This is not the blog posting that I had planned to write. At some point, I will still offer that collage of wild mountain flowers and share my longing to go hiking again. Now is not the time.
All I can think of is recent news of discoveries of unmarked graves of Indigenous children. Human history is, unfortunately, replete with similar stories: mass graves of Jewish prisoners in European forests; mass graves of victims of the Black Death; stories of attempted genocide in various lands. None of which decreases, even by one small degree, the trauma and mourning following the recent discoveries of unmarked graves. And note that for Indigenous peoples, these are not “discoveries” but confirmation, finally, of stories that they had been telling in whispers for generations.
My attention has been caught by the distinction between “mass graves” and “unmarked graves.” It’s an important distinction. Mass graves indicate death on such a scale that individual burials—along with appropriate ceremony—are not possible. There are too many bodies. Those mass graves may have been dug with indifference, certainly with great haste, and likely no suitable rituals to recognize the humanity of those who were once alive; the mass graves could also have been dug in haste but still with deep regret at loss of human life and as much respect as was possible under the circumstances.
Unmarked graves are different. They raise other questions. For sure, they imply a continuing practice, not an emergency. Given that these graves were dug beside schools run by churches, one would hope that some prayers were said. The hope seems dubious. Had there been due respect, the graves would have been marked. Almost all families, in all cultural and religious communities, name in some way those who have gone on to another world. At some deep level, we need to speak the names of the dead and honor their presence.
To live in ceremony is the greatest and truest gift we can give to ourselves.Richard Wagamese
As someone who is not part of this story, except to the extent that I live here, in Saskatchewan on Treaty 6 territory, I do not know how to respond. I am convinced that we are all called to bear witness, difficult as that is. In two previous posts “A Lamp in the Night” and “Can We Please Make Some Anniversaries Unnecessary?” I began some exploration of what bearing witness might entail. It means not looking away or justifying the pain (or minimizing it). It means listening, carefully, to the stories, making a safe space for the stories to be told. It could include bringing food, offering handkerchiefs (actually or figuratively) for tears, providing what is necessary so that the lost children can be recognized. Perhaps placing small pairs of shoes at makeshift memorials.
Ach, it is the pictures of small shoes on church steps that nearly break my heart. Several years ago, when my husband and I toured the United States Holocaust Memorial in Washington, DC., it was the display of hundreds and hundreds of discarded shoes from the dead that brought me to weeping. There is something even more wrenching about abandoned children’s shoes. What must it have meant for young Indigenous children to have had their handmade, beautiful moccasins taken away and being given European-style shoes that didn’t love their feet?
Where and how this story will yet take us is unknown. It is yet another bitter blow to absorb after the pandemic has already shown us so many other inequalities and weaknesses. At the same time, COVID-19 has also taught us something of the extent of human compassion and shown us so much generosity. Let the tenderness that has been cultivated among us now be extended especially to our Indigenous friends in their bitter time of grief.
I’ve been considering the phrase “all my relations” for some time now. It’s hugely important. It’s our saving grace in the end. It points to the truth that we are all related, that we are all connected, that we all belong to each other. The most important word is “all.” Not just those who look like me, dance like me, speak like me, pray like me or behave like me. ALL my relations. That means every person, just as it means every rock, mineral, blade of grass, and creature. We live because everything else does. If we were to choose collectively to live that teaching, the energy of our change of consciousness would heal each of us–and heal the planet.Richard Wagamese