Somewhere in our genes lives the memory of a fire in the night. Somewhere in the jumble of our consciousness is the recollection, dimmed by time and circumstance, of a band of us huddled around a flame for security, warmth and community. We all share that. No matter who we are today, each of our nations began as tribal people. That’s the truth that fire engenders.
There’s an old cast-iron wood stove on the corner of the deck overlooking the lake. It used to heat this cabin. Now it’s been replaced by a newer,more efficient model. So it’s become a fire pit we sit in front of on long, cool summer nights, or in the more clement evenings of winter and fall. Like a lot of things about this place, it bears the stamp of rusticity.
There’s a simpler virtue to that old stove. It’s molded with curves andlong sloping angles and its facade resembles a tribal face, Easter Island or African. When it’s opened and the fire burns within it, the flame is aired by the damper and burns brighter, hotter, because of it. To sit there in the hushed air of evening is to be transported.
Fire is funny that way. It connects us to a primeval part of our being and the conversation always lowers, stops sometimes, and we stare into it, watching the flames flicker and dance. We’re transfixed by it. Drawn inward despite ourselves. Captivated. Everyone.
I learned that in the mid-1990s. I was attending the annual Spiritual Gathering in Algonquin territory in Maniwaki, Quebec. Our host was elder William Commanda, a globally recognized teacher, and we’d come from all corners, from all peoples, to share four days of ceremony, ritual and unity. There were elders and spiritual teachers from a handful of First Nation cultures.
Each day featured an opportunity to sit with them and learn about their particular spiritual way. From sunup to sundown, the days were filled with guidance. We were shown ancient spiritual ways, still alive and vital, and allowed to participate in rituals that began in deep prehistory. It was an elevating and enriching experience.
The teachers were available, as much as possible given the huge numbers of people, for individual sessions. Everywhere you could see acolytes sitting in humble silence at the knee of the carriers of knowledge. But the centerpiece of the gathering was the sweat lodge grounds.
Each of the teachers built their own lodge and held ceremonies throughout the day. Each of them, with their apprentices, made that ancient ritual available for as many people as possible.
There were at least a dozen domed lodges and the smell of smoke, of sacred medicines and the sound of prayer and petitions to the spirit world, was everywhere. It felt like holy ground.
A sweat lodge, in its simplest sense, is a sacred edifice. It’s shaped like a womb and when you strip yourself down and crawl into it on your hands and knees, you return yourself to the innocence you were born in.
You return yourself to genuine humility and the darkness you sit in is a symbol of your unknowing, and the rocks glowing in the pit, the symbol of ancient, eternal, elemental truth. It’s not a ceremony to be taken lightly. It’s not a sauna. It’s not a charming throwback. Instead, it’s a gateway to the truths within you and a path to the spiritual truths that govern the universe.
It’s a place of prayer, of sacrifice, enduring, healing and, if you’re fortunate, insight. An elder I had worked with arrived late. He asked if I would be his helper and I agreed.
When the sun came up we began to build his lodge. He was patient and generous and he took his time and taught me the traditional protocols of building a sweat lodge. I was deeply honored.
While we worked he told me stories and talked about how the ceremony had evolved for the northern Ojibway. When we were finished, he asked me to be his firekeeper.
In the traditional way, a firekeeper is an honored role. You build the fire that heats the rocks used in the ceremony. Your prayers around that fire are the first prayers in the process. You prepare the ritual.
You take care of everything so that the teacher can focus, and when the time comes, you watch over the participants. You stand guard outside that lodge while the ceremony runs, attentive, ready to serve and you pray along with the petitioners in the lodge. Ernie liked a hot ceremony.
His lodges asked the utmost of participants and the heat was tremendous. Quite often people could not endure it and surrendered long before the usual four rounds of prayer, song and talk. They would crawl out of the lodge when I opened the door, weak and spent and vulnerable.
My job was to tend to them. They were Germans, Finns, English, French, Ojibway, Cree, Metis and Algonquin. But stretched out on the ground, struggling for breath, crying, ashamed perhaps, they were just people, human beings in need of care.
I tended to them. I cradled heads and gave water. I applied cool cloths. I spoke softly and encouragingly. I helped them stand and walked them to shade. I did that for four days, and at the end when there was just Ernie and me, praying and singing in the lodge, I offered thanks for that incredible privilege.
See, up until then I was adamant that Native things stay Native things. I had fought so hard to reclaim the displaced parts of myself that I had chosen to believe that what’s ours is ours, that no one else had a right to the things that define and sustain us. Our spirituality was our spirituality.
Being a firekeeper taught me differently. We are all tribal people. We are all travelers searching for the comfort of a fire in the night. We are all, all of us, in need of a place of prayer, of solace, of unity. Our fire burns bright enough for everyone.