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Inviting Ceremony into Revolution - #IdleNoMore

The importance of making space for the spiritual in a revolutionary agenda

by Miles Howe

Shelly Young speaks to reporter as she begins four day fast. [Photo: Miles Howe]
Shelly Young speaks to reporter as she begins four day fast. [Photo: Miles Howe]

K'jipuktuk (Halifax) – While the possibility exists for the Idle No More movement to overturn bill C-45, and indeed is at least partially responsible for now forcing a meeting between Stephen Harper and First Nations chiefs, a continued revolutionary agenda “which honours and fulfils Indigenous sovereignty which protects the land and water” must be considered something of a longer-term goal that will require careful vigilance.

Indigenous peoples, as demonstrated by some Aboriginal people's willingness to do business with the most destructive of industries, are not born with an inherent ability to tend to land and water, and are just as susceptible to the lures and trappings of capitalist baubles as the non-Indigenous population.

The necessity of the Idle No More revolutionary agenda, however, appears to be resonating with grassroots Indigenous peoples and non-Indigenous allies across the country, and increasingly across the world. The revolutionary agenda will not be fully obtained through a meeting between Chief Theresa Spence or the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) chiefs and Stephen Harper. To accept a revolution is by necessity to acknowledge that the current paradigm – not just the current government – needs to be overthrown, and a new one raised in its stead.

But what exactly is being suggested as a new paradigm? And what will determine whether it is truly different, or merely a few token heads rolling, to be replaced within the same power structure? Is a Jan. 11 meeting between AFN chiefs and the prime minister capable of anything more than this, at best?

One possible component of the Idle No More revolutionary paradigm might be a return to a place of prominence for Indigenous ceremony and tradition. These are loaded words, to be sure, made no less suspicious to some Indigenous peoples, non-Indigenous allies and non-allies alike by virtue of a supposed separation of faith and state that stands as a cornerstone of so-called democracy. Dare we invite spirituality into the fray?

Yet our current prime minister himself appears to adhere to some manner of evangelical fundamentalism, without too much outcry from the Canadian majority.

To be sure, Indigenous ceremony is no homogenous concept. Turtle Island (the name many Indigenous people of Eastern North America call this continent) is a vast geographic mass, containing dozens of nations, languages and cultures. Hundreds of years of colonial, genocidal interference has weakened ceremony, both overtly by destroying and banning practices, and more subtly, by teaching self-shame to potential practitioners.

On the other hand, there are those that continue to keep the strength of Indigenous ceremony intact. This is no spiritual mysticism, and indeed may well embody the spirit of Treaty itself. Where there is no separation between ceremony and politics, or ceremony and the act of protesting, then ceremony is life, and thus the notion of separate political, spiritual, economic or other 'spheres', are destroyed. There is no compartmentalization to speak of, and ceremony permeates everything; be it blockading a rail line, drumming in a shopping mall, going on a hunger strike, or sitting down to a meeting.

“To us, spirituality is the highest form of politics,” says Renegayde, a self-identified grassroots spiritualist from Unama'ki'k (Cape Breton Island). “The way we deal with creation is a political mechanism. It includes governance. It includes conservation ... Spirituality, the tool that we use to forge all those connections and keep our contact with the creation and with the Creator is through ceremony. That's the role of ceremony. It's the highest form of our politics of life.”

Ceremony, though, even in something as seemingly innocuous as a drum circle at a shopping mall, is continuously at risk of being co-opted. There are a lot more non-Indigenous than Indigenous people in Canada, and interactions between the two have led to the adulteration of Indigenous ceremony in any number of ways. A drum circle may be a drum circle, but a drum circle in ceremony is something else entirely.

“There are more Wabanaki [Northeastern North American grouping including Mi’kmaq, Maliseet, Abenaki, Penobscot and Passamaquody peoples] greeting songs than there are Inuit names for snow,” says Renegayde. “We should not be using any other nations' chants at our gatherings and at Idle No More [events]. We need to honour those songs because as someone who's been a drum keeper for 20 years, we need to decolonize our chants and songs. They've been tainted, they've been affected. I say the spirits can't recognize them. They don't know what you're saying.”

While this might sound like a pooh-poohing of the exuberance of the grassroots youth leading the charge of the Idle No More movement, when considered in the context of a paradigm that imbues everything with ceremony it is in fact only a desire to have more coherent communication with the Creator.

While a drum circle in a shopping mall can be a way to demonstrate unity, educate non-Indigenous peoples as to the perils of bill C-45, and generally revel in the open practice of culture that has  potentially never been seen in such spaces before, a drum circle in Wabanaki territory, with Wabanaki songs, is all these things and more.

Whether or not one believes it is a call to spirits, a drum circle in ceremony is at once a safeguard against the co-option, or watering down, of ceremony and an homage to ancestry, who, despite the best efforts of colonialism, would not let this particular ceremony die. Despite the best efforts of colonialism to destroy them, adherents risked safety and lives to pass ceremonial practices down through the generations to this moment in time. They were that important.

Drum circles aside, actual results due to the following of proper ceremony and prayer exist everywhere in Unama'ki'k. Take for example the anti-oil and gas exploration movement that in September 2012 set up information pickets outside of the Paqtn'kek First Nation’s reserve, and slowed down highway traffic. Indigenous and non-Indigenous activists had been protesting for months, to no avail, against Toronto-based oil company Petroworth's lease of an exploratory well on the shores of Lake Ainslie, Nova Scotia's largest freshwater lake.

Both groups of activists had their strengths: the Indigenous Mi'kmaq held Treaty rights to the land, and had not been properly consulted. The non-Indigenous had the numbers and the money to launch court cases to see the exploration halted. But both groups had lost their respective legal wranglings, and were down to handing out pamphlets on the side of the highway hoping to drum up popular support.

On two separate occasions, Mi'kmaq organizers lit sacred fires by the side of the highway where they were protesting. The simple act of lighting a sacred fire, which requires tending in a ceremonial manner for four days, may or may not have invited spirits into the occasion, depending on one's comfort level with such understandings. It did however, force resolve, responsibility, conversation, sobriety and purpose to all those who stayed by it.

While so many protests come and go within the span of a lunch hour, tending to a sacred fire becomes not only a commitment to ceremony, but a commitment to a cause. One learns to count on other activists to hold up their commitments, be it to relieve you of sitting beside a fire in the middle of the night, or to bring a spirit plate to honour the fire. Trust is established.

On the second occasion of the sacred fire lighting, non-Indigenous residents from all across Nova Scotia were invited to participate in a traditional water ceremony. Elizabeth Marshall, of Eskasoni First Nation, explains that the initial reasoning behind holding the water ceremony was to avoid police confrontation.

“I'd been telling the younger ones; We have to do everything with ceremony. We have to begin everything with the sacred,” says Marshall. “But you know what? I was saying it from a purely strategic perspective. I was trying to spare us. I knew that if we did it this way, [the RCMP] weren't going to be able to beat us up like they've done before. I didn't want our people to get beat up. I don't want them to be assaulted and all that. So, I was pushing that.

“Then when we had that [water] ceremony. When we were doing the ceremony, I can recall perhaps two other times that I felt as connected to my Great Spirit, my Great Mystery. I kept my eyes closed and I put my heart and soul into this prayer. And when I opened my eyes and looked above the water I could see this eagle circling. I knew for me that that was the answer, that yes, we're doing what we're supposed to be doing. And then, as that eagle started circling to the west, I looked and saw that there was another eagle right above him. And then when I looked some more; another one, a third one, circling above the other two. And I knew that we had just invoked the spirit of Treaty, and that this is how we're always supposed to do it.”

The alliance and resolve that was formed that day between Indigenous and non-Indigenous activists was strong enough that Petroworth recently claimed that its senior partner had withdrawn from the Lake Ainslie drilling project due to the hostile climate in Unama'ki'k. It is locally counted as a victory to be closely monitored.

Environmental groups like 'Protect Lake Ainslie' also now count themselves in the grassroots of Idle No More, and have strongly encouraged participation in the movement through social media channels. Whether spirits interceded that day at the side of the highway is up to the beholder to discern. What is clear is that there exists a partnership between Indigenous and non-Indigenous activists in Unama'ki'k that has so far managed to keep one of Canada's relatively pristine lakes oil and gas-free.

In the Idle No More movement in Wabanaki, Shelley Young has become one of the key organizers. Self-identified as traditional, last week Young honoured her commitment to a four-day, no-food, no-water fast in solidarity with Chief Theresa Spence. A sacred fire was also tended to for four days.

Whether one believes that such a fast invoked sacred spirit is again potentially beyond the realm of believability for some. What is clear is that the space where Young and others fasted quickly became a curiosity and a community hub on the Millbrook First Nation reserve. Elders and children stopped by and visited, spoke of Idle No More, made prayers ties, and on many occasions sat late into the night, sharing the pains that colonialism, and residential schools in particular, had had upon their relatives, and their lives. Men from the community, as well as off-reserve visitors, were also vital in tending the sacred fire.

What began as an idea on Young's part to incur ceremony, albeit in a slightly rushed manner due to the pressing circumstances of Chief Spence's hunger strike, turned into an event that galvanized and activated some members of the community. All of those who fasted with Young have expressed an interest in learning and practicing ceremony to a greater degree. The ripple effect is potentially amazing.

“I think the movement has awoken our spirit again,” says Young. “Our tradition, ceremony and prayer is one of the most important things that we can turn to and look to when we have any issues or problems. That's what we used to do historically, is come together and pray. Whenever we had any hardships happening, this is where we found our answers. To us faith and prayer was always the most important. Because we've lost that through colonialism, a lot of our people have gotten lost.

“Prayer would happen in the community, and that's what this is. Idle No More is a big community. And we have to look to prayer as well because it's so important, trying to find the right answer.”

Clearly, not all grassroots participants in the Idle No More movement will want to adhere to  processes of ceremony or tradition. Nor should anyone be forced to engage in ceremonies. Making space for ceremony within Idle No More is, however, of great importance to some. Creating this space and enabling ceremony requires minimal investment of time and resources, and the repercussions, whether viewed from a strictly secular, or from a more traditionalist, perspective, stand to be immeasurably positive.

This article was made possible with partial funding from the Nova Scotia Public Interest Research Group (NSPIRG).


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