A Crossing Over Ceremony

( – promoted by navajo)

My Mother:

My mother was born on the Ocean Man Reserve in Saskatchewan, Canada and came to the United States as a child. According to her brother she was smuggled into the country in the back of a hay wagon and lived here for most of her life as an illegal immigrant. She grew up on a ranch, riding a horse to school until she left for high school. She grew up without things such as running water and electricity.

The Plan:

The sweat lodge, interesting enough, was scheduled to happen four days after she died: a ceremonially significant time period. My initial plan was to ask another pipe carrier (ceremonial leader) to conduct the sweat and run a crossing over ceremony as a part of the sweat. I wanted to simply sit in the ceremony with no ceremonial responsibilities. In following a traditional Native path, however, we pay attention to the flow of spiritual forces around us.

Shortly after my mother died, I got an email note from people that I did not know. They simply introduced themselves as a group of Europeans who had been doing sweat lodge in Europe under the guidance of a Susquehannock leader. They had heard about our regularly scheduled sweat and asked if they could attend. With this request, I realized that the best way I could honor my mother was to conduct the sweat lodge ceremony.


In the traditional Anishinabe way, the preparation of the fire and the lodge is a ceremony in itself. The wood is laid out on the fire pit in a specific fashion, paying attention to both the number of logs used and the directions in which they face. Then the rocks-48 plus one for this ceremony-are placed on top. The rocks are not covered as we want them to be in contact with other spiritual forces.

For this sweat, the fire was then ignited on the west side, the direction of death. For the next two hours, we let the fire and the stones talk to us. This period of time usually tells a lot about what we should be doing in the sweat itself. Ceremony, in this traditional fashion, is not mindless repetition, but is an ongoing conversation with the spiritual. As such, no two ceremonies are ever the same, just like no two conversations are ever identical. We pay attention to what is happening and then respond to that.

Blessing the Lodge:

With the fire under way, I entered the lodge carrying a medicine flute. Alone in the lodge, I then played the flute to the seven directions, to the animal spirits, and to my mother’s soul.

Pipe Ceremony:

When the rocks tell us that it is time, we then gather outside of the lodge for a pipe ceremony. I conducted this ceremony using the older of my pipes. The pipe ceremony that I did was a shortened Midewiwin ceremony in which smoke was first offered upward to Gitche Manitou and then down to Mother Earth. These two offerings open up the portal to the spirit world. Then smoke is offered to the manitous (spirits) of the four cardinal directions: North (direction of dreams), South (direction of words), West (direction of death), and East (direction of birth). Following this, the other pipe carriers (there were five present) passed their pipes so that all who participated in the ceremony would be spiritually connected.

Sweat Lodge:

I do many different kinds of sweat lodge ceremonies. For this occasion, an Anishinabe (Ojibwa) creation ceremony seemed most appropriate. In this ceremony, each “round” of the sweat focused on a single cycle of creation.

Sixteen stones, each glowing red so that you can look into the soul of the stone, were then brought into the lodge one at a time. As each stone was in the pit, a sprinkling of herbs was placed on it to create a smudge.

A quick aside about the herbs used for the smudge. Earlier that afternoon, I had attempted to put together a smudge blend to be used for this ceremony. I wanted to start with lavender, but my supply of lavender had somehow disappeared. In my hand I suddenly realized that I was holding sweet pine, and the next to appear was cedar. Thus I realized that the smudge was to be sweet pine and cedar. When one of the other pipe carriers had arrived at the lodge, one of the first things he did was to hand me a container of lavender. I told him about finding the sweet pine and cedar. Smiling, he handed me the container in his other hand-sweet pine and cedar which he mixed that afternoon.

Each one of the first sixteen stones has special spiritual significance. The first four represent the four cardinal directions: North, South, West, East. The next four are the guardian spirits of the Midewiwin: Bear, Otter, Moose, Whitefish. Then come the four celestial bodies: Mother Earth, the Sun, the Moon, and the Star People. And finally, Thunderbird, Underwater Panther, the Giants, and the Little People.

When Underwater Panther is called in, many people offer a coin-usually a penny-as an offering. I offered my AA sobriety coin (41 years).

At the beginning of the first round, I sang one of the songs given to me at my vision quest, then an Anishinabe spiritual song, and a drum blessing song. Following this song, the drums could be used. Another pipe carrier than sang an Assiniboine four directions song.

In the first round, we tell of the dream which led to the creation of the world. Following this dream, the stones, the air, the fire, and the water were created and each was given spirit, soul, life, Manitou. Then these four elements were used to create the earth, the sun, the moon, and the star people. In telling the creation story, we usually talk about the meaning of each of these things.

A number of songs then followed, sung by various participants.

The second round is about the plant people. According to the creation story, each of the plant people was given two gifts: the power of beauty and the power of healing. These are interrelated gifts as beauty is a part of healing. Thus, the second round is traditionally a healing round and as such tends to be rather hot. This time, however, I was unable to persuade the stones to give us much heat. This was probably the coldest second round I have ever done. During the second round I sang a number of songs to the plant people.

Following the second round, another pipe carrier conducted the crossing over ceremony. I simply laid on the floor and let one of my souls wander the earth as he sang the song.

The third round tells of the creation of the animal people. Each one of the animal people was given the power to see the future. Then each was given a unique gift. As humans, we often utilize these animal people as our elder siblings, our teachers. It is often these animal people who come to us at vision quest, and at other times, and teach us what it means to be human. In this round, people are asked to sing to an animal spirit who has come to them-not one they want, but one who has already come to them.

The fourth round is about the creation of human beings. At creation humans were given only one gift: the power of the dream. Thus creation comes full circle: it began with a dream and it ends with a dream. During this round people were asked to sing their dream songs, their personal medicine songs.

Finally, there was a closure round. A woman pipe carrier conducted this round and the people contributed many songs.

The ceremony started with the fire about 5:00 PM and it concluded some time after midnight.  


  1. with us. I’ve never done a sweat and I’m very hungry for any details. Thank you, thank you!

    Again, my thoughts are with you and your mother.

  2. …how you honored your mother’s passing. Peace and blessings on you and her.

    I wish I could have done the same for my grandmother, dead for 55 years last month. But I was only 8 when she died and obviously not prepared or knowledgeable about how to accomplish that. Unfortunately, no adults around at the time were able to do so either.

  3. My heart feels sadness for your loss, the ceremony you share with us is such a gift.

    For many years now I have always taken my anniversary chips and put them in the flower urn at my mother’s headstone.

    Every day I don’t use is a way to honor her.

    When you shared about your 41 year coin the tears that were brimming flowed over in a stream.

    You’re a daily gift in my life, for many reasons.

    I’ve been, and will continue to, send up prayers for you, your mother.  

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