What Herb Left Behind
by waaseyaa'sin christine sy
The first time I learned that Anishinaabeg have our own ways of doing research was in 2008 at the Garden River Healing Lodge in Garden River First Nation, just east of Bawating Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. When I say “learned” I mean “really learned”. As in, what I knew latently was brought closer to the Anishnaabe fire I call home and was given meaning; it was given sound and rhythm.
I had returned home to Bawating the previous spring from Nogojiwanong Peterborough to work at NORDIK Institute and finish my MA. Completely immersed in considerations of Indigenous research I was also loving being home and being able to get back in touch with the places, people, and things that make up anishinaabewiziwin. The experience of my MA was very difficult due, in part, to loneliness; being home was a relief. Here, I had all my people, places, routes, and a fantastic job.
Sometime after arriving, I attended a gathering at The Healing Lodge—I can’t remember if it was that spring or later in the fall. I recall a number of things about this gathering however it was the moment in a sharing circle when I heard a man who was sitting waabanong (in the east) talk that stands out. He was talking about how Anishinaabeg have our own knowledges and our own ways of coming to know. My head lifted and I sought ought the speaker. He went on to say that we conceptualize this through the word “gikendaasowin” and that this word refers to how we have our own way of doing research. The moment is an anchor in my memory; that man was Herb Nabigon-ba(n)*, maang ododem. The knowledge he shared in that moment has stayed with me. It was pivotal in allowing me to experience dignity as Anishinaabe as well emotional and intellectual freedom and validity as an Anishinaabe academic.
I immediately applied the knowledge, as conceptualized through our language, to the research designs in the Indigenous-focused projects I was working on with other non-Indigenous researchers. I’ve held the word, idea, and meaning close; it is foundational for me in conducting Anishinaabeg research.
At the time, in that lodge, I had no idea who Herb was but the next year, when I started my PhD, I learned that he was a member of the Council for the PhD Program in Indigenous Studies at Trent University. It made good sense to me that Herb would be on such a committee.
I’m here, having dinner with my friend. Only days ago he told me news of Herb’s terminal diagnosis and this evening he is talking about some of the events of Herb’s passing. I’m relieved to know that some of the important things that need to happen when we are leaving this world came together for Herb and for his loved ones. My friend had a long talk with Herb on the phone less than a day before he passed. He told him we were in the sugar bush having a ceremony to open it and while there we put tobacco down for him, said our words, and sang songs. He said Herb was very comforted to know this. I send out a thought to creation that at the end of all our days, we have someone to speak our words, light a fire, and sing a song for us.
As we continue visiting, cleaning up after dinner becomes a helpful distraction. Overcome with feeling, I start to cry a bit. I don’t want to bring this level of emotion to the room though. My friend has experienced a lot of passing away; I not so much. I am able to save my emotions for a private moment and instead light some maashkodewaashk amiinawaa wiingaashk and let it burn there in the room: a cleanser and a sweetener, the smells and wisps wrap us and move through our bodies working their medicine but it seems to me that it’s the tiny embers, currents of little heat, and puffs and trails of smoke rising from the well-used shell that beckon spirit to be there in the room with us and our talk.
I probably attended only one formal university-related meeting that included Herb in all the years I’ve been there. On one of the occasions when he was there, he also attended scheduled presentations myself and another student had to give as requirements in the program. I think those Council members were very interested in witnessing or learning about how the Bimaadiziwin component of the program worked. Herb, like many of the Anishinaabeg teachers I have learned from both outside and inside the university, is an intellectual, a deep thinker, and a spiritual person who honours and loves anishinaabewiziwin; who loves and honours being Anishinaabe in the deepest sense of the meaning and practice. He would care to know how spirit is nurtured and allowed to grow in our research. It is this particular combination of intellectual vigour, spiritual commitment, and practice that also stands out for me about him. He and some other Council members took the opportunity to come listen to us and learn. This spoke volumes to me. Indigenous academics, operating from their hearts, are engaged in teaching and learning; they realize that this process is not top-down but rather mutually reciprocal.
In the university milieu, I also remember Herb gently reminding those at a Council meeting that the program we are affiliated with and its host institution were not the only Indigenous community doing Indigenous research or who were interested in it. I thought it was a remarkable moment of reflecting ourselves back to ourselves the importance of not becoming insular or engaging in too much navel-gazing; to remember to look up and out; to acknowledge we are not the only ones doing what we do and that we are connected more broadly to others by shared interests and endeavours intended to advance Indigenous lives in our lands. He was firm in his words for the benefit of us all. Some may have experienced it as admonishing however I experienced it as him being respectful—minaademowin—speaking straight and clear for the benefit of our collective growth.
I’ve met and known several of Herb’s beloveds in various places and ways: we’ve connected as community people, either finding ourselves interested in some of the same things or meeting directly through him. All of the work, ceremony, and interests that have allowed me to meet and begin to know some of his beloveds have had to do with anishinaabeweziwin: language, culture, ceremony, Indigenous urban politics, and/or research.
I wish Herb’s loved ones ease in times of grief for all matters of their hearts that come with his departure from this physical world and return to the spiritual; many moments of warmth and comfort in sharing memories of him with others or in the quiet remembrances they will have; and, good bouts of laughter in knowing him the way only they do.
“How did you meet Herb?” I asked my friend. We had finished eating and had moved to comfortable chairs for tea.
He leans back and smiles, “You know, I was just thinking about that earlier today.”
I recalled when my young brother died in an accident just this side of his 13th birthday. That was almost 20 years ago. It was in reading some of the notes his school friends wrote and in witnessing the people who attended his funeral that impinged on my personal knowing of him. I felt a sense of ownership that I didn’t know was there until other people started to illuminate how they knew him. Through that they showed me parts of my little brother I did not know. I learned through other people’s stories of him that I would never know him wholly. I learned that he formed relationships in his young life that were unto himself, separate from me, and us, his family. It was a moment of awe. It taught me freedom, autonomy, and healthy detachment in relationships, even with our closest beloveds. In sitting in the livingroom knowing that my friend was about to embark on a great story, despite feeling sad, I was excited to learn about Herb through him. I also enjoy stories when told through the lens of long life and history. In this way, we learn about each other, and the others of our others; we learn about the strands of who we are as Anishinaabe.
We laughed as he shared his memories and I learned about how some of the relationships I know about today, worked back then; about how people come together, depart, ride the waves of distance or disruption and remain; change. I learned about resistance in the early sixties, and some groups like the Council for Young Canadians, and friendship . For a few hours, I was taken to another place and time, away from the immediate moment. I imagined me and my friend sitting there while Herb’s dancing feet carried him west.
Stories fill us, wrap us up; a salve for sadness.
I knew Herb through ceremony. I’ve been thinking of how to share and how much to share about this way of coming to know someone or formulating relationship. I want to share one of the things because, to me, it is important for spirit and for anishinaabewiziwin, particularly in a contemporary sense. In considering the timing of stories, it seems that this is a time to share this one and that this one is for sharing.
Several years ago, my friend asked if I would keep a fire for a men’s sweat. It was a hot, sunny day in early summer. I can still see the glowing green of a mature forest and lawn, the bright blue of a sky and bright glare of giizis. I was taken aback by the request; anxiety and possibility made my heart beat a little faster. I am fiercely committed to resisting dogma, heteropatriarchal practices and the reproduction of gender binaries in our Nation and am just as fiercely committed to ensuring flexibility and a critical re-generation of our epistemologies (ways of knowing) such that space is created for all of our people to find their freedom. Despite this ‘fierceness’, to be asked to engage in a ceremony in a way that is popularly and strongly ordered within a gender binaried system as being a man’s responsibility, took me aback. My friend, who had survived over 70 winters at that time, is no schmuck, particularly when it comes to understanding and knowing spirit and the translation of this into the physical world and back. Bottom line: it’s serious. He also knows how power works in the broader relationship that makes up our Nation, including the ceremonial aspects, and he is aware that culture is a reproduction, a human-made thing. So, when he asked me to keep fire and do to this for a men’s sweat, I knew this was the real deal and I needed to be grounded and sure.
I want to say this: while there are those who do things to instigate change purposefully, carefully and strategically and there are those who instigate change carelessly, in reactionary ways, with little care or thought for spirit or future, there are changes in Anishinaabe life that just emerge organically, or as a matter of practicality. Anishinaabeg are many things; one of those things is practical and pragmatic. For me, some of the most deeply rooted, well routed, and spiritually resonate changes come as a matter of need (not want), pragmatism, and they emerge organically from a situation. My friend’s request fell into the latter context. He was asked to do a men’s sweat, he didn’t have a fire-keeper, and he knew I could do it.
I asked him about the other men who would be in the sweat. Because of the heavy influence of modern day protocol in our ceremonies where men keep fire, I didn’t want them to feel uncomfortable with a woman doing that for their ceremony and was willing to forgo an opportunity to disrupt rigid gender binaries and roles in order to allow that happen. I felt any discomfort might create a hedge in the spiritual work they were set to do. I am an Anishinaabe feminist and this means that without a second thought I will put the feelings and needs of men genuinely seeking healing ahead of my need for structural, ideological, political and cultural change. Anishinaabe healing matters; Anishinaabe healing through our own epistemologies is it for me. I see how the agenda of Anishinaabe feminists is in conversation with Anishinaabe men and non-Anishinaabe men. I will forgo my own needs as an Anishinaabe feminist once for men, see how it goes, and then take it from there. It’s faith; it’s opening oneself up to a kind of truth and waiting to see how it unfolds.
My friend indicated that he would ask those men about a woman keeping fire and let me know. I was nervous and hesitant but also trusted this matter entirely.
What is also important to note is that our children are guideposts for us in making change. They lead the way in tandem with our own visions, experiences, and supposed wisdom. They lead with their own kind of wisdom. It’s important to listen. When my friend made this request, my young daughter was standing beside me. After he and I finished talking, my girl looked up at me and held onto my arm, eyes and face wide open and with a big smile said,“Mom, can I help keep the fire, too?!” Creation never whispered “yes” so clearly. I told her she could, if it turned out that I was still going to do that for them. She was very excited.
The day arrived and as it turned out, I became the fire-keeper for that men’s sweat. My daughter helped. She was so proud and happy! The men were very welcoming and warm as though nothing was amiss. And, in retrospect, nothing was. A fire-keeper was needed for a ceremony and someone who knew how to do that with consideration of the context was available. It made perfect sense and was in complete resonate flow with creation and the needs at hand. At the end of the day, after the men were done doing what they needed to do, we stood in a close circle there on my friend’s lawn. The men spoke their words of thanks to my daughter and I and in an unexpected turn, we were each gifted personal pawaaganag made by one of the men. I was humbled and grateful.
I tell this story because it was Herb who was chosen to speak words to me about these particular kinds of pipes. I recall him standing there facing me as we stood in a circle, he was facing east and I was facing west, my girl to the left of me and the other men standing there. He gave me the teachings of the personal pawaagan and I will care for mine and the one gift to ndaanis until she is ready. Relevant to the telling of this story is one part of that teaching: “This pipe is meant for you, to give you strength in walking your road and to do so without fear.”
Last summer, I travelled from Michigan back to Nogojiwanong & Waawshkegemongi to participate in a number of ceremonies that were happening around summer solstice. One of these ceremonies was madoodoosiwan, which included Herb. Looking back, in the reality of his passing today, I see the particular power of that ceremony in a new light. I will leave it at that only to say it is interesting to remember that life is moving into us just as we are moving into it.
Herb left the little give-away gift I gave him on the picnic table. I found it there sometime later. I didn’t take that he forgot it (or left it) personally and I didn’t read anything significant into it; I had learned that Herb left things behind. How many times did I lay eyes on the shoes he left behind one time at a ceremony and chuckle to myself, “Herb….”. They were brand new sneakers meant to protect from the wetness and muck that characterized that particular day. Even after being reminded by his friend that he forgot them and being reminded again the next time, “Herb, don’t forget your shoes,” still they sit there, a reminder.
The last time I saw Herb was this past summer at that sweat. I recall him shuffling toward the door of my friend’s house in the late of the day after we were all finished up. He was leaving and I don’t recall where he was heading. We bantered a bit about research as he was collecting his things and I asked about his wife’s work as she also recently defended her PhD. I leaned over and gave him a hug, told him it was good to sweat with him and said, “Nahaaw Herb. For sure the next time I see you, I’ll have my dissertation done.”
“Nahaaw. Yes,” he said, smiling and nodding his head, looking at me, “for sure, the next time.”
*We signify someone has passed, when writing, with the suffix ba (Manitoulin Island) or ban (Mississauga Anishinaabeg). I have also seen it as bah. This explanation is woefully inadequate but it will do for this post. If you ever come across Howard Webkamigad, he knows about these things.