Aboriginal Learnings

Like many Canadians I should, but don’t, know a lot about Aboriginal communities. My only exposure was the result of having three brothers who played lacrosse against teams from Six Nations. Typically they were outplayed and ultimately trounced. Within my rather white-bread high school of some 800, there were a total of two aboriginal students.

All I really knew is that Aboriginal peoples were the first people to live in Canada. They had many different spiritual beliefs and cultural traditions including a very special relationship with nature. 

Consequently my understanding came primarily from a media too often focused on the negative rather than on their many strengths and the richness of Aboriginal culture and values.

However this past week I had an opportunity to learn more as the result of hosting a meeting of recreation practitioners from a variety of Aboriginal communities. What I learned as one of the few white people in the room did not make me proud.

We did work hard to be sensitive to the differences in cultures. For instance we made sure the room was set up in a circle to convey our belief that we were all equal and wanting to listen and learn from one another. We also began by smudging. While I didn’t get it right initially, I now know that smoke from burning herbs is used to drive away negative energies and help one achieve a state of balance. It’s not unlike washing your hands before eating except that it’s an essential preliminary to almost all Native American ceremonies. You draw in the smoke with your hands first above your head and fan it to encircle your head and shoulders. Then to your heart and then down your legs and under your feet to ensure you are cleansed and ready to begin.

We began our two days of meetings rather tentatively knowing we would have to go slow in order to build trust and the longer term relationships that would be required for shared learning and resources.

Along the way I learned more about the historic inequities that have left First Nations children, youth and families needing and lacking supports and services. Many are still feeling the impact of having lost not only their land but also their cultural traditions, livelihood, and their unique way of life. Children were removed from their families and sent away to residential schools – where many were abused. As was pointed out during our meeting, it often resulted in many who never experienced the value and support of families and communities and never learned to be good parents. Too often their pain was passed on to the next generation. While it was emphasized that healing is different for each individual and some are much further along in their journey, it is a contributing factor to the pain that often manifests itself in alcoholism, drug use, gambling, and violence.

The good news is that recreation, sports, arts, culture and heritage activities are increasingly being seen as a solution. For youth it can result in improved fitness levels, personal development, enhanced self esteem, and leadership growth. As we’ve all learned, keeping kids busy keeps them out of trouble, reduces gang involvement, bullying, and the use of alcohol and drugs. An emphasis on traditional games and arts is also contributing to a greater sense of community, pride and spirit.

Like other communities there is work ahead if we are to deal with declining volunteerism, lower community and parental involvement, higher participation costs, reduced resources, the increasing impact of technology as a diversion for youth, and the challenge of sometimes ineffective political leadership.

What is clear however is that Aboriginal individuals, families and communities are surfacing from shadows that have contributed to years of faulty perceptions and unhealthy relationships. We’re seeing an emergence of the traditional holistic values of mind, body and spirit and a greater understanding of the importance of family, community and stewardship of the land. 

While much of the work that needs to be done will have to take place within Aboriginal communities, other Canadians must also be ready and willing to make space for their rich and meaningful presence. 

Posted on 10-19-09

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