This is the first part of my Introduction in the Nebraska Educator's Guide to American Indian Singing and Dancing: Making Connections to the Classroom, to be published by the LIED Center for Performing Arts.
Any body of work produced by an artist or any lesson taught by an educator, most often feels in the beginning, as if one is striking flint to ignite a spark in a field of grass. This task may seem overwhelming and even, at times, impossible.
During the spring of 2010, my children and I witnessed a fire lighting ceremony in northern Wisconsin. It began right before sunrise in an enclosed structure, much like a shed with a large opening at the top. As we gathered that morning, the firekeepers, men who were presiding over this ceremony, cleared a space toward the center of this structure. My children and I stood to one side with many others. Several firekeepers stood in a circle and began to hit sticks together, rhythmically, as if they were beating on a drum. They also started singing a beautiful ceremonial song of renewal.
One of the men had the responsibility of lighting the fire by striking flint together until he was able to ignite a bundle of grass into a smoldering flame. He blew on the grass until it burned higher, then added small pieces of wood so that the flame grew large enough for more wood to be added, until finally, he had a great fire, burning brightly. The song ended once this was achieved, then all the men added their rhythm sticks to the sacred fire...one by one. For four days, the ceremonial fire was kept burning until the spring ceremonies were completed.
In many Native cultures, the gift of fire came from the Thunder Beings, who are the givers of life and death. This gift was to be kept in a sacred manner and was never to be abused or discarded. It was through fire that the people were able to cook their food and to stay warm during the cold seasons.
The key in striking flint to ignite a flame is to do so, patiently, and relentlessly. It is a process that is well understood in the act of creation, as well as in teaching. The goal being to bring an ideal to life through art or to ignite the imaginations of young minds that are placed within our care, much like the firekeepers whose responsibility it is to bring the sacred fire into this universe.
And, as such, it is indeed a beautiful and mysterious process to behold. One that requires our total concentration and commitment as artists and educators, just like the fire keepers.