In 1979, I met a charismatic storyteller, a wise old woman, an Anishinaabe (Ojibwe or Chippewa) mashkikikwe (herbal medicine woman) named Keewaydinoquay, Woman of the Northwest Wind. She took a look at me, a bright-eyed, precocious white girl seeking a way to live that did not perpetuate the violence of civilization, and she tucked me under her wing. I was 20, eager and willing to change my life, for I was seeking a new story. I refused to exchange my joy for a corporate paycheck like my father did. The passivity required to consume life as a mere spectator bored me to death. I yearned to do, to be, to live! Kee invited me to become her oshkibewis (helper), so I dedicated myself to learning everything I could. She taught me traditional prayers, songs, stories, medicines, ceremonies and lifeways of her Anishinaabeg people. I studied Anishinabemowin, the Ojibwe language, and learned to listen.
One summer night, I sat with her and others beneath the Milky Way. The fragrant smoke of a cedar and birch fire filled the air on a small wilderness island in the northern Great Lakes somewhere between the U.S. and Canada. It was here that I first heard the ancient Ojibwe prophecy called The Seventh Fire.
Leaning forward on her worn wooden staff, her clan staff, with its signature sandhill crane carved on top, she spoke quietly. “Our Ancestors told of this time, the coming of the Seventh Fire. A fire is a generation, and they told us seven fires after contact with the Black Robes (French priests), all of humanity would arrive together at a fork in the Great Road of Life. And together, humankind would have to choose which way to go. The choice will determine life on Mother Earth. We face a grave decision, my grandchildren, for the road ahead splits in two. One path leads to creation, and the other leads to destruction. The choice is yours to make.”
She fell silent. The truth of her words sank into my consciousness. I understood from her that everything was at stake. The shadows beneath the white pines grew deeper. The crackling fire filled the silence. I shuddered to think of the choice we needed to make.
We waited for her to resume speaking. I began to twitch impatiently, though I knew this was not proper behavior. Finally, I interrupted the reverie, “Nookomis (Grandmother), how can we be sure to choose the Path of Creation?”
“Granddaughter,” she answered softly, “the way is clear. You just need to pay attention. One road is built from conquest, bloodshed and dominance, continuous warfare. Fear and hatred rule. Reliance on technology increases until weapons matter more than a child’s life. Human beings are reduced to robots, performing mechanized tasks, unable to feel connection with other living beings.
“On this dangerous road of separation and suffering, this road we know all too well already, all existence, including human existence, will cease to be as we know it. Yet this Road of Destruction is seductive. It appears to promise power and control, pleasure and freedom, but it is a path of addiction, greed, distrust and isolation.”
She paused as we shivered in disbelief. At that time, personal computers, cell phones, cloning, the Internet, artificial intelligence, neurotechnology, cyberkinetics, cyborgs and all the ways our brains and bodies might be restructured by merging organic life with biomechatronic components was not yet imagined. Yet the Prophecy of the Seventh Fire held a warning.
Suddenly she cried out, “Look what they have done to our corn! They took the sacred gift given to us by our ancestors and spliced it with biochemicals to make it compatible with herbicides and pesticides to kill what they do not understand—the insect people and the holy plants they call weeds! Once we were all gardeners tending our food and medicines. They made farming a poverty and invented agribusiness, factory farms! Now our once fertile corn is a hybrid and it’s sterile! What will happen to us when a man and a woman will no longer be able to come together in the sacrament of creating new life? What has already happened is that woman as mother-creator has been reduced to shame.
“You are the People of the Seventh Fire!” She called to us as she poked the fire with the tip of her clan stick, causing the embers to swirl upward. “You must learn to walk the Giizis Mikana Ni Bimadisiwin! The Sun Trail, Our Good Way of Life—some call it the Good Red Road. Here our value is determined not by how much money we have or how much property we own but by the gratitude in our hearts. We are judged by our kindness and generosity, not by our obedience. We are part of all that is and not the boss of all that is. We honor all nations of people, all plant, animal, mineral and spiritual life as we honor our own life, for we clearly understand our kinship.”
She stopped and peered into our faces one at a time. “Each of you matter, and each one of you must choose. You are like the individual cells in a body. If even one cell does not participate in the health of the whole, the body is not well.”
I sighed. How could we ever cooperate together when we are each so different?
“The question you must ask yourselves: how will you live in relation to others? Right relationship is the key to healing. It cures every disease.” Right relationship, I considered this new term I had not heard before. Keewaydinoquay continued, “Every time you refuse to listen to a different opinion, you choose the Road of Destruction. Every time you choose to share your time or food with someone in need, you choose the Road of Creation. Each day you choose to love, create, give or forgive yourself or another, you take another step forward on the Path of Creation. Each time you choose hatred, fear, revenge or betrayal, you strengthen the Road of Destruction. Truth telling advances creation. Deception brings destruction. It is up to each of you each day to choose.”
“I choose Creation!” I called out with unbridled enthusiasm. She turned to face me, her eyes stern and solemn. “Not so easy. Most of us straddle the two roads. One foot in creation and the other in destruction.” “How is that?” I asked, perplexed. “Many feel choiceless,” she responded. “People have been corralled like cattle into a crowded pen and prodded to move this way or that with an electric rod. They will do whatever they can to avoid the pain. They will hurt others the way they have been hurt. Or they will go numb. Drink, do drugs, eat too much, distract themselves with useless worry. People will be jealous, judgmental, spiteful—anything to not feel connected to the Source of Life. Today living a compassionate conscious life is no longer the goal of being alive, as it once was for us. We were a people who believed everyone had a right to realize and fulfill their true purpose, and seeking a vision was part of that. But now so many people feel useless and worthless because the Path of Destruction does not value our unique talents. People are taught they are not enough and must buy and own things, for things are more valuable than living beings. This makes us less alive, less joyful, less capable. Most of us are not yet awake to the truth.”
With her crane clan stick she gestured toward us. “This is why I need you and you and you. You are my sticks for the Seventh Fire. I am throwing you into this sacred fire so you can burn with understanding. Be a spark that ignites others to burn brightly! Then together you will light up the fork in the road and help others see which way to go.”
She sprinkled some of her plant medicine onto the fire and smiled brightly as flames leapt into the air. We could smell the fragrant prayers of NiNookomis Giishik (Grandmother Cedar) and NiMishomis Wigwaas (Grandfather Birch) mingle and rise into the night.
I understood in that moment that I was one of her precious fire sticks. She expected me to carry the bright light of the prophecy forward. I was part of the sacred fire and had a role to play, just as we all do.
“My beloved grandchildren,” she addressed us tenderly. “There will be terrible difficulties ahead as you try to straddle the two roads. With one foot you will be invested in oil, gas, mining and waste, hate and despair, and with your other foot you will be creating new ways to live and love. You must remember down to your bones that we are all related, and you must learn to live again in the Circle of Creation.” She gestured with her arm describing a large circle in the air. “At times the way forward will appear blocked by the force of civilization and its endless cycles of war and destruction. Do not lose heart. Keep choosing the Road of Ongoing Creation. It will take great imagination, courage, love, patience and stamina. Like the elk, it requires going it alone and being a member of the herd. Can you do it? Can you be like the elk?”
A path at Los Luceros, a historic site in Alcalde, New Mexico
Her question lingered in the forest clearing. Her question lingers with me still after all these years. I can clearly see the fork in the road. There are two distinct, different paths, and up ahead they veer far from each other. Yet most of us continue to straddle the two roads, driving our cars to and from work, shopping in big box stores, buying food that is shipped half way around the world, paying taxes that subsidize corporate globalization and undermine local economies. We value community and connection. We seek justice for those who have been treated unfairly. We are good people. We want ourselves and others to thrive. We love horses or birds or dogs or gardens or rivers or mountains. We care about clean water. Yet to live fully aligned with our values seems almost impossible. We may feel stretched beyond what we can bear.
We also understand that what we choose now will determine the future of life on Earth. The prophecy continues to grow like a fire in my breast. Every time I add my breath, blowing on the embers by speaking of it, the flame grows brighter. I face the fork in the road. The choices I make through my thoughts, feelings and/or actions will contribute to either the Path of Creation or the Path of Destruction. This knowledge has guided me for many years.
Humankind’s stream of waste is often unseen.
On that night long ago the dawn lights began to dance in the eastern sky as we rubbed our sleepy eyes. We let the campfire die down as the inner fire grew brighter. Finally, it was time to go.
Before we parted, Keewaydinoquay took my hands in hers and said to me, “Now you must travel with conscious care, for you carry the seeds of the future.”
Ann Filemyr is a poet, writer, vice-president of Academic Affairs, director of the Transformational Ecopsychology Certificate Program and dean at Southwestern College, in Santa Fe, N.M. She is trained in traditional medicine practices of the Great Lakes Objibwe and was Academic Dean at the Institute of American Indian Arts for nine years.