Wow, the volunteer job for the Elders’ Conference that I took up yesterday turned out more interesting than I thought it would!
I signed up through my Native Studies course in hopes to get some bonus marks. My prof told us that we had to do a minimum of 5 hours of work, and then if we wanted to go, we could. But sure enough, I pretty much stayed for the entire day.
Getting up at 5 a.m. was no easy feat, and luckily I managed to make the bus out in time. Sipping coffee and listening to the shuffle slowly helped me wake up as I watched the clouds change overhead while riding the 75 Crosstown East. When Henry Bellafonte’s “Shake Senora” comes on, you know its going to be a good day.
I waited for my friend from class inside UC to walk with her to Migazii Agamik (the building we were volunteering at), but she wasn’t showing up. So, I quickly put on my long skirt (I’ll explain that more in detail later why we had to wear one) and started heading over to the building. I bumped into Amy halfway luckily, and we walked together to the building. We also got free shirts! 😀
The reason why both Amy and I wanted to be there so early was to partake in the pipe ceremony to start the two-day gathering. I have always heard about them, and I wanted to check them out. A man, as tradition goes, was to tend to the pipes, and we had a Lakota pipemaker run the ceremony. He also talked to us how he came to run this tradition, and explained some of the things he had laid out on the fur-skin.
Before we could actually smoke the pipe, they lit up some sweet grass for people to smudge themselves with. Smudging is a type of way that the First Nations people purify themselves before ceremonies, gatherings, etc. I didn’t know how to do it, so I passed when they brought the bowl over, and instead watched. Basically they would take the smoke rising from the bowl and cup it with their hands. They’d bring the smoke over their face and hair, almost like watching a mime showering. The Pipemaker then sang a traditional song in order to give praise and thanks to the pipe. For some people who may or may not know, the pipe is a way for aboriginal people to connect to spirits and to the Creator. The story that we learned in my course was that the great Manitou would send out an eagle to look for tobacco smoke being burned by pipes. The eagle would soar high and collect the prayers and words of the people burning the pipe, and bring them back to Manitou. He chanted the song and played on a drum while we stood around in a circle; men on one side and women on the other. One of the girl volunteers actually fell into a seizure, so that was a bit frightening, but she came two a minute or so later.
After the pipe song was done, we gave our thanks to the great spirits in all of the directions, to the Creator in the sky, and to Mother Earth below us. This was also done in song, though he used a rattle this time instead of the drum. After our thanks were given, we began to pass around the pipe. Even if people didn’t want to smoke the pipe, they still had to have the pipe touch both sides of their shoulders before being passed to the next person.
And this pipe.. this was a BIG pipe. It must have been at least 2 feet long, or an arms’ length. It was originally in two parts before he put them together, and near the bowl for the tobacco was a little turtle made out of clay. The turtle in native american lore stands for truth. The tobacco that they were using was mixed with red willow bark, and it gave off a really nice aroma, it didn’t taste nor smelled like regular tobacco that you would get from the store. Needless to say, this ceremony felt very special, and I was ready to help and learn at the same time.
Now, the first part of the volunteer day wasn’t that exciting.. it was more welcoming people and introducing the elders this year, and what the theme was about. There were a lot of volunteers, so if you were picked for something, great! If not, you just got to sit around a bit longer, and listen. At lunch time, more stuff came up, like helping set up the table for the elders, bringing them juice, etc. I also got to taste bannock for the first time: Super yummy! It’s like eating the fluffiness of a bun in the crust of bread, but with the same kind of taste as paska (a traditional Ukrainian easter bread). Really neat.
In the afternoon, I attended a brief water ceremony, in which the women ran (since women are represented by water and the moon). The woman running it blessed the water in her own tongue (which was Anishinaabe, also known as Ojibwe) and passed cups around so that all present could have some to drink. Afterwards, I stayed to listen to the female teachings of water.
I found it so interesting to hear of some of the things, since they were very similar to Slavic paganism before Christianity took place. The water was a feminine energy and was represented by the moon, since the menses are cycled around lunar patterns. I won’t get into them all here, but there a lot of them. But the reason women had to wear long skirts was to show respect to the elders and to ourselves by wearing something that does not show our legs. Basically, “to not attract the wrong kind of attention”.
Another thing that I did not know before is that women are not allowed to attend feasts or ceremonies if they are on their period. The reason for this is because it’s believed that women during their time of the month have the power to exert thoughts if they are strong enough. So, if a girl is having a bit of a crappy day, and somebody gets on her nerves, she might start to have some bad thoughts. Maybe like “Oh, I can’t believe she/he said that to me! Maybe if they started to not feel so good like I am right now they’ll understand,” and *poof* bad karma is released to the community. So, by having the woman stay at home where her thoughts can remain to herself, good karma remains in the community and will hopefully stay lucky. I love how every creed or nation still has some sort of superstition.
But yeah, after that teaching class was given, I went over to the my prof who was finally sitting down (he was a coordinator, and was constantly on the move that day) and signed the clip board to head on home, of course taking off my skirt and changing back into jeans first.
However, I feel like I came home learning more stuff and having so much more respect and admiration for this culture. I know some of the things that are going on are completely out of their control, but if we can work together to make things better, it could be a really awesome place here in Winnipeg.