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'Not sitting in a place of fear': Virtual ceremony launches during pandemic

Normally, at this time of year, Pahan Pte San Win would be preparing for spring ceremonies. It is a time to thank winter for its gifts and to welcome new growth. Instead, she's setting up singing and sharing circles online.
Pahan Pte San Win began holding singing and sharing circles on Zoom. (Doug Thomas)
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Normally, at this time of year, Pahan Pte San Win would be preparing for spring ceremonies. It's a time to thank winter for its gifts and welcome new growth.

Instead, she's setting up singing and sharing circles online.

Pte San Win and her husband, Wanbdi Wakita, are traditional knowledge keepers, and they regularly host pipe ceremonies and sweat lodges in their Winnipeg backyard. But because of COVID-19, they've had to make adjustments. 

Pte San Win is 60 years old, and Wakita is 76, which puts him at higher risk for more serious complications from COVID-19. But they still wanted to do something to support the community, so they launched a virtual ceremony using an app called Zoom.

"I am hearing that people are afraid," said Pte San Win. 

"They're afraid for loved ones who have compromised immune systems. They are afraid for our elders, people who are living in close quarters ... in First Nation communities."

A different response than fear

Pte San Win said she was inspired to create the online space after witnessing some of the reactions to the global pandemic.

Wanbdi Wakita, left, and Pahan Pte San Win are now holding virtual ceremonies to support community members. (Gem Salsberg)

"I saw that there were people that were rushing out and buying up all the toilet paper, and all the meat in the grocery store, and things like that," said Pte San Win.

While it surprised her, Pte San Win said she recognized that people were reacting out of fear. 

"I thought to myself, 'Well, that's one response to what's happening, but maybe we can have a different response,'" she said. 

To maintain physical distancing, Pte San Win and her husband are bringing their community together for ceremony, virtually, every week. 

Virtual ceremony 

Through Zoom, they're having a sharing circle, and teaching some ceremonial songs. While they are not sharing sacred ceremonies through the app, explained Pte San Win, they are accepting requests for prayers and asking others to sit at home privately at the same time and pray. 

Pte San Win and Wakita had some practice using Zoom. They had been using it to hold  monthly Sundance meetings online, so this seemed like a natural extension of what they were already doing.

There were some technical glitches during the first singing circle, explained Pte San Win, but she still considers it a success.

'Our strength is in coming together'

"Coming together, singing together, praying together and laughing together, I felt so much better at the end of the evening. I woke up this morning with a different sense of hope and connectedness," she said.

Since social isolation became encouraged, some Indigenous people have been creating new spaces online to connect for conversation, beading and even dancing. It's something Pte San Win says is part of her teachings as an Indigenous person. 

"Our strength is in coming together. Our strength is in supporting each other and our strength is in approaching the crisis from a place that's not sitting in a place of fear," she said.

"That's what we need when going through something like this."