Passamaquoddy Pow Wow

 Sermon for Rosh Hashanah Morning 2014

Rabbi Dawn Rose, PhD

As maybe one or two of you may know, up until 2003, the City of Lowell owned an oak tree which it protected as an historical site. It was called The Pow Wow Oak, and was for centuries the site of countless Wamesit Indian councils and pow wows. Surrounded by dozens of other, similar oaks, the Pow Wow Oak stood on what is now Clark Rd in the Belvedere section of town. Although the Pow Wow Oak was the oldest and most dramatic of all the other oaks on the street, it was also one oak among other oaks and basically just like the rest. There were then at least two ways of knowing the Pow Wow Oak:

  1. As a friendly, neighborhood oak that grew its leaves in the spring and colored them yellow and red before they fell, as happens naturally with all oaks in their seasons;
  2. Or, as a sacred tree marking a sacred space, the rounded trunk symbolizing circles upon circles of communities joining together to eat, dance and talk.

When we see the oak as sacred space, we know, as did the Wamesit Indians, that the Great Grandfather’s sacred magic brings the leaves and turns them in the fall. This is the same Great Grandfather that causes the migration of the salmon up the river and the growth of the crops they cultivate.

In fact, looking at the Pow Wow Oak we would probably also know that it was more than a mere sign of a greater, alternate reality. The sacred Oak, being a place of Indian holy gatherings, was a doorway at the center of the world. I like to picture it like that, holding up its great branches to point the way to a more central and fundamental reality.

The following is a contemporary Indian poem about the pow wow dances under sacred trees. As you will hear, it comes with some interesting and important practical directions.

Dance to Heal the Earth

By Dee Smith, Ed. by Rabbi Dawn Rose

Let your feet beat a life-giving rhythm for all peoples,

regardless of race or national boundary,

regardless of whether we’re human

or whether we’re the trees!

You’ll probably find that a loose, pure cotton T is most comfortable for dancing in.

Because this is an actual dance,

you dance hard, you sing and breathe hard and sweat.

And if you plan to dance, hold off eating till later.

It’s easier to dance if you don’t have a hotdog weighing you down.

In the beginning, they say,

God put a rainbow in the sky,

to let us know that Spirit never forgets.

Now is the time for us to put a rainbow across the earth,

to let God know that we, too, remember.

Dance to heal the earth.

This summer I had the blessing of attending an annual pow wow of the Passamaquoddy Indians of Maine and New Brunswick, Canada. I witnessed and was, in a small way, a part of a dance to heal the earth. The space for the dance, like most Indian celebrations, was arranged spatially in three concentric circles.

The innermost circle was the sacred circle for the dancers. For that day and time, for that dance, that inside circle was the center of the world. Some of what this means is expressed in this vision teaching by Black Elk, a Holy Man.

Anywhere is the Center of the World

I was standing on the highest mountain of them all,

I was seeing in a sacred manner the shapes of all things in the spirit,

and the shape of all shapes as they must live together like one being.

And I say the sacred hoop of my people

was one of the many hoops that made one circle,

wide as daylight and as starlight,

and in the center grew one mighty flowering tree

to shelter all the children of one mother and one father.

And I saw that it was holy…

Anywhere is the center of the world.

On that day, at our center of the world, we visitors witnessed the Passamaquoddy Grand Entrance, a four hour dance ritual which began with a slow and proud procession, each foot stepping and tapping to the beat of the great drum. The leader appeared out of a far corner as if out of a visioning dream, bright orange robes falling in layers and folds to his feet, wild plumage springing out of his head and shoulders, face paint, a sacred rhythm stick in his hand.

Once everyone had entered, a venerable grandmother offered a prayer in the native language, and the lead dancer was called on to offer a dance in honor of ripening corn, fields of which we passed as we came to the pow wow. His dance was powerful and expressive—tied to earth and life in a way I had never experienced. I was so moved that if I had received an Indian name at that moment it would have been “White woman in front row who appears to be weeping.”

I thought the dancer so profound and powerful that I began to concoct all sorts of stories about him: He was a great chief and medicine man. He went from tribe to tribe and was legendary for his dance and wisdom and leadership.

Then a point came in the afternoon that a special effort was made to get more kids dancing in the inner circle. The lead dancer himself went around, inviting each child personally. When he came to a little girl close to me, I was astounded to see beyond his paint and plumage, the winning smile and soft cheek of a boy, perhaps 14.

He spoke gently to the shy girl next to me saying, “Come. We’ll go dance together. You can hold my hand.” She smiled back and accepted his hand and at that moment it struck me that she knew him. Whether from school or events or just around the reservation, he was a familiar part of her universe. A little later I saw the magnificent lead dancer take a break, sit down with all his billowing plumage and robes next to a girl with a fetching feather in her hair, and, laughing, steal a kiss. The last dance of the day—which made me weep anew–he again lead the circle, but this time with his stooped yet stately grandmother on one arm, his proud mother, on the other arm, dancing a slightly more jazzy step, while her son tried to not look amused.

Ever since that pow wow I have begun to think and feel our rituals here another way. I’m not going to pretend our service is the same as Indian dance, nor am I going to make a comparison. It’s just that I think there is something very important to learn from the Indian combination of :

  1. Ritual intended to connect us to both our ancestry and the Oneness of the universe, and
  2. The people conducting and participating in that ritual being ordinary folk, like all of us, teaching us the spiritual world is not so far away, nor is it unattainable for us ordinary, material folk.

Let me try to explain. On Yom Kippur afternoon we read what is perhaps my favorite passage of Torah ….. Essentially it says,

I, God have given you this path of Life

Through the mitzvot.

It is neither too hard for you,

nor is it out of your reach.

Even as I read these words every year, I am not sure how much I believe them. Judaism lived fully is profoundly difficult. It can take over every part of our existence. Is it really within anyone’s grasp? I don’t know.

But then, let’s narrow the mitzvot down then to the ritual aspect of Judaism, such as we are now performing, with ark and Torah, processions and shofar. It takes some hutzpah, some knowledge, perhaps also some trust, to get up here and be a part of the service.

I am slowly coming to understand that there is a lot more going on when we share our ritual that we might originally have realized.

Jewish ritual, like I think Indian ritual is intended to open us up to another reality. It’s like the difference between seeing the Pow Wow Oak as just another tree or as a sacred tree and portal to the spiritual dimension. The latter way of seeing is an in-spirited way of viewing the same universe and it adds some things that are very important to our world: love, compassion, connection, a path to walk and a reason for walking it.

When we participate in Jewish ritual, we are like the Pow Wow Oak, living beings breaking through and gingerly entering that other side we call the spiritual universe. We are living proof that the spirit world, our spiritual universe is not too hard or too far.

It’s just like that boy who was also the lead dancer. When he danced I thought the earth might split beneath his feet. Later I saw him swallowing a hot dog nearly whole. He teaches, as some of us have experienced though our Bar and Bat Mitzvah sons and daughters, that a ‘mere teen’ can open the portals to eternity.

Then, as they walk around once again a mere teen, they are constant reminder—especially to the younger kids–that this Path of Life is not too hard or far. We all can do it. No one needs to do it for us, though we do it for one another.

When we open the ark or carry the Torah, when we offer blessings, pray and chant, we are pointing a Way for everyone around us. If we understood this fully, I believe we would feel more profoundly the power of our rituals as we perform them. And we would take more seriously ourselves as role models for each other and our children.

It would be like the difference between joining the pow wow dance without knowing what it truly was, and joining it with full understanding and, as we would call it, kavanah, focus and intention.

A couple weeks ago I visited the site of the Pow Wow Oak and was dismayed to find nothing but a historical marker and a large stump. Later I read that the sacred tree had fallen to decay, and ultimately was removed for the safety of the neighborhood. I was sad and angry at first, and then I realized it is this way with all sacred beings. We are material, physical. We are vulnerable to decline and decay.

Like many people who think about life after death, I wondered if the tree’s spirit was now completely and always in the spirit world. Did it finally and fully step through the portal it held open, leaving its decaying body behind? Is that what we do when we die?

Sometimes that’s what we tend to think, and that’s ok. It’s a useful belief for some of us at various times of our lives.

However, I think if any of the Indian dancers heard this, I think they would say the ‘the white woman in the front row who appears to be weeping’ has got it all wrong. There are not two worlds, an ordinary and a sacred spiritual.

There is only one world, all spiritual, all together, complete, shalem, whole and interconnected, of which the sacred circle is the symbol. The only division is in our minds, Indian or Jew.

As it is written: “Adonai Elohainu, Adionai Ehad – one, as in all one piece.

God is in this world and there is no evidence in our Torah that the spiritual and material were ever to be separated. Just look at the creation of the world that was so beautifully chanted by Cantor Sparr: God finds light and dark and seperates them into good places. Likewise God seperates sea and dry land, and puts animals here and fish over there. No where however is there mention of God separating out physical and spiritual, or putting spirits over there and material beings over there. It is all one piece.

This is why, I think, the medicine man Black Elk could teach that ‘anywhere is the center of the world.’ All the world is sacred. All the world is the center of the world. I think it is too much for the mind to comprehend, so we break it up into pieces and parts—this place is holy, that place not so much. Truth is, though we may mean different things by it, for both Indian spiritual teaching and Judaism, all the world is holy. This sanctuary is holy, the yard outside is holy, the streets and the neighborhood is holy, Lowell is holy (wrap your mind around that.) All the world is the Lord’s and the Lord, taking from the creation verses again, the Lord merahefet flutters—here.

Our job, I think, is to see little by little more of this world and each other as sacred. And then our job is to do what comes naturally when we see the holiness of the world and people around us:

To join the Dance. Dance by fighting for healing of the earth. Dance by working for the inclusion of all people. Dance through reading Torah and marching in the streets. Dance by teaching our children and service at the soup kitchen. Dance as we honor our ancestors and sacred places, the Matriarchs and Patriarchs, the pioneers and Zionists, the camels and oxen and horses, the deserts and springs and especially the trees.

I end now with a bit of the opening long poem.

….This is an actual dance,

you dance hard, you sing and breathe hard and sweat.

Dance to heal the earth.

Not just when you’re dancing, but always.

in all you do,

dance to heal the earth.