My first encounter with this Plains Indian (as we called them then) ceremony was at the turn of the century at Crossroads. Looking back, the concept of Crossroads was revolutionary, bringing sixty Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal women from Calgary and area together for a weekend long “sharing circle” to explore the challenges and opportunities facing urban Aboriginal youth. The theme was not as important as the gathering itself. This was a first. All but a few of the participants had ever had a meal with a woman from the other culture. We were in every sense foreign to each other even though, geographically, we were neighbours.
It had taken nine months to plan with an extraordinary team of courageous women from both cultures who committed to understand each other, exercise patience with each other’s cultural idiosyncrasies and unconscious biases, calmly point out insensitivities, all united in the common goal of finding common ground. This is where I had my first taste of art and experience as a powerful tool for profound change. We were appropriating what Indigenous people have known and lived for millennia – art, design, creation is in everything.
On Day 1 of the conference, we all stepped into the liminal space – so much was new. As a white person who thought she knew A LOT, the signs and cues of “difference” were incoming from every direction. For example, a number of the women had brought their families – including their husbands! Imagine! How would we explain the increased numbers to the hotel’s catering staff?? How could these women focus on the task at hand? Who would think that this is appropriate? Who?? People who value family first, a family that often includes children “adopted” due to adverse circumstances. Imagine. A community where one family takes on the care of children because the parents died tragically, the mother was too young…Imagine. Living in a community where members, above all, take care of each other.
On Day 2, we were concluding a session and the group was gelling, a cacophony of women laughing and sharing. Needing to get everyone’s attention, rather than whistle or shout, well-meaning Julie took a drum down off the wall and began to beat it. A deafening silence followed and the mood darkened. Marie took me aside to explain. This is a ceremonial drum and use in this manner and by a white person is a serious infraction. I explained: She didn’t know. We couldn’t know.
The Elder in the group took charge. She gathered us all, sat us down in a circle, and took out her smudge kit. (The white organizers were angsting about all of this getting us behind schedule). She rolled up sage leaves, picked off sweetgrass, and nestled these medicines into a seashell and lit the little bundle, fanning it with a sacred eagle feather. (Now we were fidgeting about the fire alarm going off.) And she prayed in the language of her people: Oki…..
She bathed herself in the grey green smoke, pulling it inward, her hands treating it like water, pouring it back over her hair, holding it to her eyes, ears and mouth, her heart, over her shoulders and down the rest of her body. And then she stood, holding the shell and feather and this ritual was repeated by every participant. We let go of time. We cleansed ourselves and all evil spirits left the space.
Twenty years later, I smudge every morning and every evening. Here is how I’ve adapted it over the years.
East meets West in this, my daily morning ritual. I am not the first to observe the similarities between Buddhist and Indigenous ways of knowing and understanding the world. The concepts of interbeing and interdependence, respect for nature and our environment, or “earth as mother”, are fundamentals in both. The fusion of these universal traditions sets my intention for the day and puts me in a place of compassion for all my fellow beings, two-legged and four-legged.
It begins with smudging, a ceremony for purifying or cleansing the soul of negative thoughts and it should represent the four elements of earth, wind, air and fire. The vessel I use is a shell, representing water. The earth consists of the sacred plants, the medicines, which I have tailored over the years to include the two essentials, Sage and Sweetgrass, which have been picked from the lands of the neighbouring Siksika and Tsuut’ina Nations and blessed by their respective Elders, my brother Miiksikaam (Red Crane) and Vanessa.
Sage grows abundantly and seven different kinds are used on the plains. When burned, the smoke relieves headaches, and a tea of the leaves loosens up a heavy chest or sore throat. It rids toxins, settles sore stomachs, is excellent for arthritis and is an all-around “energizer”. It is used to cure horses. I inhale it to cleanse my spirit and get closer to my true nature, which the Buddhists claim is the seat of compassion.
Sweetgrass is a sacred plant used for prayer, ceremony and medicine. It relieves sharp pains, cures colds, and the wash of tea relieves the soreness of windburn and chapped skin. And it smells nice, great for shiny hair. I bathe in the smoke to purify my thoughts.
I introduce lavender for its anti-inflammatory and antiseptic properties, and particularly for how it addresses anxiety, insomnia, depression and restlessness.
Sweet Pine is the common name for Alpine Fir, considered to be holy incense, and is used in smudges for medicine pipe bundles and transfer ceremonies. Sweet pine, its tea, its smoke, its “gum” can heal conditions from headache and faintness to tuberculosis and venereal disease. This was gifted to me first as a bough which I dried in the oven and ground using a mortar and pestle, and second in powder form, both gifts from my friend the Chief who had harvested it from the hills in Kananaskis.
When the shell is full, the ashes are returned to mother earth, either buried or sprinkled, with a word of thanks for the gifts.
I enjoy the sensual experience of stripping the sage leaves off the stem and rolling them into a little ball, adding a pinch from the tip of the braid of Sweetgrass, separating the lavender buds from the shoot and sprinkling them atop of the Sweetgrass and icing this medicine truffle with Sweet Pine powder.
Lighting the smudge (with a wooden match) represents the element of fire and the smoke produced constitutes the air.
Once lit, I use the feather of a red-tailed hawk, sometimes an eagle, to fan the flame and produce the rich and thick grey-green smoke. Pulling the smoke inward, I begin by “washing my hair” and thanking Creator for another day, an opportunity for generosity and compassion, for suffering and healing. Next I bathe, my eyes, ears, mouth, throat and heart, and finally my feet, pronouncing out loud:
“May my eyes see clearly
And my ears hear with compassion
May my words be true and my voice be helpful.
May my heart be open.
May I travel safely and in a good direction.”
I sit in meditation, closing with the Buddhist practice known as Tonglen, each in-breath taking in others’ pain, each out-breath, sending them relief. As I sit, I feel that “I am home”. And I am ready for the day and all that it brings.