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Aboriginal bridge building – an exercise in active listening

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“What pieces of land are important to you?” asked Darryl Klassen, coordinator of MCC B.C.’s Aboriginal Neighbours Program.

Perhaps they’re birth places, memorable vacation spots, the open prairie, or secluded mountain valleys. Aboriginal guests at Highland Community Church, Abbotsford, B.C., identified abandoned native villages where the spirits of ancestors coud be felt, the solitude of the mountains, and a spectacular waterfall in an area where native medicines were discovered.

With stained glass windows depicting an eagle and a tree, Highland’s sanctuary was transformed into a “talking circle” March 14, where Aboriginals Stephen Boyd, and Dennis and Cathy Patrick told stories to help the church understand the “meaning of the land.” Boyd is a member of Carrier First Nation, and also treaty negotiator, native court worker, and former chief of Lhooskus and Nazko bands near Quesnel.

His territory of Carrier extends west of Highway 97 to the coast at Bella Coola, part of a large Athabascan language group that stretches all the way from the Yukon to the Navajo and Apache tribes in the U.S.

Boyd recalls travelling an ancient trail as a child that extended from Bella Coola to Prince Rupert, known as the “grease trail,” where they brought home the ooligan catch.

Ooligan oil was a diet staple, known as “winter sunshine,” providing Vitamin D for people living in this rainy, cloudy coastal and inland climate. Recently, the “grease trail” has become a training ground for Aboriginal youth learning basic wilderness survival skills and traditional native practices from elders.

The Carrier territories were rich in animal life that provided a livelihood to the natives throughout the year. They jokingly referred to the initial European explorers to the region as the “first tourists” to their lands, and in graver tones described how the confiscation of lands and property, and the rail and logging development harmed their natural food sources.

Residential school and game warden abuses were also noted. Cathy Patrick once had her hair washed for lice with DDT, which ran into and injured her eyes. By contrast, she shared how her giftedness with native medicines healed her wounds and helped others. Heartwarming stories of restorative justice measures without the intervention of police or court systems were shared, including that of a murder of a young person and subsequent provision of a replacement son by the offender’s family to the victims.

Dennis Patrick recalled the famous “constitutional train,” dispatched by natives to Ottawa in 1982 to lobby for inclusion of native rights at the time of repatriation of the Canadian Constitution. After being told that the cost of the train was $300,000, guests were asked what the trip had accomplished. With humour and chagrin, they replied, “Three words: Aboriginal, rights, and title – $100,000 per word”!

According to Indian and Northern Affairs Canada, a total of 277 unresolved land claims have been filed in Ontario and 522 in British Columbia against the federal government. Participants at the talking circle said they were challenged by language and communication styles of Aboriginal people.

“Our culture is largely bereft of storytelling, leading us to run roughshod over Aboriginal people, and even each other,” said one participant. “Their stories invited me to slow down and take time to listen. This was of great value.”

“Perhaps a shortfall of the evening was that the stories only went one way,” said another. “Significant bridges might be built if we shared stories with them of how Mennonites also lost their lands, developing mutual empathy and understanding.” In closing, Klassen presented gifts of appreciation to the Aboriginal guests – blankets made by MCC volunteers and fairly traded coffee produced by farmers in underdeveloped countries, supported by MCC.

Also present were Neill and Edith von Gunten, co-directors of native ministry at Mennonite Church Canada, who have seen the impact these discussions have had over the years. “In Vancouver there was a young couple that was about to go on overseas missions, but instead decided to live in a native community. The meetings help bring about understanding and dispel myths. We don’t often hear both sides of the story.”

To find out how your church can host an MCC Aboriginal Neighbours discussion, visit mcc.org.

John Konrad attends Highland Community Church.

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