To the Editor,
Who knew that a Nuu-chah-nulth smudging ceremony in the classroom could stir up so much fear and loathing?
When I was growing up, my late father advised me that all humans are genetically pre-disposed to be suspicious of people of a different appearance or religious faith. “But whatever you do, don’t act on it,” he warned.
While at Langara College in the early 1970s, I took a Religious Studies course with the late (legendary) Father Jim Roberts, who encouraged us to take part in Sikh-Canadian celebrations. It was truly amazing to be welcomed to immerse ourselves in the heart-lifting thrill of Sikh ceremonies and rituals, and I would later feel that same thrill when I covered events at each of the local Sikh temples and gurdwaras as a reporter for the Alberni Valley Times.
Here’s the point: at no time did anyone attempt to convert me or convince me to join their church. I was being welcomed to experience their culture – to understand how some of my fellow Canadians lived, and, perhaps, to undo some of that hardwiring my father warned me about.
Early in my reporting career (I will add that I was a practicing member of a mainstream Christian church), I covered a traditional Nuu-chah-nulth canoe-launching that proved to be a transformative experience. Members of Huu-ay-aht First Nation lined the banks of the Sarita River, singing and drumming, and as we paddled downstream to the landing, I felt I had been welcomed into Nuu-chah-nulth culture.
Again, I was not being asked to reject my existing culture or beliefs. I was being invited to be a part of another Canadian community. I had the opportunity to take part in many Nuu-chah-nulth cultural events during my years at the Times, and in later years, as a contributor to Ha-Shilth-Sa.
Last year, when I launched my first book, The Bulldog and the Helix, at the Alberni Valley Museum, I arranged to begin with a traditional Nuu-chah-nulth spiritual cleansing, due to the traumatic subject matter in the book. As I explained, “This is how we do a spiritual cleansing in our community.”
The ceremony appeared to go over well. It may have been a first-time introduction to Nuu-chah-nulth culture for some who attended. There was no call to join the faith; no leaflets were handed out.
I can understand that, for some people of strong religious faith, exposure to a different spiritual/cultural experience might feel like a threat. That somehow, experiencing one of those stirrings in the heart might supplant cherished beliefs and practices. Simply put, however, these cultural opportunities are about inclusion and community – turning us and them into we. My old man was right: we are programmed to see others as a threat. But we can change.