Images from Right Relations 2021

Images from Right Relations 2021

Last month from Oct. 21 to 28, Diaconal Ministry students and Continuing Studies participants from the Centre for Christian Studies joined students from the Sandy-Saulteaux Spiritual Centre for Right Relations 2021, a social justice learning circle exploring the relationship between Indigenous and Settler peoples in Canada and paths toward a peace and reconciliation. The learning circle was planned jointly by staff from CCS and the Sandy-Saulteaux Centre, and supported by the United Church of Canada’s Justice and Reconciliation Fund.

CCS students spent the first two days of their circle on their own, online, grounding themselves in the issues, unpacking settler identity, and wrestling with the meaning of Christian mission in the light of Residential Schools and other violent evangelism. We were joined by Monica Walters-Field who has served on the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. Monica lit a fire under the CCS students as she helped them reflect on what it means to be a settler. “What if someone walked into your home, took the food from your stove, invited their family, and left you with no seat at the table?” She also challenged students to liberate themselves from false narratives and to get onside with Indigenous peoples seeking justice. “There are millions of Indigenous people all over the world, and they are taking care of their business.”

On the third day of the six-day circle, five people from CCS – two Diaconal Ministry students, one Continuing Studies student, and two staff people – traveled to the Sandy-Saulteaux Spiritual Centre in Beausejour, Manitoba. (The Sandy-Saulteaux Centre trains Indigenous people for ministry and leadership in the United Church and is a place of cross-cultural learning.) There we met students and staff from Sandy-Saulteaux, including Keeper of the Centre Adrian Jacobs, Keeper of the Learning Circle Susie McPherson-Derendy, and elder for the circle Eleanor Thompson. Scott set up the “meeting owl” – a 360-degree web camera that, when it’s working well, can focus on whoever is speaking in the circle or around the board room table, and when more than one person is speaking will split its screen to capture multiple speakers – in the circle and hooked up the lap-top to bring sixteen more online participants into the room.

This was Sandy-Saulteaux’s (and CCS’s) first foray back into in-person learning circles since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic a year and a half ago. It was also a first attempt at a hybrid learning circle, with some participants in the room and some online. The Sandy-Saulteaux Centre had a limit of sixteen participants they felt they could safely accommodate in person with people wearing protective masks most of the time. The sixteen in the room were matched by another sixteen, mostly CCS students from across the country, online.

The goal of the first day together with SSSC was to see if our two circles could become one shared circle. Adrian led us in the “At the Wood’s Edge” ceremony. The ceremony comes from the Haudenosaunee tradition. When visitors come to a village, they stop at the edge of the woods and build a fire to let the villagers know they have arrived and come in peace. The villagers come out to greet the visitors, and ceremonially acknowledge their griefs and condole them. At a fire outside the main lodge, the Sandy-Saulteaux students and Adrian, representing the SSSC “home village”, greeted the five CCS representatives who were there in person (and those online who were present via Zoom and cell phone). He wiped our tears with a soft deer skin, and cleared our ears with a feather, and cleared our throats with water, so that our grief would not stop us from hearing clearly and speaking bravely. He asked us why we had come. We were invited to respond.

Why had we come? The CCS participants gathered to figure out a response – five people huddled around a laptop in in small kitchen in Beausejour with fifteen people online. Meanwhile the Sandy-Saulteaux student sat in circle in their meeting lodge, discussing what they hoped and feared about how we would respond. The debate in the small kitchen was intense: How do we express our desire for mutual learning and friendship? How do we acknowledge the baggage we bring? We we returned from our deliberations we brought small gifts of tobacco to thank the Sandy-Saulteaux participants for the perspective they would with us, and we brought water, aware of the ways in which justice (including clean water) has been and continues to be denied First Nations communities and indicating our commitment to justice.

In the afternoon we went out for a walk on the land along the Brokenhead river, with teachings on the four directions. Adrian provided colour commentary to the zoom participants on his phone as we walked (and got momentarily lost in the wilderness on our way to the riverbank).

The next day we reflected together on the nature of good beginnings and good ending and shared in the Red Buffalo Pipe ceremony. The pipe had originally be entrusted to Stan McKay when he was the director of the Jessie Saulteaux Centre (which later amalgamated with the Francis Sandy Centre to become SSSC), and had been passed along in trust to subsequent leaders at the school. In the interest of safety, the pipe was passed around the circle, but only Adrian as the pipe keeper smoked.

In the afternoon we broke into small groups mixed between Indigenous and non-Indigenous folks, as well as mixed between those present in Beausejour and those online. The task was food preparation. CCS students had read Laura Hall’s essay on Indigenous economic ethics and the “three sisters” (corn, squash, and beans) in the Haudenosaunee tradition, and as it happens the menu for dinner at SSSC that night was three sisters stew. Online participants, wherever they were, were invited to make their own three sisters stew or bake some bannock, while the folks at Sandy-Saulteaux chopped up squash and shelled beans. And as the small groups worked, they shared stories about their experiences with food – their relationship to food, the role of food in the community, the traditions around sharing food. It was the kind of casual conversation you might have around the kitchen table, but it also went deep into cultural values and the possibilities of shared resources and a shared future. “We became family in the kitchen,” said one participant.

On our last day as a shared circle we experience the Thanksgiving Address, or the words spoken before all others, in which thanks is expressed to the Creator for the Earth, the waters, the sky, for the varied plants and animals and all that they teach us by their example. Janet provided some background on thanksgiving in the biblical tradition, and in mixed small groups we crafted songs or prayers or actions of thanksgiving. In the afternoon we learned about the wampum belt tradition and discussed treaty, not just as legal contract but as covenant and commitment to good relationships of friendship, respect, and mutuality. We all left the circle feeling a warm connection to new friends and a rekindled commitment to work for right relationships.

The following day the Sandy-Saulteaux students continued in their circle, exploring social justice issues, and the CCS students continued in their circle, reviewing their learnings and reflecting together on their experiences in the circle.

The Centre for Christian Studies deeply appreciates their institutional friendship with the Sandy-Saulteaux Spiritual Centre and for this opportunity to work collaboratively on this learning circle.