As a teenager I spent six months in Mexico on a student exchange. The day I arrived, the family matriarch subjected me to a blatant physical inspection. She didn’t ask me to open my mouth to inspect my teeth, but I wouldn’t have been surprised if she had. I felt empathy with show horses. By a genetic fluke completely beyond my control, I am tall, fair-skinned and hazel-eyed, so I passed her inspection.
I didn’t know it at the time, but that family boasted of their Spanish conqueror heritage, mixed with a little Irish. Their Caucasian appearance set them apart from the Mexican First Nations people they deemed to be of a lower class. Some months later (when I could speak Spanish) they told me that if I had been of African or Asian descent they would have sent me back to Canada. They didn’t mention Aboriginal specifically, but I think it was implied.
In Bolivia, I experienced the same tensions between the Bolivian First Nations peoples and those who came later. The president, Evo Morales, is the country’s first democratically-elected president to come from the indigenous population. He actively promotes the rights of the country’s First Nations peoples.
My high school was located close to a Canadian First Nations reserve, so the students who lived there attended school with me. The separateness of their home created an “otherness,” and I never became close friends with anyone from that area. Mind you, I attended school when books might contain sentences like this one, found in one of my father’s textbooks: “Then black days settled over Montreal. It had been founded to bring the story of Christ to the Indians, but the Iroquois would not listen to the teachings of the missionaries. Instead the savages made life miserable for the French.”
This week, Truth and Reconciliation Commission events here in Ottawa highlighted the problem of people being damaged by others who saw them as “less than” or irrelevant. Not just dismissible, but in need of being dismissed. The unbalanced relationship created psychological trauma that will take generations to heal and a whole passel of legal, political and logistical issues that will take years to untangle.
“Reconciliation will be about ensuring that everything that we do today is aimed at that high standard, of restoring that balance to that relationship.” —Murray Sinclair, Chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada
As Murray Sinclair said, restoring the balance to the relationship seems to be the key, and that means cooperative, responsible action on both sides to change what desperately needs to be changed.
This story by poet, storyteller and Algonquin traditional teacher, Albert Dumont, is a poetic summary of where to go from here. I paraphrase his story from one he told at a writing workshop I attended.
Walking in the woods one day, a man saw a great white pine, ancient and majestic, but crooked and growing in an awkward direction. Looking around he could see no evidence of what could have caused the tree to grow in such a way. He asked the elder, with whom he was walking, “Why did that tree grow that way?” The elder replied, “Maybe when that tree was only two inches tall a person walked through the forest and stepped on it. The tree sprang back up after the passing footsteps but didn’t quite rebound to its previous straight self and instead grew on an angle. Then later, when the tree was just a little bigger, maybe a deer came along and lay down on the tree for a rest. When the deer was gone, the tree once again sprang back as well as it could but it was still crooked and some of the branches had been bent. The tree grew and recovered to the best of its ability into a great thing of beauty. But the evidence of past hurts is still evident, it could never fully return to a straight, unbent tree. But even with the evidence of past hurts, it is a powerful, magnificent, beautiful being.
We’re all in this together. The evidence of past hurts is there, but so is the power and magnificence.