Can we finally give sharp words a rest?

On my mantel stands a pack of smokes. It’s in a place of honour, despite all the brutally direct health warnings the package wears.

Last summer, I attended a ceremony at Stoney Knoll, a short distance north and west of Laird. It was the fifteenth anniversary of the signing of a document on that same site. Lutherans, Mennonites, and First Nations gathered at that time to commit to working toward justice for the descendants of indigenous folks that were left landless over a hundred years ago when the government removed the reserve status from the Young Chipewyan tract of rich land and made it instead available to new immigrants, who were, in large part, local Mennonite and Lutheran farmers. Mennonite Central Committee Saskatchewan, a parachurch organization focused on relief and justice work, has been involved from the start to encourage this unique conversation between settlers and the Young Chipewyan remnant.

I didn’t grow up at Laird, and as such, have limited skin in the game. But two granddaughters are growing up at the base of Stoney Knoll. How the community works to resolve difficult history certainly impacts them and their world view.

At the ceremony, I was identified as a Mennonite elder, and invited to engage in some story telling. I gaped a little at the request, as my eyes swept around the tent and identified others with more age, more wisdom, and more history relevant to the issue at hand. Then I was presented with a gift of tobacco. That’s the packet that sits in a place of significance in my home.

Tobacco is, of course, a traditional gift offered by indigenous folks to their elders. It is a notable mark of respect. Beyond that, as I’ve thought and prayed about the lessons contained in that little cellophane wrapped box, I’ve been led in interesting directions.

We who have formed our thought patterns within significant European understandings are much rooted in debate, argument. Our understandings of justice, law, and often conversation itself is a give and take affair, right versus wrong, win or lose. You will make a strong statement, and I will counter with one of my own. How often do we end intense exchanges by “agreeing to disagree?”

Tobacco represents a different priority. That priority is “gift.” If I invite you to share your stories, your wisdom, I preface that by honouring you with a gift. Offering and receiving a gift moves us away from debate, moves us away from winning. As you offer your thoughts and your stories, I will respond with my dignity and thoughtful consideration. The respect inherent in the gift is returned in the wisdom of the words.

On a number of occasions, I’ve noted the impact when Indigenous values were inserted in formal situations. The first time I sat at a healing circle, I was soon moved to tears by the passion, by the honesty, by the dignity that was offered to every person in the circle. There was no energy given to denial, excuses, blame, argument. Similarly, I’ve been part of a parole hearing where the offender chose to use traditional understandings and values to shape the hearing. We were asked to remove our shoes, as this was now a holy space. We were then offered the opportunity to smudge. In the respect, there’s that word again, in the respect shown to each person in the circle, it soon became apparent that ultimately, each person was desiring the same result, and that was planning for the best outcome for both the offender, and the community into which he was asking to reintegrate. Again, there were tears.

How we speak, how we hear, matters. The concept of gift should not be strange to Christians, who reach out to receive, to embrace what God offers. Can we also look to the traditions of neighbours around us, can we receive, and offer with that same understanding of gift, of respect? Can we finally give sharp words a rest?