BY MADONNA HAMEL
I recently got a request from a friend to write a letter to the premier of Saskatchewan to keep the tipis up in Wascana Park in Regina. Apparently the premier claims that 90% of the public want them down. Funny, I don’t remember being asked. In my research, I never found any mention of 90%, but I did see the premier actually used the term “in good faith” when strongly suggesting the 20-30 people camped in the park “cease occupying the land”.
Where I have heard that language used before? Was it not in “good faith” that two parties signed Treaty 4 in 1874 only to have the “understanding” shared between two cultures heinously misunderstood in 1876 in the form of the Indian Act designed specifically to assimilate Indigenous Culture? Was in not in the name of faith that children were “scooped” and sent to residential schools in the hopes of advancing the cause of assimilation by “killing the Indian in the child”? And are not indigenous families asked, every time their child enters a foster home, to take it on “good faith” that it’s for the good of the child, even though 2 out of 3 young offenders in correctional facilities are from foster homes where 3 out of 4 children are indigenous?
And while we’re waiting for more children to commit suicide because they have to leave their homes in the north at a tender age to attend schools in the south, or who die from neglect because they have been placed in over-capacity homes, shall we take it “in good faith” that eventually our public health policies will include a holistic model of well-being reflecting traditional indigenous ways of healing? A model sadly missing in our dominant culture’s present concept of “the good life”, which focuses mostly on physical health and wealth but not on emotional, mental and spiritual health as well.
And that expression: “Cease occupying the land!”, where have I heard that before? I understand that the tipis were in violation of a bylaw that clearly stated “no camping in city parks”. But surely even a government official can hear the echoes of nearly two hundred years of strife over land seizure and desecrated sacred sites? I’m tempted to say: See how it feels? Except that I too have benefited from renting space on stolen land. Only, no one has come round asking for it back. And in the case of the tipis, that’s not what the campers are asking for, either. What the campers are asking for is an actual physical seat at the public policy table, not a photo-op promise “on good faith” because “good faith” went the way of the handshake.
There’s a touching painting in the museum where I work by the late Lise Perrault, a folk artist from Val Marie. It depicts a rancher shaking another rancher’s hand and is entitled: “When A Man’s Handshake Was as Good as His Word”. Note the past tense, because those days are over. And all respect for them ended the day Americans “hired” an ex-reality show star to run their country like he ran his businesses: based on a policy of “anything goes”, “whatever it takes” and “the ends justify the means”. Trump made it ok to publicly laugh at people who were tricked into trusting and believing what they were told. In the past we respected and admired the man who kept his word. Now trusters are depicted as fools and the shame rests on their shoulders for being so naive, for acting on “good faith”.
The province is now conferring with its lawyers to decide how to move forward. The “Justice for Our Stolen Children” campers have lawyers, too. But they also consult their elders, their knowledge keepers, their healers. Many will engage the help of their ancestors, animal and plant helpers. They may sit and absorb the wisdom of the ages inherent in the Grandfather rocks, find the spaces where their spirit gets nourished by the mirroring spirits of nature, our Grandmother Earth.( Imagine Grandmother Earth wagging her finger saying, oh no, you can’t sleep on my back. This spot of me is slated “day park” and “recreation only”. You could come back tomorrow and sit on the park bench and eat a sandwich but you can’t stay.)
I can so easily lose touch with my childhood ability to connect with plants and animals. I clearly remember the collective linguistic shift from“citizen” to “consumer” because I wrote a paper on the transition in my first year political science class. It seemed, then, we became less concerned with matters of the spirit and more with matters of the wallet “making a living” just wasn’t enough. You had to “make a killing”.
But it wasn’t until I began losing myself in nature, in the hills and along the shores of the Okanagan that I realized there were pertinent and subtle ways of knowing that existed within me, but needed the outside world of nature and ritual to awake them and sustain them. I was reminded of those childhood and teenage memories after reading Lynn Gehl’s book called “Claiming Anishinaabe:Decolonizing the Human Spirit”. She speaks eloquently, and academically, about “Indigenous Ways of Knowing”. Her book reminded me of a book I read in my art school days called : “Women’s Ways of Knowing”, which also reminds me of childhood ways of knowing – when wonder rules and we have yet to give any thought to notions of power, prestige, accomplishment and success.
I believe all men, women, and children have a spirit. Perhaps we feel shamed by others, or even ourselves, for having lost touch with it. But shame is the tool of the Old Religious Regime and the New Market Regime uses it on us too: where once we were heathens, now we are fat, old, unattractive, unsexy, etc. If our present way of knowing muzzles the nudgings of Spirit, perhaps we need to look to a tradition that never left Spirit behind. We won’t find it in a new, improved product or behind a security fence, or under subsection 19 of a city bylaw, nor in a fragmented lifestyle that ignores the killing of the “Indian” and the child. But we might find it in the tipis.