Tag Archives: National Aboriginal History Month

Good Relations – with the whole kit and caboodle, 10 of 10

Goose 4 4 14 With sincere thanks to Michael Chokomoolin for his generosity in loaning me this series of paintings.
Goose 4 4 14
With sincere thanks to Michael Chokomoolin for his generosity in loaning me this series of paintings.

The last words of this series go to two people I respect greatly. The one you already know. The other is a beautiful, grace and spirit- filled aboriginal healer.

From Francesca Mason-Boring in “Notes from the Indigenous Field”:
Technology is defined in Mirriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 10th Edition, as the practical application of knowledge. The aboriginal tradition of meeting/healing in a circle, smudging, the concept of healing coming from within nurtured by nature, and the concept of enlisting ancestors to assist in healing are among a host of tribal technologies.
We are all connected to the universal indigenous. We all come from the cave. We all have morphogenetic (as Rupert Sheldrake’s term) access to our own ancestors who were indigenous, and we all have the option to be indigenous, which simply means coming from and connected to the land, creation, and the authentic feminine.
And from Martin Luther King Jr.:
We must all learn to live together as brothers or we will all perish together as fools. We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. And whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. For some strange reason I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. And you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the way God’s universe is made.

Amen, Francesca! Amen, Rev. King!
OH CANADA, our home ON native land…

Good Relations – The Land, 9 of 10

Wolf 11 12 by Michael Chokomoolin
Wolf 11 12 by Michael Chokomoolin

Have you ever heard of Crash Course? It’s an online, rapid-fire lecture delivered on topics as enormous as world history. Here goes a mini refresher crash course on today’s topic – Good Relations and the Land.
1534 Jacques Cartier arrives on the east coast of Canada. He parks a cross bearing the words “Long Live the King of France”. He meets Haudenosaunee (Iroquis) Chief Donnacona and takes his two sons back to France. There they were wined and dined and made the centre of interest.
Cartier returns with the young men, visits the Haudenosaunee settlements of Stadacona (Quebec City ) and Hochelega (Montreal) population 1,000. Cartier stays the winter. Haudenosaunee get sick. Smallpox? French get sick with scurvy. Haudenosaunee boil cedar leaves to provide Vitamin C. Cartier’s men kidnap 9 people including Chief Donnacona and leave for France. All but one dies. Remaining one does not return to Canada.
Cartier returns with 1,500 settlers. Haudenosaunee are not happy to see them! Iroquois aligned themselves with the Dutch and British to the south.
1608 Samuel de Champlain establishes a settlement at Quebec City. The Haudenosaunee throughout the St. Lawrence River are nowhere to be seen. Disease? War? Moved south? Champlain aligns the French with the Wendat (Huron) to secure the fur trade and defeat the Iroquois.
Enter the time period Joseph Boyden writes about in The Orenda! War. Savagery. Bloodshed. But hold on a minute! Bruce G. Trigger writes in Natives and Newcomers, “There is little evidence of warfare between Hurons and 5 Nations Iroquois in prehistoric times.”
Here’s the crash course of the crash course:
Wendat and Haudenosaunee not at war. European comes, offends and harms Haudenosaunee, then settles many people on Haudenosaunee land. Eighty years later another European comes. No Haudenosaunee to be found. French secure fur trade with Wendats. Wendat and Haudenosaunee south of the Great Lakes/St. Lawrence River fight viciously!!

John Ralston Saul says this: “We don’t know what to do with the least palatable part of the settler story. We wanted the land. It belonged to someone else. We took it.” Hm. And I would add, we also made enemies of people formerly at peace and then turned around and called them savages! Holy Smokes – have we got some work to do before we can be considered good relations!

Good Relations – Education, 8 of 10

Wolf 9 11 by Michael Chokomoolin
Wolf 9 11 by Michael Chokomoolin

If what I wrote about on June 26th is true and transgenerational trauma happens whenever horrific events of one generation impact future generations, wouldn’t it make sense that First Nations, Métis and Inuit of this country should have a profound distrust for the education system that turned their ancestors into strangers in their own families? And if “perpetrators” can pass guilt and shame to their descendents, wouldn’t it make sense that the authorities in this country would unconsciously mould an education system that is inequitable to the Aboriginal members of our Canadian family?

I have heard one aboriginal leader say that residential school gave him a ticket to a better life. It provided the only means he had of acquiring a good education. What was true for him was not true for many of Canada’s past and current Aboriginal students.

A few quick facts:

-33% of on-reserve high school students graduate each year. In contrast, the eastern Ontario school board where I teach is aiming for a 90% graduation rate.

-The federal government which is solely responsible for financing aboriginal education, only funds aboriginal students two-thirds of the average funding per student that the provinces provide to other schools.

-19% percent of on-reserve schools in Alberta and Saskatchewan have irregular power and water – some reserves have no school at all.

-And this is the big opportunity for the future of Canada: 28% of the Aboriginal population is under the age of 14. Canada’s Aboriginal population, increased by 20.1% from 2006 to 2011, while the non-Aboriginal population increased by 5.2% in the same period. It behoves all of us to give our Aboriginal children every opportunity available to every other child.


Turning Things Around on Remote Reserves

Within the next few days I expect my son will be marking the end of the school year with the grand burning of a semester’s worth of notes. (As a teacher it makes me cringe. As a former child it makes me infinitely happy!) His burning will be happening at the very time that over 4,000 aboriginal children, mostly on fly-in reserves, will begin oiling their mental cogs with six weeks of fun learning activities led by counsellors in The Lieutenant Governor’s Aboriginal Summer Literacy Camps.

Taka Hoy and Katie Armstrong, both university students and counsellors with the program, spoke at the launch of Emma Field, Book Three last fall. The pictures they showed of children laughing, baking and sporting “pig snout” masks as they read one of Robert Munsch’s books were pictures of children experiencing the full joy of learning!

The distance between literacy (and joy!) and mental health, and literacy (and joy!) and school success is a short one. Says David Onley, Lieutenant Governor of Ontario, “Where the literacy camps have been in operation, both the dropout rates and the suicide rate is much lower.”

Rebuilding the trust in Aboriginal children and throwing open the doors to a brighter future –I’m all over it!


All funding for these camps is raised by the office of the Lieutenant Governor of Ontario and held in trust by Frontier College : www.frontiercollege.ca

Good Relations – The Earth, 7 of 10

Turtle 2 23 14 by Michael Chokomoolin
Turtle 2 23 14 by Michael Chokomoolin

In Emma Field, Book Three, Randall Pierce comes to his grandmother to ask her to teach him The Thanksgiving Address which is offered every significant gathering of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois). Orenda Pierce relays to him the steps in the address which offer thanks to the many and varied parts of creation that support life. In acknowledging the kinship with the natural world, she weaves together the prayer which acknowledges the sacred web of life and the peace and harmony that can be found in doing so.

Imagine that! Imagine if the morning announcements in every classroom in Canada began with “We give thanks for…the sun, the waters, the plants…”. Imagine if in The House of Commons and every board room across the country men and women paused before beginning their work of the day to acknowledge the sacredness of the very air we breathe and soil on which we walk! Don’ t you think we’d be making different decisions? Don’t you think it would be much easier to be in good relations with one another and the natural world?

The offerings of thanksgiving in Haudenosaunee culture are not just reserved for the start of significant events. The continual cycle of thanksgiving follows the change of seasons and the ripening of crops in ceremonies that give thanks to what has already been provided as staple foods. The Maple Dance in March gives thanks for the ‘sweet water’ of maple sap. The Thunder Dance of April gives thanks for the arrival of spring rains. The Sun Dance of May, the warming of the earth by the sun, the Seed Blessing or Planting Dance for the three staples of corn, squash and beans. All year long there is a continual cycle of thanksgiving for the gifts of creation.

And imagine that! Our holiday of Thanksgiving seems to give us pause to consider the bountiful harvests we enjoy, but imagine if we also paused to appreciate and give thanks for the many berries that grow on Canadian soil, the sap that flows through the awakening maples and the corn that is pollinated each summer. Such a simple, grace-filled act could do no harm and would perhaps give us the moment to consider how intricately connected we are to the fruits of the land – the land we are systematically and dare I say deliberately destroying!

In 1977 the Haudenosaunee Council offered a message about their people and beliefs to the rest of the world through a United Nations conference. The document was called A Basic Call to Consciousness: The Haudenosaunee Address to the Western World and was a call to the “consciousness of the sacred web of life in the universe.”

“In the beginning, we were told that the human beings who
walk about the Earth have been provided with all the things
necessary for life. We were instructed to carry a love for
one another, and to show a great respect for all the beings
of this Earth. We are shown that our life exists with the tree
life, that our well-being depends on the well-being of the
Vegetable Life, that we are close relatives of the four- legged beings.
In our ways, spiritual consciousness is the highest form of politics.”

A spiritual connection to all living things that pervades all aspects of our lives and culture here in Canada – wouldn’t that be a fine thing to uphold? Wouldn’t it be a fine thing to bind us all together?

Good Relations – Families, 6 of 10

Crane 5 17 12 by Michael Chokomoolin
Crane 5 17 12 by Michael Chokomoolin

At the conclusion of Emma Field Book Two and the beginning of Book Three, the young Jessabelle-Rose Matheson, on the threshold of a new life, falls gravely ill. It is Orenda Pierce, matriarch of the displaced Seneca nation, who understands that the girl’s heart’s loyalty is to her family, which, freshly ripped apart and long bent by the oppressive arm of slavery, is keeping her from fully stepping into her future.

How often are we like Jessabelle-Rose – on the edge of something we’ve wanted all our lives when the saboteur within us raises its ugly head and demands that we scurry back to being small? In my experience it has happened more often than I’d like to admit!

Orenda Pierce, and other First Nations, Inuit and Métis elders who hold their people’s traditions understand that our families are like great puzzles. When each of us is born we fill the hole in the puzzle of our family made by the departure or unresolved circumstances of other family members. Centuries before Freud’s first patient lay upon a couch, or Jung began to dance with archetypes, native spiritual leaders understood that to look clearly at the difficulties of the ancestors and to draw upon the strength of the family unit is to face the future with shoulders squared and head held high.

So why are there not more aboriginal children able to do just that? First of all, the wounds inflicted on Native Canadians were of a colossal magnitude. Gabor Maté M.D. says the “destruction of traditional relationships, extended family, clan, tribe, village; economic and social change, and displacement of people from their homes pulled apart the sense of belonging in morals and the spiritual world.” (pg. 263 – In The Realm of the Hungry Ghosts) Even the “simple” gut-wrenching act of removing one child from the familiarity of home, family, language, homeland and culture to the confines of residential school is traumatic. But there were 150,000 children (and their parents who were unable to protect them) who were traumatized by this.

Let’s turn for a moment to epigenetics – where behaviours, toxins or trauma of one generation can impact the expression of genes in subsequent generations.

One study on the eating habits of multiple generations of families in Sweden showed that grandfathers who went from a normal diet to routine overeating had grandsons who died an average of six years earlier than the grandsons of those who didn’t. Epigenetics may, in time, provide hard scientific evidence of intergenerational trauma of Native Canadians and link it to the diseases that currently afflict them like diabetes and cancer, not to mention the mental health issues that drive a disproportionate number of young aboriginals to suicide or dependence upon drugs and alcohol.

So why did First Nations, Inuit and Métis of this country not apply the poultice of their spiritual practices to the life-threatening wounds they received? Because they weren’t allowed to! The Indian Act of 1885 prohibited their traditional religious ceremonies until 1951!

Yet somehow, somehow, despite all of this there are people all across this country smudging, fasting, taking part in vision quests and crawling into the searing heat of a sweat lodge. In so doing they are healing their past, present and future in one fowl swoop. I know some of these people. They are in my own family.

But it isn’t just “the victims” who need to be healed. We all do. German psychotherapist Bert Hellinger, who combined the work of psychologist Virginia Satir with what he learned from the Zulu of South Africa to create Family Constellations or Systemic Constellation Work, knows this more than most. He has long observed in his work that those families who descend from WWII members of the Nazi party often require as much healing as descendants of the Jews who had been persecuted.

Whether we employ Hellinger’s Family Constellations or revive traditional aboriginal consciousness, it is entirely possible to heal the past and present by honouring family wounds without being limited by them. In so doing our children, be they aboriginal or not, may be born into new patterns and endless possibilities!

Good Relations – The Power of Circles, 5 of 10

Turtle 6 16 12 by Michael Chokomoolin
Turtle 6 16 12 by Michael Chokomoolin

Circles are strong. Spheres are too. Muskox arrange themselves in a circle, tails toward the centre, so they can surround and protect their young. Life on this fragile and strong planet is protected by the wafer-thin sphere of ozone. And the aboriginal tradition of meeting in circles protects each participant so that they can contribute without fear of reprisal or criticism. In so doing something bigger is created. As the eminent Canadian aboriginal architect, Douglas Cardinal says, “When you put your knowledge in a circle, it’s not yours anymore, it’s shared by everyone.”

Such meetings happen when a group of people arrange themselves in a circle and pass a symbolic object to someone who wishes to speak. Once finished the object is respectfully passed around the circle in sequence to the others who may wish to speak. The process of using an object slows the pace and focuses the attention on the person who is sharing. Widely used in restorative justice circles, this method is also being used in schools as an alternative learning practice.

June 15th, 2014, was Aboriginal Sunday in the United Church of Canada. It was also Father’s Day. Rather than spend 20 minutes listening to a sermon, at Merrickville UnitedChurch, we formed a circle so that we might honour men and have a taste of the power of Aboriginal circles. We left our front-facing pews (most of us rather begrudgingly) and formed a circle where each person answered with words or silence the following questions: “What do you appreciate about your father, or father-figure?” “What would you wish for all young men?”

The tension we felt doing something so new soon melted as people passed a small wooden cross and recounted short summaries of the fathers they had known. Shoulders relaxed and people leaned forward as they heard of a father who had swelled with pride over his daughter’s art work and another of a man who often didn’t see eye-to-eye with his son, yet passed on his respect for the land, animals and hard work. The process caused me to sort and sift my thoughts until I understood that I most valued my father’s strength and integrity and wished that my son would find his own strength and purpose.

The circle was filled with respect, humility, compassion, honesty, truth, sharing, hospitality and divine love. Can anything be more holy?

Thank you to the Aboriginal members of this Canadian family for being good relations and sharing the process with us so that our own spheres might contain good relations. Just imagine if we could use this respectful approach to protect your  land and resources!

Good Relations – Women, 3 of 10

Geese 04 by Michael Chokomoolin
Geese 04 by Michael Chokomoolin

Prior to European settlement, the Haudenosaunee, or Iroquois of the Great Lakes region, were organized in a way that maintained a balance of equality between men and women.

When European women were not allowed to vote or run for office and were considered “dead in the law” once they married, Haudenosaunee women chose their chiefs and held political authority and key political offices as clan mothers.

When European law gave men the legal right to physically discipline their wives, violence against women was not tolerated amongst the Haudenosaunee. James Clinton, a general in the Sullivan Campaign that wiped most of the Haudenosaunee from New York State remarked that a Haudenosaunee man would never violate the chastity of any woman. He added this significant admonition to his colonel: ”It would be well to take measures to prevent a stain upon our army.”

When European women were responsible for the home but subordinate to the husband, to the point of losing all rights to property, children and even one’s own body, Haudenosaunee women owned their own property and farmed communally with other women.

When European women were forbidden to speak in churches and spirituality was disconnected from the earth, Haudenosaunee women held responsibilities in ceremonies and honoured Mother Earth along with the men.

So imagine the societal trauma that came about when European ways began to rule the day! Alice Fletcher, a noted 19th Century suffragist and government agent, had this to say before the 1888 International Council of Women: “They have said: ‘As an Indian (sic) woman I was free. I owned my home, my person, the work of my own hands, and my children could never forget me. I was better as an Indian woman than under white law.” But the changes had been difficult on men too. Fletcher also had this to say, “Men have said: ‘Your laws show how little your men care for their women. The wife is nothing of herself. She is worth little but to help a man to have one hundred and sixty acres.’ One day sitting in the tent of an old chief, famous in war, he said to me: ‘My young men are to lay aside their weapons; they are to take up the work of the women; they will plow the field and raise the crops; for them I see a future, but my women, they to whom we owe everything, what is there for them to do? I see nothing! You are a woman; have pity on my women when everything is taken from them.’”

How did both men and women survive this change? I honestly don’t know, but it was a big one and I invite anyone who does know to raise your voice.

A Sidebar about Epigenetics

Epigenetics. What is it? What could it possibly have to do with National Aboriginal History Month?

Psychologists have long known that traumatic experiences in one generation can affect subsequent generations. Genetics now has an explanation for this. It is called Epigenetics – derived from the word “Epi” meaning “around”. It refers to the changes in gene expression that come when the environment surrounding the gene changes. When people are traumatically stressed their bodies produce more stress hormones. Gene RNA, particularly in the brain, blood and sex cells appear to be most impacted. Behavioural and metabolic changes, made in adaptation to the stressor, can then be passed on to the off-spring, even though they themselves were not traumatized. Researchers have found this to be so even in the third generation.

If we are to look honestly at the history of the First Nations, Inuit and Métis in this country we need to pay attention to the remarkable fact that despite the many, and on-going traumas inflicted upon their cultures, they have survived and even thrived. In many cases this happened, again, because of epigenetics. Trauma was undone at a cellular level by the ancient traditions which recognized as psychologist Thomas Hora said, “All problems are psychological, but all solutions are spiritual.”

The next few reflections will be about some of the times when good relations were not the order of the day and ancient practices were required so that life could continue.

Not “The Orenda” – Good Relations, 2 of 10

Geese by Michael Chokomoolin
Geese by Michael Chokomoolin

Joseph Boyden’s The Orenda gives the impression that the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) were nothing but a blood-curdlingly, savage race. To focus on the 150 years of rivalry for the fur trade is to miss the finest attributes of a society so evolved and able to handle the complexities of life that it directly influenced the creation of the United States Constitution.


Pre-European Haudenosaunee were farmers and hunters who lived in permanent settlements. Women within their society held different but equal powers to men. Most decisions, be they within the family, village or nation, were made with unanimity.


The rise-fall-and-rise-again history of the Haudenosaunee in present day Canada is inextricably tied to the history of the United States where at the time of European contact some 10,000 to 15,000 resided south of Lake Erie and Lake Ontario. There were also Haudenosaunee living along the north side of the St. Lawrence River. When explorer Jacques Cartier arrived in 1535, the villages of Stadacona (today’s Quebec City) and Hochelaga (today’s Isle of Montreal) were well-established. However when Samuel de Champlain came to the area in 1603, Hochelaga had vanished, as had many of the settlements further up the St. Lawrence River. The present day communities of Canadian Haudenosaunee were established by those who were later displaced from the United States.


Prior to this time the five nations that made up the Haudenosaunee were frequently at war. Oral tradition has it that over a thousand years ago a man called Peacemaker had a vision of unity which he took from village to village of the Mohawk, Seneca, Onondaga, Oneida and Cayuga. The resulting Haudensaunee Confederacy led to a method of peaceful governance which lasted until the Revolutionary War tore it apart in 1775.


Then, every nation but the Oneidas and the Tuscororas (who had joined the Confederacy in 1722) sided with the British who subsequently lost the war. For the part they played in fighting the Americans, George Washington ordered a scorched earth campaign of all Haudenosaunee lands. Everything, absolutely everything of the Haudenosauee’s was destroyed. Two thousand of those who survived the campaign fled to Canada. On the Grand River in present day south-western Ontario, all six nations cleared the land they were granted, erected log cabins and began farming in pioneer fashion. Due to the productivity of the soil along the river white settlers soon began squatting on their territory, dividing one nation from another. The government pressured them to sell their land and relocate to a “consolidated reserve”. So that’s what they did leaving behind their cleared fields, log cabins and other improvements and started again! From the sale of this land (despite the government’s ill-fated investment of their funds in the Grand River Navigation Company), the Grand River Haudenosaunee became the wealthiest band in 19th century Canada. From their band fund of some $800,000 they paid their own doctors, teachers, forest warden, interpreter and superintendent. With the adaptation to “modern farming methods” the reserve became a “show-case reserve”.

Good Relations, 1 of 10

"Eagle" by Michael Chokomoolin
“Eagle” by Michael Chokomoolin

I need to begin this series with a story about myself that I am not proud of. I grew up in a beautiful rural community in eastern Ontario. For reasons I do not understand, as a girl of about 7, I took a turn at mocking Linda Mindle, a sweet, gentle girl in my class, for being “Indian”. When my parents, who were farmers and active United Church members found out, there was hell to pay. I don’t remember the punishment, but I do remember the shame I felt for the cruelty of my actions. Then a few years later our parents adopted a one-year-old half- Ojibway girl from Manitoulin Island in Lake Huron. I completely fell in love with her. She had curly black hair and black eyes. She was soft and chubby and slept snuggled in with me in our father’s boyhood spool bed. She was the baby sister I had always wanted.

Janine, is now married to Michael Chokomoolin, a Cree artist and is the mother of three fine young women. She is closely connected to us, her adopted family, and to many of her extended birth family and the community in which she was born. Her own nuclear family is deeply committed to the native ways that are honoured in the seasonal ceremonies.

Our parents had always told Janine she was special and had been chosen through adoption by our family. But life wasn’t always easy for her and if I am really, really honest, I know that; tied to the wonderful gifts she gave us and we gave her, there was a string attached to the idea that we had “saved” this child…and she should be damn grateful for it. Ya., I know. It’s a crazy dance that happens when you take on the role of saviour. Someone has to play “victim” for you (and be indebted to you) and someone else has to be a “tyrant” (often times there is a “rebel” nearby too). I hate to admit it, but in my mind Janine had been the victim, her parents the tyrants and we white folks the saviours.

But this dance of the tyrant, victim, saviour and sometimes rebel doesn’t work. Its movements are based on who I need the other person to be – not the truth of who they are or the truth of who they have had to become because of outside forces. In this dance we can’t create anything new together. We’re just locked in step – I do this…you do that. It is vastly different from being simply “a good relation”. “A good relation” seeks to understand the other person over and over and over again. They welcome the truth and they stand up for the other.

Niigaanwewidam James Sinclair is Anishinaabe and an assistant professor at the University of Manitoba. In the newly-released Masculindians by Sam McKegney, he says, “Every part of Indigenous cultures – if we’re talking about anything pan-Indian – every single ceremony that I’ve ever been a part of is about being a good relation. There’s nothing more simple than that, or more essential. A good relative is not always an idealized romantic image either. It’s sometimes where you have to stand in front of a bulldozer. It’s sometimes where you have to stand up for the water or you have to remind others of the sacredness of the Earth. It’s sometimes where you have to make food. It’s sometimes where you have to open a door. Every single part of being an Indigenous person, in the most meaningful way that I know, is about being a good relative and about thinking of somebody or something other than yourself. “


So it’s not about being a saviour, a tyrant, a rebel or a victim, it’s about being a good relation. I have seen the power of that in our own family. I have seen the power of that in 19th-cent

ury Quaker reformer Lucretia Mott who went to great lengths to be a good relation to members of the displaced Seneca nation; to women, especially marginalized Irish immigrant-girls; and to African Americans, be they male or female, influential or enslaved.

I think it’s time all of us became good relations to the Aboriginal members of this Canadian family.