Ode’ imin, Ceremony and Law

By Jeffrey Hewitt

For me, writing takes time and planning. Planning requires talking. Talking necessitates listening. Pamela Shields and Kinwa Bluesky are strong women who make me feel like I am listening to goodness when I hear their voices. Over months we talked a lot about what we would do for our contribution to Testify. Ultimately, we came to agreement that our project would focus on Indigenous women. Almost immediately, I started to struggle. What would my contribution be? What should my contribution be? I am a Cree man. I did not want to write. I did not want to plan. I just wanted to listen to Pamela and Kinwa talk. Don’t we men already consume enough space? I have a loving and brave mother and had a good Cree father. My children also have a mother who is loving and brave and I too am a father who tries to be good. Through my open hesitation with this project, Pamela reminded me that Indigenous men talking and writing about Indigenous women also has a place and such a place for me might be with this project. She was right…of course. But it took me a while longer to figure that out. Ultimately, it was Pamela and Kinwa’s encouragement as well as being a father of three sons and a daughter that drew me back in. Now that my children are no longer infants and getting older I am excited about what is ahead for them. I also worry about what’s ahead for them.

Not only are we invested in Cree ways in my family but as part of Cree law we follow the laws of the land we are in and for us that has meant many years in Anishinaabe territory. Along with others, we are fortunate to have both Cree and Anishinaabe Elders and helpers – all of whom work with us to raise our children with various rites of passage and ceremonies. By living this way, we hope our children are reminded that they have a place with us; important work of their own to do; are loved; and are not alone. One such ceremony that our family has engaged with recently is the strawberry ceremony. I have been taught that in Anishaabemowin, ‘ode’ means heart and ‘ode’imin’ means ‘heart berry’. Among other things, the strawberry ceremony is a rite of passage when a girl declares for the world the kind of woman she wants to be and she asks us to see her as such. What I am hoping to contribute to our project is what it means to be the father of a daughter and sons and how through practice, we transmit our laws to our younger and future generations. Also, how the practice of our laws places women centrally to all things, which is something we all benefit from both remembering and implementing.

I have been told that the strawberry ceremony was once hidden for many years. Recently, Jim Dumont explained that some time ago when the Peter Ochese (an Anishinaabe Elder and teacher) began (re)teaching about the strawberry ceremony, a group of women picked up his teachings and declared only women may attend the ceremony.4 In other words, Peter Ochese was not invited. While the decision to exclude men after only recently reviving the strawberry ceremony may at first seem unusual – possibly even hurtful to the man who shared the teachings – this reclaiming by a group of Anishinaabe kwe is also a demonstration of empowerment and perhaps a drawing forward of the spirit of the creation story that places women first. It also presented an opportunity to find grace in reclaiming law and a reminder that our laws are alive and interpretive – not relegated to a time frozen in the past or based on a standard of perfection.

The sources of Cree (and Anishinaabe) law do not come from written statutes or regulations. Rather, for the Cree, law arrived in sacred bundles. For the both the Cree and Anishinaabe, laws are found in in many places, including our stories, ceremonies, songs and dance. Our laws are always around us. We carry them where they live, inside of us. Our laws are not external and prescriptive but rather are interpretive and living. Our laws remind us how to be good. They are with us today but I wonder if too many of us – in particular too many men – cast our laws aside in favour of colonial laws and thereby lets us more easily deny the power of women. What is it we are so afraid of?

It is worth recalling that even after contact the role of women in Cree and Anishinaabe societies did not change immediately. Rather, the empire used law as a means of diluting our societies and attacking our cultures. As a means of ‘civilizing’ us, law was used to unravel our leadership by replacing our forms of governance through dodems with a legislature. Law was used as a means to steal children and place them into residential schools. Law was (and is) used to imprison men and women. But the real damage of the law has not been limited to displacing Indigenous legal orders. The real damage comes in altering the way we think – how we regard ourselves; how we see ourselves in relation to others; how we view each other; how we regard women. If we want to respect ourselves and how we relate to others we must use our own laws to realign the way we think. Away from the colonial regime. Toward us.

This is not an easy task. Indeed, if you want to engage with our laws, you have to work hard for them. They are not easily categorized into contracts, constitutional, torts, criminal and civil law (though some may fit within these subjects). Some laws are only taught seasonally. Others only shared in keeping with certain astrological events, such as comets. They are not conveniently parsed out during three years of law school. Rather, learning Cree law is earned over the course of a lifetime and even then little may be known. Our laws are not about mastery but understanding.

There are some dangers with engaging with our laws, of course. For example, some laws have been so degraded through years of colonial violence that they are no longer understood. But purity is not the objective and should not be a barrier or a means to disengage. Indeed, many People’s creation stories are still told today and therein lies a source of understanding our laws. I have also seen directly how talking through our laws together we may discover not only the reasons for a law but also a more deeply connected community. Whether we are revitalizing, rediscovering or resurrecting – a matter of some academic debate – is for others to determine. What is relevant to me, as my children grow, is that we are engaging in our laws and its imperfections. Sometimes, it is the imperfections of our laws that compel talking and thereby help keep it alive and evolving. Though there are many ways in which Indigenous Peoples have been harmed and that harm is ongoing, practicing our laws through ceremony, stories, songs and dance are some of the ways in which we might come to remember that we have a place; we have important work to do; that we are all loved; and we are not alone.

For me, a current reminder is our daughter spending thirteen moons on her strawberry fast. At the beginning of her fast, she had to pick berries last season but not eat any. She could not even lick the juice off her fingertips. She picked berries in the midst of a field of temptation but did not succumb. Most of the berries she picked we ate. Some were frozen. Some she and her mother transformed into jam that all of us – but for our daughter – would enjoy throughout the winter. At about this same time, my sons and I began to gather birch for a fire that we would later light for her. I confess, gathering wood seems much easier than forgoing a favourite food for thirteen moons. The former requires some work and a bit of sweat but the latter requires will, patience and resolve that must be sustained without waiver throughout the course of a year.

As the thirteenth moon approached, preparations began. Days before the ceremony, my daughter picked more berries but still could not eat a single one. On the night before the ceremony my daughter and her mother prepared the berries for the rest of us.

Without complaint, my sons awoke with me before the Sun. We slipped out into the chilly darkness, offered our thanksgiving and lit a fire for my daughter – their sister. I offered to remain with the fire throughout the day until the ceremony was over and that once the sun rose they could work in shifts and catch some sleep. They stayed with me. As we sat there I listened to them talk to each other and to me. We learned more about one other. We all admitted how grateful we were to not have to give up berries for thirteen moons because we might not make it. My sons openly marvelled at their sister’s strength. We shared worries and wondered aloud about our futures. They have plans for their lives. Good plans. They know they have work do to in order to make their plans happen. Listening to them, the deficit between us that I will never equalise was reaffirmed because they teach me much more than I can ever give.

I reminded them that their mother and I are preparing them for the time when we are not here anymore. That they will have to be firekeepers for their sister and all of the women in their lives – spouses, daughters, nieces, granddaughters, cousins. One of them cleared his throat and said, “Um, yeah. We know. Why do you think we got up in the dark and came out here? It wasn’t for you.” We laughed and as if on cue, the night was swept away into dawn. The light of Biidaaban glowed around all of us. And in that moment, I caught a glimpse on their faces of the fire that was placed inside each of them. It was beautiful. They are beautiful.

Later, my daughter and her mother carried out wooden bowls filled with freshly prepared berries. Our daughter offered them to those of us who had gathered that warm, summer’s day. And finally, after many berries had been eaten, on the fourth offering to share – which came from her youngest brother – our daughter sat down and for the first time in thirteen moons tasted Ode’ imin. She savoured it. The juice ran down her chin and dripped off her fingertips, which she licked. Like a long-lost and dearly missed friend, the berry found its way back to her heart – Ode’imin. In that moment, I recalled being taught we are all thoughts of the Creator. Watching her eat strawberries that day, I was overwhelmed with what a beautiful and complete thought our daughter is. How grateful I am for her. How extraordinary her mother is, who has worked hard to guide her through this time. What a good woman our daughter is becoming…just like her mother.

I worry that the world remains a place that seeks to harm her not only because she is a young woman but an Indigenous one at that and because she is fair, sometimes it may be her own people who cause the hurt. I hope that the way she is being raised will offer her what she needs to live well. That we are giving her what she requires. That I am giving her what she needs. That she will remember she is part of a long, rich legal order that does not make her dependent on any man; but that places her centrally in our nation; and honours her power of being a life giver, just like Mother Earth. As I watch my daughter now with her strawberry fast behind her, it is reaffirming to know ceremonies are not just rituals but law that contains deep wisdom and is another means by which we strengthen our bonds to each other and to all of our relations, the Earth, the Sun and Moon, sons and daughters. It reminds us how to be good.

I hope too that my sons remember their responsibilities in our laws and to honour women the way they do their mother and sister and the commitment they made to their sister by waking before the Sun and lighting the fire on that morning not so long ago.

Sometimes – if fortune favours me – I see how my daughter and her mother whisper to each other; hold entire conversations with their eyes. I am in awe at their concentration and patience as they painstakingly prepare cedar for the sweatlodge. I watch the rise of my daughter’s strength and certainty. Her resolve and patience unfold like the strawberry flowers that grow into Ode’ imin. I remember how Ode’ imin comes with a promise. A promise that if we care for and celebrate the women’s berry, Ode’ imin, the way we must all care for and celebrate women, then we know our hearts are good.

Two of my sons have entered into manhood but they are just beginning their journey. The third is on his way. We have taught them that traditionally men do not own things or take possessions but rather have all of their tools and clothes given to them by women because what a man does own is his relationships. In this way, my sons have been taught that their measure comes from the quality of relationships they have – in particular with the women in their lives, starting with their mother and sister. As it stands now, when they are called upon, my sons rise before dawn. As they made clear to me, they prepared the fire for their sister and mother…not for me and not for themselves. They are acknowledging that they are following our laws, which requires them to work hard.

The strawberry ceremony is many things. It is a time for me to not worry about but celebrate my daughter’s transformation from a girl to a woman. I am coming to know the woman she is to become and how she asks us to see her. The ceremony is a gathering where we are reminded of what it means to prepare the way for others; what resilience looks like; and the power of women. As those Anishinaabe kwe once told Peter Ochese, this ceremony is for our daughters. It is for our mothers, aunties, nieces and cousins. As I have learned, it is also for our sons. It is for our fathers, uncles, nephews and cousins. It is for our communities. It is for our nations. And we all have a contribution to make to the betterment of each other. Our laws remind us that we are responsible and accountable for and to each other.

On a day not long ago, my sons lit a fire for their sister. I lit a fire for my daughter. We committed to her that we will care for her and she has shown that she thinks of and cares for us too. We will work to keep her safe. We will extend our responsibilities to all life that she may make. Our laws require nothing less. It is through the recognition and respect of the laws of our people that our men may find the many pathways to healing. To recognising and respecting the power of women – who also need healing. To understanding how we must all amplify the best of each other for the strength of our nations. And that our laws, no matter how often and how long they have been attacked remain with us in a place where external laws cannot – should not – be allowed. Inside ourselves.

I wonder if sometimes we resist acknowledging and practicing our laws not because they are hard to find or because they make us work but because we don’t want to look on the inside where our laws live. We don’t want to examine ourselves because that is the really hard work. Recall the standard is not perfection. The laws in Anishinaabe territory are watched over by seven grandfathers who radiate throughout all laws: Nibwaakaawin (Wisdom); Zaagi’idiwin (Love); Minaadendamowin (Respect); Aakode’ewin (Bravery); Gwayakwaadiziwin (Honesty); Dabaadendiziwin (Humility); Debwewin (Truth). None of the Seven Grandfathers are easy to live with – let alone simultaneously in a sacred balance – I know. Maybe because it is hard and claiming power over others can temporarily feel good is why some turn away from or deny our laws. I don’t know. I do know and understand as best as I can that it is complicated but complicated should not equate to a refusal or a turning away. I do know Indigenous women continue to be placed in harm’s way. If we are to demonstrate our strength as nations we must stop the violence. That is on us and our laws lead the way.

Though I opened with observations about the strawberry ceremony my daughter has undertaken, I close with reflections on Grandmother Moon. Though there are some moon teachings for all of us, some are intended for women. My daughter and her mother know more of this through their teachers and I do not reflect on such matters here. But what I have come to understand about the Moon, is that once She was much larger than She is now and had her own light source. She gifted her daughter, Mother Earth, with her light so that the Earth could birth and sustain new life. She also made her daughter a promise. A promise that she would always stay close by and watch over her. Help her. Love her. And like many grandmothers, she became physically a little smaller but her power to move water across the Earth; her ability to inspire the rest of us is undeniable and endures. We continue to celebrate her, marvel at her.

My contribution to this project with Pamela and Kinwa is not just about my daughter and sons but about their mother too, who is fulfilling her promise every day to stay close by and care for her children. Our daughter is being raised to know her power and to respect and honour herself. Our sons are being raised to honour women and follow the laws of our people. But like me, none of them will be perfect. My hope is that in the moments when they need it, they will reach for our laws that we try to demonstrate and teach them. For they carry their laws in the place their sister reminded us about with her Ode’ imin fast; a place that is always with them – in their hearts.
All my relations. //

Jeffrey Hewitt

Jeffery Hewitt is Cree and has served as General Counsel to Rama First Nation since 2002. Solutions driven, in 2010 Rama's legal department tied with Royal Bank of Canada in receiving the inaugural Canadian General Counsel Award for Social Responsibility as recognition for creating ground-breaking programs with seniors and youth. While visiting his alma mater, Jeffery will be researching the connection between Indigenous law and art forms, in particular story-telling and the possible applications to modern day innovation and problem solving.