On this weekend before Thanksgiving, I would like to honor the wisdom of North American tribes. As a part of a minister’s study group focusing on reconciliation, we read Returning to the Teachings by Rupert Ross. The author is a Canadian lawyer. As an assistant Crown attorney in northwest Ontario, Rupert Ross has been responsible for criminal prosecutions on more than twenty Cree and Ojibway First Nations. In his first book, Dancing with a Ghost, Ross looked at Aboriginal approaches to justice. In his second book, Returning to the Teachings, Ross examines the place of traditional wisdom within Aboriginal communities across Canada, where the approach to justice is not to punish, but to heal.
For three years, Ross travelled with Justice Canada to examine and experience first-hand what is known as “Peacemaker-justice”. For example, instead of punishing a group of teenagers for vandalism while under the influence of intoxicants, the Elder Council sought to understand what led them to seek this terrible state of mind and called on the whole community to address the addiction problems.
This type of justice based on healing instead of punishment, highlights a belief in Native cultures of interrelationship. It is impossible to punish and isolate one behavior from the influence of the surroundings and other relationships. Just as it is impossible to punish and isolate one person without also affecting his or her community.
Our lives are based on relationships. Any betrayal, hatred, violence or injustice we experience does not arise because the other person is inherently bad or evil. Any wrong-doing that we perpetrate does not arise because we ourselves are inherently bad or evil. Instead, these harmful actions demonstrate Disharmony. Just like a disease, when the functioning of our bodies is disrupted by an injury or virus, disharmonies in relationships upset the healthy functioning of a person, which directly affects our community and our larger world.
As you prepare to sit down to the Thanksgiving table, I encourage you to be mindful of the quality of your relationships. Sometimes we celebrate the holidays with our closest friends and family members who are frequent companions. Other times, we gather with relatives or friends whom we only see in this season. Sometimes we hold little in common or sometimes old grudges and misunderstandings also come as uninvited guests. As we gather to give thanks, let consider ways in which we can strengthen ties with those assembled. Instead of a special activity set apart from daily life or the role of an Elder, let each one of us embrace peacemaking and healing as our task; finding ways simple and profound to connect, to promote greater harmony, and to express gratitude.
As we celebrate Thanksgiving, let us remember that as human beings we are dependent on all. The Ojibway hierarchy of creation is not based on intelligence or beauty or strength or numbers, the four orders of creation are based on Dependencies. In the first place is Mother Earth and her life-bloods the waters for without them there would be no plant, animal or human life. Next is the Plant world for without plants there would be no animal or human life. The Animal world is third. Last, and clearly least important in this hierarchy come humans because nothing whatsoever depends on our survival.
We are the most dependent of all. Therefore, we owe the greatest duty of respect and care for the other of these three orders: Mother Earth, the Plant World, and the Animal World. Without them, we perish. Our role is not to subdue individual parts of them to meet our short-term goals because that may disturb the balance between them. Instead, our role is to learn how they interact with each other so we can try our best to accommodate ourselves to existing relationships.
May the nourishment we receive fuel us to be peacemakers, mindful of our relationships, and finding ways to live in harmony.