Kci Woliwon/Thank you very much

I feel such gratitude that I was able to participate in the 4th gathering for Healing Turtle Island, this year held online via Zoom and Facebook Live. Healing Turtle Island is a 21-year ceremony, born through a vision of Penobscot Sherri Mitchell, bringing together Indigenous spiritual leaders from around this land and around the world, to share teachings and ceremony for the healing we need for our times. I am grateful that those of us descended from colonizers have also been welcomed into the circle, that we too might listen and participate in this healing.

I was present for the first year’s ceremonies in 2017 at Nibezun in Passadumkeag, and though I have held its intentions close to my heart, my health has prevented me from attending the last two years. Being online this year, while a disappointment in some ways, enabled me and thousands of other people to participate from all over the world. (You can participate too, by viewing the recordings made of most of the sessions on Sherri’s Facebook page.)

Healing Turtle Island 2020

Poster announcing the schedule, from Healing Turtle Island page.

I am sitting in the silence now, after the closing ceremonies from this morning, thinking about what I have learned, what I carry with me going forward. First of all, it was grounding to hear so many people talk about the need to restore our connection with the land, with the spirit, with each other. It helps me to remember that that has been a guiding principle for me for the last several years, (as well as the theme of this blog and of my book .) By seeing this expressed so passionately by so many people, I felt renewed in my own spiritual journey into earth community.

Secondly, I was struck by how many people spoke of the importance of Indigenous languages for the healing and decolonization of the land and the peoples of the land. Over and over people reminded us that the spirituality and guiding principles of Indigenous peoples are found in their languages. Many people spoke in their native languages, offered prayers, offered songs, and then sharing partial translations, acknowledging that so much cannot be translated into the violence of the colonizer languages. They also spoke of how colonization disrupted the languages, how a whole generation of children were punished for speaking their languages, how difficult it is to bring back the languages, decolonize the languages, but how utterly necessary.

This touched me deeply, especially now that I have been studying a Wabanaki language for the past two years. On the one hand, I was so happy to understand a modest percentage of what Passamaquoddy and Wolostaqi elders were sharing in their language, especially in the prayers and songs and personal introductions. On the other hand, it has sometimes been bewildering to me that I find myself on the path of learning this language. A door opened so fortuitously just after I retired, and I walked through it into Roger Paul’s class at USM. I often ask myself, what is this about?

I feel glad that I helped to increase the numbers to enable the class to continue for its mostly Wabanaki participants through four semesters. I am glad that Roger got permission from his elders to share the language beyond the community. I have said that I want to decolonize my mind, I want to think differently: nkoti-piluwitahas. During the weekend another thought came to me, that any of us who come to live in Wabanaki land should learn the original language of this land. It is only appropriate as respectful visitors. And I remember someone saying, years ago, if you really want to understand our spirituality, you must learn our language.

But I still wonder what my responsibility might be, as a white person learning to speak a Wabanaki language. I am very sensitive to how much pain there is, in the loss of the language, and the slow revitalization that is happening now. Who am I to be learning, while so many Wabanaki people have not been able to do so? So I go forward with carefulness and respect and humility.

One other thing that was shared over the weekend lit a spark in me: that we all, colonizers included, should be seeking to uncover our own distant Indigenous languages. I had this idea to learn to introduce myself in the Innu language, the language of my matrilineal ancestors, and then a few lines in the language of my French and Scottish colonizer ancestors, and then a few lines in the language of my Germanic-speaking immigrant ancestors who came later, but who form the largest part of my inheritance.

The thing is, the Innu language is in the same family as Wabanaki languages, and structured in the same ways, so I feel like I am learning so much about those Innu ancestors by this process. That has been one of the very great personal gifts for me of learning a Wabanaki language. So I say kci-woliwon, thank you very much, for the blessings of this Healing Turtle Island gathering, and to all the language teachers, and especially to the Spirits of my ancestors who lead me into paths I could not have foreseen or chosen on my own.

Not Just for Native People

Today about 160-200 people gathered in Augusta Maine, in solidarity with the Native Nations Rise with Standing Rock march in Washington.  Organizer Sherri Mitchell commented how important it was that non-Native peoples were showing up–both because for too many years Native people have been struggling without support from the white community, but also because these issues really affect all of us.  Issues like water to drink, on which depends everything else about our lives, or the problem of toxins in the land, like uranium mining and oil pipelines, which so often have first been situated on land where Indigenous people were living, but then spread everywhere.

People Gathering in Augusta.jpg

[People beginning to gather at the Augusta rally]

I think about how my activism on these issues is often perceived by (white) others as something I am doing “for” Indigenous peoples, or a “special interest.” Perhaps I am misperceiving it, but I get the impression that some see it as too “narrow.”  But Sherri gave voice to what feels true to me–that Indigenous issues are tied in to so many other issues that we are facing in this time, issues that will determine the future of our planet.

I tried to articulate this in my book, Finding Our Way Home.  So many of the issues we are facing are the result of disconnection from the land, from other people, from the spirit within and between all beings.  So many of the issues we face are a result of the original colonization and theft of this land from Indigenous nations.  There is such a pervasive overlay of denial around the true origins of our nation, that it is easy for me to feel tongue-tied just trying to speak or write about it.

After leaving the rally in Augusta, I went to see the movie “I Am Not Your Negro” (directed by Raoul Peck).  What a wake-up call from James Baldwin to white America–again, confronting the pervasive overlay of denial about racism in America.  Can’t we see that racism makes white people monsters!  Our country will rise or fall depending on healing the wounds of colonization and racism, and we can’t heal what we aren’t willing to acknowledge.  Or as James Baldwin said it so eloquently, “Not everything that is faced can be changed; but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

I grew up in a bubble of “innocence.”  I remember when white people applauded the innocence of children who knew nothing about racism.  But “innocence” is not what we need to heal–we need to wake up, we need full vision, we need to face it.

Some of my colleagues in ministry speak of their congregations growing weary of our preaching about racism, such a downer.   I don’t know if my congregation has grown weary of my words about racism, or my work supporting Indigenous rights.  But here is what I want to say.  It doesn’t feel like a “downer” once it is acknowledged.  Yes, it can bring up tears and rage and regret.  But there is also a sense of relief that comes from experiencing what is really true.  There is a sense of solidarity.  Because it gets to the heart of what is wrong in white America, it gets to the root of what is wrong in all of America.

As I said, I don’t feel very articulate today, but I feel inspired by the rally, inspired by the movie, encouraged in the fog of the everyday illusions that comprise so much of our country, to #staywoke.