It was an early Sunday morning in South Dakota, and I was stirred from my sleep as I faintly picked up the smell of smoke. Jumping up from my pillow, I looked around, half expecting to see my bedroom in flames.
Instead of fire, I saw the strangest thing - my father walking through the room with a burning stick of (what looked like) straw.
“Dad, what in the world are you doing?” I asked, my eyes wide.
He laughed as he looked up and responded, “Don’t worry, Em, just praying.”
I went back to sleep, peaceful in the knowledge that our house was not burning down, but also thinking that he was maybe, just maybe, he was a little bit crazy.
It wasn’t until much later in my life that I would understand. In the Native American culture, the burning of sage grass is a symbol of cleansing, and is a very intimate element of ceremonies. The burning of the sweet smoke is a visual expression of the removal of negative feelings, resentment and energy so that healing can flood in. It signals purification and renewal.
My father told me that he was visiting with friends one time, and as they walked through the door of this store, they picked up the faint smell of sage grass. There was a Native American woman in the group, and she closed her eyes, breathed in and said, “Ahh…that is the smell of forgiveness.”
Symbols are a powerful element of our culture, as they connect two aspects of our beings that are constantly in conflict -
- The first is cognitive. These are our values, belief systems and standards of behaviors.
- The second is sensory, and these are our emotions, feelings and guttural base desires.
Our cognitive tells us what we should do in a certain situation, while our sensory tells us what we want to do in a certain situation. Symbols connect these two in a unique way, as they empower us to overcome the sensory when we don’t have the strength. A symbol is a tangible representation that has the ability to bring our emotions in alignment with what we know is the right way to respond.
Because of this connection, a symbol has the ability to communicate in ways that words are unable.
The village that I grew up in is in the northern area of Ghana, about ten hours outside of the capital Accra. It’s a small village, and they rely heavily on spoken communication and symbols in place of literature. The Adinkra symbols are an important element of West African culture, and By Grace's logo is actually an adaptation of Nyame Nti, which means “by God’s grace.” And if you look closely at our Africa graphic tee, you’ll see it is a collection of all of the different symbols.
One symbol that is especially dear to the people of Ghana is Gye Nyame, which stands for the supremacy of God. It translates literally to "except God," and means that God is the only constant in a world of change.
If you ever get the chance to visit Ghana (and I really hope that you do), you'll not be able to miss the Gye Nyame symbol. It's on jewelry, home goods, clothes, chairs - I've even seen it etched into concrete blocks of a house.
It's a beautiful reminder that the symbols we surround ourselves with will not only impact our thoughts, but have the powerful to determine our actions.
Until next time,