Spirited Reflection: The Solstice Gifts
When my father was five years of age near the time of the winter solstice, his grandfather awoke one night in the cabin that he had built. At the time, it was considered an honour to bequeath the education of an elder child to a grandparent or a childless couple in the village. This meant that although my father’s parents were within distance, my father was being raised by his grandfather. My great grandfather was renowned in the area as being “One with the Manitous”, and as such he spoke directly to the birds, plants, waters and the spirits which inhabited the world of my people. He was a shaman.
The old tradition acknowledged that dreams and sleep were a glimpse into what Crazy Horse of the Oglalas referred to as the “real world” or the world that we would inhabit once life on earth ceased. My father recalls from his childhood that the Manitous came to his grandfather and to his parents through dreams, visions or through signs in nature such as stars falling in the night or through the “dancing of the deceased” (auroras) in the night sky, even animals were regarded as messengers of events to come.
My great grandfather told my father after that night that visitors were to arrive soon. Then one evening days later, my father recalled the musical cadence of the “legend tellers”, the visitors paying homage to the stories and myths of his clan and people. These visitors had arrived from the east, kinsmen of the Little Cranes from which my family descends, and we offered them the customary hospitality such as food, drink and lodging. The guests who were also Christian in their own way, in turn brought gifts acknowledging the obligations my family possessed over the region and their use of and their passing through it.
Story of Christ from the East
The visitors also brought a vision of the sun that dies and is reborn each day, in Anishininimowin or the Severn Ojibwa dialect, Jesus sounds very similar to the word for “sun”. They had learned Christian beliefs and stories and absorbed these lessons within their beliefs and they shared this new creation/tradition including the vision of the sun. From the story of Christ being shared as a gift, my father recalls a few events after; one was this change from the old tradition to a new and different belief that acknowledges Christ within the context of the natural world. He remembered that the elders before would smoke tobacco before bedtime so as to send their petitions to Father Sky and to dream or be given inspiration in sleep, and the reverence displayed to the spirits of the animals through the careful placing of bones so as not to insult them or the Mother of All.
This all changed to “seeing things for what they are”, at least to eyes not in tune with the natural world in which everything has a purpose. The old ones say that the Manitous, Weesaykajak and Nanabush went on a journey through the western door, but there would come a time when they would return.
My father says that my great grandfather’s dream may have foretold two different omens; the change from the old traditions to the new one (including their vision of Christ, possibly incompatible with Euro-Canadian thought) –or the birth of my mother. My mother was born in that same village, although her family is from the Ducks or Mallards. Her family was seeking hospitality near the winter solstice in my father’s village away from their trapline as my great grandmother was a mid-wife. My mother’s Ojibwa name is Shooting Star which is same word used for the Panther which once roamed the eastern part of Turtle Island.
This reflection teaches a lesson though; that a gift, once bestowed, cannot be returned. Neither can the giver command nor control what the benefactor does with it or in what manner the receiver decides to use it. Our solstice gifts.
Verlin James is the KAIROS Indigenous Rights Program Coordinator, and a descendant of Forever Thunder of the Little Cranes, a signatory of Treaty Nine. Both of his parents were born in Missi Sakahiganing of different peoples and clans, he is the living legacy of the Solstice that his father remembers.