Today I am beginning a unique and exciting project, in collaboration with Paul Asbury Seaman. Paul attended Murree Christian School in Pakistan. He currently lives in the Bay Area, California with his wife Catherine. He has published several articles about the impact of growing up overseas as well as a memoir, Paper Airplanes in the Himalayas: The Unfinished Path Home (West and the Wider World)

Website: Paul Asbury Seaman and you can contact him at


Paul wrote a paper looking at the impact of four leaders in the thinking and research of Third Culture Kids: Ruth Van Reken, Ruth Hill Useem, David Pollock, and Norma McCaig. He has graciously given permission for the paper to be posted here in its entirety, divided into six separate sections beginning today with the Introduction (I have highlighted some parts in bold). Please be sure to come back on future Tuesdays to read the remaining pieces. And head on over to Paul’s website, check out his book, leave a comment…he would love to hear from you. Thank you Paul, for sharing this with Djibouti Jones readers.

tree of life

Our Tribal Elders and the Global Nomad Medicine Wheel

© 2014 Paul Asbury Seaman (orig. ms. 2011, unpublished)


A culture doesn’t happen by accident. Neither does it simply evolve through inevitable phases and developments. The beliefs and emotional tone of a culture are based on countless discoveries and the meanings assigned to the structures created. As global nomads, our culture is largely invisible. It has no geographic boundaries and no designated symbols. We resort to surveys and anecdotes, cautiously giving labels to the patterns we see. What we name becomes an identity, but one that is never quite complete because the labels are porous and the patterns keep shifting. A roving heart and ambiguity are commonly part of the global nomad legacy; but they are also aspects of a way of life many of us have chosen—with all its costs and merits. Living in limbo means we might often feel anchorless, but it also suggests that we are good sailors and bridge builders.

Instead of pushing boundaries, we pull on them—curious about what they are made of, what function they are supposed to serve.

We find commonalities where others may see none. We ourselves can be bridges across the limbo, not to explain it away, but to provide someplace solid from which to explore it.

It has taken less than two generations for the TCK phenomenon to be documented, deconstructed, and recognized around the world.[i] Isaac Newton once wrote, “If I have seen a little further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.”[ii] American Indians would call this honoring the Grandmothers and Grandfathers. Four people who have had the most impact on identifying the TCK subculture, and who dedicated their lives to developing a global nomad community, are Ruth Van Reken, Ruth Hill Useem, David Pollock, and Norma McCaig. Although widely traveled and employed internationally, they all made their home in the United States, the country of their citizenship.

Many ancient cultures have used the concept of the Four Directions. The principles of the Sacred Circle and the Tree of Life are universal, as are the themes of interdependence and duality expressed in the yin yang or taiji symbol. For American Indians, the medicine wheel is a spiritual map that echoes the meaning of all these symbols. The Medicine Wheel
is a kind of mandala, a meditation device similar to “walking the labyrinth” in some Christian traditions. Its most basic form is simply a cross inside a circle. It is a common motif in Native American jewelry and the central meaning of the sundance ceremony still widely practiced today; the image appears on sacred shields and in ancient stone circles.[iii](Variations of the medicine wheel are also found in some pre-Columbian cultures of South America, but its use can be seen most prominently by the Plains Indians of North America, including the Arapaho, Ojibwa, Cheyenne, Cree, Dakota, and Lakota Sioux.)

The word “medicine” is a somewhat misleading translation. Medicine men and women were the spiritual leaders of the tribe as much as they were healers. For Native Americans, “medicine” is closely associated with balance, cosmic unity, and finding one’s individual gifts—or calling, as Christians might say—and thus, is akin to the Eastern concept of karma. To say, “That’s good medicine!” can mean “That’s a powerful truth.”

The term “third culture kids” implies the merging of different influences and ways of seeing the world; “global nomads” emphasizes something both universal and continually changing as we move through different stages of life. The medicine wheel is about seeing patterns in what we often experience as chaos, finding the reassuring constants within the cycles of change.

In a very primal sense we are formed by the landscape of our upbringing—by specific events and social factors as well as the physical place. But our identity is equally influenced by how we interpret this heritage. The basic human question Who am I? is not just about self-discovery but finding our place in the world.

No wonder so many people write memoirs! Underneath all the angst and adventure is a search for truth. Any journey of discovery conducted with integrity­—whether scientific, religious, or personal—requires being aware of our own subjectivity, even in what seems self-evident. By definition, every adventure involves confronting uncertainty. Those who don’t have the courage to walk into the limbo—and risk getting lost in there for a time—will miss out on the gifts waiting in the unknown. One thing that distinguishes global nomads from many people with a more home-grown childhood is not just a difference in perspective, but the very concept that there are different valid ways of perceiving things. This principle also can be valuable for understanding our cross-cultural heritage.[iv]

The four quarters of the medicine wheel have multiple layers of meaning, from the seasons of nature to the major characteristics of a mature, well-rounded life. We can use this template to help us become more aware of the various internal resources available to us, to bring different perspectives on how we see and respond to the world—or to our emotional legacy as global nomads.[v] Placing each of our tribal elders—Van Reken, Useem, Pollock, and McCaig—in one of the Four Directions of the medicine wheel will highlight their distinct contribution and also illustrate four different “windows through which to view the global nomad enigma.

These are heart, identity, wisdom, and integration.

Part 2: The Heart of Ruth Van Reken

Part 3: Identity With Ruth Useem

Part 4: The Wisdom of David Pollock

Part 5: The Integration of Norma McCaig

Part 6: The Circle of Life


[i] I use the terms third culture kids (TCKs) and global nomads interchangeably, and generally have in mind adult TCKs. Early publications of Global Nomads International succinctly defined global nomads as “those who have lived outside their passport country before adulthood due to a parent’s career.” (Cf. The Global Nomad Quarterly 2:2 Summer 1993).

[ii] The phrase originated, however, with the philosopher Bernard of Chartres in the 12th century, more than five hundred years before Newton used it (in any case, a remarkable statement from one of the greatest scientific thinkers of all time). The ritual practice of honoring those who have gone before us has always been part of indigenous cultures. What Europeans often viewed as “ancestor worship” might better be understood as acknowledging our debt to history, our place on a continuum of time. This requires a humility rarely seen in modern society—to our detriment.

[iii] More than sixty of these “architectural hoops” have been found in the north-central plains of the United States and southern Canada. The largest archeological medicine wheel is twenty-three meters across, about two-thirds the diameter of Stonehenge. It is located in Big Horn County, Wyoming—less than sixty miles from a better known historical site: the Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876. Sometimes known as “Custer’s Last Stand,” this is where the pompous American general was defeated by a combined force of Indian warriors under the leadership of Chief Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse. I mention this because of the ironic symmetry between these two locations: the presumptions of Manifest Destiny that brought George Armstrong Custer to Little Bighorn and the 10,000-year-old culture represented by the medicine wheel.

[iv] One of the challenges for researchers today is that the terms “third culture kids” and “global nomads” were defined by the experience of people who grew up in the 1950s and 1960s—a very different world. How has the Internet and micro communications devices affected issues of identity, loss, and cultural transitions for those coming of age now?

[v] In the past few decades some segments of the personal growth movement have developed a “Four Quarters” model that overlays Jungian archetypes with the principles of the medicine wheel. One set that I am most familiar with (starting in the East and going clockwise around the wheel) is Lover, Warrior, Magician, Sovereign. Or in more general terms: heart, purpose, wisdom, and leadership. See Robert Moore and Douglas Gillette, King, Warrior, Magician, Lover: Rediscovering the Archetypes of the Mature Masculine
(HarperSanFrancisco, 1990) and Carol S. Pearson, Awakening the Heroes Within: Twelve Archetypes to Help Us Find Ourselves and Transform Our World
(HarperSanFrancisco, 1991). For a good ecumenical introduction to the medicine wheel see Philip Lane, Jr. et al., Sacred Tree: Reflections on Native American Spirituality
(Twin Lakes, WI: Lotus Press, 2004; first published by Four Winds International Institute, Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada, 1984) and Roy Wilson, Medicine Wheels: Ancient Teachings for Modern Times(New York: Crossroad, 2000).

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