Stoney elder looks at life from the right perspective

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, October 10, 2001

"Seeing the world every day for how beautiful it is, and being thankful for it – that was the way of life for my ancestors," Stoney Nakoda First Nation councillor Gerald Kaquitts once told me.

A few years ago, before most of you joined our coffee table, I wrote a column about this and other lessons my long-time friend has taught me. In view of the ugliness and pain of recent world events, I would like to revisit his wisdom.

Gerald is a photographer/philosopher/philologist whose words and work have been an inspiration to me for most of my life in the Bow Valley. He credits the old people of his tradition with an insight into life’s journey that can benefit all of us:

"When my grandparents got up in the morning and saw the rising sun, they said a prayer of thanksgiving for the beautiful day just begun. When they caught a fish or shot a deer, they said a prayer of thanksgiving for their food and clothes, but they apologized to the fish or deer for taking its life for the sake of their own. And when the sun set and they lay down for another night’s rest, they said a prayer of thanksgiving for the beautiful day just ended.

"They saw the world for how beautiful it was, instead of seeing ugliness all around," Gerald explained. "My ancestors saw beauty in every day."

Then in a more somber tone, Gerald spoke of a particular poverty many of his own generation are facing, the poverty of forgetting how to see beauty in the everyday things of life.

The young people go to school, gain skills for getting jobs, learn to compete with one another, and see videos on dumps and toxic wastes, he said.

But, he added, does the classroom teach them the rest of life? The disciplined stillness required to watch a grouse do its dance in the woods? The patient expectancy that searches for the first bluebird of spring? The prayerful humility that experiences holy Presence in all the day’s varied events?

Elders of the Stoney community often refer to this kind of education as "Nature’s University." And it is to this classroom that Gerald has brought me many times for inspiration and encouragement.

There was the time we were driving along the Trans-Canada Highway west of Morley, for instance. Not too far from the road was a horse rolling around in the dust. Now, to many this observation might evoke only a "so what?"

But to Gerald, this was a moment of personal refreshment. The horse no doubt had just had its saddle removed and was ecstatic in its freedom; it felt so good to roll in the dust! And vicariously, Gerald could feel good, too – right in the midst of the day’s activities.

On another occasion, I was having an emotionally hard time. So much of what was happening around me just made no sense. I felt like I was in a waterless wasteland. One thing in particular helped maintain my sanity: a photograph Gerald had taken that hung on my office wall.

The 16 by 20 inch black and white photograph was of a desolate summer scene near Gerald’s home not far from the entrance to Kananaskis Country. A dried, cracked mudflat dominated the lower two thirds of the print. The cracks in the earth looked enormous. Who could ever cross this hostile terrain? Yet, off in the distance were the familiar mountains with slopes moist from melting snow nourishing the forest at their feet.

In reality, the seemingly unreachable mountains are, of course, almost at Gerald’s doorstep, and the parched wasteland was a dried mud hole only a few feet across. Gerald had photographed the scene with a wide-angle lens from a very low angle. Being so close to the mudflat magnified it to despairing proportions.

But if the scene could be viewed as an eagle sees it when soaring high, hope would return.

Looking at life from the right perspective can restore the beauty of the journey, Gerald was saying. And for this, we can all be truly thankful.

© 2001 Warren Harbeck

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