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Circles Within Circles: The Cree Medicine Man, Fine Day



Mineral Watercolor Painting of Fine Day ©Colleen Gray (Mi'qmak/Irish), used with permission*

This essay ©2022 Kenneth S. Cohen ᒪᐢᑲᐧ ᓴᑲᐧᐦᑕᒧᐤ


Life brings interesting connections, doesn’t it, events and people linked in mysterious ways across time and space. Tell you why I am thinking this way this morning, what I am remembering, as I sit here watching the wind gust and swirl clouds of snow, a beautiful round dance right in front of my window.


More than thirty ago elder and friend Robert Gopher (Chippewa-Cree, d. 1998) invited me and my brother Joseph Naytowhow to be singers at a traditional gathering and pow-wow in northern Montana, about forty miles south of the Canadian border. Robert and I had met a few years earlier and found a deep spiritual connection through shared sweat lodges and the grace of each having received instructions and visits from the Old Woman Spirit. Robert’s family had restored the tradition of the Hill 57 Great Falls (Montana) Round Dance around 1983—a tradition that had been ongoing since the 1860s but not been actively practiced during the period from the 1950s to early 80s.


Jump ahead to the Montana gathering. One of the elders that Robert Gopher invited was John Moosomin (Cree). One day Mosom (Grandfather) brought a group of us on a walk to a beautiful site in a meadow. There was an old tipi ring there, a circle in the grass that outlined the tipi of Fine Day (1856-1942), the great Cree war chief, medicine man, pipe-man, leader, and educator. It was a place where he sometimes lived, prayed, and hunted. There was a powerful, mysterious energy there. In all the years since his passing, not a single blade of grass would grow in the outline of the tipi. Where the tipi once stood, there was thick grass both inside and outside, but nowhere on the circumference. Nature and spirit wanted to preserve the memory of this great man, Fine Day, who, among his many accomplishments, maintained the story, prophecy, and teachings of Mistanâkôwêw (Calling Badger, b. around 1830).


It was Calling Badger who after seeing a great light had apparently died and come back to life. He had visited a spiritual realm, “the Fourth World” as he called it. He returned with an extraordinary gift from Spirit: the entire Cree writing system (“Syllabary”) and a warning that a Christian would try to claim credit for it. Yes, this happened. More than ten years after Calling Badger’s vision, an English-born Methodist missionary named James Evans declared that he had created the syllabics, and non-indigenous authors still repeat the lie. (Some historians say that although Evans had printed 300 copies of a hymnal in Cree syllabics, he did not personally state that he created the syllabics. Yet the myth continues, supporting the colonizers ego-driven portrayal of Europeans educating and saving the Indian.)


Within a year of the Montana gathering I had the good fortune to meet and share food and conversation with Wes Fineday (Sweetgrass First Nation), Old Fine Day’s great-grandson. Knowing of my admiration for his great grandfather, he kindly offered that if I would return with cloth and pipe, he would recount the story of Calling Badger as transmitted by Fine Day. When I returned home to Colorado, I called my friends at Pipestone National Monument and purchased a beautiful bear effigy Sacred Pipe quarried and carved by Travis Erickson (Sisseton-Wahpeton Dakota). Not long afterwards, I flew to Saskatoon, met with elder Wes and offered my protocol gifts, including tobacco of course. I treasure the teachings he shared.


Now, present day. A few months ago, while researching some information about Nehiyaw (Cree) traditional values, I came across a reference to a rare, out-of-print book with precious teachings from Fine Day, including details not found in David Mendlebaum’s famous book about the Cree. I found a copy of the book in a used book store and finally got around to reading it. Some books use a lot of words to say very little. This small 64-page book has relatively few words, but it says a lot.


One thing leads to another: treasured elders Robert Gopher, John Moosomin, Wes Fineday, and all circling back to Old Fine Day.


A breath of fresh air. Dancing snow. Circles within circles.


*About the Artist: Colleen Gray is an outstanding indigenous artist and winner of the Governor General of Canada Sovereign’s Medal for Volunteeringfor her role in supporting art exploration through access to art supplies and creative art programs in Canadian remote Indigenous schools.” To purchase her art and learn more about her work, please visit: https://colleengrayart.ca/

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