At the very edge of the Adirondack Mountains, the rural village of Whitehall, New York provides an extraordinary setting for an annual Intertribal Pow Wow. Native Americans from New England and beyond gather in the park by the canal and set up camp for a weekend of dancing, drumming, seeing old friends and meeting new ones, buying/selling/trading goods, and sharing their vibrant culture with everyone who attends – Natives and non-Natives alike.
The Pow Wow takes place within the security of a circle – teepees, tents and campers form a ring around the park and, in the middle, a circular area is roped off for the dancers. At the center, stones are arranged for a very special purpose: at dawn on the first day of the Pow Wow, a firekeeper will light the sacred fire and keep it burning throughout the weekend.
If the fire goes out, the Pow Wow ends, so a constant vigil is required. Traditions vary from tribe to tribe – some have several firekeepers, each taking a shift – but for Abenaki firekeeper Rick Hunt, the 36-hour fire is kept by him alone. Which means he must stay awake the entire time.
I met Rick five years ago at the first Whitehall Pow Wow and we became instant friends. The more I learned about his firekeeping duties over the years, the more I became intrigued. Although Pow Wows have greatly evolved over the centuries, here was an ancient ceremony that has been passed down from generation to generation. A Keeping of the Old Ways.
I usually spend a day or two at the Pow Wow, enough to slow the pace of my life for a moment, but this year I felt I needed something more. I needed a break from the news, the economy, politics, Facebook, and my own personal challenges to rediscover the pure, simple, primal connection that always brings me back in balance. I needed a weekend of tending Fire. And to share the story.
So I asked Rick if he might grant me the honor and privilege of accompanying him as he kept the fire for this year’s Pow Wow. He didn’t respond right away, taking the time to give it some thought. We had become good friends over the years, but firekeeping is a serious role, requiring many months of training by a tribal elder. Ceremony details are considered sacred and are rarely shared outside tribal circles, and certain photographs are prohibited.
After some time, Rick gave me his answer. “The world is out of balance,” he said, “and we are in desperate need of being in better tune with natural forces. Many of the old traditions are disappearing. Perhaps your experience might encourage awareness. Meet me by the fire circle before the sun rises on Saturday and you may accompany me throughout the Pow Wow.”
So the journey begins. The night before, I pack a small bag with extra clothes and prepare my food for the weekend. Once I’m there, I do not leave until the Pow Wow is over. I’ve planned for a few extra hours sleep, hoping it will help me stay awake for the next two days. 36 hours is a long time. I drift off to sleep, with a prayer that I don’t let Rick down.
The story continues….
Click for Part II