Lessons in Ritual

The first time I smudged was just after school... I remember a college friend explaining a shamanistic background in her genealogy, and that she'd been taught to burn herbs. I'm sure there was more to it than that, but even that was more than I understood. I enjoyed it though... the smell of it, the way the smoke danced, and the ritual to it. It felt important. It brought a moment of quiet to a busy room.

Five years later I ended up in Fort McMurray teaching art projects for Learning Through the Arts, and there it was again... I recognized the bundle of sage in the FNMI liaison's office, and then a week later was invited to a training session with a local Elder. This time it was explained to me by Issapaaki from the Blackfoot nation, it's meaning, the protocol involved, why I was seeing it everywhere. I asked too many questions, and got too excited, and then Issapaaki lit the sage... and again, it brought quiet to a busy room.

After three years of working in McMurray with those kids and artists and Elders I learned that smudging was just the shadow of an enormous mountain that had been hidden from my view, as if it had been cloaked in invisibility. Each time I returned to the city the cloak was lifted a little farther off. I learned so much about indigenous history, tradition, and protocol... I cannot even begin to describe how many things I did not know, that I SHOULD have known. There is a whole history to this place we call home that many of us have never even had the chance to wonder about because it is hidden by the leaders who don’t want us to know, locked up in the memories of those who wish not to share, silenced by the bystanders who chose not to tell, and dismissed by those of us who don't know how to listen. There are too many pieces to the history of Canada that are unrecognized by too many Canadians. Even amidst blaring calls for an amendment to the way our history is presented in schools, touring Alberta classrooms brought me face-to-face with countless horrid misrepresentations in classroom posters and books, and also in the perceptions of students and the way they spoke to each other. It left me over and over again looking at the people around me and trying to find a way to explain that I've been to these communities, I have sat and shared with these people, and this literature is wrong, these images are wrong. But there's no way to tell people that. That's the weirdest thing about this kind of racism – yes racism. It has somehow gained so much traction that I get looked at like I’m a monster when I point out a mistreatment or misrepresentation. If I correct an insult or challenge an assumption I am put down for rudeness, or silenced by the awkwardness that falls over the room.

It didn’t make sense. I was seeing all this misunderstanding all around me… it was like everyone was in a dream I couldn’t wake them from. You could call it blissful ignorance, but once you leave that bubble it’s not blissful anymore. It’s alienating and it ties your stomach in knots because you can’t get back in and you don’t know if you even want to. The only places that felt honest were my classrooms where Issapaaki had taught us the truth, my youth groups in those remote communities, and my little group of artists in Fort McMurray. At least here people were awake.

After a few awkward exchanges with relatives and friends I realized I wasn’t getting anywhere. Eventually I stopped trying, and then I detached. I had to compartmentalize because this fight was so big and it made me feel so small. See, I have the privilege (and I use that word with intention) of learning these things third hand, of not being affected by the injustices personally, but being able to grieve and then leave that pain in the place where it resides. Not everyone has this privilege, and I would like to say every day I stand with those who don’t… but I have to be honest. Most days I lack the courage to say anything at all. So today, on National Aboriginal Day, I am using all my courage to share this rant, this love letter, this truth with those of you reading. I love and respect my indigenous friends, neighbours, and fellow Canadians. Thank you for everything you have shared openly with me. Every bit of it has enriched my life in ways I never knew possible, and although we cannot yet share the joy without recognizing the pain I hope to see that day come. As a wise woman once said to me, “The world is brimming with ignorance … we can but chip away at it.” I hope that I have made some small difference in your lives as well.

//Happy Solstice //