Among the people I wish were still here is Merle Assance-Beedie, a wonderful woman from Beausoleil First Nation who was convinced that only kindness is capable of making the world a better place.
Her understanding of the Anishinaabemowin word for Creator was “Great Kind Spirit”, a translation she felt had not stood the test of time, given centuries of competition from the pidgeon-English “Gitchie Manitou”.
The Haudenosaunee like to say they told the first European explorers that they were entering “Kanata”, which was “the village” in Iroquois, but Merle had her own Anishinaabe version, one she shared with the Ipperwash Inquiry’s Indigenous Knowledge Forum on Oct. 14, 2004.
“When the visitors came, the people whom they first met were people from the Algonquin-speaking nations who were fishing on the St. Lawrence River. And it was Jacques Cartier who asked them ‘What is the name of this country? What is the name of this land?’
“And the reply was ‘Kenada. ‘K’ means land in our language. ‘Kena’ means everyone and everything. ‘Da’ means heart. So the actual name of our country is ‘Kenada’ –everything has heart; everyone has heart.”
Her Otter Clan family taught her that the treaties – seven bore the dodem of Assance hereditary chiefs – were about extending kindness to the settlers, with the understanding that it would one day be reciprocated. Her grandfather used to tell her to watch for that kindness to be shown by the other treaty signatories. It would be a sign that things were finally being put right with the Anishnaabe, which the prophecies tell us is an essential element of mankind’s survival.
Auntie Merle, as so many affectionately called her, was also fond of reminding us that “de” (heart) is part of six of the Seven Anishinaabe Grandfather Teachings; only wisdom comes from the head.
It must have been incredibly difficult for Merle -- a survivor of four residential schools – to mature into someone who made kindness the cornerstone of her being. But she practised what she preached, visiting one of the priests who followed the prescribed course of trying to “kill the Indian in the child” to offer her forgiveness to the old man before he died.
It’s easy to be kind to others when you’re privileged with comfort and possessions, but not such a simple matter when you’re on the short end of the socio-economic stick, like an inordinate number of First Peoples in Canada – the place where the Anishinaabe told Jacques Cartier everything and everyone had heart.
Despite collectively ranking 64th in the world using United Nations indicators for well-being, First Nations have been remarkably generous to people in trouble anywhere on the planet. I recall coming across a yellowed newspaper clipping about Six Nations council sending $100 in the 1840s to aid Irish farmers dying by the thousands during the great potato famine. In recent years Anishinabek communities have held fund-raisers to help not just their own cousins in places like Attawapiskat, that have been largely abandoned by the Harper government. They have sold baked goods and raffle tickets to send donations to victims of tsunamis and earthquakes in far-flung places that their citizens would only know about from television newscasts.
When Elliot Lake residents were devastated by June’s collapse of the city’s main shopping mall, Serpent River First Nation set up a social media site and established a relief fund to assist their neighbours. They also lit a Sacred Fire and offered prayers.
Merle Assance-Beedie would be pleased with all these acts of “de”. But as playful as otters are, they also have very sharp teeth, and won’t hesitate to use them in defence. I only once saw that side of Auntie Merle, when a testy Ontario conservation officer called me a liar during a cross-cultural training workshop. She delivered a scolding he would not soon forget.
A hot summer is upon us. All Anishinabek citizens would like to enjoy the same luxuries as most of our neighbours – heading to cottage, beach and camp to leave the worries of jobs behind for a few weeks. Or, if you’re a member of federal or provincial legislatures, you can kick back for two or three months.
But too many of our citizens don’t have jobs to get away from. Those holidaying legislators have preferred to help rich corporations strip resources from First Nations territories than respect our treaty rights to share in that wealth, and create our own jobs and economies. Before they left to enjoy their lengthy vacations, those same parliamentarians saw to it that the meager income some of our poorest citizens rely on – various forms of social assistance – will be gnawed away like the vast territories we once cared for, and the rights the Creator gave us to manage our own affairs.
Our natural capacity for kindness is being sorely tested.
Even otters have a tipping point.
Maurice Switzer is a citizen of the Mississaugas of Alderville First Nation. He serves as director of communications for the Union of Ontario Indians, and editor of the Anishinabek News.