Parliament of World’s Religions 2018: A Personal Report

by Amanda Leigh-Hawkins

[Ed. note: Amanda Leigh-Hawkins is a longstanding member of the EarthSpirit Community, and she also serves as program coordinator of the International Relations & Exchange Program of The Troth, one of the most prominent heathen organizations in the U.S. We are happy to publish this report of her participation in the 2018 Parliament of the World’s Religions in Toronto; her report will also be included in the January issue of Idunna, The Troth’s quarterly journal. A full account of EarthSpirit’s presence at the Toronto Parliament is in the works, and will soon be included in these pages.]

The Parliament of World’s Religions (PoWR) was held in Toronto, Canada November 1-7, 2018. The theme this year was “The Promise of Inclusion, the Power of Love: Pursuing Global Understanding, Reconciliation and Change”. It gives me hope for humanity and the earth to have witnessed and participated in making a real difference. It was such a powerful experience to support and be part of this kind of shared interfaith, and international collaboration. The event was filled with high-magic, and deeply meaningful, intellectually inspiring, personal, educational, and transformational experiences. I was there formally representing The Troth as the Program Coordinator for The Troth’s International Relations and Exchange Program (IREP), and the Alliance for Inclusive Heathenry. I was also there to support paganism in general, and my local pagan EarthSpirit Community. This was my first interfaith event. I hear there were 10,000 delegates from 80 countries, 1600 presenters, 200 religious and spiritual traditions, and at minimum 100 pagans and Heathens in attendance this year, and perhaps as many as 300. I am grateful that pagans and Heathens were represented so well. It was like our own mini event within the larger one. So much happened at the Parliament that I can only do my best to describe my personal 2-day experience.

I remember first hearing about the PoWR from EarthSpirit Community members when I first met them around the year 2002. If I’m not mistaken, Earth Spirit has been attending since 1993. I’ve always respected, appreciated, and been inspired by the efforts and support that “the pagan contingent” have put into the Parliament, pagan community, and other shared values such as human/civil rights and protection of the environment. I have been particularly inspired by Andras Corban-Arthen, and Deidre Pulgram Arthen. I was thrilled to finally be able to attend.

When I arrived, I stayed at a hotel with The Troth Steward for Eastern Canada, Camille Crawford. We dove right into deep and important conversations first thing in the morning, even before coffee! After a brief run through Toronto (I usually avoid Starbucks, but the Rose Blossom Café Late was a delicious taste of Toronto!), we made our way to our booth #411 at the Parliament where we met up with Diana Paxson, Robert L. Schreiwer, John Mainer, Lorrie Wood, Camille Crawford, Ethan Stark, Eric Thorpe-Moscon, Brian Weis, Angela Carlson, Lisa Cowley Morgenstern, and others. Our booth was co-sponsored by The Alliance for Inclusive Heathenry, and The Troth’s International Relations and Exchange Program. We also proudly hung the banner for Heathens Against Hate, an independent program/branch within The Troth. Which reminds me, we should make IREP pins. Oh, hey, are there Alliance for Inclusive Heathenry pins? I became a big fan of pins at PoWR (blush). I proudly wore The Troth pin, the HAH pin, and the EarthSpirit Community pin.

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(Photos above by Amanda Leigh-Hawkins)

Our group members spoke at the following presentations & panels:

Saturday: 17:00-17:45: Room 201E:
Ancestor Sumbel: Come honor your Beloved Dead

Hosted by Diana Paxson, Robert Schreiwer, and Ethan Stark. Photos by Angie Buchanan.

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This public Heathen Ancestor Sumbel was everything it should have been. Sumbel is an important way to connect, share, remember, and honor. Later that evening we had a private sumbel which was what I really needed. I’ve been so isolated at work full-time, and as a mom of a young child, that I don’t get to spend as much time as I need with my religious/spiritual communities. I look forward to hosting and attending local gatherings more often. Such quality time is so vitally restorative and healing. I think any psychologist would say that spending time with trusted friends helps keep depression away.

 

Sunday: 14:15-15:45: Room 104D:
Ancient Religious Rituals and Vows and their Relevance in Modern World

The Heathen representative on this panel was John Mainer. Heathenry is a world-accepting religion. Whereas many (most?) other religions are world-rejecting. Vows and oaths are handled differently in the various traditions which deeply affect how we as peoples interact with others, self, and the world.

 

Sunday: 15:15-16:00: Room 703:
Heathens Against Hate: Striving to Save a Religious Identity from Extremists (video is linked)

Presented by Ethan Stark, Robert Schreiwer, Eric Thorpe-Moscon, and Brian Weis.      (Left photo, back row, l-r: Ethan & Brian; front row, l-r: Rob & Eric. Right photo, l-r: Ethan & Rob. Photos by Amanda Leigh-Hawkins.)

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This was a very good presentation and overview of the issues Heathenry faces on a daily basis. I am very appreciative of the work HAH does to combat prejudice in Heathenry directly. Please take the time to watch the whole video (linked above). I would more actively participate in HAH itself if I wasn’t already spearheading IREP, which is similar to HAH but its focus is frith building and connecting inclusive peoples. Sometimes the work of these two Troth programs overlap. HAH at PoWR is an example of that overlap.

 

Tuesday: 15:15-16:00: Room 605:
“Heathen” is a Belief System, not a Put-down

Presented by Lisa Morgenstern, Angela Carlson, Diana Paxson, John Mainer, Lorrie Wood (from left to right in the picture below). Photo by Yvonne C. Conway-Williams.

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Description: “Around the world, ‘Heathen’ has been linked to the idea of ‘godless,’ ‘uncivilized,’ etc. Pagans have reclaimed their root word ‘Paganus’ meaning country dweller who worshipped the Old Gods. ‘Heathen’ evolved into a Middle English root word meaning something similar to ‘Paganus’ rather than ‘a person having no religion.’ As we stand up to the white supremacists/racists who would steal our ancient symbols for their own purposes, we must also stand up to the prejudice of language within the World Community.”

This reminds me of the taxi ride I had back to my hotel. I was lucky enough to get a semi-famous taxi driver renowned for having memorized the North American map. We had a trivia session, starting with locations, and then sciences, and then he gave me to option of picking my own questions for him. After having failed or nearly failed most of my trivia questions, I was relieved that I had something to offer him. I asked him something to the effect of “What is paganism?”. He said, “pagans don’t have religion”. I replied that many of us do have religion. He was surprised and asked me more about mine. I tried to describe it simply, “Germanic pagan. Asatru to be specific. We honor many Gods and Goddesses. Such as Freya, the Goddess of love. I am inclusive and wish the best for everyone.” Maybe I wish I just said “Asatru, meaning having faith in the Aesir”. Instead of saying Germanic pagan. But that would require explaining the Aesir and Vanir, which would bring me back to Germanic Heathenry anyway. Ugh, labels, and identity and beliefs can be so complicated. I am uncomfortable associating ethnicity with my religion/spirituality. Why? Well, for example my ancestors have not been pagan or Heathen (or European) in hundreds of years. As far as I’m aware, ethnicity does not bind you to a faith, your choices and relationships do. Asatru-Witch is even more precise way I self-identify. Circling back to the taxi ride again…after reflecting on how little I know about the subjects he was quizzing me on, instead of just feeling like my college degrees and 40 years of thoughtful life failed me, I felt like I at least had something important to offer the world. He and I were both humbled and had some new things to think about. My primary interfaith interaction back at the booth, was also in support of the Goddesses. “Don’t’ forget the Goddesses!” I said to Lisa, as she masterfully explained Heathenry/Asatru to a young lady who seemed to be eagerly waiting to hear about the Goddesses and beamed when we made that connection. Hail Freya! Freya has been following me around the world in my efforts to build alliances between Heathens and pagans internationally. I felt Her influence strongly in Toronto. Among all the God-religions at the Parliament, it was very important to advocate for and with the Goddesses.

Which brings me to the EarthSpirit Community booth #911:

(From left to right: Amanda Leigh-Hawkins, Moira Ashleigh, Jennifer B., Will Thomas Rowan. Photo by Isobel Arthen.)

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It was such a pleasure to stand together with the EarthSpirit Community in support of our shared values, community, and desire to make a positive difference in the world. Jennifer brought me to my first Sikh Langar lunch. Which was very different than our usual lunches together at work. Langar is the term used in Sikhism for the community kitchen where a vegetarian meal is served to all visitors, without distinction of religion, caste, gender, economic status or ethnicity. When I sat down to eat this lunch, I felt connected to and equal to all the people who struggle to have access to food in the world. I was very appreciative of the food offered, especially that it was at no cost. I reflected on how perhaps I would not have had lunch today without this hospitality. Will wrote about the Transforming Masculinity workshop he co-presented at PoWR. Moira, I have known since I was a “wee pagan” at my first Rites of Spring EarthSpirit event in 2002. She’s always been a strong and wise woman to look up to that I respect very much. Though he was not in this picture, Andras Corban-Arthen is the spiritual Director of EarthSpirit. He was very busy at Parliament, being Vice Chair of PoWR, and President of ECER [European Congress of Ethnic Religions]. I appreciate all he has done for community, pagans, the world interfaith dialogues, and me personally as a young Witch.

Which brings me to the pagan presentation:

Reclaiming the Indigenous Ethnic Religions of Europe (video is linked)

“A panel discussion / presentation by Andras Corban-Arthen, Inija Trinkūnienė and Vlassis G. Rassias, board members of the European Congress of Ethnic Religions – from Spain, Lithuania and Greece – concerning the survival and preservation of pre-Christian, indigenous and ethnic spiritual traditions among European peoples, at 2018 PARLIAMENT OF THE WORLD’S RELIGIONS in Toronto Canada, on Sat, November 3rd, 2018.”

This presentation is the one that has stood out to me the most, and is most thought provoking, and the most challenging to reply to as an inclusive Heathen. The Heathens Against Hate presentation is an important one to consider at the same time as this one. These two presentations are two primary reasons for my attendance. If you know me, you know what Frith Forge meant to me, you will see it discussed in the HAH presentation. If you know me or don’t know me, imagine how one might help take the right next steps from here for inclusive Heathenry/Asatru, and much broader/shared concerns with PoWR. I invite my friends from Frith Forge in particular to listen to this video thoughtfully, especially Andras’ comments during the Q&A at the end. I look forward to continuing our discussions about what inclusive Heathenry/Asatru means to us throughout the world.

I think Andras is doing a very good job leading the ECER in the right direction, far away from its racist past. I appreciate Andras’ statement: “Ethnocentrism becomes a problem when it becomes a way to shut anyone else who is different out of that.”  There is good bridging language used in this presentation. I see good interreligious harmony building in this as well. Andras quotes someone from Denmark who said “If the Gods of my people want to accept this person (a black person), it is not my place to say no. If this person wants to worship the Gods of my people, it is not my place to say no. However, the religion of my people is totally centered on this land that I was born and grew up in. So, this person would need to live here to practice my religion because it is connected totally to the land. The ceremonies are all, all take place in the Danish language. So, they would need to speak Danish. They are rooted in a culture that still exists in Denmark, so they would need to be in some way assimilated into the culture or be willing to be assimilated into the culture. If a black person, say from the United States or from Africa or whatever, wanted to do all of that, we would welcome them.” Then Andras said “What really struck me about that, is that is the same kind of answer I would expect from a Lakota, or a Wurundjeri, or a Yoruba in their native land. It’s really not that different. We’re not, perhaps used to thinking of Europeans in this same context. And I think in some ways that’s part of what looking at the survivals of these very ancient traditions in many places can give us a different perspective on European culture and therefore western culture.” I respect that, especially in the context of trying to protect “endangered” traditions and peoples. However, after sitting on this for a couple weeks, I am starting to be able to articulate my remaining concerns. For example, one thing that one should not forget is that (it seems to me) that the Aesir and Vanir Gods and Godesses are not restricted by the boundaries of a country or ethnicity or sometimes even species when choosing where and with whom to connect to. (Dwarves, giants, and elves oh my!). Also, what happens when this guy from Denmark goes on vacation outside his country? Is he no longer able to practice his religion? I would think he would still be able to honor the Gods, Goddesses, ancestors, community. I find that land spirits can be different and are different even at your neighbors house compared to your own. Bit you can still practice honoring friendly land-spirits wherever you go. (Andras, I know you know all about that. I look forward to chatting more with you about all this). On a slightly different train if thought… One thing that I am learning over and over on deeper levels is how harmony, inclusion, and frith/peace building also requires equally strong boundaries. I am an inclusive Heathen, however, like the The Gods and Goddess may connect with anyone, as do humans. I think each person’s religion is unique to them. Religion is very personal. Yet like at PoWR people were finding commonalities between seemingly totally different religions constantly, all week long. So maybe it’s communities, not as much religion, that need the stronger boundaries? Communities, especially spiritual communities have boundaries and require mutual acceptance and trust. For example, I’ve been attending EarthSpirit events for 16 years, yet it took until this PoWR for me to feel (for personal reasons) that it was fully appropriate for me to wear the Earth Spirit Community pin. (Andras, thank you for that hug. It meant so much to me. The elaborate web weaving was not lost on me.)

Forgive me. Internet. if I messed up and said something wrong. I usually am not one to write a lot, because I can talk myself out of saying pretty much anything. Haha. However, I’m trying to learn and share, and not be a stereotypical “one-dimensional” American. I’m trying to make a positive difference. I am hoping this personal report reaches an audience who can continue to engage in compassionate and educational dialogue like at PoWR. Instead of the flame wars that could start over such a complicated topic regardless of weather I say the right or wrong thing. I have SO drawn my line in the sand between me and the hate groups. So please don’t put words in my mouth and say I am not firmly inclusive. For I most certainly am. I’m warily considering how faiths centered on “regional” practices may be okay and when it’s not. Instead of just writing off anyone who resembles prejudiced people whom I want nowhere near my personal boundary.

Moving on. After this presentation we had a group dinner together for the Heathens and Inija joined us. What a good dinner with friends and acquaintances! At which point suddenly, I “oathed-in” to another Troth role, International Steward. There is much I wish to continue helping with. The official title just helps me do what I’ve been doing even better. I’m just trying to do my part to at least learn and grow and help others connect.

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(Left photo, l-r: Rob Schreiwer, Camille Crawford, Amanda Leigh-Hawkins. Photo by John Mainer. The picture of The Troth banner was taken by Amanda Leigh-Hawkins at Trothmoot 2018.)

There are so many other presentations, performances, and spaces I wish I had the chance to see. Such as the women’s space room, the Red Tent, the LGBTQIA+ safe space room, the art salon, spend more time at booths and presentations for other faiths, plenaries, performances, and so much more. On my way back to my car I had an incredibly important personal conversation about ‘wolf medicine’ with one of my new Heathen friends. Then I stopped by the native American 24-hour fire and made an offering. I really appreciated feeling welcome there. I found myself returning home, more comfortable with my place in the world, myself, and how to interact with both. I highly recommend going if you get the chance. It is well worth it. And…don’t forget the Goddesses. Hail Freya! Hail Frigga!




In frith and service,

Amanda Leigh-Hawkins

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In the Circle of Earth and Sky: Four Directions Ceremony in conjunction with Four Elders

by Chris LaFond

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Francois Paulette

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

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Bob Goulais

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.  

The Zoroastrian Boi Ceremony

by Chris LaFond

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Tehemton Mirza, Mobed

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.

We concluded as the Sun’s rays poured over the buildings around us on the first rainless day we’ve had since the Parliament began.

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.  

Holding Integrity: A Lesson from Chief Arvol Looking Horse

by Chris LaFond

Arvol Looking Horse

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.  

The Canadian Way

The Canadian Way

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

Indigenous dancer

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.  

Wondering

Isobel canoeby Isobel Arthen

On this day when so many people are celebrating science, I wanted to share some reflections I’ve made over the past couple months. When I was young I really thought science was the antithesis of spirituality. I didn’t put any faith in something that I thought tried to explain the unsolvable mysteries of the world around us, and I resented it for defining natural phenomena when, to me, something like fire is so much more than just a chemical reaction. In 9th grade when I started learning about ecological concepts like interdependence, food webs and cycles, I realized that science may not be in contradiction with spirituality. In fact, I discovered that it compliments it in some very potent ways.

Many of you know that I have spent my adult life immersed in the study of science, and specifically ecology. I have found that the more I understand the world around me, the more I can appreciate it. Since starting work as an educator at the Franklin Institute, I have had many opportunities to learn about how to best communicate science to museum guests, including one session about how the brain actually interprets and stores information.

This training left me with a lot to think about, but one thing especially stuck out. At the beginning, we were asked what we had always wondered about the brain. The group answered with a popcorn of questions that piqued my curiosity about every question someone else had asked. We were told, later on, that the question was specifically intended to prime our minds for learning—that inspiring inquiry, or wonder, releases dopamine in the brain, thus improving attention and focus.

After that activity I have been thinking a lot about that word, “wonder.” What a word. It is used to describe a state of inquiry and curiosity, a way of seeking new information— “I wonder why those ants walk in a line?” But it also describes a state of amazement. To stare “with wonder” is to perceive something so astounding that it is almost unbelievable. I have come to believe that “wonder” is that place, that liminal space between science and magic, and as a scientist and an animist, that is where I want to live.

To gaze with wonder at the night sky is so much more if you know that there are about as many neurons in one brain as there are stars in our galaxy, and that there are about the same number of galaxies in the universe. To handle soil means so much more if you know that it took hundreds upon hundreds of years to develop, and that it is home to billions of living beings right in the palm of your hand. What do you miss if you look at fire and just see a combustion reaction? What do you lose if you don’t notice its ability to transform and destroy, or the way gazing into a flame can transport you to a whole other place?

I am disappointed not to be at the science march, but like every day at work, I have spent today bringing science into people’s lives. I have asked guests to wonder with me, to come up with questions, to try and notice and discover new things about the world we so often take for granted. I share this with you so that maybe you’ll make a point to come up with a new question today (if you do, let me know what it is!). It seems to me there is no better way to celebrate science than to take some time to wonder.

Confronting Racism, Yankee Pagan Style

by Cat Chapin-Bishop

I am a Yankee.  Right down to my Pagan soul.

My understanding of what it means to be a Pagan is to try to live in right relationship with the gods, the land, and the people, including the ancestors.  My gods are those that are comfortable in New England’s woods and hills.  My land is this rocky landscape of New England.  And my people and my ancestors–on Mom’s side, at least–are New Englanders: sea captains and dairy farmers, teachers and laborers.  Whatever granite is in this place or in my ancestors lives on in me and in my Pagan practice.

Old Man of the Mountain stamp

And that granite is why I am so driven to speak out against racism.

To help me explain what I mean, I’m going to go ahead and borrow an ancestor: my friend Kirk White‘s father.

A Yankee like a Rock

Kirk’s ancestors, like mine, were among the first Englishmen to arrive in North America.  Like mine, this landscape was where they found their home.  And like me, my friend Kirk and his family before him has loved New England–Vermont in his case, Maine and Massachusetts in mine.

Now, Kirk grew up on the farm his family had owned for over a hundred years.  Farming in New England, though, has never been an easy way to earn a living, and, like other families before and since, Kirk’s family found other ways to pay their bills.  So when Kirk was growing up, his dad Ron was a contractor.

During the real estate boom of the 1970s, Ron got hired by a big developer to build houses for vacationers in Vermont.  There was a lot of money changing hands.

Now, standard practice in construction, then and probably now, says that the people under you get paid when you get paid.  So the construction workers get paid when the contractor gets paid, and the contractor gets paid when the developer gets paid.  But sometimes, there are delays.  And on this job, there were lots of delays.

People have to eat.  Ron had a crew under him, filled with workers who needed to eat, and who couldn’t wait until next month or next year to do that.  So Ron took out loans, and did what he had to do so that all the people working under him got paid. Because he knew what it was like, to need to feed your kids today on money you won’t have until tomorrow, and he wasn’t going to make people deal with that.

Then it turned out that that particular developer wasn’t going to pay anybody; his deals had gone sour. He declared bankruptcy, and Ron and his crew were way too far down on the food chain to ever get a share.

Ron had paid his workers.  They were fine.  But Ron’s debts were all in his own name, and he had no way to pay them.  Worse: that was the year his house burned down.  One of Ron’s sons died.  His wife had a heart attack.  It was just that kind of year.

The sensible thing to do would have been to follow the developer into bankruptcy, but Ron couldn’t make himself do that.  He felt himself honor-bound to repay all those loans, all that money.  No court would have held him to it–but his own integrity did.  So he busted a gut doing every kind of work he could lay hands on.  His wife went back to work, despite her heart. They couldn’t rebuild the house, so they moved into a trailer… and Kirk grew up in something very near poverty.

Ron scrimped and saved and drove himself for years and years… and in the end, he paid it all back.  Every last dime.

Well, almost.

In the end, it was Kirk himself who paid that last $40,000, when he took possession of the farm–and the integrity–that came down in the family to him.

When I began working on this essay, I called him on the phone.  I’d only heard the story once, though obviously it had left me with a strong impression.  Then, after some basic fact-checking, I asked Kirk the question that had been on my mind.  I asked if, growing up, he’d ever resented it–making do with so little when, if his Dad had been a little less unyielding, he might have had so much more.

“To be honest,” he said, “I never thought of it until just now, when you asked.”

He paused, thinking.  “It always just seemed to me that it was the right thing to do–the honorable thing.  I guess I just… admired him for it.”

And that, to me, is integrity.  Integrity like bedrock, like the land itself.

When I say that “I’m a Yankee,” what I mean is, I consider myself to be walking in the footsteps of men and women like Ron White.  Granite integrity may be hard to live up to, but like Kirk, that’s the kind of person I aspire to be.

That is what I’m proud of.  But–and if you are a black or brown reader of this blog, you’re probably here way ahead of me–I don’t get to hold onto the pride of my heritage unless I’m willing to own the shame.

Receiving Stolen Goods

Our Yankee forebears were not innocent of the stain of racism.  Neither, for that matter, am I.

I’m not just talking about slavery–though all the New England states had slavery; they just ended it a little sooner than other parts of the country.  (Should we make a virtue out of having ended the theft of lives sooner–through a gradual emancipation–than other parts of the country?  “We Stole a Little Less Than Some White People!” what a ringing endorsement of our integrity!)

Rugged Coastline near Pemaquid Point.  Jacklee, 2015.

I do not stand apart from these injustices.  My ancestors profited from a system that marginalized and robbed people of color.  Those sea captains I’m so proud to claim in my family tree?  The New England shipping industry was built on the Triangular Slave Trade.  Whether my direct ancestors ever participated is almost beside the point: the industry was created by it.  Likewise Maine farmers owed their prosperity, in part, to supplying that same industry, before as well as after the abolition of the slave trade.

It would be one thing if the injustice had stopped when the Age of Sail had ended.  Then I could at least hold my father’s side of the family innocent bystanders to the crimes of racism!  But it’s not so.

Did you know, for instance, that Maine wouldn’t allow Native Americans to vote until 1953? And not only was the land I love so much stolen from its original owners, but Indian children, growing up in Maine,  were stolen from their families in order to “kill the Indian” in them right up through the 1990s.

Then there are the ways that, during my lifetime and my parents’ lifetimes, my prosperity, as a white woman, was assured in part by denying people of color equal access to government help.  From the benefits of the GI Bill to FHA loans, my government colluded with banks, realtors, and colleges to be sure that my (white) ancestors would prosper through programs deliberately designed to discourage access by people of color.

I never asked for this.  My parents never asked for this.  Nevertheless, the fact remains: my family’s prosperity was paid for in part by the marginalization of people of color, in New England and elsewhere.

Honoring my Ancestors; Honoring my Debts

Here’s what I conclude from all this: I owe a debt.  If you are a white American, until and unless we stop getting preferential treatment in hiring, education, housing, and law enforcement, you owe a debt.  Whether our specific ancestors ever intended to cheat anyone really is not the question–at least, not to me.

Ron didn’t set out to steal from anyone, after all.  He didn’t sit back and say, “That was so long ago,” or “It wasn’t my fault,” or “It’s not my problem.”  Knowing he had a debt, he worked until he managed to pay it back.

If I am to claim that bedrock as my own, can I do less?  As Ta-Nehisi Coates has observed,

One cannot escape the question by hand-waving at the past, disavowing the acts of one’s ancestors, nor by citing a recent date of ancestral immigration. The last slaveholder has been dead for a very long time. The last soldier to endure Valley Forge has been dead much longer. To proudly claim the veteran and disown the slaveholder is patriotism à la carte.

What will honoring this debt entail? Will it involve reparations, a financial recognition of hardships imposed?  Perhaps.  At the very least, it will involve breaking the silence, listening to an honoring the experiences of people of color, and confronting the complicity of white Americans.

Racism exists.  It hasn’t gone away, and in fact, it’s still killing people, still destroying lives.

I am a white American.  I didn’t ask to have anyone cheated out of anything.  I never signed up for it; I never wanted it.  But I am also a Pagan and I honor my ancestors.  Here is the lesson I choose to take from them: It doesn’t matter if it’s “not our fault.” Before there can be Reconciliation, there must be Truth.

We need to be like Ron. Pay our debts.

Speak the truth, work like hell, and pay that goddamn debt.


Cat Chapin-Bishop is a longtime member of the EarthSpirit Community and a regular presenter a A Feast of Lights.  To hear more from her, check out her blog, Quaker Pagan Reflections, on the Patheos Pagan Channel, where this post was originally published in March of 2015.  Special thanks to Cat and to Pagan Channel editor Jason Mankey for their assistance in allowing us to repost this.