Stoney Country shares heart of beauty

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, December 12, 2001

Morley is a great Christmas gift to the entire Bow Valley.

Anyone making evening jaunts through the heart of Stoney Country at this time of year will be impressed with the festively decorated homes dotting the foothills landscape. And to step inside one of them is to be entranced by garlands of silver, red and blue crisscrossing ceilings in complex diamond patterns like fine beadwork on ceremonial sashes.

There is a heart of beauty in this land of the Îyâ-rhe Nakoda, the Rocky Mountain Sioux – a soulishness that beats with the passion of a round dance bringing community together in sacred circle.

How well I remember the first holiday feast my wife Mary Anna and I attended in Stoney Country 36 years ago.

The cooking crew arrived at the community hall mid-evening. Whole families teamed up in the all-night session of roasting turkeys, dicing turnips, peeling and boiling potatoes, and preparing the traditional rice pudding and stewed dried fruits. The men assembled long rows of tables, and toward noon of the big day, crews of young people set the tables, with bowls of wild cranberry sauce alternating with stacks of fresh-baked bannock.

So many people had gathered from Morley and nearby ranches, towns and other reserves, that the event coordinator had to call for three sittings. Folks ate their fill. Then, out of respect for their hosts, they filled buckets and bags with dried meat, mandarin oranges, apples, cakes, and other goodies for taking home at the end of the day.

Elders prayed and spoke wise words. Visitors brought greetings from afar. Laughter and music filled the hall. We danced into the night.

Sharing was what this feast was all about. It was how the community showed its gratitude to the Creator and to each other. It was about happy people sharing the joy of just being together.

An important part of sharing in the Stoney way is gift-giving. Here, my thoughts go far beyond feasts, dances and the magnificent Pendleton blankets often given to show special honor.

I'm thinking not of material gifts, but of spiritual – gifts, I hope, that have helped make me personally more human, such as:

The gift of Nature's University. When I first arrived at Morley, I was full of book learning. I held to a worldview that said, if something was truly important, it would be expressed in writing.

The Stoney way soon taught me about realities for which writing was totally inadequate – the grandeur of a sunset, the flight of an eagle, the sacred mystery of Wakâ.

The gift of extended family. My own cultural roots oriented me within a nuclear family, pretty much restricted to my parents, wife, and children.

The Stoney way allows me to experience family more broadly, with certain aunts and uncles bearing parent-like relationship to me, and many of my cousins being related to me as brothers and sisters.

The gift of community. I had been raised in a decidedly individualistic culture. To see evidence of the social pressure toward individualism, all anyone has to do is look at television ads: Why should I buy this product or that? Because "I'm worth it."

The Stoney way looks beyond the individual to the community, an expression of the sacred circle. For just as Nature's University teaches interdependence and harmony among all the creation, so in our lives together as people, self-interest must take a back seat to the well-being of the community as a whole. This is seen not only at feasts and round dances, but also in other times of celebration and spiritual renewal.

It is also seen in times of grief, such as wakes and funerals, when those with whom we have danced and sung for a lifetime dance and sing with us once more in our passing from this world to the next.

All of which brings us back to the Stoney celebration of Christmas. The circle continues unbroken, and a First Nation with heart of beauty prepares once more to celebrate the angelic proclamation, "Peace on earth."

© 2001 Warren Harbeck

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