As a sacred fire burns, two holy leaders from Canada will share insights gleaned from their lives as resilient survivors and indigenous leaders at the Voices of Wisdom gathering near Weaverville Saturday and Sunday, Nov. 17-18.
“Every single person on this earth is equal, endowed with heart, body, mind and spirit,” says Wanbdi Wakita, a member of Sioux Valley Dakota Nation, Sundance chief and wicasa wakan, or holy man. “Together, let’s explore the present. The water, sun, wind, medicine, animals belong to all of us, and we need to live in a sustainable way in harmony with one another. We need to respect the earth that sustains us.”
Wanbdi Wakita will co-lead Voices of Wisdom with his wife, Pahan Pte San Win, kunsi, or spiritual grandmother, and Sundance chief to the Sundance of Women. Sacred Fire Foundation sponsors the event, one of many the organization offers to continue the legacy of ancestral wisdom of indigenous people throughout the world.
“We can gather around the fire and go beyond our differences, remembering the timeless ways that have never lost their relevance,” says Erin Everett, a local member of the Sacred Fire Community, which has been meeting to observe traditional spiritual practices and wisdom for the last 17 years. ”We all need to find balance in our lives and in relationship to the world around us.”
“We are open to anyone of any beliefs,” Everett emphasizes.
Stories old and new
On the first day of the gathering, Wanbdi and Pahan will share their thoughts, and the group will share in a potluck meal. On the second evening, participants will process and synthesize ideas as they gather around a sacred fire.
“We are coming to tell some stories, and it’s always fun to do some storytelling,” says Pahan, whose name means Gray Swan Buffalo Woman. “We will share pivotal moments and sacred experiences that reinforce our belief in the resilience of the human spirit. Indigenous people are powerful examples of resilience, surviving in spite of all the things that happen while maintaining that unseen connection to sacredness we all have. Sacredness offers us guidance, direction and comfort while supporting us to live our lives in an authentic way.”
Wanbdi’s name means Looking Eagle. Born in 1940 in the Sioux Valley Dakota Nation west of Brandon, Manitoba, he experienced abuse and efforts to assimilate him into mainstream culture in residential schools in Canada. At 17, he joined the Canadian Armed Forces, where he served as a peacekeeper. After six years in the military, he held jobs including conservation officer, plumber and mail carrier. Over time, Wanbdi accepted the call to become a spiritual leader in the indigenous community. In 2016, he received the Order of Manitoba, a civilian honor that recognizes excellence and achievement.
In Wandbi’s own Dakota language, the word elder is not used. Instead, the familial terms grandmother and grandfather denote older aboriginal people who share their culture, knowledge and life experiences with younger people, to pass the flame of wisdom from one generation to the next.
“Some settlers who came to this land left their spirits behind, and we can’t operate with only mind and body,” Wanbdi says. “We have been given laws, holy laws, that ought not be discarded for man-made laws. We need to put spirits back into our bodies. We need to share our cultures with each other so we can understand each other.”
Pahan, who is Lakota, Cree and Metis, counsels incarcerated youths at the Manitoba Youth Centre. She recently contributed to the anthology Keetsahnak: Our Missing and Murdered Indigenous Sisters. As a chief of the Sundance of Women, she and other participants honor the spirits of murdered and missing women in ceremonies that began in 2017 and will continue through 2020.
Wanbdi previously led two Sacred Fire events in the Asheville area, while this year’s will be the first for Pahan.
“We are doing the Creator’s work,” says Pahan. “When people ask, we try to say yes whenever we can. Creator will give me words, and I deliver them. It will go out into the world and will hit where it needs, giving others information. Creator will facilitate and make truth happen for those persons.”
Keepers of the flame
Lisa Lichtig, firekeeper for the local Sacred Fire Community — one of 80 affiliated groups around the world — explains that talking around a fire brings an enlightened energy that encourages the free flow of spiritual teachings.
“The fire helps us be more vulnerable and honest,” she says. “As fire transforms wood, it also transforms fears. As a firekeeper, I live in a world where too many people have lost their way. We will provide space for people to come together and converse.”
Traditional indigenous territories cover a quarter of the land surface of the world and contain 80 percent of the Earth’s biodiversity, according to Citlalli Pena, director of communications for Sacred Fire. She asserts that sharing and supporting the continuance of ancestral knowledge will create conversations that will lead to deeply needed social change and solutions.
“Indigenous peoples are the stewards of this Earth and hold the keys to our survival as a species,” Pena says. “This is for all of us. Everything is sacred and interconnected.”
Space for healing
Wanbdi emphasizes that healing can happen when people truly listen to one another with respect and make decisions together, with no one voice drowning any other. Freedom from fear can become the foundation for healing from the trauma that too often permeates daily life.
“When you encounter lots of trauma growing up, you must take this trauma out and then you become empty and vulnerable,” Wanbdi says. “It’s time then to fill that emptiness with your own culture to start connecting, living, and reclaiming culture, relearning everything. We can stop memorizing and start learning. We can do it now. We must start right now.”
Pahan plans to talk about love. Love fuels her work with young people in prison, she says, and it enriches her sacred experience.
“Each of us is absolutely lovable, and there’s nothing we can do or not do that can change that,” she says.
The Sundance ritual represents a focused expression of love, Pahan explains. According to the website of the Sacred Fire Foundation, the Sundance takes place at a site south of Winnipeg, Canada, over four days each year for four years (2017-20). Women dance from early morning into the night while fasting from food and water.
“In the Sundance, we bring about an outpouring of love, and when we are loving these women who have gone missing and been murdered, they will go where they need to go. It’s not about looking for them everywhere. When we call them to dance with us, then we recognize that they are right here, their spirits — not in the water, not in the dump, but right here.”
Wanbdi eschews assimilation. Listening and learning from one another means sharing wisdom while maintaining independent integrity.
“We have our own food, ceremonies and language, and we want to stay indigenous,” he says. “We make decisions for the good of the land and all people, and we’ll have no more of people telling us how we should live. That’s done. We all will start by listening with our hearts, and then we will know what to put into action.”
WHAT: Voices of Wisdom
WHEN: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 17, and 6-9 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 18.
WHERE: Sacred Fire council house and hearth just north of Weaverville alongside Ivy Creek. Directions provided upon registration.
REGISTER: $35-$50 per person, with financial assistance available. Those younger than 14 receive free admission. Registration at avl.mx/5ep; closes Thursday, Nov. 15.