Why do people do Spring Cleaning? What is the significance? In many Old World cultures the Spring Equinox ushers in the New Year, not Dec. 31st. Why is that? Well, it is the equalization of night and day and the beginning of the season when daylight over-runs the darkness. It is also when nature begins to show its renewal. Recently I participated in an old Native American tradition that is a beautiful example of a purification ritual that uses fire as a purifier for the whole community. (No photographs are allowed during ceremony).
The Vernal Equinox Bear Dance Ceremony – March 21, 2015
The people began gathering around 6pm out behind the Win-River Casino in the beautiful ceremonial space built a few years ago. Some folks hovered close to the sweat lodge further along the open field, others sprawled out in tiny clusters along the creek shoreline, while others claimed seats in and around the shelter. But the fire had already been started in the large pit dug into the center of the circular structure. Above it, through a corresponding hole in the circular wooden ceiling, the light was getting pearly as day drew to a close. The fire was begun in the traditional way by a designated Fire Tender, who’s job it is to start and tend the fire (though sometimes the tender might be a different person than the starter). No one else is to touch it or add anything to it except those who’s job it is to tend the sacred fire. This fire, in particular, was an extension of the fire used for the sweat-lodge for the Bear Dancers, earlier that afternoon.
While dusk gave way gently into night, people continued to come and settle in a full circle around the ceremonial shelter. This Rancheria is home to the Wintun People, native to the Redding area and its environs. There were plenty of little ones causing joyful turbulence around the more sedentary figures of parents and elders. These people were gathered here to wake up the hibernating bear ceremoniously. It is a tradition reserved for the Vernal Equinox.
This is a community healing ceremony to welcome in the spring season. Those who have troubles, those who are ill, those who want to slough-off anything no longer needed, this is the time, the place and the ceremony that supports that to happen. This is their third annual event in this relatively new ceremonial space.
After two centuries of drastic and massive social change (including massacres and heartless attempts by the dominant white culture to annihilate the Native American way of life) they are reclaiming the “Red Road” with vigor and cultivating these old traditions once again. The dominant American culture based on the idea that the land belongs to people is a complete reversal from their perspective – that people belong to the Earth. We typical Americans often say, “I have life.” But what the native culture teaches is that, “Life has us.” Life is shared with all creatures in a sacred domain that extends to everything. They do not believe we are separate. They do not believe we humans are better than other living things. To live with respect for all other forms of life is to walk the path of wholeness. What they call “the Red Road” is exemplified by this connectedness.
The Bear Ceremony is a community cleansing process, recognizing the end of an old year and the beginning of a new season of growth. The men dancing the Bear, with the bear skins draped over their shoulders ceremonially “took on” all energy anyone wanted to be transformed and cleansed of. They and the fur they wore were continually swept clear using sacred sage smoke and eagle feathers by selected helpers who kept the energy moving to the fire for purification. I’ve never seen fire put to better use. It was inspiring, powerful and beautiful….and it happened to be my birthday.
So, it is with a renewed sense of potential, and a lighter heart that I invite you, Dear Reader, to perform your own purification ritual at this time, should this idea inspire you. And, if you have anything you’d like to say or share about your own process, I invite you to comment.