By Cheryl Norrad
A view of the St. John river from the old Native burial grounds in Fredericton on Saturday. (Photo: Cheryl Norrad)
FREDERICTON - Looking out on the placid waters of the St. John River as nearby birch trees rustle quietly in the wind, the old Native burial grounds in Fredericton sit covered in lush green grass, outlined by stout bushy hedges that soften city noise. For centuries this place has given spirits peaceful rest, and been an oasis of quiet contemplation for the living.
A banquet tent acts as a traditional Native longhouse for the sacred water ceremony at the old Native burial grounds in Fredericton on Saturday. (Photo: Cheryl Norrad)
Last Saturday, on those grounds next door to stately government house, a large white banquet tent substituted as a traditional First Nations longhouse. Inside a group of women numbering over 50 stood solemnly arranged in a circle. They surrounded a large copper pot resting on a wooden bench covered in a royal blue blanket. Beside the pot was a cluster of cedar leaves and a wood-carved smudge bowl.
The women who came to this place were from different races and walks of life, bringing with them flasks of water that flow through the lands where they live. There was a young homesteading mother swaying gently to the ceremonial drum as she nursed her wide-eyed baby. A thoughtful group of teenage girls from white and Native backgrounds were side by side. Twenty-something university bachelorettes were shoulder to shoulder with young wives. Middle-aged professional women stood alongside their baby boomer counterparts, who lent their experience from the passionate sixties. All listened intently to the wise tribal grandmother in charge of a ceremony offering thanks to Mother Earth and her life-giving water.
Respected First Nations elder Alma Brooks of the Maliseet Grand Council speaks during the sacred water ceremony on the old Native burial grounds in Fredericton on Saturday. (Photo: Cheryl Norrad)
“The water you bring symbolizes the water you carry life in inside for nine months,” said Alma Brooks, respected elder and member of the Maliseet Grand Council. “The same pure water from rivers, lakes and streams of the Earth.”
Stanley Paul conducts the ritual smudging as part of the sacred water ceremony on the old Native burial grounds in Fredericton on Saturday. (Photo: Cheryl Norrad)
The ceremony began with a ritual smudging to purify the women in the circle. Moving somberly from woman to woman waving an eagle feather, Native smudger Stanley Paul sent curls of smoke rising from a wooden smudge bowl wafting towards each one. They reached out and gently washed their faces with the smoke, then turned with their backs to Paul to ensure both sides of their bodies were purified. As Paul went around the circle, Native drummer Ron Tremblay beat a hand-held deerskin drum and sang a native chant, giving goose bumps to those on hand, some of whom were having their first experience with Native culture up close.
The women gather their flasks and circle the fire as part of the sacred water ceremony on the old Native burial grounds in Fredericton on Saturday. (Photo: Cheryl Norrad)
The ritual completed, the women followed Brooks in single file outside the tent to the sacred fire. They picked up their flasks, circling the fire several times while it carried their prayers for the Earth’s water to the ancestors.
Returning to the longhouse, the women were in a circle once again while Brooks blessed the water. “The water is everything, nothing can live without water…the Earth is a living, spiritual being as we are…the water we pour into this pot is like the tears we cry for our mother Earth,” she said.
A woman looks at some of the water she brought from her home area with reverence as she partakes in the sacred water ceremony at the old Native burial grounds in Fredericton on Saturday. (Photo: Cheryl Norrad)
As each woman came forth with her flask, she could give testimony about her water, where it was from and her hopes for its future preservation. Some simply poured the water without speaking, others were moved to tears.
“This is rainwater I collected near my home because my well has been ruined…” said one woman, her voice breaking.
“This water comes from the mighty Miramichi,” said another. “May she always be mighty.”
One by one they poured: St. Ignace, Cornhill, the Tobique, Salisbury, the list went on. Rainwater, well water, river water, brook water, it all went in; mixing together like the waters that flow throughout the Earth.
As she closed the ceremony, Brooks said, “The ancestors looked after it [the water] for us. If we stop polluting mother Earth she will cleanse herself.”
Gradually the circle of women broke off with them drifting outside the longhouse where it was announced lunch was ready. Many walked in silence to the enclosure for the meal; lost in thought about the powerful ceremony they had just witnessed.
“I was so moved I could hardly get words out,” said Wendy Clowater.
So powerful was the sacred water ceremony at the old burial grounds in Fredericton on Saturday, twin brothers Luc and Cody Richard of St. Ignace abruptly stopped their play to watch the women around the fire. (Photo: Cheryl Norrad)