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In 1980, while on sabbatical in the mountains of Northern California, New York photographer-filmmaker John Veltri met Karuk elder Charlie Thom at an old healing resort, Stewart Mineral Springs, near Mount Shasta.

Charlie invited John to participate in his purification ceremony, an event that would forever change the course of both of their lives.

John’s experience in the ceremony brought him a profound healing from the stressful life he had been living in Manhattan. He delayed his return to New York and stayed at Stewart Mineral Springs for nine months, participating in the ceremonies, preparing and taking care of the ceremonial fire, assisting Charlie in different ways.

After they had worked together a while, Charlie told John about an ancient prophecy that his uncle spoke of when he was a young man. The prophecy described a time of tremendous environmental and human crises - widespread devastation of the sacred mountains, the wildlife, the waters and the people.

The main indicator of the start of these problems would be a rumbling and venting of steam on Mount Shasta. If this happened, Charlie’s uncle said, Charlie would need to  go to Mount Shasta, pray and sing his songs on the mountain to quiet it down, then build a purification sweat lodge near the mountain and open its door to all people.


If he did that, people from many different cultures and walks of life would come to the ceremonies. It would be the beginning of  “a great healing of the people and the land... a healing that would go worlds wide”.

In the late 1970s, Mount Shasta did indeed begin to rumble and vent steam. Charlie left his home and job at Humboldt State University in Eureka, California, traveled to Mount Shasta, and began a series of prayers and sacred songs.

As predicted, within a few days, the mountain quieted down. Soon after, Charlie found himself on a road that led to Stewart Mineral Springs, an old healing resort that had been built on ancient Native ceremonial grounds.

What happened next - through Charlie’s determination to revive his dying culture and alleviate an impending human and environmental crisis - has brought over 30 years of environmental protection, healing and cross-cultural understanding to people from a diversity of backgrounds, religions, and cultures. 


Believed to be the oldest tribe in California, the Karuk Arara (Up River People) have been in Northern California’s upper Klamath River region for thousands of years; obsidian arrowheads and flint tools found near present-day Happy Camp date back 8000 years. Early observers described the Karuk as a peaceful people, blessed with an abundance of fish, wildlife and edible plants. In the 1800’s they occupied over 100 villages along the upper Klamath.

In 1850 miners ventured up the Klamath River in search of gold. During the next ten years, a frenzied lust for gold - and then land - drove European Americans into Karuk territories. Villages were burned and sacred ceremonial sites desecrated. Many Karuk were murdered, raped or enslaved. Some of the men were driven into the surrounding mountain wilderness, as was Charlie’s great-grandfather, who lived in the Marble Mountains for 40 years.

By 1900 only a few hundred Karuk remained in Northern California. The destruction suffered by the Karuk, the Yurok, and all the other Northern California Native tribes during the Gold Rush continues to be felt by the people, in the land, in the waterways, and in the traditions, ceremonies and lifeways that were disrupted.


Once considered to be among the wealthiest of all North American Natives, the Karuk people are slowly regaining their power and strength, and making strides to revive their culture by teaching the children the ancient language, songs, dances, traditions, and ceremonies.


Orphaned at age three, Charlie Thom was cared for and trained in the old ways by elder members of his tribe. When authorities arrived and took all the children away to boarding schools so they could be assimilated, Charlie was hidden and raised to be a medicine man.

Today he is one of a handful of people in the world who can fluently speak the Karuk language. Considered by many to be a “Living National Treasure”, Charlie has a vast knowledge about his people’s history, traditions, ceremonies, stories, sacred songs and ceremonial dances. His understanding of his ancestral land, the animals indigenous to that land and the many different medicinal plants that grow there, is rare in any culture.


Media for this project created by John Veltri, and more recently Marguerite Lorimer, spans 30+ years and includes culturally-sensitive filmings on BetaCam, antique footage, archival and digital photography, audio recordings, music CDs, written materials, research, and HDV Pro video recordings - approximately 200 hours of stories, songs, interviews, teachings, nature footage, dance, drumming, and other scenes.

Charlie Thom after leading a purification ceremonyat Samuel P Taylor Park

in Marin County, California

Charles Thom Sr:  Walking Backwards means “justice”

An EarthAlive  -  John Veltri Documentary Film-in-Production

Walking Backwards is a John Veltri Feature Documentary Film In-Production
Produced by EARTHALIVE Communications
Sponsored by Siskiyou Arts Council, Angeles Arrien’s Foundation for Cross-Cultural Education, and the Nathan Cummings Foundation
All materials on this website are protected by US Copyright and may not be reproduced or copied in any way or form

Charlie carries several names. When he was a baby, he was given his first name “Charlie” from the Charley family (his mother’s family) and “Thom” from the Thom family (his father’s family). He also is known as Charles Sr, Red Hawk, and Grandpa Charlie.

Charlie says that his ceremonial name, Walking Backwards, means “justice.”  A skilled ceremonial leader as well as environmental-social activist and teacher, Charlie has helped thousands of people “walk back” into their own ancestral heritage, to discover age-old truths and learn to live in peace with themselves, with others, and with the earth.

A long-term goal has been to teach Native young people how to digitize, organize, edit and properly archive digital media by working with us as we prepare, edit and then archive all our Walking Backwards materials.  We are seeking funding to make that a reality.

We are organizing our materials to create an Indigenous Wisdom Library - produced from our Walking Backwards media archives, as well as from other culturally-sensitive filmings we have done - of teachings, stories, ceremonial songs, and messages of Native American and other traditional cultural elders.  Many of these elders have passed on, and their messages need to be preserved. A teacher’s manuel will be created to help guide students in exploring the short educational films we are making for the Indigenous Wisdom Library. 





Foundation grants and donations from individuals are helping to produce this extraordinary documentary film.

Tax-deductible donations in any amount are gratefully accepted through our official non-profit sponsor:

Siskiyou Arts Council

418 A North Mount Shasta Blvd  Mount Shasta, California 96067  530-926-1294

Please write on your check:  “for Walking Backwards film”

Click on logo to email the Siskiyou Arts Council 

Early purification lodge at Stewart Mineral Springs 1980  © John Veltri


When Producer-Director John Veltri entered Charlie Thom’s ceremony in 1980, he began a journey that has taken him deep into the consciousness of indigenous peoples from around the world. During the years that John worked and traveled with Charlie, he participated in the ceremonies and documented events and travels that led them to many places and adventures in California and on the East Coast, including the Museum of Natural History in New York. Inside the Museum, they located ancient sacred Karuk ceremonial regalia that had been “missing” for many years.

In 1983, after many attempts, John arranged for Charlie speak to UN Delegates in the United Nations Dag Hammarskjöld Auditorium. As one of the UN’s first Native American speakers in the Auditorium, Charlie made a powerful plea to help his people and protect their sacred ceremonial sites. His efforts eventually led to successes on many fronts.

In 1989 John began filming Charlie. Traveling into Northern California’s Marble Mountain wilderness region by horseback, John packed in his Betacam camera, tripod, heavy batteries and other supplies and filmed Charlie at some of the most important Karuk sacred sites. They also traveled to the ancient ceremonial areas along the Klamath River, where John interviewed some of the elders.

For over thirty years, John has filmed and recorded many of Charlie’s ceremonial songs, stories, his environmental efforts, different spiritual teachings, and many of the special events he participated in, led by Charlie.

Mount Shasta:  Úytaahkoo (Karuk) or "White Mountain"

We are also seeking a publisher for the book, “White Man’s Raven”, a reflective, visionary story written and illustrated by John Veltri about his early experiences with Charlie Thom and other Native culture bearers.  Additionally, we plan to produce a photographic exhibition of Northern California Natives and nature, with accompanying book of photos and quotes in English and Karuk by Charlie Thom and others.

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Home            About           Contact           Charlie’s Birthday!