Insights into indigenous culture

Every Tuesday at 14.30 I am excited to see what our outdoor school professor Diane has in store for us, we’ve been to the Arboretum countless times, the bee apiary, we’ve gone mushroom foraging and every one of those activities is a new learning experience. However, nothing quite compared to what was waiting for us at the circle mound at the art gallery of Guelph, we would be meeting an aboriginal elder.

We all entered the circle in a clockwise direction, connecting us to the earth that turns in that fashion as well, the circle formation is so that everyone is equal, no one is higher up than another and everyone can see and hear the same things. The ceremony began with all the students passing around an eagle feather, holding it in their left hand and introducing themselves. An eagle feather was chosen because the eagle is thought to be a reminder of a person’s connection to the creator, being that the bird can soar the highest in the sky it serves as a messenger for prayers to and from the Creator. Jan explained that each gender had their own job in the ceremony, men are fire keepers, they are the ones to light the fire, so just like that one of the men in our class lit the fire and walked around the circle with an eagle feather in  his hand, stopping in front of each student so that they could “wash” themselves with the smoke, freeing them from all their worries, even if it was for just a while. Moving on we were told that women were the caretakers and protectors of water, that being because life starts from the water of a woman, a female student walked around the circle with a bowl of water in her hand everyone had to take a bit of water first and give it back to the earth, then dip their hand in the bowl again and put it on their heart, all while Jan sang a song about the importance of water. Finally, Jan herself passed around strawberries, instructing us to cut off a small piece and give it back to the earth and then enjoy the rest. She explained how strawberries, also known as “heart berries” due to their shape and color are incredibly symbolic, they have their seeds on the outside, symbolizing openness and honesty, also they have a very complex root system symbolizing the complex relationship between humans and the rest of the world. Following that we were instructed to feed our bodies, everyone was asked to bring some food to contribute to the ceremony and then I was asked to put a little bit of each food on a platter to give it back to the earth with a prayer of thanks.

Jan giving a prayer of thanks before we enjoy our food

To end the ceremony we all took a drum and Jan sang “Boy we’re glad you’re here, I want to get to know you, I want to be your friend and friend for us means family.” While we banged along on our drums.

To end the incredible day Jan told us a story about herself. She explained how normally when women go foraging and find poisonous snakes they sing to them to let them know that they are coming and that they mean no harm. One day when Jan was taking a walk in the arboretum she came across a snake and decided to sing to it. The snake turned around and lifted its body to look at her, not long after 6 more snakes appeared, some from holes, others from bushes and they all just watched her as she sang. Once the song was over they disappeared, and everyone went on with their own business.

Jan showing us her drum

I learned a lot from this class, my knowledge of aboriginals was limited to what I knew from Pocahontas. Jan made everything so easy to follow and interesting, my point of view of humans and their role on this earth completely shifted after I heard of the respect they give earth and its other creatures. After talking to my classmates, I came to realize we all had an amazing experience and it was the best class so far.