THE TEARS OF THE ANCESTORS – Thanksgiving Weekend – October 14, 2002

The tears of the Ancestors of the Land rained down upon us as we waited for the Jubilee Reunion with the Queen on their ancient burial grounds. I was there, in my afternoon dress, Indian cotton embroidered by the descendants of my own ancestors, there by courtesy of the Prime Minister’s invitation to William Commanda, the territorial Algonquin Elder.

It was a thanksgiving celebration for the Queen organized by the Multifaith community, and I suppose the Elder was being honoured, one of the five hundred especially invited there.

Those who know the eighty eight year old Elder know that if he possibly can, he accepts invitations to all functions, no matter how humble or high profile. Still, this must have seemed a particularly special invitation, given the historical relationship the monarchy was supposed to share with the Aboriginal peoples of Canada.

This was also the Jubilee Celebration. He had for years reminded me periodically about this quotation from the Bible on The Year of Jubilee: The land must not be sold permanently, because the land is mine and you are but aliens and my tenants. Throughout the country that you hold as a possession, you must provide for the redemption of the land. If one of your countrymen becomes poor and sells some of his property, his nearest relative is to come and redeem what his countryman has sold. If, however, a man has no one to redeem it for him but he himself prospers and acquires sufficient means to redeem it, he is to determine the value for the years since he sold it; he can then go back to his own property. But if he does not acquire the means to repay him, what he sold will remain in the possession of the buyer until the Year of Jubilee. It will be returned in the Jubilee, and he can then go back to his property.

So there might even have been a hope buried in the depths of his heart for some gesture of acknowledgement, of reconciliation, perhaps even of thanks for the generous sharing of this land, some recognition of the rightful occupants of the land.

So there we were, and by irony of the Gods, in the midst of the crowd of hundreds, I found myself sitting in the blue section with a Mi’qMaq Elder and a Mohawk Elder as well. Later, we heard Mohawk and Mi’qMaq identified as religions represented at the Celebration.

Though sunshine had been predicted for much of the Thanksgiving weekend, and though the Sun had shone upon us as we prepared for this illustrious occasion, it disappeared and the gray clouds gathered over our heads. (My mind flashed back on the opening of the Healing Lodge for Federally Sentenced Aboriginal Women within the sacred Cypress Hills in Saskatchewan – the penultimate expression of paradigm shift from the punitive, retributive western understanding of justice to a vision of healing wounded people, a restorative justice – the clouds had gathered, and as the opening ceremony commenced, the rain drops fell gently – these are the tears of our ancestors, the Elders said, they are with us today.)

I glanced at the program booklet and I knew the tears of the Ancestors of the Land would come to bathe us this day. The self doubt at the heart of the psyche of the Canadian people also knew this – there were plastic ponchos awaiting us on our chairs. And at a certain point, the raindrops came; almost in unison, the crowd donned these environmentally questionable items, which nonetheless served as the great equalizers. Soon, even Mr. Boudrias and Mr. Harper and Mr. Anderson looked like the rest of us. There will be three stages in the rain, Elder Commanda told me – this first stage is gentle – but it will get heavier and heavier.

The Queen arrived, and I saw people of my race and colour fill the stage over the next near hour. And, increasingly, I felt like squirming away under my seat – not because the singing and dancing were not beautiful and moving, but because of the absence of the peoples whose spirit belonged to the place and to whom the place belonged.

It seemed like it was us newer Canadians who dominated the stage. I saw my people, my East Indian people and also my African people (I am of East Indian origin, but was born and raised in South Africa) on the stage, and some others, but in this Multi Faith Thanksgiving Celebration, I saw no expression of the spiritual beliefs of the Indigenous peoples of the land, no burning of sage, no drumming, no Elder’s greetings and prayer. Yes, indeed, there was a Mohawk flutist, and a Mi’qMaq singer, but was this really the voice and song and spirit of the indigenous peoples of the land? Why was there no place for the prayer of the original peoples of the territory, the Algonquins?

And as I looked at the program, the irony impressed itself upon me even more strongly. This was a celebration of the four key elements, the four sacred energies revered by Indigenous peoples, Wind, Water, Fire and Earth - sure, they are acknowledged in the religions and ideologies of many peoples, but, really, for most of us, it’s the Environment – for the Indigenous peoples of North America, and most certainly for Elder William Commanda, it is a relationship, and Mother Earth is the source and lifeblood of this relationship - and central to the meaning of life.

This Elder has for decades, both nationally and internationally, warned us of the dire implications of our abuse of the Mother Earth, the air, the waters (and now he watches daily with fear and prayer for the contamination of the fire). He has an intimate relationship with her. And so it seemed to me that the program reflected an appropriation of the Indigenous worldview, without a comprehensive understanding of it.

I reflected on something the Elder had remarked on several times in the past – it seems to me, he said, we North Americans are about the only people who have not moved into and populated the lands of other peoples. Sure, I thought, we Canadians may not all have come as colonizers, but certainly we all have distanced from any sacred connection to the lands of our ancestors. We have severed the intimate tie with the Mother. Yes indeed, many of us are here as refugees, having suffered oppression in our lands of origin. So, why would that not then make us more sensitive to the plight of the native peoples here?

And, I thought further, a Thanksgiving celebration – I reflected on Jamie Sams words in her Sacred Path Cards: When our Ancestors assisted the Pilgrims in planting Corn and raising crops so they would not starve, we taught them the understanding of the Field of Plenty by bringing the corncopia baskets full of vegetables. The Iroquois women wove these baskets as a physical reminder that Great Mystery provides through the Field of Plenty. The Pilgrims were taught that giving prayers of gratitude was not just a Christian concept. The Red Race understood thanksgiving on a daily basis.

So of course, Mother Earth shed her tears. And she did it at the penultimate celebration of the Queen’s Jubilee visit to Canada, in the heart of the Nation’s capital.

But this is also the heart of the land’s Indigenous peoples. The Ottawa River Valley, and particularly Victoria Island, named so after the ancestor of Queen Elizabeth, the Chaudiere Rapids, and the shores of the river, were the sacred spiritual meeting grounds of the Anicinabe peoples – meeting grounds and burial grounds. It is the Indigenous peoples who are always mindful of the spirits of the Ancestors, and the sacred burial grounds they occupy – most of us newer occupants have left our ancestors and peoples somewhere else. And so the ultimate irony came with the Queen’s placing of the wreath on the tomb of the forgotten soldier – on the lands that contain the bones and dust and spirits of the ancestors of Elder William Commanda.

And so yes, naturally enough, the spirits of the ancestors wept loudly.

But the rain was also a blessing for the body of Mother Earth. And that compassion was echoed by the Elder. We have to forgive all that was done against us, he told me; we must show compassion. We have to love everyone; my ancestors already welcomed everyone; we can not go back on that; and so we must work hard to forgive all that came from that. It is only through forgiving them that we have any hope for spiritual transformation. Forgiveness is the only way forward, and we Indigenous people have to look deeply within to offer this gift to the world.

And to make that bridging message clear to friends with whom we discussed the event later that afternoon – he sang the Lord’s Prayer to us in Latin! So ultimately, I was left with the exhortation from Elder Commanda to forgive and to love – for that is how we all find our place in his “Circle of All Nations”; that is the only way to “A Culture of Peace”.

The Queen had no words for us. We had arrived an hour before the formal celebrations, and when the rain arrived, and we could not beat a retreat, Elder Commanda quipped that we were now sitting ducks! The good Canadian show went on and the performers were all excellent.

But I was left with a feeling of shame. We Canadians must be more mindful of the history and the present day reality in our celebration of our homes on native land, I thought, if we hope to resolve the underlying dilemma in our nation’s psyche. The Great Divide that separates us from our souls does not lie in the struggle between the French and the English, or the East and the West, or Canada and America; it is the alienation of Canadians from the blood line to the heart of this land, the Indigenous peoples of North America. And we will not find the true wisdom the Duke of Edinburgh read about, until we understand and revere and integrate the wisdom of these peoples.