CBC NEWS BLOG | A non-Indigenous reporter’s first sacred pipe ceremony

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‘It was powerful because of what I witnessed,’ says CBC North’s Alyssa Mosher

By Alyssa Mosher, CBC News | Posted: Mar 20, 2017 7:38 AM CT | Last Updated: Mar 20, 2017 7:38 AM CT

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Tents in Dettah, N.W.T., during the On the Land Summit this month. Being on the land is another custom Aboriginal leaders want to make sure sticks.

Tents in Dettah, N.W.T., during the On the Land Summit this month. Being on the land is another custom Aboriginal leaders want to make sure sticks. (Joanne Stassen/CBC)

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There was something different about the tobacco that burned at the sacred pipe ceremony in Dettah, N.W.T., this weekend. It was poignant and everywhere, creating a mist of smoke among the people in the room. It’s something that would usually bother me — make me cough and rub my eyes. But this time, it didn’t. As I watched elders and community members use the tobacco smoke from their pipes almost like a wash over their bodies — cupping their hands around each other like they were using soap, gliding the smoke up their arms like they were lathering themselves — I could see how to them, the smoke we were breathing was more than its physical being. Less than a dozen people made a circle around the metre-long sacred pipe that was created specially for this ceremony.
Smudging before Tadoule Lake ceremony

A band member at a ceremony in Ottawa smudges. Motions during smudging and moving sacred pipe tobacco smoke can look similar, where it’s almost like people are washing their bodies — cupping their hands around each other like they are using soap. (Donna Carreiro/CBC)

The rest of us watched as each person unpacked their own pipe kit — some from just a duffel bag — pulling out stone bowls for burning sage and tobacco, pillows for where they kneeled in the circle, tobacco from plastic, Ziploc bags, and their unique sacred pipes, many wrapped in cloth for protection. They stuffed their small pipes with tobacco and lit them with a match. Meanwhile, a man in a sky-blue shirt prepared the large sacred pipe in the middle of the room. It was different from the smaller ones held in the community members’ hands around the circle; not only was it larger, making it nearly impossible to handle on your own, but its design looked simpler as well. The bowl was made out of black stone, and the long stem a very white wood. The only obvious design element of the pipe was eight figurines that sat on top of the stem, each an animal representing a different sacred teaching.
Troy Fontaine

Troy Fontaine created the specially made pipe for this weekend’s sacred ceremony in Dettah, N.W.T. He’s been making pipes for 24 years and can’t count how many of his creations are out there. (Alyssa Mosher/CBC)

The man in the sky-blue shirt, who was actually the carver of the pipe, began passing it around to the elders who commissioned it and brought it to Dettah, many of whom were from the Sagkeeng First Nation in Manitoba. Then it was everyone else’s turn; just like communion during a Christian church mass, the rest of the congregation lined up behind one another to have their turn at either smoking the pipe, or having it placed on their shoulder for a blessing (this is custom for children). There were a handful of young- to very-young First Nations kids at the ceremony, some who didn’t look too thrilled to be there. “I’m not doing the pipe!” one exhaled to an older Aboriginal woman who appeared to be a relative. But that girl changed her mind — and so did the attitude of some of the other kids. I watched a brother and sister, who spent much of the ceremony slumped low in their chairs with unchanged expressions, give each other a fist bump after they had a chance to experience the sacred pipe. I could only smile and wonder what that meant.
Throughout the five hours I spent at the sacred pipe ceremony at the Chief Drygeese Community Centre in Dettah, leaders like pipe caretaker Dave Courchene, along with the chiefs of Dettah and Ndilo, spoke about the importance of passing over traditions to the next generation. “We depend on the pipe to lead us and be the model we need to be as people,” Courchene said.
Edward Sangris and Ernest Betsina

Edward Sangris, the chief of Dettah, N.W.T., and Ernest Betsina, the chief of Ndilo, N.W.T., host the sacred pipe ceremony in Dettah, N.W.T., on Mar. 19, 2017. Chief Sangris says community members had ‘mixed feelings’ about the ceremony because it’s not what they believe to be a well-known Dene tradition. (Alyssa Mosher/CBC)

It’s similar to what we’ve heard before, but this time, it’s like I saw the value of it right before my eyes. As the day went on, it seemed like the brightness — or perhaps simply the energy levels — of some of the youths’ faces had changed. What caused that? Was it, in fact, from this traditional healing ceremony that some want to revitalize? I’d never heard of a sacred pipe ceremony before now, and the descriptions I read before seeing it for myself felt intangible: “a sacred pipe will… bring spiritual, emotional, physical and mental well-being to the people of the North.” I tried picturing what physical features would make a tobacco pipe sacred and couldn’t come up with anything. I Googled “sacred pipe” and came across dozen of images — many of them illustrations — garnering what appeared to be a regular tobacco pipe attached to a really long stick or stem.
Sacred pipe ceremony painting

Videos and photos are not allowed to be taken of the sacred pipes or their ceremonies, but here is a painting of a pipe, seen above the teepee. (Painting by Henry Guimond/Turtle Lodge)

I continued to hear words like “healing” and revitalization” associated with the ceremony, but I didn’t quite get it. However from the beginning, I could tell how important the ceremony was to Courchene. Whenever he got up to say a few words, it was like he was a motivational speaker, reminding everyone what they were fighting for. “There was a deliberate attempt to destroy our identity,” he said. “This pipe has the power to restore a way of life… of reclaiming who were are as a people.”
I felt something different at the sacred pipe ceremony in Dettah, N.W.T., this weekend. I had the opportunity to experience something so fascinating… and powerful. And I say it was powerful not because I believed I was healing myself during the ceremony, but because of what I witnessed around me — the faith, the love, the respect — just to simply make sure everyone understood what this sacred pipe ceremony used to mean to Indigenous peoples and what it can continue to mean for others. This ceremony was about healing, yes, but it was also about learning. And learn I did.

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