Keeper of the Fire – Part III

To read previous posts, click: Part I or Part II

It is now daylight and the settlement is coming alive in preparation for the first day of the Pow Wow. Rick’s wife, Carolyn, emerges from their tent and we enjoy an early morning chai tea to wake us up and warm our bones. Carolyn is a Native American storyteller who will be sharing Eastern Woodlands stories and legends throughout the weekend.

Serena Kovalosky and Carolyn Hunt
Serena Kovalosky and Carolyn Hunt. Photo by Rick Hunt

We enjoy a hearty breakfast cooked over a charcoal barbecue (a real “Firekeeper’s Breakfast” jokes Rick) and as we sit across from the entrance to the fire circle, I learn more about the art of keeping a tribal fire.

Rick Hunt, Firekeeper
Firekeeper Rick Hunt. Photo by Serena Kovalosky.

“Firekeeping is a way of life,” Rick begins, “not just something I do a few weekends out of the year. Firekeepers not only keep the fire, but also the energy and the spirit of the pow wow, so a firekeeper is not allowed to drink or take drugs before or during a pow wow or his ‘spirit helpers’ will leave and mourn him. I have personally chosen to refrain from drugs and alcohol year-round. During my apprenticeship, I was also taught that a firekeeper must be honest in all dealings with others, which is something I always strive to do.”

I’m enjoying our morning chat, the chai tea, the sun shining warm on my face, the bustle of everyone around us getting ready for the pow wow to open to the public,……..when Rick snaps me out of my reverie. “Hey, firekeeper!” he says to me. “You’re not watching the fire…..it needs more wood!” He was right, I got lost in the moment and had completely forgotten about the fire.

So I select a piece of wood from the pile and carry it into the circle, placing it gently on the smoldering embers…….

Serena Kovalosky. Photo by Rick Hunt.
Serena Kovalosky. Photo Courtesy Rick Hunt.

….remembering to walk clockwise around the fire circle……..

Serena Kovalosky firekeeping.
Serena Kovalosky, Photo by Rick Hunt.

……and celebrating my first firekeeping duty.

Serena Kovalosky firekeeping.
Serena Kovalosky. Photo by Rick Hunt.

I got the message – a fire needs to be watched constantly. If the fire goes out, the Pow Wow ends. This is going to be a challenge for someone like me who is prone to daydreams.The vendors are ready, the drummers have warmed up their drums and the dancers have arrived in their regalia. The Pow Wow is now underway.

Whitehall Intertribal Pow Wow
Whitehall Intertribal Pow Wow. Photo by Serena Kovalosky, taken with permission.

“Now you REALLY have to pay attention!” says Rick. “Not only do you have to make sure the fire is well-kept, but kids can run into the circle, get too close to the fire and burn themselves, or sometimes people who don’t know any better might throw a cigarette butt or gum wrapper into the fire. When that happens, you have to smudge all over again to clear the energy.”

Rick Hunt, smudging
Rick Hunt, getting ready to smudge dancers in the fire circle. Photo by Serena Kovalosky.

People are everywhere now and I wonder how Rick manages to pay attention to the fire and, at the same time, greet friends who come to say hello and stop for a chat.

The drummers begin and people line up for Rick to smudge them before they enter the circle to dance around the fire. And in-between it all, Rick manages to keep placing wood on the fire without interrupting the dancers.

Carolyn and I share a dance, which almost feels like a walking meditation……..

Serena Kovalosky and Carolyn Hunt at Whitehall Pow Wow
Serena Kovalosky and Carolyn Hunt in the dancers’ circle. Photo by Rick Hunt.

And Rick’s son, Josh, brings his incredible talent and energy to the dance circle……

Josh Hunt, at Whitehall Pow Wow
Josh Hunt in regalia in the dancers’ circle. Photo by Rick Hunt.

But Rick never dances…..his job is to keep the fire.

After a while, Rick asks me if I could take over for a few minutes. “Sure!” I reply. But as I watch him walk away, I suddenly realize that it’s totally up to me to pay attention. The kids, the adults with their cigarettes and gum wrappers, a fire that could go out at any time,…..I’m clearly not used to this. People who have had children would probably have no trouble with this type of multi-tasking – watching something carefully while carrying on a conversation and at the same time being aware of everything else going on around them. I’ve never had kids and my artistic nature tends to focus intently on one thing at a time. Rick returns several minutes later and I’m already exhausted. “How do you DO it?” I ask. He just smiles and shrugs his shoulders. “I just do….it’s a calling.”

Now it’s time for the Candy Dance. A firekeeper’s nightmare. “C’mon, Serena,” Rick says. “We have to guard the fire during this dance.” We stand in the center with our backs to the fire. Pieces of candy are sprinkled around the circle. The drumming starts and all the kids are invited to enter the circle, walking around and around to the beat of the drums.

The Candy Dance at the Whitehall Pow Wow
Protecting the fire during the Candy Dance. Photo by Rick Hunt.

Suddenly the music stops, and all hell breaks loose. Kids are everywhere, running and diving for pieces of candy, stuffing their pockets as quickly as they can before the drums start up again. They pay no attention to the fire and some of them get perilously close. It takes four of us to watch the fire and make sure no one gets hurt. At the end of the dance, the children who did not manage to get any candy raise their hands, so those who did can share their stash with them – no one is to leave the circle empty-handed. I like that concept…….no one leaves empty-handed. I hope these children carry that message into their adult lives.

The drumming and dancing lasts into the evening and the fire burns steady. “All fires are different,” says Rick. “Some rise and fall throughout the day, but this one has remained the same throughout.”

Perhaps it knows we are all in need of grounding and balance.

Sacred Fire.
Sacred Fire. Photo by Serena Kovalosky.

By nightfall, the drumming ends. A potluck feast is held at the pavilion nearby for all the drummers, dancers and vendors, but the firekeeper must remain close to the fire, so Carolyn, Josh, Rick and I cook up a luscious steak dinner with corn on the cob. A perfect end to a perfect day, but for Rick and I, the day is not yet over. We still have the entire evening and all of the following day ahead of us. I’m starting to get sleepy from all the sun and the excitement. The night air is becoming cooler. I add another layer of clothing, wishing I could curl up in my nice, warm bed at home.

It is dark now and everyone has returned to their tents. The crickets resume their song from this morning. Rick, Carolyn and I continue to chat by the entrance to the fire circle. What will we do to stay awake all night long? How on earth does Rick do this alone? “You’ll see,” Rick says. “There are always small events that happen throughout the night – events that might go unnoticed during the daytime. People may come by to tell their dreams by the fire. You never know who will come. There are always stories in the fire.”

As he says this, I notice a woman walking slowly toward us……our first visitor of the evening………

The story continues….

Click for Part IV

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