Posts tagged ‘Spirituality’

The Midewiwin Society Today

I’ve been providing some information to a gentleman who is writing a paper on the Midewiwin society.  Here is some of the feedback I provided him:

Q:  Is the Midewiwin Society just as important as it was in the “pre-reservation” period?

A:  Unfortunately, as a whole, the Midewiwin and all aspects of indigenous Anishinaabe culture are no longer practiced in many communities.  Although most community leaders and Elders will say it is just as important.  For those who have chosen to live a traditional lifestyle, and have chosen to rekindle their lives with their own spiritual ways, history and teachings – the Midewiwin is just as important as it was in the pre-colonial period.

Prior to the arrival of Europeans, in many communities, the Midewiwin was integrated in all facets of Anishinaabe life.  The Midewiwin lodge was the source of our governance, through the clan system.  The Midewiwin lodge was where we prayed.  It was where our children and our people were educated through traditional teachings.  It is where we were given our names and where we were married to our spouses.  It was where we went to healing, counsel and fellowship.  It was where we held our social gatherings.  At the end of our days, the Midewiwin lodge was where we had our funerals.  Even those who had not been initiated in the Midewiwin society – came to the Midewiwin people and the lodge for these things.

However, following the arrival of Europeans and the imposition of colonial society and laws, the Midewiwin took a back seat to Christianity, western governance and modern ways of life.  The Midewiwin were portrayed by the civilizers as heathen and even satanic.  Midewiwin members took their ceremonies and traditional ways underground, away from the community.  This abrupt change in culture meant poverty, hardship, spiritual confusion, alcoholism and cultural assimilation.  Into the 1800s, children were removed from communities into residential schools to learn Christian and western ways.  Eventually, the Midewiwin reverted into a secret society, kept by only a small number of devotees.  It was nearly lost.

Today, most Anishinaabe communities are Christian.  Very few actually know their history and their indigenous culture.  Even fewer can speak and understand the Anishinaabemowin language.  Only a small number of families choose to live and raise their families in the traditional way, as Midewiwin.

For example, in my community of Nipissing First Nation – with a total membership of over 2,200 – the vast majority of individuals are Christian.  Less than 5 percent can speak their language.  There are only about a dozen Midewiwin people that belong to the Three Fires Midewiwin Lodge.  While two or three individuals belong to other Midewiwin lodges.

Although some people are becoming more aware of their own Anishinaabe culture and take part in pow-wows, very few attend the Midewiwin lodge.  However, being Midewiwin requires a significant committment, flexibility in work schedules in order to attend ceremonies and gatherings and significant travel.  Midewiwin gatherings are held across a vast territory extending from central Ontario to southern Manitoba.

Today, there are only a small number of functioning Midewiwin lodges, mainly is Minnesota, northern Wisconsin and northwestern Ontario.  The Three Fires Midewiwin Lodge, led by Grand Chief Edward Benton-Banai, is the largest Midewiwin Lodge with members from Wisconsin, Michigan, Manitoba and Ontario and a handful from other territories and nations.  Typically, attendance at regular ceremonies is 300-400 people.  The Three Fires Midewiwin Lodge initiates, on average, 40 new members every year.

Q:  Is the Midewiwin Society just as expensive for its initiates?

A:  Today, there is no “fee” to be Midewiwin.  The historical aspect of providing an initiation fee and bringing goods to the Midewiwin leaders and members was simply a way of demonstrating commitment to their declaration and showing respect for the Midewiwin Spirit and the society.  For example, it was historically the duty of the Midewiwin initiates to hold a feast for the Midewiwin.

However, this has changed over the years.  In the contemporary Midewiwin lodge, the initiates show their commitment through attendance.  They are required to, not only give their declaration, but to attend all ceremonies, commit to learning their teachings and songs and live by certain values and instructions up to a year before their initiation ceremony.  They are also supervised by their sponsors, Midewiwin members who guide them throughout their initiation journey.

Initiates are still required to provide a feast at each of the four seasonal ceremonies prior to receiving their Midewiwin teachings.  However, it need not be expensive or cost prohibitive.  Often initiates are helped by their family, their sponsors or other people in the Lodge.  A kitchen area is provided.  For those without means, food is often donated to help out the initiate.

This commitment can be expensive and cost prohibitive in another way.  Midewiwin initiatives are required to attend all ceremonies in order to receive their instructions, teachings and songs.  The high cost of travel throughout such a vast territory can be an issue.  For example, an initiate from northern Manitoba may have to travel to central Michigan, a journey of a 1000 miles.  Regularly, members from Nipissing must travel to Bad River, Wisconsin, a journey of 600 miles.  However, carpooling and sharing accommodations is common among Midewiwin and initiates.

Q:  Through my studies I have realized that the Ojibwa people were very spiritual people. My question, do they place spirituality in such high regards today as they did years ago?

A:  The Anishinaabe are inherently spiritual people.  The belief in spirituality, historically, made conversion and indoctrination into Christianity quite effortless.  Even though most people are Christian, they are often devout Christians.  Even in the face of extreme physical, cultural and sexual abuse at Christian residential schools – the devotion to religion remains unscathed.

This inherent spirituality, however, this is not a result of Christian theology.  I feel this is a ingrained cultural trait.

Often times, when an Elder is approaching death, they may begin speaking in their Ojibway language, despite not having spoken the language in many decades.  They sometimes begin to pray to the Spirit in a traditional way rather than their learned, Christian way.

Another example of this inherent cultural trait is intense family bonding.  The Anishinaabe clan system is a distant memory and has not been used by Anishinaabe communities for nearly 140 years.  Today, there is virtually no knowledge or awareness of the clan system.  However, the kinship and family bonds in First Nation communities is intense one which manifests itself in historical, clan-like traits of familial closeness, inter-family alliances, political divisions, feuds and community taboos.

The resilience of the Midewiwin society is also indicative of this spirituality.  Despite the historical challenges, the Midewiwin has survived persecution, the loss of culture, language and sources of knowledge such as Elders, teachers, Midewiwin leaders.  However, it was this commitment to spirituality and the Midewiwin society that allowed visionary leaders to hold on to the Midewiwin and restore it in contemporary times.  The intensity of Midewiwin spirituality has a remarkable indomitability.  The devoutness of it’s members have been shown to overcome many personal and cultural challenges including personal healing, poverty and identity issues.

Spirituality and the role of one’s Spirit remains the most important tenets of the Midewiwin.  For example:  the Three Fires can not only refer to the Ojibway, Odawa and Pottawotomi but also the mind, body and Spirit.

Q:  In your opinion, how has the Midewiwin changed to fit today’s different challenges?

A:  Our lodge, the Three Fires Midewiwin Lodge, has been one of the first Midewiwin lodges that have found a way to integrate translation and the occasional use of the English language into Midewiwin gatherings.  It was recognized that as a result of assimilation and residential schools, most Anishinaabe people do not speak of understand the Anishinaabemowin (Ojibway) language.  When Edward Benton-Banai proposed the use of translation to aide those non-speakers, some were not supportive.  This has caused a lot of consternation among orthodox Midewiwin elders.  However, when these Elders seen the impact of this approach, and the sheer numbers of young people making their way to the lodge – this approach was accepted and has since shown much success.

This led to the publishing of The Mishomis Book in 1979, which was the first english-language printed translation of key Midewiwin teachings, such as the Seven Grandfather teachings, the Creation Story and the first Midewiwin ceremony.  However, Grand Chief Benton-Banai’s approach was not to share the teachings and stories verbatim.  These concepts were shared through a fictional approach of a Grandfather telling stories to his grandchildren in the English language and in a simple way so that the stories and philosophy were understood.  The Mishomis Book is the quintessential resource for young people and those wanted to understand the Midewiwin at a fundamental level.

All traditional teachings and all ceremonies are still conducted in the Midewiwin language, first and foremost.  However, a courtesy translation is often provided to non-speaking members and visitors.  Commitment to learning the Anishinaabemowin language is essential to being Midewiwin.  All members are greatly encouraged to learn and use the Ojibway language to the best of their ability.  The Three Fires Midewiwin Lodge regularly holds language camps for the benefit of their members.

Q:  How has technology helped, influenced, or changed the Midewiwin Society?

A:  The Three Fires Midewiwin Lodge uses a listserv and an online bulletin board to communicate to members and their families.  The Three Fires Midewiwin also has a website and a Facebook page.  These tools are used to better communicate gathering information, arrange carpools, discuss ceremony logistics and arrangements.  It is also a means to promote Midewiwin life to those that might be interested.

Many Midewiwin people are everyday people, like artists, students and professions.  Many use the internet on a regular basis.  For example, I have a blog dedicated to my life, not only as a communication professional and an Anishinaabe citizen – but to share my life as a Midewiwin man.

However, traditional teachings and traditional knowledge are not to be shared across these networks.

The modern Midewiwin society also has many of the conveniences of home.  Our Three Fires Midewiwin School, located in Cedar, Wisconsin has a full-sized Midewiwin lodge indoors so mid-winter ceremonies can be held in comfortable surroundings.  The lodge provides a kitchen in the school house as a modern convenience and in order to prepare food safely for hundreds of people.

All ceremonies now make use of in-lodge lighting and sound systems.  Often times, lodges are created that can be over 100 feet long.  So to be able to communicate across the length and width of the lodge requires a reliable, multi-speaker sound system.

Modern publishing and academia have provided a forum to bestow the values of the Midewiwin into mainstream society.  Internet publishing, books, thesis and texts have assisted in the public education of Anishinaabe culture and Midewiwin spirituality.

Museums and collections are more accurately and respectfully portraying the Midewiwin in a proper light.  Midewiwin people are consulted on collections, exhibits, conservation and research.  Modern approaches to anthropology, archaeological practices and museum policy are now much more inclusive and respectful of Anishinaabe people and their spirituality.

This technology and modern conveniences have made the Midewiwin society more accessible and open for all Anishinaabe people.  The growth in the lodge in the past 10 years celebrates this fact.  Many of these technologies and innovations have led to a first-time awareness of the Midewiwin society and indigenous Anishinaabe culture.  This has led to more Anishinaabe people finding their true identity as citizens of the Anishinabek Nation.  It has also led to more people attending the Midewiwin ceremonies, funding healing in the Midewiwin lodge, a substantial increase in the number of Midewiwin initiates and more awareness of our Anishinaabe spiritual ways.

Q:  Is the ceremony still annual?

A:  Midewiwin ceremonies are held every season.  Summer cermonies usually take place in August, Fall Ceremonies take place in October.  Mid-winter Ceremonies take place in February.  Spring Ceremonies, which is the largest annual gathering, takes place in June.  This is when the Midewiwin initiations take place in the initiation lodge.  This usually takes place during the full-moon in June at Madigan Park, Bad River, Wisconsin.

Other gatherings take place throughout the year.  This year there is a Midewiwin History Gathering taking place at the Three Fires Midewiwin School in Cedar, Wisconsin over the new year.  There are always regular language camps, fasting camps, Midewiwin learning-continuing education opportunities, regional ceremonies and gatherings, sweat lodges, etc.  In some areas with larger Midewiwin populations (i.e. Bad River, WI, London, Ontario, Mount Pleasant, MI) activities take place on a regular basis.

The smaller Midewiwin lodges have annual ceremonies, smaller local ceremonies and come together on special occasions.

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.