Article 3: Indigenous Elders and Ceremonial Practices

As promised when I first started this blog, I am finally getting back into writing articles about my learnings with you. Yes, learnings. That’s what we called the teachings of the Elders at my job.

Those of you who have been following my blog, know that I’m off work for medical issues. But I loved my job in the beginning. I adored the Elders we worked with and got to explore things like sage picking. I attended a training session in St. Paul and got to see the old residential school which is now a community college. I worked on important and historical projects like the Sixties Scoop of Alberta and the Ministerial Panel on Child Intervention. The work we did was very sensitive and I couldn’t discuss it openly. But now both projects have finished.

I’m feeling the need to reconnect with nature and become one with “the universe.” I’m drawn more and more back to Shamanism and my studies with the Elders. I will be blogging about this as ideas pop into my head.

You may want to start off with my article on What is Shamanism before reading this post.


What is an Elder? What does an Elder do?

An Elder by Indigenous or Aboriginal definition, is someone who is a leader in their communities. They are Knowledge Keepers, Cultural Advisors and they promote individual and community beliefs.

Elders are often called upon to provide an opening and closing prayer at important government or First Nations related events. We had a favorite Elder that we called upon – Gilman. He called us “his grandchildren”. He always walked into the room with a smile and was always ready for a hug.

At Christmas time, he gifted us with a “family photo” of the staff who went sage picking with him in the summer time. This photo is still hung on my desk. Or at least it was.

During my time at my job, I met many of the Elders from communities around Alberta. I also met many of the Chief and Council members. I worked on wisdom circles and attended sharing circles with these great leaders or ours. I learned so much from them. Even through private conversation as we shared a piece of bannock bread during a traditional Indigenous lunch.

I was also blessed to attend a training session for a week with one of the Elders in St. Paul a couple of years ago. The experience was eye opening and tragic at the same time.


Elder Protocols

There is a lot to cover with this subject. I took many courses on this and it was a real learning process as we worked closely with the Elders and Grandmothers.

What is the protocol to follow when inviting an elder, knowledge keeper or cultural advisor to participate in meetings or events? – teachers.ab.ca

Working with the Elders is all about showing respect for their culture and building relationships. The protocols have been in practice for many years and Elders and Indigenous leaders consider these protocols to be almost like sacred practices.

To understand Elder protocols, we must discuss further, what an Elder is.

An Elder is someone who is recognized by their community as having a high degree of understanding of First Nations, Metis or Inuit history. – teachers.ab.ca

The following is a very high level list of some of the Elder Protocols and practices that I learned over the last few years.


Elder Offerings

If calling upon an Elder to participate in a meeting or community event, it is customary to offer gifts. These gifts can include items such as colorful blankets (can be used as skirts), tobacco, or other small gifts like artwork and stationery products.


Smudging

Smudging is an important practice in the Indigenous world. What is smudging? It is the burning of a small bundle of sage to cleanse the body and spirit.

Everyone stands in a circle and waits for their turn to smudge. Smudging is a spiritual act in which you use the sage to ‘cleanse’ yourself of negativity energy.

A prayer is said at the beginning of the smudging ceremony. The Elder walks around the circle and says a few words before offering the bowl of sage to you.

My own doctor didn’t know what a smudging ceremony was. A lot of people I talked about my allergies didn’t know – that’s why I feel it is important to share this knowledge with you.


Sage Picking

Some herbs are considered to be very sacred or have healing powers. Sage for example, is said to protect you from negative energy. It helps to clean the body, heart, mind and spirit.

Sage picking is a sacred practice. To be invited to sage picking grounds is an honour. I was blessed to attend these ceremonies about four times over the years. Unfortunately, as my allergies grew more severe, I had to skip out on a lot of these rituals.

Unfortunately, I could not take any photos of the sage picking grounds. These grounds are considered most sacred and so videos are difficult to find.


Tobacco

Tobacco is another sacred part of the Aboriginal culture. Tobacco is considered a sacred plant with great healing and spiritual benefits. Tobacco plants must be treated with great respect.

Giving an Elder a carton of cigarettes, will not work. Unless that is what the Elder asked for. If you want to enlist the help of an Elder, it is good practice to have some tobacco on hand. Build relationships. Establish trust. Over time, you will be able to give more personal gifts to the Elder.

Tobacco is also used in sacred ceremonies like sage picking – as an offering to our ancestors, and to the sacred grounds.


Pipe Ceremonies

A Pipe Ceremony is similar to a smudging ceremony. The tobacco is smoked using a special pipe. Everyone sits down in a circle on the floor (or they can use pillows).

The Elder holds the pipe and says an opening prayer and takes the first puff. The pipe is passed around the room. As each person holds the pipe, they close their eyes and say a few words.

A Pipe Ceremony is used to offer prayer in a religious ceremony or to begin an important meeting or event. The ceremony can also be used to start off training sessions or community celebrations.

Ceremonial pipe - Wikipedia

When I attended the training in St. Paul, I opted to not smoke. I have severe allergies to smoke, and unfortunately, the week long training session left me feeling very ill.


Blanket Exercises

Blanket exercises were introduced back in 2016-2017 as part of the cultural training and promoting Indigenous awareness across the country. These classes were held at community events, government offices and at colleges and universities.

I attended my first blanket exercise back in the spring of 2016 when I joined the Aboriginal Engagement department. The experience pushed my limits on public speaking and sharing of feelings. But I learned a lot about myself and about Aboriginal history in Alberta through the process. The training was mandatory and became of my education plan.

The exercise teaches the story of how land was populated by Indigenous peoples. It explains how eventually over time, as populations crashed, and as they were forced out of their homes and onto reserves, their land was lost to the government.

You can learn more about this tragic history by reading up on events like the residential schools and later, the Sixties Scoop Apology at which I helped plan logistics for between 2017-2018.

Mill Woods – Papachase Tribe

A good example of this is my former neighbourhood, the land which belonged to the Papachase Tribe and was taken over by the government to develop Mill Woods. My dad, not knowing this, bought one of the earliest properties in the area in 1972-1973 where we would live for nearly 50 years.

I often joked to my mum that “maybe the spirits were angry were us for building the house on their land” when things seemed to go awry in our house. I didn’t learn about this until a few years ago when doing research on the history of Mill Woods.

Do you see what I mean? About me being drawn to the Indigenous ways of life? Life keeps pointing me in that direction, even when I’m not looking for it.


Sharing Circles

Sharing Circles are an essential part of the Indigenous culture and are held when meetings take place or decisions have to be made. These circles can also be used for healing practices when a group or tribe is struggling with conflict and negative energy.

The Sharing Circle is hosted by an Elder and opens with a prayer and smudging ceremony. The Elder will pass on important information or protocols that are expected of the participants.

A Talking Stick or Feather Wand is passed around the circle. Each person is to hold the Talking Stick or Feather Wand as they speak. It is really important to listen to each other carefully and speak to each other with respect. Interrupting someone during a Sharing Circle is considered to be very disrespectful.

If a person chooses not to speak, he/she can pass the Talking Stick onto the next person.


Significance of a Circle

Sitting in a circle on the floor or in chairs is a sign of respect for thoughts, story telling and individual experiences. When a person is holding the Talking Stick or Feather (or sometimes pillows), the others agree that they will listen and not interrupt.

A Sharing Circle is considered a safe and sacred space where people can openly talk about their feelings. It is a welcoming space for one to share their fears or community concerns.


Conclusion

I hope you enjoyed this article on Elders and ceremonial practices. I consider myself blessed to have been able to take part in these spiritual practices with the Elders.

Through my work with the First Nations, I developed a sense of self-awareness and began to share my experiences and feelings more openly after being so closed off for many years. It led me to writing – and eventually, to this blog.

I’m excited to share more of my experiences and knowledge with you. This is a subject I am truly passionate about. And while I am not Indigenous, I have great respect for the ways of the Shamans, Elders and Indigenous peoples of our region. I think this is a great time in history to help educate others.

I’ve included some great resources for you below. I highly recommend watching the show called “First Contact” which was produced right here in Canada.

My biggest regret, is not being able to attend a community Pow Wow. Not driving is a real pain sometimes. I hope that next summer when life returns to “normal”, I can join some friends and attend one of these powerful celebrations.

Thanks for reading.

Namaste.


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