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The tobacco offering and stripping it down

In the corner of the yard nearest the gravel road is an old wringer washer. It sits beneath a fir tree with its barrel filled with earth and dirt and…

In the corner of the yard nearest the gravel road is an old wringer washer. It sits beneath a fir tree with its barrel filled with earth and dirt and sprouting flowers over the rim.

Against the harsh arid brown of mountain summer lawn the begonias and blue bells and ivy are jovial outbursts of spring.

Further back, near the front door, an old wagon wheel leans against a pine tree. It’s painted a bright scarlet, the rim of it a flat earthen brown.

The hub is a meaningful black hinting at the arduous journeys across the cordillera and valleys below, the grind of its axles a vague subtext against the dapple of shade.

Both of them hearken back to a simpler time. Rustic, some might say, but for me merely elegant and uncomplicated.

They are the beacons of welcome to this home we’ve made and with the old ’87 pickup in the driveway, and offer a subtle hint to the nature of our lives.

When we came here, we had to disassemble everything. The move was made more difficult by the choice to strip away the clutter of life.

A painting that seemed relevant in a city context suddenly became unnecessary here. Books that marked the footsteps in a cosmopolitan journey were rendered irrelevant by the presence of bears.

Curios, mementoes and random accumulations of stuff were donated, given to friends or tossed away.

What we came here with were the essentials. It surprised us both, this abrupt introduction to the nature of stuff. It sits on our shelves, rests in our closets, nestles in our corners singing it histories.

We come to need that voice. We come to believe that it defines us, gives us definition, offers scope to our living, our being here. But in the end, when you strip it away, it’s just stuff, its absence a cleaner vocal line.

Oh, there’s the usual accepted arrangement of things still. Along with the woodstove in the living room is a television, stereo, furniture and we’ve held on to the art that retains its original frankness.

We have a laptop and a PC and we get our internet signals off a satellite. Our occasional jaunts back to the city are made in a newer Subaru.

But we shop less here. We don’t spend as much and what we bring home is, for the most part, only what we need. Essentials. Food. Water. The stuff of life.

It reminds me of my journey back to reclaiming my culture. In the beginning I thought that I needed a conglomeration of stuff to make me an Indian.

I thought I had to live my life within an Indian motif, with native art, native books, native music and native fashion. So I collected roomfuls of stuff.

But when I began to attend ceremony and was introduced to genuine traditional teachers I confronted a simplicity that astounded me.

Everything in my world needed to be elaborate, shiny, reflective of my burgeoning sense of identity. But the teachers I found were nothing like that.

Sometimes it was only the braids in their hair that bore any sense of the stamp of Indian-ness.

I wondered about that. I wondered how you could be authentic without the signature. I wondered how you could be at peace with who you are without the trappings, the statements of being. So I asked.

What I was told helped change the way I live my life. I was told to gather a yard of cotton cloth, some ribbon, scissors and a can of tobacco. I was told to make this gathering my mission, the sole focus of one day.

Then I was to find a quiet place, somewhere, perhaps, where I felt safe, secure, at peace. I was to go there with my gathered articles and sit.

I was to ask myself why my question was important, why it was necessary that I move to knowledge, and more importantly, how it felt to not carry the answer.

Once I’d discerned that, I was to cut a small square of cloth with the scissors, then take a pinch of the tobacco, place it in the cloth and tie it with ribbon.

This small tobacco tie would symbolize my question and my emotional and spiritual need. With it I was to return to my teacher and offer the tobacco and ask for a teaching.

Once the tobacco was accepted I could ask my question. It seemed odd, quaint, charming in a folksy kind of way. But I did it.

All true learning requires sacrifice. That’s what the tobacco offering taught me in the end. That was the intent of the ritual. That’s why elders ask that you make that tobacco offering.

In order to accomplish my quest for understanding I had to sacrifice my time and my money. I had to sacrifice my pride by confronting the truth of my unknowing. In the end I had to sacrifice my humility by asking.

That ceremony stripped away all of the stuff that blocked me from myself. In the end it didn’t matter how I looked or what I wore. All that mattered was the nature of my question.

All that mattered was how I felt about the answer.

All that mattered was that I learned that it’s the stuff you carry within you that gives you definition, not what you own, collect or cling to.

There is stuff that sings its histories in our lives. It sits in the corners of our being adding resonance to our living. It’s the stuff of our passages, our time here, the assembled chorus of our spirit. It’s the important stuff, the life-altering, life-affirming stuff.

You have to learn to strip it down in order to hear it, to sacrifice. When you do you come to learn that what you need is far less than what you have, even what you desire and it frees you.

I wouldn’t be less Indian by not knowing that — only less human.

Richard Wagamese is Ojibway and the author of Keeper’n Me. He recently won the Canadian Author’s Award for Dream Wheels.