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All My Relations

“Truth-telling and Reconciling with Indigenous Peoples” is the name of the Reconciliation Studies program at SSU that was launched this fall. The name, and the program/curriculum that embodies it, was chosen after much consultation with Indigenous friends and leaders, near and far (and with awareness that the term “reconciliation” is problematic).

We’ve now just completed our first two week in-person module with a week of guest speakers as a part of the “Indigenous Sovereignty and the Colonial Legacy” course and then a week of land-based, experiential learning at Camp Chiputneticook for the “Wabanaki Nations, Decolonization, Reconciliation” course.

In this post, I’ll share a bit about the week on the land. Camp Chiputneticook is the name given to a historic hunting lodge on the Skutik (St. Croix) River by the Peskotomuhkati Nation when they acquired the property and began nursing it back to life. They generously invited us to use this camp for our land-based course, and we are most grateful for their friendship and their welcoming presence and Peskotomuhkati blessing at our program launch (on Monday, Oct. 17).

The course was taught by Opulahsomuwehs (Imelda) and David Perley, Wolastoqi elders with a long history of working in education and language development in NB. David’s teaching focused mostly on history, and his truth-telling took the form of sharing a cyclical view of history – moving from the different seasons that ranged from the “age of independence” before contact with Europeans to an “age of destruction” that came after an all-too-short age of relative reciprocity. After hearing about the painful truths of his own personal story and the longer stories of Wabanaki oppression and genocide, it was empowering to hear the hope that David carries, especially since the TRC (Truth and Reconciliation Commission) introduced possibilities that an “age of healing and revival” for his people may truly be coming.

“The time at the camp was so eye opening and such a gift to me. To be exposed to so much knowledge and ceremony in such a short span of time is something special.” – Brent Bilsky

With the teaching of Opulahsomuwehs, we gained an experiential taste of what this could mean. We were introduced to the language and ceremony that are helping Wabanaki youth and adults to reconnect to their heritage, regaining lost meaning and strength. With daily smudging or water ceremonies, or David’s leading us in talking circles, we learned about respectful ways of listening to each other and knowing our interconnections with all the natural world.

Most unique and powerful, however, was the day that we spent under their instruction constructing a sweatlodge from scratch on the shores of the Skutik. We dug a central pit and then gathered alder branches and built the frame, which we covered with blankets and tarps. We built a large ceremonial fire around 21 “grandfathers” (the rocks that would be used to heat the sweatlodge after they became literally red hot). Every step was infused with respect and connection, pinches of tobacco reminding us that we were taking nothing for granted.

Later, in the full darkness of lodge, the heated grandfathers were carried in; water and various “medicines” (sweetgrass, bear root) were applied to fill the “womb” with cleansing heat while Opulahsomuwehs led us in various rounds of sharing what was emerging in our thoughts during this time.

We emerged from the sweatlodge in time for a beautiful misty sunset over the Skutik River.

Most of us participating were not Indigenous ourselves, and the point of experiencing these ceremonies was not to learn how to make them a regular part of our lives. But gaining a firsthand sense of the value and meaning of these practices helps us prepare for more respectful and supportive relationship – far different from the spiritual harm done in earlier generations when Indigenous spirituality was looked at with suspicion, labelled as evil, or banned outright. And for those present who did have some Indigenous heritage – from which they were often disconnected – there was an awakening of possibility and appreciation.

“Opolahsomuwehs and David Perley are excellent teachers, creating space for anyone from anywhere to learn and share honestly and authentically. They do this by modelling it. This week has been very impacting, altering how I will work for truth and reconcili-action within my city, province and country. Exciting times ahead.” – Amanda Leighton

After every turn of sharing in a talking circle, we were invited to say, “All my relations” (or for the adventurous “Psiw Ntolnapemok” in the Wolastoqey language). This was a fitting theme for the whole week – experiencing a respectful immersion into a world in which we are all more inter-connected with the whole natural and spiritual world in spite of our various roots or heritage. If you’re interested, join our next cohort (credit or audit) – tentatively scheduled for fall, 2023.



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