Miigwech (thank you) for your generous donations for the last memorial contest dance in honor of our friend Audrey Swan. You generously gave $625, which exceeded our goal and made it possible for us to give not only monetary gifts for the winning dancers and the drum, but also beautiful blankets designed by an Anishinaabe artist.
HFtFN board member and White Earth liaison Ricky Smith wrote this letter to share what your gifts meant to him and to the Pine Point community.
Hope for the First Nations,
As Ojibwe people, we honor and celebrate the passing of a loved one to the spirit world in a different way than those outside our communities.
First, let me begin by saying that passing over to the spirit world is held in a different regard than those of the different beliefs. Yes, the idea of heaven or the spirit world, or the happy hunting grounds, all seem to be similar, yet there are many differences both in the way we look at death and the way we mourn and celebrate death.
The Bible’s version of death often paints a picture of angels with wings, angels with halos and angels clothed in white with harps. There is also a pearly gate and a gatekeeper, much like a bouncer at a VIP party with velvet ropes and lines stretching around the corner.
It brings to mind a path, like a single-file line of people amongst the clouds, winding back and forth. I envision a huge fence line with a gold emblazoned gate off in the distance where a promise of a set of wings and harp lessons awaits those in line. Sunday school and the Old Masters’ paintings on the walls of those fancy museums out east have penned that vision.
I will not mention the trap door option.
While this may sound like the picture of heaven that has been engrained in your mind, our Ojibwe stories and history teach us of a different path, a different way to look at death.
Our stories teach us that this life is all a preparation for a new life in the spirit world. When we pass over to spirit world, we will start our true lives. There is a new beginning where we can be with all of our ancestors and those who have gone before us. There will be no pain, no suffering, no hurt, no hunger or thirst, no anger or sorrow.
And in that place, once we pass over, we will continue that cycle and wait with open arms for our loved ones to join us when their time to pass over has come. We are chosen by the Creator to make that journey. It happens when it is supposed to, no sooner no later — the equivalent of God’s will being done.
The journey to the spirit world begins at the time of death and our last breath here on Earth. Our journey begins at that time and is finished in four days. Those first four days become very important in our culture.
Ojibwe teachings tell us that we must have the body laid to rest on the fourth day after our last breath. In those four days, the family and loved ones prepare for the burial ceremony and a final feast to honor and celebrate life — not the passing, but the life — that was had here on earth.
A spiritual fire is lit for all the family members to be able to visit at any time, day or night, to offer food, tobacco and gifts to the spirit as it is making its journey. This fire is to be kept for those four days, rain or shine, and not left unattended at any time. It will burn for four days and is allowed to burn itself out as the funeral is beginning.
Although there was a passing of a life, the wake and funeral are held in high regard as a celebration of that loved one’s life. Blankets, baskets and photographs are brought to decorate the places where the funeral will be held. It is very common for there to be laughter and smiles, as well as tears of joy, at a wake and funeral in Indian country.
The feast and prayers at a funeral are to help that family in their own journey here on earth. This feast is to help prepare for a time of mourning for the loss of their loved one here on earth, to bring together the family before they go on their separate ways to mourn on their own in their own ways.
We are taught not to hold any other ceremony or to sing on the drum while that spirit is making its journey so as to not disturb the spirit as it is passing over. If we sing on the drum, that spirit may stop their journey or turn around to come back to this world and listen.
We are also taught to not cry or sob uncontrollably because the spirit of that loved one may turn around and come back to this world to try and comfort you. Ashes are put on the foreheads of our children to not distract the spirit, as well as to keep children from seeing spirits amongst us.
After the wake and funeral are over and the body is laid to rest, that is when the time of mourning for the friends and family members begins.
This brings me to the point of this entire letter.
Ojibwe memorial dinners and dance specials are held for four years after the passing of the loved one’s spirit over to the spirit world. There is a year of preparation time for each of these feasts or community specials.
A year to reflect.
A year to pray.
And a year to prepare gifts for those who would come and participate in the healing and remembrance of your loved one.
This is the time to cry, let out the tears and allow for healing of your own spirit.
This is what my family — Jolene and myself — offered to take care of for our loved one, Audrey Swan. This is what Hope for the First Nations was a part of for the last four years. Healing.
In the best way we know how, we allowed for tears, prayers and healing for Audrey’s friends and family. We facilitated a memorial dance in her honor in order to remind everyone for four years that was OK to have those tears. It was OK to remember and cry for her.
With every one of those tears, we grew stronger, knowing that she is in a better place and it truly was her time to make her journey and pass over.
We celebrated her life in a good way, and I am proud and honored to have been able to facilitate our special memorial dances.
It has taken four years to get to this point, and I still have times of sorrowful thoughts of losing Audrey, but it is with a healed heart that I thank each and every one of you for your thoughts, prayers and gifts. I feel like we did our best to honor Audrey’s memory, and I couldn’t have done it without the help and support of Hope for the First Nations.