Gathering Around the Sacred Fire

It was a powerful moment when, in the middle of last month, the National Aboriginal Spiritual Gathering (NASG) began their opening ceremony gathered around the Sacred Fire. The NASG, a four-day celebration organized by the Aboriginal Ministry Council (AMC), occurs once every three years. Two representatives from all 52 Aboriginal congregations of the United Church – from the west coast, across the prairies, through northern Manitoba and Ontario, down to southern Ontario and Quebec – joined with the members of the AMC; with representatives from the Sandy-Saulteaux Spiritual Centre, All Native Circle Conference, BC Native Ministries, Ontario/Quebec Native Ministries, the Committee on Indigenous Justice and Residential Schools, and the Comprehensive Review Task Group; and, in addition, with four international guests from the national church’s Partners Council, various staff, and over a dozen youth. I felt privileged and honoured to be included in this community.

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[Medicine Wheel. Photo courtesy of Janet Whaley-Jones.]

Grafton Antone, minister and elder of the Oneida Nation of the Thames on whose territory we were gathering (near London, Ontario), welcomed us into the circle, with the Sacred Fire in the centre, a moment of worship rooted in traditional ceremony – with smudging; words of thanksgiving offered to the Creator; small pouches of tobacco for each person to place in the flames, an opportunity for silent prayer; a formal welcome from the Oneida Chief, Sheri Doxtator; the procession into the community centre, where we were to hold our sessions; the creation of the Medicine Wheel as long banners – white, yellow, black and red – were stretched out on the floor, on which were placed sacred symbols from both Aboriginal and Christian traditions, including the Talking Stick that the Moderator holds in trust for the community. It was a rich experience – two spiritual pathways coming together with integrity to create powerful ritual and worship. So much happened at the NASG. Let me share just a few highlights:

  • There was a memorial service for Alvin Dixon, of the Heiltsuk Nation in Bella Bella, British Columbia; a residential school survivor, who had worked with the United Church for almost 30 years, as a staff person in BC Conference and General Council volunteer, committed to building right relations between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples. Alvin taught me what commitment looked like; and that there are no quick fixes. We are on a long journey, and most of us will probably not see “the promised land.”

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[Deb Pelletier at the Mount Elgin Residential School Memorial. Photo by Jocelyn and Tanesha Antone.]

  • We visited the Mount Elgin Industrial Institute (Residential School) Memorial, just down the road from where we were meeting. Built in 1851, Mount Elgin was the only Indian Residential School that the United Church operated east of Manitoba; it remained open for almost 90 years. The Memorial is uplifting and disturbing – seven large, smooth, grey concrete slabs, standing upright in a circle; on each slab, on the side facing out, is engraved one of the seven sacred teachings (honesty, humility, love, respect, courage, wisdom, truth), accompanied by a photograph from school life. On the other side, there are bronze plaques, with the names of all the students who had attended the school. Some of those gathered for the ceremony discovered for the first time that members of their families had attended this school – a disturbing realization of how hard it still is to talk about these memories, despite the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

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[Grafton Antone at the Mount Elgin Residential School Memorial. Photo courtesy of Melvin King.]

  • The Chief of the Chippewas of the Thames First Nation, Joe Miskokomon, gave a powerful and deeply moving speech at the memorial, and talked with pride and strength about how it came to be built. And then he described the hard work being done to reclaim control over the use of their territory, “We own not just the land,” he said, “but the air and the water.” A year and a half ago there was a $120 million dollar settlement for land that had been illegally seized some 200 years ago. And now, it turns out that an east-west oil pipeline crosses the reserve, although there had been no discussion with the Chippewa people, and no permission was ever given. If there were to be a pipeline break, the drinking water for the community would be polluted for years! The Chief talked about his people’s rights, about treaties, the law and pending court cases – it was encouraging to hear such a strong voice speaking out!

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[Ray Jones, chair of Aboriginal Ministry Council, and Moderator Gary Paterson, present a gift to Chief Joe Miskokomon. Photo courtesy of Melvin King.]

  • After the visit to the Mount Elgin Residential School Memorial, back at the Oneida Community Centre, there was an opportunity to participate in a Listening Circle. People told hard stories; they listened to each other, honouring the hurt and the anger being expressed. One participant, after talking about the deaths of members of her family, those who had not survived the aftermath of residential schools, invited all of us to join with her in singing a heart-wrenching lament – I discovered how hard it is to sing and cry at the same time. And then, in the midst of the pain, Grafton Antone, who had been observing, outside the circle, came with abalone shell, sage, and an eagle feather, and walked around, inside the circle, offering the gift of smudging  – ritual and ceremony that touched our hearts!
  • Saturday night we had a time of Haudenosaunee social dancing, led by a group of women from the Oneida community. I was tired and didn’t want to dance; I just wanted to watch. But no way – so I’m up there with everyone else! And, after a short while, I didn’t want the dancing to end. All circle dancing; everyone included; simple to learn; a great sense of energy and laughter and community. I wondered, “If we were to dance like this at General Council, how would that change what we are about?”

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[Participants in the National Aboriginal Spiritual Gathering: Pat Elson, Esha Faki, Joan Martin, Lorna Standingready, Sunita Suna. Photo: Jocelyn and Tanesha Antone.]

  • There were tough discussions about the changing church and the Comprehensive Review. Where and how do the Aboriginal congregations and communities fit? Will their different understandings of what it means to be church be part of the new vision? When we talk about partnership, what do non-Aboriginals mean by this? Equity? Reparations? Real sharing? It was noted that both apologies offered by the United Church have been received by First Nations, but not accepted – the future is still very open and full of questions. What have we non-Aboriginal church people learned from our journey with First Nations people? And, now that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is heading towards its conclusion in June 2015, what are the next steps that we as a church are ready to commit to?

It was a privilege to participate in this National Aboriginal Spiritual Gathering; it was an experience of two cultures, two traditions, two spiritualities coming together, with each being enriched by the other. And I am grateful, not just for the event itself, but also for what it points to… Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal journeying in partnership, discovering what right relations might look like.

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