Brander McDonald is soft-spoken. He moves about the room with quiet dignity, avoiding eye contact while he presents a workshop exploring indigenous worldviews at Native Assembly 2014. He admits to being a shy youngster, but there is more to his demeanour than being reserved. “My grandmother taught me that I shouldn’t look someone in the eye when I first meet them,” he says. “She told me to look at their feet until I got to know them.”
It’s a sign of respect, rather than avoidance, and it certainly has nothing to do with strength or lack thereof. Further into the workshop, McDonald relays a story using “white” approaches to attentiveness. His posture changes. His movements become swifter and more direct, and his gaze bores into mine with unnerving intensity. I am intimidated and, for a moment, the tables are turned. I glimpse what it might have been like to experience colonialism as an indigenous person, perhaps a child at an Indian Residential School, immersed in a frightening, completely foreign world without parents to protect me.
McDonald, the indigenous relations coordinator for Mennonite Church British Columbia, says the indigenous perspective is about harmony between body, mind, soul and our relationships with others. It places an emphasis on relationships, just as the Bible does, and it’s rooted in the land, a gift of the Creator, designed to provide all we need.
In another workshop exploring the loss of Turtle Island—the indigenous term for North America—I experience a disturbing fast-forward account of indigenous history with the Blanket Exercise, led by Sue and Harley Eagle, Mennonite Central Committee Canada indigenous work coordinators. An array of blankets cover the floor in a large conference room to represent the continent. Roughly 30 participants stand barefoot on the blankets. We’re the indigenous population before the arrival of Europeans and settlers. We each hold a card detailing our fate: skulls, trains and buffaloes, residential schools and medicine wheels.
Recalling an earlier outdoor workshop, I stand on my blanket and imagine a prairie clearing with tall grass and sage beneath my feet. I’m surrounded by whispering aspen, the smell of wood smoke, and the broad, blue sky above.
The history of Canada’s relationship with its Indigenous Peoples is read. After we encounter the intricate, fully functional, matriarchal structure of indigenous societies, the Europeans arrive. Elaborate words enact treaties and proclamations, espousing our nationhood. It sounds good and promising, but then more laws are imposed. The British North America Act puts “Indians and lands reserved for Indians” under the control of the federal government. Spiritual practices are forbidden. Women are relegated to non-entities.
Corners of blankets—our land—are folded up, forcing us closer together, some onto foreign territory. The blankets feel different beneath our feet.
Other blankets are drawn apart, separating us with arbitrary borders. People with skull cards are sent back to their seats; they died of smallpox, tuberculosis or other diseases brought by Europeans, and were sometimes spread by the distribution of infected blankets. Those who hold train and buffalo cards die too, from malnutrition, having been forced off homelands and away from traditional hunting grounds.
The Indian Act is imposed. We’re forbidden to take action or make decisions on our own. We must turn to the government as a child turns to his parent. Our blankets are folded again and again, growing smaller and further apart. Those of us holding residential school cards are crowded together on a single blanket separated from the others.
We look around. There are far fewer of us standing. Only remnants of our Turtle Island blanket land remain. A handful of participants hold cards of the medicine wheel. They are the survivors.
When the exercise is complete, we sit in a circle and take turns sharing our thoughts. This simple exercise brought history to life in a new way for the settlers, who form most of the group. They express rage, sorrow, confusion, anxiety and despair, with glimmers of hope for the future. The indigenous among us speak softly, quietly. Their experience is even more profound because they are reliving what they already know.
In Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch tells his daughter Scout, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view . . . until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
Who among us can truly walk in another person’s skin? The best we can do is try. I haven’t gone far, but I’m beginning to get the picture.
--Posted August 13, 2014
More on Native Assembly 2014:
Ears to earth, eyes to God (main report)
Personal reflection: Searching for harmony
Young Voices personal reflection: A world of diverse Mennonite faith