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West Hill’s First Nations Study Group – what it means to be an ally

When you walk into the nave at West Hill United, a banner which reads “ Honour the Treaties” may catch your eye as you look up at the sanctuary. Most churches, if they had such a banner at all, would probably not have it there as a permanent fixture. Perhaps they would bring it out for a special occasion, but it would be spirited away into storage as soon as the moment it was created for passed into history. However, not at West Hill. The banner’s design, with its two lavender bands running on either side of the words, honours the “Tow Row” treaty made between the Haudenosaunee and the Dutch settlers in the upper reaches of the Hudson River in 1613. The Haudenosaunee are more commonly known to non-natives as the people of the Iroquois confederacy — Five Nations at the time of their first encounter with Europeans, now the Six Nations.) The Haudenosaunee renewed the treaty with subsequent visitors to their lands and consider it as still in effect. The two lavender bands of the wampum belt which records the Two Row treaty, represent two paths – one native and the other non-native – running parallel, so as not interfering with each other . Divided into three bands by the two lavender ones, the white background stands for Peace, Respect and Friendship.

West Hill’s banner was created for an “honor the treaties” petition caravan to Ottawa which members of the West Hill United First Nations Study Group went on in December 2013. Five of us were in the visitors’ gallery of the House of Commons when the petition was read into the record. About 3,300 people signed the petition. Hundreds of signatures were collected in communities on our way to Ottawa. The petition decried the 2% annual cap on core funding programs imposed by the federal government on First Nations communities in 1996, the boil water advisories which point to an abject failure to provide even the basic necessities of life in dozens of the communities affected, the gap in per capita education funding for First Nations schools, and the general failure of the Canadian government to honour the treaties and the treaty relationship with the First Nations.

(For many years the federal government vehemently denied that First Nations children and youth received less funding for education than their non-native peers, but that gap, a fact known to everyone — and I dare say even by those who stood in the House Commons to deny it — was acknowledged as a fact when the prime minister proposed a substantial increase in education funding for First Nations. That promise was, in turn, put on hold almost as soon as it was made. The excuse – the objections of Assembly of First Nations leaders to the federal government’s seizure of control of First Nations schools which would result if unilaterally imposed deadlines and standards were not met. The aforementioned 2% funding cap for core programs remains in effect today, 19 years after it was first imposed.)

While the petition caravan the First Nations Study Group undertook in 2013 may be a singular highlight of the work we do, it certainly was not a flash in the pan. Last year hundreds of people came to West Hill to hear the celebrated author Joseph Boyden read from his prize-winning historical novel “The Orenda”. Proceeds from the ticket sales were donated, on Mr. Boyden’s request, to Camp Onakawana, a place on the Abitibi River where native youth, who have lost their way, can rediscover the traditions and beliefs of their peoples.

Last November, we hosted a meeting for Darlene Necan, an Ojibway woman from the Saugeen First Nation at Savant Lake. She goes to trial this year for building a cabin on what the provincial Ministry of Natural Resources calls “Crown Land”, though it be the land her ancestors lived on for thousands of years. Our Study Group created a petition, signed by 49 members of our congregation, calling on the Premier to look into her situation and the homelessness crisis which led to it. (I was subsequently interviewed for a CBC National documentary on Darlene’s story.)

Our meetings on the last Monday of the month at 1:30 p.m. feature guest speakers or films or both. One of my favorite guest speakers was Jonathan Garlow, the founder of “Two Row Times”, a weekly publication from the Six Nations (Haudenosaunee) Territory at the Grand River. This coming spring, on April 27, Nahnda Garlow, author of a weekly feature “Scone Dogs and Seed Beads” in the same paper, will be visiting us. Nahnda’s column is a favorite amongst those who take the Two Row from me on Sundays.

Ruth Gill and Dorothy Hirlehey, our two convenors, have laid out ambitious plans for 2015 which will see us continue to educate ourselves and speak out on injustices to indigenous peoples – the murdered and missing indigenous girls and women, the failure to provide equitable and culturally sensitive child welfare services to First Nations children, and other issues .

By the way, my Haudenosaunee friends have taught me to say “Onkwehon:we” (pronounced Ong Gay Hoh Way – with a little bit of a honking goose in the first and third syllables) instead of “First Nations” or “Indigenous” and or “Aboriginal”, the term they despise the most. “Onkwehon:we” means the “real people”. It seems to me that becoming a member of the “real people” is more a matter of consciousness or cosmology than of ancestry.

So, why do we do this work? It would be easy to say it’s motivated by altruism, but that would be the most impoverished excuse for an explanation. We all have our own reasons, and so I am not going to attempt to speak for the group. I will just speak for me. In my view, this is as much about us non-natives finding a way out of the impasse we have created for ourselves as it is about justice for the Onkwehon:we. The impasse I am talking about is multi-dimensional. It is ecological, economic, social, and, yes, spiritual. For the sake of time, length, and space, I won’t go into detail about those aspects, but you can catch my drift. The point is that there is a way out of this impasse — this no future dead-end. Moreover, the way out has always been there waiting for us. It can be found by turning to what the Onkwehon:we have to teach us and to what they were always willing to teach us from the moment we first landed on their shores here on Turtle Island. It’s just that we were just too deaf and blind to hear or see it.

Joseph Boyden’s “The Orenda” ends with the prophetic words that the orenda is not dead; it is has only been lost. It can still be found again. There is still time. There is still hope – for us all.

For those willing to learn more, I would suggest reading “The Orenda” by Joseph Boyden, or “An Inconvenient Truth” by Thomas King” or “White Man’s Law” by Sidney Harring. The last of these is a little harder to find, but well worth the search. I would suggest looking into such traditions as the Great Law of Peace – the ancient constitution of the Haudenosaunee, the Two Row, the Dish with One Spoon, and the Good Mind. The Dish with One Spoon was a treaty made between Onkwehon:we peoples themselves where they agreed to conserve and share the bounty of the earth and not to plunder it for any one nation’s exclusive advantage. The Good Mind, I’ll leave you to discover on your own.

Steve Watson,
Member, First Nations Study Group at West Hill

Review & Commentary