"If you are going to do this Remembering Project, you have to start right" Charlotte Tookenay told me, when we first met in the pow wow circle.
How do we even begin to discuss the harm done, as members of the community that caused the harm?
"You start with spirit."
The path to the ceremony at Biigtigong First Nation was long and full of obstacles. That made the experience all the more profound when I finally crossed the threshold into Turtle Lodge.
The path there began at the Chapleau Cree First Nation pow wow circle three months ago. I had come to a memorial service for the children who died at the residential school there, and to meet the people who had made the stunning memorial stones in the forest that held their unmarked graves.
At the pow wow the next day, a survivor stepped out of the crowd to give his testimony. George had been a student a school in Fort Albany, farther north. He named one of the children who died from abuse and neglect in that school. He described the emotional impact it had on him to this day. It had an emotional impact on me, too.
Seeing how upset I was, a woman stepped forward to ask what I was doing there. A friend of George’s, she had seen me the previous evening around the campfire, but had kept her distance as she tried to figure out why a non-indigenous guy would be camping on the pow wow grounds.
She introduced herself as Charlotte Tookenay, from Pic Mobert First Nation. In time she shared her spirit name with me, Zhawa Noong Migizi.
When Charlotte learned of the Remembering Project, she sounded incredulous. Did I have any idea how much pain the memories of those children carry even today? The very idea of remembering them will generate resistance by those still carrying the pain.
I explained that I approach this work as one of atonement. People who look like me and think like me did this to those children. My own ancestors did this to her ancestors. We have to atone for it if our country is ever to heal.
If you are crazy enough to take this task on, she told me, you must approach this work in spirit.
I suppose she meant this at many levels. At one level, she meant that this is a spiritual matter. We are dealing here with issues of life, death, and the meaning of both. We need to learn about the spiritual beliefs of the communities that lost these children, if we are to engage in any kind of atonement that carries meaning for them.
In that spiritual paradigm, of course, the children themselves are spirits. As are we all, the living as well as the dead. So she also meant that we need to learn how to engage at that level, taking the task as seriously as this requires.
There is a way to achieve this level of seriousness, and it is called ceremony. And that is what I had the opportunity to participate in at Turtle Lodge.
The path from the pow wow circle to the lodge first took me back to university. I am now a student in the Anishnaabe Worldview class at Glendon College taught by the remarkable teacher and cultural revivalist Maya Chacaby. I am learning the culture, the origin stories and the beliefs of the people formerly known as the Ojibway.
I learned some of the basics of ceremony, like the four sacred medicines and the offering of tobacco as an act of mindfulness. I have learned the importance of place, the connection to the land we are on at any given moment and the relationships that come with that. I am working these aspects of ceremony into the work of the Remembering Project, to make sure we always approach our work in the right spirit as well.
I advanced enough on the path to earn an invitation to attend one of the four main annual ceremonies. The invitation came from Charlotte, my friend and now spiritual guide. She has overcome her own obstacles to meet me on this path, and that doubles the gratitude I feel for her.
Charlotte showed me the next step on the path. It led me on a 1100 km journey from Toronto to Biigtigong, where the Pic River empties into Lake Superior. She helped me prepare for the ceremony mentally, emotionally, and practically. I am honoured that she considered me worth the investment of time, and that she is giving the Remembering Project a chance.
There were many other twists and turns on the path, obstacles that were greater than the sheer physical distance. Sacrifices of time, work opportunities and resources. And sacrifices that were very much worth taking, for what I received in return.
There are limits to what I can say about ceremony when not in it. What I can say is that when I entered that door and the ceremony began, I could feel the walls dissolve. I am now in new territory, finding which way the path leads from here.
I will incorporate what I am learning about ceremony in the work we do with the Remembering Project. In hopes that you can join in the path we explore together to remember these children in a way that honours the communities and cultures from which they came.
The photo shows articles gifted or created for use in the Remembering Project: a shell for smudging, a rattle and a drum handmade of deerskin