Raspberries | Image source: Barrie Hill Farms
The berry fast ceremony marks the stage of life when we start to put away our childhood toys and begin to focus on being a young woman, modelling behaviours and values for the younger generation. My first experience with a berry fast happened when I was four years old. Several older girls were being put out on the land for their overnight fast and our family was helping to welcome them back into the community as young women with a coming out ceremony. The group of berry fasters were confident in the work they were doing and the community was gracious and proud when the fasters completed their journey of girlhood in a sacred way. I remember coming home from that ceremony and thinking about how cool it would be to do my own berry fast years later.
At the age of thirteen, I was marked with a berry and began fasting from berries. I followed the instructions of my aunts and those who had completed a rite of passage of their own. My uncle helped me follow the protocols and ensured that everything was explained so I could put meaning in the work that I was doing. After the first stage of life, our traditional teachers tell us that young people begin to live the “fast life.” This is an important time when young people move toward adulthood; girls become young women and start their berry fast, for boys they move into manhood by learning the fire teachings and finishing their vision fast ceremony.
When girls begin their berry fast they are marked on their forehead with a berry right where the frontal lobe lies in the brain. Research shows that the adolescent brain relies on the amygdala for decision making, the amygdala is part of the limbic system of the brain and is involved in “gut” reactions and “fight or flight” responses. A teenager or a parent of a teenager can attest to the fact that emotions can be high and choices, planning and judgments that are made by teenagers can be questionable.
I was told my body was getting ready so that if I chose to create life I could. I learned that during my moon time I was a powerful and sacred vessel – that I needed to be careful how I walked and acted around others. I was instructed to keep my hair tied back and to be careful not to step over any items because of the sacredness and power within my body to impact those items. In Ojibwemowin, the Anishinaabe language and worldview, there are animate and inanimate perceptions which recognize that many things have a life force and when a young woman steps over things or people she possesses the power to cut off that force. This taught me respect for my body and the life of others.
For the following year, I did not eat berries of any kind. This taught me to say “no” and learn patience, strength, and self-discipline. I also had to refrain from dancing my jingle dress, something I had done since I was four years old. It was difficult to sit and watch those beautiful dancers at pow wows and remind myself that I was working for my family and my community. I was not to play with babies, and I also abstained from having a boyfriend.
After putting together 13 tobacco ties for each moon during that year of fasting, it was my time for an overnight fast. I started at the same time as my cousin so that I wasn’t completely alone in my berry fasting journey. I cut saplings in the bush and my uncle helped me tie a lodge together. After a while I was safe and sound resting in my lodge. My family and friends were busy working down at the big lodge getting things ready for my coming out ceremony.
That night I had so many dreams – but I wasn’t afraid. I knew that all of creation had witnessed the hard work it took to abstain from berries and to keep that commitment to my family, my community, and to myself.
When we came out the next day I was covered with a shawl and taken to the big lodge for a cedar bath and got dressed in the beautiful outfit that was made for me by a family friend. It was a purple and white shirt, ribbon dress and a matching shawl. When our aunts came and got us, my cousin and I were again covered with a shawl and led down to where our families were waiting. After singing and offerings, our shawls were removed and we were ‘seen’ for the first time and welcomed as ‘young women’ into the community. I remember how hard it was for my mom to say ‘good-bye’ to that ‘little girl’ and I knew something had changed for me too. A lot of people were crying, saying how proud they were of us.
To my surprise I saw one of the berry fasters I remembered from when I attended as a little girl. She spoke about how it was important for her to be at my berry fast ceremony because she remembered me as a little girl running around when she went out on her fast. Everyone got to talk and share how they felt about us. After a while we were offered our first berry which we had to refuse four times. When I was finally able to eat one of the strawberries – I remember how amazing it tasted!
At the time the girls at my school were really curious about my berry fast and others also wished they had a rite of passage to celebrate their life. Often I thought the fast was really hard but I had a lot of encouragement from my family and my relatives and it gave me a chance to educate those who had questions. For me it put into action that good life of being gifted to my parents as their daughter.
As a berry faster, I have no other way of knowing myself. I am grateful to the women who grew up in a time when it was shameful and considered a sickness to be ‘sitting with your grandmother’. A women’s full moon time or menstrual cycle is the sacred time of the month when we are connected our grandmothers. It is during our moon time when we are encouraged to speak with our grandmother and acknowledge the graciousness of life.
It was nine years ago when I began my berry fast. Facebook and Twitter were just emerging as social media platforms and I didn’t have a cell phone. As times change, I think about the challenges younger generations may face while journeying through the ‘fast life’. In 2016 there is more access to information on the Internet, from Snapchat to Instagram, I can only imagine what our young cousins are exposed to and how they are forming their own understanding of self.
Right now my young cousins are fasting from berries and are on their own paths to becoming women. Now, as young adult myself, and an older cousin to these berry fasters, I ensure that they can talk to me about anything and that I am honest and kind in the advise that I give. Acknowledging the change in times is important for our culture to form and stay relevant in a contemporary time – I want our girls and boys to grow to be strong and self-determining individuals in any environment they find themselves in. The berry fast teaches values of respect and reminds girls how sacred our bodies are. A rite of passage can bring light to a confusing time in life when bodies are changing and emotions are overwhelming.
I am so proud to see the work these girls are doing for themselves. All kinds of berries are now in season and the young fasters are picking berries and preparing these foods for their coming out ceremony. In remembering how hard it was to go and pick berries and not be able to eat one, I wish my little cousins strength and encouragement. I know from lived experience how transformational it is to have gone through that rite of passage and I hope that by reading this others are inspired to learn more.