SAGKEENG FIRST NATION, Man. — It’s a cold day for a vigil. The smoke from the sacred fire is sweet and thick but the wind that chases it is bitter, so the women tending the flames wear thick pants under ceremonial skirts.
Yet it is peaceful here, on the hem of the highway, just beside the old white church. In the morning, women walked through Sagkeeng and smudged the community, cleansing negative energy from its streets. Now, they nurture the fire that crackles for the First Nation’s grief.
By now, the world has heard about what happened here last weekend, when 19-year-old Serena McKay was beaten to death. Young women are killed every day, somewhere. The video made this one different, the grainy images of McKay pleading for her life as it was stolen.
This is not something that should have been shown, or been seen. But it was shared on Facebook, and by the middle of the week many people in Sagkeeng were reeling from what they had witnessed. McKay’s killing was pure heartbreak; the videos, a shock to the system.
And because the world is wrestling with that right now, with how ever-present digital eyes turn their gaze into the heart of human darkness, this is a story the world wants to consume. So this is how the world thinks about Sagkeeng, now: by one terrible and digitally telegraphed truth.
Whatever those videos showed, they do not tell Sagkeeng’s whole story. They do not show the smudge walk through the community, or the sacred fire. They do not show how so many women stepped up to bring people together for Serena, and to organize Thursday night’s candlelit vigil.
That is the community that 52-year-old Brenda Morrisseau knows. And oh, she remembers growing up in the 1970s, when life here seemed very simple. She remembers the dances at the school’s youth drop-in centre. She doesn’t remember a party lifestyle really, back then.
That’s one thing Morrisseau would like to see happen: more healthy things for young folk to do.
“My community, for me, has always been a supportive community and a healing community,” Morrisseau says, as she welcomes visitors to the sacred fire. “There’s a lot of history, with residential schools and colonialism. Everybody’s trying to go on their healing journey.”
When a hurt like this shakes the community, Morrisseau thinks, maybe it shines a light back on that path. “I think that maybe it pushes it (the healing journey) forward,” she says. “Maybe things that have been ignored for too long, now they have to be addressed.”
Because some days, Alma Kakikepinance says, it is as if a black storm cloud hangs over Sagkeeng. It is a pernicious darkness, and its name is addiction. The house near where McKay was killed — Kakikepinance found her body, and called police — is known for drugs, she says.
Yet every cloud has its silver lining, she adds, no matter how dark or how violently stormy. In Sagkeeng, people praise “the good life,” by which they mean a life in balance: free of addiction, connected to their neighbours, open to learning the teachings of land and ancestors.
So that is the spirit that brings them together. That is why Kakikepinance stands by the fire, drumming and singing sacred songs. As the chill grows deeper, she helps pack the embers into a cauldron, to be driven down to the powwow grounds on the riverbank for Serena’s vigil.
Hundreds of people fill up the powwow arbour. Early into the gathering, Dave Courchene Jr. takes the microphone to lead the ceremony. As he speaks, gulls cry in the greying sky and the community stands quiet.
“Today, we can turn all of this around,” he says, and his voice trembles with the righteousness of what he is saying.
The world is watching Sagkeeng, he continues, which is an opportunity, too. “We can show the world what it means, and how we can be,” he says: show the world the way they are lifting up the old teachings, the ones their ancestors left about compassion and community and love.
“We will be able to find that spirit again,” Courchene says.
Under the arbour several onlookers shiver, as much from his voice as from the weather. The wind turns to rain, and the rain turns to snow. In the damp and dreary cold, drums beat messages into the sky: drums for Serena, drums for Sagkeeng, drums for the hope of healing future, and a good life.