As we move farther along in our civilized world, wild and untouched areas are becoming more and more scarce. Even more so is any evidence of our ancestors and the lives that they lived upon this land.
Many of the first people here in Manitoba were nomadic, so there is of course nothing left of what would have been their homes, but fortunately there is still some of their ceremonial sites that speak to us of a time when man lived closely connected with the Earth.
Last Saturday was a beautiful, perfect day that begged to be enjoyed, so my family and I decided to explore a local treasure; an ancient Medicine Wheel.
Located north of my hometown of Glenella, Manitoba, it sits upon a ridge, surrounded by oaks, and a lovely walking trail lined with poplars will take you there.
The faded signs along the trail speak of the Ojibway people and their connection to Spirit and to Mother Earth.
In their hierarchy of creation, Mother Earth comes first, as she depends on no one for survival, and without her, there would be no plant, animal, or human life.
Secondly, the Plant World, for without plants there would be no animal or human life.
Thirdly, the Animal World, for humans required animals for food, clothing, and shelter.
And lastly, Humankind, on whom nothing depends on for survival.
That puts things into perspective, hey?
The signs also mention the close relationship that man had with the Animal World, but in time, how man became arrogant and abused this relationship. The animals became tired and refused to speak with them anymore. Although they parted ways, animals still played a very important role in their culture, and often bestowed wisdom and acted as a guide for those they felt were worthy.
The setting Autumn sun cast a golden glow over the ridge as we arrived, and there was a peaceful, yet tentative presence that awaited.
Football sized stones form a very large circle, with formations of smaller circles radiating from within this outer circle. Years of vegetation and growth has made it difficult to see some of them, as well as there doesn't appear to be any recent activity of ceremonies performed here.
According to the signs, this Medicine Wheel was used to perform the Sun Dance Ceremony. An elaborate ritual, it has become the focal spiritual event of almost all of the First Nations peoples. The participants would dance for at least four days, denying themselves food and drink. The goal was in seeking a communal vision of a better life.
There would be helpers that would be camped nearby, stepping in when needed, and bringing water for the dancers to bathe themselves in.
The name "Sun Dance" comes from the Sioux habit of gazing at the sun while dancing, but the main purpose of this ceremony was to strengthen the bond with the Great Spirit who had brought forth prosperity in the past, and to offer their respect and ensure a bright future.
As I followed along the outline of the Medicine Wheel, I imagined the dancers and the prayers that they would have been offering. When I was last here, years ago, there were prayer flags tied in the trees as many still visit here and offer their respects. But at the time this site was formed, there would not have been any trees, and you could have seen people gathering there for miles around you, making their way up to the top of the ridge.
There was another aspect of the Sun Dance that far exceeded the rigours of dancing. Certain warriors, either in preparation for battle or in a state of bereavement, would willingly pierce the skin of their chest or back so that two wooden skewers could be inserted. Buffalo-hide thongs would then be tied to the skewers and attached to the Sun Pole, which stood at the centre of the Medicine Wheel.
The participant was then expected to break loose by throwing himself back with enough force to free the skewers, thus symbolically breaking free from the bonds of the flesh.
After this sacrifice and dancing, the Sun Dance would end in feasting and gift giving, and the contentment that the spirit world was in tune with the material world.
Due to the immigration of European settlers and their disapproval, the Sun Dance was banned in Canada in the early 1900's until the late 1950's. Police routinely persecuted the Native peoples for practice of their pagan beliefs. But, of course, these rituals survived due to the commitment of the people, and the seclusion of a site such as this one.
Sadly, in spite of the signs that asked visitors to respect the site and not disturb the stones, there was certainly recent disturbances.
The tracks in the grass and the overturned stones reveal the careless acts of someone driving an ATV. I now understood the tentative presence of this place.
My family and I quietly walked the Wheel and gently turned the stones back over to their home. It was a powerful feeling when I held these stones as I could feel the energy of the hands that held them first, and the reverence in which they were placed.
Not far from the Medicine Wheel stands a recent willow structure and the remains of what was a campfire. Most likely used as a sweat lodge for purification of the body and spirit. I was grateful to not have disturbed such a sacred ritual for this visitor.
Before we left, we placed our offering for Mother Earth and the Great Spirit upon the stones. Tobacco is typically the offering of choice, but as I do not grow my own and I struggle with buying the chemical-laden store bought stuff, we chose to leave homemade Anise Hyssop tea, pumpkin seeds, and fruit leather.
I felt the spirits would understand.
Years ago I read of how tribes in Africa used to communicate with one another through the rocks. They would hold a rock in their hands and tell it their message, and when they placed the rock back on the ground, the rock would share their message with the other rocks and on and on it went until it reached the person it was intended for.
I imagined all the stories that these rocks would have to tell, if they chose to.
As we left, I said a blessing, thanking Mother Earth for her gifts, and honouring those who have made their blessings here before. It was of no surprise to me why this place upon the Earth was chosen for sacred ceremonies. The soles of my feet and the palms of my hands were pulsing with the powerful energy emanating here.
As we walked back along the trail, we picked up all of the empty beer cans that we had spotted on the way there. A sadness fell over me of how disconnected some have become, and of how, perhaps more than ever, it is crucial for our survival, our health, and the health of our planet that we reestablish these ancient relationships with the Earth.
Certainly not that we need to revive the torture of the Sun Dance, but the knowing that the Earth is alive, and that she feels every step we take.
I can imagine how strongly the people who lived upon this land would have felt it. In a time when there were no distractions, and you depended on the land and your tribe for survival. To be so in tune with the food that you ate and the Earth that provided it.
Every movement would have been in respect and with purpose.
Every moment a prayer, and everywhere you went, your church.
But our little adventure wasn't over yet. On our way home, not farm from the Medicine Wheel, we spotted an abandoned yard site in a pasture with log buildings and decided to explore and admire them.
This area had been settled in the late 1800's by the Ukrainians, and it certainly wouldn't have been easy. Notoriously stony with many low lying areas, farming here was a challenge. I have always felt for the struggle of the Ukrainian settlers as my mother is of Ukrainian descent.
One can't help but admire the resourcefulness of these early settlers who created their homes with nothing but what was around them. Stones made their foundations, logs made their homes, and mud and grass was their chinking. The only purchased material was the door hinges, cedar shakes for the roofs, and the nails. Most of the earlier homes would have had thatched roofs and were actually dug into the ground, thus eliminating the need for logs.
The presence of windows and plaster on the walls was all that separated this log building as different from the others and indicated that it had been the house.
Although this farm yard would have been at least 100 years old, it certainly could not be regarded as ancient. I couldn't help but feel the conflict between this place to the Medicine Wheel that we had just visited. It was the arrival of pioneers such as the Ukrainians that settled this farm that would have marked the end of the ways of the people who were performing the Sun Dance.
There are a few settlements left such as these that rest oblivious to the passage of time, and are willing to share their story of those that once walked there with those of us who are willing to listen. We are given a window to view the past and touch their lives, and perhaps gain a deeper understanding of ourselves.
We left with an appreciation for all of those that have lived on this land before us and in the ways that they managed to survive. Not only is it always an eye-opener for me, but especially for my children, who are even further removed from such crude accommodations.
We also experienced several deja vu moments, suggesting that perhaps we may just have passed this way before.