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OJIBWAY FIRST NATIONS CULTURE, CRAFTS AND CEREMONIES

Story and photos by

Arnelda Jacobs is a member of the bear clan. She lives in the Serpent River First Nation Reservation. Located between Elliot Lake and Lake Huron's North Channel, the reservation is halfway between Sudbury and Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, Canada.

Isabelle, Arnelda's sister, holds pearly everlasting at Serpent River First Nation.
Isabelle, Arnelda's sister, holds pearly everlasting at Serpent River First Nation.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

In Ojibway tradition, the bear people were responsible for the security of the community. They spent much of their time patrolling the perimeter of the village. In the woods, they gained a vast knowledge of medicinal uses of the flowers, berries, leaves, barks and roots of plants.

"As children, we were brought up as Catholics. The church told us to forget our Native beliefs because they were bad," says Arnelda. "I became ashamed that I was an Indian."

Today, Arnelda is rediscovering her roots, in both senses of the words. "I'm now proud of who I am," she states.

Ojibway language and culture

The church is also evolving. "At the Catholic school in Elliot Lake, as well as in the area's public schools, children now have a one-hour cultural class every day," she says. "Ojibway people teach them the language and the ways of our culture."

She admits that it is a long, hard journey. "Because nothing was written down, much was forgotten. We are slowly learning the legends from our elders. It's like a jigsaw puzzle, because each elder knows only part of the story.

"The Creator works in strange ways," she adds. "He sent someone from the Shuswap Nation, in British Columbia, to teach us how to build a sweat lodge, for example. The elder said he was returning a favour, because someone from the Ojibway Nation had once helped them."

How to build and use a sweat lodge

Arnelda shares her quest with her sister, Isabelle Meawasige, and her partner Blain Commanda. Isabelle and Blain bring us to their Place of Healing. Here, on the tranquil, forested shore of Lake Huron's North Channel, they built a five-metre-high ceremonial tepee and a sweat lodge.

Isabelle and Blain show sweat lodge used for healing weekends by Lake Huron.
Isabelle and Blain show sweat lodge used for healing weekends by Lake Huron.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

"We hold healing weekends here," says Isabelle. "In order for us to heal Mother Earth for the damage done to her, by cutting trees and digging mines, we need to have a cleansing. You use saunas for physical cleansing," she says. "We use sweat lodges for physical and spiritual cleansing." (Isabelle and Arnelda, both social workers, use a holistic approach to healing, as their ancestors did, long before the term became fashionable.)

Blain explains that a sweat lodge is a turtle-shaped frame, covered with a carpet, tarps and blankets. "Inside, there's a pit, which we fill with hot rocks heated in a spirit fire outside. Other than wood, the only things that go into a spirit fire are tobacco, cedar, sage or sweet grass. No newspaper. No gasoline. No garbage."

Medicine wheel

Earlier, Arnelda taught us about the medicine wheel, an indigenous sacred healing symbol, which helps people lead a more balanced life. "The Creator gave us four medicines: tobacco, cedar, sage and sweet grass. Each sits in one of the four cardinal directions of the medicine wheel."

We recall her words as Isabelle explains what happens inside the sweat lodge. "After putting sage and cedar medicine water on the hot rocks, we close the door. We pray to the east, sing a song, and then open the door to bring in more hot rocks. Again, we repeat the praying and singing, facing the remaining directions."

Outside the sweat lodge, we see black, red, yellow and white pieces of cloth tied to the pines and birches. "These four colours are part of the medicine wheel," says Isabelle.

"Each cloth faces a cardinal direction. They are also the four colours of the peoples inhabiting Mother Earth. The Creator wants us to learn from each other and get along with each other."

Talking circles and eagle feathers

It's lunch time. Isabelle and Blain serve us coffee and sandwiches made with Arnelda's delicious homemade bread. As we eat, they tell us about the talking circles inside the tepee.

"For us, eagle feathers are sacred. Whoever holds the feather in the talking circle has the floor and can speak as long as he or she wants," notes Blain. "Even if people are long-winded, we sit and listen if they hold the feather. It teaches us patience."

Blain and Isabelle patiently answer our many questions. When the topic shifts to medicinal herbs, they suggest we join them on a walk.

Aboriginal uses of medicinal plants

We trail Blain, as he sure-footedly and swiftly climbs over rocks, ducks under branches and crouches down to examine the ground. Our first discovery is gowgabgonce, a heart medicine, which grows around the base of spruce trees.

Isabelle teaches visitors about aboriginal medicinal plants used by the Ojibway.
Isabelle teaches visitors about aboriginal medicinal plants used by the Ojibway.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Other plants sound more familiar. "Blueberry leaves are part of our diabetic medicine," says Isabelle. "Juniper berries improve memory. And strawberry leaves, boiled into tea, prevent diarrhea." We learn that tamarack tea soothes arthritis pain, and cedar leaves, placed in your socks, relieve tired feet.

As we gather around Isabelle, she explains that plants are spiritual beings in Native culture. "If we're going to harvest a plant, we first offer tobacco in exchange for taking its life."

Harvesting golden thread

A few minutes later, we follow the tradition, when Blain shows us some golden thread. Before we pick the small green plant, he pours some tobacco into our palms and instructs us to deposit it into the earth. As we extract the plant, a long golden root follows. "We sell it by the inch to treat canker sores and stomach problems."

Gowgabgonce, a First Nations' heart medicine
Gowgabgonce, a First Nations' heart medicine
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

It begins to rain. "The plants are drinking," says Arnelda who joins us. She drives us to Blain and Isabelle's home where they show us their collection of dried herbs, neatly bagged and labelled.

"We're still learning," Isabelle explains, pointing to some books on herbs, "by reading, by listening to our elders, and by sharing information with other Nations during powwows."

We, too, are learning. Arnelda, Blain and Isabelle join us in our cabin at Frontier Lodge, where we're spending the night. Sitting around the fireplace, they teach us about another tradition.

Smudging with sweet grass and sage

"Smudging is one of our most ancient ceremonies," says Arnelda. "It's thousands of years old. We use it to cleanse and purify our bodies and minds. You can smudge yourself, individually, to rid your mind of negativity, or you can do it as a group."

Blain fills an abalone shell with sage. "We also burn cedar, tobacco or sweet grass," he says. He ignites the dried herb and fans the fragrant sweet smoke with an eagle feather, first washing himself with the smoke, then each of us in turn.

The ceremony reminds us of Christian rituals with incense. As if to confirm our thoughts, Isabelle adds, "We say prayers, as we smudge, asking the Great Spirit to cleanse us."

Black ash baskets

Afterwards, Arnelda shows us some black ash baskets, which she made, and others made by her daughter (one of 11 children) and her mother. "Basket-making is a traditional craft," she says.

"Legends tell us that the Creator told a chief, in a dream, that his starving people would survive if they made baskets from the black ash tree. Following instructions from the dream, they wove the baskets, and traded them for food."

Ojibway, Arnelda Jacobs, displays her black ash baskets.
Ojibway, Arnelda Jacobs, displays her black ash baskets.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

As we admire the fine workmanship, Arnelda explains that she now passes the craft on to other women. "It takes about a week to learn the basics," she says, "from finding the tree, to pounding and peeling off the layers, to cutting and dyeing the strips, and finally, weaving the baskets. My mother always said: 'If you know how to weave baskets, you'll never go hungry.' "

Vision quests

The conversation turns to Vision Quests, the rites of passage made by boys when they become men. Later, we talk about sacred places, like Thunder Mountain and Rooster Rock, and pictographs painted and carved into rock by their ancestors.

We are touched by the openness and willingness of Arnelda, Isabelle and Blain to share their culture. "Some Native people are reluctant to disclose their knowledge to outsiders," admits Arnelda. "In the past, non-Natives took away our resources, our lands and even our medicines, and sold them for monetary gain. We believe that in order to heal Mother Earth, we need to learn from each other.

"If the people who cut down the Brazilian rainforest and the trees in Canada don't learn that their actions destroy animals, medicinal plants and Mother Earth, they won't stop the destruction. Our elders have always told us that we don't own Mother Earth. We are only keepers of the land. And we must preserve it the way the Creator intended."

Note: Arnelda Jacobs sadly passed away in January 2017.


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