I was preparing to give a talk on the Irish language at the Telus World of Science centre in Edmonton, Canada, last March when I was approached by a group of indigenous elders from the Cree nation. They told me they had heard about the resurgence of the Irish language and culture in Ireland, and wished to offer their support and encouragement. It was not something I expected to hear amid the plains of Alberta.
As I struggled to find a suitable reply, Lewis Cardinal, a key figure in Alberta’s Indigenous Knowledge and Wisdom Centre, unwrapped a package and pulled out a ceremonial shirt to present to me in recognition of the work that is being done for the language in Ireland. He gestured to a Plains Cree Elder, Jerry Saddleback of the Samson Cree Nation, who pointed to four ribbons sewn onto the chest panel, saying that they represented the rawhide thongs used in the sun dance ceremony. Saddleback is the Elder-in-Residence for a cultural college in Maskwacîs, a community of two Cree First Nations in central Alberta, and so was well-placed to explain that, in the ceremony, members of the clan gather for healing and renewal around a central pole. The ritual involves an act of public sacrifice in which participants tie themselves to the pole using thongs connected to two three-inch sticks inserted through the skin on either side of the chest, and then dance until the sticks get pulled from their skin. It’s a public reaffirmation of their dependence on, and unity with, the wider universe and a personal sacrifice for their family, community and nation.
It was just a few days before St Patrick’s Day and I had expected a small crowd of Irish-Canadians; I hadn’t anticipated this. I tried to argue that the Irish couldn’t claim to be indigenous; some Irish were white exploiters, involved in the slave trade and in the massacre of indigenous people throughout the Americas.
I was about to continue, but the crowd was filing into the planetarium for my talk and a screening of an Imax film about a journey around Ireland that I undertook in 2018. We agreed to meet up later, but as I was presenting my lecture my mind kept trying to process what had just happened. Could there really be an equivalence between Irish culture and the heritage of Indigenous Nations in Canada? And if so, what implications did this have?
Afterwards, Saddleback’s wife, Jo-Ann, teased me about a scene in the film in which I stroll through the Long Library of Dublin’s Trinity College opining that, “At one time all the known wisdom on Earth was contained in this room.”
With a twinkle in her eye, she said, “Not our wisdom.” And it dawned on me how presumptuous and narrow-minded my comment had been. The great tomes in Trinity College only ever represented a tiny fraction of the collected knowledge of mankind. “Our wisdom isn’t in your books,” Jo-Ann said, “and neither is the old knowledge of Ireland.”
‘Knowledge of magic’
I demurred; much of our mythology and lore was indeed preserved in illuminated manuscripts written in Irish monasteries in the Middle Ages. “Maybe,” she said, “but is the female lore there? And what about the herbal lore? And the knowledge of magic?”
I admitted very little of this type of material had survived. But Lewis Cardinal interrupted with a challenge. ‘How would you know?’ he said. I said I was familiar with the contents of many of the major manuscripts, and that the type of knowledge Jo-Ann was referring to simply wasn’t there. He gave a knowing smile and nodded to Jerry, who explained that in old cultures such knowledge would generally not have been revealed to the uninitiated. The information would have been shared only with those who it was deemed deserved to know it, and they would have preserved it among themselves. Jo-Ann suggested that the lore connected to esoteric matters and issues connected with the goddess may have survived, but in a clandestine way.
The moment she said this I remembered how I had heard whispers over many years about a chamber of female divinity that was said to exist somewhere west of the Shannon, but I could find no reference to it in any book or journal. Then, finally, two years ago I stumbled upon the chamber, as some in the local community in Tulsk, Co Roscommon, had chosen to make it public again. It’s a cavern called Oweynagat in which an ancient goddess energy is said to reside. It had been largely forgotten about, except by a few chosen initiates who appear to have kept the knowledge alive. When the time was right, they were able to point small groups of individuals towards a tiny opening beneath a hawthorn tree in the bank of a field that led to it. The field is down a narrow laneway, apparently leading nowhere. Had anyone over the last few millennia happened to pass through, they would have dismissed the hole as the entrance to a fox’s lair or a badger set.
It made me wonder what other information had been preserved by guardians of old lore that I wasn’t privy to? In all, I only spent two nights and a long afternoon in the presence of these leaders and elders from a number of different Cree Nations in Alberta.
Overall, it was a rather dizzying experience. At one point, Jo-Ann tried to explain how the Cree language was based on 36,000 separate sounds, each of which forms a separate building block of the universe. Thus, the language was composed of the very raw materials of existence. I admitted that I was struggling to comprehend such ideas and she assured me that the information that was most relevant would integrate over time.
She said that it took her husband decades to learn the full creation myth of his people, which takes him four months to communicate in total. By age six, Jerry could recount a simplified form that took four days to tell, and when he reached the age of 16 he was able to recount a more complex version that took 16 days. Nowadays, he only tells the full story in a specially constructed encampment that is laid out in alignment with the landscape and the solar system. Each episode of the story has ceremonies and protocols connected to ensure they are recounted accurately.
Métis and ancestry
Over the months since my encounter, I have been trying to process all that was shared with me, anxious that I failed to understand much of what was said. But there was one core message they were keen to convey to Irish people. It concerns the Métis, who are a category of people in Canada named after the French word for children of mixed parentage. In English the more derogatory term “half-breed” was used in the past. The Métis were sometimes regarded with some disdain by both whites and indigenous people who thought they were ‘neither one nor the other’. More recently, the Cree have realised that Métis communities kept aspects of traditional lore and language alive that had been lost by the majority of indigenous people who suffered persecution at the infamous Indian Residential Schools.
There is now increased respect for the knowledge preserved within Métis families and, some years ago, Jo-Ann was elected vice-president of the first women’s executive of the Métis Nation of Alberta. She pointed out to me that many Métis have Irish ancestry, and while Scottish clans have begun to reach out and reconnect with Métis of Scottish heritage, Ireland has yet to do so. The Cree are aware of how Ireland values its diaspora in Canada and wish that we extend this to include people of mixed Irish and indigenous lineage. They point to many prominent Métis artists, activists, musicians, writers, poets and tradition-bearers of Irish descent who would be honoured to be acknowledged in Ireland and even invited back to their partial homeland.
Cardinal explained that a key step in this process would be for us in Ireland to accept the idea of our indigeneity. “Any people who are sincerely trying to reconnect to the old traditions and awareness of their land, and are deeply aware that communication with land is a two-way thing, can call themselves indigenous.” The sentiment was emphasised by Lana Whiskeyjack, an artist and activist whose mother and grandmother were both survivors of residential schools. (Her surname, which honours the matriarchal lineage, is an anglicisation of Kwêskácahk.) “When brown-skinned people like us say things about our connection to the land people only half listen,” she said, “but if a white person says it, they listen.”
My sense is that Whiskeyjack’s comment is at the root of why these Cree Elders came to my talk and made such an effort to explain aspects of their culture to me. They sense that time is running out for the planet and they feel that the Irish people, who are so connected to the land and who have had a long and complex relationship with the Cree over centuries, now need to re-establish our relationship with them so that we can step up to our responsibilities to the wider world.
When I asked Jo-Ann what the best way of understanding Cree culture was, she took out a pile of poetry books by Canada’s current poet laureate, Louise B Halfe, and told me to choose any three, saying, “These offer the most profound insight.” Coincidently, Halfe will make an official visit to Ireland with a delegation of Cree artists next week.
It’s now over a century since Éamon de Valera was adopted as an honorary chieftain by the Ojibwe in Wisconsin. While highlighting our shared heritage with indigenous people of North America, it’s about time we further develop and strengthen this dialogue.
Louise B Halfe, Canadian poet laureate, and the delegation of Cree Elders will visit Leinster House and Arás an Uachtaráin (November 23rd) and partake in a symposium at the UCD Centre for Canadian Studies (5pm, November 22nd). More info: http://www.landspeak.ie/