PICTOU LANDING – A traditional sacred fire was celebrated last week at the Pictou Landing First Nation.
Everett Savary was one of four people known as fire keepers who tended and fed a sacred fire inside a teepee. He shared his knowledge of the ancient Mi’kmaq ceremony. The others were Darren Bernard, River Paul and Brandon Bernard.
They took four-hour turns, and their presence near the fire was a constant requirement. They could step to the teepee’s entry way but never out of sight of the fire.
“It’s quite an honour to be a fire keeper,” Savary said. “You cannot refuse to go keep a fire if you are a fire keeper.”
Photographing the sacred fire is not permitted, nor is alcohol or drugs up to four days prior to setting the fire. No garbage or debris or any kind may be put in the fire. It is also impolite to look directly at people.
Savary is from Gold River, N.S. He has taken part in the sacred fire ceremony for more than 20 years and arrived at Pictou Landing on June 13 to set the fire and left on Sunday. He lives part of the time at the Pictou Landing First Nation and became a member of its fire department in February.
“I believe in taking part in the community,” he said.
Normally, the sacred fire burns for 96 hours How the ceremony is performed varies, he said.
“Our teachings come from different places,” he said. “A lot depends on where people come from.”
Traditionally, the sacred fire ceremony would be performed to coincide with the new moon or full moon each month. The new moon passed on June 13 and the full moon this month is scheduled to occur on June 28.
Pictou Landing’s sacred fire is scheduled for the moon cycle in June. The fire is shared with the Wagmatcook First Nation in Cape Breton, and the plan is to share the sacred fire with all 13 First Nation communities in Nova Scotia.
Smudging is offered to people who visit the fire. He had a small wooden dish that contained the four sacred medicines: sweet grass, cedar, sage and tobacco.
“We try to use pure tobacco, not store-bought,” he said.
He holds the bowl close so that people can sweep the smoke over the head, into the mouth without inhaling and toward the heart. People are asked to turn around clockwise so that he can apply the smoke to their backs, sweeping with an eagle feather and tapping the back with the feather four times.
The clockwise regiment references the track of the sun from the east through the south and west. People circle the fire clockwise.
Smudging is also part of the process to start the fire, Savary said. A pipe ceremony is also performed to light the fire.
“Everything that is put on the first to start the fire gets smudged,” he said.
Fire keepers sit beside the fire. There is no place for them to lie down. An eagle feather or feather fan is used to fan the fire when it fades.
“You dose, but you don’t really sleep,” Savary said. “The fire will always wake you.”
Sacred fires are spiritual and personal – people can react to them and visualize things in different ways, Savary said.
“Sacred fire is strong,” he said. “You see things only you can see, not all the time and not at every fire, and more at night than during the day.”
Savary said he hopes the sacred fire ceremony will be performed more than it already is among First Nation communities in the province.
“I believe old traditions need to come back,” he said. “This is one. Language is another.”
From left: Fire keepers Darren Bernard and Everett Savary stand watch over a sacred fire ceremony at the Pictou Landing First Nation community. (Goodwin photo)