a literary journal published by the Black Earth Institute dedicated to re-forging the links between art and spirit, earth and society
Plains Cree Protocol for Ceremony
The colonial disruption of the Indigenous Cree culture led to psychological and spiritual starvation. This article is shared to stimulate healthy reflection and discussion on our traditions, culture and ceremony. There is a lot of apprehension and misunderstanding about conduct in, and approach to, ceremony. The help of a language specialist and six female Elders was used to clarify the language and provide guidance in making the following account. Elders teach that words must be used with caution. This article is an exploration of the Plains Cree language in order to highlight the teachings.
The word for language, pîkiskwêwin, loosely translates as, “Taking something from the female body that has the life of the wind.”
It must be noted that not every Elder practices ceremonies in the same way, nor does one Elder have expertise in all areas of spirituality or medicine. Each one is gifted differently. A seeker after insights into this wisdom must explore, ask, and discover how a particular Elder should be approached. This exploration is in itself a lesson in humility and respect. In nêhiyawêwin Cree spirituality is not a religion, it is isîhcikêwin, a life way, or “the way things are done.” Kihci-isîhcikêwin means the “sacredness of the way things are done.”
Protocol, nîkân isîhcikêwin, is “the way ceremony was conducted since the beginning of time.” The teachings are as old as our language itself; they reach out from the beginning of time. They are elemental, derived from the wind, the fire, the rock, the earth and all animate and inanimate forms. When studied closely, these ancient spirits simply just do their business. From the Western or European perspective, earth-based spirituality is paganism. In Latin, pagan means “at the hearth.” Prayer began its origins within the cave. “Spirituality is a journey that is holistic and calls upon both the individual and the community,” known as wâhkôhtowin, kinship, or a whole. It is a profound journey that covers the medicine wheel and its four elements: the mental, physical, emotional and spiritual. The mind, the heart, the gut and desire co-exist and are directly related. This journey opens the door to transformation, if one is open to it. The Elders encourage lines of inquiry when they teach, asking, “Tânisi kititêyihtên?” Or, “What does your heart feel?” And saying kiya, “It’s up to you,” and mâmitonêyihtamâso, “You have a mind, think for yourself.” This journey, at times communal, is also a private one and therefore each person is responsible to both the self and others. “Ceremony increases one’s knowledge and understanding of self, as well as one’s place and belonging in the world” (Ross). When a person is honored with the right to conduct a ceremony, s/he takes a vow, kihci-asotamâkêwin, which means, “Gives their word since they have been blessed with awêyihtâkosiwin, these responsibilities.” Within the teachings are the values of respect, kistêyihtowin, and caring, kisêwâtitâtowin, of oneself and others. The word manâcihiwêwin implies, “Respect and the binding of people within this value system.” When individuals honor and respect others, they are, in essence, showing the same respect toward their individual ahcahkwa, soul. The soul arises from the union of wind and spirit. To put this in cultural terms, the nêhiyawak take direction from that place of spirit within the wind.
In recent times there has been conflict and challenging ideas within the Cree culture about dress, protocol, and ceremony in the modern world. Unfortunately, these conflicts again divide the people in ways the government and other colonial institutions would applaud. These establishments have brought damage and confusion to the Indigenous peoples. The conflict within our own community has led to the exploration of what protocol means in both English and in the Cree tradition. It is essential to understand the issue of protocol within a ceremonial context. The Cree concept of ceremony is not so different, but perhaps less superficial than the English concept. In the Oxford English Dictionary the term ceremony is defined as:
Ceremony is a prescription for spoken or unspoken modes of dress and behavior that one adheres to. The idea of ceremony carries with it the implication that without these traditional modes one could not have celebrations or laws to abide by, and chaos would prevail. Ceremonies direct social conduct and instill order and values that enhance and bring meaning to one’s life.
Protocol is derived from the Latin protocollum, which means, “The first sheet of a volume.” In Greek, protokollon is the “first sheet glued onto a manuscript.” It is essentially the same and marks the beginning to something of more depth and substance. These words, in both Cree and English, have an ancient origin and still have value in the here and now.
Spirituality is a companion to the sensual. We explore and discover and analyze through our five senses. The eyes, or miskîsikwa, which means “big heavens” or “infinite heavens”, have the capacity to see more than appearances. The mouth, mitôn, not only tastes, eats, ingests and regurgitates life, we spill from our mouths what we have thought and learned. The nose, mikot, pinpoints odour and helps us determine the direction and place of the scent. It works alongside the eyes and the ears; it sends out feelers to absorb the scent and aura of another entity or being. The ears, mihtawakaya, implies a “digging through the tunnel to receive the information.” In essence, the ear acts as a gut as it discerns and digests what it hears. The hands, micihciya, are the “feelers of skin attached to muscle, the heart and the rest of the body,” miyaw. The hands carry out the directions from the other senses.
It is not surprising then that a sweat-lodge is shaped like a cave, a lodge, or a den. In native spirituality, nêhiyawak receive their gifts and their teachings from the earth, plant, insect and animal life around them. Interestingly, “The word for animal is derived from animale meaning animated which comes from the world anima or soul. Animals are those not only whom we share this earth and this physical universe of space and time, but also with whom we share a soul” (Fox 158). Visions, or visitations, are received through the Vision Quest, the Sun Dance, and other ceremonies, as well as in dreams. One becomes aware of their pawâkan through deep observations during one’s participation in ceremony. The pawâkan is one’s dream-spirit and helper. In essence, “animals line our souls” and yes, our physicality (163).
The tipi, mîkiwâhp, is “where one sits and sees from,” may be a decorated structure that enfolds, akin to a nest or a hive. It is shaped like a woman; she is full and circular. Originally, animal skins dressed her skeletal frame. The tipi poles extend from the ground into the sky, as if her arms hail the heavens in prayer. Each pole represents a principle and together the values and morals of the culture. Each peg that is inserted into the ground provides steadfastness and is “grounded” in duties and beliefs. The doorway, in essence, is the vaginal opening to the womb. It is from this hearth that women share their teachings and their place in the universe.
Tobacco ties are made for particular ceremonies such as the shake-tent, a vision quest, and other ceremonies. They are generally not used by the Plains Cree to be presented to an Elder to gather information or for the more common sweat-lodge. It is more honorable to present a pipe or a pouch of tobacco rather than a pinch, as this indicates the respect of accumulated knowledge the Elder has earned over the many years of discipline, reflection and gathering. This tobacco is used to enter ceremony with spirit, to receive and learn how to share what is being asked for. It is advisable for the recipient to gift the Elder in nâcinêhikê, in return for gathering information, knowledge, stories, songs, medicine, or ceremony. Nâcinêhikê suggests that “there is a valuable exchange for his/her request” and “it is not for nothing.” One must remember that the Elders have earned their knowledge through many years of ceremony, sacrifice and humility in their own quest for understanding.
A bundle is another term that is often confused. The Elders say a true bundle, nayâhcikan, contains hair and the clothing of a deceased person. Sweet grass and tobacco are wrapped in prayer cloth along with these personal remnants. This bundle must go through ceremony to be honored, blessed, and to carry on the memory and teachings of the deceased. To accept the responsibility of a bundle is a life-long commitment that requires the correct protocol and the participation in the Ghost Dance and other related ceremonies. Recently, the beautifully created moccasin vamps honoring the missing and murdered aboriginal women are symbols, a remembrance of their lives. The vamps are a bundle in their own way. Creating them was a commemorative reminder of their complete absence. They are unique bundles, not to be confused with the original nayâhcikan, but worthy of having their own ceremony and protocol carefully developed through a community consensus.
In the nêhiyaw, community, iskwêwak, women, are asked to refrain from participating in most ceremonies when they are in their moon. This is not because they are dirty and unwanted. On the contrary, it is because it is a power time. “When Creator called for the universal energies to come together in that sound, that vibration, what came were the universal energies to create Mother Earth. It is those universal energies that came together that manifest the physical form of her behavior in women. We emulate everything that she teaches the universe must be. So it isn’t just Mother Earth, it is how we are connected” (Anderson 71). Creator, Mother Earth, Women’s ability to bring new life places women as intermediary between earth and the spiritual world. The potential to help a new soul transform, to cross from the other world into this world, is the heart of feminine potency. Regardless of one’s gender identity, they will never forget the body form they came into at birth. That was the beginning of their story.
In nêhiyawêwin, birth is referred to as mamahtâwisiwin: “Arriving from a spiritual place filled with medicine powers.” The arrival of women’s period is sometimes referred to as “her grandmothers have arrived,” which insinuates the innate wisdom, kiskêyihtamowin, she possesses. Wisdom in Latin and in Greek means to “taste life.” In nêhiyawêwin, kiskêyihtamowin loosely means, “The sacred things I know from which my heart has eaten.” Mathew Fox, a theologian writes, “…There are two places to find wisdom: in nature and religious traditions…Nature is a powerful source of wisdom.” Some Elders believe that not every woman is a grandmother and it is only through pregnancy and childbirth that this right has been earned.
There are ceremonies dedicated to each full moon, as well as the first Moon Timeperiod. Moon, tipiskâwi-pîsm, translates loosely as the “night moon,” or more accurately, the “tumbling over or turning over of the night sun.” It is also referred to as nôhkom âtayôhkan which means “Grandmother Legend Keeper,” the sacred holder of knowledge and legends of Cree pimâtisiwin. Pimâtisiwin at a deeper level means the “blowing life of the wind,” which is life and is sometimes referred to as culture. The word psyche in Latin means “one’s spirit and wind.” The Old Ones teach that our ceremonies, our culture, is our psychology.
The moon time is a time of reflection, power and consideration. It is the wakening of women’s fiery spirit; during the last week of her cycle she is waiting, wishing, meditating and dreaming. It is a time of learning, memory, moderation, and deliberate action. In nêhiyawêwin this is referred to as pîsimâspinêwin, or “the moon’s behavior/psyche has taken over.” The menses is about transformation, regeneration and death. During a ceremony the protocol asks that people be mindful of dress, sitting position and moon management. This is not because the Elders are being disrespectful or dismissive; they are merely asking that the ceremony be respected. Participants are in fact humbling, ê-tapahtêyimocik, themselves in the sacredness of ceremony. Contemporary Elders did not invent these wishes; these practices have been here long before their Elders were born and are inherent in our language.
Dress, miskotâkay, more literally means, “To switch into another skin to cover up one’s private parts.” For ceremonial purposes the word that is used is mamahtâwisîho, which means, “In honoring of one’s sacred entity, one dresses.” Those who conduct a ceremony may be in opposition to women wearing pants, but the ospwâkan, the Pipe, cannot turn people away. The circle will be broken if it is so. Everyone, therefore, must grapple with and be accountable for what they perceive to be humble and respectful. The person who is responsible for the Pipe and whose belief system is entrenched in the dress protocol, is free to establish that boundary for themselves, the ceremony they conduct, and if necessary, for others. How they handle this is entirely their journey. They know for themselves what it is to dress appropriately, sit upon the earth, and be in ceremony with humility and respect. The question for them is do they project this upon others? How will they welcome innocent seekers and share their knowledge?
There is also a misconception that one is a Pipe Carrier. In reality, ospwâkan, the pipe, carries us. To be carried by ospwâkan is not only an honor, it is a significant responsibility. To honor ospwâkan is, perhaps ironically, an earned kîspinacikêwin, a difficult burden. Ospwâkan opens most ceremonies. It does so to clarify the expectations of the rituals before a ceremony begins. All participants are the guests in this process and follow protocol. It is not without flexibility. Women who avoid a dress can be offered a blanket and be encouraged to honor their feminine side or moon time.
I am deeply grateful to the language itself for these gifts of awareness, and to the
Elders who guided this paper. This paper was written with respect and brought into ceremony. I may have offended some in the publication of this material. It is my hope that releasing this information inherent in the language will open the door to further discussion and help those in need. There is no end to the quest for knowledge. Reading and research is one thing, it is yet another to gather information through active participation in ceremony and direct communication with an Elder. One grows when one accepts and honors mistakes and pays attention to the corrections. Our Elders are diminishing in numbers; time is running short. More than ever we are in need of their wisdom.
Anderson, Kim. Recognition of Being: Reconstructing Native Womanhood. Toronto: Second Story Press, 2000.
Fox, Matthew. A Spirituality Named Compassion. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1979.
Ross, Rupert. Indigenous Healing: Exploring Traditional Paths. Canada: Penguin Books, 2014.
Louise Bernice Halfe is a Plains Cree Woman from Saddle Lake, Alberta, Canada. She is the author of three acclaimed books of poetry, Bear Bones and Feathers, Blue Marrow and The Crooked Good. All are published by Coteau. She has presented and facilitated workshop internationally as well as nationally. Louise is also known as Sky Dancer, she served as Poet Laureate of Saskatchewan for two years. She is an international fellow of the Black Earth Institute. She is married, and is the proud mother of two accomplished adults and is the grandmother of two. She lives on the prairies in a straw bale house along with her husband, chickens, cats and dogs!