For PapaJoe Hartz, everything we do comes back to us: Either good or bad. It is not the color of our skin or our politics or religion that make us different. It’s the size of our hearts. This belief has grown stronger over the years. Now, as a fervent donor to First Nations Development Institute, he shares his thoughts on life, Native causes, and what people can do to make their own hearts as big as possible.
A Kindred Spirit
Joe Hartz is not Native, but the Native approach to life strikes a chord with this 67-year-old U.S. Navy submarine disabled veteran. PapaJoe was born in Nashville, Tennessee, and adopted three months later in Memphis by a wonderful family. He says his knowledge of Native Americans was limited to playing “cowboys and Indians” and visiting nearby Indian villages. But the more he has learned about the plight of Native Americans, the more he has been humbled and inspired.
He talks of Native people being lied to, driven from their homelands and robbed of their cultures – and how the thought of little children being sent to boarding schools and stripped of their souls and identity is atrocious.
PapaJoe, for one, knows how important the loss of spirit is. “Without it, you have no soul,” he says. While serving onboard a submarine he sustained a debilitating knee injury that left his right knee disabled, and he was medically discharged. “For someone who is always active, this was hard to accept,” he says.
His disability contributed to a 14-year struggle with alcoholism and pain medications. “Once you think you are disabled it sometimes consumes your entire body, and you lose faith.”
PapaJoe says redemption came on January 1, 1987, when his prayers were answered. And since then he has remained alcohol and drug free for over 32 years. He says his spirit was renewed by the strength and power of traditional ways and knowledge.
One of his beloved friends and sponsor, who is part Cherokee, has given him words of wisdom and insight through the years, and now this knowledge has led PapaJoe to seek ways to help Native Americans. “I give because helping people get their spirits back is important to me. My dream is to see Native America made whole again.”
Positioned to Make a Difference
After he left the Navy, PapaJoe spent years in sales before going to work for the U.S. Postal Service. After 12 years, his service-related disabilities resurfaced, and he was forced to retire. He took the opportunity to go back to college at the University of West Florida in Pensacola and get a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and religious studies. He graduated Magna Cum Laude and was inducted into the National Honor Society. He trained as a hospital chaplain and also filled in as a part-time non-denominational minister. His education led him to adopt Taoism and Buddhism as his way of life.
He has toured the country in his RV and loves to play the flute. He says he plays “well enough to get the dogs barking and keep rodents away.” But in line with his outlook on life, he says, “It’s not about how good you play. It’s the fact that playing makes you happy and uplifts your spirit. You have to do what makes you happy.”
For PapaJoe, learning more about Native causes and being a part of First Nations also makes him happy because he sees First Nations as a key player in giving Indigenous people back their spirit. He appreciates that he in a position to support the work and that First Nations is in a position to have the greatest effect. He says he chose First Nations after extensive research through Charity Navigator. “It’s just the well-rounded program I was looking for. It gets people back to their roots.”
By giving to First Nations, he says he feels like he, too, is giving people hope and restoring that spirit he knows is so important. He wishes he could do more, a desire that likely led to his name “PapaJoe.”
A Papa to All
Married twice and divorced with one son, PapaJoe has no biological grandchildren, but he is “PapaJoe” to 13 grandkids and great-grandkids. “You don’t have to be a blood relative to show love to these kids. My kids know that PapaJoe will take care of them.”
For many of his grandkids, he is the only grandparent, and as such he provides support, love and insights into living a life with joy.
“I don’t care about material things,” he says. “I care about people, and when you learn about people, you learn the truth.”
He imparts on his family the importance of education and knowledge. Having traveled extensively across the country, PapaJoe considers the world to be his church and encourages his grandchildren to get out and experience the world and its people. “You will never learn the whole truth about people in a book or newspaper. You will only learn by becoming a part of the whole. We are the same people,” he says. “If you rely on others for the truth, you will always be ignorant.
Appreciation and Respect
PapaJoe reflects that people’s education and understanding throughout the years has changed slowly, and he acknowledges that what he learned about Native Americans as a boy in the 1960s is different from what is being taught today, to a small degree. “The truth is starting to come out,” he says. “We’ve come a long way, but we haven’t gone far enough.”
He says it’s still going to take years for the truth to take hold, and right now he’s happy to be part of an organization that is helping to move the needle. No matter his own heritage, he says he appreciates traditional knowledge and respects the spirit of Indigenous people. And, in supporting First Nations, he feels he has made a good investment in a cause that means so much to him.
“This is me doing my part,” he says. “Only you can increase the size of your heart. I do it through giving, love and compassion, and most importantly, by forgiving. It’s my goal and the way my heart feels.”
First Nations appreciates the support. Thank you, PapaJoe!
By Amy Jakober