It’s only in uncertainty that we’re naked and alive. —Peter Gabriel, “That Voice Again” (1986)
It’s amazing how people can live so close together and not know anything about each other. —A school district Native studies curriculum coordinator, to the author (1989)
During the spring of 1989, when I was a twenty-five-year-old cub reporter for a weekly newspaper in the Fraser Valley, a local First Nations chief invited me to a special event at her band’s reserve not far from the town where I lived and worked. The Unity Council, she said, was a gathering of people from all backgrounds for the purpose of celebrating common bonds between races and religions. Hosted by the First Nation and taking place over two days, the event as the band chief described it would include food, music, cultural performances, and some rituals. But the centre piece was to be a gathering circle in which everyone attending—including White folks—would be invited to speak about their experiences of belief, culture, and ethnicity.
Being an earnest young journo on his first job in the field, I was surprised by the invitation and wary of violating professional decorum. The whole concept of this Unity Council seemed to promise a highly intimate and potentially transformative experience. How would it look for the town’s “objective” reporter to participate in such a subjective exercise, a process that was sure to expose his own vulnerabilities, never mind anyone else’s? (Complicating matters was the fact I was nearing the end of a frustrating decade in the closet as a gay man, only weeks away from breaking free in the city with a new job and new life.) But I was also humbled and intrigued by the band chief’s invitation, which I assumed she extended because of my interest in local Aboriginal issues, which had led to coverage in the paper.
“How many people will be there?” I recall asking. “Whoever shows up,” I think was her reply. I asked for permission to take photos and write about the event. Her answer was yes, provided I do not write about anything shared in the circle and that I ask potential photo subjects for their permission, too. So I decided to go. I can’t recall what my expectations were, but I imagined this would be a very big deal, that many people would be there, and that I would write a major feature for the newspaper. Before the Unity Council, I thought that all races and religions would be represented—a mistaken assumption that the event was a formal ecumenical summit. Instead, it was just the local band hosting a few guests: from my recollection, there were only a few dozen people at the band hall, mostly Native and a few White people.
Thirty-two years later, I still have vivid memories of the Unity Council, which I believe was my first exposure to the Medicine Wheel, the four-coloured circle of unity that influences how Indigenous people see the world. A couple of things left a lasting impression. The first was my one—and still only—experience of a sweat lodge, a purification ceremony that involves sitting naked in an enclosed space around a fire pit heated by rocks. Once the half dozen or so of us were inside, the fire-tender—after feeding the flames from the outside with saplings—began shoveling one burning rock after another into the pit. Eventually, about twenty-five sizzling boulders filled the pit and the surrounding air was thick with burning steam. Already dripping with sweat from my face and body, I began to panic when the entrance was closed and our host began saying a traditional Sto:lo prayer of healing and cleansing. By the time he encouraged the rest of us to say our own prayer, the heat was so intense that I found myself praying for the ceremony to end as soon as possible: I wanted to get the hell out of there before I died. Once I emerged into the cool air, I felt a deep sense of compassion for the people with whom I had just shared this powerful moment. (I should note that the sweat ceremony was entirely safe, being guided by an experienced healer. But, like many settlers whose first significant experience of Indigenous culture involves some degree of risk, I allowed fear to overpower my trust.)
The other significant memory was of the gathering circle which, like the sweat lodge, required participants to face inward so that everyone could see each other. The circle included a talking stick that was passed around so that each person had a chance to speak. There was no time limit: some passed the stick after only a couple of minutes, while others shared life stories that went on for fifteen minutes or longer. Nor did there seem any appetite among those present for the event to be “managed” in any way. Most people in the circle were from the local band and knew each other, so I was struck by how vulnerable they were willing to be in such a forum. People in the circle shared experiences that were at turns traumatic and inspirational. Thus, by the time the talking stick came to me, I felt more than a little bashful. As a middle class White kid from the suburbs, I had no life experience and was certain I would have nothing of value to contribute. As all the faces turned toward me, I began to stammer awkwardly about being raised in a Roman Catholic family while living in a town where most people didn’t have a lot of exposure to other cultures. Sadly ironic, in retrospect, given my hometown of Nanaimo’s rich Aboriginal culture and history—and its typically shameful settler history of oppressing local First Nations.
My experience of that Unity Council in 1989 came back to me recently as I read The Gatherings: Reimagining Indigenous-Settler Relations (University of Toronto Press, 2021). The book’s co-authors, equally Indigenous and White, came together more than thirty years ago on the eastern seaboard equivalent of “Cascadia” in the west: Wabanaki territory, which encompasses the state of Maine and the Canadian Maritimes. Each was concerned about rising conflict between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in their communities; each was determined to find better ways of communicating so that cultural barriers could be breached, allowing Native and non-Native people to form authentic relationships based on mutual understanding and respect. So they met, over several years, in occasional long weekend gatherings based on traditional First Nations meeting protocols.
For many non-Indigenous people, the idea of being with Indigenous people—of encountering them as human beings—is focussed on the experience of cultural celebrations and being invited to take part in them. While there can be genuine interest on the part of the non-Native person, there is often a presumption that one is deserving of an invitation because of that interest, and a bucket list-like satisfaction at having been included. As the authors of this book argue—it almost goes without saying—there is much more for both Native and non-Native people to learn about each other from a gathering than from a ceremony.
The book draws a distinction between “coalitions” and “alliances”: the former are temporary arrangements of people uniting to solve a particular problem, while the latter imply more lasting unions of people committed to achieving larger goals of mutual benefit. The Gathering, which is based on alliances, is not some touchy-feely, New Age, “Kumbaya” concept. Rather, it’s a location for true reckoning about how we interact with each other as human beings and what a serious covenant we agree to when we enter into relationships with others who are not like us.
Needless to say, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous contributors arrived at their first Gathering with cultural baggage they knew they’d have to leave at the door if the encounter was to be successful. For the White contributors, it was liberal guilt: the awareness of centuries of injustices committed by White people against Indigenous people, and how this causes well-meaning settlers to treat every Native person they meet like some delicate flower, or as someone needing “help,” or as someone to idealize and put on a pedestal. For the Indigenous contributors, it was a lifetime of built up rage: hatred of the settler for historic injustices, and deep cynicism about White people’s motivations for contact—especially given the long track record of disappointments after engagement, those relationships that fizzled out after the White so-called “allies” lost interest and moved on.
The rules of the Gatherings were straightforward. Before arrival and after departure, participants had to refrain from drinking or using drugs for several days surrounding the event, in order to respect and preserve the experience. During the meeting, everyone agreed to listen without time limits on anyone speaking. Non-Native participants thus had to be mindful of the need to de-centre themselves: to refrain from trying to dominate discussions and to accept, without defensiveness, whatever anger they heard about injustices committed by settlers. This meant active listening: allowing silences to linger and not having to express the next thought immediately. Finally, participants had to agree never to use the experience, or the ideas conceived at the Gatherings, for purposes of self-promotion or profit.
“What we received from the Gatherings was much more than we hoped for,” says Wayne A. Newell, a Peskotomuhkati/Passamaquoddy contributor who, decades after the Gatherings ended, hosted the meetings to plan a book about them. “We spend a lot of time protecting our vulnerability, but as I grow older I understand that it’s in vulnerability that we learn the most. By letting our shields down, we leave ourselves open to new thinking, new teachings, new relationships.” At this comment indicates, much of the wisdom shared in these pages is common sense. Settlers interested in forming relationships with Indigenous people must be willing to do the research and the work to understand Native ways. One simply cannot insist on being taught by the Indigenous person if the energy isn’t there or if the parties involved haven’t established enough of a connection yet. And above all else: try listening more than speaking.
For Native participants, the Gatherings were a safe place because non-Natives didn’t “get into their face” about issues (by condescending, by failing to treat them as equals, or by insisting on unwelcome discussions), and so they didn’t feel the need to be in “warrior mode” during these encounters. For non-Native participants, the Gatherings kept things real, quickly exposing the frauds and pseuds who longed to be Native and romanticized Indigenous culture without even connecting with the Indigenous people in their own neighbourhoods. “If non-Natives want a connection with Native people, often our first step is to create a romanticized image—a cardboard cut-out. We want to become Indian, or ‘play Indian,’ but what we do may have no connection to Native culture,” says the book’s editor, Shirley N. Hager. “Being in a relationship with Native people means that you will inevitably be drawn into the political dimension of their world and must choose whether to take on a particular cause as your own. One aspect of ‘White privilege’ is having the choice of whether to become involved.”
Eventually, such Gatherings should lead to concrete actions, and these ones did. As a small core of Indigenous and non-Indigenous participants grew to know, trust, and love each other as friends, they got involved in various campaigns about land stewardship, fishing rights and other issues, some of which resulted in victories for the Indigenous communities connected to the group participants. Eventually the Gatherings ended, in the early 90s, because of one Indigenous group’s concern about where the meetings took place and the fact that White money was involved. Given the high degree of sensitivity and consent that took place, this comes as a surprise to the reader. While it’s hardly rocket science, the premise of the Gatherings offers a constructive model for Indigenous-Settler relations: the idea that intentional encounters between people from different cultures can increase understanding and empathy while reducing the fear and ignorance that cause tension in communities. It is the lack of such gathering places—the chance to encounter each other—that allows misunderstandings to fester, leading to violent confrontations such as those surrounding the Mi’kmaq lobster fishing dispute recounted in the book.
White corporate and government culture have since adopted “the circle” for events that involve cross-cultural business. But they often abuse the process by managing the proceedings, perverting the original intent of the Gatherings; they insult First Nations participants by deciding who gets to speak, selectively distributing the talking stick, and by listening for the purpose of forming a reply rather than to hear, learn, and be transformed. The co-authors—referred to in the collective here as Mawopiyane, a Passamaquoddy expression for “let us sit together”—pay tribute to their lasting connection without being nostalgic about it. They know the value of this kind of contact. They know it works. “I think it is so important to somehow find the will, strength, and courage to persevere in enacting those ethical-political commitments that come to define your life,” says the University of Auckland’s Frances Hancock in the afterword. “That can only happen because of relationships, and the relationships that seem to matter so much are the ones that endure over time and relish difference.”
Back in 1989, the idea of a Unity Council was new to me. I came back from the event invigorated, with several pages of notes on what I’d experienced at the reserve. When I returned to work the next day, I told my editor about the Council and shared my plan to write a feature about it. But she poured water on the idea right away: there was only room in that week’s edition for a photo and caption, but not a feature. (That week, the paper would run my photo of a hoop dancer, taken during the cultural performances, on the front page.) It was a nice event, she said, but not a story. I was deflated. What I didn’t comprehend was that, while the Unity Council was new to me, it wasn’t “news” for the community: these events took place every now and then, and the town knew about them, so they were no big deal.
Perhaps what I had experienced at the Unity Council was that first flush of settler excitement on “discovering” Indigenous culture, an excitement that tends to dissolve within a few hours of re-entering the White world and its priorities. But I also felt like that First Nations band and its leader, through the gathering circle, had propped me up and carried me through a challenging moment, giving me the courage to face my own future even if it meant exercising my White privilege to do so. Sure enough, a week or two after the Council, I opted for career advancement and self-reinvention by heading down the road to the city to begin a new job and a new way of life in my own skin.
I have always wanted to thank her for that.