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

The Hamilton Spectator - - FRONT PAGE - STEVE MIL­TON

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.”



Allen King, left, and Ge­of­frey Day­butch are the fire keep­ers for North Amer­i­can lndige­nous Games west­ern hub at McMaster Univer­sity.

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