Finding comfort and closure by the river Traditional Cree ceremonies honour the departed

Night was approaching as I stood by the river, thinking of closure. The beauty of the water, a calm swath winding through low green banks, filled me with appreciation.

I was here because my partner, Larry Loyie, a proud Cree man, writer, and educator died three months before at 82 years old. He asked that his ashes be laid here by the river during the family’s annual gathering, in a traditional Cree way.

As a non-Cree person, I had complete trust in Larry’s brother and cousins who would guide the pipe ceremony, lay the ashes and organize a feast and giveaway. I just wasn’t sure of myself. Would I cry? What if I couldn’t stop?

Nature honoured the ceremonies. The sun shone gently on the tipis and tents. The rain left only a few drops in its passing. A fresh wind rustled the leaves in the nearby grove of trees.

Writer Constance Brissenden’s partner Larry Loyie asked that his ashes be laid by a river. Credit: Supplied.
Writer Constance Brissenden’s partner Larry Loyie asked that his ashes be laid by a river. Credit: Supplied.

In early afternoon, the pipe ceremony began. I joined a dozen family members inside a large painted canvas tipi. As two red coloured pipes were passed around, I cried, but there was also healing laughter. Larry’s brother, a pipe carrier, Larry’s oldest son, and other relations shared memories of Larry, including his fondness for Northlands racetrack. As laughter rang out, I remembered Larry always said, “If you see a group of people laughing their heads off, they will probably be Crees.”

Next, we walked into the grove of trees near the river. Larry’s son, Edmund, chose a special tree near one honouring his dad’s favorite aunt. We tied four lengths of coloured cloth and four coloured ribbons around it, all facing the same direction. A bowl of “spirit food” was placed at the bottom of the trunk. I chose Saskatoon berries Larry picked last year, salmon from the West Coast where he lived for decades, and a doughnut representing our travels across Canada. Tobacco was added to give thanks.

Edmund gently spread his father’s ashes at the base of the tree. More than 60 people walked around it. They spoke comforting words about their brother, father, grandfather, great-grandfather, uncle, cousin, and friend.

Writer Constance Brissenden’s partner Larry Loyie asked that his ashes be laid by a river. Credit: Supplied.
Writer Constance Brissenden’s partner Larry Loyie asked that his ashes be laid by a river. Credit: Supplied.

Food is always a blessing. The family prepared a bountiful feast with special dishes such as moose ribs, moose nose soup, vegetables, a giant bowl of potatoes cooked over the fire, handpicked berry desserts, bannock, and fresh buns.

After we ate, joked, and laughed, I laid down two blue tarps for the giveaway. Included were four blankets for the elders who prayed at the start. I had filled 80 clear plastic bags with mementos of Larry’s life. When he was in his mid-50s, he returned to school to make his lifelong dream of becoming a writer come true. He wrote nine books by the time he died.

We gave away the gifts, the tarps, and even the bins I brought them in, which is the Cree way of doing things. I was proud and happy every family member would have several items from Larry.

As I stood by the river remembering the day, I thought of what Larry wrote in 1994, when he was 61 years old: “I marvel at the serene elegance of this place, as I sit by the river, remembering happy times spent here with my family. I envision that I will be part of this awesome beauty one day, when I have completed my circle of life.”

With this thought, I finally accepted that Larry was gone. The Cree ceremonies had given me closure.

Header image: Constance (far right), niece Launa, Larry’s sister Louise, niece Roberta, and niece Linda were among those at the ceremony. Credit: Supplied

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