Indigenous Ritual and Restorative Healing

by Patricia St. Onge

When she was three, my daughter Bre ran to me crying. We were in a park, and as I sat nearby reading a magazine, she was happily talking to herself in the sandbox. Another Mom arrived with her two young children. A few minutes later, my bright-eyed baby had tears streaming down her face.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

“They won’t play with me ‘cause I’m brown.”

My heart stopped. Then tears spilled out from my eyes, and my heart broke open.

What happens when the brokenness of the world crashes into our lives? In recent years, as I’ve watched the unfolding stories of the murders of unarmed people (overwhelmingly people of color: men, women, children), the wounding is fresh with each one, and it sits on the scars of generations. Burned, lynched, forced marched, dying along the way. What heals the collective broken heart of a community that has experienced injustice?

I am Haudenosaunee and French Canadian by birth, and Cheyenne River Lakota by adoption. There is a small community of Haudenosaune people in the Bay area, transplanted from the Northeast. We are re-integrating our traditions in our urban context, which includes learning the Mohawk language. It is restorative for us, for our ancestors, and for those who come after us. A key element of colonization is to remove a People from their land, language, and traditions.

As we seek wholeness, it’s important to draw on our own traditions. I turn to the Medicine Wheel as a framework for personal transformation and cultural renewal. The Wheel’s four directions of wholeness reminds me that we need to attend to our body (North), mind (West), heart (South), and Spirit (East), in order to restore anything broken in our own lives or in the life of the world.

Bre’s broken heart, and my own were healed by this framework and the loving embrace of community. Following the inspiration of the Medicine Wheel way, we made a spiral of books about and by African Americans and Native Americans. We had her walk the spiral. As she stopped around the spiral, we read the stories of brown people like her, giving her the strength of the people on whose shoulders she stands. This gave her a sense of the possibilities for her own life. We sang her birth song to her as a way of condoling her. In the next year, I decided to quit my job and open a home daycare, ensuring she would have a structure where she could thrive. As I’ve learned more about the Medicine Wheel, I realized that we had moved around the circle in response to her broken heart. In her healing, I found my own.

Many indigenous traditions have unique mappings for the Medicine Wheel. This is the one that I use in my personal life and work as a consultant and coach, an orientation I’ve developed from my background as a person of Mohawk descent.  In the past few years, I’ve been looking more deeply at how the Medicine Wheel can be instructive for movement building, as well.

In the East, the work is to reimagine the world we need in order for all beings to thrive. Eagle, the spirit animal of this direction, brings vision and a clear idea of the big picture. This work is being done by individuals and groups dedicated to social justice across the country. At the Full Harvest Urban Farm in Oakland, California, for example, people recently out of prison reimagine themselves in a living, sustainable, healing world as they work on the farm. They come to understand that we are all part of the ecosystems in which we live.

In the North, the work is action. Buffalo guides the way here, bringing drive, endurance, and great capacity to lay out the tasks necessary to achieve the vision. This work is happening in movements that resist oppression and racism, like Black Lives Matter and Idle No More.

In the West, the direction of the mind, the work is introspection. Here we design alternative structures that move us toward what we imagined in the East. Bear-spirit brings reflective attention to details, ensuring that we have all the information to carry out our tasks in a good way. When communities establish local currencies or municipal ID cards, for example, they are doing the work of re-designing structures.

And in the South, the direction of the heart, we attend to the work of healing and repairing relationships. Restorative justice, healing trauma, and generational healing work are key elements. Deer spirit leads us to attend to the emotional and interpersonal dynamics at play, ensuring that everyone is included and able to participate well. While ceremony is an important element of all four Directions, in the South it is the heart of the work.

In my tradition, we use the Condolence Ceremony for the healing work in the South. This ceremony is rooted in the story of Aionwahta. There are many ways this story is told; the following is one is told by Tom Porter, Mohawk of the Akwesasne community in upstate NY.

Aionwahta’s wife and daughters were all murdered, leaving him completely heartbroken. He decided to walk the earth, not caring what happened to him. He came to a small lake that was pretty shallow. The surface of the lake was covered with geese and ducks and other waterbirds. There were so many, he couldn’t see the earth beneath them. As he walked, they all flew away, leaving the bottom of the lake exposed. In the mud, he saw many, many quahog shells, white and purple. He began to string the shells onto a thread of sinew. This was wampum.   

As he beaded it, he said: ‘if there is anyone in the world who feels as broken-hearted as I do, who has nothing to live for, I will go see them. I will take from the sky a beautiful eagle feather and with it, I will wipe the dust of death from the sad one’s ears so they could once again hear the children talk, and laugh, and sing again. I would console them by taking the death from their ears.” 

He strung more shells and said: “if there is anyone in the world who feels as broken-hearted as I do, who has nothing to live for, I will go see them. I will take from the sky a beautiful soft deerskin, like white cotton, I will wipe the tears from the sad one’s eyes and wipe away the pain of loneliness so they could once again see the beauty of Mother Earth and see the joy of their family. I would console them by taking the death from their eyes.”

He strung more shells and said: “if there is anyone in the world who feels as broken-hearted as I do, who has nothing to live for, I will go see them. I will take from the sky medicine water and offer it to them so that when they drink, it will dislodge the grief and sadness so that when they eat again, the food will taste good. They would speak without a stutter. I would say to them: ‘From the very beautiful blue sky, I give you a glass of water so that you will be refreshed, and can live again, and speak and eat and be nourished.

And he went on like that. As he found more wampum, he put it in a pouch and said: ‘I’m putting it away, in case I do find someone like that. That’s what I’ll do for them. 

Aionwahta walked on for days and days. Years before, the Great Peacemaker had found the very same kind of shell and had put them away in a pouch. As Aionwahta walked into Mohawk territory, he met the Great Peacemaker, who saw him coming and saw how very sad and broken-hearted he was. The Peacemaker said: ‘My brother-cousin, I see that you are so sad and heartbroken and your mind is so heavy. Your eyes are filled with tears, and your ears with the dust of death. You can’t hear.” 

So, the Peacemaker went through the string of wampum and began to condole him and do everything that Aionwahta said he would do if he found someone who was as sad as he was. From then, he became the interpreter or spokesperson for the Peacemaker, and they traveled together bringing the Great Law of Peace to the nations who were warring.

Today, when someone loses a loved one, we use the Condolence Ceremony. As communities are devastated by the trauma of murder, police brutality, and climate destruction, ceremony is one important way that we can wipe away our grief. Part of this involves entering the sacred time and space of the sweat lodge. When we enter the deep, dark belly of the turtle, we are cleansed by the heat, the water, the medicines, and prayers. In sharing ceremony with each other, we mend broken hearts, fragile bodies, troubled minds, and wounded souls.

To transform our communities that have suffered from injustice and oppression, I propose we imagine a ceremony for the creation of the Global Beloved Community, where everyone belongs, and where we see in all beings our interrelatedness. Work in all four quadrants of the Medicine Wheel is important. We move around the Medicine Wheel, re-imagining a world inclusive of a well body, mind, heart, and spirit. Envisioning a world in which all children and all beings can thrive, repairing relationships that keep us from seeing all beings and ourselves as a part of one community. Ceremony that holds the healing medicine of all four elements is needed to cleanse the dust of injustice from our hearts and senses so that all beings can come to understand that we are all related.



Patricia St. Onge (Haudenosaunee and Quebecoise, adopted Lakota) is a grandmother and mom. She’s also the founder of Seven Generations Consulting and Coaching, working primarily with social justice organizations. She is the lead author of Embracing Cultural Competency: A Roadmap for Nonprofit Capacity Builders. Patricia is currently the Interim Director of Community Engaged Learning at Pacific School of Religion. She is adjunct faculty at Mills College and serves on the board of directors of Highlander Research and Education Center in Tennessee. Between them, she and her life partner have six grown daughters. Patricia is part of a growing community in East Oakland called Nafsi ya Jamii (The Soul Community), and Education & Spiritual Center and urban farm.

Sue Sorensen

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