“If you believe it works; it’ll work”: smudging teachings with elder Victor McCoy

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As I sat among fifteen others on Wednesday evening in the Gathering Space, First Peoples House of Learning, I not only listened, but was truly inspired by the charming, wise teachings of Elder Victor McCoy. He taught with humility and a contagious sense of humour which immediately set the room at ease. Victor comes from Wawa and Batchewana First Nation of Ojibways in Northern Ontario and has recently retired after working for 33 years with Correctional Services Canada.

Born in Michipicoten Harbour, Elder Victor McCoy spent 11 years of his childhood in an Indian Residential School. At the early age of 5, his stay there began. He remained for almost 3 years without seeing his family then started returning home for summer breaks, winter breaks, Easter breaks and whatever breaks were permitted. When the school finally closed, the community priest told him “Victor, here’s your train ticket, and I hope to Christ we never see you again.”

As one of the first Native Liaison Officers appointed in Canada, Victor played a crucial role in the advancement of Native Liaison positions in the Ontario region. During his career, he has met and worked with countless people, including Native young offenders. His deliverance of substance abuse and correctional programs means he has worked in both community and institutional settings. Additionally, Victor has pursued entire programs using Anishinabek culture.

Victor now lives in Kingston, and after giving us the start to his story, began to bring the awareness towards his cultural rituals and the important and inspiring role his father played in the introduction to his native culture. Opening out his vintage, brown trunk, Victor prepared us for “smudging”. Smudging is a spiritual purification method used to remove stagnant energy and encourage happiness, gratitude and prayer. The practice honours the elements and all natural things, from plants and minerals, to animals and people.

From his kit, Victor pulled out sage rolled into a small ball which he collected from Regina Beach in South-central Saskatchewan, an abalone shell, a feather from a red hawk and a lighter. The sage represents earth and when burned represents air. It can also be swapped for tobacco, sweetgrass or any other sacred plant from Mother Earth. The abalone shell symbolizes water. Victor explained that when an abalone or sea snail mates, it crawls down seven miles into the ocean, so when you use the shell you are praying right to the bottom of the ocean. Eagle or hawk feathers fan the fire when lit and embody height. Combined with the depth from the shell and the height of the bird, the prayer is extended “miles down and miles up.”

Stories are the foundation of Victor’s talk. “Anybody that had ghosts or spirits in their cells, I went in and smudged them. If you believe it works, it works. If you don’t believe it works, it doesn’t. It’s that simple. I believe that it works and that’s why I still continue to do it today at 67 years old”. After watching Elders come through the institutions for years, Victor noticed each have a different way of smudging. He reinforced that everyone smudges their own way, but as long as it is with humility and a prayer that belongs to you, it is done correctly: “Whichever way you’re doing it, as long as you’re doing it, it’s ok.”

We were invited to leave our seats and pull the smoke across our bodies in a cleansing action. Victor went first, explaining each step. He removed his glasses to give thanks for sight and to pray to see clearly. He removed his watch, which gives him time, to be present in the moment. He bathed his hands first, then his ears “to hear”, his mouth “to say”, and his head “to think good thoughts”. Because “hair is dying”, he cleanses it two or three times. Finally, he moves the air over his body, telling us, in this moment, he is “as real as he can be”.

I felt overwhelmingly blessed, pure and grateful to share his prayer, to cleanse myself of bad energy and to allow myself to be truly thankful for the present moment, my family, my friends, my health, food, water and home. Victor’s speech moved me and reminded me of the importance and preciousness of life. He concluded by asking us a question: “Most of us live like we have another world to go to. We don’t. This is it. How would the world do without us? It would rejuvenate, it would go about its business just like we weren’t here. How important do you feel now?” My answer is that, in this moment, I feel as real as I can be.