Friday, August 2, 2013

Remembering Our Ceremonies with Respect to the Elders

Erin Langley
What an interesting time to be alive. Most of us are post-diaspora ancestral mosaics, lumped together under national politics, our tribes and homelands forgotten, colors replacing heritages, compartmentalized into tiny boxes. (I will not check "white," the box that ignores Celt, Anglo-Saxon, Frank, Ashkenazi Jew, Norse, and Cherokee, not to mention the unending backbone that connects me with all of life.) 

It is also a wondrous time to be alive. Google exists. Self-selected families can create beauty on staggering scales. We have relative freedom to choose our paths, as long as we aren't upsetting the NSA, as long as we have privilege, etc. We live among people from all over the world.

We still have so much in common with our ancestors. We are born, we die, we breathe in, we breath out, we dream, we mate, we eat, we eliminate, we emote, we think, we observe. We create ceremony. 

After a weekend of attending the powwow in Berkeley, California, and the Gathering of the Ohlone Peoples in Coyote Hills, I feel strong in my commitment to remember the ceremonies of ancient Europe. In October of 2011, before Mexica-Toltec elder, Sundance chief, and timekeeper Tlakaelel became an ancestor, I told him that we had lost our ceremonies, and asked for his advice. He said, "You must must do a lot of research, keep looking with your heart. If you still do not find any ceremony, then you must create it. You must create it from your heart, with respect to the elders." He held my hand while saying this, and emanated pure love. 

me with Tlakaelel in 2011

I have done my best to take his advice. I have kept an open heart and mind as I move through life. I have read the Celtic sagas, folktales, and books on the alignments of our sacred sites. I have been recording my dreams every single day for 9 years so that I can contribute my waking and dreaming records as a body of work when I meet other people working toward the same end. I know you are out there. 

I look at the European people around me who create ceremony, and I have trouble connecting. In respect and kinship with the participants, I see a lot of substance abuse, and I wonder about the origins of their practices. Don't get me wrong; I'm not a purist. I know we can't make things the way they once were, and I wouldn't want to anyway. I'm just trying to find my place. Tlakaelel said to create new ceremonies only after we have looked, within and without, with respect to the elders. Where are the European tribal elders? They must be in Europe. I am looking here in America, and I am finding only the passage of time, and I am wondering if we are the elders, slowly growing up together.

I look to my friends who are immersed in Lakota ceremony, or Maya healing traditions, or curanderisma, or Hopi, or Hindu, or Chinese cosmology. I am happy for them, especially when they are fortunate enough to have access to their own unbroken ancestral traditions. I do not deny that we can be called to another tradition or that we all share common ancestry, because we can and we do, but it is always good to know who we are first. 

At one time, I would have eagerly attended any ceremony, with a nose-to-the-glass desire to become whatever I witnessed before me. Now I attend strong in myself, as a guest, and thank God for those who are able to have continuity with their homelands and ancestors. It is beautiful.

I am a person of many European clans, a fluid embodiment of bygone tribal eras. What do we do when we are a beautiful, confusing patchwork quilt of cultural expressions? When we are not born on ancient inherited land that stores millennia of ancestral memories? What would a ceremony even look like today? 

Ceremonies were given to the people by the land, the ancestors, and the spirits to create reciprocity between the worlds. They are like a set of instructions that keep communities healthy, that keep our relationships good. We can gauge our relative health by what happens during the ceremony. If things don't go well, that says something. It's a form of divination. If they do go well, that bodes well for the tribe, for the world. 

Ceremonies accumulate power and momentum over thousands of years, especially on our sacred sites, where people would gather. This is why when we go to the special places on our homelands, we can still feel the power there, and can experience awakening very quickly. We are basking in the ceremonial residue of harmonious intent. 

I look around and wonder, "Am I the only one who misses them?" I can't be. This is why thousands of European-descended people flock to powwows, identify so thoroughly with their 1/28th Cherokee heritage, become initiates in other traditions, create new ceremonies the best we can together after generations of colonization, disconnection from our lands, and painful forgetting of our own stories. 

So what do we do? For me, it started with a prayer. My teacher and elder Apela Colorado instructed me to make a traditional offering of mead (honey wine, a common European offering) and say a simple prayer to connect with my ancestors. It worked. This prayer opened a door that a thousand ancestors wanted to step through simultaneously (which can happen if no one in the family is consciously listening to those who have come before us). 

Dr. Apela Colorado (center) with Roger Marty, traditional Occitan Healer, and Voodouin healer and M.D. Erick Gbdossou in the South of France

Our ancestors speak to us in waking life synchronicities and through our dreams. Apela taught me to pay attention and record the things that happen after I made my prayer. I also continued with traditional genealogical research. It all works together. Ancestral remembrance is much easier when we rely on the support and momentum of a circle whose focus is remembering. (But don't let that stop you. You can start out working with just yourself and some guidelines. And, you'll always have unseen help. Do have a stable support system in place to help you through the transformative path of ancestral remembrance.)

Apela was among the first to reawaken to our European indigeny and offer her revelation as a gift for the Earth and we who are walking on it. She grew up identifying with her Native American (Oneida) heritage, but then one day she realized that her Frank ancestors (from France) were just as important as her Oneida ancestors. Luckily for us, she opened a school to help people from any background to reconnect with our native traditions. 

I entered this ceremony of remembrance with a group of people from nearly every continent. We have worked together over many years to remember who we are, our global tribe. We're creating a new way with respect to the old ways. We have seen remembrance become easier for each successive group of students. Our efforts pave the way for each other, like our ancestors paved the way for us. We have also noticed, as the motley crew that we are, that when we keep clear boundaries with our prayers, our lineages speak in turns, very manageably. I learned how to tell the thousand ancestors who wanted to speak all at once, "I'm here. I'm listening. But you gotta form a line."

The ancestors who speak most clearly to me and through me are the Celtic people of Ireland. I am at home in the stone circles. There, I can breathe. The pre-Celtic Neolithic people really understood the relationship between land and sky. They made their observations available to us by building sophisticated stone monuments, which also functioned as ritual centers. 

This weekend at the powwow, the Aztec people (Tlakaelel says their ancient name is the Atlan) explained that their ancestors were sky watchers, too, who embedded their observations in dance. The dancers were not spinning and bouncing at random; each move embodies a relationship between the Heavens and Earth.

I thought about Irish dancing. Although far younger than the Atlan dances, surely the Irish dances I know and love didn't appear out of thin air. I wonder about their stylistic precedent, or if the content reflected the heavenly motions. In Ireland, star charts are everywhere. Each mound is a precise archive of our heavenly dance. The petroglyphs, too, record lunar, solar, and stellar patterns. The River Boyne is said to be a reflection of the Milky Way.

Ann Marie Sayers, photo by

Yesterday at the Gathering of the Ohlone, I saw elder, Tribal Chair of Indian Canyon, and storyteller Ann Marie Sayers, who I have admired for years. I walked up to her and told her so, and also mentioned that I was working toward the recovery of my people's native ceremonies. She looked at me with a twinkle in her eye, and said, "They're coming back!" 

This was one of the first times I'd heard this from an elder. It was music to my ears, and I know it's true. In fact, Apela just returned from a ceremony in the caves of Dordogne, France, conducted by an indigenous elder of the (European) Occitan culture. She offers this picture and words about her experience:

photo courtesy of Apela Colorado
"In the presence of shamans from around the world, Jean Paul Amanieu, member of the ancient Occitan indigenous people of southern France, calls to Ancestors and for their help in renewing the indigenous spirituality and traditions of his people. The Occitan culture has survived a thousand years of oppression from the Romans and Catholic Church Inquisitions, and in modern times, French government policies aimed at destroying the language and any vestiges of culture. This moment marks a renaissance and is a beacon of hope for the entire western world."

I dream of participating in such an event. I already am, in my own way. Every effort counts, and before we know it, our lifetimes of effort have contributed to something beautiful. Bringing authentic European ceremonies into a modern context might sound like a lot of work, and it is. But it's also fun. I'm living my dream. It is an honor to help pave the way for the growing movement of remembrance. 

. . .

A huge thank you to Apela for all you do and have done, for my circle of friends who are walking the path with me, and to my ancestors, who make all of this possible. 

Go raibh maith agaibh! 

1 comment:

  1. Erin, this is lovely and so inspirational! I too resonate with my Irish heritage and the stone circles of our ancestral land. I love your elder's words about researching with the heart, and creating new ceremonies with the heart. That heart is so very important. Thank you for sharing how you were guided to reach out to your ancestors, and for this whole article. Beir bua, Erin Lund Johnson