Keeper of the Fire – Part II

To read the beginning of the story, click: Part I

4:30AM.  It is still dark when I arrive at the pow wow site to meet firekeeper Rick Hunt for the dawn ceremony. Tents, tipis and campers are arranged in a large circle around the perimeter of the park and I walk quietly through the settlement so as not to wake anyone. The fire circle is at the center, with the space around it roped off for the dancers and an entrance facing the east. The firekeeper’s tent sits across from the open entrance.

I notice a deep orange glow from inside one of the tipis – a small fire warms its sleeping inhabitants, sending wisps of smoke and the scent of burning wood out through the opening at the top. A crescent moon hangs in the night sky. Cricket song fills the air. It feels like I’ve stepped into another world.

Tipi at night at Whitehall Pow Wow
Tipi at night. Photo by Serena Kovalosky.

I arrive at the fire circle and wait, my feet already damp with dew from walking in the grass. I did not bring a notebook, for the details of the ceremony are sacred and are only passed along from firekeeper to firekeeper.

After a few moments, Rick emerges from his tent with an animal skin pouch slung over his shoulder, carrying a container which he places near the woodpile at the entrance to the circle. “Good morning, Serena!” he whispers as he gives me a warm hug. “I’m going to prepare for the ceremony now. We don’t have much time before the sun comes up.” I nod my approval and step back to allow him to concentrate on his work.

It is still very dark, so Rick sets a small lamp on top of the woodpile as he takes out bark, herbs and feathers from the container and arranges them in preparation for the ceremony.

Rick Hunt, Firekeeper preparing to light fire.
Rick Hunt preparing to start the sacred fire. Photo by Serena Kovalosky.

He picks up a large shell and fills it with dried sage. “We must smudge before entering the circle,” he says. Smudging with smoke is a way of purifying a person or a place either before an important ceremony or to clear away unwanted negative energy. He lights the sage and wafts the smoke towards me from my feet to my head, front and back, then does the same for himself. The sweet scent of burning sage fills the air as he walks around the perimeter of the circle, smudging it inside and out.

It is getting lighter out – time to prepare the fire. I leave my camera at the entrance and enter the circle with Rick. Prior to arriving at the pow wow, a firekeeper must go into the woods and gather herbs and bark to be used in the ceremony. Rick has brought these materials with him into the circle as he sprinkles them around the fire pit, saying prayers as he carefully arranges the kindling in the form of a “lodge” to house this special fire that will burn throughout the pow wow, setting the tone and the energy for the entire weekend. People will say their prayers around this fire. They will dance around it, they will drum forth its energy. They will share their stories around it.

The sun is almost up.

Rick takes out pieces of flint and white fluff that looks like milkweed from his pouch and strikes the flint over and over, sparks flying about in the early dawn. But the fluff refuses to catch, having become too damp from the morning dew. I hold my breath. What now? Rick remains calm – he has been firekeeping for 16 years, and does what any good firekeeper would do…..he pulls out a box of wooden matches! Always have a back-up.

He lights the fire just as the sun starts peeking over the mountain. It roars up, sparkling and crackling and warming the damp morning air. The comforting smell of burning wood mingles with the residual scent of sage.

The Pow Wow has officially begun.

Fire at Whitehall Pow Wow
The sacred fire is lit. Photo by Serena Kovalosky.

Rick hands me a small amount of tobacco. “This is for your prayer,” he says. “When you pray at the fire, you never say prayers for yourself, they should always be for others.” He turns to face the fire and holds a handful of tobacco over it, offering his prayer and then releasing the tobacco into the flames. I say my own prayer with my tobacco offering. We then walk clockwise around the fire (one always walks clockwise around a sacred fire) and leave the circle through the east entrance.

Moments later, others in the settlement begin to stir, and a few approach the fire to offer their prayers for the weekend. Rick smudges each of them as they enter the circle.

“Let us also say a prayer to the water,” Rick says to me as he hands me more tobacco. “I feel it needs our attention.” So we walk behind Rick’s tent to the canal, where steam is rising up from the water as the sun warms the air and we offer more prayers.

Lake Champlain Canal at Whitehall, NY
Lake Champlain Canal at Whitehall, NY. Photo by Serena Kovalosky.

I think about the tragedy in the Gulf, about the birds and the fish and the whales, about how we used to be able to drink water right from the tap when we were kids, and I pray that together we find some way to live more in harmony with this earth we call home.

We now have a moment to relax before the pow wow goes into full swing. I’m thinking that, except for throwing a log or two on the fire, most of the firekeeping duties have been accomplished.

Little do I know, the firekeeper’s work has only just begun……..

The story continues….

Click for Part III

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