The Fireman 4/24/21

Recollections by Richard Bleil

Some years ago when I was working as a civilian employee for a police department, a Native American police officer, in an effort to help the command staff understand Native culture, invited the entire command staff to a “Sundance.”

The Sundance is an amazing event. They choose a tree, cut it down and relocate it to the center of the circle where the ceremony will take place. This tree is adorned with ribbons and small packets of tobacco which is taken as sacred (probably dating back to when tobacco was hard to come by and was therefore expensive and gifted as a way of showing respect). White and red painted sticks topped with a little tobacco are placed alternatively around the circle, representing the human (red) and spiritual (white) realms.

The Sundance itself lasts for five days. There are no electronics, and during the day the participants fast, with no food and no water. It is in the summer, so it is hot, and the entire ceremony is exhausting with hours of dancing and personal sacrifice. Off to the side but near the holy site is the fire.

This fire is lit before the ceremony begins, and must, absolutely must, continuously burn for all five days of the event. It is tended by the “firemen”, a tough, thankless job. Periodically, throughout the ceremony, the firemen gather buckets of sage and light them on fire, walking them around the rest areas before each new dance so the participants can “cleanse” themselves in the smoke. This is done by whisking the smoke onto oneself and literally bathing in it.

You can buy sage at stores these days (usually Native stores) in bundles for cleansing personal property, usually homes. Buying a bundle of sage (I actually have one), you light it on fire and walk around your home waving the smoke throughout. This drives out the evil spirits, and, frankly, is something I’ve yet to do here I my new house but do plan on doing.

The purpose of this post is respect for other cultures. As you read the title, few people would think Sundance. Instead, no doubt, based on the title many of my readers will be thinking of the western culture firemen. I apologize for misleading you, but this was actually my intention. Other readers might be thinking of burning sage and ridiculing this practice, and yet in Catholic ceremonies the priest will walk along burning incense and bathing the practitioners in the smoke.

We have to be careful to avoid ridiculing the practices of cultures and religions other than our own. The Native people are very connected to the earth (what they call “Mother Earth”), so it makes sense that their ceremonies are also connected to the earth with the holy tree and burning of a plant grounded in the earth and given to us by it to cleanse an area.

Today we are learning the hard way that our continual abuse of Mother Earth, ripping from her womb resources we value more dearly that Earth itself has significant consequences as we face raising temperatures and increasingly destructive storms. Does this mean we should have adopted the ways of the Native people? Probably not. As the Native Americans were still nomadic, the European cultures were advancing technology to the point of being able to sail the oceans and discover the Americas long before Christopher Columbus. And yet, as the settlers looked toward the horizon, maybe we should have, and still should, pay homage to the Native people with their roots firmly planted in the past.

The Keystone XL pipeline is an example of this divergent view of Mother Earth. It is owned by a Canadian firm and runs tar sludge to Nebraska for export to other countries. Sold as a boon to American employment (although for the most part the number of jobs was few as it was built, and far fewer still to maintain it) it runs fossil fuels through the heartland of our country. Early concerns of leaks and environmental disaster have already come to pass.

In this project, petroleum products that are primarily responsible for global warming runs through lands that are sacred to the Native Americans. It’s a tribute to putting the value of resources above the value of our own land. You can agree with my assessment of this project or disagree as you wish, but the reality is that as we continue to exploit these resources, we are scarring our own Earth and making it sick. But I’m not worried. Earth will be fine. It may not be able to sustain life much longer, but it’ll keep spinning. I wonder who will bury us all? Oh, yeah, Mother Earth will take us back into her womb over the years.

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