What Ceremony Can Tell Us

Posted by on Jan 16, 2013 in Opinion

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I remember my parents taking me to the ceremonies. They always took place at “Naytonggong” (the original place name for “the point”).  I recall one time a medicine man had arrived from another community by boat to do the “jiiskaan” (shaking tent). My father helped with constructing the lodge, which consisted of 8 tall cedar poles about 2 inches in diameter and 10 feet tall. He dug a small hole in the ground over 3 feet deep and thrust the poles in the ground. After they were finished tying the “jiiskaan”, the women wrapped it in blankets. To me as a boy, it looked like a menacing lodge, standing way up. It was only about 2 feet in diameter. I wondered how the medicine man would fit inside.

shaking-tent1As the people were waiting for darkness, the women cooked a big feast of deer meat and fish with all the fixings. People had brought what they could for the feast. And boy, did I fill my belly good! There were no pies or desserts of any kind, like what I see at today’s feasts.

Everyone brought his or her own bowl or plate. If someone didn’t bring one, they would have to wait until someone offered their used plate, and of course they would have to go wash it by the river bank first. It was kind of embarrassing because no one wants to have to go over to the water’s edge to wash a borrowed plate.  Good teaching to remember to bring a plate to the feasts.

After the feast, the community medicine man whose name was Waachiit, welcomed the visiting medicine man. Calling him niiche kii’yenzii “my brother.”  Waachiit offered him his house and his bed.

After the passing of semaa (tobacco), the people would go to their boats and haul out their individual offerings. In our community, even now, because you are asking something from the spirits who will come into the jiiskaan, you must give something of value and importance.

I stood in awe as I looked at what people had brought. There were so many offerings that I could only see the medicine man’s hat.  He sat surrounded by offerings of blankets, nets, guns, household implements coats and shoes. The people had nothing but they gave away things that were of value and importance to them to get that spiritual message from the shaking tent. That is how important the ceremonies were for us. Bagitchegawaa is the word for “offerings” but it means something you worked for.  We had to work hard in order to have things for offerings.  We don’t think of these material items in the ‘western’ concept of comparing them with wealth or personal gain.  In the Anishinaabe way, the offerings are about keeping things in balance.

The medicine man paid no attention to the offerings, instead he got up to speak. Holding his pipe he spoke in the language and said,”Giitanii’onitomin. Giinibiiminaan anii nishonatch chigaate. Awe qwezens kemaage oganii aatawen nibi.” (“Our ways are slowly disappearing. Our waters are being polluted. Maybe in this boy’s lifetime (pointing at me) he will have to buy his water from the store”). I remember this clearly because about 15 years ago I had to start buying water from the store when the water I drank from the lake as a young man was deemed unsafe to drink.  He said many things about caring for the land.  He said to not take too many animals and just enough to feed your family, he would say.

After the ceremonies they sat around the fire and as it got really dark, the medicine man crawled in the jiiskaan. The tent began to sway, back and forth, like a big wind had come up . There were strange sounds coming from in there. My mother told me “don’t be scared,” but I couldn’t help but be scared. The spirits were powerful. I could see the tent as it glowed from the fire, swaying almost as if it would touch the ground, than to the other side. It was swaying all over. The spirits were coming in and going and they all had different sounds. Every person that had come to ask a question had approached the jiiskaan and got their answer. No one left until the medicine man had crawled out. They quickly helped him up to stand by the fire and they talked to him about the lake and other stuff.  Now I understand today why they did that. It was to bring his mind back and ground him to this world.

That was my first experience to the jiiskaan. I was about 8 years old. There would be hundreds more jiiskaan ceremonies I would witness growing up. The elders always told my parents to bring me to the ceremonies and to let me listen. They told them “one day he will do what we do”. So I was always listening to songs and hearing elders talk, laugh and dance.

I remember those ceremonies and feel lucky I grew up to experience these things. I remember how we were told to take care of the land and to just take what we need from it.  I remember how my people came together with offerings even though we didn’t have anything.  And I remember how well they treated visitors.

Today, hardly anyone treats visitors well anymore or gives a lot for their offerings. And many rely on others to create their feast. Hardly anyone is coming to the feast with their bowls. Let’s think about that and all that it means.

What Idle No More has been doing is waking up the people when for a long time we were waiting for things to happen.  The nets won’t set themselves, and we have to be the ones to make the changes we want.

The shaking tent looks far ahead for our people. The spirit world helps us when we ask for their help.  And that is why I always stress to ask in ceremony to allow the spirits and ancestors to guide us.  Let them show us the way.  If we use our heads, and only our heads, it won’t go far.  But if we use the spirits, they will carry us a long way.


Follow on Twitter: @alowhite1

Alo White (Mide Kiwenzie/Bizhew Dodem /Nanaan Mide) is respected for the knowledge he carries of Anishinaabe language culture, songs & spiritual ceremonies from his community of Naotkamegwanning First Nation (Treaty 3) in Northwestern Ontario.  He is currently working on a series of recordings under his label Alo White Recording Studios, recording Elders from the Treaty 3 area under the project titled “Preserving Anishinaabe Music.”



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  1. Tony Belcourt
    January 16, 2013

    Marci for sharing this important message. I am grateful that those of you with this knowledge are sharing this so openly. It was not long ago that knowledge keepers refused to use the new technology. But as you know, fewer and fewer have been coming to the fire and have lost their traditions and protocols. The use of the new technology and social media tools will be invaluable in restoring this knowledge and I say thanks to you for doing this. I lay samaa aside for you. Hi Hi.

    • Oshkawbewisens Roberta
      January 17, 2013

      Miigwech for the sharing, this is important, our ceremonies are our life and the fewer need to learn to listen and learn these teachings that our old ones have. our resources are plentiful and to use them is a gift. Sema offerings to our mother earth and cleansing or purifying beginning of the day and before sleeping is always good, miigwech Tony and Alo. there is more,

  2. Judith Pierce Martin
    January 16, 2013

    Wonderful article. Its an excellent point you make, not only for Native people, but for everyone. Thank you.

  3. aaron
    January 17, 2013

    great story & insight, thanks

  4. Ursula Pflug
    January 18, 2013

    Larry McDermott told me he and Grandfather William (Commanda) had done shaking tent for my mother’s friend Lorraine, Larry’s cousin, to find out her clan. I had not understood what was meant and understand more now. This is beautifully told, Alo, thank-you.

  5. Leanne
    January 18, 2013

    Thank-you Alo for sharing your story. These are the stories that need to be told and I think our perspective is bang on. Meegwetch.

  6. denis
    January 18, 2013

    The Residential Schools stole this all away from myself and all the other poor souls who had to endure and perservere! I have forgiven them! I have found that if hate is in you,it will destroyyou!–Migwetch!

  7. Telford Elliott
    January 18, 2013

    Miigwetch for sharing.

    • Raymond michell
      January 20, 2013

      Every day I learn more I am grateful for each day one thing I was taught way back there I can’t change the past only now and tomorrow better….I’ve learned a lot this past month for the better it is about the air the water and grandmother politics and politicians are meaningless in the scheme of things we have the power to shift the wind in the favor of all that is good we all know this I feel it when I walk on the earth thank you creator thank you ancestors