The trailer at the Navigation Center was filled with sage smoke and expectation. Tables were covered with colorful quilts and abalone shells filled with cedar, sage and assema (tobacco). Freshly pressed ribbon skirts were neatly laid out on one table. Perfectly pressed ribbon shirts were left on hangers and carefully folded over a chair. Foil topped catering trays covered a line of tables that were set up as a buffet – full of home made food for the feast that would soon be shared.
Cedar, sage and assema used in the naming ceremony.
Over 20 people were gathered in the trailer; eight of whom were there to receive their Native, or spiritual, names in a traditional ceremony led by three Indigenous cultural advisors. An Indigenous naming ceremony is a sacred event; receiving your Native name is a critical first step in self-healing. A week before, the individuals to be named had met with the person who would name them, offering gifts of assema, and sharing information about their tribes, families, and lives. The advisors: Brian, Virgil and Angel, had taken the gifts and information and for the past week prayed that the names would come to them in a dream or vision.
Back of a ribbon shirt handmade for the occasion.
Until 1978, Native American ceremonial practices were banned by federal law in the United States. Some brave and visionary souls continued to practice these sacred rituals, despite the dangers, in the hope of keeping the practices alive in collective memory for future generations. Due to past oppression many Native ceremonies must never be filmed or photographed. There is rightful fear that these practices might be stolen or used against Indigenous people in some way. I was honored to attend the naming ceremony and be allowed to write about it. Out of respect no photographs of participants will be shared, and neither will their Native or colonized names*.
Each of the cultural advisors sat at a table with those they would name. They proceeded, slowly and intentionally, one by one. All focus was on the person being named as the room grew silent, time and again, as each individual had their turn. Within the Native community each tribe has its own spiritual practices and Brian, Virgil and Angel each had their own, unique ceremonial rituals, although all of them employed sacred pipes, and smudging with sage. There was also powerful singing and drumming. Each person’s naming ritual was intensely personal.
Ribbon skirts handmade for the naming ceremony participants.
The Native names were given in Anishinabe or Lakota, depending on the tribe of the person. The names were repeated multiple times so the person receiving the name would learn how to pronounce it. They then repeated the name aloud were then given a pen and paper to write the name down for safekeeping. Each person also received an eagle feather, an incredible honor that appropriately marked the gravity of the moment.
I will never forget the look on the faces of the unsheltered individuals who were named on that day. Their past pains and future hopes were evident to all. Tears fell down the faces of the friends and staff who were present, including my own. It was one of the most moving ceremonies I have ever had the honor to witness.
Detail of front of a ribbon shirt made for the occasion.
When the naming ceremonies were over the feast was shared and a lightness and joy filled the room. Reconnecting with traditions and beliefs from past generations is of utmost importance to our unsheltered Native relatives; indeed in an earlier WiiDooKoDaaDiiWag gathering, Navigation Center residents named culturally-specific healing opportunities as the number one thing they need on their journey. These ways promote self-knowledge, community connection and long-term healing rooted in learning and practicing the spiritual ways that were once taken from them. This need for reclamation continues within the unsheltered community and is desperately, obviously, needed.
Post and photographs by Camille Gage. Camille is a writer and web designer hired to work with the WiiDooKoDaaDiiWag/They Help Each Other project. She has worked for Little Earth, MIWRC, NACDI, and Indigenous People's Task Force and is a water walker. Camille is not Native American and this was the first naming ceremony she has been honored to witness.
*First names of cultural advisers will be shared as these names are already known within the community.
The cedar, sage and assema (tobacco) used in the ceremony.
Ribbon skirts waiting to be gifted.
Angel, one of the Native cultural advisers who led the naming ceremony.
Detail of the front of a ribbon shirt handmade for the occasion.
The feast shared by all after the naming ceremony.