By Doris Peltier, APHA Liaison (CAAN)
We are such storytellers, and those that know me, know that I always use story to share knowledge. I want to use story to contextualize the title I have chosen for this article and how it connects to my ongoing dialogue with one of our traditional elders.
A few years ago, I had the opportunity and honor to travel together with a traditional elder to the CAAN Wise Practices II (WP II) conference in Toronto. He had been invited to attend WPII to conduct a ‘coming home’ ceremony for APHAs. While travelling, we had a few hours to chat about many things. For instance, we discussed the details on how the ceremony would happen, as he had indicated that I should be one of his helpers for this ceremony. He also shared why this type of ceremony was important for addressing disconnection among our people as a result of historical trauma. All of this resonated for me and I knew it would resonate at the conference too, particularly when I had suggested we do this ceremony for my peers.
Suddenly, out of the blue he asked me to explain the principles of harm reduction to him. He’d been listening to me because I knew I used this term a number of times throughout our conversation. I explained it quite simply, by saying, “It is about walking alongside or journeying with people, no matter where they are at in their journey, and giving them the tools that will protect them from harm.” This is all I had to say because he very quickly understood the principle. As I think about it now, I think it resonated for him based on his traditional and cultural knowledge. After all, harm reduction principles are similar to our cultural values. Ultimately, it’s grounded in our traditional belief that all life is sacred. I think he began, in that moment, to formulate his plan to embrace harm reduction in ceremony.
Suffice to say, the ceremony was beautiful. It touched the spirits of upwards of 30 of my peers who participated, and not surprisingly, the elder did embrace harm reduction. No one was left out of the ceremony and no one was barred from participating. And again, not surprisingly, when the elder asked for more helpers, the natural helpers (our two-spirit community members) jumped in to help out. For me this reflected what I know about the ceremonial roles that our two-spirited community members have traditionally held in our communities. With this elder, it just happened naturally and it was beautiful to witness. Every ceremony that I have been involved in from that time onwards elicits the same feeling I had this one night; we are inside a sacred circle with community and with the ancestors.
I think it is important to have ongoing dialogue with traditional elders as we do this work. I’ve always consulted elders before embarking on new directions. I do this to ensure that the work I do is based on our traditional values and cultural practices. On numerous occasions, the elders I speak of have come with his family to visit me in my home, or we speak via telephone, or by Skype. It seems that each time this happens, I am being given more knowledge, and for this, I am always very grateful to receive their teachings.
Another visit happened just after we at the Canadian Aboriginal AIDS Network (CAAN) had been told by our CEO that our organization would have to broaden the mandate of the organization based on new directions from our funders. These directives involved moving towards a more broadened integrated approach to include all sexually transmitted blood borne infections (STBBIs). This new broaden approach would also include hepatitis C, tuberculosis, HIV and AIDS, mental health, HIV and aging and related co-morbidities.
It was around this time that the elder and his family came to visit, and again we were discussing ceremony. Up to this point, I’ve grappled with trying to understand why some of our traditionalists/practitioners have such rigid rules in terms of who can participate in ceremonies. I mentioned this to the elder and asked him, “Where is the harm reduction in all of this? We have an epidemic to deal with and those that can most benefit from our ceremonies are barred! Why is that?”
He responded by telling me a story. He took me back to a period before contact and described how we as nations would gather whenever decisions had to be made in the interests of all nations and all our communities. As he spoke, I could see the vision of our people travelling to reach the place of gathering. He described, upon arrival, all the lodges were erected by communities in a particular formation around the central lodge – the place were all nations would gather. It’s the place where all deliberations and decisions were made by all communities and by all nations. Surrounding the central lodge were all the medicine lodges and the medicine people, and their role was to conduct ceremonies together (in unity) to support what was being discussed and decided upon in the central lodge. There was no hierarchy in their role or within the sacred circle.
It was vision, he shared, and it touched my psyche and struck an ancestral chord within me. My spirit saw the central lodge as the central fire – the home fire, the place of the heart that embraces the way of the heart. Again, the elder and his wife shared something special that spoke to our ways of governance that fully embraces self-determination, where all voices are important, and where everyone has a role.
In today’s context, as we look towards addressing the many faces of epidemic in our communities, if we can envision working together as community within that sacred circle described in this vision and place HIV as the core, as our teacher, I think we can begin to address the shared risk behaviors with a shared risk population and prevent new infections. The only time that I think we can consider a hierarchy within a western context is to recognize that HIV is the most stigmatized all these diseases; and likely mental health as well. A holistic approach has always been our way, but perhaps we need to scale up our actions in terms of grounding ourselves in ceremony, and then to continue to acknowledge that all people are sacred.
As one of my colleagues recently wrote in her ‘Love Letter to Ontario’, addressing the delegates at the 2014 Ontario First Nations Aboriginal People Living with HIV and AIDS (OFNAPHA) Summit, she acknowledged epidemic for what it is and placed it alongside the utilizing of our indigenous approaches in a very beautiful way:
As the disease of addiction is leading the pack in the province of Saskatchewan on new cases of HIV, this is a very tricky disease that strips all from a human being. The Elders have dealt with this disease in a manner that our ancestors used. At the Network we move forward in the traditional beliefs and teachings of our ancestors, these teachings live in us, we just need to wake up to them and listen to the voice of the Great Spirit. (Margaret Poitras – 2014 OFNAPHA Summit Love Letter)
Miiquetch to all the elders and to all of you that are teachers out there, you are many, and you know who you are! Keep the home fires burning and hold space for the disenfranchised within our sacred circle! One day soon, they will come home. All my relations!!