I don’t often write about ceremony. That has to do with wanting to be respectful of the sacred. At the same time, ceremony is central to Indigenous experience and knowledge, and needs to be thought, and written, about. It is also emergent, changing, rather than remaining stationary as represented in many texts.
I’ve been reading Indigenous Methodologies, by Margaret Kovach. It is a good and important read about Indigenous pathways to academic research. In one chapter she writes about the link between ceremony and Indigenous ways of knowing. Basically, she suggests if one does ceremony in a proper way, the living world and the Creator respond. She quotes Cam Willett (Coastal Salish):
“…..if you put your tobacco down and you go to ceremonies, I believe that all transcends time and space. You can’t be lost or killed because all you have to do is sweat and ask, and the songs will come back to you. That’s the power of them. Our knowledge and legacy can never be erased. We are very strong and that makes me proud. The legacy of our people is this land.” (Page 119)
There is a similar idea in Judaism. Martin Buber, in Tales from the Hasidim, wrote
When the founder of Hasidic Judaism, the great Rabbi Israel Shem Tov, saw misfortune threatening the Jews, it was his custom to go into a certain part of the forest to meditate. There he would light a fire, say a special prayer, and the miracle would be accomplished and the misfortune averted. Later, when his disciple, the celebrated Maggid of Mezritch, had occasion for the same reason to intercede with heaven, he would go to the same place in the forest and say, “Master of the Universe, listen! I do not know how to light the fire, but I am still able to say the prayer.” Again the miracle would be accomplished.
Still later, Rabbi Moshe-leib of Sasov, in order to save his people once more, would go into the forest and say, “I do not know how to light the fire. I do not know the prayer, but I know the place and this must be sufficient.” It was sufficient, and the miracle was accomplished.
Then it fell to Rabbi Israel of Rizhin to overcome misfortune. Sitting in his armchair, his head in his hands, he spoke to God, “I am unable to light the fire and I do not know the prayer and I cannot even find the place in the forest. All I can do is to tell the story, and this must be sufficient.”
And it was sufficient.
For God made man because he loves stories.
Ceremony helps us reconnect to the Ancestors and spirits. I tell patients and students that ceremony saves us when the forces arrayed against our lives feel overpowering. Maybe that is why Native ceremony was made unlawful for many years. Of course, we never stopped doing our ceremonies. We found ways to live underground. My father carefully folded ceremony into his teaching at our church. I’m pretty sure no one guessed his simple lessons were pathways to Spirit.
We are people of the land, even as many of us are now landless. Even in old age my father had a tiny garden in his yard. Sometimes there was only one tomato plant. What mattered was the garden and the simple act of tending it. That kept alive the sacred, even in the middle of suburbia. Caring for the garden was a form of ceremony, inviting the Ancestors and spirits to walk in that place. When I spent summers on the family farm, there would always be a large plot of tobacco for commercial sale. I remember there would also be a few plants on my grandmother’s garden. Those few plants were a payer, a ceremony.
When we take the time to be present and offer ceremony, the world responds. This is at the heart of Indigenous ways of knowing.