thoughts on the big smoke

dr. linda manyguns, phd, associate vice-president, indigenization and decolonization | posted feb. 2, 2022


seating arranged west to east, the covered area in the middle is the food.

on friday, jan. 28, dr. linda manyguns, phd, hosted a 'big smoke,' a blackfoot ceremony held only in the winter. the ceremony called for success, good luck and good health for everyone at mount royal university.


one of the teachings on perspectives that i rely on is from ontario as shown to my class by the late william commanda. he brought a rock to the classroom where we were all sitting in a circle. he put the rock in the middle of the circle and asked each person to describe it. after we went around he stated that everyone is correct but no one can give a complete description of the rock because we must bring all the perspectives together. he said the truth must be dealt with in the same way and has many perspectives that need to be brought together to be complete. it is in that sense that i provide a few perspectives of the big smoke. of course, i do not claim that this is complete, but i hope it will help to deepen the understanding of Indigenous ways of knowing at mru. as is commonly known, we don’t take photos of the ceremony when it is in progress, however before anyone arrived, we took a photo of the room. the seating is arranged west to east. the covered area in the middle is the food.

through the night the songs that were sung were earned in the summer ceremonies. there were sundance, horns, brave dogs, beavers, motokiiks and other societies’ songs. the big smoke ceremony is the only ceremony that calls people from all the various societies together. the ceremony was held friday, jan. 28, 2022 at the east residence community centre at mount royal university. the ‘big smoke’ is a blackfoot ceremony that is only held in the winter. the ceremony’s purpose is to bring positive success and good luck. the ceremony was called for success, good luck and good health for everyone at mount royal university.

as the night unfolded the ceremonialists and their students smoked the eleven pipes. the songs can only be sung if they have the transfer right to do so. the crow songs, the brave dogs barked their affiliation (they are the policing societies), and the inniskim song. as the night went on many more songs and many pipes were sent around to smoke. after each song, four stories of success were told through the night and after each one that luck was transferred to everyone at mru.

blackfoot ceremonies have specific purposes. in the case of this ceremony it is for success, good health and to ensure that we all put our feet in the green grass of spring.

another important perspective that was prevalent on friday was that in ceremonies they are our traditional classrooms. only in ceremony can traditional knowledge be transferred. just as there are prerequisites for specific classes, so, too, do ceremonies have such things. we call these cultural credentials and anyone ‘who is seated’ must have verified credentials that have been witnessed and are known in the ceremonialists in the community. these credentials take years and being present at many, many ceremonies to earn. once you have earned the right to be seated at the ceremonies then you are permitted to be in the next-level teaching space where knowledge transfer is taking place.

on friday, knowledge transfer was taking place for many of the younger ceremonialists and helpers. in the community, once they hear of a ceremony taking place all the new upcoming ceremonialists hurry to get to it so they can hear and see the way the traditional people move. they study the order of events, the songs, the way the ceremony is conducted. plus, they must always remember that each of the ceremonialists has a little different version of the ceremony.

mru provided strong support in the centre, we provided the tobacco cutter, and the ‘sits holy.’ my helpers with the food and set-up were also key to the overall success. those positions for this ceremony can come from the entity who calls the ceremony.

to understand ‘Indigenous ways of knowing,’ i think it is imperative that we know and are aware of how traditional knowledge transfer is taking place in the community and ensure that we recognize that students and professors will be making these commitments. the time and value of mru’s students, professors and employees who are involved in traditional knowledge transfer should be recognized. the reality of the culture returning and understanding the commitment being made to attend and earn cultural credentials is a key part of our learning. this should be part of our growth in understanding.

traditional knowledge transfer is growing in all communities. there should be tangible recognition for tenure and promotion in academia if we are serious about understanding Indigenous ways of knowing. the old ceremonies are the ontological building blocks that form the foundation of our cultures. while the blackfoot culture is distinct from other Indigenous cultures, it is my experience that knowledge transfer is very strict in Indigenous cultures. the important piece i am trying to get to, is how do we recognize this commitment to Indigenous culture if a professor, for instance, is seeking tenure and promotion? how do we recognize the actions of a student if they must choose to be present at a ceremonial teaching rather then preparing for an exam? with the big smoke, the learning ones must drop everything and head to the ceremony to see, hear and learn. there are no other options or venues for learning the knowledge. how do we reconcile our ways of learning and recognize the commitment within the academy at all levels?

i think we are a turning point in the road. if we want to indigenize then we must take the responsibility to recognize and understand that there will be overlaps with some, but not all, professors and students as they engage in both cultural education and academic education, and that is it our responsibility to bring this understanding into the context of mru, without appropriation.

going back to perspectives, i recall the first time being at a big smoke, my recollections of blackfoot people of all ages being there, and i saw the rules and order being followed carefully. i noticed the complexity of the ceremony. mostly i saw and heard the commitment to give luck, good health and success and through the night, heard the stories told and saw pipes smoked to help. i recall my amazement that strangers would stay up all night to sing for another’s success and good health. it gives emphasis and context to help us understand what the Indigenous way of knowing is, and it begins with seeing the richness held in the Indigenous way of life. and that is a perspective i embrace.