Printed in the Summer 2016 issue of Quest magazine.
Citation: FourEagles, Russell, "The Oneida Fire Ceremony" Quest 104.3 (Summer 2016): pg. 116-121
A Native American Healing Ritual
By Russell FourEagles
When we were taking a break from gathering herbs to eat a sandwich, my grandma would tell me stories and legends. This is one of them:
When the Creator made man and woman, he made us perfect. As he looked us over, he made a little void in between our lungs, our backbone, and our heart. He thought about what he should do with this void.
“I know,” he thought, “I will create a little ‘heart box’ in that void for everyone. The heart box will be the source of a person’s love for other people and for me, the Creator, and it will also be the place for people to store their traumas and heavy emotions for a few days, until they are ready to give them to me.”
However, the Creator created the heart box before he blew life into us. After we were alive, guess what we did first as a speaking species? We started whining: “We need light so we can see, and dark so we can sleep; we need to know what is food and what do we do when we are thirsty, and how do we stay warm when it’s cold, and what is medicine and what poison, and where do we find shelter and for crumb sake where is the Home Depot?”
The Creator said, “Listen, all of you. This is very important, so pay attention: you are my children and I love you, and so I give you free will. You have the power to choose between positive and negative; let no one take that away from you, as I will not. But I advise you to concentrate on the positive and give the negative to me.”
As the Creator soon found, though, once we put stuff into our heart box it almost takes dynamite to get it out. It’s our junk and we are going to hang on to it at all cost, no matter what it does to us.
We humans tend to hang on to too much baggage such as anger, guilt, and pain. We tend to keep inside the hurts and sorrows from losses of family and friends. We also hang onto other life losses such as money and material things. That little place the Creator gave us to store our hurts was meant to be used for just a short while, until we were ready to let them go. But instead, we stuff our heart boxes with more and more hurts and traumas until we learn from our life’s lessons or die. We may often carry this baggage for many lifetimes if we don’t learn to let it go.
The heart box is like any other box. If it becomes too full, it breaks. Let’s say you and your spouse each come home with a one-pound sack of potatoes. You put your potatoes into a one-pound box and it becomes full. Then your spouse wants to put his bag of potatoes in the box, as well. So he, being a guy, forces the potatoes into the box, causing the sides to crack. You don’t want the box to break, so your spouse runs to the garage and returns with some boards, nails, and a hammer. He then proceeds to reinforce the sides of the box. And hey, guess what happens! You really can put two pounds of potatoes in a one-pound box. The problem is that the potatoes get mashed up in the process.
Now trying to keep too many potatoes in too small a space is just like what happens when we store more and more things in the heart box. Eventually everything gets mashed. That’s what we do to ourselves in the process.
It just so happens that the closest organ to the heart box is the heart. The heart pumps blood to our lungs and throughout our bodies. If the heart box swells too much, the pump can’t work and the lungs can’t move. This causes us to have difficulty breathing. Have you ever noticed that, when you experience a sudden trauma, such as witnessing an accident or a relationship breakup, the first thing that happens is that you have trouble breathing and your heart physically hurts? And that then, after a short while, you can catch your breath and the pain in your heart goes away?
What has happened is that, at first, the addition of the new trauma has caused the heart box to swell, so that it presses uncomfortably against the heart and lungs. But then, in an unconscious ability the Creator gave us, we have stolen energy from our own cells to build a wall around our heart box, just as the man reinforced the potato box so that it could hold more potatoes. Reinforced by the stolen energy, the swelling of the heart box is reduced, and the heart box returns to a size small enough for the heart to pump without hurting and the lungs to breathe easily again. Essentially this process allows us to compact more and more negative things, whatever they may be, into our heart boxes (the world’s first trash compactors).
For the most part, we men start with our shoulders and then move to our lower backs to steal energy to contain the things we put in our heart boxes, or it can happen in reverse order. Women seem to steal their energy from the Mother’s Cross, those lines drawn from the base of the skull to just above the bra line and from the center of the shoulder blade to the center of the other shoulder blade.
The problem is that when we draw on our cellular energy to reinforce our heart boxes, we weaken our cells. Weakening our cells weakens our aura as a whole and makes it easier for disease, weakened bones, weakened immune systems, and weakened emotional states to take hold in our bodies. I think everyone knows about the heart box, but most people don’t realize that the tightness they feel within their chest is from it.
One good way to unload our heart boxes is through the Oneida fire ceremony. The ceremony’s main function is for us to give all our painful memories and traumas to the Creator. We do this through writing things down and offering them up in prayer. This ritual helps us to heal and get stronger.
In the process, we uncover ever and ever deeper old hurts. You can think of the heart box and its memories as being like a pile of CDs (or, if you want to date yourself, 45-rpm records) all stacked up. As we give our painful memories to the Creator, we are, in essence, removing these recordings. This, in turn, uncovers other and older records of memories that slowly creep upward into our subconscious minds and then filter into consciousness. Often after a fire ceremony our emotions are quite intense, and it is the uncovering of these old records that causes the intensity. After all, such records are of painful memories that we have intentionally covered over, sometimes for many years, in order not to deal with them. When they finally come up, the feelings can last a week or more. If you don’t believe it, just try it. And as those old thoughts and memories emerge, write them down and make them the basis of your next ceremony.
If you write things down in the fire ceremony, complete the ritual, and they still come back again, don’t worry. It just means that you have stored those memories in your heart box more than one time.
Once a sixty-three-year-old woman came to me for healing. She didn’t know me, so on the first healing I explained the fire ceremony to her and mentioned that she had old stuff she needed to let go of because it did no good for her to hang on to it. I never mentioned what the old stuff was because I didn’t want to scare her on the first visit. By her third healing, she had done sixteen fire ceremonies. The day of her third healing, afterward she dutifully went home and did her seventeenth. About 9:30 p.m. she called, crying, and said, “This one thing always comes back no matter how many times I burn the damn thing.”
I could hear the tears falling as we talked. I said to her, “This is about your being raped when you were fifteen, isn’t it?”
For a second there was no crying — no sound at all, in fact, from the phone — just stunned silence. “How on earth did you know that?” she asked.
“I’ve known since day one, but I felt you didn’t trust me enough at the time to confide in me. But I think you trust me now, so I brought it up.”
“Why won’t it go away?”
“Well,” I answered, using my above analogy, “our heart boxes are a lot like the old juke boxes with the 45 rpm records all stacked up neat. The little arm would come down, pick up a record, play it, and then pick up the next one and play it, and so on. Let’s say you are the lady filling the juke box and you just love Elvis.”
“How did you know that . . . ahh. . . never mind.”
I continued, “So you take Elvis records and put one in every other record slot. What happens? You keep hearing Elvis over and over again. Now equate this process to the heart box. You do a fire ceremony and burn up the big E, and what shows up for the next fire ceremony? Of course, the big E plays over and over until you get to the bottom record.”
“But why would I put him in there so much?” the woman asked.
“Okay, here we go for a short lesson in history. You were raped when you were fifteen, and it took some time to get over. But by sixteen you had healed a bit, and you met this really nice boy. He asked you out, and what is the first thing you do? You take out that rape — that record — you had buried, and you look at it. Then you place it on top of the pile of records, so that now, not only is it on top of the pile, it is also still down at the bottom from where you pulled it out. But you don’t want it to be on top, so you go out and find some minor traumas to put over it so that you can’t see it again. You may even have to make minor arguments with friends or family, because they are easier to take than the real pain you are burying.
“Things are flowing fairly smoothly for you, and then you break up with your boyfriend. What do you do now? Why, you pull the rape out yet again and place it on top to see if you were damaged goods and if the rape was the reason why the breakup happened. But of course it wasn’t, so again you bury it.
“Then, later, you are out of school and meet the man you are going to marry. The first thing you do is look at the rape again to see if you are worthy. The answer is, of course you are. You did nothing wrong as a kid; you had no control over a vile, wounded pedophile. But by now, you have stacked that rape up in your heart box maybe twenty times from looking at it at different stages of your life. However, to get rid of it, you need only to keep on doing the fire ceremony. Keep sending the rape to the Creator and, I promise, when you get down to the bottom record of it, it will be gone. So keep on keeping on.”
I received a phone call from the woman about a week later.
“It took twenty-three fire ceremonies, but it is really gone! Thank you, thank you, thank you. I can’t say it enough.”
She was a very happy girl when she got past her memory of that rape, I must say. It has been ten years since this lady had to do that many fire ceremonies. But she is still doing them for other things, and she told me she wished she had learned of this ceremony when she was thirty.
My personal belief is that each person is a healer of sorts. It is much like baseball. Everyone in the world can pick up a ball and throw it, even though not everyone is Babe Ruth. Likewise, everyone can participate in their own healing. If people would give their attention to the fire ceremony and let go of the things that bother them, it would be much easier for them to be healthier and happier.
For example, when a loved one passes away, hold onto the love and the good memories. But be sure to give all your pain of the crossing to the Creator, or God, or whatever you call your higher power. When you hold the pain in your heart box, it weakens your body, your entire immune system, and your aura.
I am sure that almost every person in the world knows by now what an aura is. But some people don’t know that our auras are made of the projections of the energy around each and every cell in our bodies, not unlike the light that fiber-optic lamps project. As I said, the Creator gave us the ability to draw energy from our own cells to reinforce the heart box walls. When that energy is lost, you lose the protection of the energy field or aura around you, and you get sick.
This is not to say that the Creator’s intention was for us to overload our heart boxes in the manner that we all often do. But at the same time, we shouldn’t feel guilty about having done so. Again, when the Creator made us, he made us perfect as we are. If we remember that we are perfect as we are, then we are not so inclined to judge against ourselves.
The Traditional Ceremony
As I have explained, I discovered that the most important aid to healing ourselves is the Oneida fire ceremony, which involves writing down your prayers and burning the paper so that your prayers ascend to the Creator. My grandmother passed down to me the following version of the fire ceremony:
“In the days of my grandmother’s grandmother,” said Gram, “there was no paper to write on, so the people had to gather the materials they needed for a ceremony from the woods. First they gathered pieces of birch bark and thinned them down to two or three layers to make the bark pliable enough to fold. Then they found mineral stones to grind into powder and mix with elk or buffalo fat for paint. With this mixture, they painted symbols, pictographs, or petroglyphs on the birch bark to represent what they wanted or what they needed to let go of. In the swamps where the black spruce grew, they would harvest its small, fine, red roots and weave them into red cloth to wrap the ceremonial birch bark in. They gathered nettles and soft maple bark. They boiled the bark to make a purple dye for the cordage made from the nettle. The cordage was used to tie off the red cloth. Of course, they used tobacco, the medicine that is essential to every native ceremony. It was placed inside the painted birch bark paper after a prayer was made. The paper was then folded up and wrapped in the red cloth and tied up with the purple cord before burning.
“So you can see that it took a lot of work to prepare for the fire ceremony in the old days. Now that we have pen and paper, it is easy to take this important ceremony for granted. Today, we only have to be department-store hunters and gatherers. When it took weeks or more to prepare for a fire ceremony, people held it in much higher esteem, as we still should.”
Grandma asked, “Do you remember how I showed you to breathe?”
“Yes,” I replied.
“Well, remember to tell your clients to breathe into the Earth Mother, like I showed you.”
Here is what Gram taught me: Essentially, you are bringing the energy up your arms. As you inhale, raise your arms and draw the energy from your fingertips to let it flow into your central core. At the same time, use your mind to push the energy down through your core, out the bottom of your feet, and into the earth.
Then, as you exhale, the Earth Mother removes the negative energy, or whatever you want to let go of, and sends good energy back to fill you up, which instantly relieves any tension. She sends positive energy to replace the negative because she always works to achieve a balance. This simple exercise will help you stay in balance, and if you are in balance, you will find that everything in life becomes easier.
Breathing into the earth can be done in any position: standing, sitting, or lying down. As you use your breath, imagine it as a valve. As you breathe into your lungs, the air pushes the negative out and down. As you breathe out, the air and energy come up and out your lungs, drawing new energy from the Earth Mother. It may be helpful to imagine the breath as a yellow line of energy, much like the graphic lines used to point out movement in a football instant replay on TV. I find that image works well for many people.
“You can’t take the air out of a balloon without the balloon getting smaller,” said Gram. “The Creator set it up so that when the Earth Mother takes the negative, she always replaces it with positive so that we don’t die.”
“Grandma,” I said, “what if I can’t do this healing stuff, or I don’t want to, when I get big?”
“Don’t worry,” she said. “You can and you will. Just remember all the things I teach you and know that the Creator is the one who does the healing by sending you his energy. All you do is pass it on.”
My Version of the Ceremony
This ceremony is a forgiveness ceremony. It is about forgiving yourself, others, situations, and other things that have hurt you in your life. Gram freely gave the ceremony to me, and it is in this faith that I give it to you. No one should charge to help people do this ceremony. You will lose the spirit of the ceremony if you charge, and let no one charge you. With that said, here goes:
1. The first thing you have to do is ask God — or the Creator, or whatever you happen to call your Higher Power — to help you forgive yourself. You do this by writing requests to him on paper.
This process includes asking God to help you forgive yourself for situations in which you had no control, such as your place of birth, what your life was like as you grew up, parental breakups or deaths in the family, and so on. We need to do this, because, on a deep, subconscious level, we hold ourselves accountable for these things. We are a great species for blaming ourselves. Say our grandpa passes away. We say things like, “Jeez, if I had only stopped by last night, maybe he would still be here” Or, “If I had called, then I would have known something was wrong.” I am here to tell you that, as it is said, no man knows the day, hour, or minute of his passing. But when the Creator wants us home, it’s our time. When the second hand gets back to twelve, it’s over, and there is nothing in the universe that can stop it. Therefore there is no reason to blame yourself; death just is, plain and simple.
So now, think back on your own life. What has hurt you today over which you had absolutely no control? Then think about yesterday, last week, last year, and so on, and list as many things as you can think of that you could not possibly have changed. Don’t worry if you miss something; this is not a one-shot ceremony. I recently did my sixty-first fire ceremony with a group of vets from the Minneapolis Veterans Administration. Most think they got more out of the ceremony than they had in a week of therapy.
2. Next ask God to help you forgive yourself for situations in which you did have some control and did not act according to your highest light. We say things we don’t mean, and though they may feel good at the time, guess whose heart box they end up in?
However, even when we do not act according to our highest light, it is because we are in fact human — with our human emotions, reason, and frailties — and that is OK, because the Creator made us this way and loves us. And again, because of the way we are wired, we tend to hold these things against ourselves. But carrying a load that doesn’t belong to us does not lead to healing, so we need to let go of the things over which we did have control as well as the things over which we didn’t, when holding on no longer helps us with our highest good. Situations in which we have control could be our own relationship breakups, arguments with loved ones, and letting alcohol cloud our judgment.
I find that usually we hold onto the junk for dear life rather than give it up. I’m not sure if this is because we don’t know how easy it is to get rid of old hurts, pains, and traumas, or if it is just inherent human greed. Most of us fight against greed, but some embrace it — even when what they’re clinging to is harmful to them.
3. Now ask God to help you forgive places, situations, and other people that have hurt you. The more we hold onto our hurt over these things, the more energy we use that we could be using for our healing. Again, think back to today, yesterday, the day before that, and so on. Think of as many negative things as you can to release, because the more you can let go of, the more you strengthen your energy field, which is your protection.
Don’t be afraid to thank the Creator in advance for answering your prayer, and be specific in your wording of what you want (for example, freedom from resentment, health, spiritual healing, and so on). If it is good for you, the Creator will usually provide.
4. As you talk to the Creator, thanking him for helping you in this process of forgiveness, hold your tobacco up and put your prayers into it. Then put the tobacco holding your prayers into the middle of the paper on which you have written your needs, and crumple the paper around the tobacco. That way, your words enclose the tobacco, and, when you burn it, the smoke carries them right to the Creator.
5. Wrap this bundle of paper and tobacco in a piece of red cotton cloth that is six to seven inches square (or whatever size feels right). This is the way my grandmother taught me. It is so that God the Creator knows you are serious. Tie the cloth with a purple strip of cloth, string, or yarn. Tie it with four knots. Purple is the color of healing. The four knots represent the Four Grandfathers, who are the Creator’s spirit helpers. They watch the north, east, south, and west.
6. Throw the healing bundle into a hot, friendly fire so that you can see the smoke taking the words to the Creator. A hot, friendly fire is one where the wood has burned down to coals. I use the fire pit outside my house. On days when I don’t have time to build a fire, I use a two-pound coffee can. I poke holes in the side of the can near the bottom with a can opener that my dad used to open beer with (a “church key,” for those of you old enough to remember). I then place four or five pieces of Match Light charcoal in the can and light them. Next I fill out my writing for the ceremony, and by the time I’m finished and have my bundle made, the charcoal is white hot; all I have to do is drop the bundle in. I sometimes don’t have the patience I should have, and I think this way of doing the ceremony would be helpful to those of you who are like me.
Don’t be surprised if, a short while after the fire ceremony, you notice yourself feeling weepy, angry, sad, elated, happy, or any number of other emotions. As you peel the layers off of old memories that you had hidden from yourself deep in the unconscious, the old wounds start to float up into consciousness again, and you begin feeling the emotions that you have covered for such a long time. So keep a little notebook to write about things as they come up. It will be the basis for your next fire ceremony. Soon you will have plenty of material for the next one. I have noticed that this pattern has recurred with my clients over and over, time and again, during the last forty-five years.
The fire ceremony is not a thing to fear. Instead it is a way to overcome fear. It is also a way to enrich your present life by ridding it of past-life issues — issues that we carry from life to life until we deal with them, because they won’t go away on their own. The fire ceremony cleans out your heart box, giving you a much greater opportunity to achieve a healthy mind, soul, and body.
I heard of a man who did our ceremony and is now charging people to do it for them. That’s a nice thought, but the only one who can truly cleanse the heart box is oneself. I can help people pull negative stuff out, but it will never stay out unless they do the fire ceremony for themselves. Otherwise the issue they’re trying to get rid of will be back in a matter of hours, or four days at most, and that is only if the facilitator knows about wrapping the client in a cocoon of light after a healing is over.
We can’t be lazy people; we have to do the work ourselves if we want to heal. Don’t waste money on people who claim they can do something they can’t. There is no magic pill that fixes anything without work on our part. The Creator gave us the tools to work with — let’s use them. The fire ceremony is not hard to do. If you can’t do it by the end of the book, come see me and I will show you!
As I have said, my gram taught me that Oneida breathing is an important tool to use with the fire ceremony to balance the emotions, help ground us, and convert negative energy to positive. It is to be done four times a day with four repetitions each time, if you so choose. Here is a quick account of how to do it:
Stand with both feet on the floor and inhale deeply through your nose. Visualize your negative energy going down your body, out your feet, and into the ground. Then exhale through your mouth and visualize positive energy coming up from the earth, through your feet, and into the rest of your being. Upon inhaling, you send your negative energy to the Earth Mother; upon your exhale, she replaces the negative with new, positive energy.
Russell FourEagles is a Native American spiritual healer with over forty years of experience. He has performed over 45,000 healings around the world. He operates the Soaring Eagles Wellness Center in Spooner, Wisconsin, and speaks at Native American gatherings across the country. This article is excerpted from his book The Making of a Healer: Teachings of My Oneida Grandmother (Quest Books, 2014).