Why we leave a fire for the dead
Once there was a man named Mitaawan, or Sandy. He was a great leader of the Ojibwe. He was a brave man and his war deeds were the thing of legend. He fought in so many battles that there were songs praising his acts of bravery. Every youth of the village wanted to grow up to be like him and he could always count on loyal men to follow him to war.
During one war party he was leading, his band was having a heated battle. As they fought, Sandy was turning the fight into a victory for the Ojibwe. He struck down many enemies and they were retreating. As the men gave their victory cries one of the fleeing enemies turned around and shot an arrow. While he was in the middle of giving the great shout of victory, the arrow found Sandy’s breast, and he fell dead.
He called out to his friends, but they neither saw him nor heard him. He was seemingly invisible. Astonishment, disappointment, and rage filled him. He did everything he could to make them notice him. He screamed; he waved his hand before their eyes; but he could not make himself heard, seen, or felt, so he just followed on their track. Wherever they went, he went; when they walked, he walked; when they ran, he ran; when they built their fires, and sat down, his sat down with them. As the men sat around the fire, he listened to them recount their valiant deeds. But he was unable to tell them how much his own deeds had exceeded theirs that day.
After a few days, the war party reached the village and the women and children came out to welcome their return. Sandy hoped that someone would notice him, but no one seemed conscious of his presence. He heard many people ask about him. He listened as his soldiers told about his great deeds and about how he was died on the battlefield. Sandy, feeling indignant about this yelled, “It is not true! I am here! I live and I move! Why can’t any of you see me?” But nobody knew of his presence; they simply mistook his loudest screams as the whisperings of the wind. In sadness, Sandy walked to his own lodge. He saw his wife tearing at her hair and crying for him. “Wife!” he screamed. But she didn’t seem to hear him. He then placed his mouth close to her ear and shouted, “Give me food.” To this his wife simply said, “I hear a fly buzzing.” This made Sandy angry and he struck her upon the forehead. She winced slightly and placed her hand to her head and said, “Ouch! I have been bitten by a mosquito.”
Defeated, Sandy sat there and thought of any way in which he could be seen or heard, but he could not find one. He then began to think about what he had heard the elders say about how a person’s spirit can sometimes leave the body and wander. He reflected that possibly his body had remained upon the field of battle, while only his spirit had returned home. He made the decision to return to where the battle took place.
It was a four days journey. He went on for three days and on the fourth day, as it was approaching night fall, he came to the outskirts of the battlefield. There, he saw a fire in the path. He walked to one side to avoid stepping into it, but the fire moved and was still in front of him. No matter what way he turned, the fire still burned in his path. At last Sandy yelled, “Evil Manitou…why do you keep me from the field of battle where my body lies? Know you not that I am a spirit also, and seek now to again enter that body? I am a chief and a warrior! I will not be turned back by you or anyone!”
At this, Sandy made a vigorous effort and passed through the flame. The next thing he realized he was sitting on the ground, with his back to a tree, and his bow leaning against his shoulder, the same as he had been left. Looking up, he saw a large Ginew, a war-eagle, sitting upon the tree above his head. The eagle was the spirit he had seen during his vision quest as a youth. He realized that it was the guardian spirit who had been watching over his body for days. He then struggled and got to his feet, but he was weak and his limbs numb. He noticed that the blood of his wound was dried. Nonetheless, he soon found some roots and made a poultice to treat his wound and dressed it with a bandage. In a short time he found himself recovered as he started his journey home.
Along the way home he killed some birds and roasted them on a fire. He traveled the remaining days home and eventually came to the village. Everyone was surprised to see him back again and living, as they were certain he had died. He then called all the people to his lodge, and told them all what had happened. He told them that forever after they must build a fire for the people who died. He told them that the fire must burn for four days so that the spirit of the person who died might have light and warmth. The fire must burn just in case the person who died might somehow return. The fire would guide them back to their body so they could return to the land of the living.
Just in case…