Elders from across North America gather in Skidegate

  • Sep. 19, 2007 3:00 p.m.

By Judy McKinley”Unless the ice in the heart of man is melted, he will have a hard time to change and use his knowledge wisely.”These were the words of the grandmother of Angaangaq Lyberth, an Eskimo-Kalaallit elder from Greenland. He is one of the elders attending the Ancient Voices, Contemporary Context: A People’s Cross Cultural Forum held at the Q’ay’llnagaay Haida Heritage Centre this past Friday, Saturday and Sunday.Uncle, as everyone calls him, has a big drum and when he chants you can hear the voices of the ancestors he calls to be with the circle during his song.In 1978, he tells us, he dressed in a suit, took an (empty) briefcase, and went to the United Nations. He talked about the dangers to the earth of the way we were living, said we had to do something soon or else we would be in big trouble. They gave him a standing ovation. As a young man that made him feel pretty good when he went home to report to his elders. They weren’t as impressed.”But,” his grandmother asked him “did the message come along?””I was sad to say, no it didn’t,” he said. Then she told him: “You will have to learn to melt the ice in the heart of men.”Melting the hearts of men is one way to understand the mandate of this weekend’s cross-cultural dialogue. Participants and elders meet in person, sharing indigenous stories, experiencing the heart of the local community, and getting the “elder message” out. These grassroots spiritual leaders have been meeting since 1977, amongst themselves and speaking publicly, with financial and administrative support from the American Indian Institute. “It was strengthening, and rejuvenating, meeting with other traditional medicine people,” says Skidegate’s Diane Brown, who has been part of the circle for 31 years. “We would talk about the earth and our concern for it. We talked about global warming 25 years ago and it’s only now people are listening.”In 2005, the elders decided that there was need for a cross-cultural dialogue. “After all these years of prophecies of change in the earth,” says Guujaaw, leader of the Haida Nation and chair of the forum’s events, “the time of prophecy is over. People have to switch modes.””Indigenous people who are close to the land are the ones who are sounding the alarms and feeling the greatest impact,” continues Guujaaw.That is certainly true in Uncle’s home territory in Greenland. “There are thousand of rivers in Greenland now,” he says. Over one 12 month period the ice sank 45 metres. One bay has receded 30 miles, and a cliff of ice that was 5 kilometres high when he was a child is now only three.”No scientists would ever ask elders or native people themselves.” he says. They would just come for five weeks a year, and after two years, they were experts.This melting is caused by the activities of a global community. And it’s not only gas, says Uncle, “it’s also the rubber tires we use.” Toxins are carried northward by winds and currents.”The fish say “yum yum, Goodyear, yummy breakfast,” he says. Healthy traditional food, like beluga whale, is now a source of poison in an area that is not industrialized. It is risky, says Uncle, for Eskimo women to breastfeed their children. Leadership can come from those connected to their land. Participant Jim Grijalva is a lawyer from North Dakota who has studied the impact of protective environmental laws enacted by Indian Nations in the United States on their land. There, those laws can supersede federal law, which means that upstream can be protected by downstream statutes, literally and metaphorically.The leadership is also historical. Clan mother Frieda Diesling is of the Onondaga nation, one of the Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy, the Haudenosaunee. Facilitated by the highly respected leader known as the Peacemaker, they united under the Great Law of Peace. That Law, says Tom Porter-Sakokwenionkwas, a Mohawak elder and spiritual leader, was the template for the United States Constitution. “Hearing about the Peacemaker again has definitely been one of the highlights of this circle,” says youth participant Bobby Gore, who has traveled to Skidegate from Las Vegas, where he is an anthrolopology student at Northern Arizona University.Wayva Waterman is another youth, clan mother Diesling’s niece. “It’s amazing to be here, to experience Haida art, and Haida culture, and to see that Indian problems are the same,” she says. “We learn our language in school, but we don’t end up speaking it fluently.” She sees the same kind of struggle here.Common struggles have been another important factor in the meetings across nations. “It’s amazing to hear some of the stories in the States, that they had the same kind of programs,” says Guujaaw, referring to residential school.Tom Porter shares his story of the infamous Carlisle school, creating vivid pictures of his family. “I wish I had a picture of my grandfather when he came home,” he tells the circle. “He was wearing shiny patent shoes.”His grandfather was taken from his home when he was four, and didn’t return home until he was 21. When the children arrived school administrators cut their hair, until there was a mound of hair on the floor.When his grandfather returned home he soon married, and had 11 children. “He never once touched us, he said, never once held us on his lap, not like you with your son,” he said pointing to a participant and his son sitting together in front of him. “I’m envious of that. Not in a bad way, but you know.”Porter’s father left his mother with five children to raise. “She would hate it if I told you, but she worked so hard, and every six months or so she would go out with her friends, and when she came home that was the only time, the only time, she would say ‘I love you. I won’t let anything happen to you.’ She would squeeze us so tight. We didn’t like it, because there was the whiskey on her breath, but we did a bit, you know, because that’s the only time she said it.””I don’t hate the people at Carlisle,” he says, maybe they thought they were doing good. But they weren’t. My grandfather had 100 grandchildren. I try to hug my children, and my grandchildren, sometimes they say too much. But it’s hard for me. But I want to break the cycle.” The vision of the forum is that the kind of ripple effects that happened with Carlisle can happen in a different way. “All of those people will go back and we’ll see the response that will happen,” says Guujaaw. “It works in all different ways, some we don’t know.”But there were hints of how the forum, and being in Haida Gwaii, was already impacting in quiet ways. Forum members experienced cultural activities, which included community dinners, traditional Haida dancers, guided tours of Skidegate and the Heritage centre and launching and paddling the LooTaa.”This is an amazing, amazing place,” said Clark Sherman, who comes from Bozeman, Montana, “and being here you can see why you want to protect it.””People come here,” says Guujaaw, “because we are still fighting for the land, and our objective is to protect and restore the land. We recognize we’re not here in isolation. Success has depended on outside people. And it’s not that good if we succeed and the rest of the world is spoiled.””Huxta!!” shouts Andy Wilson from the stern of the LooTaa. He shows the group how to raise their paddles as they head into Skidegate, tapping on the gunwhales, greeting Chief Skidegate on his porch.Tom Porter closes his talk about Carlisle: “If grandmother, grandfather and all the chiefs that have gone by could see all the respect and quiet you have given us, they would cry.”