The day had finally come -- the day we would go to the Rakaia and set up the area for the Nur Win yu pus and Hee chala Olelbis Ceremony. We all rode in four wheels, vans and trucks to the Glenthorne region past the dam on a gravel road to the Rakaia River. The Ngai Tahu elder, Rick Tau was there to greet us and through the Maori Whakanoa ceremony to turn the authority of the area to the Winnemem.
We walked down toward a river to a wooded and shrubby grass knoll, a small cozy little place surrounded by green. This was to be the place. After the "turning over" ceremony, then Caleen was able to do whatever she wanted. When the Maori say she could do whatever she wanted, they meant it. The young dancers and Maori friends including Tall Joe, a favorite of everyone with tousled red hair and a warm smile, began to chop away the bushes opening the space to the river beyond. Then Caleen noticed glass in the grass, so the grass was removed by hand. As the young men crawled on their hands and knees pulling grass, one of them was heard to say, "Where are the fighting women when we need them, the ones who pull hair." In place of grass, the boys climbed down to the river's beach and brought sand to make the dancing circle.
Willow branches were cleared and we all stopped to breathe in the view of the river, the beach and the bold mountain behind it. The scene reminded me of Eastern Oregon or the Columbia Gorge -- just wilder, not developed, free. No wires or wind towers, no dam, a barely perceptible road across the broad river cutting out of the mountain. It was a perfect place. Up above was the parking lot where the kitchen would be set up -- but not for the dancers who would be fasting. Gloria, Al, Tia had already thought about that. All the food cooked on site would be wrapped so the scent did not overpower the area and waft down to the ceremonial grounds. Gloria made us promise that if we smelled food at all, to let them know. She did not want to make the fasting harder. Our hosts set up some tents both on the parking level, and on the level of the ceremony, one big easy up with sides for the dancers to rest in.
Caleen, Sarah and I started working on a willow lean-to-wall to put against the easy up, but the willow bark was not very strong, and did not come off in the nice strips as expected. I looked up from tying one to see Pauline, Tina's husband, and a couple other of the Maori in a line stripping away flax leaves without saying a word industriously. Wonderful! The flax strips were strong and easy to tie. Tina's husband and Caleen finished off the other ties -- cross cultural sharing coming very naturally. "No workshop needed!" we observed. Leaning up against the easy up with full view of the fire, it made a perfect place for the Fire Tender through the night.
We couldn't help but take a look backward at the changed space, no longer a nice little deer bed of a place surrounded by thicket, but a ceremony circle, in the center, a Sacred Circle of stones for the Fire, the Winnemem box drum in place, the River and Mountain in clear sight. It felt good.
We got into the vehicles to spend another night at a luxurious Sheep Camp turned retreat which the Maori hosts had leased for us, an extravagantly luxurious evening with individual bathrooms, showers, a bed, and the very generous meals which Gloria, Tia,Pauline and the hosts at Glenthorne provided -- Carole and Makere.
That night we opened the packages sent from customs which held the feather bustles and head gear, the bows, arrows, spears, and ankle bracelets of deer feet. It's a good thing Richard Tinkersley from the New Zealand Human Rights Commission suggested we eat a good meal before the Winnemem sat down for this task. In opening the boxes, Caleen found much damage done by the poor repacking and the toxins used to fumigate the articles by the customs staff. From where I sat on a couch, watching my Winnemem family -- Chief, headman, dancers, mothers of the dancers, the Dance Captain -- I could see their faces fall, and their shoulders sag. It became very quiet.
One by one, each dancer opened their case and took out their bustles, ankle bracelets, and other regalia pieces to be examined and to be taken care of. Feathers were broken having been re-packed with the heavy ankle bracelets on top of them, which, in moving back and forth as each suitcase was moved, damaged the feathers underneath. The sheen of life had disappeared from the feathers. It felt like the dancer-warrior spirit of the regalia was present, but worn and battered. The night was solemn as our Maori friends and we sat in silent witness. The bows, arrows and spears were examined. Sad to say the custom officers did not bother to rewrap the points, instead tossing the extra foam back into the package. Both points were damaged. One of the points were actually loosened from the spear.
The Chief made a good point. Customs is very familiar with handling "museum pieces" very much like the regalia which are actively used by the Winnemem tribe. The regalia was no less valuable, no less old than those exhibition pieces. Certainly a tribe's sacred regalia should receive the same treatment as museum pieces or the Pope's vestments, for that matter.
The Chief talked to us about next steps, toxins would have to be washed off of things which could be laundered, the feathers washed. The spear would need to be attended to. Nothing could be done about the points. Nor could anything be done, we learned later during ceremony, about the deer hooves which became rubbery and broke apart as the dancers danced, we assume, due to the toxins used on them.
At some point after that Makere came up with a package in her hand and said there was something she would like to give if this would be an appropriate time. I remembered Makere and I had a conversation earlier regarding difficulties with regalia. I told her at the last minute customs would not allow migratory bird feathers so we had to leave the flicker feather pieces at home. She brought the package to the table which Caleen opened. Caleen's face brightened as she held up a single flicker feather, and said how good it was their relative would be present at the ceremony after all, explaining that all the flicker feathers were left at home but this one would represent. Then she reached in and brought out a hawk wing. The hawk was very important to the Maori also. Each dancer would dance with one of the hawk feathers tied onto his regalia. Finally Caleen brought out the eagle feathers from the package. Somehow, every bent feather could be replaced because of this gift of eagle feathers, as well as smaller eagle feathers and fluff. There was even one white feather to replace the injured white feather in our Chief's headpiece. The spirit of the ceremony and the sacred infused the evening with the gift of feathers -- it seemed like a circle was completed. The damage and hurt was temporary because what was meant to be would be.
There isn't a doubt that these valuable pieces filled with spirit were more ragged, more spent than they were --- just as we are with the uphill challenges of dealing with non-recognition and abuse of sacred lands and water -- and at the same time, there is no doubt that all will carry on.
The hardest thing was to know that the little doctoring basket which Granny used, and her mother before that which Caleen might need to use had had all the feathers taken off of it by customs. Why would customs feel they needed to desecrate it? What damage could the feathers have caused the health and safety of anyone? During the ceremony, there was need to use the little basket, and, as it was, things were fine, after all. I was relieved. I could not help comparing -- the people of the tribe -- their feathers and baskets -- the salmon -- the river -- the quality of air and Ocean -- the security of the Mountain -- the earth itself. What is of value now in this time? what is respected?
It was of some comfort that this all happened with people who cared, who respected, stood beside and of course, that the "one who had something to give" also had the kind of heart that understood that feathers were meant to dance and not to be kept in boxes OR museums. It was comfort and it was enough. Thank you, Great Olelbis.
Next day, the ceremony would go on!
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