This summer Sweden witnessed a unique event. At the beginning of July the Council of 13 Indigenous Grandmothers came to Stockholm with a special and disquieting message, they were deeply concerned about the present destruction of Mother Earth and the destruction of indigenous cultures.
There is a twenty year story behind the Council and how these widely outspread Grandmothers came together. They are from Gabon Africa, Nepal, Tibet, New Zealand, the rainforests of Brazil, Mexico, the Alaskan tundra, New Mexico with Sami ancestors, and the indigenous people from Arizona, Montana and South Dakota in the USA. They started by travelling to each other’s home lands, to learn their ways. They discovered similar wisdoms – among them that the land, sea and air cannot be owned. They all agreed you do not just live for today, the wise think ahead. What we leave behind is ecologically and humanly as important as life itself and critical for the lives of coming generations.
Since 2004 with enormous energy they have spread their message globally. In 2006 the 4th council was held at Dharamsala, India where the Grandmothers met the Dalai Lama; in 2008 they were in Rome, to ask the Pope to retract the Vatican decree from the 15th century that excommunicated all indigenous peoples. It should have been a simple request, but the letter has not yet been answered. Even as I write all Indigenous peoples remain excommunicated from the Catholic Church, with the church’s approval.
By 2012 the Grandmothers were in Lame Deer, Montana USA and the 12th Grandmother’s council was later held in Nepal. In 2013 after the Stockholm visit they will go on to Karlsruhe in Germany and end the year by visiting Gisborne on the east coast of New Zealand in December.
Their message of prayer is one of healing both for the head and the heart. ‘Through lack of respect and knowledge we destroy the very ground on which we stand, the quality of our water, and the air we breath.’ They leave behind them a film “For the Next Seven Generations”. The message is no lighthearted demand for those who wish to hear it. To be of value a decision must be of life giving value seven generations to come. Our acts and lives today must preserve future conditions for those that follow.
The Stockholm visit
Originally the visit was planned for Gällivare among the Sami people. Many more of us were able to attend, when the meeting was moved to Stockholm to be in early July.
On their arrival the eight Grandmother’s were welcomed at Katarina Kyrka with music and singing. During the coming week, four days were given to understanding their message at a hall at Clarion Hotel, which seats approximately 500 people and was pretty much full on the three days I was there.
I was quite unprepared for eight radically different personalities of Grandmothers who seemed entirely tolerant of each other’s diversities. The unity between them was obvious, what brought the meetings to life was the solidarity of a message expressed with wide variety of character. The other surprise was the gentle sense of fun which infused their presents without diminishing from the seriousness or respect of their message.
An important part of the visit was the ceremonies held outside the hotel under the trees. The prayers were offered to the north, east, south and west. Each day was in honour of one of the four elements, air, earth, water and fire. The ritual was characteristic of the Grandmothers themselves, where the seriousness and committed tone of the prayer never prevented a continual and spontaneous interaction with those present. They never forced their company on those who were there. What the Grandmother’s spread was the profound sense that we were not just human beings, but an inseparable part of each other.
If the Grandmothers spread an aura of togetherness around them, they imparted a quality that must have touched those who were present. Never have I witnessed a crowd that did so little to push or so much to share – or were so quick to appreciate what others did. Here was an impressive manifestation of the message they brought with them.
When we met in the hall, we were also able to learn about the difficulties confronting indigenous cultures. There were two incidents that stuck in my mind – the phraseology here is mine. If in principle the land is not owned but respected for the collective use for all living matter, the agreement is verbal rather than written. When Westerners arrived, they were set in their own way of thinking. On asking who legally owns the land, the answer was naturally “no one.” Yet the Western’s could see quite clearly this was not the case. The verbal response did not tally with what was practiced. The question then is how manipulative, dishonest and coercive the Westerners had to be, in written and legal terms, to forge ahead with claiming the land for themselves? What is this inhuman black-hole that allows for such a contradiction in a culture to be accepted? We learned this is what Western cultures did worldwide and still do.
Another debate was education – again the phraseology is mine. We heard of cases where the children had been forcibly removed from their parents to be educated according to a Western value system. Westerners disregarded they had a values system that was in head-on collision with indigenous people’s beliefs. They insisted on priming the minds of the children with claims of a superior ideology, where the native cultures were seen as secondary. Do not imagine the children were then accepted as fully fledged Westerners, few of them crossed the colour barrier, leaving too many children with a split identity. This has been recorded among the Sami, the Eskimos and in Alaska, while it is the same in Australia and Mexico.
There is a singularity of intent in how Western society is constructed, which is a sweeping contradiction to the essence of thinking in how many indigenous peoples approach life. It is not the material world but the dignity of all people that is the driving force behind the Grandmother’s meetings and unity.
Their feet on the ground
There is nothing airy-fairy about the Grandmothers either. Between them they seem well versed in Western ideas and not afraid to learn more. Two of the Grandmothers Mona Polacca from Arizona and Grandmother Alicia Compos Freire visited the political Almedalen meetings in Gotland, before coming to Stockholm.
Grandmother Maria Alice Campos Freire is fairly typical in being a founder of Centro Medicina do Floresta (Forest Medicine Center), where, since 1989, she develops research and healing with the plants of the Amazon, as well as education of children and youngsters for the preservation of Nature and sustainable development. Grandmother Flodemayo from central America with Sami connections, now living in New Mexico is a frequent speaker at national and international conferences, universities and colleges.
Talking to Rita from South Dakota I explained I was so old before I understood. “So was I” was the spontaneous reply. I persisted “but then I make so many mistakes.” “So do I” she assured me, “we are not always right.” Here indeed was another tolerance. Rita from Alaska comes with her own particular sense of fun claims ‘the past is not a burden; it is a scaffold which brought us to this day. We are free to be who we are—to create our own life out of our past and out of the present.’
The grandmothers combined knowledge and individuality is the Councils wealth and strength. Collectively they claim a much more serious message, on their home page it is says:
We represent a global alliance of prayer, education and healing for our Mother Earth, all Her inhabitants, all the children, and for the next seven generations to come. We are deeply concerned with the unprecedented destruction of our Mother Earth and the destruction of indigenous ways of life. We believe the teachings of our ancestors will light our way through an uncertain future. We look to further our vision through the realization of projects that protect our diverse cultures: lands, medicines, language and ceremonial ways of prayer and through projects that educate and nurture our children.
As I was leaving the Clarion Hotel on the day when most of the Grandmothers had already left, I stopped to say ‘thank you’ to Grandmother Rita. Her advice was characteristic, “be yourself” she then added, “because you can never be like me.” So obviously right – both of us laughed and she gave me a hug as I left.
The warmth remained with me as a strong reminder this meeting was essentially about us as ‘people’ with no pretentions. The picture was not of humans topping the tree of life as something special. We had a much more comfortable position somewhere in the middle of the tree, where we formed a simple part of all living matter.
In this mild egality here was an inescapable force that we forgot or disrespected at huge cost to ourselves. It was a price that was paid for by all living matter, including the environment and Mother Earth herself.