Ritual Remembered

It was at camp I felt first the intensity of friendship, the expansive continence of a piece of land that one knows by tramping its paths, and the nerve-tingling power of collective ritual.

The boundaries of Camp Oconto were defined on two sides by sacred space: the outdoor chapel at one end, tucked in the forest between eagle section and the stables; and the tribal council ring at the furthest flung area to the West. Of the two, the council ring was the most sacred to me, because it was a place we never went except within the pageantry of that one ritual: the commemoration of the peace talks of Hiawatha.

As twilight descended, we walked single file in processional silence, past all the tan tents on square wooden decks in which we lived, toward the bare ring surrounded by tightly placed, spiked branches, like an old native fortification. Along the path, the Quarter Counselors stood frozen in torch-lit scenes. They posed mute in fringed leather costumes while 300 girls, draped in wool blankets, filed past. As I moved beyond the last group of tents, up over the rise and down into an open pasture, the first scene glowed out of the darkness. A girl stood, tomahawk raised in a struggle against a warrior. We trod slowly, the solemnity of the depictions only enriched by the smell of burning kerosene and the fizzling of a torch up ahead. Around the next bend, a girl was poised mid-step at the side of an unsaddled, dappled horse. We continued on in the cool dark of the spaces in between, half expectant of what was to come, and half savouring the respite of the lacy shadows of lonely poplars. A glimmer on the path ahead eventually revealed two figures crouching over a large animal skin they were scraping clean. Finally the walls of the council ring rose in front of us, and in a moment we were inside, seated in large concentric circles for the peace games.

After the games we proceeded back to the beach by the flagpole where a lone canoe was already halfway out to snake island. There the legendary Hiawatha would build a fire as we stood on the beach to witness the beginning of his solitary journey. And finally, the peak moment came. Hiawatha called out over the still, black lake towards the beach, to bid farewell to his love, as he continued his journey to unite the six tribes of the Iroquois nation.

“I Hiawatha begin this journey, not knowing if I will ever return.”

“Go in peace, Hiawatha. We, your people, await your return.”

Their voices echoed, and I shivered at the first falsetto note, even though my tent mate Leslie and I were huddled together under both blankets now, our arms over each others’ shoulders, opposite hands clutching the blankets beneath our chins. Nothing could top tribal council.

Nothing except the cherished but dreaded sharing of the flame, a procession that took place on the last night of camp, from the chapel all the way down to the flagpole beach. Sitting in the outdoor chapel on half-log benches, we endured the closing remarks waiting until finally it was time to light the candles and get into position for the walk of friendship and good byes. Girls lined the path on both sides as we walked through the middle, dipping our flame into those of girls on either side so that for a moment, the flames became one.

“Oh no, not you, I can’t!” The girl in front of me exclaimed, bursting into a howling sob as she hurled herself into the arms of the friend she had to pass.

Looking at the ground occasionally to navigate a cedar root, I walked, intent on the illuminated faces of each girl against the rich absorbing browns of the woods. We moved together under the witnessing moon, reverently passing the light of solidarity, present to the tear-soaked faces. We cried, I think, not only for the loss of individual friends, but for the ritual, the tight-knit medieval sense of community, all of the things that, outside of these spaces, was already lost to us.