In the Circle of Earth and Sky: Four Directions Ceremony in conjunction with Four Elders

by Chris LaFond

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Francois Paulette

Indigenous Elder Francois Paulette (Dene) led the sunrise observance on Monday, accompanied by elders Be’sha Blondin (of the Sahtu Region), Trina Moyan, and a Mayan Elder. I arrived at 6:45 for the scheduled 7 a.m. ceremony, but as I arrived, Bob Goulais (Anishanaabe), who is the co-chair of the Indigenous Working Group of the Parliament and was there as a fire tender, announced that the ceremony would begin around 7:30 a.m. because the elders wanted to wait until the Sun had actually risen. He explained that the Parliament insisted on scheduling all the morning observances at 7 a.m., despite the fact that most of the presenters wanted an actual sunrise ceremony. I was left wondering why, at an event like this, such a simple request could not be accommodated.

So I had forty-five minutes to wait. But as so often happens, the highlight of the moment happened outside of the scheduled event. Mr. Goulais said that while we waited, he would offer us a teaching about the fire. He then told us his people’s story of creation, which began with the thought of the Creator, and spiraled down through space, to the Earth, and primarily through the Fire. We learned about the “happy hunting grounds,” as

Bob_Goulais

Bob Goulais

he explained with a smile about that place from which our spirits come and to which they will go when it is their time. We heard several of his people’s teachings about the Earth, many of which have been confirmed by science today: the fire at the center of the Earth, the idea of action and reaction, and more. He finished with an explanation of the roles of men and women in his community, and how and why men have become the fire keepers.
At 7:30, the Elders had arrived, and Chief Paulette gave a brief instruction to all, after which we were given a small handful of tobacco to offer. As Mr. Goulais drummed and chanted (we joined him in raising our voices when he got to the “exciting parts” as he had invited us to do), we moved in a sun-wise circle, and one by one, facing the East, offered the tobacco into a small basket. When all the participants had completed their offerings, a Mayan elder took the basket of tobacco, while Elder Trina Moyan took a basket of food in her hands. Together they faced the East and offered prayers, then moved around the circle, stopping again for prayers to the South, West, and North. Finally, they emptied each basket onto the Fire, completing the offering.

The Mayan elder then explained how the teachings of the Indigenous peoples of the Americas are strikingly similar to those of the Indigenous peoples of Australia because the Original Teachings had been given to all peoples. Ms. Moyan told us that her prayers at the directions had been for all people at their beginnings, their youth, their adulthood, and their elderhood, that we might live good lives and guide others in doing the same. Elder Be’sha Blondin then gave a final blessing, exhorting us to live a simple life, and to clean and heal the Earth.

The ceremony concluded with the Elders beginning to move inside the circle, spiraling around to shake the hands of and greet each person there. The whole circle followed them in until it was whole again, where it began. As we all headed off to our next destinations, I couldn’t help humming to myself, “In the circle of Earth and sky, my heart flies to yours. We gather, we remember, and the pattern endures.”

EarthSpirit is at A Parliament of the World’s Religions this week in Toronto!  You can find more updates here and on our Facebook page.  

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The Zoroastrian Boi Ceremony

by Chris LaFond

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Tehemton Mirza, Mobed

On this chilly Sunday morning at 7 am, about 40 people gathered at a small park outside the Metro Toronto Convention Centre to join the Zoroastrian Fire Ceremony. Tehemton Mirza, the Mobed (Zoroastrian priest), greeted us as we gathered around the warmth of the fire just before the Sun rose. First he thanked the representative of the First Nations, who was present to help tend the fire, for hosting us on their land. Then he explained that he was going to do an abbreviated Boi Ceremony, a fire blessing. Each attendee had been given a dry piece of wood to offer the fire at the end of the ceremony. What followed would be familiar to any pagan today. He chanted a long blessing over the fire in Farsi, and at the point in the prayer where he intoned “Dushmata, Duzukhta, Duzvarshta,” (Bad thoughts, bad words, and bad deeds), he rang a bell nine times (three for each) to banish these.

During the ceremony, the Atash (Sacred Fire) asks in the prayer, “What did the walking friend (the devotee) bring for his sitting friend (the Sacred Fire)?” This was the invitation for the attendees to place their individual pieces of wood on the fire. At a certain point, sandalwood is offered to the fire, being particularly sacred to the rite. This morning, the First Nations attendee also offered cedar, sage, and tobacco, the sacred offerings for the particular land that we are on here. Toward the end of the chant, the Mobed asked the Fire to bless the devotees:

In thy family, may the flock of cattle increase!
Unto Thee may there be an increase of heroic men!
May thou have an active mind!
May thy life be active!
May thou live a joyous life, those nights that thou live!

The blessing is reminiscent of many of those from the Gaelic highlands.

After the prayers, and the final pieces of wood offerings were given to the Fire, each attendee was offered some ash that had been removed and cooled earlier, so that we could put a small bit on our foreheads in a sign of humility and respect for the Fire.

Having concluded the ritual part of the gathering, the Mobed drew attention to the very close parallels between the Zoroastrian ceremonies and those of our First Nations hosts. He spoke of the three different kinds of sacred fires, and he introduced a female Zoroastrian priest who was present, pointing out that there is equality among men and women, and this includes women’s participation in the priesthood.

We concluded as the Sun’s rays poured over the buildings around us on the first rainless day we’ve had since the Parliament began.

EarthSpirit is at A Parliament of the World’s Religions this week in Toronto!  You can find more updates here and on our Facebook page.  

Holding Integrity: A Lesson from Chief Arvol Looking Horse

by Chris LaFond

Arvol Looking Horse

photo by Balkowitsch, used under a Creative Commons license

On Saturday, I attended a workshop titled “Pipe Ceremony,” presented by Arvol Looking Horse, Lakota. Mr. Looking Horse talked about becoming a sacred bundle keeper when his grandmother died in her eighties, which was young for a bundle keeper. As a consequence of becoming a sacred bundle keeper, he began to live in ceremony all the time. He was told that he could not ever use a gun or weapon, he could not use foul language, could not run for political office, and he could not raise his hand to swear an oath to the U.S. flag.

What I find impressive about his presentation and his life is his willingness to take on a responsibility for his community that defines how he will live for the rest of his life. His role in his community is not merely the person who keeps the bundle or offers the pipe. His entire life is now a ritual.

Most modern pagan communities don’t have such a rigid differentiation of roles.  In fact, we often have a difficult time staying in ritual for more than an hour or so, even when there is nowhere else to go and nothing else to do.  Few of us live in the kind of tight-knit or geographically-centered communities that would allow for such a lifetime dedication. But the model might serve even for those of us who take on temporary roles within our own groups. If you are responsible for holding a particular piece for your community, perhaps you might try letting that role infuse your whole life, at least until you pass that role to another.  Instead of looking at your responsibilities as something that you do, maybe try to think of them as who you are.

EarthSpirit is at A Parliament of the World’s Religions this week in Toronto!  You can find more updates here and on our Facebook page.  

The Canadian Way

The Canadian Way

by Andrew Watt

At my second day of A Parliament of the World’s Religions, the thing that keeps striking me is the “Canadian Way”. That’s the name I’m giving to a practice, which I have found striking and emotionally powerful, of acknowledging and recognizing the First Nations of the region around Toronto as the keepers of the land.  These tribes include the Mississaugas, the New Credit Tribes, and the Six Nations.  I’ve not caught all the names or subtleties of the relationships between the tribes, I know.  But I know that they are here, their chiefs saw us at the Parliament’s opening session on the first day, that they knew we were coming, and that they have extended a formal welcome to the Parliament and a kind of formal permission to conduct our business here. (In a kindly, funny but also serious fashion, we were told in no uncertain terms to go home when we were done.)

Talking with a few Canadians today, I learned that this is becoming more and more common at all sorts of Canadian official events: graduations and conferences, government meetings, matriculation ceremonies, and higher-level religious events like church synods.  Canada appears to be making a serious commitment to recognize and acknowledge the place and position of what it calls the First Nations within the fabric of Canadian life.  My new Canadian friends admitted that it feels more like “talking the talk” and not enough like “walking the walk” — but that Indigenous Peoples are much more active in the political and social fabric of the nation today than they were twenty and forty years ago in their own childhoods.

And so, the Canadian Way: to be welcomed to traditional lands by traditional First Nations custodians, to be given permission to settle and perform ceremony, and to participate in the life of the nation as the First to speak.  To Be First.

The formal opening session of the Parliament was preceded by several hours of Indigenous Ceremony in the park outside the Convention Center: dancing, smudging done by members of the Toronto tribes, welcomes from the chiefs of several of the tribes, drumming and singing in the traditional styles and in the traditional costumes of the

Indigenous dancer

photo by Moira Ashleigh

Mississaugas, the Cree, the New Credit Tribes, the Six Nations.  A few hours later, at the formal opening of the Parliament of the World’s Religions, the chiefs spoke again.  No rousing strains of “O Canada!” filled the hall.  Instead, with the raising of Indigenous eagle feathers and staffs, the singing was one of one of the local tribe’s national anthems, and another song in a First Nations language to thank veterans. During the opening speeches, a minister of the government of Canada thanked the Mississaugas and the New Credit Tribes and the Six Nations. So did the Lieutenant Governor of Ontario.  So did a city councillor of the government of the city of Toronto.  No one stumbled over unfamiliar names.  No one tried a couple of times and gave up.  The tribes were mentioned in the same order each time (which I’ve endeavored without notes to repeat, but apologize if I’ve gotten in wrong).  There is clearly an effort underway within the Canadian government to restore a sense of traditional custodianship of the land to the First Nations, at all levels of government.

That’s extraordinary in itself.

But then… it happened in some of the sessions and workshops I attended during the day.  A presenter thanked the First Nations tribes of the Toronto area, and named them the same way the government officials had.  Then she got around to thanking the Parliament for inviting her to speak.  A ritual event in another space included a formal acknowledgement that the ceremony was taking place on Mississaugas land.

Later in the day, I asked a Canadian if they knew what First Nations land they were on. “Mississaugas,” came the answer, followed immediately by surprise. They didn’t know, quite, how long they had known that information, or how they’d come by it.

And yet, in an extraordinary way, the Canadian Way is beginning to undo the effects of centuries of deliberate erasure of the First Nations:  by inviting them to speak First, by inviting them into the role of the traditional custodians, all across Canada people are waking up to the idea that they are on someone’s land, that they are in someone’s land: that Canada is more than one country, and the country has a deeper and longer history than just the French and English, Confederation and a couple of World Wars.

The Canadian Way may bring about a deeper understanding of their nation’s cultural heritage, a heritage that extends at least twenty thousand years into the past…. and into a present where the First Nations always speak First, in words of welcome and of permission. There’s a power in that; and I hope that it brings the many peoples of Canada a few long and graceful strides toward reconciliation. At the same time, I feel the challenge and the opportunity in the Canadian Way that all of these visitors from around the globe must see and hear, and I hope that many of them — and we ourselves — can take the steps and begin the conversations that begin to put Indigenous voices as First Voices.

EarthSpirit is at A Parliament of the World’s Religions in Toronto this week!  Keep an eye here and on our Facebook page for more updates on our interfaith experiences.  

Wondering

Isobel canoeby Isobel Arthen

On this day when so many people are celebrating science, I wanted to share some reflections I’ve made over the past couple months. When I was young I really thought science was the antithesis of spirituality. I didn’t put any faith in something that I thought tried to explain the unsolvable mysteries of the world around us, and I resented it for defining natural phenomena when, to me, something like fire is so much more than just a chemical reaction. In 9th grade when I started learning about ecological concepts like interdependence, food webs and cycles, I realized that science may not be in contradiction with spirituality. In fact, I discovered that it compliments it in some very potent ways.

Many of you know that I have spent my adult life immersed in the study of science, and specifically ecology. I have found that the more I understand the world around me, the more I can appreciate it. Since starting work as an educator at the Franklin Institute, I have had many opportunities to learn about how to best communicate science to museum guests, including one session about how the brain actually interprets and stores information.

This training left me with a lot to think about, but one thing especially stuck out. At the beginning, we were asked what we had always wondered about the brain. The group answered with a popcorn of questions that piqued my curiosity about every question someone else had asked. We were told, later on, that the question was specifically intended to prime our minds for learning—that inspiring inquiry, or wonder, releases dopamine in the brain, thus improving attention and focus.

After that activity I have been thinking a lot about that word, “wonder.” What a word. It is used to describe a state of inquiry and curiosity, a way of seeking new information— “I wonder why those ants walk in a line?” But it also describes a state of amazement. To stare “with wonder” is to perceive something so astounding that it is almost unbelievable. I have come to believe that “wonder” is that place, that liminal space between science and magic, and as a scientist and an animist, that is where I want to live.

To gaze with wonder at the night sky is so much more if you know that there are about as many neurons in one brain as there are stars in our galaxy, and that there are about the same number of galaxies in the universe. To handle soil means so much more if you know that it took hundreds upon hundreds of years to develop, and that it is home to billions of living beings right in the palm of your hand. What do you miss if you look at fire and just see a combustion reaction? What do you lose if you don’t notice its ability to transform and destroy, or the way gazing into a flame can transport you to a whole other place?

I am disappointed not to be at the science march, but like every day at work, I have spent today bringing science into people’s lives. I have asked guests to wonder with me, to come up with questions, to try and notice and discover new things about the world we so often take for granted. I share this with you so that maybe you’ll make a point to come up with a new question today (if you do, let me know what it is!). It seems to me there is no better way to celebrate science than to take some time to wonder.

Confronting Racism, Yankee Pagan Style

by Cat Chapin-Bishop

I am a Yankee.  Right down to my Pagan soul.

My understanding of what it means to be a Pagan is to try to live in right relationship with the gods, the land, and the people, including the ancestors.  My gods are those that are comfortable in New England’s woods and hills.  My land is this rocky landscape of New England.  And my people and my ancestors–on Mom’s side, at least–are New Englanders: sea captains and dairy farmers, teachers and laborers.  Whatever granite is in this place or in my ancestors lives on in me and in my Pagan practice.

Old Man of the Mountain stamp

And that granite is why I am so driven to speak out against racism.

To help me explain what I mean, I’m going to go ahead and borrow an ancestor: my friend Kirk White‘s father.

A Yankee like a Rock

Kirk’s ancestors, like mine, were among the first Englishmen to arrive in North America.  Like mine, this landscape was where they found their home.  And like me, my friend Kirk and his family before him has loved New England–Vermont in his case, Maine and Massachusetts in mine.

Now, Kirk grew up on the farm his family had owned for over a hundred years.  Farming in New England, though, has never been an easy way to earn a living, and, like other families before and since, Kirk’s family found other ways to pay their bills.  So when Kirk was growing up, his dad Ron was a contractor.

During the real estate boom of the 1970s, Ron got hired by a big developer to build houses for vacationers in Vermont.  There was a lot of money changing hands.

Now, standard practice in construction, then and probably now, says that the people under you get paid when you get paid.  So the construction workers get paid when the contractor gets paid, and the contractor gets paid when the developer gets paid.  But sometimes, there are delays.  And on this job, there were lots of delays.

People have to eat.  Ron had a crew under him, filled with workers who needed to eat, and who couldn’t wait until next month or next year to do that.  So Ron took out loans, and did what he had to do so that all the people working under him got paid. Because he knew what it was like, to need to feed your kids today on money you won’t have until tomorrow, and he wasn’t going to make people deal with that.

Then it turned out that that particular developer wasn’t going to pay anybody; his deals had gone sour. He declared bankruptcy, and Ron and his crew were way too far down on the food chain to ever get a share.

Ron had paid his workers.  They were fine.  But Ron’s debts were all in his own name, and he had no way to pay them.  Worse: that was the year his house burned down.  One of Ron’s sons died.  His wife had a heart attack.  It was just that kind of year.

The sensible thing to do would have been to follow the developer into bankruptcy, but Ron couldn’t make himself do that.  He felt himself honor-bound to repay all those loans, all that money.  No court would have held him to it–but his own integrity did.  So he busted a gut doing every kind of work he could lay hands on.  His wife went back to work, despite her heart. They couldn’t rebuild the house, so they moved into a trailer… and Kirk grew up in something very near poverty.

Ron scrimped and saved and drove himself for years and years… and in the end, he paid it all back.  Every last dime.

Well, almost.

In the end, it was Kirk himself who paid that last $40,000, when he took possession of the farm–and the integrity–that came down in the family to him.

When I began working on this essay, I called him on the phone.  I’d only heard the story once, though obviously it had left me with a strong impression.  Then, after some basic fact-checking, I asked Kirk the question that had been on my mind.  I asked if, growing up, he’d ever resented it–making do with so little when, if his Dad had been a little less unyielding, he might have had so much more.

“To be honest,” he said, “I never thought of it until just now, when you asked.”

He paused, thinking.  “It always just seemed to me that it was the right thing to do–the honorable thing.  I guess I just… admired him for it.”

And that, to me, is integrity.  Integrity like bedrock, like the land itself.

When I say that “I’m a Yankee,” what I mean is, I consider myself to be walking in the footsteps of men and women like Ron White.  Granite integrity may be hard to live up to, but like Kirk, that’s the kind of person I aspire to be.

That is what I’m proud of.  But–and if you are a black or brown reader of this blog, you’re probably here way ahead of me–I don’t get to hold onto the pride of my heritage unless I’m willing to own the shame.

Receiving Stolen Goods

Our Yankee forebears were not innocent of the stain of racism.  Neither, for that matter, am I.

I’m not just talking about slavery–though all the New England states had slavery; they just ended it a little sooner than other parts of the country.  (Should we make a virtue out of having ended the theft of lives sooner–through a gradual emancipation–than other parts of the country?  “We Stole a Little Less Than Some White People!” what a ringing endorsement of our integrity!)

Rugged Coastline near Pemaquid Point.  Jacklee, 2015.

I do not stand apart from these injustices.  My ancestors profited from a system that marginalized and robbed people of color.  Those sea captains I’m so proud to claim in my family tree?  The New England shipping industry was built on the Triangular Slave Trade.  Whether my direct ancestors ever participated is almost beside the point: the industry was created by it.  Likewise Maine farmers owed their prosperity, in part, to supplying that same industry, before as well as after the abolition of the slave trade.

It would be one thing if the injustice had stopped when the Age of Sail had ended.  Then I could at least hold my father’s side of the family innocent bystanders to the crimes of racism!  But it’s not so.

Did you know, for instance, that Maine wouldn’t allow Native Americans to vote until 1953? And not only was the land I love so much stolen from its original owners, but Indian children, growing up in Maine,  were stolen from their families in order to “kill the Indian” in them right up through the 1990s.

Then there are the ways that, during my lifetime and my parents’ lifetimes, my prosperity, as a white woman, was assured in part by denying people of color equal access to government help.  From the benefits of the GI Bill to FHA loans, my government colluded with banks, realtors, and colleges to be sure that my (white) ancestors would prosper through programs deliberately designed to discourage access by people of color.

I never asked for this.  My parents never asked for this.  Nevertheless, the fact remains: my family’s prosperity was paid for in part by the marginalization of people of color, in New England and elsewhere.

Honoring my Ancestors; Honoring my Debts

Here’s what I conclude from all this: I owe a debt.  If you are a white American, until and unless we stop getting preferential treatment in hiring, education, housing, and law enforcement, you owe a debt.  Whether our specific ancestors ever intended to cheat anyone really is not the question–at least, not to me.

Ron didn’t set out to steal from anyone, after all.  He didn’t sit back and say, “That was so long ago,” or “It wasn’t my fault,” or “It’s not my problem.”  Knowing he had a debt, he worked until he managed to pay it back.

If I am to claim that bedrock as my own, can I do less?  As Ta-Nehisi Coates has observed,

One cannot escape the question by hand-waving at the past, disavowing the acts of one’s ancestors, nor by citing a recent date of ancestral immigration. The last slaveholder has been dead for a very long time. The last soldier to endure Valley Forge has been dead much longer. To proudly claim the veteran and disown the slaveholder is patriotism à la carte.

What will honoring this debt entail? Will it involve reparations, a financial recognition of hardships imposed?  Perhaps.  At the very least, it will involve breaking the silence, listening to an honoring the experiences of people of color, and confronting the complicity of white Americans.

Racism exists.  It hasn’t gone away, and in fact, it’s still killing people, still destroying lives.

I am a white American.  I didn’t ask to have anyone cheated out of anything.  I never signed up for it; I never wanted it.  But I am also a Pagan and I honor my ancestors.  Here is the lesson I choose to take from them: It doesn’t matter if it’s “not our fault.” Before there can be Reconciliation, there must be Truth.

We need to be like Ron. Pay our debts.

Speak the truth, work like hell, and pay that goddamn debt.


Cat Chapin-Bishop is a longtime member of the EarthSpirit Community and a regular presenter a A Feast of Lights.  To hear more from her, check out her blog, Quaker Pagan Reflections, on the Patheos Pagan Channel, where this post was originally published in March of 2015.  Special thanks to Cat and to Pagan Channel editor Jason Mankey for their assistance in allowing us to repost this.  

A Year of Drops

by Katie LaFond

I celebrate the Earth as Sacred, and it started me down a path many years ago that has borne some surprising fruit. Below is a collection of simple things you can do to help live more lightly on the Earth. I consider each of these an act of prayer.

The tips are organized into 12 sections. [Editor’s note: we’ll be posting them once a week here for the next little while!] A lot of these cross over, but this will get you started. Focus on one section at a time.

This is one of the rings made in the visioning ritual at Twilight Covening.  It reminds us that we can create new ways of being in the world.

This is one of the rings made in the visioning ritual at Twilight Covening. It reminds us that we can create new ways of being in the world.time. Really incorporating these habits into your life will take time. Be patient with the process and with yourself. It has taken my family many years to incorporate these changes into our lives.

Do these at your own pace. With 12 sections, you can choose to focus on one area for the amount of time that feels right to you. If you find the pacing too fast/slow, you can always modify your habits. The point here is to see how easy it can be to weave some of these into your life. Remember that this blog post is only the beginning. This can be a lifestyle change, and will take you on interesting adventures along the way. Every drop in the bucket makes a difference.

  1. Get serious about Recycling
  2. Get serious about Reusing
  3. Get serious about Reducing
  4. Start Composting
  5. Use your car less
  6. Locate your local food options
  7. Where do your things come from? Try to source as many of the things you use within a 100 mile radius of your home
  8. Start a garden
  9. Look into buying “Environmentally Friendly” products.
  10. Energy consumption
  11. Get Crafty
  12. Educate yourself

This post is the first in a series of thirteen posts by Katie on ways you can walk more lightly on the Earth.  Stay tuned for the rest!