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Of Dogma and Ceremony

August 16, 2013

by Tara Williamson

This article is about dogma. Not Christian dogma or Western political dogma, but North American Indigenous dogma. And, particularly (because that is the tradition I am from), Ojibwe and Cree dogma.

You know what I mean.  It starts off as rules. Medicine people aren’t supposed to kill things.  You shouldn’t pay for medicine.  Women need to wear skirts to ALL ceremony. Women don’t sit at a drum.  And, ceremony should definitely, DEFINITELY, not be documented.

I want to start with some stories about my great-grandmother, Kaapiidashiik.  My kookoo was a medicine woman.  And she was a good medicine woman. One of those women people travelled miles to see.  One of my favourite stories is about how, when my mother told her there was a strange man in the yard, Kaapiidashiik locked up the doors and windows and huddled in the corner of the house behind a rocking chair with her granddaughter (my mother) and a loaded shotgun aimed at the door.  My kookoo used to sell red willow baskets to make extra money for the family.  That same red willow was used for kinnickinick.  She harvested her own medicine and used to make a medicine of a hundred roots that would cure TB.  Although she was a traditional person, I can’t imagine that she checked her snares in a skirt or that she waited for my grandfather to come home before taking care of her own fire.  In fact, the most beautiful thing my mother remembers about Kaapiidashiik and Michael (my great-grandfather) was that they shared their home responsibilities across gender roles.  She remembers their partnership as respectful, loving, and kind.

And, so, when I hear people today criticizing something like the filming of segments of a ceremony like the Sundance, part of me hurts because I come from a tradition where surviving (and, indeed, thriving) involved bending rules. The other part of me is conflicted and understands peoples’ concerns.

The dilemma for me is that I cannot understand my history in terms of dogma.  Nor can I understand my present in terms of dogma.  Every day, I make decisions that my ancestors never had to make (where to buy my food, how to give an offering while I live in a city, etc.), and every day I benefit from decisions that they made.  I believe wholeheartedly that the reason I was lucky enough to grow up with tradition is because my relatives were clever enough to bend the rules.  I believe my family has the language because they learned to whisper in school. I believe we still know how to give offerings of asemaa because we learned to replace natural tobacco with cigarettes.  I believe we still have ceremony because we hid ourselves so well that nobody noticed.  I believe we still believe in Gichi-manidoo because we understood how much this spirit looked like GOD.  And, so, it is hard for me to condemn those who try to bend the “rules” – even now.

How do we fault people who are doing the best that they can?

Recently, David Blacksmith has come under fire for allowing APTN to come to a Sundance and film parts of this ceremony.  I want to be upfront and say that David Blacksmith is my cousin. He is married to Sheryl Blacksmith who is the daughter of Charlotte & (the late) Ernest Daniels who are cousins of my mother. We share a grandmother.  They are my family.  And, when I heard about this event, I too was conflicted.  But I thought about my Uncle Joe Esquash – who passed that Sundance along to David – and my heart softened.  Uncle Joe is the most respectful, kind-hearted, traditional person I know.  And, I know that David would never have made a decision about this ceremony without Uncle Joe.

And, so, I was forced to contextualize this issue.  How could I condemn his actions when I knew the people and intentions involved?

And, I realized I couldn’t.  That is the power of our spirituality.  Context matters.  The potential repercussions of making such a decision were not taken lightly.  Nor will they be realized in the short term.  Because I know these teachers, I know that a decision was made in the best way that it could be made.  It is true that I don’t think there isn’t a definitive right or wrong answer to this situation, but it is also true that being flexible in times of need is what has helped us to survive as Anishinaabeg.

For example, I have learned that people under the influence of drugs or alcohol should not be using the “sacred” medicines (sage, cedar, tobacco, sweetgrass).  Yet, in my work as a social worker, and truly in my own life, it is sometimes those times that I need the help of medicine most.  Who am I to say that the drunk man on the street cannot breathe the sweet smell of wiingashk? Where does this teaching come from? Furthermore, if everything we put into our body is medicine, does this mean that this same man should not eat? Should not drink water? The most sacred thing of all? I cannot believe our teachings allow this.

Similarly, when we find many of our people living in urban areas or struggling with addiction and the effects of residential school, who are we to say that they should not hear something of the Sundance, even from somebody on tv?

Yes, you should have your own opinions, based on your own teachings and understandings. I have mine (and, you might be surprised to learn them, given this particular piece of writing).  But, do not forget that the reason you have an opinion is because our relatives before us created space for us to learn and think. And this is the most generous gift.  Our teachings aren’t ten commandments etched in stone.  Our ceremonies aren’t confined to Sundances and Sweats.  Our teachings are gifts.  And, our ceremonies are manifested in our everyday lives.

So, before we condemn others’ actions, I hope we can see:

the re-evaluation of women’s teachings in the context of colonialism, misogyny, and Christianity;

the dilemma of paying for medicine in the context of oil prices, limited harvests, and remoteness;

the documentation of ceremony given the stats of residential school and addiction we all preach about.

Because, without context our practice as Indigenous peoples becomes a dogmatic religion that can no longer adapt and survive the way we have so far through the onslaught of colonialism, nation-statehood, Christianity, and so much more.  By making judgments based on dogma and insinuating that one person’s actions are opening a proverbial floodgate, we are assuming the worst of someone’s actions and we rob those people of the most important ceremony and gifts of all – our ability to think critically and exercise free will.

Hold up your relatives.

We are all doing the best that we can.


Tara Williamson is an Anishinaabekwe/Nehayowak who was raised in Gaabishkigamaag, Swan Lake, Manitoba and is a member of the Opaskwayak Cree Nation. She has degrees in social work, law, and Indigenous governance and is currently a Professor at Fleming College in Nogojiwanong (Peterborough, Ontario).  She is a musician, aunty, sister, daughter, and poet.

27 Comments leave one →
  1. August 16, 2013 1:20 pm

    Thank you for writing this piece. I am studying to be a social worker and during a practicum I was explained to by an elder of that specific Nation about why some of the songs survived. She told me that the individuals she grew up with drummed and sang when they drank, but that was the only time (under the influence) they were comfortable with being able to drum and sing due to their residential school and assimilationist experiences. She told me, “I can’t say no, thats not allowed because we wouldn’t still have the songs today if that didn’t happen or those songs didn’t help them heal.”

    • Tara Williamson permalink
      August 16, 2013 5:25 pm

      Aaniin Helen,
      Miigwech for sharing that story. There are so many stories like this that helped our traditions survive. Good luck in social work!

  2. Joseph Mercredi permalink
    August 16, 2013 5:30 pm

    I agree, completely.

  3. Kevin Nanaquewitang permalink
    August 16, 2013 7:27 pm

    I am in total disagreement with allowing a crew, any crew, to go onto a ground to film a ceremony. If these ceremonies are going to survive encroachment of the modern world, then we need to keep them out of the limelight. The only people filming attracts are the ones looking for another way to make a dollar. And ceremony is nothing sacred to greed.

  4. August 17, 2013 2:47 pm

    I agree that we have to relax our rules around ceremonies. I am of Ojibwa Cree ancestry, and a retired social worker. I facilitate healing circles for women in recovery from addictions and prostitution, and all I ask is that they come to the circle respectfully dressed. We lost much of our ceremonies, teachings and language during the residential school era. In the 70’s some of us left the reserve and went looking for teachers who would be willing to share their knowledge with us. It was difficult finding them at first because they were afraid of being found out and imprisoned. Eventually Elders started coming forward and as we earned their trust, they cautiously shared their knowledge. It was humbling for me and I learned to be patient and respectful, and I treasured and protected that knowledge with great care, for fear of losing it again. Today I practice what I have learned and willingly share with those who wish to learn.

  5. Conrad Bobiwash permalink
    August 17, 2013 4:35 pm

    Dogma is for people who are afraid to leave the dark. A few years back I was working on the shores of James Bay and I witnessed traditionalists who refuse to help a drunk man and left him in the cold on the steps. That lesson showed me the truth of where we stand today(context).
    My family are traditionalist in the sense that we put our needs aside and challenge the spirit to awaken,to light up and become beacon for others,thereby becoming the light.
    Awaken the human spirit is for humans with a speck of courage and is a gift from the example of our relatives.This great sense of peace that comes from helping others really is holy.
    Every day we see lessons,but can we be children and learn from challenges.

  6. August 18, 2013 12:46 am

    I am from a tribe of Northern California, we have been high lighted in three documentaries, one ‘In the light of Reverence’, ‘Dancing the Salmon Home’ and now ‘Standing on Sacred Ground’, some portions of our ceremonies were filmed but we had the say in what should be seen and heard, no complete songs. For us it is vital that some of what we do and have always done is preserved on film. Out here in the west we were not allowed to practice our way of life in the open until the late 60’s and 70’s. It was just 2006 when we won the right to use an old village site and sacred grounds for our coming of age ceremonies for our young women.
    we have been derecognized, part of the assimilation/decimation policies, close to 500,000 native peoples from California fall into this catch 22. We are a tribe, practicing ages old ceremonies in our traditional lands but have to beg for the right to do it. (sometimes we just do it)
    We face the same dilemma’s should we or should we not allow outsiders, should we let people know were our sacred sites are, how do we stop the privation for profit use of our ways. What now. some of our spirit calling songs and doctoring songs show up from time to time in sweat lodges or Pow-wow’s. One of our most sacred songs a crossing over song was sang to open a pow-wow, once the person learned what he was singing he will never do that one again. To him it was just a real spiritual sounding song he thought he needed to sing. Just as a spirit calling song being used as a closing song, call in the spirits and then every body leaves and leaves the spirit there with nothing to do and no going home some so they can leave.
    We have a film out also “Ceremony is not a crime” detailing what we sometime have to go through just to be who we are. for links to the struggle just to be a California Indian.
    There are only about 38,000 recognized California Indians. That changes as people get dis-enrolled for a bigger piece of the casino cash or family squabbles.

  7. James Maracle permalink
    August 19, 2013 1:36 pm

    I agree with your article and believe that Aboriginal people need to adapt in order to survive. Additionally, I don’t think that the purpose of documenting such events is to make money. It is my hope that the increased exposure might create support for Aboriginal peoples among our non-Aboriginal neighbours.

    • April 14, 2014 2:20 am

      this is what happens when our way of life is altered, we forget who we are , this here is a good example, here James says we’re aboriginals, thats what is called colonialism and assimilation, everyone has a right to do whatever they feel is right,if you want to film a sundance, thats your right, I disagree with that, but just because I do, doesnt mean you cant do it,, the thing is there is a reason for all the traditions as you call them,, too much is put on this term,, I personally and simply refer to it as my way of life,, and no one is going to take that from me, just as you have a right to do what ever you want, there are those too that have that same right to hang on to the belief that these should not be filmed,, and just because theyre some people that sat at the grum drunk,/ that doesnt mean that it was okay to bend the rules,, come to think of it, there were no rules,to bend , there was and still is, very simply ,our way of life,,,,, if this is something where people want to feel lke everyone is on side with this, just go ahead and do it, but dont come down on those of us that would never do these things,, the white man taught our people good, how not to listen when we should be,, I can see that opposite spirit at work all the time, saying it wont hurt anything if you bend the rules go ahead,, thats how the white man opperates, dont get me wrong, I have many white friends, I say this, not because I hate them ,I say this because i sometimes dont like what we’ve learned from them,, and how easily our people picked up on that, So, just do it, dont worry about what others think,,,you have a right, you dont need everyones approval,,,Theres reason why Elders have said no, to many things that have been happening, they dont want their ceremonies diluted , once that happens you change the teaching of that ceremony,, one other trait our people have learned is,,, that if one Elder says no,, move on to or find one that will agree with you,, on a final note, you have to know where you come from and know who you really are, to know where you are going, just my opinion

  8. alex permalink
    August 19, 2013 4:48 pm

    Tara- Thank you for writing this important article. It is time we addressed dogma in our communities and I really appreciate that you have linked misogyny with colonialism (and I would add heteropatriarchy), since it is most often women’s and lgbt bodies, clothing and actions that are regulated as the result.
    Opaskwayak Cree Nation

    • Tara Williamson permalink
      August 20, 2013 5:15 pm

      Alex! Tansi! I just noticed you are from OCN! Always happy to meet people from the territory!

  9. michael permalink
    August 19, 2013 7:11 pm

    Nice piece Tara. I think it is also important that before we make such changes that we truly understand the reason some things are held in place. I am watching the opposite occur where individuals, whether based on a good heart or ego, are picking up ceremonies without truly understanding all that is behind. Pipes are being passed quickly, and individuals are leading others as “Elders”, “Medicine persons”, “teachers” based upon going to a limited number of ceremonies. What we have lost is our checks and balances, particularly in urban areas. Individuals are put in, or take up certain roles without the proper checks, preparation and guidance. In my view, this is a big part of the reason we have individuals abusing others through our ceremonies, and why some people become disillusioned with the ceremonies. In our past, our leaders, including our medicine people, took a long time to develop their gifts. They had a person or persons guiding them. We got to see them develop and know what they could do–good and bad. So, while I support your commentary, we need to at least recognize this additional dynamic that our communities are facing. There is more than dogma present.

    Hopefully, this matter will get us discussing these points supportively with one another so we become clearer on our understandings and stronger as communities.

  10. Tara Williamson permalink
    August 19, 2013 7:53 pm

    Aaniin akina awiyag – greetings everyone,

    Miigwech for your thoughts and words. I’m grateful people have taken the time to engage this issue. This conversation is so important to have, I think.
    So, thank you for your thoughtful reflection.

  11. Rebecca permalink
    August 20, 2013 9:24 am

    We need to know the true meaning of the teachings and protocols, to honour what the spirit gave to us. The spirit is constantly moving and urging us to change because the world we live in is changing. Our ancestors knew that change was coming, they knew the prophecies and lived in a beautiful way, through incredible struggle, so that we could inherit what we have today. If we choose a spiritual life, we should know where it is our teachings come from. It can take a lifetime to find the real teachers, the real elders, who can trace the genealogy of their practices to the very beginning. It takes true commitment. It’s not for everyone, but we need these ones among our people so that we all can stay strong. Today and in 100 years, there needs to be safe places for people to go for medicines, to receive healing from the sweat lodge, and our other ceremonies that were given to us to heal the people. These gifts will only remain intact if the teachings and sacred stories of their origins are maintained to ensure their fullness.

    When “rules” are created out of ego, without meaning, our people are left behind. Some of these rules are actually trivial, because they miss the true meaning of the teaching. It hurts to think of these situations that happen to often, bad experiences that individuals may have with one person or one rule that may turn them away from the spirit for too long.

    We need teachers and a community that supports our free will. This is one of the most sacred gifts given to us.

    But we also need to support those ones who carry the truth, those who have an unbroken connection. We must learn as much as we can from them and honour their work. In our own lives, we choose how we will listen and work with the spirit. We choose how we treat others and how we do ceremony.

  12. August 20, 2013 12:01 pm

    Great article. I agree with you the most part. Creator’s garden was meant to be shared for those that want to know. Our ceremonies were shared with the Europeans until the likes of the Jesuits and missionaries started interferring. Colonial governments interferred and outlawed our ceremonies. We had to go underground to protect our ceremonies. Strict protocals was put in place. Elders met in the 70’s and concluded that the ceremonies were too strict that they turn the youth away. The time was to restore the ceremonies for our people and to invite once again other peoples if they are interested. Today, many people around the World participate in the Sundance. Creator’s garden is getting restored. Many years ago an Elder from Alberta shared that the Anishinaabe were very much adoptable people. Always taking advantage of new current medicines. We were never frozen in time. He then started to light up his pipe and a bic lighter. I attended to a three fires sweat lodge. The story about the late Hermis Atkinson accepted a person who was not sober into his sweat lodge stating at least he came for healing. Now, I believe there is a place for protocal to protect our ceremonies from being watered down and to protect the safety of others. That is why people should be mentored and trained by Traditional Elders. They say your are always the apprentice until your teacher returns to spirit. As for filming ceremonies, I say there is a limit. There are some ceremonies that you do not film/picture when calling spirits/helpers. Its always been this way including women on thier moon time around ceremonies. Always clarify with the Spritual leader in charge. Now, as for David, he seems to know what can be shared and what needs to be sacred. Good discussions all round.

  13. shawn permalink
    August 22, 2013 10:42 pm

    Great article Tara.
    Totally agree with your comments. The term ‘fundamentalist’ gets used to describe Islamic or Christian terrorists, but I think that often fundamentalists within traditional Indigenous spirituality are terrorizing many within our own communities. We’ve already learned too well from the catholic church how to institutionalize sexual abuse and cover it up. Most dogmatic interpretation of ‘traditional’ spirituality I’ve witnessed is more of the same systematic oppression of women and two-spirit people in our communities. How long will it be before Cree women are forced to wear burqas?
    We need to be free to think and speak our own minds. We need to be free to practice our religious traditions as we interpret them in our modern context. We need to be free to debate and decide for ourselves. We are not a dead culture – we must be allowed to grow and change. We need to decide for ourselves what is to be shared and how, rather than have dogma forced upon us in deciding what is ‘too sacred’ to share. Everything that we do in life is a sacred ceremony if we go about our business with consciousness of the sacred in the everyday.
    The irony of fundamentalists is that they aren’t really following the fundamentals of our beliefs. Practicing Love in my actions, for All My Relations; this is my fundamental belief. I don’t see the love or respect for all my relations in dogma that excludes, supresses or imposes upon others.
    Now – you’d better see things my way, and do away with your dogma in favour of mine, or I’ll put some bad medicine on you!
    (humour – that’s another of my fundamental values!)

  14. September 1, 2013 11:12 am

    Great piece regarding ceremony and traditional teachings. As follower of the Red Path I only speak for myself when I say while times have changed our traditions must remain true. This is not to say there is a black and while line that needs to be drawn when it comes to certain things. However, some things are sacred and should remain so. A true spiritualist or traditionalist knows this. It comes from years of teaching and training. While some rules are flexible they should not be so flexible that they become sacrilege. Msit Nogmaq (All My Relations).

  15. Conrad Bobiwash permalink
    October 19, 2013 7:11 pm

    One of the clearest experiences that validated my families tradition,was when traditional peoples in a northern community would not help a fellow drunken man that was native.
    They locked him out in the cold, it was myself and the community children that went and picked him up. Sure he was drunk and smelly, but he was one of us,to bad the people who kicked him aside were colonized by their own expectations.
    It is his experiences that taught use to human emotions and not Indian emotions or ideology , practice kindness and have a good heart.
    We often have to stand alone with children to live well and be at peace.

    Conrad J. Bobiwash
    Educator and Designer

  16. chaZ d. ziNg permalink
    October 27, 2013 4:26 pm

    Looks like some excellent back-and-forth, and great to get this kind of provocation from the writer! i’d like to share three leading voices that some of you may have missed. One is George E. Tinker, in his book Spirit and Resistance: Political Theology and American Indian Liberation (Sep 1, 2004). i don’t recall the exact page, and don’t have the copy of the text with me, but he basically counsels that there is a watering-down going on against traditional excellence from within just as much from the usual suspects. Checking out his book on Amazon, i noted that he touches on the basics pretty well on page 4 and 5 of the portions Amazon allows to be looked over, so i recommend that until i go find the page i’m thinking of…heh.

    Secondly, there’s G.Taiaiake Alfred speaking (especially in his book WASASE, 2005) about traditional practices as meant to be *guidelines*, not dogma. If they are rigid, such may merely be reflecting the realities in which traditionals have experienced, such as the one about trying to merely survive (including being jailed) and thus wanting only men to be involved in the more risky things, while seeming to push women into the margins to us, in this time. So, the difficulties of different generations ought to be thought through and empathized with, while promoting something i like to call “protection via strategies of enrichment.” Because too many times we human beings are getting tooled, i think, by how we don’t think through what amounts to “protection via restriction”, internalizing that method because it is so prevalent around us!

    The third voice i’d like to promote to you all, if you haven’t heard him on this, is the Lakota depth charger (and past AIM leader), John Trudell. In a youtube video talk called “The Tsi Akim Maidu present”, John discusses, amongst other excelling topics, the problem of victim identities and blaming, and how that tends to tool human beings’ power into the funneling and deadening effect that settler internalized values are so often stuck in (across the spectrum, not merely amongst formal tacticians).

    Finally, i’d like to share the following pages from a zine i did awhile back, which touch on the difficulty, as i see it (and read here) of many pow-wows and traditional ways remaining to be still quite stuck in “protection via restriction” beliefs. Feel free to reproduce them or other parts (or the full zine) of the zine with your project, as it is anti-copyright:

    i had a few other comments i was going to make, but after highlighting them all, i made a little mistake and lost all that! Ah, well, probably for the better, eh? HeH!

  17. Mike Myers permalink
    December 15, 2013 2:39 pm

    A very interesting discussion. De-colonization is the major challenge that we face today. Especially de-colonization of our belief systems. One of the most insidious forms of the invasion is when a person fluent in the language actually adopts western beliefs but is able to convey them as “tradition” because they can speak the language.
    That’s how dogma arises. A convert is one of the most fanatical people you can encounter because they have renounced their original beliefs for new ones. All too often I hear what are clearly Christian teachings being conveyed as “traditional” simply because the person who is providing the information is fluent in their language. And because they’ve renounced their original beliefs and converted they become fanatical (dogmatic) about how this new thing is the Truth.
    Within our cultures our understanding of the truth arises from a long process of gathering and considering everyone’s view on the matter. At some point a synthesis of all of these views comes about and because of the wide spread participation is becomes the consensus. This is a critical process that we don’t engage in much and so the person, or persons, with the most adamant position forces a pseudo consensus on to everyone. This is how we were colonized and how we continue to replicate and enforce the process without our oppressor even being in the room.

  18. samuraiartguy permalink
    December 18, 2013 3:43 pm

    Pilamaye for such a sensitive and thoughtful essay. This is a very good summary of some of the stuff we deal with EVERY TIME we make ceremony around mixed groups of people – and for ourselves. Context is absolutely critical. Aho.

    Mitaquye Oyasin.

  19. December 20, 2013 8:29 am

    Thank you for this. My ancestors were Celts. We had our traditions ripped away by the Romans over 2000 years ago. I need to lean on the traditions of the North American natives to have any hope of recovering my relationship with the Earth. My heart needs these chances whether through ceremony or TV.

  20. April 12, 2014 7:58 pm

    A very thoughtful post. I have written my views on this matter in a couple of blog posts as well. I know the Old Man Joe very well. Ernest is my first cousin and I had been a helper years back with David. Now I mostly read a bit and am happy to have found your blog. Miigwech, g’waabaamin.

  21. March 17, 2016 9:29 pm

    Boozhoo! Glad I found this! I am Ojibway/Metis and Two-Spirit. I was born into a female body and to be at a ceremony I should not be required to wear a skirt because I don’t even own a skirt! I am Two-Spirit and my identity is based on who I am as a spiritual person (both male & female) and my gender identity. Men and male identified persons should be also afforded the same opportunity to wear a skirt of not. Pictures show men and women wearing both traditionally, although we may not of described them as such. Until the sexism goes I go to other spirituality although Anishinaabe spirituality is the foundation of who I am, I need other spirituality to fill the void. I think this is why majority culture Christianity is appealing to our people because it is something rather than nothing. And you can go to church wearing a skirt or pants if you are a male or female. I would like to wear shorts to a ceremony as a Two-Spirit… someday I hope!

  22. April 15, 2016 8:16 am

    Thank you for this. I felt such a connection with your words. I am an Éton and Mbetu, and i have also been guided by my Grandmothers to know that tradition starts with listening…. Our job is to learn to hear Original truth in the present…. not strain to memorise a past dogma.
    Thank you again.

  23. April 15, 2016 8:21 am

    I had to add. I’m not saying the Ways of indigenous ppl need to chsnge. I’m saying that the Ways of my people are meant to adapt to context in a very practical way. So we are always connected. I once heard a sacred ceremony on the radio and it absolutely did what it was supposed to do.


  1. Decolonization, Dogma, Ceremony | Indigenous 399: Reconciliation in Canada and Australia

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