by M. Doretta Cornell, RDC
(Note: The name of last week's author was accidentally omitted: it is Mary Alice O'Brien, RDC.)
On a recent Sunday, under a canopy next to St. Bartholomew's Church in Manhattan, three elderly Native American women blessed the air and Earth, concrete and all, and each of us gathered to honor them. In ancient ritual and languages, they gave thanks and prayed for peace among all peoples as smoke of sacred herbs and of the peace pipe rose around us.
The International Council of Thirteen Indigenous Grandmothers, which includes these three women, are all elders among their people. Soon after the Millennium, they felt called to create a community that would actively promote peace. Each woman comes from a people whose land and culture was and still is suppressed, and whose people continue to suffer because of their heritage. Since they formed the Council in 2004, the Grandmothers have traveled the globe to meet people and establish peaceful relationships, so that the world will be transformed for us and “for the next seven generations.”
The ceremony I attended took place during First Nation Peoples: A Movement toward Reconciliation and Hope, the Annual Meeting of the Partnership for Global Justice, a Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) affiliated with the United Nation; our community is a member.
The three Grandmothers who received the Partnership's annual peace award are members of Native North American peoples. Grandmother Mona Polacca is from the Hopi/Havasupai /Tewa. Grandmother Rita Long-Visitor Holy Dance is from the Lakota Oglala Sioux, as is her sister, Grandmother Beatrice Long-Visitor Holy Dance. Other Grandmothers are from Gabon, Tibet, Nepal, Brazil, and other places in Africa and Central America, as well as from other Native American peoples.
The award ceremony continued to be unusual – not only were we honoring these women, we were also offering our apologies for the suffering of Indigenous Peoples at the hands of our ancestors and our government. In addition to the award plaque, Dominican Sister Lucianne Siers, Director of the Partnership, presented the women with a book of letters of apology from Partnership members and schoolchildren from around the country.
The Grandmothers were gracious in accepting our honor and apologies, and called on us to honor each person, regardless of culture or race, and to honor the Earth so that we people and the Earth may flourish in peace. As they told their stories, we learned of present incursions on their culture, including the dire poverty and continued struggles with corporations that covet their ancestral lands for the wealth they believe lies under their sacred mountains.
The ceremony concluded with a moving one-act play, I am Not a Savage, composed of selections for the diaries of Christopher Columbus and Bartolome de las Casas, a Dominican priest who worked to end the violence against the Native peoples during the 16th century Spanish incursions. A third character was young native woman who defied both the oppression and the efforts to enslave her and her people. Her voice crying out, “I am not a Savage,” as Columbus summons soldiers to capture her gives the play its title. (She escaped with de las Casas’ help. Not so fortunate were thousands of her people.)
In her final words, Grandmother Rita drew parallels between the suffering depicted in the play and the sufferings of many today who are subject to oppression and violence, especially those whose communities are being destroyed by war or policies that benefit a few with no regard for the individuals and communities they destroy, or the Earth they render infertile.
The words and gestures of reconciliation – the blessings and hugs and smiles – were deeply moving. Here was another living example of the "difficult compassion" that was the topic of a recent blog entry. These women of no tender age (the eldest is 90 and in a wheelchair) gather and travel out of a desire to restore harmony and peace with nations such as ours, in spite of the centuries of anguish and injustice they have suffered at the hands of our ancestors, and continue to suffer.
The Grandmothers amazingly spoke, not of vengeance or hatred, but of the need for understanding and reconciliation, so that by working together we can bring a better life to all peoples, not just their own!
Here truly is compassion in action, with the victims of violence foreswearing vengeance and violence, advocating for peace, and inviting us into collaboration with them!
More on this subject of "difficult compassion" next week. . .