I have a girlfriend whom I have known for many years. She’s a member of the Sault Ste. Marie tribe, where many of my teachings originated from, and where my elder lived on Sugar Island until he passed away several years ago. Over the years, my girlfriend and I danced together numerous times at countless pow wows, and worked together with a local Indian Association. Last week, my beautiful girlfriend lost her battle with scleroderma, a connective tissue disease that affects Indian people more than the general population, and she passed into the spirit world.
It's no wonder that when we lose a friend or someone close to us, it hurts. That pain we feel is for ourselves, the ones left behind.
I was speaking with her husband when he turned to me and asked, “What am I going to do now?” I gave that question a lot of thought and ultimately realized the answer is, we must live. We must go on in a good way.
I am reminded of what our Ojibwe culture teaches concerning death.
Traditionally, a fire is kept for four days. The number four figures prominently in American Indian teachings. Four seasons, four races of man, four directions, four medicines, the four stages of life are all examples.
During those four days we believe the spirit of that loved one is hovering around that fire. This is not a huge blaze — a small fire is all that is needed. The fire is never left alone, a man always stays with it, watching, and protecting it, and feeding it so that it does not go out. Over those four days friends and relatives come to visit with each other and to speak to that loved one’s spirit.
On the fourth day, beginning at sunrise, preparations for a feast begin, with the meal being shared at noon, one of the most powerful times of the day.
After the feast, stories about the deceased are shared, and then the fire is allowed to go out. For the next year we do not say that person’s name, because doing so would be as if we’re calling them back. Instead, we say, “that woman,” or “that man,” or “my auntie,” or “my friend” when referring to them.
In the old days, the Ojibwe buried their dead sitting up, facing west. The walk of life begins in the east, and sets in the west each day.
Although the tradition is no longer practiced, a small spirit house was constructed over the burial plot.
One year is the amount of time we believe it takes for us to make the journey to the spirit world. Every day for the next year, someone from the family takes a small portion of food prepared by and for the family, called a spirit dish, to the spirit house to feed the departed one’s spirit.
After a year has passed, there will be another feast and again stories about the loved one can be shared, and their name can again be spoken. It is the time when the family gifts some of the deceased’s belongings to other family members and friends, keepsakes to keep that loved one alive in our hearts.
My girlfriend loved her Catholic faith, and that was the manner in which her life was celebrated. She loved her Indian ways as well, which elegantly states the essence of what my elder taught me, “It is not so much how you believe, but that you believe with all your heart.”
She believed as I do that as one journey ends, another begins. So as we say goodbye, I have a vision in my mind and heart, one where I see all her relations greeting her … and they all dance together with joy, being in the presence of her spirit once again.