“WE ARE STILL HERE” – A Traditional Teaching Lodge built in Washington for the Indigenous Preconference
Who would have thought that erecting a sacred teaching lodge in the lobby of a downtown Washington hotel could have been possible and signify so much? Embodying the statement: “we are still here on Turtle Island,” our creation strengthened and unified our strong cultural belief system. This sacred lodge had the effect of reminding us that our value of community is still very much vibrant and alive in this modern day. I also like to imagine that the lodge was a welcome sight to behold for all indigenous delegates attending the International Indigenous Peoples Preconference event on HIV and AIDS entitled – To See and Be Seen.
Approximately 50 young and newly harvested red willow saplings were necessary for the building of the lodge and were brought a great distance from Manitoulin Island, Canada to Washington. This precious cargo, carried on the back of a pick-up truck, also included 25’ poles for the teepee that was destined to be erected in the Global Village in the Indigenous Peoples Networking Zone for AIDS 2012. Traditional elder, Stan Peltier, who had the task of harvesting the saplings and bringing them to Washington, spoke of being pulled aside at the USA border crossing, and being told that he may have to be turned away due to stringent laws that forbade the bringing of trees across the border that still have bark on them. He then told us that the border crossing inspector, on a whim, decided to look the other way and waved him through with this precious cargo. Suffice to say, all things are possible and that the Creator does indeed work in mysterious ways!
The protocol requires that the lodge be built by community and that prayer takes place prior to building. Tobacco is to be placed by the women into each of the holes where the saplings sit. The men then work by bending the pliable saplings into the shape of the lodge, and women assist by fastening the saplings together. In addition, a teaching on the lodge was presented after completion, and more prayer was offered to invite the spirits and ancestors from the four directions into the lodge to be with us.
One aspect from this teaching I can share is the significance of the two doorways. One doorway lies in the east and symbolizes where life begins, and the other door is in the west which symbolizes the doorway into the spirit world; a door that is used when our life journey ends on earth and we return into the spirit realm. Whenever anyone exits out this door, they have to exit backwards looking to the east, but for the purposes of why we erected this lodge, we closed off the western door so that people would not be using it for the duration of the lodge being up at the preconference.
Teaching Lodge Houses VISIONING HEALTH Photo Voice Exhibit of Positive Aboriginal Women
It has been said that, ‘a picture is worth a thousand words,’ or, ‘every picture tells a story’. In this case, the picture of the community building the lodge to house a Positive Aboriginal Women’s (PAW) photo evokes stories of hope, health and healthy communities. This is a vision that may very well be within our reach in the coming years, and perhaps it is something that we all desire in our heart of hearts. It can also be said that this is something that we are genetically predisposed towards given our indigenous values and our history of community pre-contact. And perhaps this vision will become our reality if we all work together towards a common goal and if we ‘vision health’ together.
About VISIONING HEALTH
For PAW, the community based participatory research project, Visioning Health: Positive Aboriginal Women’s (PAWs) Experiences of Health, Culture and Gender, was by far the most meaningful research experience, due largely to the fact that it was grounded in strengths-based approaches. For far too long, research has focused on the deficits of our indigenous peoples. These negative images of sickness and illness have only continued to fuel this colonial depiction, and perpetuate stigma. To quote prolific and renowned Indigenous author, Thomas King, he has said: “Stories are wondrous things. And they are dangerous.” (Thomas King, 2003) In effect, the stories that are being told are dangerous stories as we may begin to believe and focus on their negative portrayals.
“We live by stories [and] we also live in them. One way or another we are living the stories planted in us early or along the way, or we are also living the stories we planted – knowingly or unknowingly – in ourselves. We live stories that either give our lives meaning or negate it with meaninglessness. If we change the stories we live by, quite possibly we change our lives.” (Thomas King, 2003, p. 154; quoting Ben Okri, 1997)
Visioning Health was an opportunity for the women to tell a different story. This strengths-based, arts-informed community-based participatory research project explores the meaning of ‘health’ (instead of illness) from the perspective of PAW. It also tries to understand the role that culture and gender, as determinants of health, can play in supporting PAW’s health. In contrast to the majority of research that frames Aboriginal women living with HIV as vulnerable, troubled, and unable to take care of themselves, the project sought to indentify and celebrate the strengths and gifts that PAW use in their lives to survive and to thrive.
Three groups of PAW (n-13) across Canada took part in group meetings and focus groups, where they learned how to use digital cameras and other art forms. The groups were grounded in Indigenous ceremonies with the assistance of traditional teachers, and incorporated indigenous knowledge and teachings whenever possible. We spent 50+ hours with each group, adapting our approach to meet their unique needs. At project end in November 2011, we brought all the groups together to share and celebrate their accomplishments. Then in early 2012, two women from the project passed into the spirit world; they are dearly remembered and missed by their community and we continue to remember and honour them in our ongoing work.
To date, since November of 2011, the project has been exhibited approximately 16 times at numerous venues across Canada and has also shared the gathered research findings at these numerous venues. Washington signalled a second opportunity of sharing this important research internationally and was also the first time we have used this format (of the teaching lodge) to exhibit the works of the women. We have always wanted to recognize the sacredness of the sharing of their stories and their lived experience and have wanted to honour them by housing this moving and powerful exhibit in a safe space and the teaching lodge fit the bill.
About the Author: Merv Thomas is the National Programs Communications Manager for the Canadian Aboriginal AIDS Network (CAAN).