Keeping One Step Ahead



-Like this: say go. Try it.

-Say go.

-Well…that’s basically it.

-And that’s how Indians say “hi”?

-Well, that’s how Mohawks say hi. Other nations have different ways.

Cree say Wace. Ojibwa say Bojoo. Whole bunch of ways.


-No no no. Bo shoe–sort of.

-I don’t get it. Is there some religious significance?

-Well, no. Bojoo is a greeting. Sometimes Ojibwa say Nana-bojoo. And Nana is Nanabush.

-Nanabush? Is he a god?

-No. Not exactly.


-Yeah, only us Mohawks don’t say Nanabush. We say Coyote.


-Yeah. Coyote, Nanabush, Trickster.

-What’s trickster?

-Well, that’s kind of hard to explain, really. Trickster’s lots of things. I guess you could say he likes to change what he is to keep you guessing. You know, stay one step ahead. He’s sort of tricky that way–tricky like a trickster. Likes to break the rules. Play tricks.

-Like a fool? In Shakespeare?

-Yeah, sort of. Sometimes the tricks backfire, and the joke is on Trickster.

-Is he some sort of religious symbol?

-No. That’s not quite it.

-I’d sure like to see an Indian religious ceremony. Maybe go up north during one of those festivals I heard of. I saw one on television once too. You Indians got anything like Christmas? I’d sure like to see it.

-Yeah, I guess you could say we have.

-What’s it like?

-Well, I’ll tell you a little story about it.

First of all, the sacred Indian ceremony begins about three weeks before sohl-stis, which is December 21 on the European calendar. We call this sacred time of the year tahkayaw. You know when the sacred time has arrived because everyone speaks the sacred greeting, eliwehk tahkayaw. I’d translate it into English, but there’s nothing like it in the Whiteman’s tongue. Anyway, when you hear that greeting, you know the sacred time has come.

The first thing Indians do when the sacred time arrives is go on a mysterious quest called shah-ping. It’s sort of a sacred hunting trip. Everyone does it: men, women, children. Well, the small children don’t. Not until they reach the sacred age. The Indians go in the morning, and return in the evening. We don’t discuss the things we find on our quests. We hide them from everyone else’s sight until the time comes to exchange the sacred objects. It’s so important that no one else know what you’ve found, that the Indians cover their objects in a special paper made just for the occasion. When we’ve covered everything up, we hide it all somewhere. You know, in our tipis.

We spend two, maybe three weeks on the shah-ping quest. We don’t quit until we have found a sacred object for each friend and family member and have brought it back home.

We decorate our tipis with sacred glittering objects made of metals and of wood. We eat special foods and drink special beverages. My favorite is called ehk-nogg. This beverage is served cold and sometimes is sprinkled with a powder called nuht-mek. I think the drink has a religious significance, but I’m not sure what it is. Someone once told me, an elder, but I’ve forgotten. Anyway, you can be sure it means something religious.

Everything Indian does.

So. Once we’ve done that, we go on another special quest. This one is really hard to explain: you might not understand it. But anyway, believe it or not, we go out in groups and look for a kris-mus-dree, which is a sacred object full of spirits that grows in the ground. And when we’ve found the right one, we bring it into our tipis and cover it in sacred objects made especially for the purpose. Some people cut down their own kris-mus-dree–in honour of the Creator. I know it sounds weird, but it’s our way.

There’s a bunch of special songs and chants that we sing throughout the sacred time of eliwehk tahkayaw. Many of the songs have religious significance, although about a hundred years ago–maybe more–people began to sing non-traditional Indian chants about a mythical Õkwehõweh…

-…that Trickster guy?

-…yeah. Yeah: you got it. Trickster.

Well, this time Trickster was really in disguise. You know, he likes to change his shape. Sometimes he’s a person, sometimes an animal. Or something else, even. But this time, Trickster showed up in a big red costume. Like a pow-wow fancy dress, sort of. It was made all of leather, with rabbit fur lining on the hood. And he had on a big black…wampum belt. And big black mukluks, too. Get this: he had a long beard. When’s the last time you saw an Indian with a beard? The really incredible thing is that he was carrying a big bag of those sacred objects I was talking about. The sacred chants tell all about it.

So. Trickster sneaks into the tipis while everyone is sleeping. And he gives each family a few of the sacred objects. Then he goes back up north. To Fort Albany, I think. Or Peawanuk.

And in the morning, all the Indians wake up and exchange the sacred objects. They take off the sacred paper and they sit around the sacred kris-mus-dree and they do many other religious things that I’m not allowed to discuss with White people.

But what about you? What kind of Christian ceremonies do White people perform? I heard once about some White pilgrims who spent Christmas day in prayer. And I saw a movie about Christians, too. Saint Paul, Saint John. Other guys names escape me. Saint someone.

That’s like a Chief, right–Saint?

-Well, a bit’s changed since then, actually.

-You don’t say? Gee, that’s too bad, you know.

-Well, maybe. Maybe not.

-Yeah. I guess I know what you mean.

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