What is the “Secret Ingredient”

By D.J. Vanas © 2008
News From Indian Country 9-08

You know the feeling of making paper mache with your kids and the sloppy strips of wet paper aren’t sticking to the balloon and you realize you forgot to add flour?

Or when you’re eating at your favorite restaurant, ordered your favorite dish and it’s good, but something seems off and then you hear the new cook forgot to add basil.

When that “secret ingredient” is missing, it can unbalance the whole experience. Life is much like this in that we can be happy with our families and careers but allow ourselves to get too busy to incorporate the secret ingredient that makes life even sweeter – our friends.

My friend Dave got married recently and it felt like a homecoming that I truly needed. Dave, Bobby, Syuk, Mike, Andy and me reminisced about attending the Air Force Academy and the years spent at Los Angeles Air Force Base, living in Hermosa Beach – on the beach. We savored the memories of the sand, the sun and those significant moments in our early lives and careers. We also talked about our current and future goals and dreams.

The irony wasn’t lost on me either when I remembered how we all used to worship the sun, had more hair, could play all day, dance all night and would discuss the challenges of dating or living with roommates until the wee hours. After 18 holes of golf, we were all sunburned, one had a hurt arm, another, a sore back. We spent the day discussing the challenges of marriage and living with kids. On the dance floor at the reception, instead of tearing up the rug, I almost tore a ligament in my knee.

My, how times have changed… but our friendships have not. They still run deep and are a source great happiness for me. Sharing time with these people who continue to mean so much was like adding an ingredient to my life I didn’t know I was missing.

A similar experience happened at the UNITY Conference a couple weeks ago where 1,000 Native youth gathered from across the country. I saw special people that have inspired, supported and encouraged me for many years now. Dawn Chase was one of the very first clients to hire me so many years ago. We’ve remained close friends since and she calls me “soonka” or little brother. Russ Coker, an inspiration to me, who first beat cancer and then went on to win a Tough Man contest! And I’ve known Chance Rush, Pearl Yellowman and Jeri Brunoe since we were all starting off as speakers.

Over the years we’ve had deep, powerful conversations about personal challenges and those confronting our Native communities, we’ve shared times with our families and continue to cross paths as we serve Indian Country. And a hug and words of encouragement from the Odawa firecracker, my auntie Bea Shawanda, is always like medicine to my spirit!  


I’ve been with the friends above through the ups and downs of life – through promotions, great achievements, getting our education, new careers, marriages, celebrations, the birth of our children and successes. We’ve also been together through deployments, layoffs, divorces, health problems and losing those we love. They’re the kind of friends that keep you laughing until it hurts and cry with you when that time comes. They have made my life richer and my highest hope is that I’ve served them in the same way.

In our Native cultures, we revere the great circle of life – birth, growth, gaining wisdom, passing it on to others and then passing into the next world. But in that great circle, I believe there are many smaller circles. Some of these we complete – starting and ending a relationship or a job. But some of these smaller circles continue to turn when it comes to lifetime friends and relationships.

Sure, some friends come and go through the years, but the great ones are worthy of treasuring and preserving.

Find friends that inspire your dreams, not expire them for you. I remember critical moments in pursuit of my dreams where my friends would encourage me through fear and get me back on track. I remember talking to my friend Bobby when I was doubtful and reconsidering my decision about leaving the military to pursue the dream I’m living today. He said, “You only live once – better make it count. Go for it.” I wonder where I’d be today if instead of inspiring my dream, he helped me to expire it, saying something like “yeah, that’ll be pretty tough if not impossible. Better to play it safe.”    

Make opportunities to reconnect. Accept that wedding invitation, attend that conference or go on that group vacation you got a call about. And if there aren’t any opportunities to reconnect, then create them! It can be as simple as a call or e-mail to reconnect or planning a retreat. It’s too easy to get too busy and then we start to neglect those “secret ingredients” that make this journey so fulfilling and fun. In fact, I hope you make a commitment that when you’re done reading this article (and you’re nearly there) you will reach out to those great friends you’ve lost touch with or simply have allowed yourself to become too busy to be in touch.

Make a call, shoot an e-mail, set up a lunch or a visit. Don’t let your treasured friends drift away. Our lives are less without them. 

D.J.’s upcoming schedule:


18th U.S. Office of Personnel Management (Denver, CO)

28-29th Northern Michigan University (Marquette, MI)


3-5th San Diego, CA

12-13th Indigenous Brain Injury Association (HOLD)

15-16th Siletz Self-Sufficiency Program (Lincoln City, OR)

17-21st DCI Tribal LeadershiConference (Honolulu, HI)

22-23rd Native Caring Conference (Coos Bay, OR)

D.J. Eagle Bear Vanas (Odawa) is a nationally acclaimed motivational storyteller, success coach and the author of the celebrated book, The Tiny Warrior: A Path to Personal Discovery & Achievement and audio CD series The Warrior Within. D.J. uses traditional warrior concepts and wisdom to inspire people to achieve their best in life, school and career and owns Native Discovery Inc., a company dedicated to “building the warriors of tomorrow… today.” He can be reached at (719) 282-7747 or at www.nativediscovery.com