FYI Magazine

Steam, Spices and Song

Elmhurst students retreated to a remote corner of Wisconsin to learn about Native American customs and rituals.

On a Saturday night in September, eight Elmhurst students and professors huddled in a remote corner of Wisconsin, collecting stones that would be blessed with hot water in an ancient Native American purification ritual.

“People thought it was just like a sauna, but there was so much more that went into it,” said junior Paige Marshall. “Everything had a purpose: the cedar that we laid down, the rocks, the water, the direction in which we sat. It was amazing to know that what we did has been in practice for thousands of years, and it’s still as simple as it was then.”

The Elmhurst group was learning first-hand the customs, culture and history of the Native American Ojibway people. The Ojibway—whose Anglicized name is Chippewa—is the fourth most populous Native American tribe.

Robert “Blackwolf” Jones, an Ojibway elder, led the weekend retreat, designed to raise awareness of Native American culture and spirituality. Blackwolf, 75, grew up on the Lac Courte Oreilles reservation in northwestern Wisconsin, where he learned ancient tribal ways. He is a certified psychotherapist and author of several books on Native teachings and healing. The Elmhurst students read his book, Listen to the Drum, prior to the retreat.

The program, conceived by Marjorie Goodban, a professor in the Department of Communcation Sciences, was more than 10 years in the making. Goodban first met Blackwolf in 1995 at a seminar on Native American rituals. More than a decade later, when Goodban learned of President S. Alan Ray’s initiative to offer more courses on indigenous peoples (Ray is a citizen of the Cherokee nation), she contacted Blackwolf and he agreed to host a weekend retreat for Elmhurst students and professors.

In addition to Goodban and Marshall, participants included juniors Nicole Kitzinger and Sarah Jerousek, senior Megan Rust, David Johnson, assistant professor of history, Kathleen Rust, associate professor of business administration and director of Elmhurst’s Intercultural Studies Program and Bonnie Simmons, associate professor of business administration. The group received funding for the trip through a Native American Grant awarded by the College’s Center for Scholarship and Teaching.

Though part Native American, Marshall said she’d never been taught anything about her indigenous heritage. “I was raised ‘white,’ and I thought this would be a good way to learn something about a culture that I feel is very important,” she said.

The retreat took place at the home of ceremonial leader and teacher Tom Shiltz, on the shores of Flambeau Lake in north central Wisconsin, and included lessons on sacred laws and meditation as well as healing ceremonies and a sacred pipe ritual.

The purification ceremony took place in a small hut called a sweat lodge—a wood skeleton covered with blankets. Participants dug a fire pit and collected 28 stones for the ceremony, adding seven at a time to be heated gradually over four to six hours—until they glowed red. After the last seven stones were brought in, the blanket flap was closed. “It was the darkest place I have ever been in my life,” recalled Kitzinger.

The ceremony involved sprinkling spices on the stones and then dousing them in hot water, which generated steam and an incredible amount of heat, Johnson recalled. There was also singing.

“It brought out so much energy in everyone I was almost punching the [ceremonial] drum I was playing,” Kitzinger said.

Throughout the weekend, students heard Blackwolf tell stories of his ancestors, passed down through generations. “The great thing about this is that we got to hear the history of their people and their world view, from their point of view, not filtered from a white point of view,” said Johnson, who teaches a course on the indigenous peoples of Latin America.

Participants also found the focus on nature refreshing. “Native Americans choose to live with nature as opposed to, against it, or over it. It is so different from what we’re taught,” Marshall said.

Goodban noted that Americans of European ancestry believe that only humans have spirit. “In contrast, Blackwolf’s people believe that everything has spirit—the rocks, animals, water and so on. They don’t believe that it is okay to do whatever they want to the Earth or its creatures,” she said.

Not only did students learn about another culture, they also learned something about themselves. Kitzinger even learned to overcome her fear of the dark. “I am continuing to learn and have begun to incorporate some of the beliefs into my life,” Kitzinger said.

Her experience earned her a Native American moniker: Rabbit. Because she jumped up quickly during a portion of the purification ritual where participants layer spices on the stones, Blackwolf compared her to a rabbit and called her that for the remainder of the weekend. She isn’t sure it’s a true spirit name since it takes years for Native Americans to earn a spirit name—but she felt honored nonetheless.

Said Marshall: “It was one of the greatest experiences of my life. It was a rare opportunity to get an insight into such an ancient and rich tradition."

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