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Sacred fire near the Prince Rupert Civic Centre offers place of healing

A very special feature of the All Native Basketball Tournament was a sacred fire, with guests able to receive traditional healing and medicine from the week-long ceremony.

The long-burning fire was held just outside of the Jim Ciccone Civic Centre as the tournament went on inside. Organizers emphasized it was much more than just wood burning.

The sacred fire is described as a practice of Ayaawk (ancestral matriarchal law) and a merging of two houses, something organizer and medicine woman Guu Gaa Jung [symbia barnaby] said was “historic and unheard of.”

Dii too’otxw [graham abel] who is Gitxsan and Ojibway and Guu Gaa Jung who is of Haida and Mi’kmaq descent, helped organize the MMIWG2S pole raising near Port Edward in October 2023, where they also coordinated a sacred fire.

When Dii too’otxw, part of the Gitxsan dance group, asked Guu Gaa Jung about a sacred fire for the opening ceremonies, she said she had to ask permission from ‘Wah’mok Waatk [nicholas blackwater] and his mother as the closest living relatives to the ancestral land steward, ‘Wah’mok Waatk’s great grandmother, who is also known as the matriarch.

After some organizing, the three decided they would not only hold the sacred fire for the opening ceremonies, but for the entire length of the basketball tournament.

“They’re performing, they’re doing ceremony, so they need to tranquilize the area, if you will,” ‘Wah’mok Waatk said. “It’s hard for them to actually explain what they’re doing with the fire. It’s ancient technology, lots of care and attention were put into every step of the way.”

‘Wah’mok Waatk’s family have traditionally stewarded the Wil’hałyełs Mediik (where the grizzly walks along the shore) lands, which run along Hays Creek to the ocean.

‘Wah’mok Waatk was a key component of the week-long ceremony, waking up early and staying up late to watch over the fire, and said he was thrilled to be part of it.

“This offers us an opportunity to channel, if you will, the ancestors,” said ‘Wah’mok Waatk. “It’s all the grandmothers before that we’re honouring.”

Holding the fire and a welcoming group of people gave members of a variety of communities the ability to have some respite from the crowded and often chaotic civic centre.

Guu Gaa Jung also said it was an opportunity for people to be heard and heal with others with traditional medicines. Visitors were able to offer prayer and burn sacred medicines such as cedar as part of the ceremony.

The organizers took turns keeping an eye on the fire, with two firekeepers taking long and tiresome shifts all day and night every day throughout the week.

According to Guu Gaa Jung, the sacred fire and the entire tournament is an act of resilience to the Indian Act and its damaging legacy, which banned First Nations people from gathering in groups larger than three unless for sport or church from 1867 until 1951.

Guu Gaa Jung and ‘Wah’mok Waatk said community members have been incredibly generous, donating firewood, food and water among other items. Meanwhile, many came to volunteer their time at the sacred fire.

“This is interaction under the ancestral matriarchal law between two house groups. But we’re calling for all the help we could get and then the community is responding,” said ‘Wah’mok Waatk.

There are certain provisions ‘Wah’mok Waatk ensured were respected over the week, such as making sure no profanity, alcohol, drugs or garbage were present around the fire.

Gigantic mussels harvested nearby were also shucked as part of traditional food preparation throughout the week. ‘Wah’mok Waatk said there was some confusion from curious visitors, who thought the group were food vendors.

“It’s pretty much an eight-day feast, it’s forbidden for us to walk away with this big fat stack of cash or food or whatever. We’ve got to give that away because those blessings are going to return to us and they already have,” he said.

After such a successful ceremony, Guu Gaa Jung and ‘Wah’mok Waatk say they are looking toward holding more sacred fire events in the region.

Seth Forward, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Prince Rupert Northern View