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The Heart and Mind: A Reflection on Teachings from Anishnaabe Kwe Lynn Gehl about Indigenous Knowledge

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Written by Cathy Elliott, DAREarts First Roots Aboriginal Program Associate.

Indigenous Women Rising Symposium

Indigenous Women Rising Symposium

On Saturday, May 23, the Dufferin County Cultural Resource Circle, in partnership with DAREarts and CFUW Orangeville held the inaugural Indigenous Women Rising Symposium with keynote speaker Dr. Lynn Gehl in Orangeville, Ontario. This event was coordinated by DCCRC treasurer Monica Vida and the Master of Ceremonies was Craig Hyde, with Traditional drumming and dancing by the Sacred Spirit Dancers.

Dr. Lynn Gehl with her Treaty at Niagara Wampum Bundle. Photo credit Nik Gehl

Dr. Lynn Gehl with her Treaty at Niagara Wampum Bundle.
Photo credit Nik Gehl

I was invited to speak about our work at DAREarts and my own journey as a Mi’kmaq woman, and was delighted to meet Dr. Gehl, who gave me a warm hug and before she gave us her teaching, chatted with me about DAREarts and the kids in our fly-in regions. We talked about the challenges the youth have, and how we’re all figuring out ways to get past those challenges and help them become stronger.

It was a powerful afternoon, full of laughter and as DCCRC board member Kim Newby put it, cleansing tears. Elder Aaron Benson opened with a prayer while DAREarts students’ photography was projected in the background, providing a deeper connection between all of us down here and the kids in remote areas. Lynn Gehl started us off with opening her Treaty at Niagara Wampum Bundle and talking about Canada’s constitutional relationship with Indigenous Peoples, their contracts and agreements, the Residential School Legacy and generational trauma caused by centuries of bad policy.

DAREarts student, Webequie First Nation, 2008

DAREarts student, Webequie First Nation, 2008

What struck me was what I suspected in 2007 when Marilyn Field, founder of DAREarts was asked to start up a pilot program in Webequie First Nation along with parents and Elders to respond to a suicide crisis in the community. I was invited to participate in the design and launch of this project by Marilyn, and in doing so, was immersed in a world unfamiliar to me – yet familiar.

I knew, instinctively that the way forward would be by circling back to traditional knowledge and ways of learning. I know that as a kid I picked up tiny bits of this knowledge through my Uncles and Mother, who were taught by my Grandfather, (a Shubenacadie Residential School survivor.) It was snippets. Remembered, but disjointed.

It’s the stuff that was left behind in the child, after being stripped of language and life systems. The remembering that resurfaces in the most unexpected way.

DAREarts First Roots Dream Catcher Project bridged Broadacres  Junior School with Indigenous youth through teachings and hands-on work. Photo credit Alan Dunlop

DAREarts First Roots Dream Catcher Project bridged Broadacres Junior School with Indigenous youth through teachings and hands-on work. Photo credit Alan Dunlop

Children often think from the heart. They act out in spontaneous bursts of love, generosity and kindness. Sometimes they demonstrate their frustration with words and deeds that make no sense to an adult. Why did that child throw his chair down and walk away? Why did that boy swear and then laugh at your consternation? Why did that child draw a picture of you surrounded by music notes and write, “I like your sweater?”

Then, as they grow up, they start to reason differently. The heart is tempered with the mind. Intellect is something that develops in a child through experience and guidance. It’s a formidable partnership, the heart and head. But if that connection is broken, generational disconnect happens. A parent who knows how to talk to a kid should have both heart and head in place. If an adult only sees that something is wrong, he can’t see what’s behind the deed or word. If a parent only hears the negative, she can’t stop her heart from hurting and wanting to lash out. The systems that were in place were gone, replaced by anger and pain.

This gift, this wisdom should be a no-brainer. But it isn’t. We’ve forgotten so much, and need to relearn it all. Heart – Mind Wisdom is something that was inherited from our ancestors and their ancestors before them. When it was broken, intentionally, the gap created a disturbing dichotomy on our Reservations and in urban neighbourhoods. People who are still struggling with heart trauma are self medicating, and people who are cutting themselves off from the system that had worked for their ancestors are disconnected from their kids and parents.

The kids we’ve met are energetic, smart, frustrated. They need to work things out, with their hands, voices and imagination. They don’t do very well in rows of desks. They need to be shown how to solve problems, and then solve them themselves. They need to be taught their songs and dances. They need to hear the stories and the life lessons that come from them.

DAREarts shadow plays are written by students and offered during a final Feast at the end of a week-long exploration and creation workshop.

DAREarts shadow plays are written by students and offered during a final Feast at the end of a week-long exploration and creation workshop. Photo credit Alan Dunlop

As they’ve demonstrated with puppet building, story telling, creating songs and remembering traditional ones, along with their own languages – they are brilliant. As their remembered wisdom is put back into practice, they learn better. They listen more deeply, with empathy and wisdom. They pass that good stuff back to their Elders as they mirror the teachings back to them. Communities begin to heal. As Traditional person Suzanne Smoke said, after comforting a weeping, eloquent, beautiful young woman who spoke of her own family’s generational grief, “We are magnificent.”

We all participated in a very moving Circle Tradition, where we hugged each other. Everyone got two hugs. One given, one received. By the time the forty or so participants finished hugging, laughing, talking, we all knew each other quite a bit more than we did when we first arrived in the gym. There was knowledge passed between us, between Indigenous Peoples and Allies, children (and yes, even a helper dog) and adults, men and women. It was wonderful. Comforting. Heart warming and affirming.

This knowledge has been proven over the years, in remote communities, urban neighbourhoods and classrooms, that heart/mind connection is critical to DAREarts’ work and our own personal journeys. Lynn calls it her Debwewin Journey methodology, Heart Knowledge, which involves the “circle of heart” knowledge and the “circle of mind” knowledge working together. She explained to us in simple terms how we all need to recognize that there was a system in place, and that it’s a good one. Thank you, Lynn, for giving us the motivation and inspiration to continue to be learners, for me to find my own Debwewin, or in Mi’kmaq, Gegnu’tmasi – I learn, enml’gai – I walk onward. Gegnu’tmasi, enml’gai.

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