For an hour and a half last Sunday afternoon, I was not myself. I was an indigenous woman who lived in Canada on Turtle Island (North America) when the settlers first came to our land. My life was short. I died of smallpox not long after the newcomers arrived. The Hudson Bay blankets they gave us in exchange for beaver pelts became our shrouds.
More than half of us died of the disease. We returned to our seats in the circle to watch what would happen to the others. Twenty blankets where spread out on the floor inside the circle. They represented our lands, and the forty participants who stood on them at the beginning of the Kairos Blanket Exercise represented hundreds of indigenous nations.
As our shared history unfolded, fewer and fewer of my people were left standing. The blankets that had been spread out and overlapped got scrunched up and their inhabitants struggled to remain on their tiny bit of earth. With every new law passed or action taken by government officials, more of my brothers and sisters died, were removed to residential schools, relocated, or exiled from the reserves without Indian status or European acceptance. Vacant blankets were scooped up by the authorities, as easily as they scooped up our children in the sixties and placed them in the hands and homes of the settlers.
I watched helplessly from my chair/grave. My people were voiceless, stripped of our land, our way of life, our dignity, our children, our identity.
This unrelenting, long-term trauma has taken its toll. There are more indigenous children in foster care now than there were in residential schools. We have been beaten down and have internalized the shame that has been cast as a dark spell upon us.
When the exercise was over and the blankets folded up, we became ourselves again: fathers, daughters, teachers, counsellors, retired folk, students–all non-indigenous except one.
Melaney Gleeson-Lyall shared her personal story of growing up in a non-indigenous adoptive family and re-connecting as a young adult with her ancestral roots, particularly within the Musqueam Nation. It was a sad, painful story and yet there was hope. Her voice was heard and the spell that fuels oppression was broken.
A divine voice inside her speaks the truth of who she is. God, who is reconciling us to one another, placed this truth like a treasure in her heart. It bears witness to the all-surpassing power of God at work in all of us. “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed” (2 Corinthians 4:7-9).
Jesus said, “The truth will set you free.” Hearing the truth helps set indigenous people free from the past and enables us to reconcile.
George Erasmus of the Dene Nation said, “Where common memory is lacking, where people do not share the same past, there can be no real community. Where community is to be formed, common memory must be created.”
Last Sunday afternoon, I took a step toward reconciliation by learning more about our history. My understanding and empathy for our indigenous sisters and brothers have deepened. I look forward to the days to come when the effects of the trauma recede, indigenous peoples’ voices grow strong, and their spirits rise again.
“Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen one in whom I delight;
I will put my Spirit on him,
and he will bring justice to the nations. . .
A bruised reed he will not break,
and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.
In faithfulness he will bring forth justice.
–Isaiah 42, 1, 3
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“In the heart of British Columbia’s Fraser Canyon region, between the towns of Boston Bar and Lytton, lies the traditional territory of the Kanaka Bar Indian Band—also known as T’eqt’aqtn’mux or ‘the crossing place people,'” wrote Sherry Yano in an article entitled “Kanaka Bar: Harnessing the power of community” In this video by Jeremy Williams, Kanaka Bar Chief Patrick Michell talks about the importance of the values and ways of his ancestors and what he and his community are doing to continue to live those values today.