I am sure that the Creator was giggling to Herself as She watched me struggle with erecting my first teaching lodge. This first lodge definitely wasn’t even or very straight. When I look back at pictures now I have to giggle and shudder a little. I am gentle with myself though. As Oprah would say, you do better when you know better.
We had the most beautiful setting on top of Mount McKay, more specifically on the plateau piece just below the top of the mountain where the Fort William First Nation pow wows are held. It has a view overlooking the entire city of Thunder Bay and Ktichigaming (meaning big lake for Lake Superior) and faces Nanabijou (signifying the Sleeping Giant which is another sacred area). Of course I did not have a clue what I was doing and Albert was a million miles away in Shoal Lake (west of Kenora). I did manage to convince a few people from Fort William to help me and God bless them for assisting me. It took about a week I think to build which is also hilarious as it can be put up in less than a day if the stars are all aligned: you have your materials, you have the helpers, you know how to put it up and you have good weather.
There are several steps involved when putting up a teaching lodge. First of all the location is very important. Perhaps you received a dream as to the location or perhaps through other means you gained spiritual guidance such as a pipe ceremony. In this instance, because it was located on reserve, I needed to get permission from the community. I started out at the band office and then was directed to the Keeper of the Mountain. Once permission was gained, tobacco needed to be offered on the grounds to the Creator for erecting the lodge. We also needed to make arrangements for washroom facilities on the mountain and I contacted a local Port-a-Potties.
Throughout the whole process we were receiving guidance from Albert over the phone. We needed to cut down the saplings to erect the lodge and we had to go far up a very rough trail further up the mountain to cut down some maple trees located around an old sugar bush area. Before we cut down the saplings, we needed to offer tobacco to the Creator and to the trees for their service to us. One person offered the tobacco and then all the volunteers started to saw down the saplings. It is encouraged for non-use of mechanized equipment so we could not use a chain saw but rather hand saws and axes. Then we needed to trim the branches off these saplings that were approximately twelve to fifteen feet high and two to three inches in diameter. You don’t want anything too big or it is too difficult to bend and could possibly snap under pressure. These saplings were then loaded into the box of my faithful pickup named Nellie and transported to the location of the lodge.
At the site of where the lodge is going to be erected, the holes for the saplings need to be dug. Again not using any mechanized machinery. In our case further down the road we were given a very heavy metal rod with a nut and bolt at the end of it which can be slammed into the ground to produce a post hole. The lodge has four doorways and the open door faces the east. I don’t honestly remember what we used for this first ceremony, I only remember experiencing challenges basically at every step as it was so unfamiliar. The shebaandowin (signifying to go through) is eventually going to look similar to a long lodge or long house and therefore requires twelve post holes on each sides, directly parallel to each other and four post holes on each end.
Then the ground needs to be blessed in preparation for the saplings to be put into the post holes. This blessing includes sacred tobacco, sacred water and prayers being lovingly inserted into each and every hole. Songs would also be a great blessing. I am not sure that we conducted this very important step for this first lodge and this could have contributed to some of the outcomes and challenges.
Then the arches need to be built using the saplings and you would start at the eastern doorway. So you would get two fairly sturdy saplings as they will be part of the foundation of the lodge and you would place one in each corner on the east side. Bending the saplings to the center takes some practice to perfect this technique. If you put too much pressure on the sapling, it could snap and then you would have to start all over again. And if the sapling is too dry, it won’t bend very well. It is a very fine balance. Try to picture this. Let us say that we are bending the first sapling in the east-south corner. One person would be holding and pulling the sapling secure in the post hole on the outside of the lodge. One person would be pushing against the sapling towards the outside to ensure that the sapling does not snap. Then hopefully you would have some very tall people in the middle who would pull the end of the sapling down and meet the other sapling on the east-north corner doing exactly the same procedure. A measuring stick would be used down the middle of the arches to ensure the right height. We normally use a strong twine to tie everything down but specific colors of ribbons can also be used. You do not want it too high as there is possibility that the wind could work its way in and pick the lodge up and yet you want it high enough for the smoke hole and your guests. In this case, we built it way too high. So this continues all the way down the twelve arches using the measuring stick and a keen eye to ensure that the arches are even all the way down the length of the lodge. The lodge can be shorter or longer depending on the guests anticipated attending. This lodge was approximately 50 feet long by 15 feet wide. Our largest lodge so far has been about 60 feet long by 20 feet wide. That particular lodge was for our first Elders and Youth Gathering in the fall of 2010 entitled: “Voices of the Past, for Tomorrow”.
Once the arches are in place, the ribbings are placed in four neat rows along each side of the lodge in perfect distance from each other. Once again twine or ribbons will be used to attach the ribbings to the arches. Traditionally I am sure the people used sewing materials like a long root out of the pond or sinew from the animals. Our lodge does not use these permanent types of materials as they are hard to come by and the lodge is usually only up for four days and then taken down. Once we have a permanent location that will change. These ribbings ensure the integrity of the structure and hold additional teachings. Every sapling and every component of the lodge carries teachings and thousands of years of experiences.
The lodge was then covered with two very large blue tarps (i.e. 50 feet x 50 feet) and a smoke hole was cut out of the middle to allow for the smoke from the sacred fire to escape. If this was to be a permanent lodge then probably something more traditional would have been used to cover it such as birch bark or furs. I have to say that this first teaching lodge looked amazing to me at the time. But looking back on photographs I can see how amateurish and pitiful it truly was. Everything was uneven. It kind of looked like the head of a baby when it first leaves the safeness of the womb, sort of squashed and deformed looking. Albert also had a good laugh when he finally arrived to inspect it. In any event, I felt very grateful for the experience.