by Anya Arthen
— To be honest I do not remember ceremony being a part of my early childhood growing up in Russia, definitely not the way I know it now. The things we did that most resembled ceremonies were getting together and celebrating the new year with a beautifully decked out spruce tree, presents, and a toast to the countdown of the moments between 11:59pm and midnight, or maybe the yearly feasts that mark birthdays, years passing in a life.
As an immigrant in the United States when I was slightly older, ceremony started to become more prominent: ceremonies of weddings, graduations, naturalization to citizenship, and eventually funerals. Ceremonies and celebrations around the moments of significance in an individual’s life.
Now as an adult and as a Pagan, ceremony is infused into small daily
Photo by Engin Akyurt via Pexels
routines. It harmonizes to the phases of the moon, it punctuates the changing of the seasons, it celebrates the planting of a tree. Ceremony is Ritual. It is when I stand with community and acknowledge the moments of significance in an individual’s life. It is when we come together and open to lake, to green ones, to mountain, to creatures flying, swimming, and crawling, to sun and stars, to the unseen ones. It is when we come together to sing, and dance, and drum our gratitude into the land on which we stand, into the air which we breathe, out to the web we weave. It is when we sing up the sun on winter solstice morning, or watch it set over the horizon on summer solstice night. It is when I make my first cup of morning tea, breathing in intention for the day with its aroma.
This thought of ceremony has been sparked by a few passages that grasped at something deep within me from the book Braiding Sweetgrass.
Now, potent and powerful passages are not infrequent in that book. Yet, this particular one has had me mulling it over. Without rest it has been at the forefront of my mind.
Robin Wall Kimmerer writes:
“Ceremony focuses attention so that attention becomes intention. If you stand together and profess a thing before your community, it holds you accountable.
Ceremonies transcend the boundaries of the individual and resonate beyond the human realm. These acts of reverence are powerfully pragmatic. These are ceremonies that magnify life.”
She goes on to talk about something very similar to my experience in childhood and young adulthood: the fact that in the dominant culture ceremony is focused on the individuals, or mainly on the human experience. I will quote you the passage as her words are evocative.
“Many indigenous traditions still recognize the place of ceremony and often focus their celebrations on other species and events in the cycle of the seasons. In a colonist society the ceremonies that endure are portable from the old country. Ceremonies for the land no doubt existed there, but it seems they did not survive emigration in any substantial way. I think there is wisdom in regenerating them here, as a means to form bonds with this land.
To have agency in the world, ceremonies should be reciprocal co-creations, organic in nature, in which the community creates ceremony and the ceremony creates communities. They should not be cultural appropriations from Native peoples. But generating new ceremony in today’s world is hard to do. There are towns I know that hold apple festivals and Moose Mania, but despite the wonderful food, they tend toward the commercial. Educational events like wildflower weekends and Christmas bird counts are all steps in the right direction but they lack an active, reciprocal relationship with the more-than-human world.
I want to stand by the river in my finest dress. I want to sing, strong and hard, and stomp my feet with a hundred others so that the waters hum with our happiness. I want to dance for the renewal of the world.”
In writing those words in the time that preceded the publication of Braiding Sweetgrass in 2013, I wonder if Robin Wall Kimmerer felt the hundreds of people gathered on a mountain top by a lake overlooking her home state, singing, strong and hard, dancing so that the lake hummed with our happiness.
The words above encapsulate for me a deep aspect of what is so important about EarthSpirit, why was it that stepping foot into this community a mere 10 years ago shifted the trajectory of my entire life. It is because living as best I can co-creatively with the natural world around me makes sense. Gathering to celebrate in gratitude the beauty of spring and the abundance of late summer harvest, and in reverence the passage of time as the year wraps around to the cold seasons makes sense. Having a community to connect with and hold these ideals and carry these traditions makes sense.
I once heard a scholar of Russian history say that Russian culture has a pattern of self-destruction, that every 200 years or so, over and over again, Russian culture would get wiped clean and forcibly replaced. I never learned the traditions that were practiced by the people living on the land where I was born; they were not passed down in my family. In the United States I am an immigrant: I am not of the land I live on, yet I am of the land I live on, always learning to live in a way that nourishes that land and all beings on it.
That is what EarthSpirit has done for me. It has taught me the skills I need to live deeply rooted to the land. As a community drawn from the deep earth-centered traditions of the indigenous people of Europe, EarthSpirt gives all of us who are living in a colonist society a way to bring back the ceremonies that teach us how to actively form reciprocal relationships with the more-than-human world.
by Andrew Watt
One of the items on display here at A Parliament of the World’s Religions is Esther Bryan’s Quilt of Belonging. Consisting of 263 hexagonal frames for 263 embroidered and textile blocks, the quilt is a kind of self-portrait of Canada at the dawning of the Christian Era’s second millennium: there is one block for each of Canada’s First Nations, and one block for each nation of the wider world whose immigrants have come to Canada. It took six and a half years to create. Members of each immigrant group and First Nation worked on the block representing their community, some only agreeing after long periods of negotiation and gradual or grudging trust-building. One nation, San Marino, is represented by only one person in all of Canada, while other blocks represent thousands of people and their descendants. One two-year-old sewed a couple of stitches, while a 92-year-old had to be helped to hold the embroidery needle between trembling fingers. Just outside the display area, several massive crates with giant foam rollers inside hold the Quilt on its travels around Canada — which have already taken it enough miles to go from Earth to the Moon five times. Listening to Ms. Bryan talk about the creation of the quilt left me with the impression that the Quilt of Belonging is not simply a quilt: it is a treasure-house of stories.
The Quilt is currently on display on the first floor of the North Building. It’s nearly impossible to take in all at once — the ribbon of color that forms the upper edge creates a rainbow of extraordinary intensity. Yet as one approaches, the appearance of continuum dissolves into a formula of precise strips of color all down the length of the hall. Beneath
Photo by Miriam Klamkin
these ribbons of hue in harmonious order are the Nations. The eye catches on San Marino, and then on the Tlinglit First Nation. One has to go and seek out countries of one’s own national origin: perhaps Great Britain, perhaps France. The Diné come into view, and then perhaps Thailand. Malayasia and Tonga and Cuba appear. The Labradorans and the Dakota and the Haida.
It’s the opposite of erasure.
And then something curious happens. You stop seeing the names of countries, and you start looking at the artistry, at the needlework, at the overarching structure of the quilt. You start to see the heavy tassels of yarn along the bottom. You start seeing how the fabric pulls against the stitch-work here and there. You begin to imagine women and men sitting with Esther Bryan in kitchens and living rooms, all across Canada, as she gently but deliberately earned their trust, came into their communities, and helped them stitch a quilt block. This pull here was a stab through the textile by an untrained hand; that one over there is a daughter guiding her mother’s hands that are starting to lose a battle with arthritis; these interwoven threads were stained by the tears of a refugee remembering their homeland. You start to see those big crates carrying the quilt on the back of a cargo skid pulled by a ski-doo across the ice for a display in the far north, or hauled onto a ferry for a showing on Prince Edward Island. You imagine careful hands unrolling it from its crate for the first time, and staring in wonder at a picture of their homeland for the first time.
And then you, the viewer, start to cry.
You become one with the stories that you see, hear, and imagine in the great quilt before you. You, in a sudden moment, find yourself drawn into the story of Canada, even as a visitor, you find yourself wrapped in all the tales of wonder and heartbreak and hope and tragedy and dignity that are caught up in this quilt, tangled together in its threads and in its fabric.
You are in the presence of a relic. A medicine, in a sense. An object that has been made holy by the hands that have made it, and the stories that have been woven into it, and
Photo by Miriam Klamkin
the community that has chosen to honor it. An emblem of Canada — not its government, not its national presence on an international stage — but of its people and its common life.
So many rooms and spaces at the Parliament are barren and devoid of symbolism. It’s a conference center, of course — part of the very nature of the spaces within it is that they are non-descript and easily shifted from one purpose to another and another. At the same time, though, the Quilt of Belonging shows a portrait of grace: a nation of nations, a country of countries, at peace with itself and with its neighbors.
And simply by viewing the quilt with your other eyes, you feel the potential for welcome and trust, the gracious hospitality, and the growing strength, of this year’s host nation for the Parliament.
— EarthSpirit is at A Parliament of the World’s Religions this week in Toronto! You can find more updates here and on our Facebook page.
Indigenous Elder Francois Paulette (Dene) led the sunrise observance on Monday, accompanied by elders Be’sha Blondin (of the Sahtu Region), Trina Moyan, and a Mayan Elder. I arrived at 6:45 for the scheduled 7 a.m. ceremony, but as I arrived, Bob Goulais (Anishanaabe), who is the co-chair of the Indigenous Working Group of the Parliament and was there as a fire tender, announced that the ceremony would begin around 7:30 a.m. because the elders wanted to wait until the Sun had actually risen. He explained that the Parliament insisted on scheduling all the morning observances at 7 a.m., despite the fact that most of the presenters wanted an actual sunrise ceremony. I was left wondering why, at an event like this, such a simple request could not be accommodated.
So I had forty-five minutes to wait. But as so often happens, the highlight of the moment happened outside of the scheduled event. Mr. Goulais said that while we waited, he would offer us a teaching about the fire. He then told us his people’s story of creation, which began with the thought of the Creator, and spiraled down through space, to the Earth, and primarily through the Fire. We learned about the “happy hunting grounds,” as
he explained with a smile about that place from which our spirits come and to which they will go when it is their time. We heard several of his people’s teachings about the Earth, many of which have been confirmed by science today: the fire at the center of the Earth, the idea of action and reaction, and more. He finished with an explanation of the roles of men and women in his community, and how and why men have become the fire keepers.
At 7:30, the Elders had arrived, and Chief Paulette gave a brief instruction to all, after which we were given a small handful of tobacco to offer. As Mr. Goulais drummed and chanted (we joined him in raising our voices when he got to the “exciting parts” as he had invited us to do), we moved in a sun-wise circle, and one by one, facing the East, offered the tobacco into a small basket. When all the participants had completed their offerings, a Mayan elder took the basket of tobacco, while Elder Trina Moyan took a basket of food in her hands. Together they faced the East and offered prayers, then moved around the circle, stopping again for prayers to the South, West, and North. Finally, they emptied each basket onto the Fire, completing the offering.
The Mayan elder then explained how the teachings of the Indigenous peoples of the Americas are strikingly similar to those of the Indigenous peoples of Australia because the Original Teachings had been given to all peoples. Ms. Moyan told us that her prayers at the directions had been for all people at their beginnings, their youth, their adulthood, and their elderhood, that we might live good lives and guide others in doing the same. Elder Be’sha Blondin then gave a final blessing, exhorting us to live a simple life, and to clean and heal the Earth.
The ceremony concluded with the Elders beginning to move inside the circle, spiraling around to shake the hands of and greet each person there. The whole circle followed them in until it was whole again, where it began. As we all headed off to our next destinations, I couldn’t help humming to myself, “In the circle of Earth and sky, my heart flies to yours. We gather, we remember, and the pattern endures.”
— EarthSpirit is at A Parliament of the World’s Religions this week in Toronto! You can find more updates here and on our Facebook page.
On this chilly Sunday morning at 7 am, about 40 people gathered at a small park outside the Metro Toronto Convention Centre to join the Zoroastrian Fire Ceremony. Tehemton Mirza, the Mobed (Zoroastrian priest), greeted us as we gathered around the warmth of the fire just before the Sun rose. First he thanked the representative of the First Nations, who was present to help tend the fire, for hosting us on their land. Then he explained that he was going to do an abbreviated Boi Ceremony, a fire blessing. Each attendee had been given a dry piece of wood to offer the fire at the end of the ceremony. What followed would be familiar to any pagan today. He chanted a long blessing over the fire in Farsi, and at the point in the prayer where he intoned “Dushmata, Duzukhta, Duzvarshta,” (Bad thoughts, bad words, and bad deeds), he rang a bell nine times (three for each) to banish these.
During the ceremony, the Atash (Sacred Fire) asks in the prayer, “What did the walking friend (the devotee) bring for his sitting friend (the Sacred Fire)?” This was the invitation for the attendees to place their individual pieces of wood on the fire. At a certain point, sandalwood is offered to the fire, being particularly sacred to the rite. This morning, the First Nations attendee also offered cedar, sage, and tobacco, the sacred offerings for the particular land that we are on here. Toward the end of the chant, the Mobed asked the Fire to bless the devotees:
In thy family, may the flock of cattle increase!
Unto Thee may there be an increase of heroic men!
May thou have an active mind!
May thy life be active!
May thou live a joyous life, those nights that thou live!
The blessing is reminiscent of many of those from the Gaelic highlands.
After the prayers, and the final pieces of wood offerings were given to the Fire, each attendee was offered some ash that had been removed and cooled earlier, so that we could put a small bit on our foreheads in a sign of humility and respect for the Fire.
Having concluded the ritual part of the gathering, the Mobed drew attention to the very close parallels between the Zoroastrian ceremonies and those of our First Nations hosts. He spoke of the three different kinds of sacred fires, and he introduced a female Zoroastrian priest who was present, pointing out that there is equality among men and women, and this includes women’s participation in the priesthood.
photo by Balkowitsch, used under a Creative Commons license
On Saturday, I attended a workshop titled “Pipe Ceremony,” presented by Arvol Looking Horse, Lakota. Mr. Looking Horse talked about becoming a sacred bundle keeper when his grandmother died in her eighties, which was young for a bundle keeper. As a consequence of becoming a sacred bundle keeper, he began to live in ceremony all the time. He was told that he could not ever use a gun or weapon, he could not use foul language, could not run for political office, and he could not raise his hand to swear an oath to the U.S. flag.
What I find impressive about his presentation and his life is his willingness to take on a responsibility for his community that defines how he will live for the rest of his life. His role in his community is not merely the person who keeps the bundle or offers the pipe. His entire life is now a ritual.
Most modern pagan communities don’t have such a rigid differentiation of roles. In fact, we often have a difficult time staying in ritual for more than an hour or so, even when there is nowhere else to go and nothing else to do. Few of us live in the kind of tight-knit or geographically-centered communities that would allow for such a lifetime dedication. But the model might serve even for those of us who take on temporary roles within our own groups. If you are responsible for holding a particular piece for your community, perhaps you might try letting that role infuse your whole life, at least until you pass that role to another. Instead of looking at your responsibilities as something that you do, maybe try to think of them as who you are.
— EarthSpirit is at A Parliament of the World’s Religions this week in Toronto! You can find more updates here and on our Facebook page.
by Andrew Watt
At my second day of A Parliament of the World’s Religions, the thing that keeps striking me is the “Canadian Way”. That’s the name I’m giving to a practice, which I have found striking and emotionally powerful, of acknowledging and recognizing the First Nations of the region around Toronto as the keepers of the land. These tribes include the Mississaugas, the New Credit Tribes, and the Six Nations. I’ve not caught all the names or subtleties of the relationships between the tribes, I know. But I know that they are here, their chiefs saw us at the Parliament’s opening session on the first day, that they knew we were coming, and that they have extended a formal welcome to the Parliament and a kind of formal permission to conduct our business here. (In a kindly, funny but also serious fashion, we were told in no uncertain terms to go home when we were done.)
Talking with a few Canadians today, I learned that this is becoming more and more common at all sorts of Canadian official events: graduations and conferences, government meetings, matriculation ceremonies, and higher-level religious events like church synods. Canada appears to be making a serious commitment to recognize and acknowledge the place and position of what it calls the First Nations within the fabric of Canadian life. My new Canadian friends admitted that it feels more like “talking the talk” and not enough like “walking the walk” — but that Indigenous Peoples are much more active in the political and social fabric of the nation today than they were twenty and forty years ago in their own childhoods.
And so, the Canadian Way: to be welcomed to traditional lands by traditional First Nations custodians, to be given permission to settle and perform ceremony, and to participate in the life of the nation as the First to speak. To Be First.
The formal opening session of the Parliament was preceded by several hours of Indigenous Ceremony in the park outside the Convention Center: dancing, smudging done by members of the Toronto tribes, welcomes from the chiefs of several of the tribes, drumming and singing in the traditional styles and in the traditional costumes of the
photo by Moira Ashleigh
Mississaugas, the Cree, the New Credit Tribes, the Six Nations. A few hours later, at the formal opening of the Parliament of the World’s Religions, the chiefs spoke again. No rousing strains of “O Canada!” filled the hall. Instead, with the raising of Indigenous eagle feathers and staffs, the singing was one of one of the local tribe’s national anthems, and another song in a First Nations language to thank veterans. During the opening speeches, a minister of the government of Canada thanked the Mississaugas and the New Credit Tribes and the Six Nations. So did the Lieutenant Governor of Ontario. So did a city councillor of the government of the city of Toronto. No one stumbled over unfamiliar names. No one tried a couple of times and gave up. The tribes were mentioned in the same order each time (which I’ve endeavored without notes to repeat, but apologize if I’ve gotten in wrong). There is clearly an effort underway within the Canadian government to restore a sense of traditional custodianship of the land to the First Nations, at all levels of government.
That’s extraordinary in itself.
But then… it happened in some of the sessions and workshops I attended during the day. A presenter thanked the First Nations tribes of the Toronto area, and named them the same way the government officials had. Then she got around to thanking the Parliament for inviting her to speak. A ritual event in another space included a formal acknowledgement that the ceremony was taking place on Mississaugas land.
Later in the day, I asked a Canadian if they knew what First Nations land they were on. “Mississaugas,” came the answer, followed immediately by surprise. They didn’t know, quite, how long they had known that information, or how they’d come by it.
And yet, in an extraordinary way, the Canadian Way is beginning to undo the effects of centuries of deliberate erasure of the First Nations: by inviting them to speak First, by inviting them into the role of the traditional custodians, all across Canada people are waking up to the idea that they are on someone’s land, that they are in someone’s land: that Canada is more than one country, and the country has a deeper and longer history than just the French and English, Confederation and a couple of World Wars.
The Canadian Way may bring about a deeper understanding of their nation’s cultural heritage, a heritage that extends at least twenty thousand years into the past…. and into a present where the First Nations always speak First, in words of welcome and of permission. There’s a power in that; and I hope that it brings the many peoples of Canada a few long and graceful strides toward reconciliation. At the same time, I feel the challenge and the opportunity in the Canadian Way that all of these visitors from around the globe must see and hear, and I hope that many of them — and we ourselves — can take the steps and begin the conversations that begin to put Indigenous voices as First Voices.
— EarthSpirit is at A Parliament of the World’s Religions in Toronto this week! Keep an eye here and on our Facebook page for more updates on our interfaith experiences.
This is a report on the trip which my son Donovan and I recently took to Standing Rock, North Dakota, to visit the camps of the people who, as Water Protectors, are trying to halt the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. It was a very intense and full experience, and I cannot possibly do it justice within the limits of a blog post. The photos which accompany this article were taken by one of the camp’s official photographers, and are published here with permission.
In October, we received a copy of a call by Chief Arvol Looking Horse of the Lakota nation, asking religious leaders of all traditions to join the people who had gathered at the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North Dakota to protest the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. He wrote:
“We are asking the religious leaders to come and support them, to stand side-by-side with them, because they are standing in prayer…If you can find it in your heart, to pray with them, and stand beside them…because the Police Department and the National Guard, they would listen to each and every one of you.”
I have a great deal of respect for Chief Looking Horse. I’ve met him several times over the years, and participated with him in a couple of panels and other events at interfaith gatherings. He was one of the main speakers at the Indigenous Plenary of the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Salt Lake City last October. Though I don’t know him well, I have always been impressed by his wisdom, his commitment, and his willingness to reach out to all peoples on behalf of the Earth. I had already been thinking for several weeks about going to Standing Rock, and his message fueled that urge even more.
Grandmother Mary Lyons
Then I received a more personal message from Grandmother Mary Lyons, an Ojibwe elder from Minnesota who was also one of the speakers at last year’s Indigenous Plenary, asking if anyone from the Parliament was planning to go to Standing Rock in response to Chief Looking Horse’s call. She thought it was important for the Parliament to make an official statement regarding the situation. I took that as a very definite sign, and asked the EarthSpirit board of directors if it would be possible to send me there. They agreed that I should go but, out of concern for my health, suggested that someone else should accompany me. I asked my son Donovan, and he immediately changed his schedule so he could come along.
My next step was to approach the Parliament’s Board to tell them of my plans to go to Standing Rock. The Indigenous Task Force, of which I am a member, set out to write a statement, along with our Executive Director and staff, that I could take to North Dakota. Lewis Cardinal, the chair of the task force, also began contacting people at the camps to let them know we were sending a statement.
Grandmother Lyons invited us to stay at her campsite, and also to take part in a water ceremony she was going to lead. Some of my other Indigenous friends helped me to find local contacts, to get a better idea of what to expect. A Sioux man from Standing Rock was particularly helpful, even as he painted a fairly grim scenario. The police, he said, had blocked off the main highway to prevent access to the camps, so the only way to get there from the Bismarck airport was to make a long detour that added about 45 minutes to the trip. He also said that we should be prepared to be stopped randomly and harassed by the authorities, and stressed that we shouldn’t lose our cool no matter how much they might try to provoke us. He asked me if I had any connection to the United Nations. I told him that I was one of the Parliament’s U.N. delegates, and that I had an access photo badge. He suggested that I take it with me and wear it at all times, because the police tended to respect the U.N. Needless to say, this was not particularly encouraging.
After flying to Bismarck, North Dakota, and renting a car, Donovan and I had an early introduction to the level of police presence at Standing Rock. We had stopped at a traffic light in the town of Mandan, where we were supposed to turn onto a road that would take us down to the camps, when we noticed several police vehicles approaching the intersection, coming from the direction toward which we were supposed to go. It quickly became evident that those vehicles were merely the head of a long caravan: cruisers, armored cars, police vans, ambulances, sheriffs’ trucks, and one empty school bus – over forty vehicles went by while we waited.
A bit later, we found out that there had been a nonviolent protest action near the pipeline, and that about two dozen water protectors had been arrested. The vehicles we had witnessed had been taking them to police headquarters, where they would be booked and placed inside large chain-link dog kennels which had been set up as temporary containment cells. Once the protesters had been bailed out, they would return to the camps in the school bus. Apparently, this scenario is enacted on a fairly regular basis.
Because the main road to the camp was blocked, we had to go down using the backroads, a route which required us to make two major turns. At each of those turns, there was an unmarked car parked just off the intersection. But for a couple of instances over the weekend when the cars were empty, each time we made those turns the person inside the car raised a camera to take a photo of our vehicle; the authorities, I was told later, were recording every license plate going to and from the camps. As we got closer to our destination we saw lots of law enforcement personnel, many wearing tactical gear, and more cruisers, police wagons and armored vehicles. The place felt very much like a militarized zone, grim and forbidding.
Oceti Sakowin Camp
In sharp contrast, our arrival at Camp Oceti Sakowin felt like we had come upon an oasis full of life in the midst of a barren desert: dozens of colorful banners on tall poles, voices singing, drums pounding, the smell of wood fires and of food cooking, young men riding bareback on gorgeous Appaloosas, and tents and tipis, cars and RVs as far as the eye could see. It looked like there had to be at least a couple of thousand people at the camp.
After finding Grandmother Mary Lyons and her family, and our friends Robin and Nsasi from Minnesota, we went around and explored a bit, then settled down for some good conversations with Mary and her folks. One of the people who came by to talk was Tom Goldtooth, executive director of the Indigenous Environmental Network. Tom and I
Mary Lyons’ camp (Tom Goldtooth & Mary Lyons in center)
remembered each other from the 2004 Parliament of the World’s Religions in Barcelona, and we chatted a little bit about his experiences there. Tom’s son is one of the camp’s organizers, though he was away that weekend, so Mary gave Tom a portable carport she had brought as a donation to the camp, to pass on to his son.
I wanted to find one of the people that the Parliament had arranged for me to meet, so I could hand him the statement that the Indigenous Task Force had drafted. Mary suggested that we go to the central fire, where a lot of different activities were held, and see if he was there. Though we had no luck finding him, Mary talked to some people and came back to say that they would like me to read the statement at the fire, if I didn’t mind sitting there for a little bit and wait for my turn to come.
As I was waiting, the two-dozen or so people who had been arrested earlier that morning returned to the camp after having posted bail. They were brought to stand in a line by the fire, and then seemingly everyone in the camp came by to shake their hands or hug them, one by one, and thank them for their willingness to stand up for their convictions. The whole thing took maybe half an hour, but in that brief and deeply moving time, the purpose of the camps became very apparent to me: they are there to provide spiritual, emotional and physical support to the people who put themselves at grave risk every few days, engaging in acts of peaceful civil disobedience by standing in the way of the pipeline and getting arrested in the process. The camps provide the environment in which the actions are carefully planned; they provide encouragement and moral support to the protectors; they offer them backup during the actions, to insure their safety as much as possible; they follow the protectors to the police headquarters once they’ve been arrested, and arrange for them to make bail, and bring them back; and then the camps receive them upon their return with love, with gratitude, with food, with healing. It’s a perfect example of what real community is about.
Of those who’d been arrested that day, roughly half looked to be Indigenous. Most of the rest were white, including a couple of elderly people. Then there were four young African-Americans, all wearing hooded sweatshirts with BLACK LIVES MATTER boldly written in the front. Given the political and social climate in the U.S. today; given the widespread racism that has been crawling out of the ruins of our national denial, triggered by the election of the first black President in history; given the senseless acts of violence perpetrated against unarmed black people by civilians and by police officers unworthy of the title; given all that, the thought of those four young people taking the kind of risk they took, deliberately and openly approaching law enforcement personnel to commit acts of civil disobedience which they knew would land them in jail, took incredible courage. In so doing, they modeled for everyone what solidarity really means, the importance of all of us standing together for each other.
Reading the Parliament’s statement at central fire
A few minutes after the ceremony ended, someone came over and asked me to go up to the microphone to read the Parliament’s statement in support of Standing Rock, which I gladly did. I had also brought similar declarations from EarthSpirit and from the European Congress of Ethnic Religions, so after reading the one from the Parliament, someone else came and collected all three, saying that he would pass them on to the camp coordinators. Several people came over in the next little while to tell me they were grateful for the statements of support, and to ask that I pass their thanks to the respective organizations.
While I was sitting by the fire, I had a very interesting conversation with an Indigenous woman who was seated next to me. She was curious to know more about the Parliament, because she remembered hearing something about it a while ago. I gave her a brief description of it, and talked in particular about the Indigenous Assembly we had organized in Melbourne in 2009, and the large and very prominent Indigenous program we had at Salt Lake City last year. She asked me if there had been any friction between Indians and non-Indians at Salt Lake City, and explained that she has usually felt friction between both camps, even when they are together to work for a common purpose, so she wondered if there were any events, such as the Parliament, where that friction wasn’t present. I told her I was very familiar with what she was describing, and that there have occasionally been varying levels of friction and tension between Indians and non-Indians at the Parliament, though I had felt it much less at Salt Lake City, and hoped that meant that we were making progress in reaching greater understanding and respect. I said to her, in turn, that in the short time I had been at Camp Oceti Sakowin, it appeared to me that it was pretty free of that kind of tension, and asked her if that was her experience as well, and – if it was – why she thought that might be the case.
She replied that, for the most part, people were getting along together really well, which she ascribed to the fact that, when the camps started, the great majority of participants were Indigenous, so that even if they came from different areas and nations, they shared a very similar culture. By the time that a number of white people started arriving, the “Indian way” had been solidly established, and the newcomers had to adapt to it. She said that, while Indians are very used to functioning within white culture, the opposite is not at all true, so the newcomers were told, “you’re welcome here, we can use your help, but if you’re going to be here, you need to do things our way.”
In her opinion, that worked out fairly well for most of the summer, but she said there had been some friction lately, as more non-Indians arrived. “Some of them come because they think it’s a cool place to be, because they want to play at being Indians. But that’s all wrong, it’s not about making them feel special, it’s about working hard for the reason that we’re here, to stop the pipeline.” Other white people come “to save us,” she added: they bring an attitude that they know better, that they have fancy college degrees, all kinds of advanced skills, and that they’re going to step in and fix everything. “It’s like they’re saying, ‘I’m gonna make it all better for the poor savages, if they only get out of the way.’ Well, that’s just colonialist bullshit, we don’t need that. We have cultures that are as old as the Europeans, we know what we’re doing. People with that kind of attitude don’t last very long here.” According to her, several people have been asked to leave recently because of that.
Most white people, she said, tend to see what’s happening at Standing Rock just in terms of the pipeline, as an isolated incident. Indians, on the other hand, see it as the latest battle in a struggle they’ve been waging for hundreds of years, a struggle to preserve their lands, their cultures, their lives. She thought this was one of the most important things non-Indians needed to understand.
The next day, Donovan and I joined Mary Lyons and a group of her family and friends to walk down to the blockaded road to participate in the water ceremony. The police had placed two large, rusted trucks across Rte. 1806 to prevent access to the camp, and there were several cruisers and security vehicles parked just on the other side of the blockade. We had been asked to only go so far down the road; getting any closer to the trucks would trigger the police into action, and the camp organizers didn’t want anyone provoking them outside of the planned protests.
Grandmother Mary had asked us to bring water from places that were important or sacred to us. We brought water from the Munlochy Clootie Well – an ancient healing spring in Scotland – and from Glenwood, from a point where the waters of four streams converge. The ceremony itself was very simple: Mary spoke for a bit about why we were there and
about how Water is Life, then asked those of us who brought water to say something about where it came from, and then to pour it onto the ground to bring blessings and healing to the land.
Before heading back to Bismarck and the airport, Donovan and I stopped by to see Devorah Rosenberg, an old friend from Western Mass. who was working in the main kitchen. It was heartwarming to see someone else from home at the camp. Soon after we returned, my niece Ember Arthen-Cheyne, who is a former Army medic, drove out to Standing Rock to offer her services at the medic tent, and was planning to remain there until the end of December.
I am very grateful for the support of our community in enabling us to make the trip out to North Dakota, and I encourage everyone to lend any help you can to the people who remain in the camps and are now preparing for the harsh winter months ahead.
Addendum: Just today, it was announced that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had turned down the permit for the pipeline company to continue excavations on what are legally held to be federally-owned lands (the Sioux claim otherwise). Though this is being widely trumpeted throughout social media as a decisive victory for the Water Protectors, it is likely too early to tell what it actually means. There’s no question that this decision is a very important development, and that there is much cause for celebration in the moment. How long the moment will last, however, nobody really knows. It’s important to not lose sight of the fact that, in barely a month-and-a-half, there will likely be a dramatic change in Washington, and today’s decision could be reversed. Friends at Standing Rock inform me that the camps are continuing to prepare for the winter, and that they could still use our support.
(l. to r.) Inija Trinkūnienė, President Dalia Grybauskaitė, Jonas Trinkūnas
EarthSpirit recently sponsored a series of performances in Massachusetts and Vermont by Kulgrinda – the ritual performance group of Romuva, which is the name given in modern times to the revived ethnic pagan religion of Lithuania. Jonas Trinkūnas, the krivis (supreme priest) and founder of Romuva – who took part in those performances – is an old friend, someone I’ve known and respected very highly for some twenty years.
Kulgrinda concert, Concord MA
Jonas attended Rites of Spring back in the nineties, and I have visited him, his family, and his community in Lithuania. In 2008, when the Parliament of the World’s Religions put me in charge of finding representatives of the indigenous spiritual traditions of Europe to attend the upcoming Parliament in Melbourne, Jonas’ name was the first on my list.
A few days ago, on 6 July, Jonas had the distinction of receiving the prestigious Order of the Grand Duke Gediminas, one of Lithuania’s top civilian honors. The award was personally bestowed by Dalia Grybauskaitė, the president of Lithuania, who praised Jonas for his involvement with the underground resistance against the Soviet regime which ruled Lithuania for over forty years, as well as for his work in preserving traditional Lithuanian religion and literature.
Lithuania was the last country in Europe to officially become Christian – a change which took place mainly for political reasons, and which was not completed until the beginning of the 15th century. The pagan religion co-existed with Christianity for a very long time beyond that, and continued to survive even after Catholicism became dominant and gradually attempted to assimilate and eradicate the remaining pagan practices. But paganism still lived on in the countryside: a large sector of the peasantry, though nominally Catholic, kept alive their traditional pagan spiritually which was deeply ingrained in their everyday lives. A very strong folkloric movement which began in the 18th century helped to keep alive, in the urban centers, an awareness of Lithuania’s pagan roots.
Jonas Trinkūnas & Andras Corban-Arthen at 2009 Parliament of the World’s Religions, Melbourne, AU
Jonas Trinkūnas immersed himself from an early age in the myths and folklore of his native land, and by the time he’d finished his university studies in the early 1960s, he had published a number of articles as well as a dissertation on pre-Christian Lithuanian religion. He became a researcher and professor of literature and ancient cultures at the University of Vilnius, and during that time he founded a very popular folkloric organization which presented a variety of traditional folk music and dance events; he also began making extended visits to the countryside, to learn directly from rural villagers what still survived of the original pagan traditions.
Jonas’ activities brought him afoul of the Soviet authorities, who feared that his religious and folkloric pursuits were fomenting nationalistic sentiments which could lead to acts of sedition. He was interrogated by the KGB, and subsequently dismissed from his teaching position at the university, and forbidden from holding any kind of teaching job; for many years, he was forced to do various kinds of menial work in order to support his growing family. His folkloric organization was officially suppressed, and he could only engage in his religious practices clandestinely.
Finally, with the loosening of Soviet government controls brought about by glasnost and perestroika in the late eighties, Jonas was able to resume his public activities and to bring Romuva out in the open. Since 1990, when Lithuania achieved its independence from the Soviet Union (the first of the former Soviet republics to do so), Romuva has grown steadily and has achieved a strong presence in Lithuanian culture, though it has not yet managed to gain official government status as a traditional religion.
It may have been an unprecedented event for a pagan leader to be awarded a high honor by the president of his country – it’s certainly something that should make all pagans around the world very proud. Let us hope that the bestowal of the Order of the Grand Duke Gediminas upon Jonas Trinkūnas signals a growing willingness by the Lithuanian government to grant Romuva the official status it has long deserved.
Jonas Trinkūnas and Inija Trinkūnienė with Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaitė and members of the Romuva community at the award ceremony in Vilnius.
Since then, the three of us have worked to bring this program to life. After Emmanuel returned to Ghana, he identified some land adjacent to the Center on which the facility could be built and engaged the participation of a friend, a man named Christian, with construction experience to act as general contractor for the facility. Christian lives in the city of Ho, which lies about two hours north of Kopeyia and is in the region where hunters can still find antelope, so he also began the task of developing contacts within the community of hunters there, which we would rely on in the months to come.
Joss and I, for our parts, began to raise the funds necessary to begin the construction as well as to do the necessary research on the antelope themselves, particularly on their breeding behavior and husbandry needs. Joss produced a video about the project, which we used to raise the first round of funding through Kickstarter, a web-based service that allows people with ideas for creative projects to reach out to others who are interested in supporting worthy causes. Many of you reading this now are among the almost 100 people who contributed to the project, called “To Make the Drums Sing.” We raised almost $4,000, which went entirely to support the initial phases of construction. (You can still see the video on the Kickstarter site, although it is now closed to contributions.)
I spent my time trying to learn everything I could about antelope and captive breeding. I found myself at a bit of a disadvantage in this because my professional experience has been largely focused on wildlife in North America, and I don’t have any previous field experience with the species involved. I was confident that domestication and captive breeding of antelope would be possible; not only had others done this successfully with some species, but antelope are in the same group of mammals (the family Bovidae) that include goats, sheep, and cattle, which are perhaps the most successful forms of domestic livestock in the world.
But even though it was possible, it was also possible to do it wrong. I knew that we wouldn’t have the money for long-term experimentation; we needed to start the project with as much information as we possibly could.
Language proved to be a major barrier. Emmanuel and Christian could only express their knowledge of what species we wanted to raise in Ewe. My ability to review the published literature and seek advice from zoo professionals required that I know the species names in English or their Latin genus-species binomials. It took several months of emails and phone calls throughout North America and Africa to find a wildlife biologist with enough fluency in both English and Ewe to help us make the translations. (It later turned out that, even then, the translations were not entirely accurate, but at least I had somewhere to begin.)
In early December, Joss and I finally left for Kopeyia to start the construction of the facility and the collection of the antelope. Bearing the fruits of our fundraising and research efforts, we arrived near the start of the dry season, a short window of time during which construction would not be hampered by rains and the antelope would be (relatively) easy to catch. There was no time to waste.
During the month that we were there and the following month after we had to return to the U.S., the project moved forward out of its purely conceptual phase. Several threads to the project were launched almost simultaneously, each of which was an integral part of the whole.
A mason was hired to construct several hundred concrete blocks, approximately 16 x 8 x 4 inches. The blocks were constructed on-site, in Emmanuel’s family compound for extra security, which required the delivery of truck loads of sand, bags of cement, and the corralling of several workman whose services were in great demand throughout the rapidly developing region.
The trenches for the facility’s foundation, 100 by 100 feet square, were cleared and excavated to a depth of about 16 inches. Through brick hard clay. By hand. With old and less-than-optimal picks, shovels, and axes. Primarily by the drumming teachers at the Center. Needless to say, this took us several days.
The cement blocks were transported from the compound out to the construction site (again, by hand, but this time by the member’s of the local school’s soccer team) and laid to build a foundation three blocks high. Nine-foot lengths of galvanized pipe were then embedded in the foundation to serve as the upright supports for chain link fence that, together with razor wire for security and palm fronds for privacy, created the facility’s walls.
A 40-foot deep, 8-inch wide well was dug and outfitted with a pump to provide a constant source of freshwater to the antelope. To ensure the security of the pump, which had to be imported at some expense from Togo, the well was dug inside Emmanuel’s compound. The well was dug (you guessed it) by hand. It took two men six days to auger down through the clay, using connected 10-foot lengths of pipe to drill down to the water table. A trench then had to be dug to pipe the water from the well out to a concrete water hole constructed in the antelope facility.
A hunters’ cooperative was formed based in the city of Ho. As you might imagine, hunting is traditionally (a) a solitary activity, taking place within traditional hunting grounds that are exclusive and hereditary for each hunter, and (b) oriented toward the killing of the animals. We were asking the hunters to do something entirely new; we wanted them to capture the antelope alive and in healthy condition. Because this would require the use of a very large net (which we created from a used fishing net, 180 x 12 feet), no single hunter would be able to handle the operation on his own. To be successful, they would need to work together, cooperatively deciding when and where to work, how to manage the net, and how to share the profits.
The facility is now finished, complete with shelters and landscaping. And on February 16th, the first antelope, a baby bushbuck, was introduced into it. Emmanuel named her Dzidefo, which in Ewe means “confidence.” Since then, a few other antelope have joined her, all feeding on cast-off plant material from farm fields, such as cassava leaves and coconut husks, which are known to be favored foods.
The spark that was originally ignited is now a small flame.
Much remains to be done, of course. More antelope need to be added to the program. It has proven harder to capture a critical number of the Maxwell’s duiker, the species that we think will be the easiest to raise and breed. Time still remains in the dry season to meet our target for the year, so efforts at capture continue. We also need to secure on-going funding to hire permanent staff for care and security. In addition, the regional paramount chief, Torgbui Fitsi, has asked us to consider ways to develop an educational program that will link the facility with the public schools in the region.
All of this will require financial support, of course, so to increase our ability to raise funds through both public and private sources, we are now in the process of incorporating “The Ghana Antelope Project” as a non-profit organization with the ultimate goal of securing 501(c)3 tax-exempt status with the IRS.
Once that happens, we’ll see just how far this fire can spread.
This is a story about a spark of an idea, and an effort to fan it into a fire of positive change.
Last year, one of Josselyne’s teachers from Ghana, Emmanuel Agbeli, was visiting us in Vermont as part of a larger tour she had arranged for him throughout the eastern U.S. Emmanuel is from the Ewe (pronounced Eh-wey or Eh-vey) tribe that inhabits the Volta Region in southeastern Ghana and across the border into neighboring Togo. He is the director of the Dagbe Cultural and Arts Center in the village of Kopeyia, a center founded by his father, Godwin Agbeli. The center has been host to numerous students and scholars from colleges and universities in both the U.S. and Europe, who come to study the music, dance, song, and creative arts of the Ewe people. It was here that Joss began her in-depth study of Ewe music almost 20 years ago.
One evening over dinner, Joss recounted for me and reminded for Emmanuel a story: While in Ghana, she had asked Emmanuel about arranging for the purchase and shipping of antelope skins so that she could repair some of her ensemble’s drums, and he said that he wasn’t sure what he could provide, as the price and even availability of antelope skins had worsened dramatically in the last few years.
He had then gone on to say something that was deeply disturbing: “I do not know what the future of my people’s musical traditions will be.”
To understand his concern, one needs to understand something about the nature of those traditions.
First, as all of the readers of this blog are probably aware, much of African music has a strong emphasis on percussive rhythm. In the Volta Region of Ghana, music is dominated by drums, bells, and shakers, commonly played in ensembles that express both polyrhythmic (= instruments playing different rhythms at the same time) and polymetric (= instruments playing in different meters, such as 4/4 and 12/8, at the same time) characteristics.
Second, drums are headed by skins of various animals, including antelope, goat, and cow. However, the type of skin used is specific for a type of drum due to its timbre. If a drum is headed with a different type of skin, its sound changes, and it cannot fit in to the ensemble in its traditional way.
Third, the Ewe language is tonal. Similar to Mandarin Chinese, the inflected emphasis of how a word is spoken conveys meaning. Take, for example, the word “emmu.” The same letters in the same order can be used to mean either mosquito or water; it all depends on the inflection used when the word is pronounced.
All of these points come together in an overarching truth: The rhythmic musical traditions of the Ewe people involve drums that quite literally speak the Ewe language, each drum in the ensemble speaking a different sentence, and together telling a story that is part of the Ewe’s cultural heritage. Antelope skins are used because they are strong and, more importantly, they produce a variety of melodic tones. If the drums are not headed with antelope, then the drums cannot speak their parts, and if the drums cannot speak their parts, then the story cannot be told.
And the antelope are disappearing.
Through overhunting for food and habitat loss to accommodate increased agricultural production, antelope throughout West Africa, including Ghana, are in decline. Of the 20 species of antelope known to be part of Ghana’s native fauna, one (the red-fronted gazelle) has been eliminated from the region already, and all of the rest but for two are in decline.
It is no wonder that the price and availability of antelope hides has worsened in recent years. And it is no wonder that Emmanuel said, “I do not know what the future of my people’s musical traditions will be.”
It was then that Joss asked her next question, one that would launch the three of us on a journey that would move us between continents, among multiple cultures, and across disciplines as diverse as ethnomusicology, wildlife biology, and non-profit business management. “Well, if antelope populations are declining in the wild, would it be possible to raise them in captivity?”
Cue the quizzical stares in the direction of our house’s resident wildlife biologist. “Well,” I said, “I have no idea, but I can do some research and see what’s known about that kind of project.”
In fact, it turns out that captive breeding of antelope is a well-established practice. Numerous zoos around the world have successfully bred many different species of antelope, including those that would be of interest to the Ewe people, and a handful of wildlife rehabilitation centers in Africa had done the same. In fact, several years ago, the duikers (pronounced di-ker), a group of small antelope species native to Africa, were identified as a promising form of “micro-livestock,” species whose domestication might improve agricultural productivity and food availability.
In theory, then, developing a captive breeding program for antelope in Kopeyia might be a way to help retain Ewe musical traditions. We could capture a handful of antelope in the wild and use them to start a breeding colony in a facility where they could be fed and cared for. Their offspring could provide hides for the cultural center and meat for the local villagers in an on-going basis, all without putting undo pressure on the populations in the wild. All we would have to do is build the facility, find a way to get hunters to capture the initial animals for the colony and deliver them to us alive, hire staff to provide care and feeding for the animals, develop a protocol to ensure their health and promote their reproduction, and raise the funds to do it all on an on-going basis.
As Joss and I are so fond of saying when presented with an interesting idea, “Hey, how hard can it be?”