This description of the Southern Arapaho Fireplace is taken from
The Peyote Ceremony of the Native American Church: Gateway to Healing and Transformation, (2004) unpublished Master’s Thesis, by Michael J. Melville,
Pacifica Graduate Institute, Carpinteria, CA
I have been attending the Native American Church (Peyote) Ceremony since October of 1998. Since the Ceremony was a response to pressure from the Christian Missionaries, most of the night-long ritual is done sitting around the fire in a tipi. Many of the indigenous people of the Great Plains lived in lodges, which were easily transported as the people moved from place to place. These lodges were used as meeting and dwelling places. After relocation in the Oklahoma Territory, the Peyote Ceremony meetings were held primarily in a tipi, although some tribes established permanent structures. Tipi lodge poles are likened to our Grandmother’s ribs and its skin (made of hides or canvas) to her body. Some say the Tipi is the Body of the Water Bird, Bear Heart likens it to the skirts of our mother, where we can find a safe haven as children. Like the Purification (Sweat) Lodge, there is an element of re-entering the realm of the Great Mother from which we all came into this world.
Inside the Tipi is created the ancient sacred design of the Grandmother Crescent Moon altar. It is a semi-circular structure describing a circle’s circumference where the circle’s center is the center of the Tipi. The Moon is built up of sand or earth so that it rises about six to eight inches above the ground. It is about six to eight inches wide. With the Crescent beginning in the south and ending in the north, the line from north to south cuts the altar in half, giving it a half-moon appearance. In most meetings, the sponsor uses an eagle feather to inscribe a groove in the top surface of the moon, interpreted as the life path or road of the sponsor. The person presiding over the ceremony is taking care of the Peyote Road/Path, hence the term Road Man (or Road Chief). Clockwise from the south to the west are symbolized the first 50 years of life on the Peyote road/path and the second 50 years by the line continuing to the north.
At the center of the north/south line (from one tip of the moon to the other) is the space where the Grandfather Fire (Eye of God) will be kindled and kept burning throughout the nightlong ceremony. Pieces of wood about four feet long will be placed in interlocking fashion onto the fire forming a V shape with the apex pointing directly at the center point of the moon. A straight piece of wood, the lighter stick, will later be placed so that it makes a straight line pointing through the center of the fire and center of the moon, thus aligning the Tipi so that the Doorway will open to the Morning Star and the Rising Sun. If the Tipi is set up accurately, the rays of the sun will shine directly into the Tipi at first light.
The general term for the Tipi Ceremony is the Fireplace. It is, quite literally, the place where we sit around the fire. We sit up around the fire just like all our ancestors did. We often talk about the ancestors/spirits’ presence with us, when we are sitting around the fire, talking, telling stories, cooking, eating, celebrating, and warming ourselves. When we move around the fire, we replicate the movement of the planets around Father Sun, so we are moving clockwise (sunwise) whenever possible. The site of the Tipi Ceremony is usually chosen for its remote location far from curious eyes, so that the Meeting will not likely be disturbed.
Before the Tipi is put up, the Ceremonial Leader or Road Man/Chief will gather his helpers and the person sponsoring the Meeting for a Prayer Smoke using the Sacred Tobacco. The Smoke (as I will refer to this Sacred Tobacco Prayer Smoke) is considered a modern day extension of the Sacred Pipe Ceremony of our ancestors. Instead of loading individual pipes and praying with them, as we did in the old days, the Road Man takes a corn shuck which has been prepared/cut to facilitate the Smoke, fills it with a mixture of natural tobaccos and sweet smelling herbs, and rolls it up. He will then light and pray with the Smoke, asking Creator for help and guidance for the meeting, expressing the Sponsor’s intentions for the meeting and any special prayers he feels are needed at that time. After puffing on the smoke four times (not inhaling the smoke) and finishing his prayer, the Road Man will pass the Smoke to all the helpers and the Sponsor, each of whom will take four puffs and then pass it to the next person.
The number four is sacred to all indigenous peoples on the Planet Earth. The four directions, east, south, west and north are often invoked at the beginning of Native American ceremonies. Each has a symbolic meaning depending upon the experience and tradition of the tribal group(s) concerned. Diversity is honored in our traditions; some tribes will have different animals associated with each of the four directions. Generally the East is symbolic of the rising sun, the beginning of human life, and the ability to see far like the Eagle. The South is associated with childhood, innocence and new relationships, and with seeing those things around you like a child. The West is symbolic of the setting sun, the dream world, and self-reflection which is often identified with the Bear. The North is symbolic of the place of giving away of wisdom, power, and nourishment, so it is often symbolized by a large herbivore such as the Deer, Bison, Moose, or Boar, which feeds the people with its body. The circle quartered by the cross is the basic icon of the four directions and is often called a Medicine Wheel. The Tipi Site itself is quartered. The Door will be in the East, the Chief in the West, the Sponsor in the North. Once the preliminary Smoke and alignment of the Tipi site is established, the Lodge Poles are brought onto the site.
The Tipi is put up under the direction of the Ceremonial Leader or Road Man. Usually this person is male, but in the Southern Arapaho Fireplace women gave the ceremony to the men and retain the right to perform all of its functions themselves. The first Peyote Ceremony I sponsored was run by Janet Smith, a Norwegian/Blackfoot woman, who for many years was a State Official in the Washo Native American Church of Nevada. Although uncommon in most Peyote Meetings, which are male dominated like the Comanche/Kiowa Fireplaces, Washo women have been drummers since the early days of the Ceremony in Nevada. Although traditions vary, the first four poles are tied together near the top, where the skin will later be wrapped. A prayer or blessing on the poles might be offered at this time. The tops of the poles are not allowed to touch the ground; the tree’s orientation toward the sun is preserved in the raising of the Tipi. Each pole is the body of a Relative, a Standing Person, and must be treated with respect. The poles might be addressed by the Road Man, who will explain the purpose of the meeting to them and ask for their help. The basic belief that all plants and animals are in relationship is thus reaffirmed, as when entering the Purification Ceremony, we say, “All my relations!” The lodge poles are our relatives who are “danced with” as they are placed in leaning position. These relatives are tied together by the Sponsor, who goes round and round them with the rope. The Sponsor is spiraling around the poles as they are put up, one side and then the next, always moving smoothly, directed by the Road Chief.
Since the Ceremony reflects the Sponsor’s life, we want everything to be done as carefully and correctly as possible. The Sponsor’s pole, where the person sponsoring the meeting will sit, is wrapped with the end of the tie rope so that the Tipi ribs look like a very long snake has wrapped itself around the poles and then around the sponsor’s pole connecting everything together. The Chief’s pole, with the Tipi skin tied to it, is put up and wrapped last. When the structure is set up, the skin is unrolled around the poles. The skin is held together with wooden dowels, which interlace the two sides of the skin together over the door.
As the community members (the relatives) arrive on the site, there is time for reunions, socializing, and finishing any work. Usually we leave some fireplace wood for the relatives to help debark and split, so that they can be useful and feel they have contributed to the meeting. When everything is ready, we change our clothes and prepare to enter into sacred space. Before the meeting begins, a soup of meat and vegetables will be served with bread and butter, coffee and tea. Some Road Men let the people put their blankets, cedar boxes, and pillows down inside the Tipi once it is up. Others do not allow people into the Tipi until the altar is ready and the fire lit. The Fire Man will pray with tobacco when he lights his fire, asking its help and explaining the purpose of the meeting to Grandfather Fire, just as the Road Man did in erecting the Tipi. Once the people are ready, and usually not until sunset, the Road Man will say, “it’s ok to go in” and we take our seats.
The Road Man sits in the West, directly opposite the door. His Drummer sits at his right and the Cedar Person on his left. The Fireman and the Doorman will sit on their respective sides of the doorway. Once everyone is settled down in their places, the Officers will go outside followed by the people in order of their placement in the Tipi. The person closest to the door in the northeast leads as everyone follows in single file thus preserving the relational pattern from within; only now it is straightened out. The Road Man and Officers form a straight line on the East/West axis with the people trailing off behind them into the East. With everyone standing in line, the Road Man begins his Prayer addressing Creator and invoking the Spirits. When he is finished, everyone files in, returning to his or her seat, and the exact order is preserved since the person who led the procession following the Officers again leads everyone back around the circle to their seats.
With everyone assembled and welcomed, the Road Man will get out tobacco and corn husks. He will ask the Sponsor to express him or herself. The Sponsor will greet people formally and explain the reason for the meeting, the intention for holding the prayer service. While the Sponsor is talking and welcoming people, each participant rolls their tobacco Prayer Smoke. The lighter stick is put into the edge of the fire, and when burning, the Fireman gives it to the Doorman, who lights his Smoke and passes it to the left (sun wise). In this way the lighter stick brings the fire in an unbroken connection to each of the people. One could say that the fire “dances” from person to person as it is passed. It travels forward and is never passed backwards. While the Smokes are being lit, individuals may ask the community to pray for the healing or blessing of certain people who have been injured emotionally, physically and or spiritually. When the lighter stick reaches the Door, it is placed in front of the fire on the east/west line. Often the Chief announces that this has happened and the people, having taken four puffs on their smokes, pray to Creator on behalf of the Sponsor and then themselves. This may be done out loud or silently. When the Road Man has finished praying, he asks the Fireman and the Doorman to pick up the Smokes which are placed on the altar in the tradition of that Fireplace.
In most fireplaces the Chief Peyote will be taken out of the Road Man’s Cedar box, the Cedar Person will throw dried cedar needles onto the fire, and the Chief Peyote (Button) “cedared off” four times. This is done by holding the Chief Peyote toward the fire and bathing it in the cedar’s incense smoke four times. It is then placed on a sage pillow on the top of the Crescent Moon, making a direct line between it, the fire, the lighter stick, and the door. The cedar functions as a cleaning/blessing for all the Sacred Objects/Instruments. In the way the fire “danced” as the lighter stick was passed, so does the Peyote, since it is the Chief, and while it sits upon the Moon, it directs the meeting. The Road Man functions more as a traffic director; he preserves the order and flow of the meeting. He may be referred to as the Chief, but he will be the first one to tell you that he is not in charge, the Chief Peyote is in charge of the meeting and whatever happens will be the Chief Peyote’s will. Cedar is next put on the fire to cedar off the Road Man’s staff, feathers, gourd rattle, and the drum, which has been tied earlier.
When tying up the drum, the Drummer placed the four elements: earth, air, fire, and water in his iron kettle-drum. He will have put a seashell or stone person in the drum, water, (the air is already in the container), and burning charcoal also, before covering it with wet elk hide. He will have tied up the Drum with seven spherical stones under the hide making lumps. These lumps will be encircled with a length of cord connecting across the bottom of the drum forming a star design when finished. The seven directions or arrows are symbolized by these stones. They symbolize east, south, west, north, above, below, and within. According to tradition, the Road Man/Chief’s Staff is the bow of our ancestors and the bowstring is used to tie up the Drum. Once the instruments have been cedared off, the containers of Medicine (dried and ground Peyote, green Peyote buttons, and Peyote tea) are blessed with cedar smoke using a sage wand, and the sacramental eating of the Peyote is begun. The sage wand precedes the Medicine, which the people use to clean off any negative energy. They may kneel or sit showing their respect for the Medicine. After the Road Man and the Drummer have eaten Medicine, the Road Man will inform those assembled, “from the doorway in, to the doorway out” the singing portion of the Prayer Service has begun.
The meeting is opened with four traditional songs accompanied by the drum. The drumbeat represents the heartbeat. It is fast, replicating the trance-inducing Shamanic beat. The Staff, Sage Wand, Gourd Rattle and Feather together will be passed from person to person clockwise around the circle. This collection of Sacred Instruments is generally referred to as The Staff. The Staff leads, followed by the Drum. The two are always kept together as they are passed around the circle. When a person wants to sing, he or she (some fireplaces neither allow nor encourage women to sing) holds onto the Staff, places the Drum in front of her, and asks the Drummer (or some other member in the circle), “would you drum for me?” The person on the singer’s right then rises and walks around the circle to the place the Drummer was sitting. Having exchanged seats, the Drummer sits to the right of the singer. When the person finishes singing, the Staff will then be passed to the singer’s left with the Drum immediately following until it reaches the next singer and the process will continue. In this way the Staff and Drum are continually traveling around and around the circle until morning. Throughout the rest of the night, the people will continue in meditation and prayer, focusing on healing themselves and others. There are a few ceremonial high points throughout the night.
At Midnight the Road Man will sing a special traditional song and three others, after the Fireman has swept up the altar with cedar incense smoke using an Eagle or Hawk feather or fan. At the Road Man’s signal, the Fireman will bring in a bucket of water and place it at the edge of the Lighter Stick in direct line with the center of the fire, the Chief Peyote on the Moon, and the Road Man sitting behind the Chief. With everything lined up to the Fireman’s satisfaction, he will kneel behind the water bucket. The Cedar Person will pray, or ask someone else to pray, with the Cedar asking a blessing of Creator for the water. The prayer said, the person praying will then throw a handful of Cedar on the coals and the Fireman will draw the energy/smoke of the Cedar toward himself and down into the bucket in front of him. The Road Man will then take, or send via the Drummer, the Tobacco to the Fireman. In some Fireplaces I have seen the Road Man touch the Tobacco to the Smokes on the ends of the moon and the logs of the fire before handing it to the Fireman. All these ritual gestures indicate the connection of the parts of the altar to one another and to the Medicine. Everything and everyone is interconnected in the web of life. The Fireman will address the Sponsor and discuss his intention of how he will pray for the Sponsor. The support of the entire group is given by maintaining a respectful silence during the prayer. When he is finished, the Smoke will be shared with all of the Officers. When the Road Man has shared the Smoke with everyone he chooses, he will then put out the Smoke and put it down on the altar.
After the Midnight Smoke is finished, the Fireman will be offered cedar to bless himself. Midnight water will be shared around the circle. While the community drinks water, the Road Man will announce open expression with a statement like, “If anyone has some good words to say at this time, feel free to do so”. Often stories are told, but they usually have some teaching which the Medicine has prompted the speaker to share. Since everyone has either ingested the Medicine or is sitting in the Sacred Circle with those who have ingested it, the Spirit of the Peyote is directing the events. After Midnight Water the Road Man will go outside with his eagle bone whistle and talk to the spirits. The Cedar Man, or another roadman in attendance, will sit behind the Chief and sing when the Road Man goes out. When he returns, the Road Man is cedared off. After that time he might allow people to go outside while the Staff and Drum move toward the Sponsor. Usually everyone has to be present when the Sponsor sings, so this is a good time to extend the boundary for a few minutes, since everyone will have to be back in the Tipi soon.
During the Main Smoke, at about 2 am, the entire group supports the Sponsor’s Prayer. As the Road Man gives the tobacco and corn shucks to the Sponsor, he tells them to express themselves while they roll their Smoke. Often times they are reminded that they have already told everyone about their intentions at the first Smoke, so this is the time to “keep it short” and decide what they want to say to Great Mystery/Creator/God. When the Sponsor is ready, they will call for the lighter stick and it will be brought to them. As the Sponsor begins her prayer, the Drumming and Singing start up again.
When the Sponsor is finished praying with the Sacred Tobacco, they take the Smoke to the Road Man keeping the lighted end facing the fire. This too could be viewed as a moving meditation or dance, since it is part of the ritual performance. In many Fireplaces there is the tradition of four gifts offered at this time. The Smoke is extended over the Chief Peyote and brought directly back to the Road Man or the Drummer depending on the tradition. The gifts, if any are offered, are placed on the ground in front of the Drummer and Road Man. After sharing the Smoke with his officers and any others whom the Road Man chooses to share the Smoke with, he will put it out and place it on the Moon Altar. Then the Sponsor will be brought up in front of the Chief Peyote to be cedared off. This is the traditional way of thanking persons who have helped the community by praying for themselves and others. The Cedar Person will pull blessing energy with her feather or fan and, acting as an agent of the community, fan off the person and then tell the person to help themselves by reaching toward the cedar smoke and bringing it toward themselves and spreading the energy over the surface of their own body. This is a visual/sensual way of expressing the two-fold nature of healing, the giving of help and its (passive) acceptance combined with the (active) seeking of help and taking responsibility for one’s own healing. After Main Smoke, the Tobacco and Cedar are made available to the rest of the assembled people.
The Fireman sweeps up before Smokes are taken. He swept up before Main Smoke and he will do the same if anyone asks to take a Smoke. Everyone who asks to pray with tobacco will follow the steps described above. They will express their feelings and the reasons for taking the Smoke. They may have done some damage to another person’s life by their words or actions. If so, they will confess these things to those assembled and, having shown their remorse, they may ask the relatives for help in keeping their intentions. Often times this involves drug and/or alcohol abuse. Many people are able to end their addictions in the Fireplace and stay clean and sober. More often, however, the individual may have gone to AA, NA, or Red Road meetings, have an AA sponsor, and be working the Steps, but for some reason they have relapsed. He may express the need for improving his relationships with friends, family, or a work situation, like getting a job that is rewarding. Whatever the person’s need, the people assembled turn their attention to the person “taking the Smoke” and will do their best to support his/her prayer.
The Peyote Ceremony is a continuous round of prayers, singing, and meditation conducted in a ritualistic pattern, which comforts the self. The fourteen-hour night-long Meeting has some aspects of self-sacrifice and dedication to one’s personal vision. Sometime around sunrise, the Road Man will announce they are getting ready for Morning Water. His wife, or whoever has been chosen to bring in the water, will get up from her seat, be offered Cedar smoke to bless herself, and go out to get ready. Once again the Fireman will sweep up the altar and the ground. He will bring in more wood and get the fire prepared. When all is ready, the Road Man will sing four special songs. The whistle will be blown and during this time the Water Woman will come in the door carrying the water bucket. She will kneel behind bucket. When the singing stops, the Road Man will lay down the Staff and his other instruments. The Drummer will set the Drum behind the Staff. The Road Man will address the Water Woman, often expressing his love for his wife and his gratitude for her efforts on behalf of the community. He will then give her the Tobacco. The same pattern of acknowledging the Officers, the Sponsor and people is followed. If the meeting is small and intimate, the Water Woman may address everyone individually talking about how long it has been since she has seen them, how it feels to see their children, how she appreciates them and the sacrifice they have made by coming to the meeting. People will think nothing of driving six hundred to a thousand miles to attend a meeting of someone they love. They will show their support by driving these distances with their Native American Church families. They may stay a few days. Most drive back the next day to be at work.
With all the instruments down and the people on their knees, the Water Woman prays. She will pray again for the Sponsor, the Officers of the meeting, the relatives in the Tipi, their families, individuals who are sick or in trouble, the larger Native American Church community, the people of the United States and other countries, people in the Armed Forces, our modern day warriors, and Mother Earth herself. She will ask Creator to bless the water, to put a blessing in the water, so that when the people drink it, they will feel better and will be healed. She will likely extend this blessing to all the water the relatives will drink in the morning wherever they may be. When she has finished her prayer, she will hand her Smoke to the Fireman or Doorman. He will take it up to the Drummer and the Road Man, who may add more prayers to the Water Woman’s prayers. According to the Southern Arapaho tradition, the Women gave the Fireplace to the men with the understanding that they get the last word. In that tradition the Officers will not add anything to the Water Woman’s prayer. They each take four puffs on the Smoke and pass it on. That is how they show respect for the Feminine, for their mothers, aunties, wives, sisters, and daughters. When all to whom the Road Man has offered the Water Woman’s Smoke have shared, and this might include all of the women and their husbands present, the Smoke is put down on the altar. The Water bucket is then passed clockwise around the circle and people are encouraged to share good words while the people are drinking water.
When the Water gets to the Road Man, talking stops and the blessing of the four directions and of the Tipi occurs, as it did at Midnight. When the Road Man is finished with this part of the ceremony, he will sit down and drink. The talking will continue until the water has gone all the way around, the Water Woman has drunk water, and she has gotten up, perhaps greeting each person on her way up to the Chief Peyote. She is blessed with cedar, continues around the circle and returns to her seat.
Ending the ceremony will take another hour or two to complete. Everything that has been put down on the altar will be taken up again. The Prayer Smokes from each tip of the Moon will be offered to the fire with cedar. They will be burned. The women will go out and bring in the Sacred Foods in this order, first water, next corn, then meat, and finally berries for the communal meal. The instruments will be picked up again and the singing and drumming continue while someone prays with cedar for the food. The food is passed around the circle and once again the relatives were encouraged to say some good words.
The Native American Church Ceremony is a slow, subtle dance of the elements carried by the Fireman as he works with the fire and draws symbols in the coals. He may start with a heart shape (Apache tradition), moving to an eagle, and later to the rising sun as the coals are spread throughout the night. The symbols for the seven sacred directions may be placed in the coals as well and all of these things relate to the earth and the traditions of the people of Turtle Island. These movements are filled with individual meaning for the participants and everyone feels good in the morning. We each have been through a personal transformation.