Sunday, March 31, 2013

Come Join in the Dance- Part 2- Canada

I was born, the descendant of Irish/English immigrants, in Whitehorse, Yukon in 1960 and moved 6 months later. Then in 1966 my family  returned to the  north, to live in Watson Lake, Yukon.  My father was the Baptist Church minister in Watson Lake and in the Kaska First Nations reserve at Upper Liard. I have some faint memories of that time: a photo of us standing by a butchered moose that was being shared with our family, visiting families on the reserve, attending a school with white and indigenous children and the cold. I  have distinct memories of -60 F which translates to -51 C. We bundled up and went to school anyway. I don't have any memories of pow wows, round dances or drums. I am not sure why.
For my readers who are not in Canada here is a map. The Yukon is in the far left at the top. Whitehorse and Watson Lake are marked.
This is the church in Watson Lake. We lived behind it in a little house.
Me, sister Jane and brother David in front of our house.
 I was pretty proud of my beginnings in the Yukon. Not many people can lay claim to being a "sourdough" [a person who has lived at least one cycle of 4 seasons in the Yukon]. I  also thought that I knew quite a bit about the First Nations people.
I married and had two children and then in 2002 we moved to London, UK for seven years. We returned to Canada to live in Winnipeg, the city which is home to the largest urban indigenous population in Canada. I was not happy with my reaction as I walked the streets in the centre of the city. I now was fearful , apprehensive and not comforable at all. I challenged myself to spend time learning. Learning about my indigenous neighbours: about their beliefs, culture and situation.
Soon after my return Winnipeg was the site for the first event of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.[ Over 130 residential schools were located across Canada from 1870's to 1996. These government-funded, church-run schools were set up to eliminate parental involvement in the intellectual, cultural, and spiritual development of Aboriginal children. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada has a mandate to learn the truth about what happened in the residential schools and to inform all Canadians about what happened in the schools.] My daughter and I went down to " The Forks". This is a historical site  that has been the meeting place of Aboriginal groups for thousands of years. In June 2010 it was the scene of tents and tipis, many indigenous people and many non-indigenous people as well.
That day I learned so much more than I imagined. I saw a map of residential schools in the Yukon and discovered that I had visited one as a child. I read records from schools across Canada and found that my new Mennonite denomination had a part to play. I sat and listened to a public story-telling circle as 20 people poured out their stories of grief and I heard the voices of heart-broken children coming from the bodies of grown adults. I wept, while feeling shame that me, a white woman, was so
distraught. I felt comfort as a First Nations woman came and offered me a smudge of sage smoke and to sit with me. On those days the rain poured down and many people expressed that it was a symbol of the grief and trauma that was being voiced, some for the first time.
On the last day of the event a Pow Wow was planned. This  is a time of dance and competition where  Aboriginal culture is celebrated. The sun finally shone and people gathered to watch and to participate. Many watchers  pointed  with awe at a huge eagle flying over the open field while an elder opened with a prayer.This was a very important sign for the event.  The Grand Entry was marvelous with beautiful regalia (traditional ceremonial clothing) and people of all ages joining together to celebrate.
At a pow wow various dances are announced, such as " all men in regalia can particpate in this dance", or "this one is for the children". When the leader said, "this dance is for everyone- you don't have to be in regalia", I assumed that meant it was for all indigenous people, whether or not they were dressed in finery or not. But he kept repeating it, urging others to join. I looked around. Surely, he did not mean anyone such as me. I did not want to do anything wrong- to intrude in a way that was not appropriate. But they kept announcing and urging, I looked over at some non-indigenous friends and they were getting  out of their lawn chairs and lining up to join the dance. I took the chance. It seemed that I was being invited too. The drum beat captured my heart and body and I entered into the dance.

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