The Sacred Fire is a very important symbol in Aboriginal cultures. For example, in Mi'kmaw tradition, when a person passes on, a Sacred Fire is lit and is kept burning for four days. During this period, the spirit of the deceased person is making its final visits to people and places it has known during its life on Earth, and the Sacred Fire acts as a beacon so that the spirit can find its way back. Another example is the Sacred Fire used to heat the Grandfathers for the sweatlodge ceremony. Even during our spiritual gatherings, a Sacred Fire is lit and kept burning for the duration of the gathering to act as a beacon for the spirits, and to provide a place for making offerings and for quiet reflection.
Because of this importance, if you are chosen to be a Firekeeper, it is necessary that you be aware of your role and duties. From my experience as a Firekeeper, and from the teachings I have been given, I offer the following guidance.
The most obvious duty, of course, is to simply keep the Sacred Fire burning. While this seems simple, it can sometimes be a challenge, particularly if a sudden violent rainstorm should develop. In cases like this, you may have to use considerable ingenuity to maintain the Fire, perhaps by adding more wood, or by moving the Fire under cover until the storm has passed. This is your ultimate purpose, and unless you are told by a knowledgeable medicine person that the Fire can be allowed to go out, you must make every effort to ensure that it stays burning.
You should also be aware that a huge bonfire is not necessary. Using up vast quantities of firewood is not in keeping with the old traditions of limiting your impact on the land around you. A small tidy fire, carefully tended, is generally more respectful and appropriate than a gigantic blaze. Be painstaking in tending the Fire, as that is part of putting your good energy into the ceremony that you are supporting.
As part of the commitment to keeping the fire burning, Firekeepers should keep all of their attention on the Fire.
You should not sleep, and you should not get involved in any conversations. You should simply concentrate on the Sacred Fire, and on praying for the people involved in the ceremony for which the Fire was lit. However, if the Fire is to be kept going for a long period, this also means that there should be more than one Firekeeper, and they should be rotated on a regular basis to prevent fatigue.
You also need to keep in mind that not all people understand the significance of a Sacred Fire. You must be prepared to prevent people from throwing garbage into the Fire, or from roasting hot dogs, or other inappropriate behaviour. A Sacred Fire is not a campfire, and should not be treated like one. You need to be alert, as well; not long ago I was taking my turn tending a Sacred Fire in a situation where I assumed everyone knew its significance. I was wrong, and to my horror, someone stepped up and tossed a cigarette butt into the Fire before I could stop him. This was not his fault, as he simply did not know. I should have seen it coming, and prevented it from happening.
When someone approaches the Sacred Fire, it is often appropriate for them to smudge themselves, and they may wish to make an offering to the Fire. Sometimes, however, the person may not be familiar with the way these things are done. I have seen a number of Firekeepers who make a habit of offering to help them smudge, or to teach them the appropriate way to make an offering, or any number of other things. While this seems a very nice thing to do, it actually is a distraction from your main purpose. It is not your task to teach people while you are a Firekeeper; you have responsibilities enough at that time. If someone comes to the Sacred Fire and is in need of guidance, simply refer them to a knowledgeable person who can help them out. If a conversation starts to develop, simply tell the person in a gentle way that you are a Firekeeper, that you must concentrate on what you are doing, and that you can speak to them later if they wish. In this way you have helped the person, but have kept to your responsibilities at the same time.
Being a Firekeeper is a very important task, and while it can be challenging, it can also be very rewarding. Take advantage of the quiet time you spend beside the Fire to reflect and meditate, to consider your own spirituality, and to pray for the people. But also remember that you have a serious duty to perform, and take that responsibility to heart. You are, for a brief moment, maintaining an ages-old spiritual symbol on behalf of your people - stay humble, stay
focused, and do the job in the best way you can.
Taho! Msit No'kmaq!