Tending The Fire Leadership Program Makes History

By Dan Smoke – Asayenes (NNNC)

MUNSEE DELAWARE NATION: Bob Antone, executive director of the KiiKeeWaNiiKaan Southwest Regional Healing Lodge near Muncey, Ontario, dreamed of a circle of men talking about the true meaning of a First Nation man.

Seven years later, the dream was fulfilled as KiiKeeWaNiiKaan graduated the first class of Indigenous Community Workers from its “Tending the Fire” leadership program March 28, 2002.

‘Tending the Fire’ is an accredited diploma program offered by the First Nations Technical Institute (FNTI) through the auspices of Loyalist College, Belleville, Ontario.

Course instructor Jim Dumont, of Laurentian University, said this unique program “gives men the courage to enter the path of healing as well as the path of learning.”

Developed from “our own traditions, culture and spirituality”, it provides “the means by which we educate our own people to create effective change.”

The Indigenous Community Worker Program is the first entirely culture-based curriculum offered by a First Nations educational institution to help men who have internalized the oppression from Western culture and have not had opportunities to decolonize.

Through imposition of Indian Act legislation, they have lost sight of the gender equity that used to be a part of First Nations culture and tradition so that our communities have the highest social pathologies in the country.

Another chance for men
This course shows men who had violent, self destructive, alcoholic pasts the traditional roles, responsibilities, teachings, and indigenous knowledge that come from the elders and oral histories of our people.

Over a two-year period, a group of 26 men, of whom 17 graduated, met with resource professionals for one week every two months. Course requirements included making fire using flint; fashioning a bow and arrow using traditional indigenous knowledge systems; with healing work involving behavioural modification, and traditional ceremonies such as the sweat lodge.

The men came from communities all over Ontario. Glen McDougall – Lahwe’nu:nihe’, from the nearby Oneida Settlement, said the best moments were “when we sat around the fire, in a big circle, talking as we used to years ago. We had to look at what caused us to act in certain ways.”

A revelation for all the men was how they treated women. “It was not very nice.”

Nowhere in the creation stories is there violence towards women and children. It is time to unlearn this negative behaviour and bring back the supreme values and principles that guided those relationships: courage, love, respect, truth, honesty, humility and wisdom.

Hearing the creation stories helped participants to reclaim their own spirituality and identity. Jim Dumont’s Ojibway creation story “touched us in a way I can’t describe”, Lahwe’nu:riihe’ said.

“I was reading a book when I thought about how those words are written down, but without feeling or spirit. When we as Onkwehonwe or Anishinabe sit down to talk, we share the spirit in the words that come out through us and touch us. That’s the power of our ways, because we were an oral society, with nothing written down.”

Making fire with flint caused the most “excitement” as “the fire’s spirituality came to each individual man”. Lahwe’nu:riihe’ described the pressure he felt when asked to make the sweat lodge fire from flint. “You strike and strike, and then you remember the teachings of being a good person and then calmness comes over you, and all of a sudden the fire comes to life.”

Using wisdom
Another highlight was making a bow and arrow from indigenous knowledge.

Instructor Clayton Brascoupe explained the protocol of asking permission from the trees giving their lives for the bow and the arrow. Further protocol requires the one going hunting with that bow and arrow has to ask for permission from the hunted animal to take its life, followed by the protocol of giving thanks.

The result of this teaching was formation of the Traditional Bow-Making Society, a group of men who will meet to discuss ways to empower their communities.

Counselling using the “lifeline” process enabled the men to see how a childhood experience can manifest itself in later life. Most were already on their healing journey; many are elders in their own communities.

Many have been alcohol- and drug-free for some years, all had violent, self-destructive, alcoholic pasts and were now learning a holistic way of living using the medicine wheel approach to life.

“The most important learning was, that the more we know about something, the less we really know, and that’s the way our teachings are,” Lahwe’nu:riihe’ said. There is always more to learn. “People who possess a lot of indigenous knowledge and wisdom reach plateaus and then continue to learn more.. I have much more respect for them now, knowing this.”

“Inside every man is a personal fire. It may be like the small spark that comes off the flint so we have to fan it. Learning our culture is like that.. Soon, the fire will burn and it must be controlled. If it gets out of control, it will hurt people. That same teaching comes to us from our eldest brother, the sun, nurturing energy that helps to give life. And beside the fire is the water so we learn a sense of balance from the fire and the water. If the fire is too strong, then we must use water. And that’s why we honour the women in the world because they are the water carriers. All life comes from water. All life will continue to grow because of the fire, the sun. And if we don’t have those two elements, we don’t have anything,” he reflected.

The mother of graduate Leland Thomas, 20, said she had been praying for a way “to restore our men to be the keepers of the fire. I saw my son begin this course two years ago, as a boy, and today he has become a man, a firekeeper.”

Following the ceremony, a traditional feast was prepared for the men and their families who came to support them. In the traditional way, the men served all the guests.