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.

Music Communal and Mystic

Yesterday was an unusually rich day. After spending a morning working on a paper I’ll be giving next week I was off to Cambridge, Ontario, for a Bridging Communities Through Song concert. This is an annual event organized by Mino Ode Kwewak N’gamowak (Good Hearted Women’s Singers)- a drum group of Indigenous women who sing (mostly) traditional songs. They have partnered with the Waterloo Regional Police Male Chorus, an especially pertinent partnering given the fact that the police and First Nations have not usually had the best relationships, and certainly little trust. They were joined by the Rainbow Chorus, an LGBTQ+ chorus. The theme was care for water, and the program began with a prayer acknowledging the gifts the Creator has given us. The music was so very varied in genre: touching, fun and inspiring, and had the rich character of speaking from and to the community

After supper, my eldest and I drove to Toronto. She had bought me a ticket to a Toronto Symphony Orchestra concert. It was the first of a three concert series called “New Creations Festival.” For the series, composers were commissioned to produce new pieces. For last evening’s concert, four pieces were performed. One was a riff on “O Canada,” the second a Trauermarsch/Funeral March, the third a piece focussing on the ephemeral character of perception, and the fourth a piece attending to Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women. This latter had five movements reflecting Kubler-Ross’s five stages of grief: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance. The piece included a score, some improvised orchestral music and improvised singing by Tanya Tagaq. This latter is an Inuit throat singer, who is quickly becoming rather famous in Canada, and abroad. For those who have never hear throat singing, it is hard to describe. The range of sounds is beyond description; for many new to its hearing, it delights, shocks, and intoxicates. But it isn’t about sound alone. Tagaq’s body contortions to her singing allow one to see what is heard.

As she sang, I first sensed the land suffering losses: I imagined northern terrain twisting in agony at the stunning grief of environmental decay. I then visualized communities facing days upon days without children in their midst, sent to residential schools for programmatic assimilation to European culture. I heard and saw her own pain. The sounds were so utterly primal. This throat singing comes from the earth, from life – like Adam/Land and Eve/Life – and so awakened in me a kind of primal ache. It was both beautiful and strange. Words fail me, in describing it, or I fail words, but still I try. I must.

Some experiences really evade description because they strike a core so fundamental to our being that these give birth to new language, to halting words. These experiences are so dear to us that we are driven to expressing them, if even in faulting words. Perhaps this is what the great mystics knew. I am not sure that this concert was a mystical experience, but I think it is about as close to it as I am going to get. I still am processing this experience, or perhaps it is processing me….

Pictographs at Superior

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No, these images cannot be
described – neither
poetry nor prose can
circumscribe these etchings
on stone, cyphers of tenacity
sketched on rock, scars of strength
anchored across
grandfathers’
cheeks.  My cheeks
now moistened as I feel
this place dripping divine: mine
the gain as  I lay down any sense
of superiority,
of expertise,
of being high priest.

No, none of these
obtain because here I am
a drop of water crashing against rock;
a tear salting skin-on-fire;
a dropping of the guard into the
truth that being a drop is more
than enough.