“The history books use the past tense when they talk about us,” said Elder Woman. She talked about how kids at boarding schools were punished for speaking in the native language, how the dominant culture sought to make her people invisible.
She spoke to an audience of peace activists, college students, artists, native elders, college professors, musicians, lacrosse players, and a handful of small children. Many nodded as she spoke. The man in the ceremonial shirt, with its long strings of fabric swaying as he moved, spoke into the microphone, “Well, we know we’re here even if no one else does.”
Everyone laughed, and he continued. “We are not of the past. We are not just mascots. We are people.”
Last night was the first in a series of events, a year-long dialogue between the People of the Longhouse, who have lived here since the beginning of time, and their neighbors — those of us who have arrived in the last couple of centuries. We’ll be talking about Polluted Sacred Lake, which has been labeled the most chemically polluted lake in the country. We’ll be talking about everything from hydrofracking to lacrosse.
There was food at the event, of course. We milled about after the panel, everyone clutching heavy winter coats and little plates of fruit, crackers, and cheese. We found our way into smaller talking circles, and that’s where each person had a chance to speak up. We talked about healing.
The tadadaho, the spiritual leader, sat next to me, listening quietly as the conversation moved around the circle. When it was his turn to talk, he talked about the urgency of environmental issues. “We have no time for color,” he said. “It’s up to us as a species to do something. We’re in the early stages of global warming already.”
I looked around the circle to see nods from the young college student who had just moved here last year, the older woman who has lived here since childhood, the elementary school teacher who is the son of a chief, the young man in the orange sweater. Everyone was listening. “You can’t negotiate with nature,” he said. “We need to work together.”
I felt somber when the event ended. As I made my way out of the building to go to my car, I stopped to look up at the night sky, lit by streetlights and moonlight. Dozens of birds, their wings stretched out, were flying over, rushing over my head, one after another. I stood and watched until they had all disappeared.