I wrote about one nation that has lived in relationship with the land where I now live, the Haudenosaunee. Today I am travelling to the heart of a second such nation, the Anishinaabe. And learning about the Prophecy of the Seventh Fire, an origin story we should all come to embrace.
All nations have an origin story, rooted in history but performing the function of myth – to communicate that what unites citizens and guides them to collective action.
Think of the American nation, forged in a violent struggle for freedom and securing that freedom through a constitution. Or the Quebec nation, surviving calamity on the Plains of Abraham to emerge as an island of French culture and language in an English sea. To be American is to fight for freedom. To be Québécois is to preserve language and culture.
The Prophecy of the Seventh Fire was popularized in modern times an elder named Edward Benton-Banai. In contrast with most origin stories, in this one told by the Anishinaabe the objective the nation pursues evolves as the context changes. With each historical epoch, the community learned of a new challenge, galvanized the collective will to address it, and engaged in a great migration. Each time they took with them their Council Fire, around which elders gather to pass on wisdom and engage in collective decision-making.
Starting on the Atlantic coast centuries ago, they moved to the area of Montreal in the time of the First Fire. Then to Niagara and a Second Fire, to the vicinity of Detroit and a Third Fire, and later to Manitoulin Island where the Fourth Fire was lit.
By the time of the Fifth Fire, the nation had reunited around the rapids known today at Sault Ste Marie, where I find myself today. In those days the challenge was the arrival of the Europeans. Could they be trusted to coexist in harmony, learning from one another?
Chief Shingwaukonse, a leader in what is now the Garden River First Nation, said yes. He led his people to ally with the British, fought alongside them and the
Haudenosaunee in the War of 1812, and then established a system of education for the Anishinaabe to teach the newcomers as they in turn studied European ideas and spiritual teachings.
A few years after his death, however, our people had subverted this vision, taken his name and applied it to a residential school. This was the time of the Sixth Fire, when the people were subjugated, dispersed and their families separated. The challenge before the nation was survival itself.
Burial site of Chief Shingwaukonse, then known as “Grand Chief of the Ojibway” 1773-1854, Garden River First Nation withwith his great-granddaugher Karen “Trudy” Grawbarger - July 13th, 2023
That challenge has been met. Today the Anishinaabe are very much alive, with a strong presence throughout Ontario. They are confronting significant social and economic difficulties, but pride in their community and in their traditions is palpable as I drive through the heart of their land. Their language is the third most-spoken indigenous language in Canada and many more are learning.
But the land is in crisis, the relationship people have it – and with one another – is broken. The Prophecy says that reaching the Seventh Fire will require a choice between two paths. One involves carrying forward just as we have done, and the other involves turning back and rediscovering the path to balance. One leads to a land that is a charred ruin, where little grows. The other leads to a path so soft you can walk it barefoot.
Here’s how my favourite author describes it (Robin Wall Kimmerer is a botanist and poet from the Potawatomi people, a subset of the Anishinaabe):
They say that a prophet appeared with a strange and distant light in his eyes. The young man came to the people with the message that in the time of the seventh fire, a new people would emerge with a sacred purpose. It would not be easy for them. They would have to be strong and determined in their work, for they stood at a crossroads.
The ancestors look to them from the flickering light of distant fires. In this time, the young would turn back to the elders for teachings and find that many had nothing to give. The people of the Seventh Fire do not yet walk forward; rather, they are told to turn around and retrace the steps of the ones who brought us here. Their sacred purpose is to talk back along the red road of our ancestors’ path and to gather up all the fragments that lay scattered along the trail. Fragments of land, tatters of language, bits of songs, stories, sacred teachings – all that was dropped along the way.
Our elders say that we live in the time of the seventh fire. We are the ones the ancestors spoke of, the ones who will bend to the task of putting things back together to rekindle the flames of the sacred fire, to begin the rebirth of a nation.
And so it has come to pass that all over … there is a movement for revitalization of language and culture growing from the dedicated work of individuals who have the courage to breathe life into ceremonies, plant old seed varieties, restore native landscapes, bring the youth back to the land. The people of the Seventh Fire live among us.
It does not take much for non-indigenous people to recognize the same danger to the land. Species are dying off at record rates, the water is poisonous in dozens of communities still, and smoke from the fires here made breathing difficult for millions of people across eastern North America last month. We all know that climate change is only just getting started, as we abandon any hope to limiting historic temperatures rises to 1.5 degrees relative to 1990.
If we all face the same danger, perhaps we all should shoulder the same responsibility – to rebuild the relationship of humans and the land. And the relationships we have with one another.