National Indigenous Peoples Day  

Philippians 4: 8-9

That might not have been the passage you were expecting to hear today on this National Indigenous Peoples Day when the scourge of racism continues to headline the news and is troubling our hearts these days, and even our nights.

“Whatever is true, honourable, pleasing, commendable, if there is any excellence, anything worthy of praise” … what kind of tone deaf intrusion is that? you might be wondering!  And we would be right to wonder.

But there’s another story to be told.  Many of them. And that’s where I feel drawn to go today, not to drown out the unthinkable acts of violence, past and present;  not to pretend it otherwise or even have us for a moment forget.  But the very opposite … that the stories of the commendable, the praiseworthy   would to stir us up all the more, to open our ears more keenly to the cries of alarm, and increase our sense of urgency, to be part of the agitation, the transformation … to be ourselves transformed.

Some of what is stirring in me this morning are a couple of unforgettable encounters Bev and I had, 5 years ago now, as we made our way that August to Haida Gwaii.    Several of these encounters happened in Heritage Centres, with guides who toured us about in these splendid architectural structures … magnificent buildings with floor to ceiling windows, allowing for the surrounding land and seascapes to be an integral part of the experience. 

And so there was Kayla who took us through the Nisga’a Museum … a delightful young woman who, as we asked more questions, moved off her spiel and was eager to engage with us … full of stories and explanations, and a deep appreciation for the incredible craftsmanship, ingenuity, beauty and power of her peoples work.   Before we finished the tour we discovered she was a student of Anthropology at UNBC, home for the summer. Here she was eagerly learning, envisioning the day she would return home to stay, filled with pride in her heritage,  enlivened by all that her people were reclaiming.  We could see it as she spoke … this young woman growing into a powerful wisdom carrier, a leader in her community.

Four days later in Skidigate, in the Haida Heritage Centre and Museum we met Troy, 11 years old, giving his second tour … not the second of the day but the second tour he’d ever done!   Articulate, confident, knowledgeable .  His specialty was the weaving tour … how the cedar bark is stripped off the tree and prepared … the making of hats, baskets, containers for hauling water … fine, intricate, detailed  work.  At one point, he couldn’t resist telling us, “these ones,” he said, “were made by my grandmother.”  No wonder he was so connected to and proud of,  lit up by what he was showing us.   Here was Troy, learning, and proudly claiming his heritage, his people’s practices, his people’s way.

Kayla and Troy, just 2 of the many people we met of this younger generation who are reclaiming the goodness and seeing a future informed by and grounded in the richness of their indigenous heritage.

“Whatever is true, honourable, whatever is pleasing, commendable … if there is any excellence, anything worthy of praise …think on these things!”

"The crows see me coming across the field, a woman with a basket,” writes Robin Wall Kimmerer … that mother, scientist, Professor of Environmental Biology, the founder and director of the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment , member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. On the other side of a cobble stone wall from the field, she steps into the forest, whose floor is rich with growth.  “The dense patches of leeks are among the first to appear in the spring, their green so vivid that they signal like a neon sign:  Pick Me!

“I resist the urge,” she writes, “to answer their call immediately and instead address the plants the way I’ve been taught:  introducing myself in case they’ve forgotten, even though we’ve been meeting like this for years.  I explain why I’ve come and ask their permission to harvest, inquiring politely if they would be willing to share.

“Eating leeks is a spring tonic,” she continues, “that blurs the lines between food and medicine.  It wakens the body from its winter lassitude and quickens the blood.   But I have another need, too, that only greens from this particular woods can satisfy.  Both of my daughters will be home for the weekend from the far places where they live. I ask these leeks to renew the bonds between this ground and my children, so that they will always carry the substance of home in the mineral of their bones. …

I dig my trowel in and around the edge of the clump, but they’re deeply rooted and tightly packed, resisting my efforts … but at last I pry out a clump and shake away the dark earth.  I expected a cluster of fat white bulbs, but in their place I find ragged papery sheathes where the bulbs should be.  Withered and flaccid, they look as if all the juice has already been sucked out of them.  Which it has.  If you ask permission, you have to listen to the answer. I tuck them back in the soil and go home. …

If we are fully awake, a moral question arises as we extinguish the other lives around us on behalf of our own.  Whether we are digging wild leeks or going to the mall, how do we consume in a way that does justice to the lives that we take?

In our oldest stories, we are reminded that this was a question of profound concern for our ancestors.  When we rely deeply on other lives, there is urgency to protect them.  …

A few weeks later she returns to the forest, basket in hand. 

“The leeks today are twice the size they were on my first visit,” she writes. “and the scent of onions is strong where a deer has bruised the leaves. I pass by the first clump and kneel by the second.  Once again I quietly ask permission.   Asking permission shows respect for the personhood of the plant, but it is also an assessment of the well-being of the population. Thus I must use both sides of my brain to listen to the answer. The analytic left reads the empirical signs to judge whether the population is large and healthy enough to sustain a harvest, whether it has enough to share.  The intuitive right hemisphere is reading something else, a sense of generosity,  an open-handed radiance that says take me,  or sometimes a tight-lipped recalcitrance that makes me put my trowel away. I can’t explain it, but it is a kind of knowing that is for me just as compelling as a no-trespassing sign.   This time when I push my trowel deep I come up with a thick cluster of gleaming white bulbs, plump, slippery, and aromatic.  I hear yes, so I make a gift  from the soft old tobacco pouch in my pocket and begin to dig. …

While a sharp shovel would make digging more efficient, the truth is that it makes the work too fast.  If I could get all the leeks I needed in five minutes, I’d lose that time on my knees watching the ginger poke up and listening to the oriole that has just returned home.  This is truly a choice for ”slow food.”  Besides, that simple shift in technology would also make it easy to slice through neighbouring plants and take too much. Woods throughout the country are losing their leeks to harvesters who love them to extinction.  The difficulty of digging is an important constraint.  Not everything should be convenient. …

Collectively, the indigenous canon of principles and practices that govern the exchange of life for life is known as the Honourable Harvest.  They are rules of sorts that govern our taking, shape our relationships with the natural world, and rein in our tendency to consume – that the world might be as rich for the 7th generation as it is for our own.”[1] 

There it is again, isn’t it … “Whatever is true, honourable, whatever is pleasing, commendable … if there is any excellence, anything worthy of praise …think on these things!”

It’s that wisdom and the practice of the Honourable Harvest that we see at work in the heart of Lyell Island story.  Do you remember that story?  It was 1985 and the Haida people had had enough.  The terrible scarring of the mountainsides and the endless parade of barge after barge after barge shipping out enormous loads of old growth logs … the people knew they had to stop it. It wasn’t just that all this was being taken from their land.  And it wasn’t just that there was no hint of restraint. It wasn’t just what this was doing to them.  It was also their awareness of the impact far more widely … they were witnessing the destruction of the planet’s lungs.  And so they took a stand …arm in arm blocking the logging road, young people and elders together … undergirded by the teaching of the elders:  that “when we rely deeply on other lives, there is urgency to protect them.” 

These people were in it for the long haul and fully prepared to go to the wall.  Over the course of months arrests were made … the elders insisting they be the ones hauled off in place of the younger people. In time word got out about what was happening, and the world got it … and people came from far and wide to stand with the Haida people. 

The logging was stopped on Lyell Island … and after some years of negotiation, Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve was established … and by 1993 an agreement was signed by the Government of Canada and the Council of the Haida Nation to co-operatively manage the Reserve. Twenty years later a pole was raised on the shores of Lyell Island’s  Windy Bay celebrating the anniversary of this agreement … the first pole raised in Gwaii Haanas in 130 years. 

Natasha was our guide the morning Bev and I visited Windy Bay.  She was one of the Watchman on the island … there to welcome visitors and to protect the island.  Right there on the beach, she told us the Lyell Island story as she interpreted the pole for us.  The deep commitment to protect, the sturdiness of the elders, the power of the collective action … it all came through her as she told it, it was part of her  even though the events happened 10 years and more before her birth.

“Whatever is true, honourable, whatever is pleasing, commendable … if there is any excellence, anything worthy of praise …think on these things!”

Surely this is a day for thanksgiving … and more than thanksgiving.

Imagine if indigenous knowledge, wisdom, practices and law were given respect …  given room to breathe again, to thrive, to flourish, to teach, to lead.

Not just because we are at such a critical moment in the life of our country and the life of the planet, but we are!  So much is at stake.  And there is so much for us to receive. 

May the Spirit’s burning passion for justice and joy, for abundant life for all move us …  move through us, and move us forward in a good way.

[1] Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass, Milkweed Editions, Canada, 2013, p175-180