It was the November gathering of the Thrivability Montreal conversation series. Close to 40 of us had gathered in Kahnawake, a Mohawk territory just outside Montreal. We had the rare privilege of being invited to a local Longhouse to learn about indigenous perspectives on leadership. It was an evening of storytelling, traditional dance and emotion. And it’s taken me more than a month to sort out my thoughts about it.
The speakers were two community leaders, each with different but complementary messages. First, we heard from Kevin Deer, an elder, faith keeper and Principal of a Mohawk immersion school. We were immediately captivated by his tales of traditional wisdom. There were benches around the edge of the room, but most of us lounged on cushions and blankets on the floor, feeling like contented children, entranced during storytime. The stories all featured animals, and each held a lesson – about the leader’s need for humility, for example, or of the need to do the right thing regardless of pressure from others.
Then Kevin (whose Mohawk name is Kanahsohon) touched on the indigenous worldview of deep connection with Mother Earth and all creation. He talked about the tragedies his people have suffered at the hands of white people and, eventually, at their own hands as they assimilated the shame fed to them by their oppressors. His own life had been filled with shame and self-inflicted pain, he explained, but at a critical turning point he reconnected with his heritage. In the process, he came to see that, as he said with an affably triumphant smile, “I’m beautiful!” If each of us can connect with the knowledge of our deep belonging to the Earth, he said, then we too will see that, “You’re beautiful. You’re a gift to the world.” His leadership within his community is dedicated to helping more of his people rediscover that view.
He ended with a mixture of warning and hope: in failing to recognize the sacredness and integrality of all life, white people have created environmental and social disaster. Now, to heal the damage done, we need the wisdom that indigenous people have traditionally held. “If the Indian disappears from the Earth,” Kevin warned, “the white man won’t be far behind.” Despite the ominous admonition, what I heard in his comments was hope, not only that we can work together to find a sustainable way forward, but that native people can finally find respect from white people – and, more importantly, that they can regain it for themselves.
The second speaker was Steven Bonspille, a former elected Grand Chief of a sister community called Kanesatake. Steven talked about the division and confusion created by the Canadian government’s imposition of a majority-rules governance system, which pushed aside the traditional Clan Mothers system and consensus-based decision-making. (“The Canadian government never could understand consensus,” he said.) He shared the difficulty of his decision to run for elected office: the elders in his community warned him that he would be stepping into the world of the white people, and he could never come back. “You can’t have one foot in each canoe,” they said. “You have to choose.” And as much as he tried to integrate traditional perspectives into his leadership – bringing tribal elders into governance meetings, for example – in the end he said he lost something of himself and his roots along the way. For the most part, he regretted the decision to step into the white man’s canoe.
And yet, we were inspired by his stories of leadership. As an ordinary citizen, he went door-to-door to gather close to 400 signatures in opposition to a proposed mining project. He presented the signatures to the current chief, who said he had no plans to go to the upcoming public hearing. So Steven went, presenting the signatures himself. “Who are you?” the mining company asked. “You have no authority here.” “I’m here representing the voice of my people,” he said. Throughout his stories, it was clear that this was the view of leadership he carried forward – championing the best interests of the community, rather than his own interests or agenda.
After a brief question-and-answer period, Kevin led us in two traditional dances – which were surprisingly fun. We danced to the beat of a small water drum. It contained all the elements of the Earth, Kevin explained, blowing into it to give it the final element – a sacred breath. He went on to say that this beat connected us with the original beat we heard within our mother’s womb, and with the rhythm of the Earth itself. The dances, the cadence and our laughter created a strong sense of unity within our group, as well as a sacredness that lay lightly and naturally on us.
The evening left me – and others – with a mix of emotions. I felt humbled and also excited by the immense value of the wisdom both men touched on, and agitated by the urgent need to bring it to light in the world. My heart ached at the pain suffered for centuries by the keepers of that wisdom. And my mind struggled with the challenge that those keepers have nearly lost touch with the wisdom themselves. There is no fairytale place remaining where non-native people can go to soak up the insights we need.
So here’s the bind we’re all in: non-native people can’t look to indigenous people to help us out of the mess we’re in – most of them are struggling too much themselves. And why would they want to help us, really? If we try to help them, out of charity or out of our own self-interest, they won’t gain the self-determination and self-respect they need to revive the dying embers of their traditional wisdom. They have to help themselves. But, paradoxically, they can’t do it without our involvement, since in large part it’s the system imposed by white people that keeps them down.
The answer seems to be that we have to find a way forward together, as equals, each valuing the other as a beautiful gift to the world. It’s as if we have to build a third canoe, large enough to hold the first two. We have to come to see that, as Martin Luther King, Jr. said, ”We may have all come on different ships, but we’re in the same boat now.”
The perspectives we heard about that night are closely aligned with the core philosophy of thrivability. Both are dedicated to life-affirming action in everything we do. My hope is that, in the months and years ahead, as we continue the conversation that began in Kahnawake, we can find ways to work together on building that third canoe.
“If you have come here to help me you are wasting your time, but if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” – Lilla Watson, aboriginal elder