Cultural Education Workshop In Baden Teaches The Importance Of Indigenous Ceremonial Tobacco

Anishinaabe instructor Kelly Welch shared her knowledge of Semah, which is used in ceremonies, prayers and rituals

Kelly Welch, at right, with Aryawna Isaac and Ashley Hynd, during an Indigenous workshop about ceremonial tobacco, known as Semah. (Photo credit: Nigel Gordijk)

Kelly Welch, at right, with Aryawna Isaac and Ashley Hynd, during an Indigenous workshop about ceremonial tobacco, known as Semah. (Photo credit: Nigel Gordijk)

A recent Indigenous-led workshop in Baden helped 20 attendees to understand the significance of Indigenous ceremonial tobacco, which is called Semah. The May 2 cultural education event was organized by Angie Hallman and supported by the Wilmot Ecumenical Working Group on Indigenous/Settler Relationships. Steinmann Mennonite Church donated the use of its space for the session.

Instructor Kelly Welch introduced herself by her Canadian name before explaining that her Anishinaabe spirit name is Muskwa Migizi Kwe, which translates as Red Eagle Woman.

She said she was passing on knowledge that had been taught to her. “I’ve been told from my teachers that tobacco comes first. Everything starts with tobacco.”

Semah is the most important of the four sacred plants, which include sweetgrass, sage and cedar. All of them have medicinal properties and are treated with great respect.

As Welch described the significance of tobacco, she recalled how it played a role in helping her to connect with her heritage during a dark time in her life.

She was released from Vanier Centre for Women in 2016 after serving a six-month sentence, and she described 2017 as “a year from hell,” during which she lived through a period of precarious housing, was in an abusive relationship, and struggled with crystal meth addiction.

Welch was first exposed to tobacco at a healing lodge in 2018.

“There are a few teachers that have come across my path, and their faith in tobacco was so strong. I was in a place where I had tried everything else and had no other options. I just thought, why not give it a try? I was struggling with my addiction and trying to let that go.”

“Tobacco saved me as it allowed me to focus my intentions, made me focus my thoughts, allowed me to believe in something. It changed my life. It’s my connection with spirit, my connection with Creator.”

The tobacco leaves that are typically used for ceremonies are not processed, and they don’t have any added chemicals. Welch recommended holding Semah in the left hand, as that has the closest connection to the heart.

Small quantities can be dropped into ceremonial fires, and as it burns, the smoke lifts prayers to the Creator.

Semah can also be offered to someone as a mark of respect when making a request of them, such as asking for advice or knowledge. If the other person accepts it, they agree to listen without judgement and to offer their support. However, there is no obligation for them to accept either the tobacco or the request.

When tobacco is offered in this way, it is often wrapped in cloth and tied. Assisted by Aryawna Isaac and Ashley Hynd, whom she described as her sisters, Welch demonstrated one method for making tobacco ties, which workshop attendees followed as they made their own.

Angie Hallman said she chose tobacco as the workshop’s topic because it’s at the core of the relationship between Indigenous people and Canadians. “Settlers want to ask Indigenous people for their time, or ask questions, or thank them. This is the first protocol in their way of life.”

Marie Pavey is part of the Wilmot Ecumenical Working Group, whose members come from the township’s Mennonite, Lutheran, United, and Anglican churches. She attended the Semah event because of her long-time interest in Indigenous issues.

“I went to school with kids from three First Nations communities south of London. Thirty years ago, when I came here to Baden, there wasn’t anything to connect to. It’s exciting now to see things here in Wilmot that are about truth and reconciliation,” she said.

Pavey has taken part in healing circles led by Elder Nina De Shane in Wilmot, as well as a drum-making workshop at Mannheim Mennonite Church. She’s also visited Crow Shield Lodge, an Indigenous learning and healing centre in New Hamburg.

Pavey attends Shantz Mennonite Church on Erb’s Road in Baden, and she’s found that her ongoing education has been beneficial within her community.

“We had a working group that developed a land acknowledgement because as we were opening our new facility, (we) wanted to make the words authentic,” she said. “We did a lot of learning with our group and then shared that with our church.”

Receiving teachings from various Indigenous people allows for more depth of understanding, Pavey noted.

“Every time you listen to a different speaker, you pick up different nuances. There are so many layers. Traditional Indigenous knowledge is so rich and so connected.”