Mary Lou and Dan Smoke. Photo: DodemKanonhsa.ca
I realized that the reason I knew where to get those berries was because of the blood memory from my great-great-great grandmother back in 1542.
Being an Elder is not something that people get to decide for themselves. Most often it is through their engagement with community that they find themselves entering into that traditional role. For the Anishinaabeg, Nokomis (Grandmother) is a very important figure, not only within individual families, but for those in the community as well. Mary Lou Smoke is one of those Kwe (women). She laughs when she talks about being an ‘Elder’ in the Taam Kaadinakiijik Advisory Circle at the Native Canadian Centre because she says that her husband Dan Smoke and her are really ‘youth’ in that circle. However, both Mary Lou and Dan have the life experience that qualifies them. Hosts and producers of the radio program, Smoke Signals on CHRW at Western University for the last 25 years, both Mary Lou and Dan have been active community members in Toronto, London, Ottawa, and all over Turtle Island. I had the privilege of speaking with Mary Lou recently about her work and life.
MM: Can you talk about your Nokomis?
MLS: My grandmother died when I was a couple months old, and my mom didn’t know anything about traditional ceremonies. We went out and found people and we fasted under them, and we traveled. A lady who gave my mom her spirit name was Betty Pants from Michigan, but she’s gone on to the spirit world. I had a great-grandmother but she didn’t know any of those traditions either. She did teach me how to make dandelion wine. We would pick the dandelions in the spring, she would come and stay with us in Toronto, and we would make wine.
Traveling with other Elders I learned more about the medicines and how to pick them and how to use them. I would say that when you want something to happen, you have to get it out there, and let it out of yourself, and the unseen world will take care of it for you. That’s how my life has been.
MM: Can you talk more about your connection to ceremony and medicine songs? I understand you share songs of the Sweatlodge specifically for Indigenous women?
MLS: When I was a little girl, we lived in Batchewana Bay and there was a church there, and most of the people in Batchewana went to that church. My mom would take us there for potlucks and bingos. I remember saying to my mom when I was about eight years old, “what did the Indian people do way back?” and my mom couldn’t give me the answer to that because she didn’t know. So I set out to find out what happened a couple hundred years ago.
I was taking in the knowledge when I was a teenager and when I was a little girl. I didn’t know my mom went to residential school, she always said that she went to St. Joseph’s and that she had to quit school in grade 8 because her mom was sick, and that’s all I heard about it. In the 90s when people were talking about residential schools I found out that St. Joseph in Spanish [Ontario] was the residential school there so it answered a lot of questions for me.
When I met Dan, he was seeking the same type of knowledge I was seeking. Dan and I met in Toronto in the early 70s. At that time I was [one of] the only female performers who played guitar and sang songs. At that time there were hardly any ceremonies happening, just once in a while Vern Harper would have a pipe ceremony. He would find an old beat up garage and he’d ask me to sing while they were loading the pipe and getting ready for the ceremony.
Fast forward to 1989, we ran into Vern again and he invited us to a Sweatlodge. I was in a Sweatlodge when I was 19 years old, on Manitoulin Island and my husband [Dan Smoke] was in a Sweatlodge on his 20th birthday—we were one of the few ones in Toronto who had been in Sweatlodges in the early 70s. So of course we accepted Vern’s invitation to come to the ceremony and we started going there on a weekly basis. I started learning the songs, and after a while Vern asked me to be the head female singer for his Sweatlodge. So I did that for about seven years, and then we just kind of moved on. So that’s where I started learning the Sweatlodge songs. Vern and Pauline [Shirt] have to be my very earliest traditional teachers.
My husband is Seneca from the [Haudenosaunee] Confederacy, and I am Anishinaabe from Batchewana Bay—I found out I am only five parts Ojibway, one part Mi’kmaq, one part Lakota, and one part French. All these doors opened up so I can learn those songs from other Nations and it makes me really happy.
We learned by going to ceremonies and watching and participating. In the early 90s, we went to a Sweatlodge and I saw someone do something ‘wrong’ in the Sweatlodge, He didn’t know that he wasn’t supposed to cross over this cedar line. He got yelled at by the Sweatlodge conductor, and it was very humiliating for him and all the people who were there and had to listen to that. During that time I started writing for the Anishinaabek News, and I wrote a column every month for seven years about traditional protocols. I wrote 82 articles and I am thinking about assembling them and putting them in a book, because there are not too many places you can go to find that information. Dan and I are often called on and asked to go to Elder’s conferences where we talk about these ceremonies. We don’t tell everything but give people an idea of what to expect and what they should do and shouldn’t do.
We moved from Toronto in 1977 where we used to be part of the big social scene. We still keep coming back; we are Elders for the Taam Kaadinakiijik Advisory Circle at the Native Canadian Centre—I think we’ve been there for ten years. We were invited by Pauline Shirt, and I would say we are the youth in that group because the Elders there are in their 80s, or close to it. I always say that we are in training.
Dan and I have traveled together far and wide seeing Elders and helping in ceremonies; helping the women and the families of missing and murdered women. We have done many condolence ceremonies for their families. We started teaching in London. We started having Moon ceremonies every month and we have a wide variety of people coming from all Nations. We’ve been doing that for about fifteen years. It’s open to all people because I think it’s important that all people learn about our traditions.
I am always telling women that I help who struggle with addiction, don’t freak out, whatever happens, just let it pass, and stay calm and cool. When you do that, you don’t go by your own will, you go by the will of the Creator. So things don’t blow up and things are more calm. That’s pretty much how I run my life, I let go and let the Creator guide me. She hasn’t let me down yet.
My husband and I have been running cultural camps with students from universities and high schools. We have been teaching them about the Sweatlodge and teaching them the songs and things like that. One day only the rich will be able to afford to live in the city because they will be able to afford to buy water. But the rest of us are going to have to go up into the mountains where the water is and I think people should be prepared for that. They are going to have to know how to start a fire with flint, and how to survive in the wilderness.
MM: Can you share a short story about your own reconnection to Indigenous wisdom, and medicines?
MLS: About fifteen years ago, Dan and I were invited to Quebec to a place called Kitcisakik. They invited us there to activate some drums for the youth, tell stories in a teepee, build a Sweatlodge and to help out at the powwow. We went there and did all that, and when it was time to build the Sweatlodge, a lot of community members came out, and I felt like they didn’t need my help. I found this huge stainless steel bowl and I decided I would go and pick berries. I found them over here and found them over there. I opened up these bushes and there were berries in great abundance, and I was just amazed at my good luck and I filled up my bowl in no time at all. The berries were so nice because it was a hot night, and the berries kind of melded together, the raspberries and blueberries, it was so refreshing.
About eight years ago I found out I had Mi’kmaq blood in me. A relative arrived from France and married a Mi’kmaq woman from that same reserve that we were visiting. I realized that the reason I knew where to get those berries was because of the blood memory from my great-great-great grandmother back in 1542. I got chills up and down my spine. Those kinds of things happen all the time.
MM: How did you get involved in working in radio and television?
In 1991 when Oka happened, people wanted to know what we thought about what was going on because back then in the media it was all commentary by white people. We started talking about how we felt and this man offered us a ten-minute time slot on his radio show called Green Waves on CHRW at Western University. We started with ten minutes on the air once a week, and then the manager offered us a one hour time slot, but we would always have so much leftover information once the hour was up, so then he offered us two hours. In 1991, we started doing two hours of radio.
We’ve been doing Smoke Signals for 24 years, this year will be our 25th. We have people who listen in Australia, Texas, Poland, in Thailand, all around. Different times when we’ve gone to Ottawa we will run into doctors or lawyers who tell us that they used to listen to Smoke Signals when they were at Western, and that they learned a lot from listening to us. We don’t have scripts, we just go in and banter. My husband does most of the talking and I do the teaching. The things we share are very unique.
It just seems like everyone loves Dan and I. We were in an airport in Ottawa and someone came up to us and said, “sending Smoke Signals your way!” So we are well known around this area and we get treated really great everywhere we go. Before that, there was a lot of racism. But I think if you get kind of famous they put that racism aside so they can touch elbows with you or something. We don’t see much of it now but I know it’s still around.
About fifteen years ago we were approached by the local television station wanting us to give our opinions about things going on in Native Country that other people in the world would want to know about. In 2008, we were approached by Western University, and we started teaching a course there in the Faculty of Information Studies on representation of First Nations in the media. Two years after that we were asked to teach a course on Indigenous spirituality and I thought, wow, that’s right up our ally.