Posts tagged ‘Anishinaabe’

Introducing… Anishinaabe.ca

Today, I am pleased to announce something new: Anishinaabe.ca.

I’m pleased to launch the re-design of my website and blog and re-dedicate it to the most sacred name in the Anishinaabemowin (Ojibway) language.

Anishinaabe isn’t just the word for us indigenous people from this part of the world.  It is the name of the very first person that walked Mother Earth.  According to our Creation Story, long before he received his given-Spirit name, Waynaboozhoo, Original Man was lowered to the Earth by the Creator directly from the Spirit World.  At first he was called Msko-Gaabwid, the red standing one.  Our oldest story, teachings and sacred scrolls referred to him as “Anishinaabe”.  Grand Chief Edward Benton-Banai explains the etymology of the word as ANI (from whence) NISHINA (lowered) ABE (the male of the species).  For us, who are derived from our eldest ancestor – being Anishinaabe is everything we are.  It is our flesh and blood, our race, identity, language, nation and our creed.

This website will henceforth be known as Anishinaabe.ca.

The new design also pays homage to Chief Shingwauk (1773-1854), the head man who led the negotiation and signing of the Robinson Huron Treaty.  He was also a well-known and respected Midewiwin leader.  Chief Shingwauk has a vision of a great teaching lodge based on the Midewiwin teachings and education for all First Nations people.  The new design also pays tribute to the great landscape and spectacular vistas of the Great Lake territory, Anishinaabe-aki.

Of course, the new website, Anishinaabe.ca, is full of all kinds of new technology, bells and whistles:

NEW FEATURES:

  • Improved design and functionality, through WordPress CMS.
  • Podcast and Video Blog features and functionality.
  • Subscription through RSS web feed.
  • Mobile site functionality when accessed by Iphone, Ipod, Palm WebOS, certain Blackberrys and Android devices.
  • A new logo and new graphics.
  • A new Guestbook feature.

I’d like to thank my partner, Deborah for her patience and feedback, Arnya for your feedback, Vicky Laforge & Clear Skies Photography for the amazing images, Shrabanti and the Web Guru Team and to all open source coders and developers everywhere.

Most of all, chi-miigwetch to all of you, the readers.  I hope you enjoy the site.

Racism on the TTC

“Circle the wagons.  The Injuns are comin’.”

Those seven words set off a cascade of feelings like a row of neatly placed dominos, toppled one after another.

My experience yesterday took place on the TTC.  The Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) has to be one of the most diverse environments in the city.  From TTC employees to TTC riders – an Anishinaabe can get lost among the beautiful brown faces.  It’s certainly not the place where one would expect to encounter an overtly racist comment – from a TTC employee no less.

But there I was – rushing to get to work and running a little late.  I bound down the stairs at Yonge-Bloor Station just missing the southbound subway.  I have about a minute before the next train arrives so I walk down to the end of the platform.

I stroll briskly down the platform thinking about the Billy Joel interview I had just heard on the Howard Stern Show.  Needless to say, I’m in a great mood.

As I cross the half-way mark down the platform, I hear two things.  First, I hear the train nearing the station behind me.  Second, I hear the laughter and carrying on from two uniformed TTC platform monitors.  These are the guys in the big burgundy TTC coats and the reflective safety singlet.  They are responsible for my safety and well-being.

Then I hear those seven words, from the white guy to his buddy, in a faux-southern drawl of a cowboy:

“Circle the wagons.  The Injuns are comin’.”  Then some laughter from the two men.

My immediate reaction was to smile and keep walking.  Then I make the realization of what I experienced.  Racism.

As I make the realization – I have to make the choice.  Do I shrug it off and keep walking?  Or do I stop, cause a scene and make a complaint?  I am already late for work.  So I decide to shrug if off.  After all – he was just trying to be funny.  We are subject to racial humour everyday – on TV, film even the aforementioned Howard Stern Show.  Besides, he was carrying on with his TTC buddy – who is laughing in hysterics.

I get on the train.

As the subway door closes, it immediately starts gnawing at me.  I regret my decision.  I’m riding the train looking at all those around me.  All those beautiful brown faces – who probably didn’t hear what I heard.  I’m thinking they are probably subject to their own forms of racism and everyday comments.  As I pass station-to-station, those thoughts and feelings fill my chest.

I should have said something.

But isn’t that always the case?  I’ve experienced similar situations and comments in the past.  Sometimes I choose to address it and correct it. Other times, I’m consumed by my own conflict and fear.  Sometimes I’m just not brave enough to say something.  Sometimes I’m more concerned about the offenders… getting them in trouble, or fired and what-not.

Later that morning, I arrive at Queen’s Park for the Louis Riel Day commemoration.  Ironically, the ceremony takes place in front of an official monument commemorating Ontario’s participation in the Northwest Rebellion and the various battles against the Métis resistance.  Speaker after speaker talk about racism, stereotypes and inequality.  A young Métis woman speaks about the shame that is still harboured in her family for being Aboriginal.  I’m so moved by her words, I blurt it out my experience to my friend Saga and then to her colleague Tamar.

At first there is laughter.  But then the stark realization of what it is.  They are mortified over the incident.  The fact that it was a TTC employee demands that it should be reported.  Unfortunately, I chose to leave hurt, beaten, regretful, angry… a victim among a sea of victims.

Those seven words, uttered for comedic affect, have such a profound effect.  Quite different from the seven words that we should all be living by:  Love, Respect, Bravery, Honesty, Humility, Truth, Wisdom.  These are those gifts provided to us by the Seven Grandfathers.

Racism is alive and well.  Those of us in the minority are well aware of it.  Even in a multi-cultural environment of the great city of Toronto.  Deep in the bowels of the TTC – is an ugly monster that so many choose to ignore.

Uncovering Shielded Minds

In this video, a group of students from southern Ontario embark on a eye-awakening journey as they visit First Nation communities in northern Ontario.  Led by Cynthia Wesley-Esquimaux, the students visited communities in Georgian Bay, Manitoulin Island and the north shore of Lake Huron.  They conclude their trip with a visit to the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Gatineau, Quebec.

I enjoyed the scene when the students expressed their frustration over the Canadian Museum of Civilization and the lack of First Nations tour guides and proper context of the artifacts held there.  Earlier in the film, at the start of their trip, Karihwakeron Tim Thompson provides excellent oratory on the Hiawatha wampum and it’s significance.  When they visit the museum, they are faced with that same belt with such minimal labelling, context and displayed behind glass.

In my favorite scene, without prompting, the students become irate over a plaque that describes the residential school experience:  “But for other graduates, the pain of sexual abuse and cultural loss has overshadowed good intentions and practices.”  They complain to the museum also citing the exhibit which outlines a simplistic and narrow view of the residential schools.

Their experience and stories they have learned in just one week led them to action.

Shielded Minds: A Documentary from Joshua Kelly on Vimeo.

Restoring Anishinaabe Culture takes Faith

There was a time, in the relatively-near past, when Anishinaabe people knew exactly who they were.  This was unquestionable.

As early as the early-1900s, we had our language.  We had our systems of governance.  We had our own Spirituality.  We had our own way of life – from how we were born to how we died.

We had so much that was inherently Anishinaabe…

How we raised our children.
How we healed our illnesses.
What we learned and how we were taught.
How we earned our living.
What we harvested and what we ate.
How we lived our lives. How we Loved.  How we laughed.
How we treated our Elders.
How we sang, created art… how we entertained and socialized with one another…

The sum of all these things is culture.

“Native Culture” isn’t just a band office program.  It isn’t just our annual pow-wow.  It isn’t an evening language class or even the summer pow-wow trail.  It is the sum of all those things that make us uniquely Anishinaabe, including our traditional teachings, our way of life, how we talk to each other and how we pray to the Creator.  Culture is our collective identity and how we see ourselves.

And, it’s sad to say, much of it has been lost to history.

But the loss of culture was not our fault.  We have no reason to be ashamed.  There is good reason why we lost our way.

It is a well-documented fact that Christianity was forced upon the Anishinaabe and many other First Nations across North America.  Early missionaries, including that of the jesuit mission in Garden Village (later the Holy Spirit Mission) were established with the sole purpose of converting the heathen, soulless Indians into good Christians worthy of heaven.  Later, the establishment of residential schools, like those in Spanish, Chapleau and Sault Ste. Marie, tore apart our families and community with the forcible removement and systemic abuse of our children.  All in the name of assimilation, intolerance and the Lord Jesus Christ.

But this was done so subtly, so systematically, and so successfully, that our people have come to accept that they were Christian and that very little was done to our people as a whole.  I’ve heard some survivors say they were grateful for their education at residential school and thankful that their Christian faith guided them through those tough times away from their families.

As a result, we have a whole lot of mixed-up Christians singing pow-wow and hand-drum songs, dancing their hearts out, taking Native language classes and marching for Treaty Rights.

I’m not writing this to discourage those like-minded individuals, who are working to raise their families as Anishinaabe.  There are many people out there that have shed their colonial outer garments for an AIM t-shirt.  They know the challenges of living a life in search of something more.  Trying our hardest to give our children what was kept from us.

We try our hardest, but we don’t think Anishinaabe anymore.  In reality, very few Anishinaabe people can actually speak Anishinaabemowin.  Those that speak Anishinaabemowin, can think in their language…  but mainly about Jesus and their shame of being Indian.  Original Sin is something far more profound when you have dark skin.

We need to turn the corner on re-establishing our nationhood and re-defining our inherent, indigenous culture as Anishinaabe people.

I have said many times, we need to gradually assimilate into our own culture.  This is something my friend Brian Loukes calls “acculturation”.

This begins through education. We must have the courage to transform our entire education system into a truly Anishinaabe institution.

We need to restore our language.  This can only be done through language immersion programs in Anishinaabemowin – the official language of our people.  Our children need to be able to think in Anishinaabemowin once again.  This doesn’t mean we turn our backs on English.  This is the 21st Century.  We do have to be proficient in both languages.

Nor do we need to sacrifice principles of good education to find our way back to Anishinaabe culture.  We still need to read and write, learn mathematics, science, geography, biology and chemistry.  We can all do this in Anishinaabemowin and being mindful of our own world view.  We do, however, need to be taught our own history, philosophy and way of life.  We need to be educated about our Treaty and inherent rights.  We need to be educated in the traditional ways of protecting the environment.

Most importantly, we need to have Faith.  We need to have Faith that we, the Anishinaabeg, are as important as any other nation on this Earth.  We must have Faith that our language and culture is just as valuable as any other.  We have Faith in our abilities to govern ourselves and teach ourselves.

We have to give up our reliance on others, including the government.  We can indeed be self-sufficient and prosperous, economically, socially and culturally.

But Faith is one of the problems.  With the dominance and influence of Christianity in our communities, we won’t be addressing Faith anytime soon.

You see, the Anishinaabe people have our own Faith and spiritual way of life.  For all intents and purposes, we have our own religion.  Our entire society, including our language and culture, are deeply rooted in Spirituality.  These are the original teachings and way of life of our ancestors, Gte Anishinaabeg.  We have a society expressly dedicated to living and protecting this way of life called the Midewiwin.  This beautiful society keeps many of the most profound teachings of the Anishinaabe, including our Creation Story, the philosophy of Mno-Bimaadiziwin and the Seven Grandfather Teachings.  These teachings are only the tip of a very immense iceburg that is the full expanse of Anishinaabe belief, custom, Spirituality and culture.  Much of it remains totally unknown to 99 per cent of Anishinaabe people.

Many Christians, Anishinaabe or not, are not willing to trust in their own inherent belief systems.  The teachings of the Church are so ingrained in our society, so well instituted in our families and communities – it may never be shed in favour of traditional Anishinaabe spirituality.

Assimilation and Christianity has been so subtle, so systematic, and so successful that we no longer see that there is anything wrong.  We can go about our lives, sending our kids to school.  We do our best to learn about “Native Culture”, taking Ojibwe language classes and drumming and dancing on the weekend.  Come Sunday, after confession, we can settle down to our nice family dinner with the confidence that we will go to heaven.  Confident that St. Peter, will meet us at the Pearly Gates and welcome us with open arms.

I wonder what pow-wow weekend is like in Heaven and if Jesus is the Emcee?

Anishinaabe Teachings are within reach

What are “teachings”?

It’s a simple enough question that has a vast array of answers.

Some Anishinaabeg people think a teaching is a form of unsolicited, mystic wisdom. You sign up for a weekend event or conference, someone will no doubt provide you with some teachings.

Some think teachings are what a knowledgeable speaker says at a pow-wow. Some think it is anything that is said in a ceremony. If you go to enough ceremonies – you’ll have your share of teachings. While many others think it is history or individual knowledge given in the “oral tradition”.

Some will go so far as saying that teachings are anything that an Elder says. Well, there are just as many definitions of “Elder” as there are for “teachings”. Some think The Elder is KISS’ worst studio album.

The teachings that I’m speaking of don’t come from any unsolicited, mystic wisdom. The teachings that I’m writing about don’t come from individual knowledge or someone’s life stories.

The teachings that I’m speaking of are a specific set of indigenous knowledge. In this case, Anishinaabe indigenous knowledge.

These teachings have specific wording in the Anishinaabemowin language. These teachings don’t change. Sure, words can evolve over time and can be translated – but their meaning is always the same when they are given. These teachings have an origin and a specific story of their own. They also have corresponding traditional songs. Beautiful songs. Each teachings has a specific place among a multitude of places. They also have innumerable specific purposes. The teachings that I’m speaking of don’t come at random.

Believed me, these are quite different from the teachings you receive from your local Elder around the pow-wow campfire.

I’ll draw a parallel from Christianity.

Jesus Christ has teachings. Those teachings come from the Holy Bible – which is the source of Christian wisdom and contain a specific set of teachings from the Christian Lord.

But if I were to say that: Jesus came to me in a dream last night – and said that we must all wear yellow socks in honour of the crucifixion. In that dream, Jesus himself lifted his golden robe and showed me his yellow socks – which were soothing his sacred wounds. He said: “Wearing these yellow socks should be part of your ritual stigmata.” He spoke to me in ancient Arimaic, which I fully understand and speak in my dreams.

Most Christians would say “B*llsh*t!” – no matter how believable I am while I testify with my arms to the sky. And rightly so.

But when an “Elder” comes forward, honourarium paid for by the band office, and provides our communities with “teachings” – we gather in droves, like he or she is distributing loaves and fishes.

No matter how many “Elders”, “teachers”, “shamans”, “mystics”, “traditional people” and “consultants” you consult – there is only one true source of our original, Anishinaabeg teachings. The Midewiwin Lodge.

The Midewiwin, the “way of the heart”, is a society that was given the role to teach, practice and preserve the traditional knowledge and original spiritual way of the Anishinaabe people.  The Midewiwin is the source of our Creation Story, the story of Waynaboozhoo, our Clan System and the Seven Grandfather Teachings.  The Midewiwin hold these teachings in trust for all Anishinaabe people. In fact, our teachings tell us that the Spirit of this Lodge, Mide-mnidoo, was provided to the Anishinaabeg by the Creator to look after us and provide us with a sense of closeness and kinship to G’zhemnidoo.

We have something else in common with Christians. Anishinaabe teachings are indeed written down – contrary to the many people out there that think everything Indian people are taught comes down in the so-called oral tradition.

The wigwaas (birchbark) scrolls are an incredible record of Anishinaabe indigenous knowledge. I’ve seen these scrolls with my own eyes, and held them with my own hands. They are an incredible record of our Creation story, our history as well as our vibrant, Spiritual past and sacred teachings. Some scrolls, corresponding teachings and songs are a record of our original instructions given to us directly from the Creator. We may lack a Moses but we have our very own Anishinaabe ten commandments! Well actually, a great deal more than ten.

The Anishinaabe are no different that any other indigenous nation. Many other nations have traditional societies that look after their traditional knowledge and teachings. The best example is the Haudenosaunee (Six Nations) people. The source of their knowledge is the Longhouse. No one can purport to provide Mohawk teachings or Oneida wisdom without being a sanctioned member of the Longhouse. If they did, they’d be quickly called on it: “B*llsh*t!”

Unfortunately, for the Anishinaabe, our traditional knowledge is very old and is long lost in almost every single one of our communities. Our history and prophesies tell us that the Midewiwin foreseen what would happen to our people and our ancestors chose to hide our ways and keep them secret. Unfortunately, that also worked against us. Our ways and knowledge were simply were forgotten. Our indigenous knowledge and traditional societies have long since been taken away from us and labeled as devil-worship. The Midewiwin have been replaced by more civilized values and Christianity.

However, as more and more Anishinaabe people are regaining their identity – they are seeking to learn more about their traditional ways. Some are choosing to return to those ways entirely. Sadly, a great many people – confused by the melting pot of “Aboriginal” knowledge – are swept up by new age and pow-wow spirituality. Other Anishinaabe people choose to live a hybrid life attending a plethora of ceremonies, fasting, sweat lodges, sun dances, rain dances, and round dances belonging to other nations. However, this makes them quite healthy and happy and it provides many people with fulfillment in their lives. Many are oblivious to the fact that their practices are borrowed from other nations.

However, within reach – and right under their noses – is true, Anishinaabe knowledge.

Still, many people simply don’t want to put in the work it requires to earn this knowledge. Many feel the Midewiwin are a secret society, or a selfish, protective cult holding this knowledge for themselves. Nothing could be further from the truth.

All Anishinaabe people are entitled to this knowledge and are welcome to study all the Spirit will offer. However, it requires time, effort, a commitment to the society and a commitment to living a good and just life. As our Grand Chief Bawdwaywidun has always said – if you want to know: “Come to the Lodge.”

Everyday should be Earth Day for Anishinaabe

According to Anishinaabe teachings, at the time of Creation, human-kind was given a number of sacred and indispensable gifts from the Creator.

We were all given the sacred gift of life providing us the opportunity to live life to the fullest in a good way – mno-bimaadziwin.  We were all given the sacred gift of water – our lifeblood – which nurtures us even before we are born.  Our teachings tell us this beautiful, clean water is forever flowing to us directly from the Spirit World.

One of the most sacred gifts that was given to human-kind – intellect – was given for a specific purpose: so we can be environmentalists.

Let me explain.

God created heaven and earth in seven days.  This is a Christian metaphor for millions and millions of years of evolution.  Our teachings tell us that Creation is ongoing and will never complete.  The Creator who we call G’zhemnidoo, will always be a creator.  At one point, the Creator felt the need to create human-kind and place us on the physical Earth.  To which there was a specific purpose and a specific instruction:  To look after Earth and all her bounty.  To speak for what needed speaking.  To be stewards and caretakers of Mother Earth.  This formed part of a sacred covenant between G’zhemnidoo and human-kind.

Sixty-five million years later, through many stages of mammalian and primate evolution – the hominid species emerged.

However, something made us different than other animals.  We were able to adapt and survive with more than just basic instinct.  We were able to work collectively.  We were able to make and use tools.  We were able to develop complex language and communication.  This sacred gift of intellect was the means in which human-kind was to abide those sacred instructions to be stewards of Mother Earth.

From the time when were able to dance around a fire, or keep warm by wrapping ourselves in animal skins – it didn’t take much longer to become the most dominant species on the planet.

However, that same gift of intellect ultimately made us the greatest enemy of Mother Earth.

It began by using our abilities to wage war with one another.  To hunt animals to extinction.  To burn, cut down and develop entire forests.  To live collectively in cities and eliminating our waste on the land and into the water.  It has only be in the past two hundred years – which started by burning coal to create steam – that we’ve hurt our Mother in the most grievous way with little to no accountability and thought to long-term consequences.

We’ve celebrated the gift of intellect with progress, innovation and industrialization leading to unsustainability, pollution and climate change.

As citizens of the Earth, we need to return to our original instructions.  We don’t need to turn in our car, go back to living in a wigwaam, dance around a fire or keep warm by wrapping ourselves in animal skins.

However, we do need to celebrate the gift of intellect with progress, innovation and industrialization of our sacred duty to be stewards of the Earth.

We must take our great minds – within our Nation and around the world – and use our intellect to achieve progress towards environmental sustainability.  To find more innovative ways of protecting our Earth.  To industrialize the protection of Mother Earth through corporate responsibility, significant reductions in carbon emissions and sensible and effective environmental legislation and regulations.

For the Anishinaabe, everyday should be Earth Day.  An important part of our original instructions were to speak for what needed speaking.  We need to be role models for the rest of society by taking our environmental responsibilities and sacred duty seriously.

We also need to take personal responsibility.  Environmental activism begins with ourselves and in our homes.

Take water for example.  Anishinaabe women teach us that protecting the water begins with protecting ourselves.  Nourish your body with plenty of water beginning with that first drink to break your fast in the morning.  Stop filling our bodies with chemicals and processed foods and nourish ourselves with organic and sustainably-harvested foods.  Return to eating traditional foods that are harvested in a responsible way.

I don’t want to preach, but there are plenty of things that we call all do.  Reduce, reuse and recycle.  If your rez doesn’t have a recycling program – demand one.  Develop your own recycling regimen.  Buy products with less packaging.  Reuse various household materials.  Use less energy.  Walk to the corner store instead of taking the truck.

To make a difference, all that is required is some personal motivation, some common sense and a little intellect.

Another racist video from northwestern Ontario

Yet another cell-phone amateur video has surfaced from northwestern Ontario that features, not only lateral violence against First Nations, but the racist face of malicious youth.

The videos depicts First Nations people, some poor and homeless in Kenora, and also features a video of an inebriated man being arrested by Kenora police.

The video is tasteless and shows the underlying racism of the youth videographers and quite possibly, their hatred of their First Nations neighbours.  The videographers feel superior to their filmed subjects.  Plain and simple, the video is meant to degrade all First Nations people and humiliate and ridicule some innocent, vulnerable people.

The video was obviously made by youth as it features one of their stars, a teenage skateboarder doing tricks.  The people taking the video seem to be known to the community, due to the reactions they get from seemly normal folks on the streets of Kenora and outside the local shopping centre.  (They are ‘flipped the bird’ twice during the course of the short video.)

It brings to mind the Fort Frances video.  It was almost two years ago when a half-a-dozen, equally bright girls from a local hockey team, decided in their wisdom to upload their parody of sacred Anishinaabe dancing to YouTube.  The underage girls, drunk as skunks, were forming their version of pow-wow dancing for the world to see.

But this is much more personal for those people depicted in the video.

These people may very well be at lowest points of their lives.  Some are dealing with the demons of addictions – others are poor and homeless.  They needn’t be ridiculed or filmed without their permission.

But it isn’t just the homeless.  Some are just people walking down the street or hanging out together.

One Anishinaabe man is simply enjoying a bag of popcorn for God’s sakes.  But because he’s Anishinaabek, he is being ridiculed for no apparent reason.  That easily could have been me.  Would the video be so funny if it was a middle-aged white man was walking, content and carefree, eating his popcorn snack?  I don’t think so.

This leads me to believe that they weren’t targeting the homeless, they were targeting First Nation people.

This is infuriating.

There isn’t any question, we are dealing with racism.  Even the name of the Youtube member “like9jews” may be anti-semetic.

The authorities need to find the producer of this video and their cohorts and investigate them for any hate crimes.  Have these people gone further in their hate for First Nations people?  Should they be exposed so the community knows who they are and can protect themselves from this type of lateral violence.

It’s when racism become overt, like in the case of these YouTube videos, that it becomes concerning.  When does lateral violence become actual violence?  In addition to their cell phone, do they have firearms in their truck?  It is these types of people that will, more often than not, commit hate crimes.

The local First Nations should step in and take the producers to court, no matter their age, to hold them accountable for the hurt they are causing these individuals who are depicted and the pain they are causing the broader Anishinaabe community.

Racism is a learned behaviour and it isn’t taught at school.  Let me place the blame where it belongs – the parents.  Perhaps these parents need to know where their kids are and what they’re doing – just like the parents of the infamous Fort Frances girls.  However, these youth appear a little older than the teenie-bopper racists.

As I stated two years ago, this is a symptom and a greater problem in the Kenora and Fort Frances areas.  First Nations are subject to racism quite often.  To their credit, the local Council and First Nations governments have taken steps to raise awareness and counter these types of situations.  But there is a still a lot of work to do.

Racism is no longer socially accepted and very often lies dormant.  But it manifests itself in contemporary stereotypes, ignorance.  Believe me, I will get many e-mails and responses in defence of youth, the videographers and their parents.  Many will deflect the issue and even accuse me of racism.  All are symptoms of underlying, dormant racism.

It’s in those private conversations, at home, with their spouses and children, at the dinner table or before bed, where the real racism will show it’s ugly head.

A Grinch-like View of the Holidays

Ahh, winter solstice.  The shortest day of the year.  Shouldn’t we turn our clock’s ahead or remove an hour or something?  Sometimes I wish it was the shortest week of the year, too.

Winter solstice is one of the two most prominent celestial days which is celebrated by many cultures around the world.  The other is summer solstice.

The early Julian calendar recognized December 25 as winter solstice, hence the reason to celebrate Christmas on this day.  Hark now hear:  Jesus was not born on Christmas day.  We celebrate Christmas because it’s the pagan day of new light.

Christian or not, it’s great to have the time off work.  However, this is the first time I’ve had to work through the holidays.  But at least I got the statutory holidays.

Did you know that Christmas is most commonly associated with seasonal depression?  More mental illness occurs during the holidays than any other time of the year.

And it’s no small wonder.  The TV specials and the music is so repetitive and annoying.  Heck!  I was sick and tired of Rudoph and The Grinch when I was a boy.  As for Christmas carols, even Rob Halford of Judas Priest has put out a Christmas album.  Still, I’m strangely fascinated by Andrea Bocelli’s renditions of Here Comes Santa Claus and Jingle Bells, which is sung with The Muppets.  I think it’s his accent.  Give me Death Metal Christmas, or Give me Death.

Most of the world doesn’t even celebrate the birth of Jesus.  I kinda feel sorry for my fellow Jewish people, as well as the Muslims, Buddhists, Sihks and Hindus having to put up with all the Christian hoopla at this time of the year.

Last week, I was riding the YRT bus and sat behind an older women who was reading a tattered Qu’ran prayerbook.  I was quite surprised when she put away her Qu’ran, proceeded to take out her Blackberry and began checking e-mail.  Curious, I looked to see what kind of e-mail she was responding to. 

I noticed that each e-mail she read was signed off “Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.”

Not only was this Muslim woman being subject to a breach of her privacy (by me, reading over her shoulder), clearly she had a case of harassment, if not discrimination, repeatedly having to endure references to “Christmas”.

It is also the season of the biggest lie.

At this time of the year, we convince the people we Love the most, our children, of the existence of a mythical figure.  An overly friendly old man that watches them all day long (even when they are sleeping).  In some places, this man with the fake laugh, offers our children gifts and candy.  Despite their objections, even their cries for help, we place our children ON HIS LAP!  Then we allow other strangers to photograph our children in this compromising position.

How many times have we warned our children from consorting with strangers?  Talk about sending mixed messages.

Would you put your child on the lap of a priest if you seen him in the mall?

That’s a great segue back into the true meaning of Christmas.  A celebration of Christianity, right?  NO!  The Mall.  It’s consumerism all the way, baby!

Christmas is a necessary economic driver for many different industries around the world.  Retail, service, food services and travel.  The money made on the holiday of holidays has nothing to do with some guy named Jesus.

But all that buying and gift-giving has to do with the Spirit of Christmas, goodwill toward men and all that, right?  Well, not really.  The biggest shopping day of the year in Canada is the day AFTER Christmas.

Despite these Grinch-like observances, there are a few things I enjoy about Christmas.  Everyone is generally cheerful.  It is a great time to celebrate life and family.  I do enjoy getting together with my family.  The food is always good and plentiful. 

But most of all, Christmas time is for the children.  My children: pagan, Midewiwin Anishinaabeg – with their wannabe Jewish, Midewiwin dad.  They Love Christmas…  the carols, the TV specials, Christmas cards, the tree, the presents and even the mythical characters:  Santa and baby Jesus.  I do it all for them.

I’m not much for presents and consumerism myself.  But give me some chocolate Santas, Nutchos, pickled beets and multiple opportunities for free turkey, and I’ll quietly go with the flow.

What do you mean you’re going to Ceremonies?

Three Fires Midewiwin Lodge Grand Chief Eddie Benton-Banai

“I’m going to ceremonies.”

If you work for an aboriginal organization or around First Nations people, chances are you may have heard the phrase.  You may even know a few people that take time off every few months in order to attend ceremonies.

But what does that mean:  “going to ceremonies?”

Here’s the answer from an ethnographic, socio-anthropological point-of-view.

But please understand that this article is a plain-language, nuts and bolts overview of a very rich and diverse way of life.  It certainly does not depict the intense spiritual and intellectual traditions of the Midewiwin way of life.

The Midewiwin is holistic in it’s being.  Meaning that birth, formal education, higher education, family life, marriage, parenting, value systems, vocations, governance and leadership, laws, the clan system, social structure, healing and medicine and even our social life… they all exist within Midewiwin Lodge.  Even more specialized societies and ceremonies, like the Sundance, Sweat Lodge, Ogitchidaa, big drum, shaking tent – they all exist within the Midewiwin.

Today, much of that has been assimilated by broader society.  Sadly, most communities have long forgotten about the Midewiwin society.

But for the Midewiwin people, our lives are dedicated to living this way of life and our central concept of mno-bimaadiziwin, or the Good Life.

In case you haven’t picked it up already, my family and I belong to a traditional society called the Midewiwin.  If you Google Midewiwin, a whole world of Ojibway sorcery opens up on your screen.  Grand Medicine Society, Secret Society, Shamanism, Mysticism…  These are just colourful, spooky words to describe our traditional spiritual way of life.

Midewiwin simply means “way of the heart” in the Ojibwe language.  Our society existed long before European contact and is one of the oldest spiritual movements in North America.

THREE FIRES MIDEWIWIN LODGE

There are only a small number of functioning Midewiwin Lodges across Anishinaabek territory, mainly centred in northwestern Ontario and Minnesota.  Our Lodge, called the Three Fires Midewiwin Lodge is probably the largest Midewiwin community.  The Eastern Doorway of our Lodge is centred in Ontario and central Michigan; the Centre Fire is located in Wisconsin and Minnesota; and the Western Doorway is centred in southern Manitoba and northwestern Ontario.

Historically, the Midewiwin consisted of the Algonkian people of the Great Lakes area:  the Anishinaabe.  Linguists thoughtfully sub-divided the Anishinaabek nation into the Ojibway, Odawa, Pottawotomi, Algonquin, Mississauga and Chippewa.  Today, many other nationalities have found their way to the Midewiwin including the Lene Lenapi, Ho-chunk, Haudenasaunee, Cree, Mik’maq, even a Mayan and a couple of Choctaws and Cherokees.  You can call us the United Nations of traditional societies.

Our gatherings take place each season usually on the Full Moon.  Spring Ceremonies take place in June, Summer Ceremonies take place in August, Fall Ceremonies take place in late-October or November, and Mid-winter ceremonies take place in February or March.

MIDE-WIIGAAN

The ceremonies themselves take place in a beautiful, spiritual place called the Midewiwin Lodge or Mide-wiigaan.  The Lodge is an elongated framed structure made of maple saplings tied together in a special configuration.  In school, you might have been taught that this is called a “wigwam”.  Our Lodge has been known to be as long as 140 feet to accommodate greater numbers.

There is special meaning to each part of the Lodge itself including it’s doorways and the four levels of supports that enclose the sides of the Lodge.  For example, the “path of life” is set of parallel poles that reach out from the earth forming the Eastern Doorway.  They run along the highest part of the roof, right across the length of the Lodge and back down into the earth at the Western Doorway.  The fireplace is at the centre and heart of the Lodge.

People sit along the edge of the Lodge, both inside and outside the Lodge.  There are special placements for drums, leadership, Elders, initiates and special guests.

Ceremonies usually last at least four days beginning with Fire Lighting Ceremony.  Fire Lighting is done by the men, who have the traditional responsibility to provide and look after the fire for the full four days.

Lately, to accommodate the needs of the Lodge – ceremonies have been known to start on the Wednesday and last five days.

THE MIDE SPIRIT & CEREMONIES

The most essential part of Midewiwin Society is our belief in the Creator, the Spirit World and in our special caretaker Spirit, called Mide-mnidoo.  The Midewiwin Spirit is called into the Lodge and is present throughout the duration of ceremonies.  The Spirit is embodied in the sacred Grandfather Water Drum, who presides over the Lodge.  The Grand Chief and the Doorway Chiefs of the Lodge sit at the Grandfather.  There are also several Little Boy water drums, who are the helpers of the Grandfather.

The term ceremonies is plural for a reason. There are many diverse ceremonies that take place in the Midewiwin Lodge.  Following fire-lighting, there is a daily sunrise ceremony that takes place.  This consists of a tobacco offering, sharing of the sacred pipes, a water offering conducted by the women and sharing some food, usually berries.

The tobacco offering takes place a number of times during the day.  During a series of songs, each man, woman and child offer tobacco in a bowl that goes around the Lodge.  The tobacco is gathered by tobacco dancers who fill pipes and offer them to the Spirit.  The Pipe is first smoked by the Elders on behalf of all those in session.  The tobacco is spoken for in prayer and brought around for everyone to smoke.  Most just touch the pipe stem to acknowledge the Spirit.

The Water Ceremony is a beautiful ceremony conducted by our women.  The Midewaanikwe hold the water up in copper vessels while a beautiful water song is rendered by the women.  The water is spoken for in prayer and a small amount is shared with everyone attending the session.  The water is no longer just nbi – it is then considered sacred medicine water, Mide-waaboo.

After the mid-morning tobacco offering and water ceremony, the mid-day feast takes place.  The feast is a ceremony into itself, consisting of a number of protocols, then sharing of a great traditional meal.

INITIATES

The afternoon session typically have a number of purposes.  Usually, during the early days of ceremonies, the afternoon is used for meetings. The Lodge leadership meetings or conducts workshops on occasion.  The Grandmothers council also gets a chance to meet.

During the time, the Road People begin assembling the Midewiwin initiates – those who have declared their intentions to join the society.  In recent years, between 45-60 people are initiated annually into the Three Fires Midewiwin Lodge.

Preparing the initiates is an important job and requires time.  For example, the evening session on the first day is set aside for Sweat Lodge ceremonies for teachers and initiates.  Throughout Summer, Fall and Mid-winter Ceremonies, the initiates receive their four sacred teachings – which is solely for the Midewiwin people.  They also receive four songs to help them in preparation for the initiation that takes place over the course of two to three days during Spring Ceremonies.  A special initiation Lodge is built for that purpose.  It is the most beautiful time for Midewiwin people, to welcome new brothers and sisters into the Lodge.

There are many levels, or degrees of the Midewiwin.  In our Lodge, our leadership and teachers do their work as Fifth Degree and Fourth Degree Chiefs.  During the height of Midewiwin history, Midewiwin priests (as they were called in the history books) attained levels as high as Eighth Degree Midewiwin.  Each level of learning requires further intense commitment and level of understanding.

FELLOWSHIP

One of the most exciting part of ceremonies are the Ogitchidaa Dance, the Buffalo Dance and the Jingle Dress Healing Dance.  These are special ceremonies that usually take place in succession on the Saturday of ceremonies.  There is a lot of dancing, singing, feasting and fellowship.

The Ogitchidaa Dance is a lively session of singing and dancing led by our veterans in our Lodge and it’s a means to re-enlighten our pride and tradition of the Ogitchidaa Society.

The Buffalo Dance is done by those who are just developing into adolescence.  These brave Buffalo Dancers give a four year commitment to abstain from drugs and alcohol, boy-girl relationships and go through this time as a role models for other youth.

The Jingle Dress Healing Dance is a time of physical, mental, emotional and spiritual healing for the participants.  The Jingle Dress dancers do their work during this sombre, yet powerful ceremony.

THE ROLE OF LANGUAGE

The Three Fires Midewiwin Lodge has a unique history, in that it was envisioned the Midewiwin Society would need to bridge the gap between the old ways and the young people.  That involved the controversial decision to allow English to be used in the Lodge for those who could not understand.  Today, ceremonies are still only conducted in the Ojibway language, although individual interpreters assist those who are unable to understand the language.  Learning the Ojibway language is a crucial commitment to being a part of the Midewiwin Society, as the work of the Spirit can only be done in Ojibway.