Keeping Fire At the Dance
by Cowboy Jeff Ward
What is?… is an ongoing series that helps to illuminate the people, the medicine, and the inner workings of the Dance For all People. Here we examine the Sacred Fire:
Some call me Gutchen Tibo (cowboy). I have been the Fire Keeper for the Montana Dance for All People and other Dances. While many sacred teachings are passed from generation to generation through the oral tradition, my brother Clyde Hall has asked me to write about keeping the Sacred Fire so that we might all have a better understanding of Fire and of this Dance. I will tell you what I know. There are Elders who know a lot more about keeping fire than I, so consider this an introduction.
This is how we keep fire for our dance:
The Dance for All People requires a ceremonial Fire. In our tradition there is always a head Fire Keeper who assumes the chief responsibility for tending the fire (as well as a number of assistants when needed). Fire keepers take care of the fire during ceremony just as Bundle Keepers take care of their Bundle.
In our way, fire is a living being or beings. It is considered an aspect or relative of the sun, sometimes referred to as a “Ray of the Sun” — the People pray to “the One who lives beyond the Sun”, not to the sun itself. The Puha or Power of the sun resides in the fire, its Essence in the glowing coals, and so this very powerful force must be treated with great respect. The ceremonial fire is looked upon as a “Fire without end” much like the “eternal flame” in other earth-based traditions. You may see that there is an energy of the fire that is beyond the physical energy manifested. That energy needs to be kept strong during ceremony!
The fire is generally started during the first part of opening ceremony after sacred space has been set. The Fire Keeper quietly calls in the powers of the directions as well as the fire powers when the Sacred Fire is first lit. The fire keeper holds the energy of fire for ALL that are in ceremony— elders, working circle, and dancers alike, and is attentive at all times to what is happening in the circle as well as tending to the appetite and needs of the fire. The Fire Keeper holds the Powers called in for the people as part of their “bundle” until he/she thanks them for coming and sends them back home at the end of ceremony. To hold these Powers is a weighty responsibility; in the old days, the People had the right to kill a fire keeper who was neglectful and allowed a ceremonial fire to die…
Some of our dances are outside and others are inside. At some of our outdoor dances the fire is manned by the Fire Keeper and assistants continually from start to finish, 24 hours a day. This is in keeping with the traditional way fire was kept. Whether storming, snowy, or brutally hot, the fire keepers take care of the “living bundle”, the fire. At an indoor dance, where a small oil lamp or candle is used as the Sacred Fire, the responsibilities and duties with the fire do not change. Here, medicines burned by the keeper are in a separate vessel in front of the fire. Whether outdoors or in, the responsibilities and subtle work required are crucial to a safe dance.
According to our late elders Reginald and Gladys Laubin, Plains and Plateau tribal bands traveling in yearly migration appointed a fire keeper to carry the fire from camp to camp in a special horn or bundle of sage bark. When a new camp site was reached the fire keeper would kindle a new fire from the coals he carried. The women would then get coals from that fire to kindle their own lodge fires. All this was done in a ritual manner. Once a year all the fires of the band were allowed to expire and a new sacred fire was created with much ceremony. All the lodge fires were again lit from this central fire. This renewal of the sacred fire in Native American tradition is very much like the early traditions in other parts of the world, an example being the rekindling of the fires in early Britain at Yuletide.
At an outdoor dance the fire pit is always in the west. It is a shallow depression with an outer rim of smoothed earth in the form of a crescent. Our fire for the dance is referred to as a “tipi fire”, always kept relatively small. When you look down on the fire, the wood looks like tipi poles crossed on the ground. This arrangement is also seen as man’s ribs, representing life, death and rebirth, or as a buffalo’s ribcage, symbolizing abundance.
The fire pit and the center of this “tipi fire” always line up with the Tree at the center of the circle. The power of the Dance runs from the Tree, through the altar, through the fire and the fire keeper, and out to the people dancing. Conversely, the people’s prayers and intentions run through the fire and fire keeper, through the altar, and up through the Tree. The Fire Keeper monitors how things are going and makes adjustments to keep the energy of the fire strong. This is just one of the ways the power spirals through our ceremony. Because the power runs through the fire keeper, tending the fire can be exhausting for the physical body. Yet the energy of fire is there and available to feed and sustain everyone throughout the dance.
Quite often dancers are attracted by the power of fire, so it is the responsibility of the fire keeper and working circle to keep everyone and the altars safe. Everyone must remember that if you put an object too close to the fire— such as a feathered headdress or fine fringed shawl— the Fire Entities may think you are making an offering and take those feathers and fringe!
And so Sacred Fire must be respected as such. Other than spiritual work that takes place at the fire, the area should remain clear of people (except for the fire keeper or an assistant) to allow the energies to move unimpeded. No trash is thrown into the fire, nor is cooking appropriate in the fire pit. The fire pit and the area around it should be kept neat and organized, clear of unused blankets or personal items. The Fire and the center line that runs from the fire pit to the Tree is NEVER stepped over, or objects handed across it. Doing so disturbs the energy of the dance, can endanger the dancers, and is extremely disrespectful to the spirits.
A limited number of dancers are welcome around the fire when you are called to be there, however it is always respectful and to your benefit to ask for assistance from one of the fire or altar assistants.
In the old days, offerings to Spirit were usually made in one of three ways— by giving items away; by giving items to people whose hands were painted with sacred red paint; or by giving the items through fire. In the first two ways the objects were gifted, a way for the wealth of the tribe to be distributed among its members. In the third way— making an offering through fire— the objects were consumed and the Puha was given to Spirit, whether the item was tobacco, sweet grass, food or some other physical object.
Fire may also be used for purification. Cedar and sage are used to clear space, to purify and to repel spirits that are not welcome in our ceremony. In use for purification, fire consumes the essence of the items that need to be disposed of in a ritual way— such as ashes from the Sacred Pipe or the residue from smudging vessels.
In our tradition, tobacco, sweet grass and sometimes copal are used to call in spirits. Tobacco, cedar, sage and other offerings are placed on the coals, not on the flames. Sometimes coals are carried to another sacred altar space used for lighting sweet grass, sacred pipes, or even cooking fires. Likewise, all candles and smudges used in the Dance for All People are lit from the Sacred Fire. These small “spirit fires” are considered to be especially effective in making peace with the entities called in.
I encourage each and every one of you to approach fire in your everyday life with a new respect and growing awareness. Whenever you light a fire, a candle— or even a match— you should be mindful that you are calling in the Spirit of the Fire. It is so important to be present in that energy regardless of outward circumstances or other people. Remember, Spirit is present all the time, in ceremony and in daily life. These living energies & beings are there to help you should you invite them in a respectful manner!
Long ago, Spirit and the Native Americans of this continent developed a reciprocal relationship and a language, a way of speaking, that both could understand. The Sacred Fire is a part of that language. In many cultures this relationship has been forgotten or lost. In Native American tradition it remains strong. For us the “conversation” between Spirit and Man is our Dance around the Tree of Life. While a new generation of men and women take the place of those that lived before them, the same entities speak and dance with the people now as with those that came before — for what is time to Spirit and the Ancestors? One cannot change the language or change the dance steps to suit oneself and expect the spirits to understand. Rather, the spirits would be offended and take their human relatives to task for not paying attention. This Dance (in various incarnations) has been danced for over a millennium; one should learn to do the Dance well, to speak the language fluently and KNOW how things are done in a proper manner.
With continued diligence and remembrance, the ancient bond between Spirit and Man is renewed and strengthened. Then everyone will be happy and, when called upon, the spirits will be right there to help and guide the People in a good way!