In 1992, I met a special teacher, a leader who–even after all these years–I marvel at the way he made me feel and how he inspired me to think.
His name was Chief Billy Diamond of the Waskaganish Cree First Nation of Quebec, Canada. He was far from his homeland when he visited the university I attended in Pennsylvania. I spent two days listening and absorbing his passionate representation and guardianship of his land and his people. On a press tour, Chief Billy was on a mission to build momentum and support opposing the desecration of his People’s land by an electricity company who wished to flood their sacred burial grounds with water that would generate electricity (and thereby a lot of money) for people well beyond the land there.
As I listened to Chief Billy, I deeply connected with his passion, his longing and the pain for those beloved to him and of his people who were yet to be born. He loved human beings. He believed in the possibility for change. He exemplified action in motion to his commitments and beliefs. I will never forget his congruency or his love for life.
In 2013–some 20 years later–I had what many native people would regard as a medicine dream. Medicine dreams happen when we are asleep, but as we awaken, we feel like the dream is our awake reality. If we let them, medicine dreams can serve as great tools to inform our lives and offer protection, or direction and guidance when faced with challenging situations or decisions.
In my medicine dream, Chief Billy Diamond came to me. He told me to take my children to a Pow Wow. I woke up with this idea in my heart and mind and didn’t feel like I had any choice but to honor him.
I had never been to a Pow Wow. I had always had great curiosity and reverence for American Indian traditions and customs but I honestly felt cautious about Pow Wows, for fear and concern as I didn’t want to do anything unintentionally offensive or irreverent.
With Chief Billy and Google guiding me, I researched and discovered a local University was hosting a day-long Pow Wow that brought Native American tribes from across the state of North Carolina together to celebrate the cultures.
I took my children and together we experienced the JOY and radiating splendor of our first Pow Wow together with our North Carolina American Indians. I resisted my reluctance and hesitancy to show up and support people of different cultures, and to allow myself to feel however I would feel surrounded by many people who may have been silenced, abused and oppressed. It was a powerful experience for me, and hopefully a memory my children will hold. (The photos included were taken with dancers’ permission.)
After the Pow Wow, I was curious about Chief Billy and sadly discovered he had died in 2010 at the age of 61. I wept for the world’s loss, and cried as I discovered what happened shortly before his death. The ripple effects of his extraordinary and controversial life touched his people, for freedom and the country he loved so much, Canada.
Just months before Chief Billy passed, the Canadian Prime Minister issued a formal apology to the First Nation People on behalf of the Canadian governments role in re-education camps, and their repeated attempts at devaluation of the Native People’s culture, heritage and values. In response to this unprecedented apology, the First Nation People orchestrated an event called the Ottawa Forgiven Summit.
I researched the event and discovered that a Canadian broadcaster was with Chief Billy during the Grand Entry of the Summit. Grand Entry is a magnificent ceremonial processional when all people come into the space where a Pow Wow will be held. Dancing, drumming, calling, cheering, expressing, moving, as all people come in to take their place in the circle. While I do not remember the name of the journalist, I do remember that he said it was his great honor to be with Chief Billy and that as they walked in, he would never forget Chief Billy’s calling out loud… exclaiming “Freedom, Freedom… Freedom!” as tears of joy streamed down Chief Billy’s face.
It is with great reverence, joy and love that I share a video capturing the Grand Entry that day in 2010, a historical record of the transformative healing powers of formal apology and forgiveness.
Knowing that Chief Billy was able to experience this moment of forgiveness, this moment of governmental and human evolution honoring the tragic history and exploitation of Canada’s First Nation People, towards honesty and “Freedom” comforts and inspires me, and gives me great optimism for our future in the United States.
It is my prayer that one day in my own country–that our United States Government–will formally apologize to our original American Indian Brothers and Sisters, for everything that intended harmed, murder, silencing and relocation in the name of American progress and colonization. May it be so in my lifetime.
With gratitude to Canada, we can learn that formal apologies by major governments are possible. And gratitude to Canada’s First People, we can see that forgiveness can come.
Change is possible.
p.s. if, in my sharing I was somehow disrespectful of Native American culture, please know that my intentions are pure of heart. It’s taken a long time to share this story– but I the time has come.