All Across Turtle Island

A year ago I was in Shillong, India, teaching some marvelous students, seeing some remarkable sight, and learning so very much. This year I’m not in Shillong, but warmed by memories of my time there. My not being there, however, doesn’t mean I haven’t been doing the aforementioned activities. It seems that life is rich and sure to bless as we open our eyes. Of course, I know that people go through unbearably difficult days, days that deserve lament. This, too, is a part of life but hopefully not the whole of it.

Some days are gift. Yesterday was such a day. I made my way to the Conestoga Pow Wow held at the Conestoga College complex. I go most years, although I missed last year because I was away. When I entered I was told I could go left or right, which was a bit disorienting because in the past there was only one direction to go. But this year, the Pow Wow had grown so large that they had a separate arena for vendors aside from the arena dedicated to the drums and dancing. I quickly scouted out the vendors before going into the drumming and dancing arena.

As I entered the sound of the big drums just electrified me. The drumbeat has sometimes been described as the heartbeat of mother earth. It certainly felt as though I was close to the heart of the earth: strong, warm, enlivening, inspiring, justice-demanding: the list of words to describe this sound cannot be exhausted. Drums are considered to be animate for many folk who are Indigenous to North America, sometimes called Turtle Island. I can understand why. The sound was life. The dancers were, I think, carried by the energy, by the soul of the drums.

I had occasion to catch up with some friends at the Pow Wow, wise people who I deeply admire. I am always warmed by their willingness to spend some time with me, sharing their insights and helping me to understand just a little bit more of the way of Turtle Island. And I had opportunity to visit with some young folk who I know from my life at the university, strong Indigenous voices who paint the world right, who converse with the earth and lead us into right relations with our mother, who study and teach, dance and sing, fight and write for the good of all creation. My afternoon just filled me with so much hope. Canada is a long way from where we need to be in our nation to nations conversations. But the conversation partners are ready to talk, passionate about a future lived out in a good way.

I came away from my afternoon at the Pow Wow so very thankful to the Creator for making this possible for me. I do not take these interactions for granted. Life itself bids us come and learn how to be, how to listen, how to smile. I saw so many smiles yesterday. I can only hope that one day we will see more smiles on the faces of people all across Turtle Island, faces glowing in their knowing that everything is related, and all life matters because it comes from the Source of life. We are but a speck in the universe, and knowing that sets us free to be humble and hopeful.

More than Family

This last Saturday I went to the Waterloo Indigenous Student Centre Pow Wow again. I say “again” because I’ve been there other years but also because I mistakenly made my way up to Waterloo Park for it last week. I had the wrong weekend for some reason, or another. The poster at Luther, the posts on Facebook and Twitter all had this weekend down as the due date, but still I erred.

When I got there last weekend, I noted a lack of signs, usually aplenty for this event, so I wondered if the pow wow was in a different part of the park. I wandered about it for a bit, and finally came back to the place I expected it to be. A medieval fest was taking place instead. That part of the park was awash with faux medieval tents and folk were sporting costumes fitting for the occasion, I suppose. It seemed that all were having fun, and some helpful people at a booth helped me to know that the pow wow was due the next week.

This week the same field was awash with folk in regalia: many Indigenous folk were wearing clothing vibrantly on display as they danced to the big drum. These clothes, of course, are not costumes but proper to Indigenous cultural identification. I walked about for an hour and a half, or so, enjoying visiting friends Indigenous and not, who were taking in this yearly event.

Pow wows, like medieval fests, are not a part of my background. But I find myself more at home in the former than the latter. I’m not altogether certain why that is, but if I was to take a stab at it, it would be because I know that I attend a pow wow as a guest, and a welcomed guest at that. MCs at pow wows have always, in my experience, been quite intentional in honouring and welcoming all who are present: noting especially elders and veterans, and then the first peoples of this land and others of us. Yesterday’s MC, at the close, commented on how powerful it can be when Indigenous and non-Indigenous people join together to celebrate, and a pow wow is – from my perspective – profoundly celebratory and inclusive.

As a person of faith, I wonder whether the church might learn a little something from a pow wow. Here people are accepted as they are and are welcomed from time to time to join in the circular dance. The pow wow is a place where I receive warm hugs, as well as a good bit of wisdom from this person or that. Of course, many churches work hard at being welcoming, and often understand themselves to be a big happy family. But a pow wow is conceived as a meeting of peoples, of nations. It is more than a family.

Families are nice, but if you’ve ever been an outsider at a family gathering, your identity as an outsider is pretty marked. I don’t feel like an outsider at a pow wow. I feel like a member of another nation, invited into this circle for this time. I am accepted for who I am and not expected to be someone else. There is something attractive in this, something for the church to ponder.

On the Making of a Turtle

On Saturday I made a turtle. Or, more accurately, I carved a turtle out of soapstone, pictured below. I was a part of a workshop hosted by the Woodland Cultural Centre. A shout out to both Richard Morgan who led the workshop and Naomi Johnson at the centre who organized the event. It was quite remarkable.

At one level it was especially interesting because in our part of the world, the turtle is a primary character in some indigenous creation stories. I won’t tell that tale now, but one version of it can be found here, but critical to the story is the turtle, who agrees to have the land where we now live built on its back. For this reason, North America is known in some Indigenous Communities as Turtle Island. In the story, the turtle exemplifies self-less giving, a willingness to take on the world, as it were, for the good of all. For those who are interested in reading more about this fascinating creation story, you will find that other animals also give much for creation of community. And as a think about the act of carving, I can also see that the rock that gave itself for this piece of art, too, was generous. This is, I think, more significant than it first appears, since in some Indigenous traditions rocks are considered grandfathers and grandmothers, elders in our midst. They, too, give themselves in order that something marvellous should occur.

What also struck me as so very important in this Saturday adventure was the conversation we had around the table as we scraped away at the Brazilian soapstone with our files. Some people spoke about the many negative stereotypes that persist about the first peoples of Turtle Island, some spoke of their personal experiences of these, but a consistent theme that resonated was the role of art in healing these pains and others. Our instructor had also worked as a social worker and spoke of how carving had helped some of the young people he worked with work through their trauma. As he spoke, though, it struck me that it wasn’t only the art that healed but the fact that it was art done in an environment dedicated to well being and healing. Alas, I’ve also seen art used as a means for competition and control. But when art is done in an environment of grace and acceptance, it can release powerful emotions. I experienced something of this last Saturday. Of course, this isn’t just true for those carving, but all the arts, including but not limited to painting, dance, song, story-telling, poetry, etc.

Martin Luther (a famed theologian of the 16th century) in a commentary on Psalm 101, called the Holy Spirit the greatest and best Poet. Most immediately, he was referencing the poetry of the psalm. But as the great linguist he was, he also knew that the word for poetry comes from the Greek word for “to make.” The Spirit, then, is best maker, the best artisan, the best artist of all, as is evident in creation’s beauty. Whenever we have occasion to experience creativity, it seems to me that we imbibe something of Creator’s Spirit. I certainly felt that way last Saturday, and for that I am so very grateful.

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Walking and Boating in a Good Way

I spent last Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday learning a bit more about wampums from George Kennedy, a teacher brought in by ANDPVA for their Creation and Clan Workshops held at the Toronto Council Fire Native Cultural Centre. You can see some photos from the event here, with a shout out to Marissa Magneson for the awesome photography gracing these pages.

I have to admit I was a bit hesitant about investing three days at a wampum workshop. Time is precious, but by the end of the first day I knew I made the right decision. For those who do not know about wampums, they are treaties made in beads. The Two-Row Wampum pictured below was a treaty between the Haudenosaunee and the Dutch. The two purple rows represent the two rivers they travelled on: one by canoe and the other by ship. The fact that these rows are parallel speaks to the commitment that the two communities will not interfere in each other’s business. The three white lines represent peace, friendship and respect. You can learn more about this wampum here.

Building a replica of this historic wampum was far more challenging than one might first imagine, and so was profoundly satisfying. The afternoon was structured around teaching, creating and eating, and the three wove together in a beautiful braid. I was reminded of the proverb that “a three-fold cord is not quickly broken.” (Ecclesiastes 4:12) As we beaded, we all shared stories and got to know one another, and sometimes we just worked away at difficult bits in silence. A bit of a community of very diverse people developed. It was a magical time, and I am so very thankful to the organizers, George and my fellow participants: young and old, Indigenous and not, men and women and two-spirited, residential school survivors, and recent immigrants.

Since the event was held in downtown Toronto, and I did not want to spend three days fighting traffic on the infamous highway 401, I chose to sleep on my sailboat in a nearby Burlington, and take a commuter train to Toronto each day. From Union Station in downtown Toronto I took the subway to Dundas Street, and walked 15 minutes or so, traversing Dundas Square, replete with flashy larger than life screens before making my way, a few streets down, where I passed Margaret’s Respite Centre and its visitors who have great need of care and love. The character of Dundas changes every few blocks, as is common in downtown Toronto, and so I visited some very disparate worlds before landing in the warm and welcoming doors of the Toronto Council building. I did all of this in reverse at the end of each day.

Doing so allowed me to think about the teaching of the Two-Row, and the other wampums we discovered. I wasn’t exactly travelling by boat or canoe each day, but the lessons applied: even though we all travel our own paths, a commitment to maintain peace, friendship and respect does much to advance God’s mission to mend the entire universe. In Canada, that mending most surely includes working towards Truth and Reconciliation in Settler relationships with First Peoples. But these principles also travel well, and each of us is invited to imagine how the Two-Row might inform our relationships in our families, our neighbourhoods, our work-places etc.

I am so very happy for my time in Toronto last week, and pray Creator’s blessings on this ongoing work that advances God’s Reign of love and justice in Regent Park and beyond.

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Be of Good Courage

Yesterday, I met
a company of prophets
in Kitchener, drumming
hard truths under a
gazebo in
Victoria Park. Their
ceremonial ribbons raged
against justice denied and
their voices took shape as a
chariot of fire
bearing
witness to heaven. And
yet their circle was soft:
they spoke of hatred as
self-defeating, pleading
for our healing. For a
moment the snow receded
and from the winter ground
a lily shot forth like Christ
from the grave and an
odour of hope perfumed the air.
The wind from the south was raw,
but it whispered in my ear:
“Be of good courage.”

After Six

Friends, I wrote this poem after a conference at The Six Nations of the Grand River Nation this summer. Here is a recently edited version.

They awe me, these suffering
ones, enduring

our colonial slips,

our empire eyes.

Oogling their land, and
straightening their circles, like

gluttons we grab and ignore and then

we fetishize and tokenize them

for our justification

for our failure

just to be.

They have much to teach us – when

our fists finally loosen

our eyes softly open

our hearts beat still –

when our voices find silence.

A Blessing for Pilgrims for Indigenous Rights

Friends, I was asked to provide a blessing for some pilgrims walking from Kitchener to Ottawa in support of Bill C 262, which requests the implementation in Canada of the United Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as the framework for truth and reconciliation, as per the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s report. This pilgrimage has been organized by the Mennonite Church Canada. My blessing followed upon a traditional sending by Myeengun Henry, an Ojibway elder in our city. The text for it follows:

God bless you in this journey of justice and peace.

May your feet feel each treaty
Holding you as you cross its reach,
Sustaining you as you walk in a good way.

May your ears be ready to hear
The stories sown in the territory you
Traverse step by step.

May your hearts beat in time with
Our Mother, the Earth
Who watches over you
In love, in delight.

May your minds be as one
In the community you are
On the way to truth and reconciliation.

And may you know

That your knowing is first being known.

And your loving is first being loved.

And your passion for justice and peace

Is first and finally God’s Reign in your midst.

God be above you, below you , behind you, beside you, before you and within you – as Holy Flame; as Sacred Word.