This spring, I walked into an old Quaker meeting house on Pocumtuck homeland, now Massachusetts. I had been invited by Ojibwa Elders Strong Oak and Grandmother Nancy to participate in the Wiping of Tears healing ceremony.
I wasn’t sure what to expect. I had never met the elders, and only knew a little about the ceremony. A few weeks before, a friend of mine, who works with Elder Strong Oak, had extended the invitation to join them in what would be the first Wiping of Tears on this land for generations.
A few rows of mothers, grandmothers, elders, and Quakers sat in the pews. Grandmother Nancy, a sought-after medicine woman, motioned for me to sit down in a chair on the side of the room and take off my shirt and socks. Turning to the group, she explained the history and context of why we were there. She spoke of the need for warriors returning from battle to stay outside their tribe until they had shed tears. And the need for the community to shed tears with their warriors to help them come back.
I was nervous but made myself stay present with the part of me that was curious. After spending a decade as a chaplain in the military, I’ve been on a journey around the world over the last few years searching for practices that can teach us how to share the burdens of war.
War is a deeply human experience. Over millennia, people around the world—many of them Indigenous—developed collective systems to cope with, memorialize, and remember the losses of war. This work is a way to witness and share. To move people from them to us and I to we. To explain, share, and process the impacts and stories of wars for the people who fought and those who sent them.
These traditions have been largely abandoned by the Western world today. In America, war is not understood as a phenomenon to be witnessed and remembered. It is a cost that is managed and fixed with a $300 billion budget. It is a decision based on political and monetary factors. This leaves its impacts confined to the less than 1% who choose to serve. The moral and spiritual load of war was never meant to be held by so few, and this is reflected in the alarming increases in disability and suicide rates among military service members and veterans.
The current public health and programmatic approaches toward supporting veterans provides services, but these burdens cannot be medicated, ignored, or passed to governmental organizations. These burdens demand something deeper and more communal. Without such larger cultural practices in place, individual burdens are not shared, and the lessons we’ve taken from war go unlearned and unremembered.
Many Indigenous cultures treat the experience of war as something separate, standing apart from (even against) the values of the community. They understand that the journey to and from war needed oversight to ensure everyone made it back, requiring a guide, like a shaman, a priest, or a medicine man or woman. In New Zealand, before sending warriors off, Tikanga Maori priests removed the tapu, a Polynesian traditional concept denoting something holy or sacred. Upon return, warriors underwent a complicated set of rituals and cleansing by which they restore their tapu. These ceremonies gave structure and language to the beginnings and endings of war and help bridge the world between the two.
Ceremonies are also a way for warriors to share their individual experiences within the collective whole, unifying those who did not fight with those who did. They remind us that it is not you, but us who suffer. They also help everyone understand that if the forces of war are ignored, they will expand in influence. The Lakota has a phrase that speaks to this idea, mitakuye oyasin. It means we are all related. Other Native Americans use the phrase all my relations as a way to describe the belief that we are all connected. War may separate us, but it’s these values that bring us home.
In my own service, I rarely encounter military families who feel supported upon homecoming or when leaving the military. Instead, I get the impression that war is like a rock rolling downhill that no one really wants to get in the way of. Certainly not something that anyone wants to have the responsibility for.
Peace, like liberty, is a shared burden though. But because we do not have these cultural practices to share, those of us who’ve served must hold heartbreak as though it were ours alone to hold. So we do, sacredly, struggling under its weight, but unable to set it down for fear of forgetting it. I count myself among the many veterans who have held this weight for so long that they have forgotten how to share it. But through this work, I am learning that our duty is only temporary.
As the Ojibwa Wiping of Tears ceremony began, Elder Strong Oak began to drum and sing and Grandmother Nancy leaned forward and dipped a rag into cedar water and lightly rubbed my feet, gently moving up to my hands and arms. As they sang and spoke over me, I closed my eyes and listened and felt as everyone watched.
When Grandmother Nancy leaned forward, gently whispered to me, and rubbed my heart with cedar water, a wave of sadness broke over me. I hung my head and began to weep. I couldn’t figure out why at first. Just that I needed to express it. Slowly, I began to feel the sadness at how humans have treated each other. How I have treated myself. I felt all the pain and how much I’ve carried. I ugly cried for what must have been 20 minutes. When I started to breathe normally again, Grandmother Nancy wiped my face and called for a new shirt and socks. I felt relieved. I looked up and saw people wiping their faces, passing tissues. It was ours to carry now. I could not give these burdens to them. They had to ask for it.