In Braiding Sweetgrass, Native American author and biologist Robin Wall Kimmerer (of the Potowatomi people) explains how her family was severed from their traditional culture when her grandfather, like so many children of his generation, was taken from home by the U.S. government and sent to the Carlisle Indian School to be "civilized" (a truly shameful chapter of my country's history). It was not until many years later that his descendants reclaimed their language and heritage. Against this painful background, Kimmerer writes movingly of her father's morning ritual when the family camped on the slopes of Tahawus each summer (the Algonquin name for Mount Marcy in the Adirondaks):
"When he lifts the coffee pot from the stove the morning bustle stops; we know without being told that it's time to pay attention. He stands at the edge of camp with the coffeepot in his hands, holding the top in place with a folded pot holder. He pours coffee on the ground in a thick brown stream. The sunlight catches the flow, striping it amber and brown and black as it falls to the earth and steams in the cool morning air. With his face to the morning sun, he pours and speaks into the stillness, 'Here's to the gods of Tahawus.' "
"I was pretty sure no other family I knew began their day like this, but I never questioned the source of those words and my father never explained. They were just part of our life among the lakes. But their rhythm made me feel at home and the ceremony drew a circle around our family. By those words we said, 'Here we are,' and I imagined that the land heard us -- murmured to itself, 'Ohh, here are the ones who know how to say thank you.' "
"Sometimes my father would name the gods of Forked Lake or South Pond or Brandy Brook Flow, wherever our tents were settled for the night. I came to know each place was inspirited, was home to others before we arrived and long after we left. As he called out the names and offered a gift, the first coffee, he quietly taught us the respect we owed these other beings and how to show our thanks for summer mornings.
"I knew that in the long-ago our people raised their thanks in morning songs, in prayer, in the offering of sacred tobacco. But at that time in our family history we didn't have sacred tobacco and we didn't know the songs -- they'd been taken away from my grandfather at the doors of the boarding school. But history moves in a circle and here we were, the next generation, back to the loon-filled lakes of our ancestors, back to the canoes....
"In the same way that the flow of coffee down the rock opened the leaves of the moss, ceremony brought the quiescent back to life, opened my mind and heart to what I knew, but had forgotten. The words and the coffee called us to remember that these woods and lakes were a gift. Ceremonies large and small have the power to focus attention to a way of living awake in the world. The visible became invisible, merging with the soil. It may have been a secondhand ceremony, but...I recognized that the earth drank it up as if it were right. The land knows you, even when you are lost.
"A people's story moves along like a canoe caught in the current, being carried closer and closer to where we had begun. As I grew up, my family found again the tribal connections that had been frayed, but never broken, by history. We found the people who knew our true names. And when I first heard in Oklahoma the sending of thanks to the four directions at the sunrise lodge -- the offering in the old language of the sacred tobacco -- I heard it as if in my father's voice. The language was different but the heart was the same.
"Ours was a solitary ceremony, but fed from the same bond with the land, founded on respect and gratitude. Now the circle drawn around us is bigger, encompassing a whole people to which we again belong. But still the offering says, 'Here we are,' and still I hear at the end of the words the land murmuring to itself, 'Ohh, here are the ones who know how to say thank you.' Today my father can speak his prayers in our language. But it was 'Here's to the gods of Tahawus' that came first, in the voice I will always hear. It was in the presence of ancient ceremonies that I understood that our coffee offering was not secondhand, it was ours."
The power of ceremony, writes Kimmerer,
"is that it marries the mundane to the sacred. The water turns to wine, the coffee to a prayer. The material and the spiritual mingle like grounds mixed with humus, transformed like steam rising from a mug into the morning mist. What else can you offer the earth, which has everything? What else can you give but something of yourself? A homemade ceremony, ceremony that makes a home."
I've written before about my own early morning ritual of climbing the hill up to my studio, and how I prefer to move in silence through the liminal space between waking up and creative work. We can draw parallels between the rituals of approach we employ to facilitate creative work and the morning ritual Kimmerer describes. Ritual, ceremony, meditation, creative routines and practices designed to ease us into work -- these are all means of acknowledging the transition from one state into another: from sleep into a brand new day, from morning chores and mundane concerns to the focused state of creativity and inspiration.
But there's also an important difference here -- which, I fear, often gets lost when First Nation ceremonies are too-casually adapted by non-Native peoples. While the coffee ritual may indeed have helped Kimmerer's father to feel more meditative, centered, and ready to start his day, this therapeutic aspect of the ceremony is not its purpose or focus. Rather, it is an act of gratitude, an acknowledgement of the larger world of which we humans are just one part. There is no ego in the ritual, no self-aggrandizing, no "look at me, look how spiritual I am" -- just the simple, humble act of a man offering a humble gift to creation.
In my own morning rituals, gratitude to the land, to our animal neighbors, to the vast nonhuman world plays a crucial part. It is why I write and why I paint: sheer gratitude for being alive, even on -- perhaps especially on -- those mornings when, because of poor health or other difficulties, life feels most burdensome. I want to create not from a place of ego and self-aggrandizement but as a means of gifting stories to the beautiful land that feeds and clothes and houses and sustains me; and to give, as Pablo Neruda once said, "something resiny, earthlike and fragrant in exchange for the gift of human brotherhood."
Some days I succeed, and some days I don't. But each morning I wake up, climb the hill with Tilly, pour steaming coffee from a silver thermos as birdsong greets the sun, and I try again. And again. And again. On the hill, I remember that my place in the world is very small. And very precious. And I'm grateful for it all.
The passage above is from Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer (Milkweed Editions, 2014); all rights reserved by the author. Related posts: The language of the earth, Loving the wounded world, and Following the White Deer: On Myth & Writing.