A sacred fire will burn all week at McMaster
Fire is part of the Indigenous Games and visitors are invited to come by to feel welcomed
It is the Sacred Fire, so Allen King takes his responsibility for it very, very seriously.
King, a 38-year-old Mississauga of the New Credit First Nation, is one of a team of fire keepers who have volunteered to maintain the North American Indigenous Games western hub’s Sacred Fire, 24 hours a day, on a rear patio of the new L.R. Wilson Hall on the McMaster University campus.
“Fire is life,” says King, by trade a welder, by tradition a fire keeper. “Without heat, how would you cook your food, or stay warm? The sun is a big fireball. Without the sun, how would you have life?
“The fire inside you drives you to do what you do.”
Hamilton’s Sacred Fire was lit Saturday morning in a sunrise ceremony conducted by an elder, and will be extinguished after next Saturday night’s closing cer-
emonies in Toronto. No one is allowed to feed the fire who is not a member of the Three Fire Society, an alliance comprising the Ojibwa, Odawa and Potawatomi First Nations.
No pictures may be taken of the fire, because it is best experienced in person, but everyone — Indigenous and non-Indigenous — is invited to that experience, says King. He points out that the fire is about being welcomed.
The wood for the fire comes from New Credit, chopped, delivered and stacked by volunteers and King family members there.
It’s the job of King and fellow volunteers such as Geoffrey Daybutch, from the Mississauga 8 First Nation near Blind River, to do whatever it takes to keep it burning. Sunday night’s heavy thunderstorms were a challenge but King packed the fire with extra wood and covered it with a steel device, “like a sandwich board” to keep the wood as dry as possible.
“You have to do every aspect of maintaining that life form,” he explains. “And it is a life form. It eats, it breathes.”
Some Indigenous people will offer tobacco to the fire in thanks, others will pray. Non-Indigenous people will find their own way to enjoy its captivating flame.
“I like that they’re acknowledging it,” King says of non-Indigenous people coming by to sit by the calming heat. “A security guard, non-native, came and said he’d never had exposure to something like this when he was growing up. He said it would have helped.
“It’s mesmerizing. It has a lot of power. You can eat from it, you can heal from it in the sweats (sweat lodges). Honestly, I get lost in it. That’s where I go. Relax, and don’t think about anything, and just be at peace with it.”
King has been fire keeping since he was 10 and none of the “thousands” of fires he’s tended since has ever gone out. It is a family tradition he learned from his father and has passed on to his 14-year-old son Brayden, who’s also a fire keeper.
So, too, is Daybutch who is from Blind River but now lives in Toronto. He is part of the NAIG2017 volunteer pool as well as being a fire keeper. He learned the tradition from his grandmother who was unable to pass cultural traditions on to Daybutch’s parents and aunts and uncles because she was taken from her family to a residential school.
“So they were denied the experience of the culture,” he says. “For myself, my sisters, the cousins, the cultural knowledge started from her.”
King and Daybutch are both Mississaugas so the protocol they use in fire keeping is virtually the same. But it does vary from nation to nation, and King assumes some of those variations will be discussed around the fire with members of various NAIG regional teams this week.
“Definitely,” he says. “That’s one of the favourite past times: the sharing. If you don’t share, how is anybody else going to learn it: your children, my children? In the big picture, it’s all about the same, but in the small picture somebody will do something a little different with fire.
“It’s about culture sharing.”
And it is a life form. It eats, it breathes. ALLEN KING FIRE KEEPER FROM MISSISSAUGAS OF THE NEW CREDIT FIRST NATION
Allen King, left, and Geoffrey Daybutch are the fire keepers for North American lndigenous Games western hub at McMaster University.