What is the point of a flag and tipi raising ceremony?
Will students remember what it means the next day, or the day after that?
Is this the best use of resources?
These are some of the questions we are grappling with as our school begins to plan for our annual tipi raising ceremony in the Fall. This year, we have purchased a Treaty 4 flag and have installed a flag pole. We will add raising the Treaty 4 flag to our annual Fall program. We are hoping to put all this together for September 15th, the anniversary of the signing of Treaty 4. This will be our third annual tipi raising ceremony.
Planning these ceremonies is intense. The tipi, which includes fifteen 16′ poles, needs to be transported to the school. We need to find and hire an Indigenous Knowledge Keeper to share the tipi teachings with us. We need dozens of tobacco ties for students to offer in thanks for these teachings. To celebrate, we like to have a drum group and pow-wow dancers come as well. We end with breaking bread/bannock together. That means getting over 600 pieces of bannock made. All of this takes time and it takes money.
The question becomes: Is it worth it? Are students learning anything? In a time of extreme fiscal restraint, can we pedagogically justify spending this kind of time and money on a one-day ceremony? I have never asked myself these questions before. It has always seemed obvious to me that these ceremonies are important. But now I am in the interesting position of having to defend ceremony as pedagogy.
Is ceremony pedagogy?
Thinking about this, I was reminded of Karmen Krahn’s talk about ritual at Moose Jaw’s first annual Hope Summit (2016). Krahn is a behaviour consultant who holds a Masters degree in theology and has served as a minister. In her talk, Krahn described rituals as typically including three components. First, rituals are communal. They are shared; you are not alone. Second, rituals involve a story being told. These stories use symbols and often songs. Ritual language is used; we expect to hear certain words at certain times. Finally, after a ritual, you are different, something in the event changes you. Ritual is an invisible room, “a space between spaces, a time set apart from other times” (3:34) where magic can happen: “the magic of belonging, the magic of story, and the magic of change” (3:53).
Schools are full of rituals. We sing our national anthem every morning. We observe Remembrance Day every November. We plan graduation ceremonies every June. All year we celebrate student and staff birthdays.
If we take birthdays as an example, the structure of a ritual is clear. We celebrate birthdays together; we are not alone. We sing a song and we have symbols that tell the story of the birthday. The candles symbolize the years of life. The cake and presents tell us a story of celebration and belonging. At the end, we are changed. We recognize that the person having the birthday is older, certainly. But we are also changed because we are closer, our bonds are deeper, our community is strengthened.
Rituals bring us together.
One of our school goals is to increase a sense of belonging among our students. On this metric alone, rituals such as raising a tipi and the Treaty 4 flag matter and are worth pursuing. But, I can’t prove it.
I don’t have data to back me up.
In the case of ritual though, I would argue that data is irrelevant. All the things that matter cannot be measured. Furthermore, all the things that can be measured do not necessarily matter. Whether or not we can plot something as lines on a spreadsheet should not dictate whether something matters.
We engage in rituals, year after year, generation after generation because we can feel that they matter. As a species, we did not decide to have funeral services for example, because the data analysis looked promising. We have funerals because we have a fundamental human need to be together, to share common stories, to go through change, to be changed, together.
I do not need numbers to convince me of the importance of this.
But it is true, on the surface it may look like these ceremonies do not accomplish their stated goals. Surely a tipi raising and Treaty 4 flag raising ceremony should teach students about the Treaty. Students should leave the ceremony, leave this ritual, with an increased understanding of themselves as Treaty People. But, possibly the day after the ceremony, students may have forgotten what they witnessed. They may walk by the Treaty 4 flag that will fly in our school yard and not see it, not be moved by it anymore.
But that’s why rituals are repeated, year after year.
We don’t celebrate Canada Day once, we celebrate it every year. We don’t remember veterans once, we honour them every year. Year after year, we build deeper understandings of these fundamental pieces of our history and of ourselves. We need to do this tipi and flag raising ceremony not just this year, but every year. This needs to be added to the things we do as a school just like Remembrance Day and Crazy Hair Day and Graduation. Tipi and flag raisings are an important part of honouring who we are and what we stand for, whether we can clearly articulate this or not.
Possibly what rituals give us is deeper than language anyway. It is nebulous and ephemeral, resistant to the narrowness of words. What rituals give us more than anything are embodied understandings.
When we hear O Canada, we stand up. We might not understand the words we are singing but we understand on a corporeal level how to honour and respect our country. We stand. And we know that this is part of what makes us Canadian, what makes us belong here. On November 11th, as a child, I might not be able to rattle off the dates of World Wars or know what a Victoria Cross is. But I can begin to make the connections between poppies and honouring those we have lost. I might hear the poem, In Flanders Fields, and feel a deep stillness and sorrow, even though I couldn’t tell you what the words mean that day or the day after. When I blow out the candles on my birthday cake, I might not be able to articulate how the applause makes me feel valued, makes me feel like I belong.
I’m not sure that these things need to be articulated though. It’s enough that they are.
So we’re going to go ahead and plan this ceremony.
In September, I will pick up the tipi in my husband’s truck and he will come along with me to help carry and tie down the poles. I will find an Indigenous Knowledge Keeper who is willing to share with us the fifteen teachings that go with the fifteen poles. As a school we will offer tobacco and we will learn about these teachings and on September 15th we will raise the tipi together. We will place the tipi on the front lawn of the school.
And the symbolism of the tipi will help us tell the story of our treaty, of our nation and of the nations that were here before us and that are still here. Honouring the tipi and the flag in this way is one way that we begin to build Treaty-based relationships and expand our capacity to share this land.
In the afternoon we will gather in a circle around the Treaty 4 flagpole. We will all be wearing the colours of the Cree medicine wheel. In a circle we will gather together and raise the Treaty 4 flag, the symbol of our enduring treaty relationships.
The flag itself is made up of symbols: sun, grass and water. On September 15th, 1874 the treaty promises that were agreed upon, were agreed upon in perpetuity, forever, “as long as the sun shines, the grass grows and the river flows”. These are the words we should expect to hear at this time. We will talk about the promises made and the promises broken. These are key pieces of our story. Then we will celebrate a renewed relationship with drumming and dancing. At the end, we will eat bannock together.
On September 16th, the day after, if you ask our students what it means to be a Treaty Person, I hope that they will reflect back upon the ceremony. I hope that they will tell you about honouring treaty promises and relationships. I hope they will tell you about what it means to share this land and that being a Treaty Person is an important part of who they are. But if they don’t, if they shrug their shoulders and look confused. If they struggle to find words and end up not finding any that will answer your questions. I hope you will understand that this not a failing of this ritual, that this is not proof of our fiscal mismanagement. But rather, I hope you will see that this only indicates that our job is not done. That this Treaty 4 ceremony is still new to us. That we are still learning.
For hundreds of years Indigenous peoples have been treated as a problem in need of solving. Duncan Campbell Scott (1920), as the head the Department of Indian Affairs, explained the Canadian government’s policy towards the First Nations. “I want to get rid of the Indian problem…Our object is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic” (as cited in Titley, 1986, p.50).
In this vein, Canada banned both Indigenous ceremonies and Indigenous bodies from this land. From 1885 to 1951, the Indian Act included a Potlatch Ban which criminalized the practice of Indigenous cultural ceremonies, including drumming and dancing. During this same time period under the pass system, First Nations people could not leave their reserves without permission from the Indian Agent. Seventy years ago Indigenous children would not have been allowed on the front lawn of our school, on the land that we are now using for our tipi raising.
Our ceremonies today take place within this historical context.
And I know there is so much more to do than what we are doing. There are Treaty Education outcomes and Reconciliation Calls to Action and United Nations Declarations. But you have to start somewhere. In a time of chaos, Krahn argued that ritual “creates order” (6:36) and in a time of despair, ritual is a “reliable pathway to hope” (4:24). So we are going to start our year with the ritual of a tipi raising and Treaty 4 flag raising.
Will you join us?
Krahn, K. [Hope Summit] (2016, November 22). Hope Summit 2016: Karmen Krahn, Threshold. [Video file]. Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wA7OUP40rZc
Titley, B. (1986). A narrow vision: Duncan Campbell Scott and the Administration of Indian Affairs in Canada. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press.