David, with long hair and a dark sweater, rises, as do the eight others around him. He offers an invocation to the Great Spirit and the Ancestors. Speaking in English and Delaware, he asks for health and wisdom, for help with tasks.
Mike, in beads and bandana, sings a traditional Mohawk prayer, accompanied by a rattle. The chant, roughly translated, asserts, "As I walk through the land I will be guided and protected."
The ritual ends with the participants turning in the Four Directions, symbolizing the journey of life with good spirituality. They sit in chairs describing a rough circle, a seat left open for the Ancestors. On the floor before them is an altar of red cloth — red for the Sacred Path, cloth for the Universe.
"The altar's a lesson that teaches many things," Mike says. "Sometimes you have to look beyond. Sometimes you have to look within."
Learning those lessons is the goal here on the second floor of the Onala Club, Carson Street, West End. The gathering, officially the Four Rivers of the Tree of Life Native American Healing Circle, can swell to 20 participants. All are in recovery, looking for a way to keep their demons at bay.
Clearly, they are not all of Native ancestry. But what attracts them is the reliance on the Spirit World to help them on their path, the use of tribal spirituality and cohesiveness.
On the altar is a drum, representing human heartbeats as well as the heartbeat of Mother Earth. Feathers give rise to spirit and speech. Four sacred herbs stand at the cardinal points on the compass: sweet grass for blessing; tobacco for light; cedar for darkness and introspection; sage for innocence.
Sage, too, is used in the Smudging Ceremony's ritual purification. As dusk gathers outside this Monday evening, David gathers the leaves into a large shell, then lights them. As the herb flames, then smolders, he takes it around the room, each participant standing and using a feather to waft it toward him/herself, head, heart, legs.
"Sage smoke," Mike explains, "releases you of any negativity."
"There's enormous spiritual power there — the power of the herb, the power of the circle's medicine," he adds, as the sweet scent fills the room. "And with that power comes a promise from a spiritual place. From a Higher Power. Understanding where that power comes from is enormously important."
Understanding is why they are here. And in the circle, participants speak in turn, discussing their problems, the paths they've taken, their victories — and defeats.
To speak, each stands and holds a white feather that is passed from person to person.
"The Great Spirit has the power to help us gain sobriety," a small woman says.
Aho, the others answer, meaning yes, I agree.
"I'm here for change," a young man named Ron says. "I don't want to be living my life the way I used to. I'm going to go forward."
Aho, the others say, nodding.
"I had one of those days," David says, "when I was climbing up the hill and I didn't get there."
They all nod.
"Each day," he says, "as I walk the steps, I realize there's more to learn. To accept all things as they are. And accept myself."
Aho, they say.
"I had to learn acceptance," a second woman, Diane, adds quietly.
"I had to learn I had no power over anyone," the small woman adds.
"I don't like to admit that I'm powerless," Ron says. "It's hard for me to accept that I can't do what I want."
"Once I became powerless," David says, "I gained all sorts of power. Power to forgive. Power to be humble. Power to regain and restore things in my life."
Mike nods. "I've walked the Red Road, the Sacred Path, for 16 years. I've had 16 years of sobriety. But I'm still beset with addiction in my soul. So I have to continue the spiritual battle. I have to watch how I walk, even on the Red Road."
"I've been walking the Red Road for a long time now," David adds. "But it doesn't mean I don't have to learn something every day."
"You should try to learn something new every day," an older man adds. "Even a bad thing can be a lesson."
"We travel the Four Directions," Mike adds. "The place we go toward has the potential for good. But we have not arrived. Life is that never-ending circle. We continue to walk."
Aho, they say, and nod.