The Stoney Nakoda First Nation at Morley is once again radiant in its celebration of Christmas, as witnessed to by the accompanying photo of Mugs and Pauline Piche’s home taken by their daughter, Jorjia Piche, and graciously shared with us this week.
There is a heart of beauty in Cochrane’s neighbour that beats with the passion of a round dance bringing community together in sacred circle. It is a welcoming heart that my wife Mary Anna and I were introduced to in 1965 when we attended our first Oda Wayatabi Âba – “Feast Day” – Christmas celebration.
The cooking crew had arrived at the community hall mid-evening. Whole families had teamed up in the all-night session of roasting turkeys, dicing turnips, peeling and boiling potatoes, and preparing the traditional rice pudding and stewed dried fruits. The men had assembled long rows of tables, and toward noon of the big day, crews of young people had set the tables, with bowls of wild cranberry sauce alternating with stacks of fresh-baked bannock.
So many people had gathered from Morley and nearby ranches, towns and other First Nations, that the event coordinator had to call for three sittings. Folks ate their fill. Then, out of respect for their hosts, they filled buckets and bags with dried meat, mandarin oranges, apples, cakes and other goodies for taking home at the end of the day.
Elders prayed and spoke wise words. Visitors brought greetings from afar. Laughter and music filled the hall. We danced into the night.
Sharing was what this feast was all about. It was how the community showed its gratitude to Wakâ, “the Creator,” and to each other. It was about happy people sharing the joy of just being together – people from diverse racial, cultural, linguistic and occupational backgrounds.
An important part of sharing in the Stoney Nakoda way is gift-giving. Here, my thoughts go far beyond feasts, dances and the magnificent Pendleton blankets often given to show special honour. I’m thinking of spiritual gifts that, I hope, have helped make me personally a better human being, gifts such as respect for the creation and, especially, appreciation for community.
I had been raised in a decidedly individualistic culture. This First Nation’s way looks beyond the individual to the community, an expression of the sacred circle. For just as nature’s university teaches interdependence and harmony among all the creation, so in our lives together as people, self-interest must take a back seat to the well-being of the community as a whole. This is seen not only at feasts and round dances, but also in other times of celebration and spiritual renewal.
It is also seen in times of grief, such as wakes and funerals, when those with whom we have danced and sung for a lifetime dance and sing with us once more in our passing from this world to the next.
All of which brings us back to the Stoney Nakoda celebration of Christmas. The circle continues unbroken, and a First Nation with heart of beauty – and Covid caution – prepares once more to celebrate the angelic proclamation, "Peace on earth.”
© 2021 Warren Harbeck