Fist-Fight at the Sunrise Ceremony, circa 1996.
Okay,there wasn’t any fist fight. Not out loud. Not with physical fists. But, i wager that, on some level, it looked just like a fist fight.
What it was billed as was an interfaith ceremony. I was attending because i was working, at that time, with a Traditional man who was pursuing ways and means to build cross-cultural bridges. One day, he told me that the Elders had said he should work with me,was i interested in hiring on for a project? Was there even the slightest chance i wouldn’t be? I’d gone to that community because i wanted just such a chance to be part of positive changes.
And, several weeks later, there we were, standing with a motley crew of spiritually inclined, community-minded people of various ethnicities and traditions, trying to cobble together a Sunrise Ceremony. We’d brought a bunch of things with us: regalia, sacred tools and medicines,prayers. But also a whole pack of weightier things, all the veils of fear, suspicion and defensiveness that our shared history – still largely unspoken, still officially subject to amnesia – could provide.
We looked at each other, trying hard to see through this swelter of veils, but choked in so many ways. And those who were speaking followed a tacit rule, not to acknowledge out loud these veils. I could see the point of having only ‘positive’ things spoken. But, that morning stays in my memory, not for the clarity of the new sun, but the clear sense of anger and suspicion shadowing us.
Desperately inappropriate, i chided myself, when i blurted out, sotto voce to my neighbour, ‘feel like there’s gonna be a fist fight.’ Worse, i never admitted to anyone there that i kind of wished there had been; it seemed it would be more authentic somehow, to greet the sun by openly displaying all our hidden aggressions, resentments and fears – like somehow then, the first rays could dissolve those veils between us. Like somehow, a physical venting would have honoured what was real.
Of course, there are far better ways to physically vent together than the classic fist fight. These days, maybe i’d suggest we run hard, all of us, for a few minutes; or dance, not some phony, stuffed-down dance of pretend serenity, but some spastically wild group release of the pent up tension.
I wonder when we’ll be the society that does that?
And how does this relate to Skirts? So many ways.
Gentle Times in Wicihitowin Square, 2015
The thing is, i recently attended a sunrise ceremony, for the lighting of a Sacred Fire at Edmonton’s City Hall; the Fire burned during the final National Gathering of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and it was one of seven fires tended across our land. That this happened, in public, witnessed by and open to people of all backgrounds, is a huge, transformative thing. It still leaves me shook up, in awe at the potential of this moment to really change our country for the better.
But, when i took my little family down to the lighting ceremony, images of that morning in BC in the 90s kept popping back into my head unbidden.
My little family is more mixed than i am. Hubby is of Britannic extraction, and so kid inherits a broad array of lineages. This is problematic for some acquaintances in Aboriginal circles. They’re not bold enough to outright say “race traitor,” to my face, but they skirt the issue with side-eyes and loaded comments. As if i wouldn’t catch on? Or because they’d know full well i grew up in an openly mixed family, but figured their feeble back-biting would somehow matter more than all the ways in which being mixed 40 years ago did?
Anyway, i was happy to go to this event, because i’ve nothing but good feelings about the woman organising it. But some part of me is always on guard.
Our original thought was to bike downtown, so we dressed for that. And then we looked at the sky and supposed we’d drive. I was occupied thinking about how, in the past, i’d have been more critical of us for that wimpy choice. And i was thinking about how this day has been so long coming, when the TRC would complete its meetings and unveil a report built to change our country profoundly.
I was not thinking about skirts.
I was not expecting there to be a tipi on site when we got to City Hall. Weren’t we just going to gather around the purpose built stone ring, and pray as the sun rose, lighting a fire to answer the arrival of the First Fire?
It transpired that a Pipe Ceremony had been arranged. Well, that changes things, i thought; as a woman, there are times when you don’t do certain ceremonies. There, i said it elliptically. Let me say it plain: i had my period, and (though i might be wrong in this) understand that menstruating women don’t do pipe ceremonies led by men.
I was about to explain to my kid that she could just go on in with her dad, when the good women organising came up and greeted us all, warmly, kindly, and with skirts and blankets in hand. Other women who’d arrived in pants were wrapped or skirted. It might have been a simple matter to say ‘thanks,’ and to lead my kid in putting on skirt or blanket.
But it wasn’t, and i didn’t. Couldn’t. Instead, I asked the kid if she wanted to, but she didn’t know why she would, so she shook her head, said, ‘I’m fine.’ So, i said ‘No thanks,’ to the offered garments, and we stepped back.
How ironic is it that the one member of our family who went into that ceremony was my Euro-Canadian hubby? Had he ever been before, i asked him after. Nope, he said. But he went, and he partook, in a spirit of willingness. I was the one stepping back.
Kid chose to stay with me, when i didn’t go in the tipi. She didn’t know what was going on, and she was looking to me for guidance. This was my side of the family, my part of her heritage, i needed to be the one to bring her into it in a good way. And i’d been prepared for it to be an outdoor circle with a smudge, not this ceremony.
I’d felt bad, somehow, when declining the ladies’ offered garments. So, i’d stepped into their little circle again, and spoke the simplest version of my truth: “Sorry, i don’t mean to offend, but i follow the teachings of my grandmother.”
Those were the only teachings that would come to mind, as the sun edged nearer. We stood back, part of things but not part of things, as people filed in to the tipi. And then, standing alone together in the brightening twilight, under a broad-armed elm on the edge of Wicihitowin Square, we talked about skirts.
My kid wanted to understand what the business with the skirts might be, and i had no explanation for her that seemed sufficient to me. I had to tell it to her plainly – this is a custom that i do not follow. I believe that wearing a skirt can be good and meaningful, but in this case, it is not a custom i follow.
Somehow, without knowing it, i’d grown a solid, spiritual objection to something that, whatever else it might mean for those who chose to do it – and respecting that it might be a very good thing for them – for me, amounted to window-dressing. Window dressing. A thing done for show.
Well, that’s the thing, isn’t it? My grandmother was in my mind at that moment, her story the touchstone for me, the clue as to why this suddenly mattered to me. That was all i had to offer my daughter: I was taught that God sees me always, sees me truly. I have a responsibility to present myself to others in ways that respect my personhood, and that respect theirs. To some people, wearing a certain garment has meaning. Those people should wear it. It is for them to know and honour what brings them into alignment with their connection to Deity. As it is for me. This is the responsibility that matters.
Right about then, we were interrupted: first, by a man who’d been evidently out all night, asking for a light for a smoke. Sorry, can’t help you, friend, we said, and he wandered on. And then, along came a woman with a searching expression. Yes, i assured her, you’ve found the ceremony. They are in the tipi. Would you like to wait with us? The fire will be lit when they come out. She’d come from St. Albert, and was glad of company; and, she was dressed in slacks. So, i mentioned that, as this was a Cree ceremony, the women were wearing skirts, and would offer her a skirt or blanket when they came out.
Well, did she have to wear one? she asked. Up to you, i said. It’s custom, but not one i personally can explain to you. You might want to ask the ladies.
Well, you’re not wearing one? Nope. Daughter and i, i smiled, we are as we are. That seemed to put her at ease, to be there as she was. I kept talking about what i understand about skirts, and how they fit into my own tradition, my own personal history, not to be confused with anyone’s authoritative pronouncements on what is acceptable group protocol. And we watched the growing light together, coming up behind the courthouse, touching clear flame to the clouds.
When the good people emerged from the tipi, we joined them round the firepit. Our new acquaintance joined with the people she knew, kid and i talked with hubby and a couple of guys he’d met inside. When i looked across awhile later, the latecomer had a skirt on. We each find our way, we each must do what is meaningful, true and respectful, to the best of our abilities.
Next post, i’ll share the story about my grandmother that mattered to me that morning.