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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


September 8, 2001 - Issue 44


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The Long Journey Back to the Heart


Medicine man helps his people find their spiritual roots


 by Lisa Gregoire Edmonton Journal Staff-August 21, 2001


photo of Fernie Marty by Bruce Edwards of the Edmonton Journal

When the talk turned political, Fernie Marty slipped out of the big top tent, walked over to a tree and began pulling sweet grass from the roots. Then he sat in the sun, wedged the roots between his heels and braided the shiny strands.

"When you are picking the medicine, it's like you can hear your ancestors talking," said Marty. "Out here is our church."

Marty exudes peacefulness. It drips from his warm fingers when he touches your hand. He is a medicine man, a grandfather and a spiritual guide. He has come to this place, where Lesser Slave Lake cinches in the middle like a waistline, to listen and learn.

"I made a commitment to myself to walk this way of life," said Marty, who picks sage, mint, berries and other gifts from the soil to heal those who seek his help. Marty, who now lives in Edmonton, works mostly with native foster children to erase everything that religion, commerce and politics have done to separate them from Mother Earth.

"They are lost. Many were never exposed to the traditions. Many of them have a bad interpretation of what native people are about. They think it's a staggering drunk in dirty clothes, slobbering on themselves on skid row in Edmonton. They learn it's about this."

With that, Marty waves the grass in the direction of teepees, meat-drying racks, tents, kids standing on each other's shoulders to tie canvas, and a blue-and-white big top under which dozens of elders have gathered to share knowledge and define their place in a changing and sometimes frightening world.

It is a perfect setting for the second gathering of Alberta's most respected native elders. Blueberries carpet the camp and pen-sized dragonflies dart and dive for mosquitoes. Participants have come from as far as Assumption and Lethbridge. They speak Dene, Cree, Stoney, Blackfoot, Iroquois, Ukrainian, French and English. They wear ribbons and denim, plaid and cowboy hats.

For this week-long gathering, they packed blankets, teepees and pipes into green garbage bags and clung to the railings of a barge Sunday and Monday as two-metre high waves rolled and rocked them to the sandy shore they call The Narrows.

But their agenda is as wide as the sky above, encompassing health, the environment, firearms legislation, treaty rights, the Indian Act, justice and employment.

"It's been seven generations, about 150 years, since the first contact with Europeans so we're looking at where we are today and all those things that affect and influence us, some in a negative way," said Andy Blackwater, a Blood elder. "This is to lay out a path for our spiritual future so we can all go on the same path, assisting each other and caring for each other."

The agenda was delayed a day when a storm turned the lake into a churning, spitting, olive-coloured soup. The few elders who made it across the lake on Sunday spent the night alone. The barge was unable to make a second trip.

On Monday morning, those first elders held a pipe ceremony at dawn and prayed to calm the wind and water for a safe journey. About 35 made the morning excursion and arrived shaken and wet but eager to set up camp.

There was a time when First Nations worked to advance their own needs, said Blackwater. There was a time when they made war on each other.

But now, their fight is against the governments they believe are eroding their treaty rights, polluting their land and teaching their children that Christopher Columbus discovered America.

"Education and religion were so destructive," said Blackwater. "Now we need to turn them into tools of survival. It's a long way but as Aboriginal people, we have not lost our spirituality."

For Marty, racism, residential schools, alcohol and the Bible have all chipped away at the house but the foundation of native culture is still there. It's in the heart.

"I understand sometimes the hurt is deep inside. I remember kneeling on cups in corners for speaking Cree," said Marty. "I blamed society for everything. I blamed the Catholic Church. But I learned the only person I could blame is me.

"The longest journey you make in your lifetime is 18 inches, from your head to your heart, the centre of your being. That's where spirituality lies."

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  Canku Ota is a free Newsletter celebrating Native America, its traditions and accomplishments . We do not provide subscriber or visitor names to anyone. Some articles presented in Canku Ota may contain copyright material. We have received appropriate permissions for republishing any articles. Material appearing here is distributed without profit or monetary gain to those who have expressed an interest. This is in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. section 107.  

Canku Ota is a copyright © 2000, 2001 of Vicki Lockard and Paul Barry.


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