18 March 2009

by Christine Downing

I have been asked a few times recently to talk about my experiences at the Gathering of Elders and Traditional People, held 13-15 February at Trent University. (At forty years, its Indigenous Studies Department is the oldest in Canada.) I¬† find myself pausing for a moment and feeling the question.¬† Like a balloon, I'm full, but when I try to identify what it is that I can barely contain, it's almost impossible.¬† What do I say?¬† The stories I heard are not mine to tell.¬† Even when I focus on how they affected me or what I learned, I find that much of it goes too deep for words, because it's like one heart talking to another.¬† What maybe stirred me most at the Gathering was the singing and the drums.¬† The drums sounded like hearts beating‚ÄĒthe heartbeat of nations, cultures, and experiences I will never fully understand. ¬†

Listening to the speakers and storytellers reminded me of how, from a cultural and spiritual perspective, we settlers are weak and vulnerable in these occupied territories we call Canada and the United States.¬† Like embryos.¬† A line from a Rumi poem seems to describe the position we newcomers occupy in this land: ‚ÄúAs long as you're an embryo, blood drinking is your business.‚Ä̬† We are called to maturity politically and spiritually‚ÄĒto let go of what does not and can never belong to us, because to hold on can¬† lead only to more violence and suffering.¬† Two sessions at the Gathering that I found particularly meaningful referenced creation stories.¬† From this cross-cultural recognition of a Creator comes a recognition of responsibilities and indebtedness to all that was complete and doing just fine before we got here.¬† The created world does not depend on humans for anything, but we depend on it for everything. ¬†

What can I do with a mysterious gift like creation except reverence it and maybe ponder it in my heart like Mary in the Christmas story?¬† Children and even infants speak, animals speak, loved ones speak, the Creator speaks‚ÄĒsometimes loudly with thunder, sometimes softly but insistently like birdsong or breeze.¬† These messages go to our hearts.¬† How often do I search my heart before I speak or do something?¬† We pass the peace from one heart to another as we embrace, but how far does the peace go, and how easy is it to turn off our hearts when we work, shop, or play?¬† How easy is it to forget our obligations and indebtedness to the people who came before us and are still here?

Recently CPT had a strategic planning meeting on undoing racism within the organization.  The experience was sort of like searching the heart of CPT.  But it's not just searching that is important, it is also applying the truths we find there.  Identity questions are asked and left open for now.  An unanswered question is a chance to listen deeply, a gift we can hold only with humility, a message from one heart to another.