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Sweat and tears

2013 May 22

Last month, I attended the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC)’s Quebec National Event in Montreal. The TRC was set up to publicly hear the stories of survivors of Canada’s Indian Residential School system (1876–1996), a cultural extermination project organized and enforced by Canada, whereby multiple generations of indigenous children were taken from their families and communities; forbidden to use their language or express their culture; medically neglected to the point of death; and emotionally, physically and sexually abused in vast numbers.

The pain of all those broken childhoods is still being felt by those who attended the schools, but also by their families, their children, their grandchildren: in varying degrees, it still pervades every indigenous nation in Canada. All this very recent abuse in the name of “solving the Indian problem” by reprogramming them to be good Christians, good Canadians.

All of this was absent from my history curriculum when I was in school, and probably yours too. And yet, Canada, this is our Holocaust. What would we think of Germany if they kept that out of their history books?

While the TRC will not be nearly enough to achieve the goals its name invokes, nor even the more modest goals it has actually set for itself, hearing these stories is vitally important: to restore some dignity to those effected, for Canadians and indigenous people alike to know our history, and ultimately to heal and forgive.

In what follows, I will include anonymous quotes from the brave people who spoke to a room of thousands of strangers, where I sat for three days. 

Tears: hearing our history

I heard most of all about the fear in place of love: children as young as 4 or 5, being taken away from their loving families and taken into a strict, loveless, faraway institution where they did not speak the language and would be beaten for speaking the language they did know, or at the slightest provocation. They did not know the loving touch of a parent; they only physical contact they had was abusive. I heard of the “fear of the people who are supposed to love you.” I was asked to imagine what it would be like to be forced to send your child to a school where 50% of the children were sexually abused by the teachers.

In this bitter setting, the school staff instructed the children to love a Christian God. I heard: “We wondered why God didn’t answer our prayers. Maybe He didn’t understand us.” I heard: “God has been misrepresented in so many ways. The kingdom of God is about justice and freedom. It is not what those nuns and those priests brought to my people.”

The families left behind, whose children were the focal point of their lives, were traumatized as well. I heard: “The centre of our lives was ripped out. People lost their direction in life, their reason to live”. When children were eventually returned, a decade older, abused, ashamed, and unable to communicate with their families or understand their way of life, reconciliation was often impossible; relationships were permanently servered. I heard: “Our family is still torn apart by hurt and unforgiveness.” Children raised without love, unable to feel or express it, their defenses perpetually up.

Other children never returned, and families never even knew what happened to them. I heard from a man whose family was not told until 40 years after the fact, that his older brother, sent to a separate school, had died after only a year away from his family.

I heard a survivor mourn her son, lost to suicide. She blamed herself for never knowing how to show him love.

I heard a survivor’s daughter, who never knew her mother’s love, and who like many others went years not knowing why her mother couldn’t look after her—the stories from these schools being too painful and shameful to share—and so going unloved herself. She said: “We [the children of survivors] are a very unloved generation.”

The National Film Board of Canada supported the making of a film to help tell this story: We Were Children by Tim Wolochatiuk. There are many more documentaries by indigenous filmmakers at Wapikoni.

I heard story after story of unbearable pain, anger, and guilt. But I also heard stories of strength, of pride, of hope, of recovery, and of forgiveness. I heard laughter.

The apology and the TRC and the signing of the UNDRIP are important, but let’s not mistake these gestures for more than they are. A guilty nation that apologizes and promises reconciliation and respect, but whose Justice Department still spends $300 million per year to fight the recognition of Aboriginal rights, who sends in police to break down road blockades so resource extraction can continue, is not trying to reconcile. A nation that slings racist vitriol at indigenous activists in the comments of every online news article about indigenous issues I’ve ever read is not trying to reconcile. A nation that continues to assert its own legislative supremacy and destructive power is not trying to reconcile.

So what will it take to free all our nations from this destructive pattern? One speaker told us that Nelson Mandela, after decades in prison, came to believe that both the oppressed and the oppressor must be liberated, that both have been robbed of their humanity. We need to work together on this.

Sweat: healing and understanding

It was with this in mind that I jumped at the rare chance to participate, this past Sunday, in a sweat lodge ceremony with a Mohawk elder. Sweat lodge ceremonies are an ancient healing practice of many of Turtle Island‘s indigenous nations, a practice still very much alive today despite decades of legal suppression, and needed now more than ever. I have done my best to report my experience faithfully, but there may be some errors that have crept into my memory. I apologize for any misrepresentation and welcome any corrections.

Thanks to the First People’s House and the Aboriginal Health Interest Group at McGill University, where I study, I and nine other non-indigenous students, mostly studying in health-related fields, went to the Montreal Botanical Gardens on Sunday morning for a sweat lodge ceremony. There, we met Sedalia Fazio, a Mohawk grandmother from Kahnawake, who had had to spend a decade fighting for the right to establish a sweat lodge site in Montreal. She guided us through the ceremony. Robert Jones served as our firekeeper. They had performed these ceremonies all over Quebec, in Aboriginal communities, in prisons, on Victoria Island in Ottawa in the dead of winter, and 17 times in 4 days during the recent TRC event.

She told us that while her own spiritual beliefs were strictly Mohawk, the procedure of the ceremony itself was not strictly Mohawk, but was based on an amalgam of practices learned from Algonquin, Cree, and Mi’kmaq elders. The Mohawk people guard their own ceremonies closely, preserving them just as they have been for thousands of years, by excluding any outside influence; but some, like Sedalia, also feel drawn to support the healing of non-Mohawk and to build understanding across cultures, and so learn other practices as well.

Toting our water, towels, fresh berries, and dried tobacco (as instructed), we came into a quiet clearing, walled off from external view by a row of small potted cedar trees. The space was dominated by an enormous willow; it had a large white tipi, used as a changing room; a well-kept fire pit, and the sweat lodge itself, a low, round, canvas-covered hut surrounded by a tall fence and a collection fist-sized stones.

Sedalia explained to us that in the beginning, the Creator gave all living things—all things—a set of original instructions, to honour and to pass down from generation to generation. And all things in this world are still doing exactly what they were asked to do… except humans. Many of us have forgotten our instructions, which boil down to looking after the earth, looking after the water, looking after the air, and looking after each other.

She began the ceremony with a prayer of thanksgiving, thanking the Creator, the earth, the water, the water beings, the air, the flying beings, the four-legged beings, the rocks, the medicinal plants, the food plants, and our ancestors, who preserved the knowledge of all this and the language to communicate it, and passed it on faithfully to their descendants. All of these parts of creation, playing their proper role since time immemorial. We were grateful. She tossed handfuls of tobacco into the fire with each prayer, tobacco being the medicine by which the Creator is signalled to listen to a prayer.

We then crawled into the lodge, one by one, Sedalia last. We sat close together on the ground, filling the small lodge to capacity, around a central pit. She brought in a wooden bucket of water and a wooden scoop and sat next to the door. Four prayer rounds would follow, and she warned us that they would be heavy, but that we must let people feel what they needed to feel. This meant, for example, resisting the urge to comfort with physical touch a person who is crying: a touch is a signal to stop.

Two red-hot, fist-sized rocks were brought into the lodge from the fire on a pitchfork, dropped into our pit. Sedalia always referred to the stones as “grandfathers”: they are the beings that have existed the longest, they are made of the bodies of our most distant ancestors, they have seen and heard everything that has come before. So they have the greatest wisdom, and they can help us heal. Each grandfather is used only once in any given sweat lodge ceremony, and then retired: in this way, the wise grandfathers give their lives for us to heal. Similarly, the tree beings, also our grandfathers and grandmothers, give their lives for us to heal, to heat the stones and burn the tobacco in the sacred fire.

The first two grandfathers safely inside, the flaps were closed. All light was shut out except for the faint red glow of the stones, and our guide splashed them with water. The dark, warm, wet environment simulated a return to the womb. Sedalia sang a prayer song as she played her drum.

So began the first round, the round of the Eastern Door, when each of us would pray in turn, silently or aloud, to the Eagle spirit, who sees so well and listens to our worries. We prayed for our family, for those closest to us. One by one, we spoke or prayed silently; between the eleven of us, I heard prayers in six different languages. With each prayer, more water was thrown onto the rocks, the lodge became warmer and steamier. I was the last to pray. Some members of my family are facing particular challenges right now—some of my readers will know who they are—and I prayed especially for them. More than that was running through my head, though. I was thinking especially of old friends.

I did not grow up religious, and I think I have never prayed in earnest before. But on Sunday, I did. I thought of all the people who are important to me, I thought of their struggles, and I thought of what I hoped for for them.

The flap was opened: light returned, and a little cool air was let in.

Our firekeeper passed four more stones inside, the light was again shut out, and the second round, the round of the Southern Door, began: this was the round to pray to the “little people”, the mischievous but powerful spirits that are found everywhere, that can get into every nook and cranny of your soul and find the source of your pain, and help you heal.

Another song, and then we each prayed for ourselves. The steam intensified with each prayer; warm water dripped everywhere down my skin. In moments when it was clear people were struggling, Sedalia would utter a sympathetic “ohh….”, then call “Tobacco!” for Bob to toss another handful into the fire, but there would be no other response from us, only respectful, permissive silence. I prayed for the wisdom to find my proper path in life, and the power to forgive the hurt done by my own people. I was never an angry person until I learned about the residential school systems; forgiveness is hard to even want sometimes.

After this round we passed a pitcher of warm cedar tea, a cleansing medicine.

In the third round, the round of the Western Door, when eight stones were brought in and the heat became particularly intense, we prayed to the grandmothers and grandfathers all around us, the stones and the trees there to witness our pain. We prayed for the people who have hurt us, for our enemies. This round took longer than the other two. There were a lot of tears.

I am lucky to have nobody I could consider a personal enemy, nobody who has hurt me intentionally, but there is one person whose absence has caused me a lot of pain. I prayed for my dear friend Rachael, one of the best friends I ever had, who went missing in the mountains after our third year of medical school, together with her boyfriend Jonathan. Lost in the mountains they loved. Other than their car at a trailhead, no trace of them has been found, though the RCMP is still looking even today, almost three years later. I spoke at her memorial service. It is still hard for me to think or talk about.

It felt especially appropriate to be thinking of Rachael during this prayer ceremony. Rachael had deep religious convictions, and this was very new for me among my close friends. We talked about our beliefs on several occasions, and she was always open and respectful, and I started to understand for the first time why a person would adopt anything but the “objective”, “scientific” view of the universe I had confidently adopted, a universe of measurable particles and physical forces and nothing “supernatural” or “superstitious”. It’s only been since I’ve started learning about indigenous spirituality that I’m finally deepening the understanding that Rachael initiated, and I must admit, gaining a more authentic respect for other ways of seeing the world.

So there in the tent, in the hot, wet, dark, I sobbed like I haven’t sobbed in a long time. I thought at the same time about the unimaginable pain of the people I heard from at the TRC, who had lost a lot more than a friend. Sedalia called for a lot of tobacco that round.

When the flap opened, we again passed the cedar tea around the circle, and we also passed the berries we had brought. The berries are the food of the Bear, who we would pray to in the fourth and final round, the healing round. If you follow the Bear’s tracks, he will lead you to clean water, to good food (like berries), and to medicines. So the Bear shows us the way; he is a healing spirit. By sharing his food, we invited him in.

The final eight grandfathers were brought in to produce the most intense heat of all, and before closing the flap, we all lay down, curled in fetal positions, facing the outside wall. As the fourth round, the round of the Northern Door, began, we all called Bear in to help us heal, at the same time, in our own way, as the steam washed over our backs and enveloped us. We finally wrapped our arms around our own bodies, as though they were our mother’s arms, and invited our inner child to give up his pain and be comforted.

Finally, the flap was opened. We crawled out and laid down on the cool grass, feeling clean and exhausted. After several minutes, we slowly rose, and one by one offered a final prayer of thanksgiving over the fire, tossing in a handful of tobacco each. We were advised not to wash until at least the next morning, to keep that good energy from the ceremony, and that healing does not just take place in the sweat lodge ceremony; it’s what you learn about yourself there, and what you do with that afterwards, that counts. This writing is one of the things I’m doing; I want to preserve the experience, and these reflections on what’s truly important.

It was a tremendous honour to be invited to participate in this ceremony and I know the experience will stay with me for the rest of my life. I want to thank Sedalia and all those who have kept this knowledge alive through the generations.

Why is this important to me?

I have heard a number of stories, but this was my first direct experience with traditional indigenous medicine. It was powerful. Many say that indigenous peoples already have all the tools they need to heal psychologically and spiritually, and I believe it. (The more I learn about indigenous cultures, the more I think my culture has got it wrong, and theirs has got it right—about a lot of things.) But it will take a lot of time, and support, and an end to further abuse for people to fully recover, and it will take mutual understanding for our peoples to reconcile.

I didn’t teach in a residential school, I didn’t vote for that policy or any of the other past or present harmful government policies—these wrongs are not my fault. But I do have the privilege of ignorance of that history, and of benefiting enormously from it. I have lived almost all my life on stolen land: neither Vancouver nor Montreal was ever surrendered in a treaty. Like most land in BC and Québec, it was simply taken by occupation, and non-native control of this land has been maintained through a host of violent measures that continue to this day, and which include the trauma visited on its rightful owners by these schools. The material wealth that has been showered on me, directly and indirectly, that has provided my nutrition and my education and my health care and my entertainment and my stuff, has largely derived from the economy and infrastructure built on and driven by the theft of this land’s natural resources. My nation was built through genocide. I have benefited enormously from colonialism: from the legacy of these schools, and from everything else Canada has done to suppress native sovereignty in these occupied territories. And if you’re a non-indigenous Canadian, so have you.

So this isn’t just “their” history, “their” problem. It’s ours. It’s the problem of all who live here, and it’s the responsibility of all who live here to make things right.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission has already held national events in five cities. It will be holding two more, in Vancouver (September 18-21, 2013) and in Edmonton (March 27-30, 2014). It will also be holding a slew of smaller local events. I urge any Canadian reading this to attend one of these events, and more than that, to do everything you can to bring our nations towards understanding and reconciliation.

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