Amanda Wallin has two names. The first is her birth name. The second is Black Cloud Woman, given to her when she was 25 at a sweat lodge ceremony in a place called Spirit Island.
“I was told I was part of the Bear Clan and that my name was Black Cloud Woman, which I thought was ridiculous at first! I felt like Charlie Brown with a big dark cloud over my head.
The Elders started laughing and they told me that my name was actually very powerful. They said that a black cloud symbolizes the washing and nourishing of Mother Earth.”
Amanda is an Anglican Cree woman and keeper of medicinal plant knowledge. From her home in Fannystelle, Manitoba, she shares some of her knowledge of various local plants, including sage, sweetgrass, Seneca root, and cedar.“I learned everything that I know about honouring and respecting plants and earth from my birth mother. Her name was Thunder Bird Woman. I began harvesting medicines with her in my early 20’s. We would pick medicines for the Elders that would then get transported to various reserves. What the reserves did with the medicines was up to them, but we don’t sell our medicines to just anyone — we must first know their intended purpose.”
Proper protocol is integral to Indigenous harvesting practices.
“The number one thing you learn is proper protocol, to ask yourself before you smudge or pick medicine: what does it mean to do this? We must be in a good, balanced frame of mind to connect with the Creator.”
Emotional balance is key. One cannot be angry because the anger will “poison” the harvest and the negative energy will infect the earth. Sometimes, an Indigenous person will not accept a harvest from another Indigenous person because they do not know the full method of how the plants were harvested.
“We use our medicines to take away any negativity. To right our wrongs. I almost never buy my medicines. One time, I harvested hawk feathers — there was a hawk on the road. My husband Richard and I were driving along the highway and I saw the hawk and I exclaimed: “Stop, stop! Get the axe, I need to harvest these feathers! Get the tobacco!” And he was like “Are you crazy?!” I was like “Richard we have to do this. We must honour this bird because it has just died, and we are now here to witness it. I can’t just leave the bird there. This is not what I was taught in the traditional teachings.” So, I chopped off some of the hawk’s feathers, and now they’re on that walking stick behind you.”
Amanda offers another example of protocol, this time for picking sweetgrass.
“When you go to pick sweetgrass, you must be wearing your medicine skirt. Because it’s the medicine skirt that fuels all the medicines of Mother Earth. When I go out and find some sweetgrass, I will also make sure to bring tobacco with me. I will then talk to God the Creator and ask him to bless this sweetgrass with joy and healing. But only after you lay your tobacco down are you ready to pick.”
Tobacco laying is essential. It is the gift offered to the earth in honour of what was taken.
Another protocol in picking sweetgrass is that it must be picked one blade at a time. Amanda recalls the first time she and her mother took her daughter sweetgrass picking.
“She just ran up and excitedly grabbed a handful of grass, and said: “Look what I got, granny!” My mother and I were both mortified. We told her, “Sweetie that is Mother Earth’s hair – you don’t just rip out Mother Earth’s hair. We pick them one at a time, and we put them in our medicine skirt.”
Once the picking is finished, the sweetgrass is spread out and dried for up to six hours. Then, it is braided with three “ropes” each comprising seven strands of grass. Why seven? The number seven represents the seven sacred teachings.
Sweetgrass may also be used for smudging ceremonies, alongside cedar, sage, and tobacco. Sage is most used in smudging.
An eagle feather is almost always used to fan the smoke. Using an eagle feather is significant because “the eagle flies closest to the Creator.” It flies over 10,000 feet and has over 7,000 feathers to keep it warm.
“And why is it necessary to fan the smoke?” says Amanda. “If you blow on the coals, you will blow your medicine away.”
Amanda performs a smudging ceremony with cedar. Once the cedar is lit, she begins smudging, removing all jewelry as is the protocol. She washes with the smoke, bathing hands, head, eyes, ears, mouth, heart, and finally, feet. Only the bottom of the feet are smudged as the idea is to walk on Mother Earth with love and respect (opposed to anger and resentment).
“You can actually drink cedar,” says Amanda. “Say you’ve just come from a funeral and you are feeling full of negative energy. Here’s a ritual: First, connect with the Creator and lay your tobacco down. Then, take about two handfuls of the boughs of cedar, put them in a large pot and boil them for about 20-25 minutes. Set a cup of it aside. Then take the rest of that water and put it in a bath. Now you have a cedar bath! It eliminates all that negative energy so that it’s just you and God. Then, when you get out of your bath, you drink that cup of cedar tea. You will feel like a new person.”
It’s not difficult to imagine the world as a better place if only more people took cedar baths. Or were full of the same generosity as Amanda and her partner, Richard, who live by a code of hospitality.
“How can you be blessed if you don’t give? I’m inspired every time I make that first connection with the Creator. When we face the sun, when the sun rises at the beginning of the day, that’s our promise that our sins have been forgiven. The Creator loves us so much that he has allowed us to see yet another sunrise. I think of it this way: there are 6 billion people on earth. Out of that 6 billion, 1 million didn’t wake up this morning. But I did. And for this we should always give thanks. Remind yourself that you are mortal. We always imagine ourselves as old and grey, but we have no idea if we will reach this stage of life. I don’t say this to scare people. I say this to remind people of how precious life is when you’re given a day to walk and talk and move, when there are so many people that can’t, who are lonesome and lost.”
Another way to interpret Amanda’s musings is to think of forgiveness and restoration in our relationships as written into paying proper attention to the natural world around us. To the seasons, where the sun rises, when it’s right to pick sage or sweetgrass, harvest cedar or hawk feathers.
Amanda identifies as an Indigenous Anglican and has been attending the parish of St. Mary Magdalene for 24 years. She doesn’t see a fundamental difference between Indigenous spiritual teachings and those of the Anglican Church. “We have our tobacco ties; they have the rosary. We have the smudge; they have the holy water. We have seven teachings; they have ten commandments. It’s all the same. At the end of the day, it’s about us and our relationship with the land and the Creator who is allowing you to walk freely on this earth.”
– Sara Krahn, Editor, Rupert’s Land News