All my relations, the salmon, the bear, the raven; the cedar, the fir, the alder; the seal, the whale, the otter; the salal, the blackberry, the blueberry. All my relations, I offer my thanksgiving this day for the beauty of the morning and the evening, the beauty of the children and the elders, the warriors and healers, the teachers and the storytellers. All my relations, we have come together to give thanks, to the year which has circled around again to the harvest.
Thanksgiving is like a collision of symbols for Canadians. It wasn’t even a separate holiday in Canada until 1931 – up until then, it was the same day as Armistice Day.
The American view of Thanksgiving is all about the turkey and the corn and the Pilgrims, and much of the European view of Thanksgiving is all about the goat’s horn and the harvest bounty spilling from it. Thanksgiving in Europe is also a religious festival, during which regional hymns are sung and distinct decorations are placed in the parish church.
Today we consider Thanksgiving in Canada, where, in addition to being Unitarian, we stand at a crossroads of art, culture, food, bloodlines, language, civil liberties, nature, and urban life that’s unparalleled in the rest of the world. It’s a good a place to stand when you’re reassessing the symbols in your life for worth and dignity.
I was requested to tie Thanksgiving, in all of its folkways and religious history, to the wisdom of the first peoples and the circle of life…. the medicine wheel … the sacred hoop.
To cheerfully borrow the images and religious concepts of the first peoples is a dangerous gig for a middle aged white woman. Sure, as a Unitarian, I get a hall pass on acknowledging it as a source of religious inspiration, but I have a deep disquiet in me about approaching the subject without acknowledging the darkness in the relationships between whites and natives. So I will ask you this morning to do something hard, which is to ask for thankfulness in the face of long standing pain, misunderstanding and suffering caused mostly by white people on the first peoples of Canada.
There are a lot of people making a buck or political hay from the shaman shtick, and it’s not my plan to be one of them. Instead, I personally offer my thanks this day to aspects of first nations spirituality which have touched my life, my heart and my faithwalk. I represent no one but myself, and I can no more steal a spiritual truth for myself than I can give you imaginary measles. Truth is truth, wherever you stumble upon it, however you draw it from the travails of daily life or moments of contemplation or ecstasy — or pain.
In the back of our minds, on the fringes of the firelight, in the headlines, in the place names… in all of these junctions and crossroads, woven fine, are the first peoples of Canada. In the last week, we have seen three headlines which remind us that the first peoples are here, are here, are here, and will not be subsumed or vanish into our convenience.
The swearing in of Steven Point, the new BC Lieutenant Governor, being of high ceremony, I will mention first.
The first man to hold the post, Joseph Trutch, referred to First Nations people as “The ugliest and laziest I ever saw,” Steven Point said that he thought it was cosmic justice that the 28th Lieutenant Governor would be aboriginal. As for the racist murals on the walls of the Legislature, which were covered for the purposes of the ceremony, he said they didn’t bother him. May we profit as a people from his example.
I’m going to stop the headlines right there and insert a personal story.
Any family which has been in Canada more than 5 generations is guaranteed to be woven into the fabric of this land, not just in their nationality but in their bone and blood. A relative of mine who prefers not be named has a story about how he is bound, blood and bone, to the long history of Canada.
His Scottish/Irish great grandfather was a prominent and a wealthy man. He was a surgeon and physician with the Hudson’s Bay Company, and he married a woman who was half native and trained her to be a nurse. Unlike many Canadians my relative has access to records of what his great grandparents did, said, and worked on, from Hudson’s Bay Co records, Anglican clergy diaries, and records of various committees and legislatures.
My relative hastens to add that he didn’t do any of this research; his intrepid cousin did.
When he was about twelve years old, one evening while watching the movie Stagecoach on TV in the den, my relative found himself cheering for the cowboys. His father, reading the paper in his chair, poked his head over it long enough to say, “Ah, I think you’re rooting for the wrong side, kiddo!” which was a subtle hint that perhaps Scottish and Irish blood wasn’t the only DNA in their family equation.
His cousin went to visit the Gwich’in in the Yukon and found out that there, the story was a little different. “Oh, yeah, we know there’s some Scottish blood in there from some white people,” was how they put it. Nobody had ever tried to hide it. The Gwich’in don’t make a big fuss about who is and isn’t one of them. If you can prove you have Gwich’in ancestry, you’re in.
My relative cautioned me: don’t make assumptions about your identity. And don’t make assumptions about who you are, or are not, connected with. In the end we’re all connected… you may as well face it first as last. To be able to acknowledge your identity, in all of the myriad forms it takes, and to celebrate it, light and dark and speckled, is a matter of thanksgiving. I would ask you take to a moment to celebrate your identity.
The second headline is…. the Willie Pickton trial. Whatever you believe or don’t believe about the charges, I wish to draw something about the trial to your attention. Why did it take years and years for an investigation to bear results? As a community, it appears Canadians are not convinced that poor native women who may or not be drug addicted sex trade workers are worth worrying much about if they disappear off the street in quantity. It’s as if the consensus is, at least amongst the folks who first look at the evidence, that no humans were involved so we can all move along.
When we look at the story so far, we see the signs of a failure. That somebody killed all those women and enjoyed doing it seems pretty clear to me. Somebody slew these women, and he or they got away with it for so long that each murder merely confirmed that heinous slaughter of marginalized people was the will of us all. How else could one get away with it for so long? You can blame the incompetence of the police, but that’s really dodging the question. The question is a deep one, about the things that we as a people, a culture, pay attention to. Not just in the media, which may grab a few hours of our attention every day, but what’s going on in our entire lives and our daily lives as we live them. Let’s be thankful that justice has some scope now, and very very humbled that it took so very, so shamefully long.
The third headline is about hope. The government of BC has announced new financial support for the sustaining of the languages of the first peoples. I imagine there are folks that find this kind of government expenditure frivolous; I’m not one of them, because I consider the passage of a language from living to dead among the saddest events of human history. A dead language is often a monument to genocide, and I’m not using the word for it’s shock value, but for the long years of horror and misery that a dead language represents.
Language is a funny thing. The Catalan, the Gaels, the Lapps, the Navajo. They have all managed to hang on to their language and to a great extent their culture while at times facing war, resettlement, racism and globalization — the biggest threat of all, at least these days. Each group now has a substantial web presence, and wishes to encourage as many people to learn the languages as want to. To lose a language is to lose a human map of how the world looks, feels, smells, tastes and sounds. Let us be thankful this day that we are now less likely to lose a map of how it feels to live in the pacific northwest.
Today is a good day to be thankful for our many sources, one of them being: Spiritual teachings of Earth centered traditions which celebrate the sacred circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature.
I suppose if you’re living rough on the streets of Vancouver you’ll be in intimate contact with the rhythms of nature, especially with respect to hunger, weather and disease. The rest of us, mostly climate controlled and comfortable with only brief intervals of being exposed to the weather, need frequent reminders that it is hard to be properly thankful for things you haven’t noticed. To appreciate the circle of all existence requires that you stop and think about it as well as peacefully observe and dance and sing in it. Humans, for the most part, are not made for long contemplation. Not only does it reduce the amount of time for fun, or whatever you use your spare time for, I find that spending long periods of time thinking about the same thing is good way of turning into a fanatic. Or a bore. Or both.
I have to admit I feel guilt enter my conscience on a spearpoint when I think of how far away from the rhythms of nature I am in my daily life. It’s true that I get to walk through some woods on the way to work, so twice a day I learn what the weather is doing now; I can see snakes and juncos and Douglas squirrels and occasionally coyotes and blue herons and bald eagles and ravens, and I hear tell of bears but I’ve never seen one, and I feel like I’m on a first name basis with every slug in the lower Mainland. There’s a waterfall that makes a delightful sound when it’s raining very hard. If it sounds like paradise, that’s not far from the truth. It isn’t enough to reconnect me.
Nature’s cycles oscillate in different ways. You change many times in your life by force; nobody consults you about being born or growing or developing your gender identity; the choice is made for you and good or bad, the choice for you, lifeaffirming or soul destroying, governs who you are to your dying day. So you age, and spring, summer, fall and winter mean different things to you over the course of your life. Babies are born and grow in front of you. Their growth is so beautiful and so inspiring of reverent awe, if we but pay attention. To pay attention, you must be present. You won’t have much to be thankful for, if you don’t pay attention.
Abundance follows lack; life follows death; the sun heats the ground up and the puffy clouds form. The rhythms of nature, which I have so long shielded myself from, batter insistently against me. It seems that there are many people telling the truth and many telling fibs about global climate change; how am I supposed to prepare myself for the earth’s new rhythms if science doesn’t help me predict what course of action would be best? I am struggling with new information and predictions about this because this new information may tell me where I should be thinking about living in 10 years’ time, or what I can do to prepare for climate change if I keep living in Vancouver.
In one fast step we’ve left the ‘living in harmony with the rhythms of nature” pleasantries behind and wound up on the doorstep of science. It is true that religion provides a scheme for a human life, full of rituals, repetitions and rites of passage. It seems to me, however, that taking the concept of living in harmony with the rhythms of nature to a logical extreme means that you will be thinking very hard about the science of understanding it as well as the physical and spiritual aspects of harmony with nature. You can’t wreck nature by trying to understand her…. she’ll always be bigger than you are so graceful acknowledgement of this is a plus. And it doesn’t matter if you think of nature in materialist or spiritual terms… it’s always bigger than you, and not always in a pleasant way.
I think it makes sense to think of our whole earth in religious terms, or at least use the concept — to indeed have an earth centered tradition. Our earth is barely bigger than an imaginary object in cosmic terms, and yet it teems with life and variety so dense, and with brains so full of neural connections, that as tiny as it is, it’s somehow, at one and the same time, as big as the universe… because we can contemplate how big the universe is, and participate in the scale and grandeur of that knowledge. Let us be thankful that our ancestors grew brains so we could live in harmony with nature, not just as animals, but as thinking beings, and co-creators of the world.
I hope that you have allowed thankfulness to enter your being; that you are human, that you are connected with others, as your presence here shows; that you are free to worship as you see fit; that you are free to follow the rigorous path of science and reason and be a lamp to dark places; that we and our children have enough to eat; that the tap water is safe; that our homes are warm and bright. I hope that thankfulness will go with you wherever you go, so that you are inoculated against despair and fear. May it be so, now and always. Go in peace.
This homily was delivered Thanksgiving 2007.