An Excerpt from “The Gatherings: Reimagining Indigenous-Settler Relations”

Yesterday, we hosted the book launch of The Gatherings: Reimagining Indigenous-Settler Relations. The book tells the incredible story of how Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples came together in Wabanaki territory to explore some of the most pressing questions at the heart of Truth and Healing efforts in the United States and Canada.

Click on the video to watch the launch above as the co-authors share their experiences of the meetings and open up on what they learned during the process.

We’re also sharing an excerpt from one of the chapters of the book which talks about the preparation that goes into one of the Gatherings.

***

Preparing

I am driving north. For the past several days I have been amassing camping equipment, throwing not-to-be-forgotten items into a duffle bag, shopping, baking, and talking for hours on the phone. The phone calls have been mostly with non-Natives who have expressed an interest in attending a Gathering for the first time. Since our decision to meet in a traditional Council format, around the Fire, we have been strict about preparing first-timers. We want to make sure they understand that this Gathering is about forming relationships and creating alliances, and not primarily about experiencing Native ceremonies.

People find out about the Gatherings through word of mouth. I send out invitations to those who have previously attended, announcing the date and location, and say that if they want to bring someone new they need to prepare them. Often, they suggest that the newcomer call me. When they do, I carefully explain the taboo of cultural appropriation, and that under no circumstances should they take what they experience at the Gathering and share it with others for financial gain or self-promotion. “If you were to attend a Catholic service for the first time,” I ask, “would you feel qualified to go out and conduct a mass?”

The invitation reads, “This is our [sixth, seventh, etc.] Gathering in the Gulf of Maine Bioregion, the region corresponding to the Wabanaki Confederacy. We meet to continue to strengthen our friendships and to support one another’s lives and work.” The invitation also has an important, sometimes surprising, statement: “It is strongly requested that you abstain from all alcohol and non-medicinal drugs for at least four days prior to, during, and four days after the weekend, both in order to be fully present at the ceremonies and Council meetings, and out of respect for traditional ways.” This is a critical request made by our Wabanaki participants. Alcohol and drugs have had a devastating effect in Indigenous communities, a consequence of poverty, oppression, and trauma. Some of the Indigenous Elders involved in the Gatherings have had their own brushes with alcoholism and drug abuse, and made conscious decisions to alter their course and become role models for others. Often, their reconnection with their own Indigenous traditions has been their path to recovery. It is in solidarity with their struggle, and with the struggle of many Indigenous people, that everyone abstains, but there is something deeper as well. We are told – and the non-Natives among us take this mostly on faith – that any drug or alcohol use, even several days prior to or after our Gathering, would interfere with the experiences, and integration, of the ceremonies that we will participate in together.

In my phone calls I also deliver another message to the women: women who are experiencing their Moon Time, or menstrual cycle, are asked not to participate in the ceremonies or in the Talking Circles, which are held around the Sacred Fire. They are still welcome to attend the Gathering, to socialize, and to listen to discussions from outside the Circle. This is a conflicting task for me, and I deliver this message out of respect for the relationship I have with our Wabanaki attendees, rather than from any real understanding or even agreement. I repeat what I have been told by several of the Native participants: that this tradition is based on a profound respect and reverence for the power of women at this time (of menstruation) and that, traditionally, women experiencing their Moon Time would have had their own time together in a separate women’s lodge. Still, for the non- Native women who, like myself, have spent most of our lives fighting to be included in important matters, this is tough to swallow.[1]

Wabanaki participants, as well as non-Natives, have come and gone from our Gatherings, but there is now a core group of us who are attending regularly. Even with our increasing familiarity with one another, and growing trust, there are countless moments of uncertainty and anxiety in our encounters. I constantly seem, to myself, to be too loud, or talking too much. In phone conversations with gkisedtanamoogk, I keep reminding myself to “wait … wait …” for him to respond before I go barreling into my next sentence. I have come to understand that his pauses are due to the fact that he is actually listening to, and pondering, my words before he responds – a manner of communication I’m not used to in my everyday hurried interactions.

We charge no fee for attending a Gathering, and use funds raised by the Center for Vision and Policy to cover costs. It is important, especially to ensure the attendance of some Wabanaki participants, that we offer to help with travel expenses. We come from disparate and unequal financial circumstances that, we all recognize, are rooted in the historical injustices of our original relationship, and so it is more often the Wabanaki members of our group who need travel funds in order to join us. At times, people come when they have just enough money to get to the Gathering but not enough to get home.

Of course, not all Wabanaki need or want travel expenses, but our sharing of resources, when it is helpful, is also out of respect for, and in support of, the work that our Native participants, many of them already considered Elders, do in the world. Many Indigenous Elders are often asked to travel in support of other tribal members in need, and the expenses they incur may be beyond their means but they respond anyway. Also, well known Elders are often asked by non-Natives to be part of events, symposiums, and the like, but because they don’t have the requisite titles or degrees, sometimes they are not paid as much as other “experts,” or are given only travel reimbursement but no honorarium, while they share the stage with “professionals” who draw more-than-adequate salaries.

How we acknowledge and respond to our different needs without incurring resentment or embarrassment, and without perpetuating “haves” and “have-nots” in our own group, is a delicate dance to which I never quite know the steps until I’m doing it. In non-Native culture, someone’s giving you money because you need it is usually a cause for shame. In Native cultures, the concept that “what is good for one is good for the whole community” still seems ingrained. You share what you have because that is what you do.

A contribution to a Wabanaki participant is generally received gratefully but without much comment or fanfare, possibly because of the trust and understanding that now exists among our group, but possibly a reflection of Native culture as well. A particular moment comes to mind: I was once at an outdoor musical event where we were all sitting on blankets in the grass. To get a little more comfortable, I shifted to lie face down and stretch out. A Native woman next to me, whom I didn’t know, reached over and, almost automatically, pulled my blanket up and over my back. “Thank you,” I said. She hesitated. “In my culture,” she said, “we don’t say thank you. We just do for each other.”

When I arrive at a Gathering, because I am now the designated “coordinator” of these events, and an incurable organizer, I am filled with questions for our host: “Where would you like people to set up?” “What time should we plan on dinner tonight?” “I heard drummers might be coming, have you heard from them?” and so on, and on. If our host for that Gathering is Wabanaki, I typically receive patient looks and indefinite answers: “I’m not sure.” “We’ll see.” “We’ll/they’ll figure it out.”

It always takes a while for me to get my bearings, to remember that things will happen without, or maybe in spite of, my fretting. Circles will begin, and end, when the time is right. Meals get prepared, dishes washed. The days take on a dreamlike quality and, usually after the first day, I feel myself begin to relax into a rhythm. As I relax, I start to take some risks. I walk up to a Native woman I’ve not met and introduce myself, although I’m aware I’ve never had a Native person do this to me. Because this is my way, I’m trying to learn to act naturally in hopes that the intention, at least, will be understood.

The leadership of the Gatherings is now shared between gkisedtanamoogk and me – my role being logistical, his role rooted in his ceremonial responsibilities. He is the one who lights the Sacred Fire at the beginning of each weekend. He conducts the ceremonies and opens the Talking Circles. We consult on the planning involved in every Gathering and, during Gatherings, often debrief at the end of each day. After a time, I feel I can ask him anything, check out assumptions, make mistakes and apologize.

On a few occasions, I crawl into my tent on the first evening aware that he has not yet arrived. I lie in my sleeping bag anxiously wondering how we will proceed the next day if he doesn’t show. On these nights, I review all my doubts about this improbable undertaking and finally fall asleep only from the fatigue of traveling. Without fail, we are all awakened, much too soon, by gkisedtanamoogk’s voice outside the tents, “time to get up” – a gentle call with the hint of a grin at rousing us at such an outlandish hour. His presence means that he has driven through the night in order to reach us, possibly catching only a couple of hours’ sleep in his truck before getting up to prepare himself for First Light.

For me, it is in the First Light ceremony each morning where I can feel the bond among us being woven: our Circle around the Fire growing as, one by one, we creep from our tents to stand patiently waiting to be smudged as a smoldering sweetgrass braid slowly makes its way around; hearing the different timbres of voices as prayers are offered to the Fire, prayers that are accompanied with pinches of tobacco to aid their transit to the Creator; the mingling of Mi’kmaq and Passamaquoddy, Penobscot, Maliseet, and Wampanoag with English; the final sipping from a common bowl of water – our Mother – and the spiral of hugs at the end that gets fairly boisterous, with much teasing and laughter, as we relax after such prolonged concentration.

That sense of unity carries over to our first Talking Circle of the day. After breakfast, and a little time for a short nap, since First Light is so early, we gather. gkisedtanamoogk opens with prayers in his language. He greets the Ancestors and the Spirits from the Four Directions, asking for their support and guidance in our deliberations. He picks up the Talking Stick from beside the Fire and begins to speak to us about the protocol of being in the Circle, about how a Council such as this one is traditionally conducted. This is not a debate or dialogue where one speaks directly to, or contradicts, someone else in the Circle. Rather, it is a sacred sharing into the Circle of what is deepest in one’s heart or uppermost on one’s mind. There are no rules or expectations about what to say. The message can be personal or political, or both. One may speak or pass. If one chooses to pass, the Stick will come around again for another chance. He looks around for an indication from someone that they would like to begin.

I am surprised by the depth of the personal revelations that are offered right away, even in the first Talking Circle of the weekend, by many of the Native participants – family troubles, past struggles with addiction, testimonies about how they came to follow the “Red Road.” The level of trust that this degree of sharing assumes in a group that has yet to gel, and in which there are still many strangers, is touching, and I attribute this ease of personal revelation to the comfort they must feel speaking in a format they are used to. It takes a while, and more revolutions of the Talking Stick, for more pointed remarks to be made. gkisedtanamoogk, possibly more aware than others that he is among friends, often takes the lead in bringing up our peoples’ past history and ongoing injustices – a more political view. Once he does, others test the waters. Anger emerges as stories of discrimination and humiliation are shared. None of the non- Natives defend themselves, or leave. We stay, and listen.

Because of the sense of reverence established in the Circles, over time it begins to feel safe to say anything. Initially, many of us non- Natives hold back, not wanting to take up space as we usually do. Slowly, our stories begin to find voice – reflections on our privileges in this culture, as well as our own experiences of oppression. There has been a lot of talk from the Wabanaki participants about “the system” – that amalgamation of US and Canadian policy and capitalism that, in their analysis, serves to keep their communities dependent and make economic development and sovereignty such elusive goals. What is not so evident in the beginning of the Gatherings, but begins to reveal itself over time, is how we non- Natives are impacted by the system as well. The effects of these impacts are subtler, less tangible perhaps, but their acknowledgment becomes increasingly painful.

We non-Natives begin to view the realities of our modern lives – how distanced most of us are from friends and extended family, how rigidly our lives are run by job expectations and schedules – in contrast to the sustaining and nurturing elements of traditional Indigenous culture. Perhaps most significant and painful is that many of us long for a deeper connection to the Earth and to a sense of spiritual presence in our lives. Our Wabanaki friends, in spite of five hundred years of colonization, decimation, poverty, and all manner of attempts to annihilate their culture, seem to have retained a community life that still supports them, strong family networks, and a sense of the importance of the present over endless future planning and schedules. Their traditions, in spite of everything, seem to provide them with a spiritual awareness and depth, rooted in a strong personal relationship to the Earth, that many of us envy. Standing in this gap between longing for a deeper spiritual life, especially in relationship to the Earth, while not wanting to appropriate their culture leaves me with many conflicting emotions and unsatisfactory solutions.

It is now thirty years later, and fourteen of us – seven Wabanaki and seven non-Native – have come together to share our experiences of those Gatherings all those years ago – how we were changed, what we learned, how our lives have been impacted since. Each of our stories is unique, yet we believe that, collectively, they contain lessons relevant to the issues that confront us all today, and help us to envision a shared, mutually beneficial future. We invite you to join us in the Circle as we each, once again, pick up the Talking Stick.

***

[1]It is important to emphasize that the opportunity to participate in these Council Circles was by invitation of the Wabanaki, with the Wabanaki as the initiators and leaders of the ceremonial aspects of our Gatherings. Native people may or may not want to include non-Natives in ceremonies associated with gatherings or alliances, and non-Natives should not expect or seek this experience. While participants felt that our meetings were greatly aided by the way in which we met, many traditions contain the general principles we utilized. There are many ways to meet and dialogue that do not involve Indigenous ceremonial practices.

Click here to read an excerpt from the introduction of the book.

Find out more about The Gatherings: Reimagining Indigenous-Settler Relations.

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