Why we burn a fire for the recently deceased
It is the custom of the Ojibwe people to light and maintain a fire in the days following the death of a member of the tribe. How did this custom come to be?
Many years ago, a war raged between the Ojibwe and their enemies the Sioux, and the lands were stained red with blood of both tribes. A small party of Ojibwe warriors encountered their enemies upon an open plain and a fierce battle ensued. Mitaawang (Sandy), the leader of the Ojibwe, was a very brave and capable warrior; his many deeds in battle were well-known by everyone and he was revered for his numerous exploits on the battlefield. During the skirmish, Mitaawang killed many enemies, but eventually a Sioux arrow found its mark and he fell to the ground dead.
At that time, no warrior killed in battle was buried. According to old custom, he was placed in a sitting posture upon the field of battle, his back supported by a tree and his face turned towards the path in which his enemies had fled. His spear and club were placed in his hands, and his bow and quiver leaned against his shoulder. So his comrades left him.
Even though he was dead, Mitaawang did not travel to the land of spirits. Though he could not move, nor speak, he heard everything going on around him. He heard his friends crying over his death, but could not comfort them; he heard them speak of his great deeds and discuss who would be the one to tell his wife that he had fallen in battle. He could feel the touch of their hands as they propped his body against a tree, but his limbs felt as if they were bound and he could not move them. His anguish, when he felt himself being abandoned, was heavy but he was compelled to bear it as he could do nothing. A desire to follow his friends, as they started walking back to their village, filled his mind. With all the will that he had, Mitaawang tried to stand up and to his surprise he rose, or seemed to rise, and followed after them. However, he was invisible; they neither saw him nor heard his voice. Astonishment, disappointment, and rage filled him. While he attempted to make himself heard, seen, and felt, he could not; but still he followed his friends. As they sat around a fire that night, he heard them recount their valiant deeds, but try as he might, he was unable to tell them how much his own had exceeded theirs.
At length the war-party reached their village, and the women and children came out to welcome their return. As his friends found their wives and children, recounting the tales of their great victory, Mitaawang saw his grieving wife and could not comfort her as his friends told her how he had fought, conquered, and fallen with an arrow through his heart and left on the battlefield. “It is not true!” Mitaawang yelled. “I am here; I live…I move! See me! Touch me!” But no matter how he screamed, nobody knew he was there; they mistook his shouts for the softest whisperings of the winds. He went to his lodge and saw his wife tearing her hair and crying for him. He tried to comfort her, but she could not feel his hands or hear his words of consolation. He then placed his mouth close to her ear and shouted, “Wife, I am home. Give me food.” At this, his wife said, “I hear a fly buzzing.” Enraged, Mitaawang struck her upon the forehead as hard as she could. She placed her hand to her head and said, “A mosquito has bitten me.”
Foiled in every attempt to make himself known to those around him, Mitaawang thought about what he had heard the elders say about dreams. He remembered them say that the spirit sometimes left the body, and might wander at times. He reflected that possibly his body had remained upon the battlefield, gravely wounded, while only his spirit had returned. He made up his mind to return there, though it was four days' journey. For three days he walked and saw nothing, but on the fourth day he came to the outskirts of the battlefield. There, he saw a fire in the path. He tried to walk around it, but it seemed to move to block his way. He tried to go another direction, but the fire still burned in his path. “Maji-manidoo” he yelled, “Why do you keep me from where my body lies? I want to return to my body. Know that I am a chief and a warrior! I will not be turned back.” Mitaawang made a last, forceful effort, and passed through the flames. As he did, he woke to find himself back in his body, having lain eight days on the battlefield. He was sitting on the ground with his back to a tree, his bow leaning against his shoulder just as he had been left. Looking up, he saw a large giniw—a war-eagle—sitting upon the tree above his head. This was the bird that he had dreamed of in his youth. He knew that it was a guardian spirit—his Manidoo. While his body had lain on the field, this spirit had guarded it.
Mitaawang stood upon his feet but he was weak. He waited a long time before he felt that his limbs were his. The blood of his wounds had dried, but he took the time to treat the, with some medicine. After making a fire and spending the night warming himself, he stood up and started his journey home. When he finally arrived at this village, he found his lodge and his wife almost fainted from fear that he was an evil spirit returned in the form of her dead husband. He reassured her that he was quite alive and asked her to call his friends to the lodge. When everyone arrived, Mitaawang told them all that happened and how he had come to return.
Since this time, it has always been the practice of the Ojibwe to build and keep a fire for the dead, so that they might have light and warmth before they travel to the spirit world, or so that they can find their way back as Mitaawang did.