. He takes principles of Native American tradition and philosophy, including living off the land, taking a vision quest, counting coup, being a firekeeper, and developing toughness, and shows how they apply to anyone who’s looking to develop resilience, achieve their goals, and make a positive impact on the world.
Resources Related to the Podcast
- Ottawa Tribe
- AoM series: Lessons from the Sioux in how to develop situational awareness, mental and physical toughness, and spirituality, as well as how to turn a boy into a man
- AoM Podcast #526: The Rise and Fall of the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History
- Podcast #633: The World and Vision of Lakota Medicine Man Black Elk
- AoM Article: You May Be Strong, But Are You Tough?
- AoM article on creating a personal mission statement
- AoM Article: 20 Battle Cries Through the Ages
Connect With D.J. Vanas
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Brett McKay here, and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. As a member of the Ottawa tribe, and someone who’s worked with over 500 tribal nations, my guest has long been inspired by his Native American culture and heritage, particularly the tradition of Native warriors, and he thinks those warriors have much to teach all modern people about work, life and leadership. His name is DJ Vanas, and he’s the author of The Warrior Within: Own Your Power to Serve, Fight, Protect and Heal. Today on the show, DJ explains what the warrior spirit is and how important it is for everyone to cultivate, especially those who want to lead, serve and live with a purpose bigger than theirself. He takes principles of Native American tradition and philosophy, including living off the land, taking a vision quest, counting coup, being a fire keeper, developing toughness, and shows how they apply to anyone who’s looking to develop resilience, achieve their goals and make a positive impact on the world. After the show’s over, check out our show notes at aom.is/warriorspirit.
Alright, DJ Vanas, welcome to the show.
D.J. Vanas: Thank you so much for having me, Brett.
Brett McKay: You got a book out called The Warrior Within: Own Your Power to Serve, Fight, Protect and Heal. We’re gonna talk about this book today, I really enjoyed it, but let’s talk about your background first, you are a speaker and a leadership consultant. How did you get into this business?
D.J. Vanas: Oh my gosh, I kind of fell into it, to be honest with you, it opened a doorway I didn’t even know existed. I’m a graduate… Proud graduate of the US Airforce Academy. And when I graduated from there, I had a conversation with the recruiting office because I said, “Hey, there’s only a few of us who are Native, can we work on changing that?” Basically, I got hired to work for them for a year, and I went out and I spoke to tribal communities in particular all across the nation, and talked about the benefits of the Airforce Academy, being an officer in the military, and I found that I absolutely loved it, being out there and being able to share a message of higher education, of self-improvement, and it kinda grew from there into this… It became a life of its own and just kinda took off, so I had to make a choice at a certain point between being a full-time officer and starting my own speaking business. And it was a good problem to have. It was really stressful, but that’s how it came to be, it just kinda opened a pathway and took on a life of its own.
Brett McKay: So you mentioned you are a Native American, you’re a member of the Ottawa…
D.J. Vanas: Yes.
Brett McKay: Tribe of Michigan. I had to look that up, ’cause we have an Ottawa tribe of Oklahoma here in Oklahoma.
D.J. Vanas: That’s part of our tribe too, one of the bands who actually got moved down there during the Trail of Tears, and I believe they were in north east or north-west Ohio, is where their community was, but everybody else stayed back in Michigan.
Brett McKay: So you started off your… Your speaking career started off by you were a liaison for the Airforce to the Native American community, then you decided, “I’m gonna… I could do this on my own. I really enjoy it here.” So who are your main clients? Who hires you to come speak and teach?
D.J. Vanas: Yeah, great question. The majority of who I serve, and it’s my wheelhouse, is those who are in service to others, so people who are in healthcare, education, benevolent businesses, government and tribal employees, community builders at every level. I mean, that’s where my heart is, it’s who I so enjoy serving. I grew up in a very service-oriented family too, my dad was career military, my mom was a career nurse, so I grew up seeing that mentality and then seeing the cultural alignment with what our warriors were all about, which is to be in service to others, it just all kind of dovetailed together into what I share now, and that’s why those are the groups I serve most often, and like I said, I love being where the givers gather.
Brett McKay: And something that makes you unique from the other consultants and speakers out there is that you call upon, you look to your Native American heritage to show people that there are principles there that can apply to anyone. When did you make that connection, like, “Oh, this could serve a wider audience.”
D.J. Vanas: Yeah, I think that started early on, probably my teenage years, definitely in college, absolutely once I joined the military. I started to see this beautiful alignment between these ideas, these cultural principles, especially specifically what our warriors used and saw great alignment in the world that we live in today, how useful they can be, and they’ve been tested under the worst of times. They were tested… Our warriors fought against incredible odds, they were outmatched technologically, in numbers, and just having those principles at our disposal gives us resiliency, strength, focus and commitment in a very tough world. So, I thought that’s… That’s when I started making that connection, everything started to change.
Brett McKay: Okay, so let’s talk about some of these principles, and what you do in this book is you take ideas, practices from all sorts of tribes in the United States. I think a lot of the times when people think about Native Americans, I think sometimes it was this idea that they’re sort of a monolith, but they’re not. Every tribe is unique, they have their own unique culture and practices.
D.J. Vanas: Absolutely.
Brett McKay: But… Go ahead.
D.J. Vanas: I was gonna say we have diversity within diversity, we have over 570 federally recognized tribes that speak over 200 different languages, different belief systems, cultural concepts, a lot of commonalities, but yeah, there’s definitely a lot of diversity, that’s why I enjoy so much working in tribal communities.
Brett McKay: You found some principles from different tribes and showed people like what you can learn from this, whether you’re… As you said, you’re focused on leaders, people who serve, healthcare, doctors, first responders, etcetera. Let’s talk about this definition of a warrior, ’cause you think all these people could be considered warriors. What does it mean to be a warrior in Native American cultures? And how does that differ from our typical conception of a warrior in the West?
D.J. Vanas: Yeah, great question. My tribe, we call a warrior Ogichidaa, and that term has nothing to do with what we see in TV and movies, the stereotypical image, that Hollywood image that we all know, the sweaty chiseled-figure that steps down the street and knocks over buildings with bazookas and bad guys with 8 million bullets. It’s a different concept, and it goes back to the idea of a person who dedicates their life to developing their creator-given talents and abilities, so they can become an asset or a benefit to the tribe that they served. And today, whether that tribe is your own family, your community, your team, your agency, your organization, your nation, the planet, we all get to choose what tribe we serve, but we all have one, and that warrior role was all about service. It wasn’t about what we could get, it was about what we could do for someone else. It was somebody who led by example and somebody who did not quit, that was a really important part, is somebody who found a way forward because they knew it wasn’t about them, it was about the people that they were taking care of and contributing to.
Brett McKay: And so your book’s called The Warrior Spirit, so is the warrior spirit just that internal drive to develop your talents so that you can be of service to other people?
D.J. Vanas: Absolutely, yeah, The Warrior Within… In the book, I unpack the warrior spirit in particular, and it goes beyond motivation, it goes to a spiritual level, if you will, it’s that deep internal core of us that comes out when we’re challenged, when we go through hard times, when we go through loss or pain or fear. And it’s that reserve that we can pull from in those moments, and that warrior spirit is that no quit, bare knuckle, I-will-find-a-way-forward-even-if-I-have-to-crawl-across-the-finish-line type of attitude, it’s fiercely solution-oriented, and it suffers no fools. It is all in. And that’s what I try to unpack in the book, is that this is what sustained our warrior societies for our tribes, because like I said, they went through incredible odds, incredible setbacks, deprivation, organized genocide, and they still found a way to deliver and protect their people.
Brett McKay: And what does that warrior spirit look like in someone who they’re in a leadership position? As you said, the people you’re writing for or talking to, the first responders, the people who serve, etcetera.
D.J. Vanas: Yeah, that warrior spirit is… First of all, it has to be fostered. It’s who we surround ourselves with, what habits we practice for ourselves, but like I said, it’s that internal core of a spirit that is willing to face fear head-on, that’s willing to accept when things aren’t going well, being able to change and not let our pride and ego determine the fact that we’re just gonna keep banging our head on a brick wall. There’s a lot of things that go into it, but that warrior spirit is that un-quenchable fire. You can’t put it out. It’s always there. The only question is, is it burning down to an ember? Which sometimes happens when we’re not taking good care of ourselves and surround ourselves with the right people or have the right practices. Or is it burning like a bonfire? That’s the only question. We always have it, but what we do with it is up to us.
Brett McKay: Yeah, I think a lot of people, when you… As you’re describing this, I’ve experienced that, when there’s something that I’m doing that’s more… It’s beyond just money, it’s not just a job, it’s like a calling. But I think all…
D.J. Vanas: Yeah, it’s a deeper…
Brett McKay: Right, and you get excited and you’re willing to put in the long hours and the upsets and the frustrations, but as you said, sometimes that warrior spirit can sort of go down to an ember, that’s when people start feeling burnout and you’re just like, “I don’t wanna do this anymore.”
D.J. Vanas: And that’s why I wrote the book. I mean, to be honest with you, those people who I said I love being around most, those people who have a servant’s heart and are trying to make the world a better place, I have watched this dynamic for over two decades, of people who have the best intentions, noble intentions, and their execution is a hot mess. They’re trying to give everything they can on a daily basis, but they’re not taking care of themselves, they’re not doing what they need to stay strong, they’re not practicing resiliency on purpose, not having it as a good dot in your head, but actually practicing it, and what they end up doing is falling apart. And they stand back and they look at the debris field left and they go, “How the heck did this happen?” And what it comes down to is the reality, the truth, you can’t be a warrior when you’re falling apart. I wrote the book so that people can be resilient, not for this week or this month, but for a lifetime, for a career. There are people depending on us to deliver the goods, to be brave in a moment of fear. We can’t do that if we just go until we can’t anymore, and that’s… It leads us to burnout, it’s not a sustainable model. And we want it to be sustainable.
Brett McKay: Okay, so let’s dig into some of these principles that people can apply to foster that warrior spirit and keep it burning bright. And the first principle you look at from Native American culture is this idea of learning to live off the land. What does that look like?
D.J. Vanas: Yeah, that’s… Learning to live off the land, I’ve been inspired doing this work for 25 years now. I’ve worked with over 500 tribal communities, every single one of them used what was in their backyard to create success. The Pueblo people in New Mexico live in an area that’s very harsh, hot in the summer, cold in the winter. They literally use the mud in their backyard to create adobe and create these beautifully engineered multi-level apartment complexes built into the side of a cliff, by the way, that some of which are still standing today. My people used birchbark for everything, for shelters, for containers and the canoes that made us famous. We also tapped the trees in our backyard, specifically maple, and created a wonderful concoction called Maple syrup. You’re welcome. And that’s [chuckle] how we used those resources that are right in our own backyard. In a modern day context, we have a wealth of resources in us and around us on a daily basis, an embarrassment of resources that we sometimes don’t recognize and we don’t tap, we don’t leverage, and including simple things like our time, our energy, our talent. I mean, really basic stuff, let alone technology, other people. We should never feel stuck or that we can’t find the answer, and that’s what that learning to live off the land is all about, is be aware, situational awareness, look around, take a resource list.
When Europeans made it to the shores of North America, they thought Native people were magic. We were mystics because we were such good observers of what was going on and had such a great understanding of our resources that it bordered on magic in the eyes of the Europeans. So we can develop that in our daily lives as well, just by taking the autopilot off and really recognizing what we have to work with.
Brett McKay: Now I’ve seen this dynamic play out in my own life and also the lives of other people where they got this grand goal they wanna accomplish for the greater good, but then they think, “Before I can even get started, I need this and I need that thing, I need this.” And because they do that, they don’t ever… They never get started.
D.J. Vanas: That’s it, it’s that prepare to prepare to prepare to prepare, and then we never actually take action. When I started… Again, going back to that tribal-centric way of thinking, using our resources, our warriors could use a rock and a stick and shape the rock and shape the stick into something that could get dinner, defend the village, skin or scrape a skin, multi-purpose tool based off of a rock and a stick. I started my business… I was scared to death when I started, I was an officer full-time in the military, very stable lifestyle, good pay, great benefits and full of purpose. But when I left, I went into basically a blue sky type of project, and there was a lot of fear there, and I started my business with literally a Kinkos business card and a sky pager. Yeah. And so you just have to start where you are and grow from there.
Brett McKay: And I see, I think, a good practice that people can do in their own lives. Before they… Say you got this goal they wanna accomplish, before you get going, just make a list of the resources you have already at your disposal. And you have to be, like you said, situationally aware to… So you don’t overlook really obvious things in your life.
D.J. Vanas: Yeah, and that’s a great practice. I mean, it really is, is to be able to do that before you start taking action, is just get organized, list all the things that you got to work with, list all the people in your network that you could ask these questions. I am blown away by when I get stumped sometimes, that 99 and a half times out of 100, I have somebody in my immediate network that has an answer or could probably find an answer to what’s stumping me. So when we’re able to take an assessment like that, a few things happen that are great, number one, we’re much more likely to find a solution to our challenge, two, we’re a lot more confident in dealing with fear and setbacks, and number three, we’re rekindling, re-strengthening those bonds when we reach out to connect with other people that have resources we need, because down the road, we’re gonna have resources they need too.
Brett McKay: So one of the resources you talk about in this chapter is this idea of the medicine bag. What is the medicine bag in Native culture?
D.J. Vanas: Yeah, a lot of our tribes have a version of a medicine bag. And just being general with this, it’s a bag that held sacred items to the wearer, so that the items in there could be herbs or tobacco, sage, it could be animal teeth or claws, it could be a stone, something that has significance for the person wearing it. Because when they have that around them, again, we’re confident, we’re brave, we’re courageous, we have something we can lean on because we know we are literally carrying part of our own power around our necks. And the way that we do that today is kind of taking that assessment again, of all the stuff that’s in our own medicine bags, our skills, our talent, ability, education, the wisdom that we learn in life by taking it in the chin, those are sometimes the lessons that are, number one most valuable, and number two, the ones we never forget. And we tend to overlook those in times of struggle. And what I encourage people to do is instead of getting a freaked out deer-in-a-headlights type of look like we get, look down at your medicine bag, open that thing up and see what is in there. You have collected so much in there, you’ve got more in there than you need in a hundred lifetimes, but it doesn’t do us any good if we don’t know what it looks like and we don’t bring it out and use it.
Brett McKay: Alright, so principle number one, learn to live off the land, look at the resources you have, have an abundance mindset instead of this scarcity mindset. Another principle you talked about is this idea of vision quest, and this is a part of warrior cultures across tribes. This is something you’ve done. I’m wondering, could you share about your personal vision quests and what the process is like, and more importantly, how did it change you?
D.J. Vanas: Yeah, well, it was transformative, first and foremost. It’s a ceremony that we do to seek guidance in our own life journey, and so we do that by isolating ourselves in a small patch of wilderness for days and nights on end, no food, no water, no shelter. And I will tell you, you get more clarity in that exercise, in that ceremony, than I’ve ever been able to do in any other aspect or any other activity in my life. You literally let everything kind of fall away, you’re out in the wilderness, no media, no fighting your way to traffic on the way to work, no other people around. It’s just you, your prayer pipe, the outdoors, and your creator. And I tell you what, it is like the ultimate exercise in letting the dirt settle in your mud puddle. You get back to a place of clarity, you really re-prioritize what’s really important in this life. And when I was out there, I didn’t think about politics, I didn’t think about career moves, I didn’t think about arguments that I had or petty squabbles, or any of the other stuff, taxes, the stuff that kinda gets ways down our head.
I thought about water, I thought about shelter, food, the people I love, the kind of person I wanna be in this life. And so it was an ultimate exercise in clarity when you go through that. And I mentioned in the book, we can get that, we don’t have to go through that ceremony, to get clarity in our life and career, we can spend the first 10 minutes of every morning letting the dirt settle in our mud puddle and get a lot of benefit doing that.
Brett McKay: What would that look like?
D.J. Vanas: Just taking 10 minutes of solitude. Quiet time, no media, no phones, don’t check in your email, just having a bit of quiet space to kinda reflect on what you need to get done that day, what type of person you wanna be in that day, and have the grace and the strength to handle whatever may come your way. Pre-make that decision before the day starts. And the quality of our day shoots through the roof when we’re able to do that, because so often we just roll right out of bed and jump into our life and we’re kicking up dust and sometimes we don’t even know if we’re going the right direction, when we give ourselves a little bit of that solitude, we give ourselves a great gift in this crazy world, we give ourselves clarity in a world of chaos.
Brett McKay: And something that else people can do too. And you talk about this in the book, is they could even go deeper with this, that beyond that 10-minute daily thing and actually set aside time where they go off somewhere where they have time just to think about their mission in life, what are their motivating values and I think Steven Covey famously talked about this idea of having a personal mission statement. And he’d often encourage people to take a weekend where you’re just gonna think about what it is that you’re about, not only professionally, but as a member of a family, a community etcetera, and really hone in on that vision, ’cause that’s the thing, when things are going tough, you can always fall back to that and let that be your guiding star.
D.J. Vanas: Yeah. It’s an anchor point, and the thing is, we are the ones who define that, not our supervisor, not our organization, not our friends, now our family, we are the one who defines that this is our life, this is our gift, and if we don’t define that for ourselves and we allow other people to do it for us, and sometimes that can arrive very quickly. But yeah, that same idea of taking a weekend, taking a sabbatical, a vacation, 10 minutes of solitude in the morning. This is why so many of our ceremonies across Indian country had this element incorporated into it, because our elders and ancestors knew that the quieter we are in that moment, the louder that voice inside of us comes out and we can’t hear that and when we’re constantly immersed in chaos when we run around with our hair on fire and live in the lives we typically live and wonder why we’re not getting here, we wanna go.
Brett McKay: We’re gonna take quick break for words, more sponsors. And now back to the show. A concept you discuss in the book is this, it comes from the Plains tribes, they had this warrior practice of counting coup. What is counting coup? And then let’s talk about how can leaders count coup in their work?
D.J. Vanas: Yeah, counting coup is a great tradition that the Plains tribe Warriors practice and what it was, and the reason why it was such an honor is because of what are required. Counting coup is going up to your enemy during live combat and not striking your enemy down with a tomahawk or Elance, but simply touching them. Touching them with your hand or with what’s called acoustic, it looks like a riding crop, and that’s it. You just touch them… Because of what it required was the ultimate active courage to stand face-to-face with your fear, with your obstacle, with your enemy and say, I am not afraid of you. I’m so not afraid of you, I’m not even gonna destroy you or strike you down, I’m just gonna face you eye to eye, and we have to do that in our own lives, it’s a great tradition that has a beautiful alignment with what we deal with on a daily basis, which is fear, and we can run away from it.
We’d end up exhausted, it still shows up, or we can just face it, and once we face our fears were able to do some things in that moment that really help us out, we can start asking ourselves a question like, what story am I telling myself about what I’m going through right now? We can ask ourselves questions like, is that story real or is this just fear showing up in my life? We can ask ourselves questions like are these thoughts useful? Because sometimes we’re just ruminating and we’re building up an obstacle or a challenge into this giant mountain based on the things that we’re saying over and over again, this isn’t gonna work out, it can’t work out. Oh my gosh, who am I to do this? We’ve gotta be able to face our fears head-on so that we can go through them. If not, then we can’t move forward.
Brett McKay: Well, one tip you provide is for people to develop their own war cry. What can a war cry do to help develop that warrior spirit?
D.J. Vanas: Yeah, work was done traditionally by our warriors for two purposes, one was… Yeah. And first of all, just to clarify, war cry was a full-throated scream, wild gestures, and it was done for two reasons; One was to scare the hell out of the enemy, so you wanna win the battle before the fight even starts, that was the first reason. And the second reason was to boost our own adrenaline, to boost our courage when we needed the most. And a war cry now, if you bring it into modern day terms, it doesn’t have to be a full-throated yell; it can be a prayer, it could be a mantra, it could be a motivational quote that you go to as a touchstone, it could be something that you wear, it could be a song. Anything can qualify as that, but it’s something that you go back to in a moment of doubt, fear, hesitation, that when you go back to that touchstone and use that war cry, we have what we need in that moment, which is just a little boost of courage so we can take that next step.
Brett McKay: I know in the Lakota, Hoka Hey was the war cry.
D.J. Vanas: Yeah. It’s a good day to die. It’s a pretty good mantra for life, that means I’m all in. Leave it on the table, I’m not holding anything back, this is my life, I wanna live it fully, and I wanna live it fully right now. I don’t wanna wait for tomorrow or next week or when I get this done or when I retire, I wanna do it today, right now, in this moment.
Brett McKay: And I think sometimes people roll their eyes at the idea of having a mantra, but it can help when you’re in that stressful situation. I think sports psychologists talk about that a lot of these high former athletes, they have a word that’ll just tell themselves when they’re doing that part that’s worth a million dollars, they just repeat and over again, and it is to control the fear.
D.J. Vanas: That’s it. And the thing is, words do matter, the words that we share with other people matter, the words that we share with ourselves matter. They have real impact. They condition our brain, they give us direction and guidance. The way that we talk about something, a situation or even ourselves, is kind of that primer that kind of sets us up for a belief system towards that moment or towards ourselves, so our words absolutely matter. We’ve all experienced that words can cut, words can build. The thing is, we need to make those choices conscientiously so we can create that environment of strength around us. So I use these type of things all the time, it really work, because like I said, the question isn’t if fear shows up, the question is when it does, how are you gonna handle it?
Brett McKay: Lately, the past few years, one of the parts of American history that I’ve gotten really into is the Indian wars. I think it’s an overlooked part, but it’s just completely fascinating because you learn so much about Native American Warfare and their strategy. Especially after the Civil War, there’s stuff that happened that the Native Americans did that later on the US military incorporated into their strategy. And one of their tactics was this idea of just constant raiding warfare. And you use this idea to talk about the importance of taking action. So what can we learn about taking action from raiding warfare style of Native Americans’ Plains tribes?
D.J. Vanas: Yeah. Great question. And what it came down to was wearing the enemy down because our warriors were out matched technology-wise, number wise, so when it came to that warfare, that raiding type of warfare, it was attack and then melt away, attack and then melt away until you win and were until you defend your people and can get away. And when we talk about how important that is, that it really did have a real world impact, this is how the American colonies defeated the most mighty military in the world at the time the British Empire, to form the United States. They used those tactics precisely, and it made a huge difference. It changed history. How we use that in our own lives is we attack an object or we create momentum towards our goal a little bit at a time. And when we need a break, we take a break and we need another resource, we get that, but we keep moving forward incessantly towards our goal. And it’s not about doing everything in one day, that’s what leads to burn out, that’s what leads to frustration, it’s doing a little something every day. That’s what ultimately gets us to the goal, that’s what ultimately gets us to victory.
And so that’s why I use that analogy in there, because so often we start off strong, we’re like, “I’m gonna do it all today.” And we’re all gun home, and then when things get rough, we pull back and say things like, “Well, I guess it’s not meant to be, I guess it’s not gonna work out after all.” We have to have that relentless type of attack, regroup and attack again until we get to where we wanna be.
Brett McKay: No, I like that. I think I’ve done that before where I have this project I wanna take on, and then I decided I’m not gonna stop until I finish it, and then I just burn myself out and then I’m useless for the next couple of weeks.
And it would have been better if I just attack a little bit and as you said, go back, take a break and then just keep… ’cause you can do it for longer.
D.J. Vanas: Man, this is why boxers, I boxed in college, this is why boxers take breaks in between rounds, and the reason why is because you recharge your batteries spiritually, emotionally and physically, so you can get back into the fight and be effective. You can’t do that if you just go until you can’t go anymore. That’s burn out. And then we’re no good to anybody.
Brett McKay: And then you also talk in this chapter about action, the importance of developing momentum. How do you develop that momentum so that you can have that ceaseless, relentless attack and retreat, attack and retreat?
D.J. Vanas: Yeah, momentum is so critically important in achievement, because it’s doing those little steps that get the energy that we wanna create flowing in the right direction, it’s like pushing a stalled car. Those first couple of steps can be back breakers, and this is what makes most people walk away from their goals, or the things that they’re trying to achieve as a leader is those first couple of steps are back-breaking, but once you get the momentum going, it’s a lot easier to keep that car going down the road. And so it’s those little things that we do daily. That’s what I was saying. It’s the small stuff that we do each day that creates momentum and the goals that we’re trying to achieve.
Brett McKay: And there’s also something else from Native warriors that we could possibly learn from, they didn’t fight all year round, there was a season for fighting, and then there was a season for hunting. I think there’s something you can learn from that, and you’re gonna have periods where you have like a war season, I got this thing I need to do, but then you also need to have his periods where it’s rest and recuperation and recovery.
D.J. Vanas: That’s it. And when we do that, we’re sustainable in what we’re pursuing. If we don’t do that, we just quickly, very quickly sometimes get to burn out. We get frustrated, we have health issues, relationship issues, it just… We push ourselves in a way that it’s like our life and career start to feel like a treadmill with one button on it faster, so if we don’t take that recovery time that’s exactly what happens. I don’t care how strong you are physically, mentally, emotionally, you keep doing it that way, it’s only a matter of time before you fall off the treadmill. So taking those breaks and respecting the season and the flow, like you’re talking about, that’s one of the Native American philosophies that every tribe I’ve worked with has, which is the concept of balance. There’s a day for night, a joy for pain into every life and career, you’re gonna have your victories, and you’re gonna have your stumbles and your humility moments. That’s all part of the deal. And you can’t get away from it. When we violate that, like I said, we end up in bad places that we don’t wanna be.
Brett McKay: Yeah. And I think this idea of recovery, this is going to the idea of maintaining that warrior spirit, once you got it going, you have the whole chapter about the fire keeper. What’s the fire keeper in Native American culture? And let’s flesh out more this idea of keeping that fire going.
D.J. Vanas: Yeah, yeah, the fire keeper was a sacred role in our tribal communities, and it was all about keeping that fire, that beating heart of that community burning and under all conditions at any circumstance, and especially during ceremony, a fire keepers role is really, really important because if that fire goes out, the ceremony is often ruined. And fires provide a lot of things for villages that are critical, food for sustenance, light, heat, but also a gathering place for people to exchange ideas and rekindle bonds. In our own life we have that fire too, and it’s that internal drive it’s that you can call it motivation, inspiration, and we are responsible for keeping it burning bright, and when we don’t do that, it can burn down to an ember. Sometimes it even goes out.
And that’s because we falsely think that what we do is automatically gonna provide us motivation, and it doesn’t work that way. I don’t care if you’re an imagineer for Disney, astronaut, teacher trying to change the landscape of inner city education, we get into things because we know that they have value to us and we wanna make an impact, so we think that we’re always gonna be motivated, but that’s not the case. We have to create that in our lives on purpose, with purpose, that’s how we keep that fire burning bright.
Brett McKay: So what are some practical things that people can do to keep that fire burning? Are you seeing work in your life and your client’s lives?
D.J. Vanas: Yeah, go out of your way for it. Start the day with reading something inspirational or uplifting or educational, surround yourself with people that keep you thinking, keep you moving in the right direction. Consciously choose the things that are in your environment on a daily basis, your habits your practices, the growth elements, the things that we’re watching, that we’re listening to, our support structure, who we lean on in times of trouble, when we have a problem that we’re really stumped or we’re really feeling scared, where are you gonna go in those moments? These things all really matter, plus the thing that we’re talking about, all those things can help keep us at that level that we want to be as far as staying motivated. Motivation is not a magic bullet. I tell a story in some of my sessions about… And people who are scared to fly, and if they’re scared to fly, you wouldn’t run into a pilot you said they don’t know what they’re doing, but they’re awfully excited to take off, right?
That pilot may have great motivation, but still needs experience, skills, training. The reason why motivation is so important, it might not be everything, but it surely affects everything that we do, and it’s up to us to create it in maintain it.
Brett McKay: Yeah. I really like that idea of, you have this in that chapter, you talk about tribe being up, make sure you find, surround yourself with people who will support you and just, I don’t… Nurture you. I think a lot of people lack that today ’cause they just feel like they’re doing it on their own. And it’s amazing when you just have, you can sit around with people, maybe kvetch a little, but then just talk how much that can just buoy your spirits and so you can keep going.
D.J. Vanas:Absolutely, this is medicine for us, it really is. And it’s who we surround ourselves with. And being able to have those moments where we do lean on other people, let them lean on us. I have a principle in the book that I share and explain, and it’s that warriors never fought alone, fighting alone is dumb. You are not gonna get the results that you want to get when you’re just out there lone wolfing it. There’s moments in time where we’re doing things on our own, I get that, but overall, we need each other, we’re better when we’re with each other, or let me caveat that with the right people, and it’s up to us to make sure we’re surrounding ourselves that way. Quickest way I’ve ever seen to become a happy, healthy, human being surround yourself with a happy, healthy people. Quickest way to become negative, toxic a complainer, a gossiper, surround yourself, or allow those people to be in your environment. I had an elder years ago, tell me something that the older I get, the more I see it to be true. He said, “Our spirits are like sponges, they soak up whatever they’re around.”
Brett McKay: No, that’s true. And I think a lot of people will use this idea of the lone wolf, it’s appealing, but even in Native tribes, the lone wolf was often get kicked out, they were…
D.J. Vanas: That’s it. [chuckle]
Brett McKay: They were useless. It actually caused problems.
D.J. Vanas: That’s it. And the thing is that there’s an over romanticizing of that warrior role when we start labeling it as something that it never was. That warrior role, we put them on a pedestal on a mountain. And they are beyond pain, beyond fear, they need no one, only the next worthy challenge, which is a bunch of garbage. Our warriors fought in the company of other warriors, because if you wanna be brave, you surround yourself with bravery. They didn’t do it on their own, and the reason why is because we had to get our pride and ego out of the way and remember what the role of a warrior was to serve their people, not just to feed and protect their people, not to feed and protect their ego. So that lone wolf image is just… It’s fault, it gets us into trouble because we think if we’re really gonna channel that warrior spirit and be a warrior, we have to go it alone, I have to do this myself, which is absolutely positively not true, and it’s… And it’s not a good strategy either.
Brett McKay: Another principal you talked about that really hit home to me, in this keeping the fire burning is taking time to celebrate your wins, your past wins. Why do you think that’s important? Why do we tend to not do that?
D.J. Vanas: Yeah, because if we don’t do it, we condition ourselves not to care. Taking the time to celebrate the wins, the victories, and we do such a poor job of that because we’re so busy being busy. We can accomplish a great goal and instead of going, “Man, let me reflect on what this took, to take a few moments to really acknowledge what it took for me to get here, we don’t do that, we just blow right through and go on to the next thing, and then the next thing, and the next. And that’s what leads us to burn out. We’re really good at celebrating victories when we first start our careers, jobs, we first join a sports team, whatever it may be. At the beginning we’re good at it. We do one little thing, right? And we’re like, “Woo-hoo” celebrate high five. But we get really bad at it as we get busier and busier, and we need to go out of our way to do that, because what it does is it sweeten the flavor of success so that we crave another one. And we’re conditioning ourselves to want that next thing, when we actually reward ourselves for doing the last thing.
Brett McKay: Well, correct me if I’m wrong, but is there something like the war song, in tribal cultures, like a warrior would develop their own war song, it was basically then just talking about the great epic deeds they did.
D.J. Vanas: Yeah, that was part of post-battle. It was reflecting on who did what, why it mattered, the impact that it had for the people. This was part of it, it was the reflection time, and it was a celebration time, if there was a victory, and also memorializing the people who are lost if it didn’t go well. And that is an important part to think about as well is, when we do that, we’re able to gather wisdom and teachable points from what we just went through, we can’t do that, like I said, if we just blow past and go on to the next thing.
Brett McKay: So you have this chapter about how different tribes develop discipline and toughness in their warriors, what are some practices that you found in different tribes and what can we learn from that?
D.J. Vanas: Yeah, it was exposure to the elements, it was going without food, water at times, it was long runs, it was games, rough game. Stick ball…
Brett McKay: Stick ball. I’ve seen that. That’s rough.
D.J. Vanas: Brutal. And they called it the little brother of war for a reason. These were played on big fields they were hardly any rules. There was a clear goal, but how you got there was innovation, fierceness, toughness, it was kind of like a mix between football, basketball, soccer, and UFC, and these are the things that brought out tough times don’t necessarily develop character, but they sure reveal it. And these were opportunities that warriors in training had to develop their own. But when you do that, you develop that toughness, that ability to flex under strain, that ability to bounce back when you fall, those are the opportunities that we created on purpose to develop strength in our warrior societies.
Brett McKay: So what can it look like for just someone who’s not Native American?
D.J. Vanas: It could be that next hard work out, it could be disciplining yourself to change habits that aren’t serving you anymore, it could be doing tough things on a normal daily basis, and you know that they’re tough an exercise of courage to face that next thing, like we were talking about, facing our fears head on. It’s not the stuff that we typically think, swimming with sharks or wrestling alligators. It’s starting that project. It’s asking for help, it’s apologizing, it’s realizing that what you’re doing over and over again isn’t working. These things are also require courage, so we get to practice that on a daily basis. But it’s basically putting ourselves in a position to toughen ourselves up, so when times really do get hard. We’re able to weather that.
Brett McKay: So for a warrior, they gotta be vigorous, they gotta be disciplined, tough, physically active, there’s a certain point where a warrior ages out. When you’re 60, you probably can’t be a warrior as well as you were when you were 22, but that doesn’t mean that they stopped warriors. What happens to warriors when they age out and they’re not actually able to physically fight and take part in raids?
D.J. Vanas: We get to a certain point, even in our own lives and careers, just like those warriors who got older, where we start getting into more of a transition phase or we’re not… We don’t have as much responsibility. Maybe we’re getting close to retirement, and at that point, the transition happens where we start benefiting our people by sharing our knowledge and wisdom, that’s where we become an elder in our tribe. And we’re able to pass down all the things that we’ve learned, especially the stuff we would learn the hard way, and try to be able to make somebody else’s journey a little bit easier, a little bit more effective. And so the contribution doesn’t stop, it just changes.
And the elders in our tribal communities are the backbone of our culture. They hand down the values and the virtues and the wisdom and songs and ceremony, and all the things that make us who we are as Native people. And we can do that in our own communities, in our own groups that we serve, when we’re handing down the things, like I said, that we’ve learned that we know are important, that can benefit our people. No matter what we do for a living, and how long the weeks get or how tough it might be, I can make you one promise, you won’t be doing it forever. At some point you’re gonna transition and hand the baton to somebody else, and I think the highest hope we can hope for, if we care about who we work with and who we serve, is that we’re putting that baton into better hands than our own. And that only happens by design.
Brett McKay: Well have a question, how do you know when you’re in that transition period? When you’re moving from active warrior to elder warrior.
D.J. Vanas: Yeah, don’t think there’s a hard fast lining. It is a transition, and it’s pure sense, it kinda happens over time, but I think we start to know more and more when it’s time for us not to be at the forefront of doing the work, but to more reach back and offer our hand to the people that are coming up behind us. And even in our tribal communities, there was no magical age that you just become an elder, and when we try to do that we’re putting a square peg in a round hole. It’s a transition period, you get to a place that where you start turning around, I guess, looking over your shoulder and thinking about all the people that you can help with, all the stuff that you’ve learned on your journey. So it’s something that’s individual. It’s a personal decision, but it’s something to be aware of.
Brett McKay: So once you are making that transition, what are some things that people can do so they can really step into that role? Because I think it’s interesting, I’m approaching middle age. I think there’s a lot of information out there for young men who are starting out, here’s the things you need to know, do, here’s a right of passage for you, etcetera. But then once you get to middle age and then into elder… There’s nothing like that, there’s no like, here are the things you had to do to be an elder, but I think it would be useful, do you have anything in your experience where, here’s some things you can start doing once you recognize you’re entering that transition and to becoming ‘elder’?
D.J. Vanas: Yeah. And that’s a great… [chuckle] It’s a really great perspective. The first thing I would say is start collecting your stories, start gathering your stories and find opportunities to share. And when we share those stories with other people, it’s not in a way that, “Hey, I’ve done all this and you need to sit down and listen to all the wisdom, I’m gonna jam down your throat.” It’s being able to share a story where we’re in a position… Especially when we’re vulnerable and share how things didn’t go well, that’s sometimes the best stories we can share with other people as the things that we learn when things went sideways or got pear-shaped, and how we came back and bounced and how they can too. When we share those ideas, it’s always in the spirit of how is it gonna benefit the person I’m sharing the story with? So that would be the first thing I would say is start collecting your stories, we’ve got a treasure trove of that stuff to draw from, and then find opportunities to share it either in person online, at team meetings. There’re sometimes… It doesn’t take long, but they can be really impactful moments, and some of the best ones we can share with other people.
Brett McKay: I love that. Well, DJ, this has been a great conversation, where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?
D.J. Vanas: The best place to find me is on our website, which is Nativediscovery.com. My newest book, The Warrior Within, comes out very soon on August 2nd. And is available everywhere, books are sold. But Nativediscovery.com is the best place to get a hold me.
Brett McKay: Fantastic DJ Vanas, thanks for your time. It’s been a pleasure.
D.J. Vanas: Thank you so much for having me. This has been an honor.
Brett McKay:: My guest here was DJ Vanas. He’s the author of the book The Warrior Within. It’s available on Amazon.com and bookstores everywhere. You can find more information about his work at his website, Nativediscovery.com. Also check at our show notes at AOM.is/warrior spirit, where you can find links to resources. We can delve deeper into this topic.
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