niiwan ishkodewag for n’niijkiiweNh | four fires for my friend
Years ago, we asked if he would come to Anishinaabe Saswaan to teach us. He did. We learned how to make ishkode. Anishinaabe Saaswan was for Anishinaabeg only and so were the teachings. One day, after everyone left the sugar shack and it was quiet, n’daanis, ikawewizeNhs, said it was lonely and asked if she could try to make a fire. Using what she learned, she did. Witnessing her from inside the sugar shack, I could see she was so impressed. I hoped she learned that ishkode is a friend, can be a friend when you are alone, or lonely, or when everyone leaves and the quiet is too much. Since that time when he taught us his way to make fire, this is how I do it. It’s been about twelves years using his method and it’s never let me down. Over the years, I realize that making a fire the way he taught it is about making fire for the people. When it comes to the wood, you start with the kindling which represents the babies.
i was heading into a meeting here in lək̓ʷəŋən territory this past Wednesday morning when my friend called so i didn’t pick up. later, heading to my car, i saw Kachina in my FB messenger and wondered what was up she never messages me. before checking it i called Tasha back expecting our banter would be what it regularly–just some regular banter.
i was wrong.
with kindness and gentleness, she told me Doug had passed that morning.
sitting there in the parking lot on a beautiful sunny day amidst the arbutus, the art buildings of U Vic, the black asphalt and green green of these lands, i think i may have been surprisingly unsurprised. “Ohhh.” was all i could say. my friend.
we had just texted back and forth the week before and it was no where in my mind that this would be the last time we chatted. he had texted so early that morning, 6am ish my time and 9 amish his time; my Dad’s friend had also called at 5:40 am and then my brother. it was a strange morning with all these early calls coming from Ontario. we had texted back and forth briefly as i was in the midst of still-sleeping and his last text was: “Are you travelling?”. i didn’t respond to it as i dozed back to sleep. he face-timed about twenty minutes later which made me a bit curious but because i was still sleeping i didn’t pick up. i knew i’d follow up with him later. when i got up and my day started i texted him back about travel plans asking if he’d be around for a visit in August. he read the message and didn’t respond. i didn’t think anything of it. later that evening, my sister-friend Brigitte, in southern Ontario, texted to say she and her partner were having fire and the fireflies were out! it made me happy to know this and also grateful to have her in my life–to have a friend who knows the things that light up your heart and reach out to bring a little joy is a gift. B and I were in the same PhD cohort together and have many beautiful memories of our first course, much of which was with Doug. After getting that message from her, i texted Doug later that evening: “I hear the waawaatesiwag are out!”. He read my text the next day but didn’t respond.
The day of Doug’s passing was spent talking with others back home and dealing with this reality. My heart goes out to his family and community. He was well loved and his circle was wide. There are a lot of Anishinaabeg out here in the Victoria area, including Michi Saagiig. There is community here and I’m grateful for one Mississauga, Carmen, for letting me use her fire pit to have a fire for Doug and to do so for four nights.
Doug always said that ceremony is strongest at sunrise, noon, or at sundown. So four fires at sunset it was. While he was an intellectual and open to learning from younger generations, he thought it was more important for us as Anishinaabeg academics to put the cultural things that we learned from Elders to use. With this in mind, on this first night, I sang one song that Edna Manitowabi taught us at the Anishinaabe Saaswan and shared with Carmen how Doug taught us to make fire. It was good to be able to have this space and to have one of Doug’s family members attend.
It was late by the time we wrapped up. On my way home I saw Nokomis and remembered that this week saw the lowest tides in a generation and that it was a full moon. For Anishinaabe, it’s miskomin giizis, raspberry moon. For WSÁNEĆ peoples, it’s CENHENHEN, humpback salmon returns to the earth. I read elsewhere, that for some, this moon is also known as Buck Moon. I drove around to some sweet spots to visit her and to be with this loss. As I was driving to a lookout point along the meandering southern coast hoping to see Nokomis reflected off the ocean, one streetlight amongst the row of streetlights, right at Monterey Ave and Beach Dr. was flickering off and on, off and on, like a waawaatesiwag.
He didn’t always get back right away on text but he always did eventually:
“I hear the waawaatesiwag are back!”
A week later, a streetlight flickers as if it’s him saying, “Yep, chum. The waawaatesiwag are back!”
“After the babies come the children and the youth. The pieces of wood for them are a little bigger.”
Doug taught me so much. It doesn’t matter what season he began his return home, I’d find something about the land to associate him with.
One time, Doug said, “Let’s go get some nuts.” He went poking around in his shed and came out with this long pole with a nail nailed into the end of it and bent to make a hook. That was the tool he used to go harvesting nuts with, I guess. I no longer remember where we went but I think it was somewhere in Curve Lake. I also don’t remember what nuts he wanted to harvest but when we got to those trees/that tree, there were none. “We’re too late in the season. The damn squirrels got them.”
“How do you say ‘nut’ in the language?”
“Ah, like pecan.”
Doug was super flexible and open to learning from younger generations. We could talk to him about the most controversial things going on about culture and he’d try to figure a way through a problem with us. For instance, while he thought it was beautiful for men to make fire and women to wear ribbon skirts to ceremony, he didn’t think that only men could make fire for ceremony and he didn’t expect women to wear skirts; he also made effort to understand gender diversity and make space for it. He also had a serious side about ceremony which was more about the need to recognize not only that it was powerful and needed to be respected but that our ceremonies are powerful for us as Anishinaabe as in, they can do a lot of us. For most things, whenever there were hesitancies about doing Anishinaabe things–as in having worries that whatever the thing was wouldn’t be done “right”–he said, “What’s most important is that you just do it.” He didn’t want to see Anishinaabeg stopping ourselves from being Anishinaabe because of fear of not knowing how to do it perfectly; he always wanted Anishinaabeg to get out there and “Just do it.”
Thinking about honouring my friend for this second fire, and in the spirit of just doing it, I went to my storage unit and pulled out the tool I made for harvesting fruit from trees which was a replication of the one Doug had. I don’t particularly like doing Anishinaabe things in view of settlers but this time was different. As I was harvesting from the cherry tree that exists in the courtyard alongside two different kind of apple trees, I was thinking of Doug and how happy he’d be to know that his knowledge was being put to use.
Tonight there were Dakhóta/Lakhóta visitors and stories around the fire. Our worlds are big and beautiful. I sang the song Edna taught us and a song Doug taught us, quietly, while the womxn visited.
“And these bigger ones, the adults of the community, they go around the children and youth.”
It’s Friday. My girl Facetimed me first thing in the morning, sobbing. It was her first day off since she found out our friend passed away. While she cried when she found out and had been processing, the reality of Doug’s passing hit her hard on her first morning off. She saw so many posts honouring Doug and recent pictures of him online and I think it just made it so much more real for her. She thought she’d see him again. Capitalist structures dominate our lives and shapes our grieving and our ability to grieve. I’m glad my girl took some time to feel her feels and that I had the space and time to help her process and reminisce.
“Mom, he was so kind and good to me. He never made me feel like I wasn’t important.”
Tonight, another Michi Saagii person came to the fire to honour Doug. Carmen also made the fire for me because my back was hurting. I think Doug would be happy to know that his fire-making method was being taught and put into action by other Michi Saagiig. I sang the song that Edna taught us and one that Doug taught us. Carmen sang a song one of her teacher’s taught her. She has a beautiful voice; it was a beautiful song. I imagined her teacher is a powerful singer; I imagined my friend Tasha is too. Vibration and song–strong singing–is so much a part of Anishinaabe life. I hope he hears all the songs being sung for him. I look forward to the day when I can get in a sweat again with some strong singers. I appreciate our singers because I am not one myself. Doug let me record him singing some songs here and there; one of them is a lamenting song that he himself sang around a fire. I haven’t listened to any of them in the space of his passing as I think it messes with his travels. I’ll do it next year though.
I don’t know if this subtitle is written correctly for “the fourth fire”. The “Ojibway Online Dictionary” does not provide a word for ‘fourth’ so I’m just applying the pattern from the previous subtitles. You know, just doing it.
And about that fire too, he said, “Then, the biggest pieces of wood goes around the whole community. These ones are the Elders.” With that, he struck his match and started the ishkode. So many fires have been lit since then.
This fire for instance, this fourth one, it was just me and Carmen. We made it together; her partner chopped the wood this time. Every night he brought out a new fresh kind of herbal tea and cared for us in this way; one night it was smoothies. Tonight, I offered odeminan to the fire and read the words to creation that Doug helped me with in June 2011, words that he wanted me to prepare to help in a sunrise ceremony. He shared so much knowledge; he encouraged and mentored so many to pick up our ways and live it. Tonight, Carmen and I sang the first same three songs and then I taught her the song that I always loved because it has zaasaakwe’s in it, giving us a chance to sound out to the spirits.
I’ve always been kind of neurotic about older people I care for dying. When I was a child I always worried about my Dad dying and even now, at his old age of 84, I can’t imagine not having him. When I left Anishinaabewaki for work, I felt a lot of sadness about the inevitable changes that would come in my friendship with Doug. I struggled with not being able to keep living the Anishinaabe good life I was living with my girl in Nogojiwanong. I was both excited and scared about our lives changing and I wondered what life would be like in another territory. My girl says that being in Nogo was the happiest time of her life and as she grows, the meaning she is making about all those Anishinaabe memories is helping her navigates life out in the world as a young adult. Doug and I kept in touch regularly and I visited him whenever I went back to Ontario. These last days with the fires honouring Doug’s travel through the western door and his return to anangwan, have been up and down but mostly ok. He lost a lot of people over the years and whenever I asked how he was doing with the loss of a friend or family member he’d say, “I’m doing ok. It’s good to let ourselves to feel pain but it’s important to not sit in it for too long.” I hope his family and all those who love him have solace in each other and through their ceremonies for him. It has been such good medicine to be connecting with others in our memories of Doug.
Closing this fire, I feel unafraid to walk knowing Gidigaa Migizi is no longer there on the other end of the phone. I will miss receiving his random calls and facetimes and just “shooting the shit”. My girl and I will always celebrate him and he will always inform my thinking and the way I want to be in the world as Anishinaabe. I would want him to be proud of me. Knowing him, n’daanis and I are left as stronger and more capable Anishinaabeg; we are better in our ability to live anishinaabe’aadiziwin. Besides justice, I think that’s all he wants for our people.
naasana weweni niijiikiiweNh.
Note: The Anishinaabe knowledge shared here is not shared in its entirety. Even though I know that the sacredness and power of our ways comes from its embodiment and practice, leaving bits and pieces out is a method I employ to foil any attempts at appropriation. If any Anishinaabeg would like to visit over anything I learned from Doug that is shared here, please do contact me. chi miigwech.