The Meeting of Worlds: Attending the International Indigenous Leadership Gathering

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Bear Dancer

This weekend I was privileged enough to attend the International Indigenous Leadership Gathering at the invitation of a friend who has attended for the last several years. I and several members of the Salish Sea Spiritual Ecology Alliance (SSSEA) headed up to Lillooet, British Columbia for what promised to be a weekend of inspiring speeches, authentic ceremony and my first ever sweat lodge ritual.

The gathering which is now in its 8th (and apparently final) year took place with the permission of the St’át’imc Chiefs’ Council on Xaxl’ip, or Fountain Indian Band, territory. The St’át’imc entered treaty negotiation with the Province in the mid-1990s but in 2001 withdrew over a rising hope for greater sovereignty among First Nations peoples. The area thus continues to be unceded territory to which the people retain traditional claims. The Coalition is also working aggressively to protect and restore critical habitat for salmon, deer and grizzly bears using a synthesis of Western ecological science and traditional science and knowledge.

This year’s gathering preceded the annual Sun Dance which is held near the Summer Solstice, and seven Sun Dancers were fasting in the mountains in preparation for the dance. Upon arrival the host was explicit: No photographs of the Sundance tree, no drugs or alcohol, attend all the ceremonies. The Sun Dance tree was a large (dead) aspen tree tied with dozens of colorful prayer flags surrounded by an improvised wooden arbor to mark the dancing grounds.

The Gathering’s ceremony space was made up of a similar arbor with a small altar in the middle. Marking the four direction were black, yellow, white and red flags symbolizing the four races of humanity as described within Native teachings. From Thursday afternoon to Saturday evening, I observed about a dozen speakers discuss local ecology, climate change, reconciliation efforts, the effects of colonialism on native peoples, and the broadening movement to reclaim First Nations’ traditional territories.

The speakers continually invoked the importance of the land as sacred. One speaker stated that his people’s history was not written in books but on the land. He pointed with pride to the nearby mountain where several generations of Sun Dancers had fasted. Another speaker encouraged people to pray outside, under trees, because with their branches extended, trees are always praying, and thus they teach us to pray. One speaker reminisced to the time when their people arrived in the area and the mountains, plants and animals began to speak to them. Not in a metaphorical way, but actually speaking to them with their bodies and lives.

Internationally renowned activist Chief Phil Lane Jr. presented his International Treaty to Protect and Restore Mother Earth which was read during the Paris Climate Change meetings on Earth Day of this year. Our reading took place before a beautiful pipe ceremony that included four pipes at each of the cardinal directions, and in which the entire audience was invited to participate.

As part of the proceedings, the community was hosting several sweat lodge ceremonies led by authorized guides. At first I was hesitant to participate because of reports that they can feel claustrophobic and overwhelming. I was also cautious as a white person of participating in the sacred ceremonies of Native people. But since we were invited to participate I decided to join. I attended an early morning sweat and arrived to find the lodge, a small makeshift timber frame with blankets and tarps over it, oriented toward the east where a sacred fire was kindled outside. We were instructed to walk in clockwise fashion both around the fire and once we entered the lodge. I was nervous as I entered the lodge with about 30 other people, some native and some non-Native, mostly white. We sat cross-legged in smart rows and waited for the attendants to close the door flap. The ceremony was divided into four parts with short breaks in between. Each of the four parts was guided by prayer, drumming and song. As the guide poured water onto the stones in the pitch black lodge, I began to feel the waves of humid heat settle over me and tinges of anxiety fleck my sides and neck. I began to see colors flashing in the darkness. Within a few minutes a woman who was feeling claustrophobic yelled out to be let out of the lodge. I tucked my head down and focused on my breath. I began to mouth the sounds of the Native chants that were being sung. Sweat dripped down my head, neck and back. I came close to leaving. But as we proceeded, and I continued to pray and focus on my body, the anxiety slowly dissipated and I relaxed into the rhythm of the lodge. At each of the four intervals, the attendant brought in more stones. With each load, the guide shouted, “grandfather coming in.” This protocol was repeated for each stone that entered the lodge, and in the second session, we invoked the ancestor spirits to join us in the lodge. Looking at the glowing rocks the literalness of this statement struck me. Stones are the bones of the earth from which we are made. They came before us, and will be here long after us.

We were told we sat inside the womb of Mother Earth, and that the ritual was a kind of rebirthing ritual set to the steady heartbeat of all of life made manifest through drumming. Though I could not understand the words of the chants, their aesthetic impact was sharp as a knife. As I understand it, the sweat lodge ceremony is often meant for healing, and this is no coincidence considering the deep historical and cultural traumas suffered by First Peoples. I did not feel like I had anything comparable to heal from but offered up my own uncertainties and my prayer that things would get better for native peoples all over the globe, whose lands are still under attack.

Sitting with my head between my legs, sweating into the dust and fir boughs that lined the ground, I thought of the ritual of baptism in which Christians become new persons in Christ. The sweat lodge felt like the ritual enactment of taking this power to be reborn upon ourselves and heal through engaging the body in a kind of ascetic test of endurance, combining both the rebirth by fire and water of which Jesus cryptically spoke.

Though I am not Native and do not plan on attending Native ceremony without an invitation, it was an honor to be able to participate in a gathering of this scope and authenticity. It certainly increased my appreciation for my own tradition.

The Eagle and the Condor: Reflections on the International Indigenous Leadership Gathering

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Eagle and Condor with Serpent and Jaguar by Peruvian Visionary Artist Juan Carlos Taminchi

Maria Trujillo
Master of Community and Regional Planning (MCRP)
University of British Columbia

This weekend some SSSEA folks attended the 8th annual Indigenous Leadership Gathering hosted by the Xaxli’p First Nation from June 2nd to June 5th near Lillooet, BC. Chief Darrell Bob of Xaxli’p First Nation reminded us that the first gathering was held to protect the sacred and took place in 2009. The gathering is open to everyone from all over the world. Three meals a day were generously provided. We had tasty moose and deer cooked by volunteers. I had fun volunteering in the kitchen for the first day.

Being at the gathering reminded me of my journey of seeking to know my spirit and the sacred. I have been exploring what it means to be in touch with my spirit for some years now. It is a bumpy road of push and pull where diving into my heart more deeply has uncovered both gifts and many uncomfortable truths. And where sometimes I have tried to run away from the difficulties in my heart only to be pulled back to what seems to me to be more authentic within myself, the spirit in me: the eternal beauty that embraces the pain so tenderly.

At the gathering, one of the speakers, Phil Lane Jr. spoke about the prophecy of the eagle and the condor, where these two birds come together. These two birds do not typically migrate, they stay in their respective continents (specifically true for the condor, but depending on the eagle, some species migrate). The speaker mentioned that the condor, native of South America, is symbolic of the heart, and the eagle, native of North America, is symbolic of the mind. Right now, there is an opportunity for these two energies to meet and come into union. A union that could benefit mankind immensely, and that perhaps could unite the energies within us too. According to the Pachamama Alliance,

The Eagle and the Condor is an ancient Amazon prophecy that speaks of human societies splitting into two paths – that of the Eagle, and that of the Condor. The path of the Condor is the path of heart, of intuition, and of the feminine. The path of the Eagle is the path of the mind, of the industrial, and of the masculine. The prophecy says that the 1490s would begin a 500 year period during during which the Eagle people would become so powerful that they would virtually drive the Condor people out of existence. This can be seen in the conquering of the Americas and the killing and oppressing of the indigenous peoples in the subsequent 500 years – up to and including today. The prophecy says that during the next 500-year period, beginning in 1990, the potential would arise for the Eagle and the Condor to come together, to fly in the same sky, and to create a new level of consciousness for humanity. The prophecy only speaks of the potential, so it’s up to us to activate this potential and ensure that a new consciousness is allowed to arise.”

The last few months I have been meditating on this union within myself. I decided to explore both the feminine and the masculine in myself in order to understand what the flow of these two energies would feel like if they were not blocked. What I found was that for a while I had refused to accept the masculine in myself because of the social construction of what it entailed to be masculine. I was searching for a healthy masculine, one that does not seek to control, judge, nor block off, but one that is protective of my fluid nature and speaks truth when truth is needed. I was finding that my unhealthy masculine sought and seeks to sometimes control what is around me in order for me to feel safe.

The feminine in me is fluid, like water, but often times seeks to flow uncontrollably. She is sensation-based, she seeks pleasure, and she wants to indulge in ultimate feeling. Yet, I also do not have a clear idea of what a healthy feminine in me looks like, because again socially I have been led to believe that the free feminine is the social construction of the current masculine: independent, and head-driven. (Just to be clear, these are energetic conceptualizations, and they are by no means prescriptions of naturalized femininity or masculinity as pertaining to gender. Some men can have more feminine energy or vice-versa.)

As I worked to balance these energies within me, so that my spirit is in alignment with what feels right to me, my intuition tells me to lift my masculine and ground my feminine. At the moment I find myself happily living in one or the other but I seek a balance of the two. For myself, these are of course just metaphors, metaphors that I use and perhaps others do to in order to navigate and accept myself and arrive to what feels like the most authentic expression of me.

I had the honour of being on my moontime at the gathering, and I was treated with so much kindness, love and reverence. At the ceremonial circle, there was a space for women on their moontime to sit. There were blankets, chocolate, and water for us to drink and an Elder that took care of us and answered questions. I was told that at night, there was also a women’s circle where women talked about how being on moontime is something to be honoured and not feel ashamed of (I did not participate but I was told by another women at the gathering about this).

At the women’s honouring circle we walked into the middle of the ceremony and were invited to sit in the middle while men sang in honour of women. Although the circle was for honouring women, I began to think about my father. I thought about my father and began to cry because I knew that in his heart he had been deprived of the ability to express his emotions fully. Patriarchy had dictated that he needed to behave a certain way and express his emotions a certain way or not at all. I cried because I knew in my heart that he loves me so much, even if sometimes he does not have the tools to express this love.

Back to ecology, to nature, the focus of this blog,and bringing this back full circle. A huge tug of war exists in my heart about development and the preservation of the environment. There is no such a thing as sustainable development, as Bill Reese proved through the ecological footprint, growth is inherently unsustainable. So what to do? To me, development is a very masculine, Yang-driven energy, it is an energy of doing, and growing, and achievement. Yet it is almost a hyper-masculine energy. Living in complete alignment with nature, and letting the flow take us, to me, seems hyper-feminine, at a time of extensive environmental destruction, climate change, we need warriors that will live in alignment to mother earth but which will use the mind and the heart to find ways to flow with the mother, while using the masculine energy to build new futures of togetherness and community. In the end, how do we achieve a unity that honours the unity that brought us here?

Perhaps it is indeed about the unity of these two energies, it is about the condor and the eagle finally arriving. Each energy with its gifts and pains if misused or taken to extremes can be dangerous. Unity with nature, I think ultimately entails a unity of these two energies in ourselves so that they are not out of balance.

To the condor and the eagle in all of us, may the north and south indeed unite…

The generosity at the gathering is a huge testament to the potential of the human spirit. Thank you to Xaxli’p First Nation for generously hosting us and for providing a space where the mind and heart are encouraged to meet.

 

Seasonal Musings on the Shore of the Salish Sea

Ah, the freshness of this season! I marvel at late spring’s luscious green growth. The humid hands of the rainforest trail against my legs as I meander the Chinook lands on Whidbey Island. The moisture held by the forest relaxes and nourishes the tender tissue of my lungs and I’m grateful to the genius of the forest ecosystem to parent water in the way it does. During these dry days, which feel more like hot mid-summer than late spring in the Pacific Northwest, there is a poignancy and worry. The loss of forest ecosystems around the world is a frightening reality in the face of the scorching effects of climate change. Oh for the paradox of gratitude and grief.

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The fir trees reveal bright-light green growth and I take some of this new growth, soft branch needle tips, for my tea. I gather a handful of the ripest salmonberries I can find, pardoning myself to the many birds who vie for these same morsels. A persistent cheeping is heard coming from an alder snag, and a naturalist friend points out a nest of baby woodpeckers – hairy woodpeckers, we think. Along the path ahead, a female robin lingers, enticing us to follow her and move away, undoubtedly, from her nest of vulnerable chicks.

Everything is growing and fresh and the light stays with us so long these days. We’ve passed Beltane now, the Celtic fire festival, and we’re moving toward the Summer Solstice. Where are you in this grand cycle, are you noticing, are you warming up and stretching out? Beginning to sport the flowers that will bear the fruit, and the seed, for another time, while relishing this one, living this season fully?

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Deep Time Walk and Algae Exploration – Biodiversity Galiano Island Project

This past Saturday on Galiano Island in the heart of the Salish Sea, a small group of nature-lovers walked across 4.57 billion years of Earth’s history, marvelling at the slow, slow, slow and toilsome work of the bacteria; the wonder of the profound evolutionary changes of Earth, feeling in our bones and bodies the slow-fast punctuated pace of this change. The vastness of geologic time contains a depth difficult to comprehend with the mind. Developed by ecologist Stephan Harding at Schumacher College in the UK, the Deep Time walk allows a felt sense of this depth. Walking, writes Rebecca Solnit, is “how the body measures itself against the Earth”.

This was the first event of the Biodiversity Galiano Island project, and a wonder-filled start to the series.

We also explored algal life in the Salish Sea, and created pressings of the species of brown, green and red algae we collected.

This was an awesome event to participate in – come on out next time SSSEA folk!

Seeing the Human and the More-Than-Human in the Calais ‘Jungle’

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Syrian artist Nizar Ali Badr depicts the refugee crisis.

I recently spent a brief week volunteering in an encampment for displaced people – migrants, asylum-seekers and refugees – in Calais, France. What follows is the first of a few short blog posts in which I aim to connect my experience to an exploration of a spiritual-ecological view of this seemingly anthropocentric crisis. The beginning may be a bumpy in this regard but I’ll get there with a bit of a warm-up, I hope.

I traveled to Calais from Southwest England, where I had been living and doing a work-exchange at Schumacher College [1]. Me and a small group of caring women, a farmer, a Steiner teacher, and a gardener, left on a chilly morning and returned about a week later with decidedly expanded perspectives. Still limited of course, by brevity and privilege.

On that note, there’s something I want to acknowledge: with the barest glimpse of a complex constellation of human-ecological tragedy and resilience, I write from a very privileged social position: as a white, middle-class, Settler-Canadian woman. Unlike the many displaced people in our world, I’ve never encountered the persecution, violence and tragedy that at least 60 million displaced people now endure. Their resilience is incredible. I hope to represent my experience in a manner that honours those I encountered in what’s known as the Calais “Jungle”.

And so my story opens in England, after our return from France, when I began to reflect more fully on and write about my experience. After this brief intro, my narrative journeys back to describe events in the Jungle interwoven with my learning about the situation. Learning about the migrant and refugee situation in Calais and beyond is new learning for me, and so I encourage you to respond to this post with your own knowledge and understanding in order to create a fuller picture.

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 It’s late winter in southwest England and rain has been a loyal companion to both day and night. January’s storms live on the land through the archetypes of air – wind – and water – rain – reminding me why the ancient forces of ocean-and-earth are the gods of old.  During the winter, I have often watched outside my window as sturdy once-leaved trees are shaken from trunk to tip of branch. Just as often I have felt an easy gratitude for the comfort of those indoor moments. I’ve sat with a tinge of guilt for my glad domestication, and for my feet, warm and dry within socks and walls. Now that tinge is mixed with humble awe, as I think back to an old landfill site 5 kilometres from the centre of a city on the Northern edge of France; a place I found myself working as a first aid volunteer.

An Ode to Socks in the Jungle

“You need socks!” exclaimed Leila, a nurse from Paris, sweetly admonishing the young man seated on a bench across from her in the first aid caravan. “And a scarf. You must stay warm, tadaffa’a, tadaffa’a”. She emphasized the Arabic word for warm. He nodded. I looked down at his feet, bare inside sneakers. I rustled about in a cardboard box, and pulled out a pair of men’s dress socks. They were one of the few large pairs we had. But they were too thin. After years of treeplanting in Northern parts of Canada amidst vast wetlands – the boreal forest is replete with bogs atop some of the most ancient rock on Earth – I have a keen appreciation for good quality, thick socks. I could write a love letter to socks. An ode to socks is especially relevant in the Calais Jungle, where warmth is desperately needed.

Like southwest England and Vancouver, it rains a lot in Calais. When I first arrived in the Jungle, I was struck by the enormous puddles of water and pathways of muck that line makeshift streets, requiring the displaced people living there to inevitably get their feet wet. At the location of the first aid caravans – my job site – a veritable moat, littered with plastic waste, spread out in all directions. Steve, an epidemiologist from Scotland – a chap keenly familiar with rain – spent his volunteer days engineering trenches with a shovel. “Ay, I’m working on ya problem” he’d said to Leila and I, “I’m hoping to put doon gravel, but d’ya know I’ve got to put me shovel to draining water at peoples’ tents thare”. Despite Steve’s best efforts, the problem was stubborn and the equipment inadequate. Water returned as rain to gather in enormous mucky puddles with seemingly infinite determination. I couldn’t help but imagine an excavator and a focused crew of folks making short work of Steve’s repetitive labour. But nothing seemed easy in the Jungle in winter, where dry ground, dry feet and the right equipment were elusive. As the days progressed I came to see how good socks – well deserving of poetic praise – were a kind of symbol for basic comfort and conditions that largely lacked it. As drying facilities in the Jungle are non-existent, people often simply do without socks, or carry on with wet ones. But it’s cold in early January, and dry, covered feet are a vital part of staying warm and well. This is to say nothing of the need for a warm and dry place to sleep.

The Calais Jungle has been notorious for disastrous conditions. A recent environmental health report written by researchers at the University of Birmingham[2] details them:  desperately inadequate levels of toilets; contaminated water; poor shelter; standing waste of all kinds; the threat of physical assaults upon migrants by police, fear of sexual violence for the small number of women in the camp. While I observed these conditions ‘on the ground’, I had to dig into others’ reporting to find out the Jungle’s decades-long history. And to gain a better understanding about why French and EU governments, and the UN, have been so waylaid in response to this growing crisis – and a shantytown beneath a motorway – in the midst of a developed city.

A Brief History

In the evening and minutes from the city’s only hostel, the Port of Calais blazes with industry. Across the English Channel, the Port of Dover matches with its own blink and twinkle. Calais is a mere 60 kilometres away from Dover, and its close proximity to England has made it a major port for centuries. Indeed, its 17th century heritage as a smuggling port holds true today. Many migrants camp on the very edge of this land because they seek to smuggle themselves across the English Channel and land safely in England. This has been happening for years and years.

In 1999, a refugee camp for asylum seekers arriving largely from Iraq and Afghanistan was opened by the French Red Cross in the seaside town of Sangatte – less than 1 km from the entrance to the Eurotunnel between France and England (about 10 km from Calais). Contested from the beginning, Sangatte closed in 2002 due to conflict between the British and French governments over responsibility for border control[3]. Since 2002, hundreds and thousands of migrants, asylum-seekers and refugees from Africa, Afghanistan and the Middle East, have continued to gather around Calais, settling on unoccupied land in as many as 9 encampments. According to The Guardian, the ‘Calais Jungle’ or simply the ‘Jungle’ is the largest encampment[4]. The Jungle has grown nearly exponentially over the past year, as more and more people flee armed conflict, persecution and poverty. As many as 5000 people now live there, waiting to smuggle themselves or hoping for resettlement. Women and children represent only a small minority of people in the camp: 80 – 90% are men, mostly young men traveling alone, like Ami, a 24 year old student from Syria.[5]

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Syrians in Calais urging UK to accept them, November 2014, (Bauke Schram, IBTimes UK).

Leila and I met Ami on our second day volunteering in the camp. We were out walking its muddy makeshift streets, familiarizing ourselves with its geography and searching for the Médecins Sans Frontières clinic, a place we frequently referred our first aid caravan clients. Ami was gregarious, and immediately offered to help with Arabic-English translation. “Take my number” he insisted, scribbling on a scrap of paper, “and I’ll come when I can”. His English was excellent. We called the next day but he was busy building the wooden frame and pallet structure that would serve as his living and sleeping quarters. He had been living in a bargain basement tent – akin to the state of peoples’ socks, those who had socks, that is – for 3 months until that point. At last, supplies and volunteers were adequate to provide him a warmer, drier, temporary home.

After those years of treeplanting and living in a tent in all weather, I had a tiny glimmer of how it must have been for many people in the camp, sleeping night after night on cold and wet ground. But the ground they sleep on is not only cold and wet but also polluted. The Calais Jungle is located on an old landfill site. It’s what is known as a “Seveso site”, an industrial area classified as low or high threshold based on the type and amount of pollutants present[6]. While the camp itself is apparently in a low-medium threshold site, it is next door to several chemical factories classified as high threshold. Not the most environmentally hospitable of places.

While treeplanting, I spent nights sleeping atop ripped up ground amidst kilometres of stumps. The violence of that clear-cut scene, likely felt in my body in ways I wasn’t even aware of, is something comparable to the wasteland of the polluted ground beneath and around the Jungle. The land and the other-than-humans that inhabit it have been damaged and desecrated in the interests of industrial production and consumption in a comparable manner. But of course, life in the Jungle for a migrant is an altogether different thing than the life of a treeplanter. The struggle to live and sleep on that land made itself apparent in the sickness that I saw at the first aid caravans (I’ll speak to this in a later post).

Listening to Place

Perhaps it was the bleak weather of January. Or the greyness of Calais’ industrial cityscape, razed to the ground during World War II. Likely it was the knowledge that thousands of displaced people are trying to survive in a polluted, cold and wet shantytown on the outskirts of this developed city. Whatever it was, I did not feel a welcome from the city nor from the land there. The mood of the place was grim; the suffering of humans and of the land seemed to speak as one complex living being. According to Craig Chalquist, “when [a] human system joins with those [parts] that characterize a place – its ecology, its geology, its plants and animals, its history and architecture, politics and artwork – we face a truly complex ‘presence of place’ we must understand on its own terms.” In the next blog post, I will explore the ‘presence of place’ of the camp in Calais, and aim to dive more into story and ecology.

In the meantime, I am grateful for warm feet and good socks; for the luck to sleep in a clean and warm bed tonight. I hold knowledge of the migrant situation in the Jungle, and my conflicting reality, in my imagination to stay connected and to remember my steps into acting in a good way.

[1] https://www.schumachercollege.org.uk/

[2] Dhesi, S., Isakjee, A., & Davies, T. (2015). An environmental health assessment of the new migrant camp in Calais. University of Birmingham.

[3] http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/calais-migrant-chaos-eurotunnel-asks-9-7m-france-uk-disruption-costs-1512012

[4] ‘At night it’s like a horror movie’ – inside Calais’s official shantytown. Angelique Chrisafis, The Guardian, 6 April 2015. Retrieved 10 February 2015.

[5]http://www.theguardian.com/uk/2002/may/23/immigration.immigrationandpublicservices1

  • Ami is a pseudonym to protect anonymity

[6] https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Directive_Seveso

http://www.msf.org/topics/refugees-and-idps