At the heart of Indigenous Day Live, a knowledge keeper stokes the sacred fire

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At the heart of Indigenous Day Live, a knowledge keeper stokes the sacred fire

Far away from the powwow, stages and loudspeakers, wood crackles at the centre of Oodena Circle, a place for spiritual connection during Indigenous Day Live festivities at The Forks in Winnipeg. 

Fire keeper David McPherson started assembling the sacred fire long before daybreak Saturday at Oodena, the name of which comes from the Ojibwe word for "heart of the community."

"People that are passing by see the fire, see the smoke, smell it. They're drawn in," McPherson said. 

Two vessels sit on the edge of the ceremonial pit — one filled with green flecks of cedar, the other with tobacco.

The tobacco is a means of communicating to creation, McPherson said, like a prayer. The cedar, a medicine, ensures thoughts are clean and prayer is genuine.

About 30,000 people are expected to pass through The Forks Saturday as part of Indigenous Day Live. The all-day, three-city party (there are also events in Toronto and Ottawa) is Canada's largest celebration of National Indigenous Peoples Day, which takes place each year on the day of the summer solstice.

The sacred fire burns until sunset to provide a quiet reprieve for anyone who needs a moment away from the hubbub. 

While families wander in groups through the crowds, lugging coolers and festival chairs, it's not uncommon for individuals at Indigenous Day Live to come down to the Oodena circle alone, McPherson said, seeking a moment of peace or healing.

The fire provides a connection to the spirit, he said.

As an Anishinaabe knowledge keeper, McPherson said part of his role is to teach curious people about the fire and the buckskin drum he holds. Mid-sentence, he beings tapping the rhythm of a slow heartbeat.

"There has to be a focal point where even though there's celebrations going on and the enjoyment of life, in amongst that crowd, you're going to find people that are hurting," he said.

"When they come to the fire, it's something that you don't have to pay a therapist of psychologist [for], you can stand there and listen to the crackling sounds of that fire, the smell and close your eyes and be fully relaxed."

McPherson wants people to walk away prouder of who they are. It's a mission shared by the long-time organizer of Indigenous Day Live, Sky Bridges.

Bridges first began Indigenous Day Live more than a decade ago for Aboriginal Peoples Television Network, where he is currently the chief operating officer. APTN continues to be the organizer and presenter of Indigenous Day Live.

"Ever since I've been overseeing this amazing show, [it has] grown year over year," Bridges said.

The intention of the day from the beginning was to celebrate being Indigenous and spark "a new talking point with Canada," he said.

"Here we are 12 years later and we're having a new dialogue with Canada. People are saying, 'happy National Indigenous Day!' We have a mix of people who gather on the site and it's just wonderful to see."

In addition to celebrations in Ottawa and Toronto, a free concert in Winnipeg at The Forks Main Stage runs 7:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. It features Walk Off The Earth, William Prince and Oh My Darling, among other acts.

Indigenous food vendors, craft sales and other attractions are also at The Forks all day long. Admission to Indigenous Day Live is free.