Monday, July 29

Zachary's Traditional Cree Walking Out Ceremony

On Saturday morning, at sunrise, Zachary "walked out" into the world, and was officially introduced and welcomed into Cree society.

I've talked about Cree Walking Out ceremonies on the blog a few times before (here and here), but essentially it is a very special traditional ceremony that celebrates a baby's first steps on the earth. More specifically, the first time their feet touch the ground outside of a teepee (in Cree culture, babies feet are not allowed to touch the outside ground until they've had their walking out ceremony).
It is also a celebration to welcome and officially introduce them into Cree society.

Boys are dressed as little Cree hunters, and must carry a wooden gun and axe. Girls are dressed in traditional dresses. All the babies have to carry a cloth bag filled with symbolic gifts for the elders. It's quite a lot to carry for these little guys while walking for the first time!

If you are curious about the details of the ceremony, and want to see (a lot) more pictures, read on after the jump....


So normally, you start preparing for a walking out ceremony months in advance. However we only found out that Zac was going to be walking out on Thursday night (as in less than 48 hours before). Needless to say it was a bit stressful. But this northern community is amazing, and everything just came together last minute... as it always does up here.

Word spread like wildfire that Zac was going to be walking out and needed the costume and accessories (there was even an announcement made on the local Cree radio station!)... and magically, the next day, I somehow ended up with everything I needed.

I also stayed up until midnight hand-sewing a shoulder bag for Zac (out of an old pair of Zac's cargo pants and some plaid overalls) that would hold all his required gifts for the elders. The gifts are symbolic of what Cree hunters would carry with them on their expeditions... supplies to make tea on a campfire, sugar, teabags, a small cup or kettle, some cigarettes (tobacco is sacred and has spiritual properties), and some gum and candies (I don't know the symbolism behind this one).
Aside: this was the first time in my whole life that I bought a pack of cigarettes!

As I mentioned before, the ceremony happens at sunrise. We were joining the ceremony of three other Cree babies and it was happening on an island 20 minutes (plus a boat ride) away from town.... this meant that we would have to camp out in our two-man tent the night before (more on that adventure another time!).

After a more or less sleepless night, we woke Zac up at 5:20am to get him all dressed up, and we headed down to the teepee. I was also expected to "dress up" in a long skirt, and someone gave me a handmade head scarf to wear.

Here is what it looked like inside the teepee when we first arrived...

 Zac was the first baby to arrive, and he just sat there quietly (and half asleep) staring at the fire and taking in all the new faces.

The other babies arrived shortly after... one girl and two twin boys... and oh my goodness were they ever cute!

Finally it was time to start walking!

The boys lead the way... and they walked (with a little help) out of the teepee, around the ceremonial woodpile, and then back inside again... 

Back inside the teepee, each baby sits with their designated elders and gives them his ceremonial gifts.
Zac's elders were so loving towards him, it was really sweet.

Zac was given a traditional Cree name, which someone kindly wrote out in syllabics on a piece of paper for me. It means "great hunter", and also "service" and "sharing". Apparently it's the name of a famous Cree hunter from the 1800s who was a particularly skilled hunter and he provided an abundance of food to his community. 

Then the babies all get passed around the teepee and everyone gives them a kiss :)
(I thought Zac might freak out during this point but actually he loved all the attention!)

(above: Zac's cheering section of the teepee.. our doctor colleagues and medical students who all braved camping out in the cold and waking up at sunrise to see Zac walk out!)

Finally, all the mothers have to add a few logs to the fire and the ceremony is over.
Everyone chats and takes photos while breakfast is made.

This is me trying not to burn the toast on an open fire (ummm... impossible!)... and then I was informed that the Cree actually prefer their toast burnt... so burnt toast is what they got!
 (above: the gukum's (Cree for Grandmothers) cooking breakfast in the back of the teepee. See all my beautiful burnt toast?!)

After it was all over, Zac looked pretty proud of himself!

And then he passed out the minute we put him in his stroller!

We took the boat home for the afternoon, so that we could all rest up before the night's feast.
And besides, I still had to bake Zac a "walking out cake"....
which is essentially a simple white cake decorated with a special cake-topper. For a boy's cake, it's a scene of a miniature hunting camp. (In case you were wondering, I didn't make our cake-topper... it was made by one of the local Cree women).

 The night ended back at the teepee for a huge feast.
These incredible Cree ladies didn't stop cooking all day.

There was teepee-roasted goose, and bear too, moose stew, bannock, fried dough with wild blueberry sauce for dessert... and of course lots and lots of cake (everyone is expected to try a piece of each cake... so with 4 babies, that's 4 pieces of cake... I thought I was going to die!)

I had to serve the dinner, along with the other 2 mothers.
At one point I counted 80 people inside the teepee, and then there was the line-up out the door too. Everyone who shows up gets fed. It took a very long time!

It was about 9:30pm when we finally took a very tired Zachary home.
And the sunset on the island was simply magical!

I'm so happy that we got to do this for Zac.
I mean, what a unique experience!
I feel incredibly lucky to be so welcomed in by this native community.
We are entering our third year of working up here on this reserve and it is truly starting to feel like one big family.
We are very fortunate indeed.


Natalie said...

I could not love this post more! Congrats Zachy!!!

Nicole R. said...

Wow! What a wonderful experience and a beautiful ceremony! Loved all the pictures and your explanation of everything, especially that picture of Zac smiling at the end - priceless! Love to you all, xoxo Nicole.

Lady Grey said...

Nicole - I know, his smile is so silly-cute!

Lady Grey said...

Oooh so wish you could have been there Natalie :)

Brianna said...

Amazing hun!!! Congrats to little Zach...what a wonderful, wonderful experience:))

Anonymous said...

Oh my goodness -- great pictures, and what an incredible experience! I'm sure Zach will love looking back on this one day. Looks like a beautiful time:) Congrats!

Rebekah said...

what a magical day, thanks for sharing! congratulations zac!!

k said...

ok, that is seriously cute! and interesting!

Anonymous said...

My son, Taylor, was in Chisasibi two years ago, he was apart of the Katimavik group volunteering there. He loved being apart of the warm and welcoming community. His placement was at the school. He was able to take part in many of the ceremonies, but seemed to talk most about the Walking Out Ceremony. Chisasibi and its people, will always have a special spot in Taylor's heart. Thank you for sharing your experiences with us.

Lady Grey said...

That's really cool that your son was in Chisasibi! That must have been an amazing experience for him.... I know it is for us!
Thanks for following along : )

Jan Halvarson said...

How did i miss this post? And what an honour! So sweet. 4 pieces of cake? Wow!