The 14th century German mystic Meister Eckhart said that spirituality is waking up.
On the brink of this Summer Solstice and National Indigenous Peoples Day, the longest day, this day of light, I want to acknowledge the sorrow of the families of the 215 children whose graves were found in Kelowna in May, and the generations of Indigenous families whose relatives were forced to go to residential school and never came home emotionally, spiritually or bodily.
In 2006 when I worked with Alberta Alcohol and Drug Abuse Commission (AADAC), I travelled with an Indigenous colleague to visit some of our community partners in northern Alberta. I remember driving by the site of one of the residential schools and my co-worker telling me that during the demolition of the building, they had found the skeletons of infants. That was when I first knew there were skeletons in those schools.
When the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) came to Edmonton in March 2014, I wasn’t sure at first if it was open to everyone, but I had a Cree friend who said, Yes, of course it was; she was going and I could go with her if I wanted. We spent the days sitting in packed rooms with the lights turned low. Those who spoke were seated in the centre circle, held by the wider circle, taking turns at the microphone. Always opening with prayer and smudging, then the stories, and the tears. We all cried. At the end of each session attendants gathered our used tissues at the doors in big paper bags to be burned outside in the sacred fire that was lit through the whole weekend. There were many revelations for me, but the biggest came at the end of the last day, with my friend’s family as we ate supper. I said how powerful the gathering had been for me, how glad I was that I had come, probably feeling a little pleased with myself too. One of the people at the table, agreed. It had been powerful. But in a quiet voice, she said she wished that there had been more non-Indigenous people there too. I looked around the room and felt ashamed. Reconciliation between parties can only happen if both sides are present and the truth is heard. That is when I realized that what Indigenous people want most from non-Indigenous people is to be listened to.
In the past couple of years one of my writing projects has brought me into contact with more Indigenous writers, artists and community activists. In many ways the project has become secondary during this process, set aside. The most important thing to Indigenous people I am learning is the relationship: how to go forward “in a good way.” That and the need to listen also to the joy, the humour and the gifts Indigenous people hold for all of us. Or as one Cree artist challenged me to consider, “What about some cultural appreciation?”
And so in these pandemic times I have been trying to seek out and follow Indigenous voices on social media, taking in Indigenous-non-Indigenous public dialogues, watching Indigenous documentaries and cooking shows! meeting regularly with a new Indigenous friend and collaborator on Zoom, reading and rereading Indigenous history and literature (some old, with new eyes; some new, from contemporary voices). I am still waking up, still learning.
I see there are virtual celebrations over the next week in Treaty 6 territory. How will we celebrate National Indigenous Peoples Day?