One Native Life Learning Symphonic Music & Touched By the Cross

By Richard Wagamese

Antonin Dvorak’s Serenade for Strings in E is one of my favorite pieces of music. There’s a particular lilt and jubilation to it that’s energizing and on days when my energies are flagged and I’m in need of a lift, I’ll put it on and feel it raise me up again.

The opening always reminds me of snow storms arriving across the sweep of prairie. There’s a rush of strings driven along by rumbling basses before succumbing to the pastoral swell of the main theme. Then it resolves into a statement of calm like the joy of walking in the crispness of fresh drifts.

I found it one winter night in Saskatchewan. I’d made it my mission that winter to spend the long dark nights learning more about symphonic music. As always, the local library fueled my research. I’d sign out CDs by the handful and listen to them while walking along the river or in the quiet of my room.

I signed out books as well and while the music played in the solitude of my room, I’d read about the music I was listening to. It was a critical deciphering. I’d always enjoyed classical music but I’d never moved beyond mere appreciation. That winter I learned how its various forms were constructed and I grew to love it even more.

I lived with the music. On my way to and from my teaching job I listened. When I shopped I listened. Then, late at night alone in the dark, I’d lie in my bed, stare out the window at the huge Saskatchewan moon above the purple landscape and listen. It filled me, eased the loneliness I lived in then, and connected me to a process of invention that’s never failed to impress me since.

It was exactly like rediscovering myself as a Native person. It was never something you could achieve casually. There had to be a commitment.

Like symphonic music becoming an Indian had passages of discord, disharmony that could distract you from the search for melody, even the belief that it was there. But it always was and it’s only the passage of time that allows me the grace to appreciate the fracture of time and tempo and the resolution back to the main theme.

I remember someone asking me once – “If native people were so spiritual, as you are all so proud of saying, if their lives were built on such strong spiritual foundations, why did they flock to the missionaries like they did. Why did they abandon all of that for the vague promise of a strange religion?”

Questions like that always altered the pitch and tempo of my learning. I was raised in a Western mindset so logic like that was what I was familiar with and essentially, how I’d learned to navigate the world. It disrupted the native way of seeing that was so new to me.

Like everything in my life I depended on a library for answers. But in this case the storehouse of knowledge I went to were the elders of my culture. The question bothered me. It rankled me. I wanted to know the answer and I sensed the great importance it had for me so I sought out a teacher to tell me. What I learned was amazing.

In the long ago times before the arrival of the settler folk native people lived a holistic way. They depended on the land but they also learned to work in harmony with it. Similarly, they sought balance with the creatures of the earth as well. They understood that creation was built on a great wheel of energy and that harmony was the necessary principle that allowed them to be in constant touch with that great energy, that Great Spirit.

The teachers, those who guided the spiritual lives of the people, were those who lived principled lives and by doing so were graced with much spiritual insight. Over time the people came to recognize the manner in which the teachers lived and they wanted a symbol to reflect that honorable way, to identify them as principled beings.

They recognized that true teachers were those who demonstrated two significant relationships. They lived a harmonious relationship with everything in this reality, everything on the land, everything alive. They also lived a harmonious relationship with the great energy of the universe, the great unseen, the Great Mystery. The symbol they sought needed to reflect that.

What they came up with has come to be called a mandala. It comes from Oriental or Buddhist tradition that means a depiction or a symbol of the cosmos. In native tradition it was an honoring sign, a symbol that meant its bearer was a truly spiritual being, a teacher, one in tune with the Great Spirit.

It was constructed within a circle. One horizontal line represented harmony with all life. Another vertical line represented harmony with the spirit world. They were given only to those who actively demonstrated those two relationships and because they were such an honor and because the people who bore them were essentially humble people, they were kept out of sight, only to be seen in ceremony.

When the missionaries arrived they wore these symbols around their necks in plain sight. Two distinct intersecting lines. A cross.

The people were awed by this display. Their symbol was held in such high regard that they reasoned that these new beings who could wear such an esteemed symbol openly for all to see, must surely be great teachers sent to bring them great truths. And so they welcomed these men into their camps and lodges and listened to their words.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Hearing that story elevated me. I understood the how and why of things. I understood that history as it happens is not history as it is written. I understood how sins of omission can change the whole pitch and tempo of things making resolution difficult.

Dvorak in his genius resolved the Serenade in E in an allegro vivace, an exuberance. It’s what I wish for all of us.