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Revised July 2020
The Circle of Life
This summary is derived from a document, which was prepared in consultation with several respected Elders: Art Shofley, Angus Merrick, Charlie Nelson and Velma Orvis. They developed the document to help law enforcement personnel gain education and respect for Indigenous spiritualities and values.
“You have noticed that everything an Indigenous person does is in a circle, and that is because the Power of the World always works in circles, and everything tries to be round. In the old days, when we were a strong and happy people, all our power came to us from the sacred hoop of the nation and so long as the hoop was unbroken, the people flourished.”
Today we will focus on Indigenous spirituality, which includes both sacred ceremonies and sacred items. It should be noted that the various spiritual beliefs, sacred items and ceremonies vary according to different tribal groups across Canada. We have selectively chosen some to reflect the depth of indigenous spirituality.
“The flowering tree was the living centre of the hoop, and the circle of the four quarters nourished it. The East gave peace and light, the South gave warmth, the West gave rain and the North, with its cold and mighty wind gave strength and endurance. This knowledge came to us from the outer world with our religion. Everything the Power of the World does is done in a circle. The sky is round and I have heard the earth is round like a ball and so are the stars. The Wind, in its greatest power whirls. Birds make their nests in circles, for theirs is the same religion as ours. The sun comes forth and goes down again in a circle. The moon does the same and both are round. Even the seasons form a great circle in their changing and always come back again to where they were. The life of man is a circle from childhood to childhood and so it is in everything where power moves. Our Teepees were round like the nests of birds and these were always set in a circle, the nation ‘s hoop, a nest of many nests where the Great Spirit meant for us to hatch our children.”
(Black Elk Speaks, pp. 198-200) Spiritual Advisor to the Oglala Sioux in 1930.
Native spiritual life is founded on a belief in the fundamental inter-connectedness of all natural things; all forms of life, with primary importance being attached to Mother Earth.
Ceremonies are the primary vehicles of religious expression. A ceremonial leader or Elder assures authenticity and integrity of religious observances. Elders may be either men or women. Their most distinguishing characteristic is wisdom, which relates directly to experience and age. There are exceptions. Elders need not be “old.” Sometimes the spirit of the Great Creator chooses to imbue a young native.
Pipes are used during both private and group ceremonies, the prayer itself being wafted through the smoke of the burning plant material. Pipes are of no set length. Some stems may or may not be decorated with beads or leather. Bowls may be of wood, soapstone, inlaid or carved in the form of various totemic power animals (an eagle with folded wings) or another sacred animal.
The pipe is never a “personal possession.” It belongs to the community. While every native has the right to hold the pipe, in practice, the privilege must be earned in some religious way.
Pipe ceremonies constitute the primary group gatherings over which Elders preside. Participants gather in a circle. A braid of sweetgrass (one of four sacred plants) is lit and burnt as an incense to purify worshippers, before the pipe is lit. Burning sweetgrass also symbolizes unity, the coming together of many hearts and minds as one person.
The Elder strikes a match, puts it to the end of the sweetgrass braid and fans the smouldering grass with an eagle’s feather. The Elder then goes from person to person in the circle where the smoke is drawn four times by hand gestures toward the head and down the body.
The Elder then places tobacco in the pipe and offers it in the four sacred directions of the compass. Spirits will be asked for assistance in the main prayer, which may be specifically for one individual, a participant in the circle or for someone far away or someone who has passed over. The pipe, passed from person to person in the circle, might be offered to all creation, to those invisible spirit helpers who are always there to guide humanity.
Used mainly for communal prayer purposes, the Sweat Lodge may also provide necessary ceremonial settings for spiritual healing, purification, as well as fasting. Most fasts require a sweat ceremony before and after the event.
Lodge construction varies from tribe to tribe. Generally, it is an igloo-shaped structure about five feet high, built from bent willow branches tied together with twine. The structure is then encased in blankets to preclude all light. A maximum of eight participants gather in the dark.
In the centre, there is a holy, consecrated virginal section of ground (untrampled by feet and untouched by waste material) blessed by an Elder with tobacco and sweetgrass. There, red hot stones heated in a fire outside the lodge are brought in and doused with water. A doorkeeper on the outside opens the lodge door four times, contributing four additional hot rocks (representing the four sacred directions) to the centre. A prepared pipe is also brought in.
Drums represent the heartbeat of the nation, the pulse of the universe. Different sizes are used depending on ceremonial purposes. Drums are sacred objects. Each drum has a keeper to ensure no-one approaches it under the influence of alcohol or drugs. During ceremonies, no one may reach across it or place extraneous objects on it.
Herbs / lncense
Sweetgrass, sage, cedar and tobacco encompass the four sacred plants. Burning these is a sign of deep spirituality in Native practices. Cedar and sage are burned to drive out negative forces when prayer is offered. Sweetgrass, which signifies kindness, is burned to invite good spirits to enter. Participants also use these purification rituals to smudge regalia, drums and other articles before taking part in a pow-wow.
Prescribed by an Elder, plant material can also be worn in a medicine pouch by a person seeking the mercy and protection of the spirits of the Four Directions. Elders caution Natives not to conceal any other substances in their pouches. To do so would make a mockery of their beliefs.
Once the Medicine Bundle has been touched by someone other than its designated guardian, it can no longer be used in its uncleansed condition. The custodian must again perform purification rites to restore the Bundle’s sacredness. Male law enforcement officers may conduct a search of someone wearing these without incident if they ask the wearer to open the bundle. If the person is genuine, then the request will be granted. The spirituality of the bundle is only violated if it is touched or opened without the carrier’s permission.
Some say the name is derived from the Algonkian word meaning “to dream.” Pow-wow is an ancient tradition among Aboriginal peoples, and is a time for celebrating and socializing after religious ceremonies. In some cultures, the pow-wow itself was a religious event, when families held naming and honouring ceremonies.
For instance, a family celebrating a member’s formal entry into the dance circle, or wishing to commemorate the death of a loved one, often hosts a giveaway during a pow-wow. This tradition embodies the value of sharing with others.
Today’s pow-wow is more of a social event, although honour ceremonies and other religious observances remain important parts of the celebration. Elders say that coming together in dancing, feasting and having fun is an important unifying and healing experience, which brings together many nations in a celebration of life.
The Eagle Staff is an important symbol to many North American tribes. The eagle represents the Thunderbird spirits of the supernatural world who care for the inhabitants of our physical world. Qualities such as farsightedness, strength, speed, beauty and kindness are attributed to the eagle, which never kills wantonly, only to feed itself and its family. The Eagle Staff symbolizes reverence for the Creator and all of life.
Any significant event is initiated with words of prayer by a respected Elder. Traditionally, First Nations never had “priests” as such, but rather spiritual leaders. They are often offered tobacco with a request for prayer indicating respect and honour for that person and the higher power.
These are just a few of the sacred rituals and objects that we hope will inspire respect for Indigenous spirituality.