Sacred Medicine: Mariee Sioux on Peyote, Music, and Confronting Grief
Photo by Aubrey Trinnaman
Ever since Mariee Sioux released her 2007 debut album, Faces in the Rocks, people have been telling the 34-year-old singer-songwriter how much her music has helped them reconnect with lost parts of themselves. Sioux inherited the musicianship of her Polish-Hungarian father and the animism of her Indigenous mother. With a soulful haunt of a voice and her reverberated acoustic fingerpicking, Sioux’s songs frequently merge timeless imagery with vignettes of struggle. It’s no wonder that so many fans praise the palliative benefits of her songs. But Sioux has long struggled to find that acceptance within herself, and she became suicidal, binge-drinking to cope with a toxic relationship and losses, including the suicide of a friend who inspired “Baby Wave,” the album opener on Sioux’s new Grief in Exile, out June 7 on Night Bloom Records.
Sioux’s depression was all-consuming, stifling the music that had previously given her so much purpose. “I wasn’t being very creative. I wasn’t feeling attached to music or magic or the things I cherish in life. It deeply impacted my ability to even make space to finish a lot of the songs I was writing,” she remembers. Hoping for a remedy, she longed to try a peyote ceremony. Though Sioux has native ancestry on her mother’s side, her lack of tribal affiliation made her hesitant to seek out such rituals, lest she be appropriating their culture.
So she prayed, and after an album release party for 2012’s Gift For the End, a fan invited her to a peyote ritual. “I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be alive and it came to me. After I started praying about it, I was invited to sit in one of the ceremonies that was held church-style,” Sioux remembers. That ceremony led to many more, and also to Sioux’s own healing. “The ceremonies put me completely in touch with myself in a way I had never felt in my adult life,” she adds.
In addition to offering spiritual healing, the peyote rituals brought opportunities to engage in a different kind of music — the healing peyote chants sung during a ceremony. The chants have helped Sioux to abandon self-consciousness and focus in a way she’s only fleetingly found in her own music. “It is different to have to remember how to play your own song. This is such a trance experience that I’m able to be in my body and with the vibration that brings out something totally different,” she says.
As Sioux became more comfortable with her emotions, she sought out grief seminars in the Bay Area, near where she lived at the time. Sioux’s aunt, the grief counselor and documentary filmmaker Nancee Sobonya, worked closely with the late Sobonfu Somé, a Burkinabe teacher of spirituality, and Francis Weller, a psychotherapist and author.
Through grief rituals and studies with the three guides, Sioux reconsidered her ideas about grief. “Grief is this sacred medicine that we push aside. We need it in our lives because we’ll all be faced with different losses that don’t have to end in death. A song came to me that I called ‘Grief in Exile.’ In naming it, being exiled, it brought it back from exile,” Sioux recalls. Bolstered by layered, lilting vocals, the title track manages to be profoundly soothing even as it meditates on impermanence and loss.
Sioux also began to see grief as a collective experience, and that helped her feel less alone with her loss. “Francis Weller writes about how grief is an expression of love, grief is an expression of that which you have loved and lost. We can love so many things in this life. We lose so many things,” she says, adding that sorrow over environmental degradation is one form of shared grief. “Right now, particularly in the current state of the world and climate and nature. We’re losing so many things in the collective natural world.”
Sioux has witnessed the collective grief firsthand as indigenous people in her own community fight to reclaim land, regain recognized tribal status, and preserve their language as elders die out. While Sioux grew up in Nevada City, California, around members of the Nisenan tribe, she’s only recently become involved in helping them regain visibility after they were denied restoration in 2015.
Participating in Occupy Oakland, Sioux spoke with a number of indigenous rights activists, following their work to a number of campaigns, including the Dakota Access Pipeline protests at Standing Rock. Sioux found herself amazed at how many indigenous people had been around her and how much they’d had to fight to preserve their culture. “You live in a city and never know the indigenous people are still there. That’s all I think about now when I go places,” she says, illustrating how transformative her journey has been.
It’s been eye-opening for Sioux to consider the Nisenan history that ran parallel to her own upbringing in Nevada City, a town whose story is dominated by its place in the Gold Rush. For the singer-songwriter, the history of Nevada City now includes the illegal revocation of the Nisenan tribal status in 1958 and the tribe’s efforts to persevere despite a lack of land and a language that has no elder speakers left. Sioux is active in a nonprofit working toward tribal restoration for the Nisenan, and she also solicits contributions from business owners and private land owners on what had been Nisenan land.
The loss of the Nisenan tribal status and all it brings — the loss of land, language, funds for education and health care — is part of the living, communal grief Sioux has been exploring in her own healing and in her music. Whereas grief once stifled Sioux’s songs and took her will to live, Grief in Exile testifies that grief is also a place to begin.
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