Saturday, January 14, 2017

Can Indigenous Spirituality Save the Planet, Save Us All?

The agitated middle-aged Indigenous man wasn’t angry, but he was loud.

Very loud.

He was also in the middle of Smith St. in downtown Winnipeg, shouting as he walked among the cars stopped at a stoplight, bemoaning the fate of Indigenous people in Canada today.

“Look what Canada did to us!” he yelled. “Look at what they stole!”

When the light changed, and traffic started to move, he left the street. He wandered over to the sidewalk where I was standing, waiting for my ride home.

“We had so much land before the Europeans came,” he shouted at me. “Now look at us, squeezed into tiny reservations.”

I introduced myself, and he quieted down. I asked his name. George, he said. His name was George.

“The land,” he said. “They stole our land. Just think if we still had that land, and you paid taxes to live on it!”

And with that he gestured broadly around him, pointing at the office towers and other buildings in downtown Winnipeg.

I told George I agreed with him—a great injustice had been done to Indigenous people in Canada. Together we agreed it was time to renew and restore our relationship as Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians, and also to make peace with the land—to restore our relationship with the earth. But how?

Before we came up with any answers, my ride arrived. George thanked me for the conversation. “You’re the first person to listen to me,” he said as I shook his hand goodbye.

It’s been four months since that chance encounter, but it has stayed with me.

Across North America, Indigenous people like George are crying out—about the state of the land, the air and the water, about missing and murdered women, about poverty, poor housing on reserves, and about the tragedy of residential schools.

Are we listening?

I know I am trying.  I especially tried hard to listen in December, when thousands of Indigenous people and others gathered at the Standing Rock Sioux reservation in North Dakota.

For months, the Standing Rock Sioux protested the construction of a pipeline across their territory, saying it would endanger their source of water.

For a long time, it appeared that nobody was listening. But then something amazing happened: The U.S. government ordered an environmental impact review, and agreed to consider alternate routes for the pipeline.

As I listened to reports about the protest, the thing that struck me was how deeply spiritual it was. The protest camp was filled with prayer: communal prayers in the morning and evening and at mealtimes, and prayers in vigils and songs.

As Standing Rock tribal councilman Dana Yellow Fat said: “We began this with prayer, and we look at this whole movement as a ceremony. It began with prayers before we left, and in the end, it will close with prayers . . . we’re fighting the pipeline with prayer.”

Added Pua Case, an Indigenous woman from Hawaii who was part of the protest: “Standing Rock is a prayer camp. It’s where prayers are done.”

For Caro Gonzales, also at the camp, spirituality at Standing Rock wasn’t “a side effect” at the protest, but a “crucial driving force” behind the activism.

Jack Jenkins, a reporter who visited the camp, noticed this, too. Standing Rock, he wrote, gave witness to “an emerging Indigenous spiritual movement that is sweeping North America.”

In an article titled “The growing indigenous spiritual movement that could save the planet,” he added that spirituality “is a core mobilizing and stabilizing force” for the protest.

Maybe he’s right. Maybe movements led by Indigenous people like at Standing Rock can help save the planet. Just as Christian revivals, called “awakenings,” swept parts of North America in the eighteenth through twentieth centuries, maybe Indigenous-led or inspired protests in Canada and the U.S. can bring their own form of revival today.

Maybe they can help us all, no matter what faith we belong to, find new ways to be restored to each other, to the planet, and to God.

Maybe—but only if we listen.

From the Jan. 14, 2016 Winnipeg Free Press

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