Canada

Rekindling the spiritual life

Increasingly, natives are exploring the old ways, seeking a faith that was denied them

D’Arcy Jenish August 16 1999
Canada

Rekindling the spiritual life

Increasingly, natives are exploring the old ways, seeking a faith that was denied them

D’Arcy Jenish August 16 1999

Rekindling the spiritual life

Increasingly, natives are exploring the old ways, seeking a faith that was denied them

D’Arcy Jenish

Vern Harper takes his seat opposite the door of the sweat lodge, his midriff swathed in towels, his grey braided hair draped over his right shoulder. Looking at least a decade younger than his 65 years, the Cree spiritual elder invites the participants in the evenings ceremony—six women and five men—to join him. Each stops at the altar outside the canvas door, touching the prayer pipe and a buffalo skull before kneeling to kiss the ground and enter the lodge. The squat canvas-covered structure, about one metre high and four metres across, stands on farmland owned by a Jesuit college on the northern outskirts of Guelph, Ont. When everyone is seated—women to his left and men to the right—Harper is ready to begin. “Andy,” he says, “bring in the grandfathers.”

At that, Andrew Bainbridge appears at the door with a pitchfork used to carry glowing red rocks—these are the grandfathers—so called because stones, being among the oldest objects on earth, are regarded as the first people. Bainbridge, a 27-year-old native stone-carver and painter who, like Harper, lives in Toronto, is the firekeeper: an apprentice studying the traditional ways. Bainbridge has spent the afternoon slowly heating the stones. Just before the participants enter the lodge, he smudges them with cedar charcoal. Then, he places the grandfathers in a pit in the centre of the lodge so Harper can put them in their prescribed places. “Every single thing we do has a specific meaning and purpose,” he says. “You learn slowly

what’s going on in a sweat lodge.” The “sweat”—a physical and spiritual purification ceremony—is merely one aspect of what Harper calls the “red road”—a drugand alcohol-free life, lived according to traditional beliefs. Following this path, Bainbridge says, has strengthened his identity as a native and brought stability to his life. A Saulteaux born on a reserve in Manitoba, and raised in a white foster home, Bainbridge quit school in Grade 10, joined the Canadian Armed Forces at 17 and left two years later just before the 1990 Oka crisis. After that, he spent two years in the native studies program at Trent University in Peterborough, Ont., but dropped out. “Eve always been a rebel, never finished anything,” he says. “I intend to stick with this,” he says of his fire-keeping role. “You have to be committed. But there are a lot of blessings.” Over the past decade, thousands of aboriginal Canadians have made similar commitments as part of a noticeable resurgence in native spirituality. Ceremonies are now held to bestow Indian names on newborn children, to celebrate marital unions and to honour the departed. Rites once suppressed by government and religious authorities—the sun dance on the Prairies and the potlatch on the West Coast, where worldly possessions were given away—have been revived. And many Canadian Indians, particularly in areas where centuries of contact with European culture led to the disappearance of local customs, are making pilgrimages to recognized strongholds of native spirituality—places such as the Sioux, Cheyenne and Arapaho reservations in South Dakota and Wyoming.

“There’s a tremendous amount of activity these days,” says Linda Pelly-Landrie, president of the Saskatchewan Indian Cultural Centre in Saskatoon. “Indian people are realizing that their traditions are as valuable as anyone else’s.”

In Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, sweats and fasts, which disappeared a century ago, are now held on almost every Micmac and Maliseet reserve, says Andrea Bear Nicholas, a professor of native studies at St. Thomas University in Fredericton. Spiritual leaders have also revived ceremonies peculiar ! to East Coast natives. In mid-July, | Gilbert Sunipass, a Micmac from the S Buctouche Reserve, 60 km north of 4 Moncton, N.B., held a sweat lodge and feast on the first anniversary of the death of an acquaintance. About 50 to 60 people attended, though not everyone participated in the sweat. After a communal meal, family and close friends of the deceased participated in a ritualized exchange of gifts called a giveaway. “We believe it takes a spirit one year to travel from our world to the next,” said Sunipass. “When the spirit is travelling, we don’t grieve because that would delay their trip.”

The sun dance, once the most sacred rite of Prairie bands such as the Cree and Blackfoot, was prohibited by the federal government in the early 1890s to promote Christian assimilation. Some western reserves continued to hold them, but a noticeable revival has occurred in the past 10 years. Pelly-Landrie says sun dances are now held between mid-June and late August on about 60 per cent of Saskatchewan’s 74 reserves. The four-day ceremony, held

in a circular lodge built of fresh-cut poplars covered with brush and tarps, involves singing, drumming, dancing and prayer. The principal participants are the dancers, who give thanks and pray to the Creator, and who must demonstrate their commitment through sacrifice—by going without food and water. “I have danced every summer for the last 15 years,” says Pelly-Landrie, “and I will dance until I am physically unable to do so.”

The podatch was banned because it offended Christian missionaries and because it involved the redistribution of wealth, contrary to the government policy of self-sufficiency through the acquisition of property. Potlatches are now held, on average, once every two

weeks among British Columbia’s Gitxsan communities, says Heather Harris, a professor of First Nations studies at the University of Northern British Columbia in Prince George.

Harris, who is of Cree and Métis descent, says contemporary potlatches last eight to 12 hours, as opposed to four or five days in the era before they were banned, and can be held in conjunction with births, deaths, marriages and even divorces. Participants dance, listen to speeches, and share a meal while the sponsoring families must distribute gifts. Harris says she has seen as much as $55,000 in cash and goods given away

during a potlatch. “These are big events that can be the focus of peoples lives, especially a chief,” says Harris. “A persons esteem in the community comes from giving rather than keeping.”

But despite the keen interest in the past, there are many who worry that the true meaning of the old ways may not be retrievable. Paul Bourgeois, a native studies instructor at Trent University, has been observing the faith of his Ojibwa predecessors for 20 years, and spent a month this summer participating in ceremonies at a reserve in Minnesota with sons Mick, 19, and Wass, 17. Bourgeois says that many rituals, which were largely forgotten when native people began converting to Christianity, are now being resurrected at spiritual gatherings, some.» times in very creative I ways. “People in North! ern Ontario might re= member one aspect of a healing ceremony and somebody in Manitoba might have a different piece which can be incorporated to make it more complete,” he says. “Were still in the process of renewing our spirituality.”

But elders are confident the revival rests on a solid foundation. “Our young people have a real deep desire to learn about their culture,” says Harper. “I would says there’s a spiritual revolution occurring.” And it is now being passed on to a new generation of enthusiastic believers—like Harpers youthful apprentice. “I love being a fire-keeper,” says Bainbridge. “The highest compliment I can receive is when Vern says, ‘Wasté) That’s a Sioux word,” he explains. “It means everything is good.” E3