Chief Arvol Looking Horse Brings Unity Riders Across Canada To Six Nations Reservation
By Dr. John Bacher & Danny Beaton, Turtle Clan, Mohawk Nation
Dr. Dawn Hill, professor of Indigenous Studies at McMaster University, has spent more than twenty years of her life organizing events and activities to honour her people and creation. Drum Beat, a recent project, gathered people in defense of traditional Native values and Mother Earth. Drum Beat. It joined indigenous people from across North, South and Central America to honour the life giving forces and the Great Mystery.
The International Indigenous Elders Summit, which took place on the grounds of the historic Chiefswood Park, on the banks of the Grand River, Ontario, Canada; was held from August 27 to September 1, 2004, and began with the spectacular arrival of the Unity Riders on horseback. This group of Native Americans rode from British Columbia on a spiritual journey with a message of peace.
The Summit brought together Native spiritual leaders from the Arctic to the Amazon. They came to develop a message to the world that will help heal the earth and unify Native peoples. This message will be delivered to the United Nations in May next year – the last year of The Decade of The International Celebration of Indigenous Peoples.
Toronto Mayan activist Fernando Hernandez helped bring elders from Central and South America to share their visions and knowledge. Some of the most distant elders who came were Humberto Piaguaje, a Ziona from Columbia, and Mayan Manuel Ruis Ruis.
The Elders Summit was the product of many good minds. It was held under the auspices of the Haudenosuanee Confederacy Council. Two days were spent involving recitations of the Great Law of Peace and Code of Handsome Lake.
Like all gatherings of Longhouse people, the summit began and ended each day with a recital of the Thanksgiving Address, which expresses thanks for all the elements of creation.
The Summit also received support from the Six Nations Elected Council, and from McMaster University, as a result of the work of Dawn Hill, chair of its department of Indigenous Studies.
The dramatic unity ride that began the Elders Summit was the eighth annual epic trans-continental journey since 1996. These rides, like the summit, seek to inspire Native youth with the values of their heritage, away from the slick glamour of the trinkets found in Wal Mart stores.
Those fortunate enough to see it were awed by the power of the epic travelers on foot and horseback, blessed by the sacred ceremonial staffs and regalia of the magnificent great plains horse-buffalo culture.
Riders share experiences
One of the Unity Riders, Eric Mitchell of the Okanagan nation from British Columbia, captured how awestruck the participants were on the first day at the climax of the Unity Ride. Passionately he explained, “What you are feeling is our spirituality. It is about helping each other. You have heard of the Creator, the good things that our traditional spirituality is about.”
I have discovered much about our ways across the continent through the Unity Rides. In 1996 when the rides started was the first time that I ever ate a buffalo. In 1998, I discovered Moose and Elk meat. The next year I began to appreciate salmon, after all our tee shirts became red with salmon juice. Until the Unity Rides began our peoples had abandoned for a hundred years, our tradition of building dug out cottonwood canoes. After the inspiration provided by the Unity Rides we now have 25.
One of the youthful Unity Riders from Six Nations, Jessie Brant, explained how, before the unity ride, he had never been around horses before. He started his involvement after the Strawberry Festival at the Longhouse. His running in the rides was difficult especially in the beginning. His first ride was in North Dakota. The next day there was a tornado.
Melvin Patrick from British Columbia explained how the ride gave him a new respect for horses. He found that, since the horses worked so hard to carry us all day, we found a new respect. The first thing we did when the day began was to rise up and take care of our horses.
The Unity Ride began from South Dakota and had their origins in profound spiritual visions among the Lakota people, haunted by painful memories of the massacre at Wounded Knee more than two decades ago. The prophet of the movement was a Lakota holy man, Curtis Lee Ray.
After going on a Vision Quest, he directed fellow Lakota elders White Plume and Birgil Killss Straight, to go on horses to the location of the Camp of the leader of the Ghost Dance, Big Foot, who was later killed by U.S. soldiers at Wounded Knee. The Ghost Dance was a 19th century spiritual movement of Native people, who prayed for the restoration of millions of buffalo who once roamed the Great Plains.
The epic horse travels initiated by the Lakota were undertaken to release the spirits and complete the grieving cycle for the Ghost Dance victims of Wounded Knee. The Big Foot Memorial Ride to honour the spirits of the Ghost Dancers involves a 180-mile ride. It takes place in the bitter cold weather of December 15 to 29. The route follows the same path the Ghost Riders took in their reverential trek to restore Great Plains ecology.
Throughout the gathering a number of the elders, including Mohawk Jake Swamp, who celebrated his 30th wedding anniversary with his wife Judy on the last day of the summit, stressed that to understand Native ways of respect for the earth, the first thing you have to do is to loose your marbles. This colourful phrase symbolized in a light hearted way, the ridicule and abuse that many of today’s elders experienced in their earlier efforts to revive Native cultural traditions of respect for the earth. White Plume has recalled how when he began the Big Foot Ride, they said we were play-acting at being Indians.
Despite the initial ridicule, White Plume found that the spectacular grandeur of the epic rides created a new respect for Native ways by opening up closed minds. Soon he recalled people began jumping on a horse, freezing and suffering the same ordeal as Big Foot. Now White Plume believes, we have fulfilled the dreams they had. Our language is back. Everybody is concerned about that today. The buffalo are also back. On the Pine Ridge reservation there are nine buffalo operations, and every grandma has bought their grandson a horse.
One of the first Big Foot riders, Birgil Killss Straight participated in the Elders Summit. He described the ill affects on the diet of the Lakota people from contact with Europeans, formerly dependent on great herds of free roaming buffalo. He stressed how it was only 281 years ago that the Lakota people made contact with the first white man. In 281 years the whole thing turned around. We lost respect for the land and for the women. We were destroyed and we help destroy.
For us to preserve the land is very essential. What we eat now with chemicals and pesticides is destroying our minds.
Eric Mitchell explained how the inspiring message of the commemoration of the Ghost Dance went to larger groups of Native people through the Unity Rides.
After the Big Foot Ride became such a success the Lakota people discussed how the beauty of epic horse riding should not be just confined to the Pine Ridge community. They wanted a ride that would bring together the various Lakota communities in Canada and the United States, which are divided by hundreds of miles. After having such unity rides to bring together the Lakota people, the idea emerged of a Unity Ride to bring together Natives from all over the continent.
Chief Arvol leads ceremony
Lakota Chief Arvol Looking Horse conducted the ceremonies honouring the completion of the 2004 Unity Ride at Chiefswood. At the age of twelve he was given the enormous responsibility to become the 19th generation Keeper of the Pipe of the Sacred White Buffalo Calf Woman.
He began by honouring brother horse placing a blanket on a brown and white traditional Native horse from the Oneida nation of Wisconsin. He then explained how, “In time the horse will bring back life to the people. We honour the animal that is truly a clean spirit. This land is our mother. We honour the horse spirit. We honour the horse nation today. We sing and pray for this horse and the many horses throughout the land.”
After honouring the horse nation, Arvol Looking Horse gave a similar prophetic tribute to the buffalo. He prophesied how, “Many years ago they pretty much wiped out the buffalo. Our prophecies told us that we must bring back the spirits of the buffalo and that is what we are doing. This a very crucial time with earth changes and climatic changes. We are trying to maintain our traditional ways, sing our songs and carry our staffs.”
The setting at Chiefswood Park, featuring a two-acre restored prairie, an explosion of wildflowers more common in an era when bison roamed free and beneath towering oaks, was quite appropriate for an Elders Summit. During the six days more than a thousand participants must have sat in the tent below the stage marked by the two-row wampum, which was the scene not only of speeches, but of music and dancing.
More environmental abuse in the works
Chiefswood Park is historic because it was the home of Chief George Johnson, father of the famous poet Pauline Johnson. His fame to be one of the greatest Iroquois Confederacy chiefs is based on a successful defense of traditional lands from illegal logging, causing him to be three times seriously injured from attacks by poachers. Chief Johnson’s home became the site of Native speakers raising key issues facing the earths protection today.
One of the elders who stressed the impact of corporate environmental abuse was Lubicon nation representative Rennie Jobein. He warned that, “The polar bear may become extinct in 10 years because of global warming. This is a product of the terrible greed of white men on this continent. There is a picture of gold seekers in the Yukon climbing up a hill. They look just like ants. That is a good example of greed. The destruction of Lubicon lands began in 1978. Today we are living on bottled water. The pollution is so great that we don’t even allow our children to swim in it. Nobody seems to care. I have spoken all over the world but nothing changes. The way this system runs today if Jesus Christ was to come down and sit at the Lubicon negotiating table he would be crucified again. We all are under assault, each and every one of us. The oil wells, the seismic wells, the clear cuts the white man is proud of! They are destroying themselves, but the sad part is that they are taking us down with them too.”
Innu Elder Elizabeth Penashue gave one of the most moving presentations at the conference. She spoke movingly of her struggle to protect the Innu traditional territories in Quebec and Labrador, from the assaults of mining, clear cuts and a planned hydroelectric dam. This is the Churchill Falls Two project, which if actually built, would involve massive flooding. To stop this ecocidal scheme she has lead educational canoe trips down threatened sections of the Churchill River. While she spoke a hat was passed around at the Summit to raise money for these efforts.
Elizabeth Penashue began by describing the impact of the first Churchill Falls project. She lamented, “On our lands we have had a hydro dam since 1965. It has caused us a lot of problems on our land. People lost a lot of their possessions from the flooding it caused. Our burial grounds are under water. Our canoes, fishing gear and cabins are under the water. All kinds of animals have suffered from the flooding, beavers and especially caribou. When governments contemplate about building dams, why don’t they think about the animals? When I think about what happened I just want to cry.
“We are also suffering from low level flying by military jet aircraft. There is also nickel mining on our lands. There is a lot of clear cutting. Many of our traditional medicines are gone. If the trees are all gone what are we going to eat? We don’t eat baloney in the store. The people used to be strong from eating wild meat. With no more exercise and fresh food, we have diabetes and cancer.
“When I pray it makes me strong. That is why I don’t want to stop what I am doing.
“When I fought the low level flying, nine women were put in jail in one small room. I said when you put the handcuffs on I am going to do something again to help my people. I don’t want to see another great mess from a new dam on the Churchill River. That is why I will be on a canoe trip next week. I will go with my husband and my children. When I see the animals, they talk to me. They say, ‘Elizabeth don’t give up. I need a forest and clear water. ‘ That is what I hear from the Porcupine and the other animals. We have lived here for thousands of years and I will live here till I die. We have never signed a treaty to give up our lands and I will never sign a treaty.”
Draft created for United Nations
At the conclusion of the Elders Summit two declarations were developed out of the six days of consultations among participants. Mohawk elder Jake Swamp explained that these will be circulated to various communities before a final version will be submitted to the United Nations in May. The draft Elders Declaration was called Kindling a Fire. It stressed that, our heart rests on our kinship with one another and with all beings of the universe and cosmos. We are grounded on Mother Earth.
A number of principles were expressed in the Elders Declaration. The first was that Violence against Indigenous women must cease and that Women are the mothers of our nations and their authority must be recognized within and outside Indigenous nations.
The declaration urged that Historical treaties must be recognized and interpreted from our perspective. It also called for education in Native languages, an end to assimilation policies and practices, respect for traditional laws and review by international tribunals of the persecution and murder of Native people. A detailed program for the protection of the environment was developed. This included strengthening environmental assessment processes by including the traditional ecological knowledge of indigenous peoples, prohibiting genetic engineering and honouring Sacred sites and artifacts and lands.
Great concern for the protection of the earth was also found in the Indigenous Youth Declaration. It stressed: “Youth have a right and responsibility to practice a traditional way of life, where, as guardians we implore ourselves to take action to protect, preserve and restore Mother Earth and all Creation and to free our people from hindrance and/or prosecution.”