Lately, I have been seeing how the white lessons have crept into our clan. There has
been drama created by those seeking status. It is about the CLAN, not any individual. Also, jealousy in that the same status seekers are trying to create division within our group. I am so sick of this. We are all supposed to be equal and share. A lesson I have learned, those who seek status will never be satisfied, never have enough. Those who do their best to avoid it will have more respect from the group. Humility and being right sized will take you far. If you go to an elder, and don't like what you hear, it is NOT proper to search for those who say what you wish to hear. It is NOT about being the center of attention; it is NOT about YOU. Do not try to usurp the functions of the elders, it is why they ARE elders. Keep in mind age does not make an elder, the group does. If you don't like the traditional way of getting things done, you are welcome to leave, and don't let the tipi flap slap your ass on the way out!
This little tirade was posted as someone got a bug up there butt about someone accepting a pipe from another person whom they do not like. Never mind, the pipe might have been crying to be healed. The person with the bug also refused a pipe, more concerned about where it was coming from than the needs of the pipe. Things then got petty and accusations started flying, and before you know, the whole clan had something to say. That’s when this quarter’s topic came to mind. (Note: you may substitute any word for CLAN, and keep the meaning.)
Among the change brought here by the white folk were the changing of simple jobs and turned them to ego/status. Before contact, everyone had a job, and was expected to do their best at it. As the women stayed around camp, they had most of the sedentary jobs; after all, it really does take a village. On the other hand, the men were considered expendable (to a degree) and had more hazardous jobs that could keep them away from the villages for extended periods of time.
With first contact, the men were sent out to greet the new folk. By this time, Europeans had forgotten their origins and somehow men were placed above women in rank stature, the opposite of most First Nations. What the whites failed to realize was the fact the men they met were merely checking to insure the safety of their most precious – the women and children. They assumed, the men were in charge, and acted accordingly.
Somewhere down the road, the native men coveted what the white men had – power. Along with this, came ego and status into a system that was unfamiliar with any kind of caste system. As our traditions eroded, so did our social system. What were once jobs became stations of power, a pecking order if you will. Many of the old titles still exist, but their function and meaning have changed considerably over the centuries. Let us examine a few of the most common, still with us today. Note: as these are jobs, NOT titles, I have opted to avoid the upper case.
firekeeper: All fire is sacred. Originally this was a woman’s job. A responsibility to be sure that a live ember would survive when the camp moved, or if a fire was needed somewhere else in camp. Once the whites showed us how to keep fire in a box, much of the sacredness was lost, and the need for firekeepers dwindled. When we started reclaiming our way, firekeeping took on a more mystical meaning. Now we have firekeepers that tend a fire for ceremony, and that can 4, 7 or more days, depending on the purpose. It has evolved into a man’s position, although women are making a comeback. New prayers have been created for the lighting of the fire, and the time of day can vary depending on the traditions being followed. But it does take someone with a special fortitude to spend days or a week on the side of a mountain, away from the group. At times, the only person a firekeeper sees is the person bringing their meals. Apprentices will study for years before making their own fire-bundle.
staff carriers: Based on a war lance, these are primarily a man’s honour. There are 3 main types, but all can trace their heritage back to the war lance, and most have eagle feathers which have been earned. A warrior staff that shows personal honours in battle, on raids or hunting will have the feathers “listed” like mini-flags down its length, each representing a specific deed. Peace or friendship staffs are sent out, often along with a wampum belt, to open a dialogue with neighbors. They are recognizable by the feathers being clustered (like a village) in one or two places along the shaft. In my nation, we send out 4, one for each direction. These days, it is sent out to powwows representing the presence of the nation. Once year, they are returned home and the carrier may be relieved of the staff, or asked to carry it another year. The most a carrier will carry it is 7 years. After that a particular staff becomes a “personal” staff for the one who carried it the full term. Another is made, a new carrier chosen, and the process repeated. NOTE: Any staff with eagle feathers is never “owned” in the white man’s sense, a carrier is merely its custodian, and when it is passed on, it must go to someone of the opposite gender. There are many personal staffs which are just that, but they have been gifted or created by their owners, and are another kettle of fish, and rarely carry eagle feathers. Lastly, there are community staffs, the home team’s colours, if you will. They are created by committee, and rarely leave their home turf, and can vary widely in style, but most often will carry at least one symbol of the community. To carry one is an honour, but the same person might not carry it on a regular basis.
pipe carrier: This is the one everyone desires, but they forget that at one point, everyone had a pipe, women included. A Micmac clan mother once said, “A pipe is a pipe is a pipe.” There is no such thing as a ceremonial, community or personal pipe. Any pipe can be used in ceremony one day, passed around the community the next week, and used as a personal pipe in between. This is where the white folk really screwed us up, making titles where there were none. For the record, I have no pipe, nor do I desire to have one. If Creator intends one to come my way it will. But I’m not going to chase for one, or lose sleep over the fact it hasn’t happened as yet.
pathfinder: not often heard these days, but there are still a few around. Usually a man as they were the hunters and would learn the land best and how to navigate it, as well as knowing where water was and safe crossing spots in the rivers. I know a couple of these, and they are registered guides of native blood. It is an honorific now, but I know they are pleased to be recognized by our people.
While we are at it, those bone chokers from the Plains that everyone has become so find of…well they should be earned as well. I had an elder come up to me a couple of years ago with a choker in hand. He gifted it to me, saying the one I was wearing wasn’t appropriate any more as I had earned a larger one. Then came this teaching: when a boy is born, he is given a single strand necklace. When he either makes his first kill (rabbit trap or bow and arrow) he is given a second. Rites of passage, a third, and warrior status a fourth. Each of the jobs listed above earns another, with 7 being the maximum worn around the neck. After that, additional rows are draped under the front, akin to a mini breastplate. These are the men’s teachings. I would imagine that women have a similar, yet different, way to earn rows. Also, it is permissible to keep and wear your earlier chokers; after all, you earned them.
Another thing that bugs me is when introducing ourselves in a circle, it is not proper to introduce yourself as “Grandfather” or “Grandmother.” It is not a title, but a name to show respect. When someone calls me that, I reply that I have not earned that yet (well, I did for as long as it applied, and I still hate being called that, so I don’t encourage it, makes me feel old!).
One last thing about ego, in our nation, it is considered bad form to refuse a gift. I only recently found out that it is all right to refuse as long as there is a lesson involved. Gifts made in public should be from the community. If a person tries to give a gift in public, it is all right to refuse it. Why? Because a private gift given in public is done to make the person gifting look good and for no other reason – ego again.
Please keep in mind there were 500 nations, and 500 sets of traditions. As I have said before, I have been lucky to have been exposed to teachings in many places. Everything I write is based on those experiences, and the one thing I have noticed among the nations is we all have more similarities than differences. The differences came with the white folk, and the damage is with us today…..and getting worse in many places while others are doing their best to recover.
Also, if you have any comments, criticisms or questions, please post them in the guestbook. I do check it monthly, and can reply there or in a future rant.
Author's Note: Attached is a photo of a pit prepared for a sacred fire. This is oriented north, cornmeal (protection) ring with blue cornmeal at the intersections. Clockwise from upper left: cedar (sacredness), tobacco (prayers), white sage (cleansing), and sweet grass (healing). The center has birch bark (for lighting the fire) and embers from a previous sacred fire to keep the chain going.