This is How We Make Our Way
All across the nation today, there will be ceremonies commemorating National Aboriginal Day (or what will soon be National Indigenous People’s Day, according to Justin Trudeau). There will be dancing and singing and regalia and official speeches by important people in city centers from sea to sea to sea. There will be earnest expressions of regret for Canada’s historical treatment of indigenous people and celebrations of how ancient cultures and languages are being reclaimed. There will be talk of honouring diversity and respecting treaties. There will be solemn pledges to do better going forward.
I’ve been to many of these events over the years. I am invariably moved by the proceedings, and I almost always learn something. But there’s something about “official” events that, I don’t know, seems too official. Like there’s a narrative that’s already been agreed upon and everyone is just there to play their part in the script. Indigenous people are there to provide a bit of colour and culture for our national mosaic. Non-indigenous people are supposed to supply our guilt and curiosity. Official government-y people are there to tell us what to do with it all. Or something like that.
This morning, I was invited to attend a ceremony at the local correctional centre. It sounded intriguingly unofficial. So I went. And it was. Intriguing and unofficial, that is. There were a few informal speeches from a few reps from the jail and a Blackfoot elder. There was a beautiful rendition of “O Canada,” sung by an offender, a young indigenous woman. There was a drumming circle, also comprised of a few female inmates. There was tea and bannock and fry bread. All under a glorious sunny summer sky.
We also had the chance to take part in a smudge inside the tipi that was being commissioned and blessed today. The inmates and staff had traveled out to the mountains, cut the trees, de-barked and whittled them into poles, and stretched the canvas over them. They were quite rightly and obviously proud of what they had accomplished. The tipi will now be a fixture out on the athletic field, available to inmates and staff. The elder offered a prayer in Blackfoot, explained the significance of the smudge. The smell of sweet grass and smoke wafted around us—offenders and corrections staff, elders and support workers, volunteers and community members—and up toward the sun. It was all quite beautiful.
But of course, there was and is no escaping the irony of where all this was taking place. Behind the tipi there was a chain link fence topped with razor wire. There were guards at the entrance to the field. As beautiful and moving as the ceremony was, as warm as all the interactions were, it was clouded, at least for me, by the sadness of knowing that over 60% of those behind the fences and the razor wire are indigenous people. Something is deeply, deeply broken in our nation and in our relationships with one another. It has been so for a very long time. We try to come to terms with the history, we try to parse the guilt and the blame, we try to craft more meaningful and hopeful narratives to take into the future, we try to relate to one another in better ways. But there is so much structural pain and dysfunction, so much abuse and injustice. The image of this beautiful tipi being essentially located in a cage was symbolic on so many levels.
There are signs of hope, yes, and this day is surely one of them. But sadness and hope are so often traveling companions in this world. This is probably unavoidable. In a world like ours full of people like us, sadness and hope need each other, if the truth is to be told, if a different future is to be imagined. This is how we make our way.
For me, there were two images from my morning spent at the correctional centre that tell the truth and imagine the future.
The poignant moment during the smudge and the blessing of the tipi when a middle-aged female offender put her head down and softly wept. What, I wondered, had this dear woman endured? What suffering had been inflicted on her? What pain had she caused others? What hope or sorrow did these tears represent? Were they tears for her children? For her people? Were they tears of joy? Tears of gratitude for this tipi? Were they tears that had no words? The young women on either side of her linked their arms around hers. One put her head on her shoulder.
The beautiful sight of young indigenous women drumming and singing and smiling and sneaking another piece of bannock in the summer sunshine. I walked by one of them afterward, the one who had sung the national anthem, at the top of her lungs. “Thanks for singing,” I said, “you have a beautiful voice.” She smiled broadly. “Thank you. And Happy Aboriginal Day.”