AWR 2011: Renewal by Fire

By Natalie Janovak

I attended Ancient Wisdom Rising by virtue of a work-trade scholarship. I was introduced to the event by a new friend, Cynthia Frisch, who helped organize the event but was unable to attend.  I have just started into outreach work for the Sustainable World Coalition and feel fully charged by blessed unrest after attending the Awakening the Dreamer, Changing the Dream Symposium earlier this year. All I knew was that I was yearning to learn more about something that I did not yet have words to describe; and I wanted to jump in with both hands and feet.

I was unfamiliar with the Sacred Fire Foundation and their work to preserve indigenous wisdom for future generations and I didn’t know a soul when I arrived at Fort Worden State Park as a volunteer with camping gear in tow, but as I drove home four days later I felt as if I had found a part of my family in Port Townsend.

Put simply, my spiritual path compelled me to attend AWR. Over the years my journey has been blessed with many wise teachers, pilgrimages, and a lifestyle that includes fasting and meditation as an act of gratitude. Despite the traditions that I’ve practiced throughout my life I’ve always felt as if some big piece was still missing.  Here I was now, in the audience of indigenous Elders gathered in reverence around a sacred fire. As I had lost my voice the night I showed up at AWR I simply listened; and I was to learn what that really means.

As the sacred fire burned over the next four days under the watchful eyes of initiated Firekeepers, I would hear the Elders share their traditions and the instructions of their ancestors with an attentive audience, in a time where many people have become disconnected with their purpose and each other. Little did I know I would soon experience a profound renewal of spirit that would forever change me.

The best way to explain how I felt during AWR is to first understand that time slowed down in a way that I rarely experience at my typical, harried pace. The schedule of events was artfully orchestrated and included countless opportunities to personally connect with the Elders and the community in attendance. Each session offered opportunities for the Elders to magnify unique aspects of their respective traditions. People were invited to participate in ceremonies and to share their thoughts or experiences. I felt profoundly connected to what I was involved with and this made eight hours feel like only ten minutes.

The Sacred Fire Foundation invited local artisans, crafts people and organizations to hold booths for people to peruse, and they balanced the schedule to include yoga, performances by local musicians, guided meditational walks, and powerful presentations by the Pachamama Alliance, Sacred Earth Pictures, and the Global Oneness Project. Music was a joyful part of the entire experience and many Elders sang traditional songs in their native tongues to the steady beat of a drum, faintly heard in the distance even at sunrise. During the quiet hours a faint flute came from the Fire Tent, dancing on the soft wind like a gentle whisper. 

Traditional Elders representing many Nations gathered together around the sacred fire. This is a powerful concept in and of itself. The Haida, Diné, Swinomish, Salish, Dagara, Maya, Huichol, Hindu, and Maori people all trace their traditions back to the beginning of time. Their traditions had emerged independently in every corner on Earth and have been transmitted in different languages. Their people flourished for centuries and historically have experienced unfathomable injustice at the hands of conquering nations, corporations, and exploitative industries. Sadly, they still do. But at AWR the Elders gathered together to share their traditional wisdom with an audience of North Americans, to help us change our dream . It was a profound gift for me to witness them united in dialogue and ceremony, as a Mormon-Catholic-Buddhist-Seeker who grew up in Salt Lake City, Utah and had no idea how deep interconnectedness could go.

Sonbonfu Somé, Tata Erick Gonzalez, Whaea Raina Ferris and her daughter, Kawan Sangaa Woody Morrison, Vedamurti Shri Vivek Shastri L. Godbole, Tsuarirrikame Eliot Cowan, Squi qui “Ray” Williams, and Tom B.K. Goldtooth were in attendance, among Elders of other traditions who participated in the event, including special guest Elaine Grinnell of the local Jamestown S’Klallam.  I report only their names because the gravity of who they are is difficult to capture with words. A better way to explain is that you could feel what the Elders were saying to a point where their words and dialects blended into the same message: take care of the Earth that nourishes you and will nourish generations yet to come; reconnect with nature and the wisdom of the ancestors that came before us; and reunite as a human community.

Over 130 people attended AWR, coming from all walks of life and corners of the Earth. I was profoundly moved to participate in the various sessions and ceremonies. I often found myself on the fringe of many, simply because I was so deeply impacted by the words and the brilliant radiance that their presence exuded and was compelled to reflect in private. Many times I caught myself in the moment, amazed by the faces that surrounded me, and I soon realized how rare and beautiful (and possible) it was for relative strangers to come together and simply be as if weaved from the same cloth.

After a particularly moving session with Ray, and as old habits go, I had to drive away to allow myself the privacy to be completely vulnerable. Honestly, I needed to cry but did not want to concern anyone. I went to the ocean to meditate and try to put to words what I was feeling. As I sat watching the waves roll in with the heavy wind, I recalled how I came to be in Washington State to begin with. I was born in Utah and had a vague understanding of how the Janovaks came to be there. My immediate family has always been very close; very tightly knit with love and weaved into a cloth that I’ve been seeking to understand my entire life. The Janovaks didn’t have any elders, at least not at the level which I’ve learned is possible. I do not know where my people came from or why they left their motherland; but I did know their story was part of me somehow.

I cried because I could feel the void inside me that had brought much grief and loneliness in my life. In this experience that void was transformed to joy at the realization that I am interweaved with the fabric of humanity and always have been. The people surrounding me at AWR were my brothers and sisters. The sky is where our ancestors watch over us. Gifts from Mother Earth and Father Sky, the ocean, moon, and fire sustains us all as our fabric extends over every continent and ocean on Earth. I felt a flood of inner peace with the realization that I had finally found my roots.

I may not speak the same language or practice the same traditions of the respective Elders, but I understood what they spoke very deeply. I felt their sincerity and compassion as keenly as I feel it with my own parents. I am beyond grateful to have been in their audience. I am also very grateful to the Sacred Fire Foundation for financially supporting my participation and the wonderful people I met while assisting in AWR.  I will see you again, for the first time. I return to my everyday life with a renewed sense of purpose and action, renewed by wisdom and family connection through the gift of the sacred fire.

Click the link to learn more about Sacred Fire Foundation’s mission and past and future AWR gatherings.

AWR logo used with permission.

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