Of Dogma and Ceremony
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.