by Sarena Johnson
Seegwun, sekwun or ziigwan are interchangeable English spelling variations on the same Anishnaabemowin word for springtime. While Canadian society runs on the Gregorian calendar new year of January 1, Indigenous cultures view seegwun as the new year. Seegwun opens the eastern doorway of the medicine wheel (yellow, east, childhood) and begins the new cycle. In relationship to the land and the natural rhythms in this part of the world, it would appear to be a more appropriate time for the ‘new year’. It’s interesting to notice how many western conventions seem to go against nature.
In seegwun, Mother Earth awakens from her winter slumber, and with her the water and sun energies come back into their power. Ice and snow melt while rains cleanse the earth of winter residues. With the waters come fish, a highly celebrated and abundant food source for Indigenous peoples.
It’s a time of new beginnings. People start to go outside more, to stretch their legs. Indigenous groups would move from winter to summer camps. Spring is when you plant your garden, both literally and figuratively. The foods and medicines you choose to harvest over the coming year are planted, along with the goals you want to accomplish and strategies you choose to employ.
The thunder beings are welcomed when they return in the first storm of the season because they perform a spiritual spring cleaning of sorts at the first clap of thunder (arguably, the first moment of seegwun). Hibernating animals like mukwa (bear) wake up from their long sleep, and the medicines they represent begin to stir as well. As people perform spring cleaning on their homes, so too is it a time for cleansing of the body, mind, emotions and spirit. Many people participate in sweat lodges and go fasting.
Maple sap, a natural cleansing medicine, is provided to us from mother earth to assist in the cleansing process. The raw sap detoxifies the body and balances the blood sugars. Yet maple sap more often gets boiled down into syrup and sold as a sugar product. The original medicine represents a healthy, natural relationship with sugar, and also with the land. It was cleansing, gentle and dilute. Yet the boiled down syrup becomes essentially the same as white sugar; it can be harmful, especially for Indigenous people who have a much higher rate of Diabetes.
The difference between the sap as medicine and sap as syrup highlights a dark chapter of North American history. One topic that’s rarely spoken about is the connection between Indigenous rates of Diabetes and the policies of assimilation that used forced starvation and reliance on commodities to control First Nations. The eradication of the buffalo, the Pass System, and residential schools are three examples of this. In the first, buffalo were targeted for extinction since they sustained Plains First Nations. When dealing with starvation, these nations were weaker and more likely to surrender tracts of land, easier to manipulate, etc. The Pass System was an illegal system in which the Indian Agent (a government official) was able to control who was allowed to leave the reserve, for how long and for what purpose. The agent would approve who was allowed to go hunting or sell their produce at markets. Not coincidentally, this same agent was in charge of doling out rations of commodities. Thus, the agent could effectively starve anyone whom they found “problematic”. The 1876 Indian Act also prevented Indigenous peoples from killing their own livestock for food or using mechanized farm equipment, so they couldn’t compete with neighbouring settler farmers. Residential schools were notorious for malnourishing children and even used students in starvation experiments. So Canada used numerous nutrition related tactics to control, limit or punish Indigenous peoples.
Enforced poverty led to an unhealthy relationship to food, and in particular to commodities such as sugar, flour and lard. This is a major factor in the high rates of Diabetes in our communities. Maple sap has essentially been turned from a medicine to a poison. In this way, through it’s two diverse uses, maple sap represents a lot about Indigenous knowledge and relationship to the land, and how those knowledges and relationships have been corrupted through colonization. This divergence can be seen as a microcosm of colonial exploitation of Indigenous land, medicines and people.
I’m currently looking at ways of decolonizing myself. In relating this to a traditional seasonal way of life, I can’t help but focus on my struggles with the western diet. I have both celiac and diabetes in my family, and have been told by an Elder that I’m allergic to wheat. I’m also seeing a naturopath and the strongest suggestion is that I need to eliminate grains, sugar and processed foods entirely. I had done this for about six months last year and felt amazing. But I also found eating “traditional” or paleo expensive, time consuming and even anti-social.
Many other people who are working towards the same diet will attest to its difficulty in personal resolve and lifestyle changes. It involves a cleansing of the body, which brings up mental and emotional challenges that make daily life quite unpleasant for the initial cleansing phase. However, there is a strong spiritual aspect to this body work, and I am choosing to think of it as a form of ceremony.
Sekwun is my middle name so I have a particularly personal tie to this season. While I can’t necessarily get out onto the land and do a traditional four day fast this year, I’m combining intermittent fasting with the paleo diet in my own form of fasting ceremony. As much as the personal is political, ceremony doesn’t have to be religious or distant – but it is something I’m choosing to incorporate into my workday. A sort of personal, political, spiritual and sacred aspect of everyday life.
One of the worst effects of colonization is to make people feel like they don’t matter, like they’re less than human, like they’re profane rather than sacred. By recognizing the sacredness in ourselves and choosing to incorporate ceremonies of self care in our day to day lives, we are beginning the process of decolonizing ourselves. And what better time to begin than this time of new beginnings, this sekwun?
Maple tapping image courtesy of Jay Havens