Zamir Dhanji relates his experience at the 4th annual International Indigenous Leadership Gathering in Lilloet, Canada.
We sit in silence in the pit-house, our eyes dancing with crackling flames as we await more offerings of tobacco, sweet grass and cedar, infused with prayers to be smoke-signaled to the spirit world.
For the last two nights of the 2012 International Indigenous Leadership Gathering, the pipe of the great Lakota warrior, Crazy Horse, has been the center of ceremony for those who wish to pray with this instrument of power. In the sweat lodge last night, the pourer mentioned that pipes were so valued by his people that he had seen new trucks traded for one. Sensing surprise, he said that most don’t understand the value a pipe; never having truly prayed with one in the proper way, its power remains unrevealed.
For the First Nations people, the pipe ceremony is a sacred ritual that connects the physical and spiritual worlds. “The pipe is a link between earth and sky, nothing is more sacred. The pipe is our prayers in physical form. Smoke becomes our words; it goes out, touches everything, and becomes part of all there is. The fire in the pipe is the same as fire in the sun, which is the source of life” writes White Deer of Autumn, a Native American writer, teacher and activist.
The pipe is also a symbol of the union of masculine and feminine energies. The stem, representing the directional energy of the masculine, flows into the bowl which represents the receptive energy of the feminine. White Deer of Autumn teaches that “when a stem and a bowl are disconnected, you have two sacred objects. When a stem and a bowl are connected, you have a living being.” The pipe is thus addressed as a living being worthy of the highest respect. A story tells that the pipe was one of the tools given to the First Nations by a holy woman known as White Buffalo Calf Woman, so life on Earth could be lived in a sacred way . It was a means to support our walk on earth as a living prayer, to bring together man and woman in a sacred way, and to remind us of our sacred relationship to all life.
The pipe ceremony is open to everyone in the gathering, taking place in an underground wooden structure, circular in shape with benches lining the outer rim and a fire in the center (called a pit-house). Each person is instructed on how to prepare themselves through prayer, how to hold this sacred pipe (it was not to be smoked), and how to circle the fire. The patience and generosity of the ceremony holders is humbling; allowing so many to learn, pray and participate in a sacred ceremony without feeling judged is more difficult than most think. By 7 am, almost everyone has left the pit-house, and there are just a few people left (mostly First Nations) when two chiefs enter to perform the closing ceremony and pack up the pipe so that it can continue on to it’s next location. The door is closed, and the gatekeeper is instructed to allow no one in until the ceremony is complete.
A knock on the door brings a man who insists that he is meant to be there, and that he comes bearing food for the fire. The food is taken but he is informed that no one is allowed to enter. After some protest and continuing claims that he was told by another chief that he was supposed to be here, the gate eased open to permit his shadowed form into the kiva. Once the closing ceremony begins, a few songs are sung, and we are handed tobacco to make our final prayers. The chief makes his verbal prayer, and asks if anyone wishes to say last words before the ceremony is closed.
At this time, the man who slipped in last minute steps forth with a burning presence. He is a large man with a heavy frame, over 6 feet tall, wearing a leather vest. He begins to shake, and speaks in a loud voice: “I don’t know who I am, I don’t know what to do. This vest was given to me by Mayan priest, and now the chief told me that I was meant to come here.” Growing in intensity, he says “I’ve served overseas, travelled to 130 countries, but now I am lost. I killed eight men in the war, three with my bear hands.” Breaking down now, he continues “I used to take 96 pills a day, I stopped 18 months ago, now I don’t Know what to do, the pain is so great.”
At this point the energy is very intense, no one knew what he would do but it was clear that some kind of intervention was needed. The two chiefs quickly move to him and bring him in front of the pipe, and have him look into the fire. They start instructing him to breathe, to let go of his pain, to release his darkness to the fire. They guide him with compassion and firmness, cutting the branch from under him so that he is forced to fly, but providing him with bursts of wind until his wings begin to work. They have him call on the creator for support, to know that he is not alone and to pray with strength.
One of the pipe guardians mentions that he can sense a blockage in his stomach region, and the chief begins to massage his sternum, moving his hands across his neck and drawing something invisible out of his mouth. He repeats this as another chief tells him of how he served four times overseas, losing many friends and having to pray for peace and forgiveness. The chief commands the crying man to find strength and to ask for forgiveness, to call in the light and move through his fears. The man is struggling against his demons, trying to follow the directions, some moments showing great courage, and other moments falling back into despair.
All of a sudden the struggle is over, and the man walks back to the outer ring of circle to collect himself. The chiefs pack the pipe into the box, shake hands with everyone and exit the kiva. As we do our rounds to shake hands with everyone, I come face to face with the man of the hour. As we locked eyes, I could see a conviction in him, and inner knowing that was almost noble. He tells me to always remember the creator, to focus on my path and not to stray left or right, knowing that the creator is always behind me. His grip is firm, his message clear, and I feel empowered.
As I leave the kiva, I know something significant has happened, but it’s only later on that I realize what occurred. A man who has been suffering from post traumatic stress disorder has come into a place of prayer, distraught and broken, and within 20 minutes is masterfully guided from a place of helplessness to a place of empowerment. Had he walked into a counseling office, this work would have taken countless sessions, many pills, and likely a trip to the psychiatric ward if things got out of hand. His race didn’t matter (they treated him like a brother), and rather than being held at arms length as someone with a mental illness, he was embraced as a soul who had forgot its true nature. In 20 minutes, this man had been moved from despair to love.
In my head I examined all the judgments I had been exposed to about the damaged condition of the First Nations people, how much help they needed, and the disintegration of their culture. What I witnessed was the opposite: I saw a Canadian war veteran who was mentally stricken, with no culture to turn to for support, helped by an empowered elder with a culture that can handle very difficult situations. While he still has a long healing journey ahead, this experience will certainly prove to be a watershed moment on that journey.
I realized that the First Nations people have developed a tremendous resiliency through the massive trials and tribulations they have undergone over the last 300 years. They are a testament to the maxim of “that which does not kill you only makes you stronger”‘ with the caveat that the proper healing, reflection and integration take place. In this time of cultural, social and economic disintegration, where loss of identity is endemic, the First Nations people may be the holders of some very important medicine.
The Chinese word for crisis is composed of two characters – “danger” and “opportunity”. The danger we now face as a modern civilization is presenting us with a rare opportunity to reconcile the ancient technologies of healing, community and ritual so that we can emerge from our crises with a strengthened, renewed sense of self. It is the indigenous wisdom keepers who are the modern torch bearers, the string carriers, as we enter into the labyrinth of darkness that has been woven around our selves and our society; if we are willing to trust them and ourselves, we might discover that the journey to the light is not as difficult and painful as imagined.