‘Something like the grace of God’

May 1, 2017 by

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Whenever I drive through the reserve, I’m always struck by how little seems to have changed over the past 30 years. I remember coming to play hockey here as a kid, remember how it seemed like a different world to me. And it kind of was — and still is, at least taken at face value. The windswept barren prairies in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains, the haphazard housing, the run-down buildings that dot the the side of the road as we enter and leave the tiny town, the signs of poverty and chaos, the ominous billboard as you enter warning of the fentanyl crisis, urging indigenous youth to say no to drugs — “The drug dealers don’t care about you; they just want your money!” There was a recent article in the local paper saying that tribal police were considering requiring visitor permits for anyone coming on to the reserve in an effort to curtail the impact of the drug trade. If you’re going to the reserve with a narrative of hopelessness in your head, it won’t be hard to have it confirmed.

Last Saturday, thirty or so of us from a few local churches went to the reserve looking for a different narrative. We were there to do the blanket exercise — an interactive experience where we took on the roles of indigenous peoples in Canada. We stood on blankets that represented the land, and through a series of readings walked through the history of our region from pre-contact through treaty-making, colonization and resistance. It was a different way of telling the story than many of us learned as children. Rather than a narrative of heroic European settlers “civilizing” the west, it was a narrative of steady loss — of culture, of language, of social cohesion, of relationships, of independence, of hope and, of course, of land. The story wasn’t new to me, but the way of telling it was. It was another reminder of the truism that history is written by the winners. And here, on the reserve, we were reminded that it’s impossible for someone to win without someone else losing. A lot.

When we were planning this event, we said that we didn’t want to do it in a church basement in the city. We wanted to go out to the reserve. And we wanted to do it under the guidance of an indigenous leader. God knows we’ve had enough of white people telling native stories for them. I was very glad that we were able to spend the day under the leadership of a Blackfoot elder who interspersed the events of the day with some sharing of his people’s history and worldview. I was also glad that I was able to do this event with my teenage Ojibwe kids. I wasn’t sure if they would want to go or not, but when Saturday morning dawned, they were surprisingly willing. I’ve been to so many events and been part of so many conversations about indigenous issues where it seems like all we white people do is kind of marinate in a not-very-inspiring cocktail of guilt and grief and virtue signaling. We aren’t always very good at resisting the temptation to make it mostly about us. Or embracing narratives that can be as simplistic as the ones we rightly reject, as BC chief Robert Joseph recently reminded us. I’m always far more curious what indigenous people make of events like this.

As it happens, my kids didn’t have much to say beyond, “Yeah, we know about all that.” They said it was interesting to have the story told in a different way, but beyond that, they didn’t offer much. They didn’t, evidently, have the same kind of conflicted, angst-ridden reactions that their father did during scenes where native kids are taken from their parents and placed in non-native homes, where families like ours are described as part of the problem rather than anything like a hopeful story. The sadness of the larger narrative seems not to touch them in a deeply personal way just yet. Maybe that will come. Maybe not. One day a few months ago, I asked my daughter what she thought of the way that indigenous people are perceived in our area. She paused for a minute, then said, “I think it’s really sad, but it’s not my story.” I vacillate between thinking “but it actually kind of is” and wanting to cheer her with the wildest enthusiasm I can muster.

Near the end of our time together, the Blackfoot elder who has been leading us shared a bit of his own story. The contours were bleakly familiar: emerging through addictions, struggling with family members still locked in their grip, doing what he can as a mental health worker in a context dominated by drugs, alcohol, social decay, family dysfunction, suicide and loss. His face was etched with sadness as he spoke about this. But then he looked up and a broad smile that threatened to swallow up the room and all its sadness spread across his face. I don’t remember his exact words, but he talked about how it was good that we were there, and that we were together, and that he didn’t want our guilt, and that little efforts like this would be part of how reconciliation would become a reality. “It’s something like the grace of God,” he said. Yeah, something like that.

We made three concentric circles around the blankets at the end. The Blackfoot elder stuck the youth and young adults, including my sheepishly grinning teenagers, right in the middle. To the beat of the drum we danced our time together to an end. I walked out of the little community center that seemed to be dropped down in the middle of nowhere on a sun-drenched spring afternoon. I looked up at the majestic Rockies and felt very small. I thought about what we had just done. This, too, seemed small, particularly in light of the enormous challenges on the reserve. We hadn’t really accomplished much, after all. We hadn’t done anything about fentanyl or poverty or crime or social decay or racism. But we hadn’t done nothing, either. For a short time we had listened, we had learned, we had embraced one another and we had shared a meal. We had been part of a good story. And it was good. Something like the grace of God.

Ryan Dueck is pastor of Lethbridge Mennonite Church in Lethbridge, Alta., Canada. He writes at Rumblings, where this post first appeared.

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