I’m thinking a lot these days about a compelling conversation I hosted at McNally’s recently. Rupert Ross, a retired crown attorney and prosecutor who worked for several decades in northern Ontario was in town with a new book, Indigenous Healing: Exploring Traditional Paths. He talked about what he has learned—and what he continues to learn—from his work with indigenous peoples in our country, and the special way that their teachings offer themselves to thinking people.
I invited David Alexander Robertson, a Winnipeg writer I admire, to bring his perspective to the table. David is a witty, articulate man with an intense concern for the wellbeing of his community. He has written several graphic novels, including The Life of Helen Betty Osborne and a series gathered together under the title 7 Generations: A Plains Cree Saga. He has a novel coming out this fall.
A few things remain intensely present to me in the aftermath of that conversation. One is the notion of “right relations” which identifies our ultimate goal as a balanced interrelatedness—between people, between living beings and creation, and between parts of our individual selves. Indigenous practices favour circles over hierarchies, and strength comes through support and respect for all members of the group. Circles where everyone has a chance to speak, to contribute to a more complex, full, and subtle portrait of a moment? That sounds a lot like the jazz model to me.
A second thing I’m mulling on is the importance of healthy emotion. Rupert talked about the many people he’s dealt with in the justice system who were so shut down they could not access an emotional response—they literally did not know what they were feeling. In many cases, these adults learned as kids to repress their emotional response to the world—from parents who had in turn learned the same lesson. Programs that intervene at the very basic level of accessing emotion and finding ways to interpret and express it have made a dramatic impact on the potential for these people to recover and reestablish “right relations” with themselves and their communities.
That made me think of a conversation I had with Steve Kirby after one of his first outreach sessions in the inner city. He was shocked that those young kids couldn’t identify their feelings when they listened to the music he was playing. Many of these young kids are now exploring their emotions, and expressing them through music and art programs. They are finding their way—and we are finding a way to hear them.
The generosity of spirit in that room, and the frankness about both the despair and the hope—or “the truly awful and the truly awesome,” as Rupert phrased it—was transformative. I am struck by the profound hopefulness in both these men. The communities they care about are in crisis, but they are not crashing. Gradually, our indigenous peoples are reclaiming their traditions and the wisdom imbedded in them, and sharing it generously with one another and with the rest of us.
As David put it, “it takes seven generations to fix what has been broken.” May we all put our hearts into it now for the well-being of our planet and our children, and for the sake of those not yet born.