The Healing Walk – August 4, 2012

From the Tar Sands Region of Alberta, Canada:

August 4, 2012

The Healing Walk

Fort McMurray (in Alberta, Canada) is an island in the midst of a boreal ocean.  Houses, hotels, bars, and restaurants spread across a wide spot in the Athabasca River valley and spill over into the neighboring hills, with the forest beginning just beyond the last Burger King or Super 8.  The land is flat, but for the river valley, with rivers and lakes scattered on all sides.  The tree line is well north of here.  There is only one road from the south, the big, four-lane Highway 63, an industrial isthmus that thins down to two lanes a few kilometers north of town, and then to a lane and a half of dirt and mud.  There are no roads east or west.  Not many people pass through Fort Mac – it is not on the way to anywhere else.  Only the Dene settlements lie to the north along the Athabasca and Great Slave Lakes.  To get there you it is best to fly. 

Most of the tar sands deposits in Alberta are hundreds of meters below the surface, and too deep to strip mine.  They must be drilled and extracted with steam.  But just north of Fort Mac the Athabasca River has slowly eroded the overburden and brought the black, gooey ore near the surface.  Here, the boreal ocean is dry.  Open-pit mines, spent sand, and tailings ponds stretch for miles along either side of the road.  Double-bodied dumper, hopper, logger, and tanker trucks roar through traffic, interspersed with large, four-wheel drive pickup trucks with dirt spattered up to the door handles.  Men in hardhats and reflective vests ride along dusty side roads on their way to man the heavy machinery.  Steam and smoke rise from up-graders and separating facilities along the horizon.   Small cannons in tailings ponds shoot a steady Fourth-of-July pop, pop, pop into the air to keep birds from landing.  The wind is brisk and the air foul.

This was the site of today’s third annual Healing Walk, a 14 km (9 mile) trek “for the healing for Mother Earth and her sacred waters.”  About 140 people took part, mostly indigenous people from around Canada: Sarnia, (Ontario), Yellow Knife, Fort Chipewyan, British Columbia, and Fort McMurray.  A handful of non-Indians showed up from Edmonton, and there were three or four Americans beside myself.  This was not a protest, march, or political rally, but a peaceful mourning for the damage done to the land, air, and water by the tar sands industry, and a hope for healing in the future.  The elders began with a tobacco ceremony.  We sat in a circle on the ground and passed the pipe, waving the smoke around to our arms and chest, giving thanks for the day and the moment.  Waters from all parts of the continent, including Kentucky, were mixed in a bowl and carried the length of the walk.  At four points along the way the four directions were honored with prayers and burning of herbs and tobacco.  There were drums and singing throughout.   The weather began with small thunderheads rolling in from the Rockies, and a brief sprinkle of rain, then turned sunny and hot (by local standards: about 75 degrees F).  Three quarters of the way around, Tantoo, of the local Anzac community, prayed out loud for the waters to flow clean again, the trees to return, and the air to clear.  She asked the Creator to bring love and awareness into the hearts of humans, and to help them heal the Earth.  Nearly all the walkers made it the entire way.  The day ended with a feast, speeches, music, and ceremonial dancing.  Back at the campsite south of town, I spoke with Chief Bill Erasmus of the Dene Nation.

He was sitting by a fire at the edge of the woods, fighting mosquitoes as the long summer day darkened in the sky.  I had met him earlier in the day.  He beckoned me over with a big smile, put his arm over my shoulder, and insisted on a photograph.  He was well-spoken, with graying hair and ruddy complexion. 

“Our language is related to Navaho and Apache, and our people are settled north of here, downstream along the Athabaska River.  Because of the huge amount of water used in developing oil, our water basin is dropping in the north.  We are also concerned because the oil when it is processed uses a large amount of toxic chemicals, including arsenic, that are left in huge tailings ponds.  The tailings ponds leach into the environment as the water comes north to us.  So we are now finding people with diseases that they never had before.  But the water does not stop with us; it flows into the McKenzie River system and Buford Sea near Prudhoe Bay, and then all over the World.  So this development is polluting the world.  It is also polluting into the air with CO2.  So the Dene Nation has mandated us, the leaders, to oppose any expansion of the tar sands industry.  We are directly opposed to the Keystone XL pipeline, which is proposed to go from our province to the state of Texas.  We have worked with tribes in the U.S. and with the public in the U.S.  We have adopted the Mother Earth Accord with native peoples in the U.S. and Canada, which makes specific reference to the aquifer (Ogallala).  We are also working to oppose another pipeline (the Northern Gateway), which goes through western Canada to the coast in British Columbia.  The oil is not for Canadian or American usage.  It’s for the highest bidder.”

“Canada doesn’t have a plan for sustainable development,” he went on.  “For us, this means exporting a million barrels of oil a day, which will use up four million barrels of water a day.  The other concern we have is that we believe the resource belongs to us.  We were never conquered.  We were never defeated in war.  We have peace and friendship treaties; not with Canada, but with Great Britain.  This area we are in is the Treaty Eight area that covers three provinces and one territory.”

“How much have your water levels dropped?”

“We have some of the largest, most pristine water left on Earth.  Where I am from the lake is called Great Slave Lake: it’s a hundred miles north-south and two hundred miles east-west.  It’s like going out in the ocean; you can’t see the land.  The whole ecosystem is being affected; one, the water level is dropping, and two, it’s being polluted.  Some people are reporting that water levels are dropping between ten and fifteen feet.  Global warming is happening.” 

“What illnesses are your people experiencing?”

“We’re not sure what is happening to our people.  But if you talk to people at Fort Chipewyan, which is the first community down stream, they talk about cancers.  Many people are dying.  They can no longer hunt in that area.  The whole food chain is being affected.  We are further downstream (Yellowknife), but we are beginning to feel those affects.  What is needed is a plan for sustainable development, for the Obama administration and for the Canadian government to sit down with their people and design that.  If we agreed on what the future might look like, then we could have an answer to global warming and to all the changes that are happening to the environment.   That’s what’s lacking.  The government here doesn’t believe there is an environmental issue, even though the icebergs are melting as we speak.  Our people have noticed changes on our land, changes with the water, birds and animals in the last thirty to forty years, and it has become very evident in the last ten to fifteen.   Where we come from it would commonly be fifty below (C) in the winter, now it might reach thirty-five to forty, and the next day it’s minus fifteen, so there are huge fluctuations.”

Bill had had said something to the crowd at the beginning of the walk that summarized for me the difference between the paradigms I see in conflict over the XL pipeline.  His statement was quite simple; it said in a very few words who we are in relation to life as a whole.  I wanted to hear more.  “You said earlier today that our purpose in this life is to serve the Earth.   That gives meaning to who we are.  But it seems that those who are developing the tar sands believe the Earth is here to serve us.  How does their worldview conflict with yours?”

“Our people believe that everything was provided on this planet, and we were brought here last.  We have laws that are very spiritual.  Our job – our goal – is to take care of nature, not to fight it.  We can talk about economy, but it has to be balanced.  You can’t expect to take, take, take from nature and not provide anything in return.  There is a huge imbalance; that is why nature is fighting back.  There has to be a huge shift.  The good thing is that there are many other peoples coming back to that thinking.  Our original teachings tells us that regardless of where you come from in the world, other people were taught the same thing.  The black people in Africa – they were taught the same thing: the yellow man in Asia, China, and the same thing with the European people.  We were all originally hunters and gatherers, and very close to the land.  We were all given the same teachings.  We all have clans and families, but people have slowly moved away from that.  The industrial revolution has made people more individualistic.  It tore people away from the land.  But now we are wanting to go back.”

“Do you feel that your worldview is spreading to non-indigenous people?”

“Absolutely.  With communications, and people traveling around a lot – gatherings like this – we share, we’re all human beings, and we find we are closer to each other than we think.  But many of us have never talked to each other, and we have to find the bridge.”

Bill looked away to the forest and then back to the fire.  His expression changed, as if there were something I did not yet understand.  “The drum is there to directly communicate with the spirit world.  What ever you’re thinking, whatever you’re doing goes directly up to the spirits.  The drum is a sacred object that you have to care for; you can’t just put it on the floor and have someone step on it.  It’s like a person, a human being that has to be cared for.“  He gestured toward the burning logs.  “We have this fire beside us.  This fire’s alive; it has a spirit; we have to talk to it; we have to care for it; we have to feed it.  Our word for fire means home, it means place, and it’s comfort – I’m sitting beside it and it’s keeping me warm – but at the same time it could be threatening if you don’t care for it.  It’s like everything – you have to take care of it.  We have to be very conscious of what’s happening around us.  We take care of each other and that’s why we have a balance.”

Henry Basil, Dene Nation

From Bill’s fire I wandered toward the lake, Gregoire Lake.  The Cree people call it Willow Lake.  It is upstream of the tar sands mines.  The water was clear and still.  The moon was rising over the opposite shore with a wisp of cloud streaked across its face.  A loon called from far offshore.  

Henry was sitting with a small group of people by another fire a few feet from the edge of the lake.  I had seen him earlier in the day, assisting in the tobacco ceremonies.  His face was angular, chiseled, aged, with a dark reddish-brown color.  I had wanted to take his picture, to have a very Indian-looking portrait in my collection, but that would have shown little of whom he was.  I resisted.  Now, I approached him, wondering how to introduce myself, how – or if – he would reveal himself to me.

“I’m not sure what you want…” He said, as I stated my intention.  Henry was shy and soft spoken.  He was not used to interviews.  He had managed a few words to the gathering at the feast after the walk, and I knew there were more within him.  But I hesitated.  People were talking around us, and someone was beating a drum behind us.  We sat in silence, looking at the moon over the lake.  He warmed as we spoke.

“I was impressed by your story,” I began,  “When you were taken from your home at age five…”

“I remember we were coming back from our hunting grounds this time of year, after hunting caribou, to have meat for the winter,” he began.  “This big boat – a freighter – came to the shore.”

“On Slave Lake?”

“On the east arm of Great Slave Lake.  There were five or six families with children – we had been along the tree line, where we hunt caribou.  This man dressed in black with a cross – he’s the one who grabbed me and dragged me down to the boat.”

“You had no warning?”

“No, none.  My mom was coming down after me, I was hanging on to her dress.  No one could do anything.  They put us in the bow of the boat – seven of us.  It was dark in there.  We traveled in the boat somewhere – I don’t know where – I don’t remember much.  When you are traumatized you lose touch with reality.  We came to a convent.  There was a buggy on the shore – I don’t remember if it had a horse or an ox.  Sometimes I don’t really like to talk about it…”  He paused, looking down at the fire, his mouth hanging.  “…But it heals me.  The next thing I knew they took us into this building.  There was a woman dressed in gray, with a black hood, wearing a cross.  They took our clothes away – I remember being in a blanket.  They kept us there for four years.  I don’t remember going to school; I don’t remember sitting in a class.  All I remember was the church.  It was hard.”

“You didn’t see your family those four years?”


“After the fourth year, someone who had been there before explained to me, ‘This is what’s going on.’  After that I started remembering things.  The way they treated me up there is horrendous; it was horrible.  They controlled us through hunger – we never had enough to eat.  The food was horrible: fish, rotten fish.  They make you eat that; if you don’t eat it they save it for your next meal.  That is the way they treated me.  You don’t know what is happening.  You do as you’re told and that’s it.  They used to call me sauvage.  I didn’t know what it meant.  I saw a friend one time and said to him, ‘I have a new name, sauvage!”

“That’s who you thought you were!”

“Yeah!  And the other boys, they were saying the same thing.  ‘Hey, I got a new name!’  We didn’t know what was happening.”

For many years after that Henry rambled around Edmonton, “Lying, cheating, and stealing: that’s all I knew.  I didn’t’ know what else to do.  But I have been on a healing journey since 1974.  I met this elder in Edmonton.  I was crossing the street – I had a really bad hangover.  There was a bar across the street.  Someone behind me said, ‘I used to be just like you, son.’  I didn’t know where the voice came from, and then he said it again.  The first thing in my mind was that this could be an easy target for me.  But instead of giving me money he took me into a café next to the bar and bought me a meal.  We talked for quite some time.  I was tired and hung over and I was ready to ask him for money, but he took me to his house and said he would take me to a treatment center the next day.  At the house his wife washed my clothes and I went upstairs to sleep.  When I woke up there was a chair next to my bed with all my clothes all nicely folded and clean.  My socks were all clean.  The elder knocked on my door and said, ‘Breakfast is ready.’  That’s when my healing journey started.”

“Out of his love.”

“Yes.  I was thinking it was an angel.  He took me to the treatment center.  I never saw him again.”

That was only the beginning of the journey.  Henry “fell off” and started drinking again.  He was sober for 6 or 8 months at a time, but fell off three more times. 

“This went on for some time.  I spent a lot of time in drink tanks.  No one really could control me.  I thought of suicide many times.  I was on the streets five years.  After I sobered up the third time I came home to Yellowknife and got into my traditional values: sweat lodges, hunting…”

 “So you found out who you were.  You weren’t sauvage.”

“Yup.  I was somebody, somebody.  And the time went on, and I fell off again.  My dad died and I didn’t even go to his funeral – that’s how miserable I was.  But my mom – she helped me.  She told me stories of the old times.  I started hunting, fishing, and trapping again with teachings from my mom and the elders.”

“The angel is inside you.  You are helping others now.”

“In my prayers I always mention Angel.  My mom taught me that.”

“Do you feel that coming here to the Healing Walk is part of your trying to help others?”

“Yes, Oh yes!  Yes.  Since I started seeing what was happening to my people and the lands, I became more outspoken, did translations, went to meetings.  Then I started working for archeology.  We found artifacts, grave yards, thousands of years old.  One artifact was carbon-dated back almost 30,000 years.  I offered tobacco at the sites.  One time I was walking up a river and there was a little clearing before you hit the lake.  I noticed a big pile of pebbles on the left hand side.  They were round and smooth; some black and some quartz.  I didn’t tell the archeologist about it.  But when I went back home, I told my mom.  She said, ‘Yes, those are offerings.  Every time we would go to the barren lands to hunt we would leave a pebble there.’  I showed it to the archeologist the next year, after I knew from my people what it was.”

More people were gathering around the fire where we sat.  The drum was louder and closer, and it became hard to hear.  Henry was talking about the spirits and dreams that came from his work with the archeologists.  “I became a runner.  I was working at the fishing lodge and had to be there at six in the morning.  I would wake up at four and run twelve miles before work.  I ran four marathons.  My fastest time was two hours, fifteen minutes, and seven seconds.” 

“Two fifteen?  That’s Olympic scale.”


“That helped you from falling off again.”

“Yup.  And my mother helped me.”

The drums were at the fire now, and people were singing.  Henry wanted to keep talking, though I could barely hear what he had to say.  I was trying to steer the conversation toward the tar sands, the pipeline, the climate, the Earth.   “What do you think we have to do now for mother Earth?”  I asked.  “By we, I mean your people, my people, I’m American, a white man….”

Henry’s answer was a lot simpler than what I was looking for.  “Do you remember I talked about lie, cheat, and steal?  Well, I rephrased that to love, kindness, and compassion.  It took me a long time to be what I am now.  I spoke to other peoples in other nations, I did sweats…” he was saying over the music.  “That is my story.  When the elder found me, he brought my world back to me… I didn’t know what it was.”

There was something I still wanted to know.  “What happened when you first noticed that the water in the Lake was dropping?”

“When the water level dropped, it broke my heart deep down inside.  I am an emotional person.  I thought ‘What about the fish?  What about the birds that use this water?  Where are they going to go?’  The fish no longer come to the places they used to come to.  This is my home – Great Slave Lake.  This is where I live.’

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