Braids: Kohkum’s Medicine
This poem narrates aspects of teachings I received from my Kohkum Virginia when I was young. She smudged the house when necessary and taught me how to do it. It took years for me to understand and appreciate what her teachings offered.
When I had to leave home at age twelve I took a greyhound across Canada. I then stayed with my moms family for a few short, but very long, months. After getting beat up by two family members, yet again, I retreated to Kohkum’s house. She walked and smudged the house. I followed her. I watched her. She tried to get me to smudge but the sweetgrass braid ember died. She indicated that in time I will be able to smudge and I should not force the embers to burn if they do not want to burn.
Kohkum then lit the braid and finished the ceremony.
Years later I after stopping drugs, alcohol, and violence my life got harder and more difficult. I fell apart. I shattered in tears for several years. Everything was a fight. No matter how hard I tried to make things work I couldn’t. Then something interesting happened.
I was getting off the LRT (subway) train in Edmonton. I found a cigar tin. It was filled with weed and cash. I took the cash. I did not know what to do with the tin. I reached out for help and called my friend Dave. I was worried I would get high. He muttered some zen sentiments and I eventually tossed the container that day.
Later as I walked home I found half of a sweet grass braid that was burnt down to short length. I tried lighting the braid. I remembered Kohkum telling me not to force the braid and if it did not want to burn let it be. Never force a braid. In frustration I explained to one of my teachers, Gary Moostoos, that I found this braid but it would not light. He explained that I should not force the braid, just as Kohkum explained decades before.
I wanted to smudge. I was gifted with sage and grand dad fungus. Gary suggested I get rid of the left over braid. I learned to smudge. I attended pipe ceremonies when invited; Lakota, Dakota, Cree, and Mowhawk. I learned a better way to connect. I began to attend sun dance sweats. I was encouraged to consider dancing. I chose not to dance. I did not feel right.
I was then introduced to prayer sweat ceremonies and doctoring lodges. Eventually I started to receive gifts. Teepees, smudges, medicines, feathers, dream catchers, choker, medicine bags, smudge dishes, and then eventually a braid of sweetgrass.
I no longer feared that braid. I understood the braid. I took the braid home. I prayed and thanked Kohkum in prayer and told myself I would follow her lessons on how to smudge my home. I lit a match after I cleared my mind and heart. I lit the braid and held the match for an extended time. Then I nursed the ember with some flicks of the wrist. Once it went out I left it. It took me months to build a relationship with the braid. Finally the braid called me and invited me to pray. I lit a match and smudged my home the way Kohkum taught me.
Once I built a relationship with myself, those around me, and my healing path I was then able to light a prayer braid. I was able to pray with the braid. Now I use the braid for the intended prayers in order to cleanse and clear just as Kohkum showed me.
Sometimes, not often, I meet a braid that does not want to be lit. I then take that braid and build a relationship with her. I then take my time and pray with her. Eventually I come back and invite the prayer braid to clear my home. I have prayed with sweetgrass braids for years now. I am sometimes invited and requested to smudge at particular ceremonies. I sometimes fear the braid will decline me, as she did for many years. This is a gift. The fear keeps me in check. I must inquire if I am living right when a braid does not glow for me. I know if a braid does not want to be lit that I should not force it by setting a blaze. I do not want to force a braid. I want to invite the prayer braid to support me and the space I am occupying in this life.
Tonight, before I clear my home I humbly remember that I should not force the braid just as I should not force a relationship with a person. People come around when they need to. This includes relationships of every kind. I sometimes forget, then I need to step back and smudge.
My Kohkum taught me well. I have not seen her for a few short years now. However her lessons are with me. This is one lesson she offered me that has effectively changed my life through healing medicine.