Empowering women through sacred tradition: Berry Fasting

Two older woman share a time together. One has brought the others hand and placed it over her heart. They bring their heads together with affection.

By Odette Auger, Windspeaker Buffalo Spirit Reporter

Ojibwe Grandmothers and Elders came together for an apprentice circle online in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s called "Walking the Wheel" and it explores the teachings of the Medicine Wheel by the seasons. It’s been running for nearly three years.

In their discussions, a gap in essential knowledge emerged, particularly around the Berry Fast, a coming-of-age rite.

“We realized so many women and two-spirits missed out some very basic teachings, so we started a Berry Fast Circle for all women of all ages,” said Conni Ma'iingan Wolf, (Sagamok Anishnawbek), who is two-spirited (2S) and is lead facilitator and Elder of the Berry Fast workshops.

“During the invasion times it became illegal to practice our spiritual ceremonies and our traditional teachings. Like many of our ceremonies, the knowledge was hidden, but never lost. Chi miigwetch to our Ojibwe Grandmothers, Elders and 2S visionaries for helping the Berry Fast Ceremony resurface after so many years of silence.”

The workshop runs for 13 moons, and “on the 13th moon, we have a Coming Out Ceremony," said Ma’iingan.

"It’s impossible to step into the power of Kokum, Grandmother, Elder, also known as menopause, if you didn’t find your voice or your power at your moon cycle time at the onset of puberty."

The Berry Fast serves as a cornerstone for personal and community healing, said Ma’iingan.

The workshops focus on practical teachings essential for navigating womanhood, including a healthy relationship with oneself to foster healthy sexual relationships.

"Once you love yourself enough, you’ll never let anyone abuse you," Ma'iingan stressed, highlighting the critical role of self-love in safeguarding against domestic and sexual violence.

Ma’iingan explained this in the context of the human trafficking happening in the present time and missing and murdered Indigenous women and relatives. Many Kokums,, Grandmothers and Elders have experience with helping family victimized through such violence, they said.

“Rites of passage is about learning our spiritual roles and responsibilities. Berry Fast teaches our girls how to step into womanhood and the sacredness of that role. Vision Quest teaches our boys what it means to become a man. It teaches them how to honor, respect and protect the woman as life-giver, and 2S people have been lost and not respected. They too have sacred duties that complete the circle, and (are) not taking their place back in the circle."

“We see how important our traditional teachings, ceremonies are for personal and community healing,” said Ma'iingan.

Conni Ma'iingan Wolf

Throughout the 13-month journey, workshop participants engage in a comprehensive curriculum around coming of age encompassing a wide range of topics, including:

  • Roles & responsibilities
  • Honor of the Creation Story, Sixth Fire and Original Instructions
  • To honor and respect the relationship of the moon and the water
  • Sex education, healthy relationships, healthy sexuality
  • Basic life-skills
  • How to respect oneself and how to take care of themselves as women
  • Sacredness and power of womanhood and how it relates to their life-giving ability
  • The role and responsibilities as water keeper, water protector
  • The sacredness of the moon cycle
  • The importance of sisterhood
  • The power of self-respect; the need for personal space
  • The power of dreams and visions

During the First Moon, “the first teaching we like to start with is the Seven Fires of Creation, focusing on the Sixth Fire. This is where woman comes in,” said Ma'iingan.

“Some go on a 24-, 48-hour fast as soon as their moon cycle starts, to sit with their dreams and visions, a practice they carry throughout the fast.”

The literal fasting happens at the first moon, in the beginning of the journey. Another fast marks the ending, the day and night before the closing ceremony, Ma’iingan explained.

At the beginning of the Berry Fast, the middle of the forehead, right where the frontal lobe lies in the brain, is marked with a berry (pulp). From that moment on, participants are on their year-long learning of the Berry Fast.

Certain protocols are followed, such as eating no berries for the year, teaching how to say no, to have patience, strength and self-discipline.

No boyfriend or girlfriend during this time as well will teach the commitment to family, community and self.

During their moon-cycle, participants are taught to be careful not to step over sacred items or people, and not to pick up babies, teaching respect for their own body and the life of others.

They put together a bundle of 13 tobacco ties, one for each month of their fast.

Women come from ancient matriarchal societies, said Ma’iingan. Women and the Earth were seen as interrelated and sacred.

“It has always been our responsibility to protect her and defend and to pass this teaching to our children and men.”

“That first woman had to know about that moontime, so this is an old, old teaching.” In an earlier Buffalo Spirit story, Grandmother Isabelle Meawasige, describes Grandmother Moon’s relationship with Mother Earth and woman. Read that story here: https://windspeaker.com/buffalo-spirit/grandmother-moon-sacred-and-should-be-respected

“We must know about the moontime, because that’s part of mothers’ responsibility, and the ability to give birth, to cleanse ourselves, to heal ourselves, that woman was a sacred holy being. She was revered as first mother, mother of all, and first teacher. She taught her children well.

“As time passed, the first mother started to be violently degraded and abused, physically, emotionally, spiritually. The degradation our women have suffered. Whatever happened to our women also happened to the Earth mother.”

“On the 13th Moon we hold a ceremony, shkini-kwe (process of life giving),” said Ma'iingan. It is also known as the Strawberry Fast or Berry Fast. During the Berry Fast, many experience the mystical experience of the divine feminine, Creator and Mother.

“This connection will be life-changing as you get to know her and her mother Grandmother Moon. You will have dreams and visions that will connect you to her like an umbilical cord,” said Ma’iingan.

“You’ll know and feel the sacredness of creation, of bringing life into the world; this will be your gift. Even if you don’t ever actually give birth, you will know and carry the sacredness.”

Teachings shared in the workshops, include bundles and medicines, along with learning how to make items for personal kits, said Ma'iingan, such as a drum, talking/listening stick, personal pipe, rattle, grief doll, ribbon skirt, and Moon bag.

The workshops extend an invitation to all women of any age, reflecting the inclusive spirit.

Ma’iingan said there are other circles happening too.

“We also work with the Vision Quest for our boys and 2S. Both teachings are necessary to maintain the understanding of balance.”

These teachings are rooted in the belief of interconnectedness with all living beings and the imperative of honoring Mother Earth. They underscore the need for collective healing and reconciliation.

The Berry Fasting workshops are empowering women to reclaim their cultural roles and celebrate their multifaceted identities, said Ma’iingan.

At the end of the year of 13 moons, the faster goes to a private lodge for an overnight fast while the community prepares for the Coming Out Ceremony.

The next morning, as they exit their lodge, a shawl will be wrapped around them and they are taken for a cedar bath and then dressed in new clothes, either made by themselves or gifted to them.

They are taken to the circle around the Sacred Fire “where singing and offerings are taking place. The shawl will be removed, and they will be seen and welcomed for the first time as a young woman.

“Families share their feelings and tears in saying goodbye to the little girl,” and their tear-soaked tissues are gathered up in a tear bag for the Sacred Fire.

Berries are passed around and the faster must refuse four times before accepting.

Then celebration and feasting begin, and gifts from the community are given to the fasters.

The workshop facilitators receive many messages like this one.

“To me it has meant the most sincere effort in reconnecting to my Anishinaabe heritage. It feels like I’m healing the unseen and seen wounds my grandmother and my family have faced by not knowing where they come from, and never being connected. It feels healing to me in a way that I’m saying “I love you and honor you” to myself in some sort of way I never have, also walking alongside you all in it just feels really special and wholesome.”

Readers can follow the Grandmother's Lodge group for upcoming workshops at https://www.facebook.com/groups/1626811690879608

Top photo: Grandmother Isabelle Meawasige (Serpent River) with Conni Ma’iingan Wolf (Sagamok Anishnawbek).