Sunday, November 24, 2013

The Star Blanket Does Not Cover, But Reveals

Our congregation was recently presented with an 8-pointed star blanket by the All Native Circle Conference. Normally such gifts are gratefully accepted without any special discernment, but thankfully, Rev. James' considerable experience working with native communities in Manitoba and elsewhere provided us with the additional insights and the protocols needed to properly receive such a significant offering.

At our annual general meeting last June, a speaker from the Alexander First Nation came to accept a tobacco offering and to share some thoughts and insights into the meaning and significance of the star blanket. Stan Arcand Jr. is the son of a former hereditary chief, and an earnest and honest speaker. His own learning was centred around a 7-pointed star, which he shared with us, saying that each point has its own symbolism: honesty, respect, kindness, humbleness, forgiveness, humility and love. The blue of our blanket represents sky and high honour, and the points radiate out, just as we radiate out as community, family, and individuals. Three strands of sweetgrass woven into the blanket symbolize mind, body and spirit.

James explained that such a gift could not be stored for special occasions or hung out of the way, but needs to be displayed in a place of significance to honour both the gift itself, and our commitment to right relations with aboriginal peoples. Stan suggested placing the blanket over a doorway with an appropriate smudging ceremony, and after James presented an empty space over the sanctuary doors, we all agreed that this would be ideal.

James made the appropriate protocols and arrangements for an elder to come in to help us with this, and last week Stan returned with his uncle Tony, a tribal elder, and they held a smudging over the blanket prior to its being hung over the sanctuary door.

James had asked prior to the ceremony if he might have the native-style prayer stole he received as a gift in Manitoba similarly blessed, and the elder was happy to oblige. After having delivered the traditional offerings of tobacco protocol and a gift of prints in the 4 sacred colours of the medicine wheel (black, white, red and yellow), James put on his stole and presented himself to the elder, saying, "My spirit name is Wapiskamikisew, White Eagle."

The elder smudged James and the stole with the smoke from a burning wick of sweetgrass, and this was followed by Stan singing an honour song and drumming on his frame drum. I found the entire thing profoundly moving, while James was actually a little embarassed, since he had thought the song was just going to be for the blanket itself, and had not wanted to be the focus of the proceedings.

I told him that I thought it was wholly appropriate, since without him we would not have known the proper manner in which to accept the gift, and that he was instrumental in our moving forward in a spirit of mutual respect and forgiveness. This is more important than ever since the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is coming to Edmonton in March.

The TRC is an offshoot of "the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, the largest class-action settlement in Canadian history [against both the Federal government, and the churches that ran the schools, including the United Church of Canada]. The agreement sought to begin repairing the harm caused by residential schools. Aside from providing compensation to former students, the agreement called for the establishment of The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, for those affected to have an opportunity to share their stories." (From the Truth and Reconciliation Commission website.)

Now, I have to admit here that I have a difficult time with white liberal guilt, and might feel that I have nothing to apologize for. After all, I never worked in those schools, and I never personally abused anyone, native or otherwise. The truth of it is though, that my church, at the behest of my (and probably your) government, tried to implement an assimilationist solution to "the Indian problem" that no matter how you dress it up, equated effectively to genocide. Children were taken from their homes and families, shipped to faraway places and told to forget their language, culture and identities. Looking back at it now, it seems as evil and fantastical an idea as any evil scheme concocted by a James Bond villain, despite the fact that the people implementing it thought they were doing good in 'civilizing' a 'savage' people.

And as if that wasn't bad enough, we now know that there was rampant abuse of every possible stripe in the residential schools: physical, emotional, sexual, and even scientific experimentation. How can we be surprised? If you put people in remote areas, require and encourage them to do terrible things to their charges with absolutely no oversight, how can we be express schock at the horrific tales that have come from the survivors of Canada's residential schools? It's like some perverse precursor to the infamous Milgram Experiment, where volunteers were willing to torture others with only the slightest encouragement from an authority figure.

And while you or I might not have had a direct role to play in those wrongdoings, most of us have benefitted, directly or indirectly from white privilege. As the people in power, as the 'establishment' we do have a role to play in the work of the TRC, and it doesn't need to involve personal shame; we just need to listen.

If we give the survivors a venue to tell their stories, but the only ones who come to listen are fellow natives and other survivors, then the TRC will have accomplished very little. This community is all too aware of the tremendous damage caused by the residential schools, and how long the healing is likely to take. There needs to be white faces, 'establishment' faces in that audience, and not so they can be blamed or shamed or ridiculed, although there will be instances where that happens, and brave volunteers present in order to take that anger and try to turn it into something cathartic.

No, the majority of faces just need to be there, to listen, and to nod, and to acknowledge the wrongness and hurt, and to agree that this should never have happened, and to ask for collective forgiveness so that true healing can begin. Think of it as supporting a friend who is grieving; there is little you can do to change how they are feeling, but being there to share the burden helps all the same.

There can be a temptation to think of the residential schools as something from the distant past, and that those who live in the present day should somehow 'just get over it', but the last federally operated residential school didn't close until 1996. Audrey works with children every day whose backgrounds and behaviours are a direct result of the Indian Residential Schools; parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and older cousins may be survivors, or might have vivid memories of those they loved being taken away. Many of the social ills we associate with urban aboriginals, like alcoholism, substance abuse, child abandonment, suicide and such, have their genesis in the IRS. She deals with children who might never have experienced the residential schools for themselves, but now deal with neglect, fetal alcohol syndrome, foster care, and gang violence as a result of them. We simply cannot be surprised when those affected by such a travesty cannot rise above such obstacles, or that they do not have the tools needed to raise healthy families.

Audrey asked a female elder who visits her school how long it might take to get things right with regard to this, and was told that the effects of the residential schools are likely to be felt for seven generations. Seven! It boggles the mind; I can't trace my own family history back more than three, and that takes me back to the 19th century, but it gives you a sense of the scale at least. Even though the goal of the IRS was assimilation and not extermination, the similarity to the Holocaust is hard to deny, especially in terms of those affected being able to move forward.

As challenging and sometimes horrifying a topic as the residential schools can be, the upcoming visit of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to Edmonton from March 27-30 does bring with it the hope for a better future together. I feel obliged to go, since my church was so complicit in the IRS, and although I expect it to be extremely emotionally trying, I am still looking forward to its outcome.

For those outside of the churches involved, there are still good reasons to attend; if not for the acknowledgement of white privilege (which is a tough nut to crack), then the fact that the people telling their stories at the TRC are not 'others', but our neighbours. Edmonton is likely to have Canada's largest urban aboriginal population in the next 5-10 years, and it is in everyone's best interests that this group have the understanding, support, and access to healing needed to move forward. I hope those reading this will consider participating in or at least supporting the important work being done by the TRC.

I'm glad that on most Sundays I will now be able to look at the star blanket hanging in our sanctuary for inspiration and a reminder of how far we have to go; I hope that one of those 8 points shows the way to right relations, even if the route is difficult.


This coming March, the final national event for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission
is coming to Edmonton.

In preparation for this significant time of listening to the stories of Indian residential
school survivors and coming to terms with the ongoing legacy for all of us as both a nation and a church, St. Albert United Church is hosting a series of preparation sessions:

Session I: November 30, 4:00-7:30 p.m.,
Understanding Why it is important that Churches attend the TRC.
(Includes stone soup supper. Please bring chopped vegetables to be included in the soup.)

Session II: January 18, 4:00—7:30 p.m.,
Understanding the History Part I

Session III: February 15, 4:00—7:30 p.m. Understanding the History Part II

TRC Event in Edmonton: March 27 - 30 at Shaw Conference Centre

Session IV: TBA: Sharing a Meal Together

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