No, I don’t smoke or The Wrongest Possible Answer

by Carsten Iwers

In preparation for a trip down the Elk and Thelon Rivers in 2013, Ellen, a Cree elder and recent acquaintance offered to help me with my last-minute errands. As lunchtime drew closer, we settled down at the Crusty Bun in Winnipeg, and when Ellen spotted Winston, another Cree elder, we were soon all chatting casually while enjoying our meal. In the course of the conversation, Winston asked me if I took any tobacco along on my trip, but my terse reply “No, I don’t smoke” wasn’t really what he had in mind. No wonder the subject was dropped after my brainless answer. Some time later, the washroom called for a visit and upon my return I found a pack of tobacco next to my plate on the table. Winston then introduced me to the First Nations’ tradition of tobacco offerings, and our lunch ended with my promise to make good use of it. We parted, I got the rest of my supplies, and the next day saw me flying to Kasba Lake Lodge and onwards, out to Damant Lake.

At first I felt a little helpless with that pack of tobacco in my kit. Not having been brought up overly religious or superstitious, I wasn’t sure how to keep the promise given. However, after a few days of mulling it over, and since there are not many people to talk to on a solo trip, I started talking to the elements – the water, the wind, the sun and the land. I asked to be spared by the rapids, asked for benevolent winds, for less – and at times – for more sun, for a good campsite, always offering each of the four “addressees” a pinch of tobacco. Most of the time my offerings were accepted and I was given ample opportunity to express my gratitude the next day. This became a daily routine before setting sail for the rest of the trip – and for every other trip thereafter. After a week of this practice I started noticing a difference within myself, a change of mindset. This recurring ritual seemed to fortify my mindfulness and reminded me constantly that my safe passage, out there, was dependent on forces beyond my control, dependent on the grace of the elements. I noticed that I became more prudent, more aware, more attentive. And it may be of no surprise that from then on I reached my destinations unscathed, usually well ahead of schedule, dodging major mishaps and without ever having to rush. I have kept this ritual and will always be grateful to Winston for his guidance – to a rite to jog my memory, as well as to create opportunities for thankfulness. Years later, I came across a noteworthy 400-year-old quote by Sir Francis Bacon to capture the importance of the latter: “It is not happy people who are thankful. It is thankful people who are happy.”

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