Ceremony, Knowledge, and Place

Ceremony is the way humans honor the Land and all our relations, through an act of reciprocity that is generous, genuine, and loving. It is the “return arrow” of giving back that I drew into the linear and circular economies diagrams. “These everyday acts of renewal are both an individual and community-driven process. . . it ultimately is a process of giving back more than you take, which embodies an ethic of generosity and humility” (Corntassel 2014:69).

Ceremony realigns internal and external ecosystems, realigns people in a community with one another, realigns individual people with Place, and realigns communities with other communities and with the Land itself. It realigns us with our ancestors, our value systems, and our deep awareness of what constitutes right living even in a world dominated by an ethic of greed, profit, and privilege. Ceremony also realigns and restores community relationships in the larger world, so (depending on the circumstances) people can do ceremony that restores the health of a river, successfully invites the thunders to come when the Land needs rain, or restores paths of connection and relationship between animals and/or plants and/or parts of the environment that have been damaged or broken.

Because it does these powerful and essential things, ceremony opens our hearts and minds to the Land, the ancestors, and Knowledge. This is humbling, which is good. It reminds us of who we are, and our place in the great woven web that is life: one small part, no greater than any other, but bravely accountable to all our relations anyway.

“In our cultures,” explains Cree scholar Shawn Wilson (2009:69), “an integral part of any ceremony is setting the stage properly. When ceremonies take place, everyone who is participating needs to be ready to step beyond the everyday and to accept a raised level of consciousness. You could say that the specific rituals that make up the ceremony are designed to get the participants into a state of mind that will allow for the extraordinary to take place. As one Elder explained it to me: if it is possible to get every single person in a room thinking about the exact same thing for only two seconds, then a miracle will happen.”

The “raised level of consciousness” Shawn mentions shows us the emergent nature of ceremony as a process, and it clarifies the significance of saying that ceremony restores connections and relationships. When “every single person in a room thinks about the same thing for two seconds” there is a process of emergence that is a community-level equivalent to the “aha” perception moment Varela described in cognition. It makes sense, really, that the act which embodies reciprocity and is the cornerstone for sustainability shimmers in the same multi-dimensional space of complexity that characterizes the natural world and the human mind that is part of it.

Because of its complexity, ceremony is not a “method.” Methods are, almost by default, linear because of how they’re communicated. But people who use rubrics, evaluation instruments, and methods are used to thinking that way when they encounter a new thing people are “doing,” so we need to derail that. When you are invited to participate in a ceremony, you will be told what to do, and how. But you must not expect to “learn to do ceremony” by watching it, reading about it, or signing up for a class from someone who charges you money. Ceremony, even one specific ceremoy, is not just a “method.”

It may be helpful to point out that many important Western cultural “methods” really should not be methods either. Transferrence of complex experiences as “method” is a place that Western culture’s epistemic system and “the bottom line” can intersect in particularly destructive ways. My late friend Dan Wivagg, a biology professor and the long-time editor of American Biology Teacher as well as one of Tapestry’s first board chairs, used to say he thought one of the biggest problems in science education is that the “methods” of outstanding teachers are disseminated in print, then cast aside because they “fail” when other teachers use them. He said the problem is that it’s not method that matters most in good teaching, but the teacher’s genuine love for their students — which cannot be codified into any “method” and therefore never transfers in written curricula or exercises. Ceremony has a similar “problem” that is not, of course, a problem at all. Ceremony is far more than method. If it does not come from a whole person who is standing within Indigenous worldview it is hollow rather than sacred.

The journey you are on is one in which the Land is telling a particularly powerful Story. That Story is being written as you live it out. It is telling itself through you. This requires a high degree of care on your part. The Indigenous people you work with as colleagues will be your mentors. Listen to them. But understand and remember: ceremony is not a “method” but is, instead, part of the ontologically real, complex natural system of the natural world. It is not linear.

You are probably working through this exercise on Indigenous Knowledge because you found the citation and url when you read “Of Time, Patience, and Ceremony” by Dawn Hill Adams, Stuart Barlo, and Jo Belasco, in the journal Evaluation Matters — He Take Tō Te Aromatawai. If so, this is a good place to remind you of what you read there so you can put it into the larger context of what you’re learning now. (It is listed in the References if you need the complete citation.)

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