What I’ve Always Known

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

As What I’ve Always Known: Living in Full Awareness of the Earth opens, Tom Harmer, whose earlier experiences living among the Okanogan people of the Pacific Northwest were described in Going Native (2001), has grown apart from his Indian friends and from the natural world. He works nine-to-five for a social services agency in town, and feels vaguely dissatisfied with his life. Walking home from visiting friends one Sunday, he becomes lost in driving snow and nearly freezes to death. About to lose consciousness, he hears a voice that reminds him of forgotten survival skills. He decides to leave his job and his house in town, reconnect with the Okanogan elder Clayton Tommy, Jr., and continue his spiritual education.

Clayton teaches Harmer, a white man with an apparent gift for attentiveness, to read the dreams that are given to him, to interpret the messages that are given to him by his “spirit partner.” Many of these dreams foretell future events, and as Harmer explores his “power” he is able to find things: a deer to help feed a struggling family, a missing tool, a long- lost friend. Through detailed descriptions of rituals involving hunting, healing, dying, and the sweat lodge, the author shows how Okanogan people in the 1980’s melded traditional practice and modern life. Ultimately, Harmer comes into his greatest power by relinquishing control over his life.

What I’ve Always Known is in some ways reminiscent of other stories of white men who learn native ways. But Harmer respects his Okanogan friends well enough not to romanticize them, or to see them monolithically, as some of these works have done. And his prose, especially luminous when he describes animal behavior or dramatic weather, places this book upon the finest examples of nature writing.