Full Circle: An Orkney family reunited after 200 years separated by distance and culture (Part 11)

By Kim Twatt

Exploring Cultures

While visiting the youth camp at Sturgeon Lake, Robert Ermine had explained the sweat lodge to us and its role in the lives of the people. While we chatted I had noticed a pile of burnt stones close by the lodge. These stones had been blessed and used in the lodge as part of the ceremony. They reminded me of Orkney’s two hundred or so ancient burnt mounds. Back home in Orkney, as I spoke to Arlene Isbister about the Minehowe Knowehow Iron Age project she was organising, I wondered whether she might want someone from Canada to try to explain the possible origins of Orkney’s burnt mounds. The Chief at Sturgeon Lake put Arlene in touch with Professor Willie Ermine from the Saskatchewan Indian Federated College. With his son, Charles, Willie came to Orkney.

Willie Ermine

Photo credit: Peter Stokes

As I drove the jet-lagged Ermines out of Kirkwall to gather the materials for the building of a sweat lodge Willie asked if I knew the sort of trees he required. I reassured him best I could. A couple of miles further and he asked tentatively whether there were any trees on Orkney. I reassured him again and swung the car and rattling trailer into the beautiful terraced garden belonging to the late Mrs Daphne Lorimer in Orphir. Willie gasped, we can’t cut these. This is someone’s garden. I reassured him again and Mrs Lorimer waved enthusiastically from her window. A friend arrived with a chain saw and Willie selected the first tree. Peter swung the chain saw ready for action but noticed, just in time, that Willie was praying and making an offering of tobacco to the earth. The Ermines constructed the sweat lodge at Minehowe in Tankerness using willow from the garden in Orphir and stones from the beach at Inganess. Willie conducted a sweat which I was fortunate to be able to attend. With no idea of what to expect at all, I emerged very relaxed and any problems or anxieties now in perspective. In the lodge I had thought of the elders we had met at Sturgeon Lake, in particular, Harold Kingfisher and Robert Ermine. Imagine my surprise when I returned to the house, the phone rang, and it turned out to be those two gentlemen phoning from the Band Office at Sturgeon Lake. This was the one call I ever had from them.

Willie Ermine described his paper, written following his visit as:

a cursory idea in terms of attaching some significance to this convergence of world views. Broadly speaking, he continued, I want to say that the mission to uncover the unknowns of our human existence is consistent with our personal need to search for soul and spirit. The experience of the sweat lodge teaches that uncovering our sacred resources and giftedness we each possess may be the way to our knowing. The forces of heat, steam, the rocks, the air, all encapsulated in the utter darkness of the lodge recreates that moment of the great potential, the primordial moment within each of us. They are the same forces that take us to the access routes to our inner landscapes of the soul. The events of that week at Minehowe, he stated, seemed to speak of much more than just a scientific glimpse at the past.”

Willie Ermine’s paper, The Cree First Nation’s Sweat-lodge appears in Sea Change, a collection of papers published by The Pinkfoot Press following the Iron Age Conference held in Orkney in 2002.

Sweat lodge painting

Coming next in Part 12 Pilgrimage to Orkney

Full Circle:An Orkney family reunited after 200 years separated by distance and culture (Part 10)

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2 replies »

  1. That the stones were blessed, had never occurred to me, but fits so well, with a certain way of being and approaching life’s activities. Blessing the fire, as you set it, blessing the hearth you set it on. Here’s something I wrote along these lines, some years ago……..

    Everything is a Meditation

    Everything is a meditation. A couple of years ago, our next-door neighbours had a little baby. When Mum came home from hospital with Baby, I went round to sit with them whilst Dad went shopping. We chatted while I held the baby, and it was as though the three of us were in a peaceful little bubble. That was a meditation.
    When I’ve been working in the garden, sometimes I just sit and look about me. I am aware of and feel the presence of God in everything; in every blade of grass, in every shrub, in every singing bird, in the sky and in every cloud.
    Even more mundane things such as washing-up, can also be a meditation. I put on some music, stand at the sink and wash up whilst looking out at the shrubs full of birds squabbling over the bird feeders, and, again, away into the sky. That is a meditation.
    Then there’s setting the fire (though I realise that, unfortunately, not many people get the opportunity to set a fire these days). First I put in the paper, then the small kindling, then the larger kindling and the logs. Each in its order, or it won’t flare up satisfactorily when lit. Setting the fire is a meditation.
    And so on, and so on. It doesn’t have to be in a special place or circumstance, it’s just part of life.
    LIFE is a meditation.
    Live your meditation.
    Love your meditation.
    Love life.

    Bernie Bell

    And something else, from this piece……………………


    “The Burnt Mound was thought to be a Bronze Age………….house? That’s what was thought, then. I think that people are seeing it differently, now. It never made sense to me, as a house. It would be very un-healthy to live in a place , where the cooking was done by plunging hot stones into a big trough of water, into which you’d placed the food which you wanted to be cooked. That would produce a lot of steam, which would be un-healthy for the people, and also make everything in the room, rot! They had the fire, they had the pots, so, why cook that way? Also, where are the beds? and, try looking after small children in a house with a huge trough of water in the middle of the room!
    My take on it is………….some kind of ‘Sweat Lodge’ where folk went when they were ill, and sweated out the illness. Maybe with herbs added to the water, to help the process of healing. That’s my take on it, and I really don’t see how it can be a normal dwelling-place.
    Ronnie gave us his tour and showed us some rounded stones, probably used for grinding grain, or maybe smoothing skins. It was a real treat, to be able to handle these implements, which are the kind of thing which would usually be in a museum case, labelled – ‘DO NOT TOUCH!’ Ronnie said to notice that they are all for right-handed people, and wondered if left – handers were seen as being ‘wrong’, as they were, until quite recently. Left-handers were seen as ‘sinister’, as the left side was considered to be the ‘sinister’ side. Maybe it was so, back then, too. I don’t know, but the stones all were for right-handed use.
    Another reason that I didn’t see this place as being a ‘house’, was the elaborate system of water channels, next to it –why have that, for a house? Maybe it was used for processing something, for example, washing sheep fleeces?”

    Did you get to visit the Eagle Cairn? Maybe next time!
    I’m not an archaeologist, just someone who is interested in….people, and life.
    And – the timing of the phone call you mention, another little piece of daily magic. It’s how things happen, once you open yourself to it.
    This is a rattlin’ good tale, and would make a good film/television series/programme. Taking one family’s history and adventures, and how that extends out, to whole ways of being and seeing, and how those different ways, can divide people, but then, hopefully, can come together in an understanding of all our pasts, and connections. Our common humanity. Really, a very good story, and, best thing is….it’s real!

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