By Mel Vogel
The pack sat heavy and my left foot was in agony in my new boots, leaving me almost limping. The wind blew cold and I was tired. I was tired of walking with this pain and tired of the weather – and it wasn’t even officially winter yet. I wanted to call it a day already, to hunker down, to call my hosts Penny and Ron in Terrace Bay and ask them to pick me up so I could rest. But, I walked on. I wanted to make at least 30 kilometres that day.
As I hiked in my misery along Highway 17, I thought about the conversation I had with Ken at the Pic River First Nation a couple days back. Ken and I sat at the kitchen table, where he invited me to smudge. Then he sung the Bear Song. Ken told me about First Nation beliefs and teachings, and during this conversation he offered me a spiritual name. His face lit up when he said: ‘Giizis Kwe’, which means ‘sun woman’. He repeated it a few times and told me why he thought this name would be a perfect fit for me.
The next day, Sharon and Ken dropped me off at the intersection to the Highway, where I started my next day of hiking. As I walked along the road and thought of my new spiritual name, I started doubting myself. Insecurity creeped in. I thought the name was too big for me, and that I couldn’t live up to it.
I shared my thoughts with Sharon and Ken in the car when they picked me up from Coldwell Road so I could stay with them one more night. Over the course of the conversation, Ken stated: “Melanie, you are denying the name.” I argued: “No, I’m not. I just want to share how I feel about it, to share my doubt because I don’t feel confident enough to carry this name.” He continued to tell me: “Melanie, you have been denying this name for the last 10 minutes.” His voice sounded firm and impatient with my lack of understanding of the beauty of this given name. He added: “Melanie, this name has so much energy. I can’t walk anymore. You are walking for me now.” I continued to think about that later.
While doubt can be a strength, it can also be a weakness. In this case, it was both. It was a weakness by tapping into my feeling of still not being enough – let alone not being good enough – which made me feel I couldn’t live up to this name. This newfound doubt reflected an old fear that I am still trying to shake off.
How was this doubt a strength? It inflamed a curiosity in me, making me read up on the spiritual symbol that my name enshrined. I didn’t take the name for granted. I didn’t accept it as a certainty, as something that simply is. I had to study it. I had questions. I had to give myself the time to feel it. I was in a process of exploration for a new spiritual path.
In the morning, Ken invited me to smudge again and to say a prayer. I am not a religious person, so prayer is not usually something I do regularly in my life. Ken went first. His words rolled over his lips, displaying a long time of practice. Then it was my turn. I was nervous. I found it overwhelming to come up with something to pray for. I sat with Ken around the kitchen table, burning sacred herbs in a shell to cleanse my body and soul of negative energy. Then I started my prayer and I was surprised how easily the words would flow.
Once I was packed and ready to go, Sharon and her son dropped me off at Coldwell again. I was walking on the left side of the Highway when I saw a white rabbit for the first time in this journey. It jumped out of the ditch and metres in front of me onto the shoulder. I stopped and watched it as a truck passed. The white rabbit jumped anxiously over the fog line in the car lane towards the truck. I was holding my breath, thinking: “Don’t let it happen. Just don’t let it happen.” I really expected the worst, until the white rabbit turned around suddenly. It then raced, with the longest jump ever, into the ditch and the safety of the woods.
The next breath I took was deep, and it came with a sigh of relief. As I hiked on, my thoughts went back to my spiritual name. Listening to my feelings deep down, I had to admit that I did like it. What if, I thought, I accept that this name is OK for me? My thoughts were interrupted when I realized I had forgotten the sweet grass Ken had given me. I had wanted to put it at the top of my pack so I wouldn’t squeeze or break it, but then probably got distracted and forgot to pack it in. It made me sad, but I told myself that it would come to me when it is meant to. Sharon had already given me a little bag of tobacco that I would be able to carry from here on to show my gratitude to Mother Earth.
When the time is right, I will carry all four sacred herbs – cedar, sage, sweet grass and tobacco –in my backpack. The spiritual guidance of Indigenous people of Canada has only just begun.
Now let’s go back to the point when, exhausted and miserable, I hit 19 kilometres.
“I am sun woman”, I suddenly thought with steadfast determination.
The thought came with such confidence that I immediately got goosebumps and said it once more: I am sun woman. Giizis Kwe.
Then I started crying. My tears fell and mixed with the salty dust of the road. It was the moment when I understood what a precious gift I had received. I understood that I do not need to ‘live up’ to my spiritual name, but that it would sustain me, just as the sun sustains me by giving energy, light, warmth and life. Each day, sun woman is on my side. She is my companion, my teacher and my guide.
I do not need to live up to anything other than my true self. The old question of ‘Who am I?’, which I already asked myself during my time in India, has found a spiritual answer. I am sun woman. Sharon told me that one can have many different spiritual names. This one will serve me for now, and it will help me to grow in this journey and on my spiritual path.
During my realization, the sun broke through the clouds. Coincidence or validation? I believe it was the latter, and my tears continued to flow.
Things are happening for a reason and they fall into place at the right time.
Although I have been living in Canada for a long time, I had never visited a Indigenous community before. It was unknown territory for me. The interest and curiosity was alway there, but I was hesitant and I didn’t have the courage to go out of my way to connect with Indigenous culture. I worried I would not be welcome. However, after meeting Indigenous people on my journey, my curiosity for their culture grew. Then I met Nicole from the Ojibwe First Nation at the grocery store in White River, who told me about the Pic Mobert First Nation, which was ahead on my hike. That conversation inspired my “boldness” to stop a woman called Tracey at the intersection from the Highway entrance to the First Nation, and ask if I could stay there overnight. After giving her time to get over her suspicion at being stopped by a random hiker at sunset, she let me climb into her car and drove me down the road, asking around until someone pointed us to Rosi and Fred. That’s where I stayed. It was also Nicole who had posted about my journey on Facebook, which led to Sharon inviting me to stay at the Pic River First Nation. Great things happen when you keep an open mind.
Staying with two Indigenous communities gave me the opportunity to learn, to ask questions and to participate in a women’s drumming circle and rituals. It allowed me to grow my curiosity and to be hungry for the next encounter and spiritual events on this journey. It was a lot to digest in a short amount of time, but that’s what the road is there for. It gives me time to reflect.
I am so glad that I have broken down my barrier of visiting Indigenous communities. Lots of new things are possible from now on.
For me, Canada was always the epitomy of wilderness and wideness. That’s why I thought I’d find my freedom here. But there is more to it. Finding freedom means breaking free from those things that tie me down and keep me from moving forward. They can be beliefs, material objects, people – anything. Whatever it is, it’s personal. As I am connecting to the land and the people, as I am walking my way, as I am inevitably starting to connect to the spirituality and teachings of the Indigenous peoples of Canada, my freedom expands. The sun shines into all directions. I am sun woman. Anything is possible.
Find me walking