Solid foundations for life: lessons in the Stoney way

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, September 6, 2006

With school re-opening for the fall, I’ve wanted to share with you some valuable lessons in worthwhile living and learning that I’ve picked up from the Stoney Nakoda community at Morley. I wasn’t quite sure how to bring the column together, however, till the other day when I had coffee with an architect and an engineer.

Architect Bill Milne, of Ghost Lake Village and Calgary, and structural engineer Michael Simpson, of Cochrane, were reminiscing about their involvement in the design and construction of the Calgary Tower, the 190-metre landmark built in the heart of Calgary in the late 1960s. They pointed out something I’ve touched on before: the absolute necessity of solid foundations for such structures, well anchored to withstand the tests of time.

Of course! I thought. Solid foundations are what the Stoney traditional philosophy of life and learning is all about, too. Here are four foundation footings given me in word and example by members of the Stoney Nakoda Nation; each footing is an expression of the highest value in the culture: respect.

1) Respect for Nature

When my family and I first moved to Morley in 1965, a regular visitor to our home was the globe-trotting goodwill ambassador, the late Chief Walking Buffalo. He was intrigued by all the books on my shelf and wondered if I’d ever studied at “Nature’s University.”

To illustrate what he meant, he gave me a lesson from Nature’s University on the principles of observation, reflection and the beauty of diversity.

You walk through the forest, he said, and you see all kinds of trees and plants – spruce, poplar, low-bush cranberry, mountain lily, and so forth. But does the spruce say to the poplar, “I’m better than you, because my needles stay on year round, and your leaves don’t”? Or does the low-bush cranberry say to the mountain lily, “I’m better than you, because I produce tasty fruit, and all you produce are useless flowers”? No, not at all, he said. The forest is beautiful exactly because its trees and plants, though different from one another, all live together in harmony – just as human beings should.

2) Respect for others

Early on at Morley, we often experienced how folks, though busy with their own lives, were quick to help others stranded on the road, rounding up horses, or preparing for a feast. And always, the personal space and dignity of others were respected.

Special consideration was – and continues to be – paid to elders. Those among the younger generation who seek understanding in the ways of life quietly observe how elders speak and what they say. Some even apprentice themselves to elders to learn by serving.

3) Respect for self

Those who respect others the most within the Stoney community also seem to have a healthy self-respect. They have a happiness that comes from living by the principles of hard work, self-reliance and initiative.

I’ve especially seen this among those with small cow-calf operations, in which every member of the family has a role to play and earns the respect of others by doing their part well.

A while back I encountered an inspiring example of the combination of self-respect and respect for others at a pow-wow. It was at Morley’s Goodstoney Rodeo Centre. One of the men’s fancy dancers, about 18 or 19, happened to step into the public washroom while I was there. Noticing how untidy it was, he took it upon himself to clean the sinks and pick up the paper towels scattered around the floor. What a class act!

4) Respect for God

If one foundation footing is more important than all the others, this is it. For it embraces the principles of reverence and gratitude that underlie all other aspects of the Stoney way.

A highly regarded elder, the late Johnny Powderface, helped me understand this when I, as someone with feet in two different cultures, was struggling with cross-cultural stress.

He pointed out how the whole Stoney community was in a similar struggle in its breathtakingly rapid transition from tradition to modernity. In his own lifetime he had seen the change from travois to truck to space travel, and from a hunter-gatherer society to an agrarian and, most recently, an industrial and white-collar society. Children, mesmerized by television instead of their elders’ stories, weren’t even speaking good Stoney any more.

“Dagu owath dokâ yach,” he lamented; “everything is going a different way.” Amidst all the change, people were losing sight of their identity and self-worth.

“Nevertheless, what we have been told remains true,” he said: “Donâga Wakâ wîjayanabi enâ yanîbiktach” – “As many of you as trust in God will live.”

© 2006 Warren Harbeck

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