Saturday, December 21, 2013

Winter solstice ceremony on Milwaukee’s lakefront

“We are all connected.” ~ John Clifford, Lakota Elder, Congregation of the Great Spirit
On this the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, the sun never did rise.
Even the city, its towers enveloped in mist, seemed ephemeral.
We had come to Milwaukee’s lakefront to bear witness to the solstice, to honor the earth and its peoples, and to offer up special prayers for life-sustaining water. The ceremony was led by members of the Congregation of the Great Spirit, who engage in the ancient rituals four times a year, at the solstices and equinoxes. Out of respect for the sacred rites and offerings, I willingly complied with their request to refrain from photographing during the ceremony itself. (I shot all the accompanying photos either before or after the ceremony.)

We gathered under a great tree near the site of the old coast guard station, which had been used by the Indian community from 1971 to 1983. John Clifford, a Lakota Elder, began by explaining the importance of the site as well as the importance of the tree as a symbol of the unity of earth and sky.

Clifford lit an aromatic offering of tobacco and sage. We gathered at the tree. The first offering was to the “spider spirits,” black, white, gray, and gentle, which protect this sacred site. We then faced each of the cardinal directions in turn. Tiny bundles of tobacco were placed at the base of the tree. Prayers were spoken. The four cardinal directions are associated with colors, with the elements of earth, air, fire, and water. They also represent the four ages of humankind, new life, youth, adulthood, and the elders.
The solemnity of the ritual was maintained despite the intrusions of daily life: the sound of traffic on Lincoln Memorial Drive, dogs crunching through the frozen snow as they chased each other, joggers coming down off the pedestrian bridge/ramp. There was one brief perturbation of the mood when a colorful truck parked nearby with loudspeakers blaring “Jingle Bells” sung—barked that is—by dogs.
I discovered later that this was a business that offers sled dog rides in the park.

The emphasis was on water in in keeping with a Global Day of Prayer for Water organized by Milwaukee Riverkeeper and the Congregation of the Great Spirit. The most important message I heard during the ceremony was when Clifford invoked “all of my relatives.” By that he meant the earth and all people because, he said, “We are all connected.”

A free spirit? an omen? a kite caught in a tree. Everything is connected. I'm sure of it.

This is one of a pair of posts in honor of the Winter Solstice. The other is a reprise of my solstice story from Urban Wilderness: Exploring a Metropolitan Watershed.

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