“The gourd dancer is now battling for the people’s spirit, or more so praying. And with that prayer, we ask that people help change their mindset … to help each other as a community, help their family, and help themselves to be better.”
– Oatzínu Shéélákéé, current High Chief of the Lipahenne Tribe
All over North America, indigenous peoples live out cultural traditions and faiths with thousands of years of history behind them. In November, in celebration of National Native American Heritage Month, Remix organized and hosted an inspiring virtual event for employees that shared a glimpse into some of those traditions.
The guests were Oatzínu Shéélákéé, who goes by the nickname Oz, Marley Brandenburg, an indigenous ceremony officer. Both are deeply involved in the living traditions of Native peoples.
Oz talked about the Sundance ceremonies of the Lakota people, whose roots are in the northern plains and northern Great Lakes area. Webinar attendees were treated to an inside look into these ceremonies, including the fascinating sweat lodge ceremony.
The tradition known as inikagapi, Tsá, or ché is a cleansing and detoxifying ceremony. The western label for these sacred ways is called a “sweat lodge.” It can be used as a detoxifying baña, a medicine healing ceremony, a community spiritual gathering, or a combination of the three. Each tribe around the world has a name for its various uses. It takes place in a specially constructed tent structure, which event leaders ceremonially heat with red-hot lava rocks. This hot environment detoxes the body—and in turn, the mind and spirit.
“We have these rites and ceremonies to help our mind stay focused, to help our physical body stay healthy, for the spirit to be able to be ignited each and every single time,” Oz said. “Our ceremonies help us to have that fire, that compassion, to keep moving forward.”
Four is a sacred number for the native peoples of North America. The sweat lodge has four rounds, sometimes referred to as “doors”, where the ceremony takes place. Each round addresses one of the four directions and has a different focus such as self, family, community, and world, depending on the tribal lineage.
One of the central lessons of the webinar was that Native American ceremonies and rituals are very purposeful. That’s true of the sweat lodge as well as the Native American Church, an organization that practices plant-based healing ceremonies including all-night prayer rituals.
“You don’t do it, just to do it,” Marley emphasized. “There’s a reason. Somebody has a celebration or there’s a healing that needs to happen. So they call all those people to gather and pray on their behalf.”
The purpose and intention of each Native American Church ceremony is its guiding force. Marley painted a beautiful picture of what happens as the community sits around the fire to welcome the new day in prayer.
At midnight, he explained, there’s a "spiritual” shift from the old day into the new one, recognized by the fireman bringing in a fresh pail of water and praying over it on behalf of the sponsor. This is subsequently shared by everyone in the circle, linking them as a unified circle. “The fireman represents all the men in our lives, and that water they’re praying over is the ‘male water’, the conception waters of the new day.”
Prayers continue through song as the night unfolds until 3 a.m., when it’s the sponsor’s turn to pray. The “sponsor”, who called everyone together for a very specific intention, rolls tobacco and prays from their heart to the creator.
“Tobacco is considered the highest herb,” Marley said, “the way you speak to the creator, the way that the creator hears your voice.” This moment is the culmination of the ceremony, when everyone sits in quiet, undivided attention, focused on supporting the person who has brought them all together, to bear witness to the words and intentions being expressed. This part is especially important because it informs those gathered there how they can support that person’s prayer going forward. It also holds them accountable and kindly reminds them of their words at times when they might falter in the face of challenges.
After that nexus point, prayers and songs continue until dawn, when we’re all brought into this world through our mom, and therefore mom gets the last word. The Water Woman, the wife of the roadman, represents the women in everyone’s lives. The Water Woman prays using tobacco over another pail of water with the depth and sincerity that a mother would pray with for her own child. This represents the female water, the birthing waters of the new day, which everyone then drinks from again.
The breakfast is made up of corn, water, meat, and fruit—another manifestation of the sacred four. And again, each element has meaning. This time, it’s for the three stages of life. Corn represents youth and the energy needed to grow. Meat is the sustenance of middle life when the work happens, and fruit is the sweetness of old age.
Along with these detailed explanations, Marley and Oz shared images of these ceremonies. The images brought the descriptions close to home, helping the audience to feel a bit of what it might be like to attend one of these ceremonies.
Marley and Oz also emphasized that although these ceremonies are important in Native American tribal cultures, spirituality is most importantly an everyday way of living. At the center of this way of living is the idea of Walking in Beauty.
To walk in beauty is to live with an awareness of how we should be treating ourselves and others. It means, in Oz’s words, “having my highest presence for myself.” Someone who walks in beauty aims to build an awareness of how they feel and how they’re acting on those feelings.
It’s about knowing that “if I’m angry, I can be mindful of that and not snap at somebody,” Oz explained. It’s about being sad and asking for help in a way that’s constructive, always reaching for that better place.
“An uncle of mine is very clear [that] this isn’t a practice—this is a way of life,” Marley said. It’s about consistently living with care for the earth, self, and community. It means honoring elders, especially elder women because they have the experience to help you find your way.
Always, these practices are about finding a peaceful and joyful way forward.
Near the end of the webinar, host and Remix Product Manager Shireen Brathwaite played a video from Navajo Traditional Teachings in which the speaker encapsulates Walking in Beauty with these words:
“You can never conquer fear or destroy it. It’s always going to be there. But you can learn how to get beyond it. And when you do, you're rewarded with four very special gifts. Those gifts are joy, happiness, confidence, and peace.”
At Remix, we feel honored to have events like these as part of our team culture. We know that not everyone has the opportunity to learn about these spiritual pathways, and we feel richer for having people like Shireen, Oz, and Marley introducing them to us.
The Native American Heritage Month webinar was one of several cultural education events hosted for our employees. To learn more about how we’ve been celebrating heritage and our diverse community, check out the highlights from our recent Hispanic/Latinx Heritage Month and Global Diversity Awareness Month. And stay tuned for more!
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