Keeping Our Sisters Safe

Two years ago, I was at a learning event in Ohsweken, at the Six Nations of the Grand River Nation. For one of the workshops, I chose to learn a bit about the famous three sisters: corn, beans and squash. Haudenosaunee people have planted these three together for years, with a rather clever methodology. The bean uses the corn for climbing, and the squash, with its prickly leaves, serves as a deterrent for creatures looking for a bit to eat. At the workshop, I received sister seeds. Last year I attempted a three sisters garden. Alas, the creatures in our backyard were not dissuaded by the squash, and so I had to restart my experiment with some temporary garden fencing. The squash blossomed, but no fruit resulted. I did, however, manage to score one ear of blue corn, and one pod of three peas, which served for seed this year.

This year, I started my plants a bit earlier, with some large bowls giving them a bit of a greenhouse, but this week they outgrew their temporary homes. So, yesterday I made a trip to a department store only now opened after months of curbside pickup. I donned the mask my wife made me and ventured in, to search out some screening material and dowels. This was my first experience of wearing a mask. My only other public shopping adventures have been to stock up on food and drink, where strict limits on numbers made me feel safe. For some reason, I thought it wise to mask up. About three quarters of the shoppers were masked, and most of the employees were not. I looked up at a friendly looking employee who smiled and me, and I smiled in response, and stopped in my tracks mindful that my smile was not known to her. Hopefully my eyes communicated my appreciation.

I made my way home and spent the rest of the afternoon making a fence for my little three sisters garden. As I worked on the garden, I thought about another event I visited at Ohsweken: Walking with our Sisters. This was an event commemorating, remembering and mourning Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls in service of justice. The installation involved “vamps,” the decorated tops of moccasins. Each pair of vamps represented a stolen sister. It was an incredibly powerful event, with many tears at the realization that many of these deaths were never investigated, or poorly investigated. Elders were present to help those in need of ceremony at the sight of these vamps. Each of these stolen sisters proclaims the reality of systemic racism in a land where some lives are deemed worth more than others.

My three sisters garden reminds me of this truth, and my little fence speaks to me of our need to protect our sisters, the land and all of life. If only protecting our sisters were only so simple as enduring the little discomfort of wearing a mask and acquiring some material to shield them from harm. But the changes that are needed in our world are systemic and seismic in nature, by a complete and utter turning around and away from the ways of evil, by what some call repentance – both individually and corporately.

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.

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.