Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Conspiratio comes full circle

I wrote this song three years ago, this time of year, for my friend Coralie Schmidt who had received a terminal diagnosis of cancer. Coralie's funeral was in the week of Palm Sunday the following spring, when the church sings the Hosanna echoed by the autumnal Hosanna in this song "casting their garments, Hosanna of the trees.

I loved the song, but it always felt like it wanted a third verse. Early this morning that verse came and woke me from my sleep. I haven't been visited by my musical muse for a long time. I think I wrote one more song after Conspiratio came to me, and that was it. The arrival of this verse feels like something in me is turning over. Fall is here, the last week of vegetable deliveries is here, the final proof of the book is revised and ready to send in to the publisher, a new worship cycle is about to begin at Saint Julian's Table, I'm launching a podcast with my musician friend Alana Levandoski, the leaves are turning and I'm cutting firewood. Good things are ending and making way for new good things. Hallelujah.

O could I fall as beautifully, as graciously as these
Casting their garments on the ground, Hosanna of the trees
This timbered choir sings Hallelujah, Glory to the King
Casting down their golden crowns and crimson robes they sing:

Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah

Exhaled airs of greener leaves, sweet substance of my breath
In requiem these golden friends tell of bodies new in death
O symmetry of life and limb, inspiration prior to voice!
Conspired breath in holy kiss, invitation to rejoice:

Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah

O let me sing of Trinity, of rest and holy peace
The Holy Spirit in the wings to receive and to release
And when she takes the centre stage and scales fall from our eyes
Our inward breath will turn around in relief and in surprise, singing,

Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Remembering Darrell Little Black Bear Phillips, 1964-2017

My friend Darrell Little Black Bear Phillips died this summer. He left behind his beloved Charlene and ten strong and beautiful sons and daughters. He was a massive personality. He was an organizer and a facilitator, passionate for justice, eager to see people live well together in this land. He could bring a moose home from the bush as capably as he could bring home a grant and a program plan from the halls of power. He picked a mean guitar and crooned big-hearted songs, classic country & folk covers, worship songs, as well as songs of his own creation. The last two he shared with me expressed the two great griefs of his devoutly Catholic, fully Anishnaabe heart - a song for residential school survivors and a song for the aborted unborn. Darrell had a spirituality that seamlessly married the drum and the sweat lodge to the rosary and the daily prayers of the missalette. I was attracted to the integration he embodied. Hanging around with Darrell, I could imagine what a healthy, vibrant coming together of our two cultures could look like.

I first got to know Darrell in the "Chretien Come Clean Car Wash" - a shamelessly corny bit of activist street theatre that I scripted for an Aboriginal National Day of Action, held on the one year anniversary of the release of the Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RRCAP). Darrell hammed the thing up with characteristic enthusiasm and conviction, caking his family's mini-van with mud and chasing a local actor in a Jean Chretien mask, demanding that Prime Minister Chretien follow through on promises to implement the RRCAP recommendations.

Darrell took out all the event planners to Red Lobster after the protest, and it was then that Jenn and I saw that Darrell and Char were interested in us not just as political allies in the fight for Indigenous rights, but as friends. Jenn and I had children whose ages landed them right in the middle of the growing Phillips "brood." We loved getting together to cook and to visit. The kids would pile downstairs into the basement, with one or the other always lingering or returning to sit on a lap, taddle on a sibling or beg a foretaste of supper, which always took us well past 6pm to prepare together. Jenn and I would bring fresh vegetables from the garden, Darrell would bring out wild meat from up north, he would tell big stories that Char would whittle down to size with one lift of her eyebrow. We would cook and then we would feast, crowding around their kitchen table with Darrell always at the noisy centre of a storm that swirled with small children, big hugs, minor squabbles, threats of "The Manigotogan Mitt!", jokes, spiritual counsel, greasy chins and diaper wipes.

Most of the time we visited at Darrell and Char's place. Their sizeable family had a kind of gravitational force field that attracted others into itself. But they came our way too. They came out to the farm once in the early days, when it was hardly a farm yet at all: just a garden and a trailer and an outdoor bucket toilet. They came to swim with us in the Brokenhead River and see what we were up to.

I felt like the land was happy to feel the footprints of an Indigenous family again. I think I probably told Darrell the story I had heard of how the Brokenhead got its name, a tragic story of a Cree tribe wiped out by the Lakota in a war over access to guns and trading opportunities with the new pale-faced people in the land. The Cree never settled along this river again.

I do know that I asked Darrell what advice he had for me about how to live in this place in a good way, because I still remember his words that day. His answer was simple and definitive: "I would listen to the land."

A man and a piece of advice not to be forgotten.

Travel well, Little Black Bear, travel well.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Turning 150

Regarding the anniversary of Canada's confederation...

What a bunch of Englische did or said in a room in Charlottetown 150 years ago is really neither here nor there for me. My history and home are found in other stories. My ancestors at the time were raising wheat, sunflowers and watermelons on the Steppes of the South Ukraine, thanks to an equally colonial decree issued from Moscow by Catherine the Great, inviting  the Mennonites to displace the nomadic sheep-herding culture of the Kosacks. In this place at that time, another nation was being born, one that captures my imagination considerably more than the Dominion declared by John A. MacDonald and his compatriots.

Manito-Ahba, "The Place where the Great Spirit Rests," is the birthplace of the Métis nation. The Métis were neither a colony of foreigners transplanting a European clone culture onto native soil, nor were they strictly an expression of the treaty principle negotiated in the Two-Row Wampum: We'll share the river, but you stay in your boat and we'll stay in ours. At the Red River Settlement was a community descended of White people and Red people who had more than jumped into each others boats. They had made babies and raised families together. They had birthed a whole new culture.

It keeps happening in Manitoba. Stan McKay, the elder who taught me the meaning of my home province's name, is a Cree man from Fisher River. Stan married a lovely farmer's daughter from Gladstone, Manitoba. Together Stan and Dot did not only raise a batch of strong, beautiful bi-cultural children, they also assisted in the birth of the Dr. Jessie Saulteaux Centre (now known as the Sandy-Saulteaux Spiritual Centre), a school and retreat centre for cross-cultural education just a few twists of the river downstream from our farm.

Many of us feel ambivalent about celebrating 150 years of confederation. To just shoot off some fireworks at the Forks and wave those adorable little paper Canadian flags they hand out on such occasions feels like an endorsement of a fundamentally arrogant colonial act: to stand on the far eastern edge of a continent and declare sovereign nationhood over vast lands and diverse peoples that the founding fathers had little knowledge of, nor rights to. I have stood and taken a piss at the edge of a number of woods and farmers' fields. It did not make them mine.

Still, I am too grateful for my life here and too aware of beautiful births arising from settler-Indigenous contact to stand grumbling outside the big party.

I grow suspicious of the hand-wringing of some of my white liberal peers, flagellating themselves, their country and their faith tradition over colonial this and colonial that. At a certain point, this becomes a connivance to assert one's moral superiority over one's elders, the very opposite of deep listening to the nations on whose hospitality we are here. And it becomes an escape from the messiness of real relationships.

To be fair, the well-meaning progressives probably just don't know what else to do. They feel bad, as they should, about their ease of access to Canada's bounty, when Indigenous people continue to be poorer, more disrespected and more criminalized than any other social group in this country. Something is very wrong with this picture, and we should resist the temptation to paper over this unjust reality just in time for Canada to have a nice birthday party.

Maybe what we need is a different kind of party. I am getting excited about one - a festival and a feast that some settler and Indigenous people are planning together. We'd like to re-tell the history of Europeans and First Nations coming together. And for this occasion at least, rather than grieve what was the worst in that encounter, we'd like to lift up what was best, in the hopes of our descendants being able to celebrate another anniversary together 150 years from now. (Or, to choose a marker of time more native to this place, seven generations from now.) We would like to assert, with John Raulston Saul, that Canada is truest to herself when she recognizes that she is a Métis civilization, and not a colonial satellite.

Provisionally, we called our event a "vernacular feast," drawing on a term Ivan Illich uses in inspiring resistance to what he calls the "war on subsistence." Illich sees the West's mania for "development" as the latest and most pernicious mutation of the colonial impulse Westerners have to "rescue" the other. Today, the same drive that gang-pressed Aboriginal children into compulsory Western schooling takes aim at "underdeveloped" people in need of full recruitment into consumer society. Witness the latest ads by Facebook, pulling beautiful children out of the doldrums of their dusty village life. The internet arrives, the party starts, the heavens open.

For Illich, a revival of the vernacular means partying locally, convivially - not by escaping our rootedness in place, but by re-discovering it. It means pushing back on colonization and reclaiming a wide range of activities, from speaking one's mother tongue to connecting with mother earth. Illich reminds us that the Latin vernaculum meant “whatever was homebred, homespun, homegrown, [or] homemade.” It is around the home-made and non-commercial that people can gather as friends. For Illich, friendship can only be practiced in activities that escape commodification, “activities of people . . . not motivated by thoughts of exchange, . . . actions through which people satisfy everyday needs—the actions which by their nature escape bureaucratic control.”

In that spirit, Indigenous community leaders and settler allies are going to gather for a week of subsistence activities on the land at the Sandy-Saulteaux Spiritual Centre in October of this year. We called it Mamawe Ota Askihk, "Sharing Together on the Earth." We will winnow wild rice together, tan an animal hide from a local farm, smoke fish, can berry preserves, share skills and tell stories. We will remember how English industrialists used to complain that access to England's great forests and common pasturelands made English peasants "too much like the Indians" - self-sufficient and unwilling to leave the land for shitty factory jobs in smoggy cities. Perhaps we will laugh at that together while we feast. Perhaps we will even birth a new culture.

If you think you would like to get in on the party, click on this link to learn more about Mamawe Ota Askihk.