Our Ancestors are Watching Over Us
Erin Everett interviews Cree elder Fishwoman.
Pauline Johnson, also known as Fishwoman, is a Cree elder, a traditional medicine woman and pipe carrier who shares her wisdom with freedom and simplicity to people of any ancestral background. Her name comes from her connection with her ancestral lake in her home of Northern Alberta, Canada. She traveled to Asheville years ago to teach, and she spent some time with Bee and Tree‘s Erin Everett.
EE: Many of our people feel lost and disconnected in our lives. What can you tell us about how to connect more deeply with the world around us?
Fishwoman: Everything has a spirit and has a meaning to the lifeline. We can only connect by understanding that. Every time I have a meal, I have to give thanks for those spirits that gave up their little lives so I could have a meal. So that alone in itself is, like you’re grateful, you’re gratitude for that because you’re receiving that from Mother Earth—anything from Mother Earth, the winged ones, the four-legged ones, always give thanks for them. They all have spirits, I truly believe in that. I was raised that way since I was a little girl.
EE: I’ve heard that you learned a lot from your mother and your grandmother.
Fishwoman: My mother, my grandmother, and my father who just recently passed away, he was 95. He handed some songs down to me and some other teachings. My mother never spoke a word of English nor my grandparents. They spoke Cree only. I speak that language quite fluently and try to carry it on with my children. And it’s the language that seems to fulfill the prayers when you say them in your language. And spirit seems to answer to that language in a profound way.
EE: So keeping that alive is really important.
Fishwoman: Yes, that’s right.
EE: So tell me more about prayer. Tell me how to pray.
Fishwoman: Okay. We say the word prayer; it’s the closest thing for everyone to understand. It’s really giving thanks; it’s gratitude. It’s gratitude for everything that you receive. You always acknowledge the sacred directions, we call them: the four sacred directions. And of course, the seven sacred directions. The four sacred directions are the east, the south, the west, and the north. And you’ve got Father Sky and you’ve got Mother Earth, and then from your heart, so those directions. Always give thanks to those directions. You always welcome the ancestors in those directions and the spirits that are in those directions, you give them thanks for being in your life, for being around you, for helping you in this life and in this movement. So that’s the ground base of starting your day. It’s just giving thanks to the sunrise and the new beginning, the new day. A new era, a new world. You are to look at every day as a new beginning in your life, not like “oh, this is just another day.” It’s just another day that you’ve been given to be surrounded by such wonderful things. So you give thanks for that. You say, thank you Creator, thank you for this wonderful morning. And if it’s not a wonderful morning, if it’s raining, you still give thanks to the rain, if its snowing you give thanks to the snow, if its stormy, you give thanks to the storm. It’s just giving thanks for you being able to see that, to feel that, to know that, that it’s there as a new day.
EE: It’s so funny how we are so busy in our modern lives, and we forget to realize that every day is a gift.
Fishwoman: It is. And you know, during your lifetime–you go to the south, you go to the west, you go to the north. And as the evening sets, we always give thanks for the sunset as well. Because you’re going now into your dream state, into your unknown, into the place where you don’t know what’s going to come into your dream state, into your mind. So you give thanks for that sunset and give thanks for everything that’s going to sleep, everything that’s resting until tomorrow morning. And high noon is called the south when I’m working. High noon is the essence of our Ancestors watching us, looking at us and saying “okay, we’re watching you and we want to know if you’re doing the appropriate things in life.” And so it’s as if my grandparent was watching and I want to do everything just right because they’re watching, and I want to be a grateful child and I want you to know that I am grateful and I will always honor you in this way, and so that’s the south.
And then when you go to the north, that’s where all the wisdomkeepers are. And you give thanks for all the wisdom that comes into your life in one way and another. The wisdom and the strength that the Ancestors leave you. And you give thanks for that direction.
And that’s all a part of life that I have to do every day in my life. It’s not just to feel good. In my young years, I used to say ah (dismissive gesture) and as time went by, when you’re reaching out for your spiritual life and enhancement and feeling okay that you’re here, this is where I feel that Creator wanted me and I wanted to work for Creator. It’s also working for Creator, and doing works that he would like. I say he, could be a she, but I say always he because man is mankind and we’re mankind, so I put it in that context. So therefore everything I do is of creation and creation is of love, serenity, and calmness, and trying to bring that to people. The one thing the Ancestors always say is try to learn to love and present love out and the more we can do that, the more people will learn to care for each other here in this world. That’s one of the things I like to present when I’m doing my workshops and talking to people. And prayer is one of the essence things; you do your gratitude in the morning you do your gratitude in the evening, you do your gratitude during the day. Always giving thanks, giving thanks. When you do that, it’s amazing how things change in your life. It will come back to you in that form, the thankful form, all the things that happen in your life. It’s not about positiveness, it’s not about negativeness, it’s just about gratitude.
It’s just about saying, “Creator, you gave me all of this, and I’m saying thanks.”
That’s what I was told when I was a little girl. In my prelanguage, I could say it in a much more powerful meaning. When we decipher that back into English, it doesn’t sound as meaningful, but it’s very much meaningful.
And the sacred symbols that I carry–I carry a drum and a bundle (a bundle means a sacred pipe)–that pipe is the essence of carrying prayers for all people of the world. I say I carry a people’s pipe.
They’re always in my prayers, everyone’s in my prayers when I lift that pipe up. No one’s out of there, from the streetwalker to the executive, they’re all in my pipe prayer.
EE: Please tell me more about the pipe and what being a pipe carrier is. Tell us more about tobacco and what it brings to people.
Fishwoman: When I was first teaching people about our culture, my way of life–we don’t smoke the tobacco. It’s given to us to give to the Creator, to give to the Ancestors. When you go out and take a plant or you go out and have a feast, you just go out and set a little bit of tobacco on the ground just for gratitude. The Ancestors take that tobacco and they use it; they know you’re grateful. You’ve given your thanks to the ancestors through that tobacco. That tobacco is an exchange. When somebody sits with me, they’ll give me tobacco before I disclose a lot of things that they need in their life. The tobacco is usually given first. And that really connects with the ancestors really well and with the plants.
A good prime example of this was when I went out to pick some plants one time, and I did not do my plant offering, the plants that were in the sack turned out to be really heavy like rocks. So I had to sit down and say, oh I know why I can’t pick this little sack up. I sat down and did my grateful offering and thank you and was able to pick up my little sack. It was a tiny little sack, but they were reminding me: you forgot something, little girl! That’s what I mean when I say that the Ancestors are watching you, they keep an eye that you continue your spiritual walk.
There are elders in our people and there are spiritual elders, and the spiritual elders are the ones that understand what tobacco is. Myself—people give me tobacco, and I go out and give tobacco to the Ancestors right away. I have to do that when they come to see me for anything, and I always have to give tobacco to the Ancestors and to the Water, and that’s a must. My mother said that moves first above all other things in this world.
Of course, when we do our pipe ceremony, our sacred ceremony, honoring the directions and Father Sky and Mother Earth and honoring ourselves, we are told that the pipe is a representation of the Creator’s mind and the Creator’s body and blood, and so when you put the two together, you’re joining the Creator into one piece, and the prayers are that powerful. That’s then sent up; the Great Thunder Being and the Great Eagle take all of those prayers up, and we truly believe that.
I was taught this, being nurtured as a young person. As a young person, I used to say yeah, right, sure. As time went by and I got older—I was never to practice this until my mother passed on, she had said that. So I thought I had many years to go yet, and she passed on in my mid-forties, and so I thought wow, Mom, why did you do that? And from the other side, she said she would be powerful, and she is.
And it’s from the other side that I do get messages from my Ancestors in work that I do. I don’t ever have to consult another elder because of my elders on the other side. Other people might have elders that they consult with, but l find that because I’ve been sitting with my elders since I was a very young, young girl to a very late age—and it’s all oral; I’ve never written anything down so I’m not in a space where I must write this down—I must remember it. And I teach my grandchildren this way of life, the same way I was taught. It’s repetitious, making sure that the prayer bundles are done appropriately, the prayers are done appropriately, the respect of the people is done appropriately and all of those things. All of that has to continue, and I continue it with my children and grandchildren, and I’m happy to share with other women who are willing to respect the essence of spirit in a profound way, not in a way where you’re coming from the head. You need to come truly from the heart. Coming from the head is easy.
This article first appeared in Erin Everett’s print magazine, New Life Journal. Copyright 2003-2017, Erin M. Everett/Bee and Tree. All rights reserved. Contact Erin at firstname.lastname@example.org