The unexpected visitor translated words into actions

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, May 16, 2007

He walked through the door into the one-room log cabin, and our lives were never the same again. Cane in hand and bent over with age, he was wearing a tattered and patched gray wool jacket and a cowboy hat that had seen more than its share of roundups.

It was mid-November 1965. I was on my knees inside the cabin, chinking the walls with insulation when the visitor entered. The 16 × 20 foot cabin had been used as a barn for some years and was in need of a major make-over before my wife, Mary Anna, and I could set up housekeeping in it for our first winter in the Stoney Nakoda community at Morley.

We had only been at Morley for a couple of weeks and didn’t really know very many people yet. Standing up, I introduced myself, not having a clue about the greatness of my elderly guest.

“So, you’ve come to translate the Bible into our language,” he said matter-of-factly.

“Yes,” I said, impressed with his awareness of the work that was so important to me.

“Well, I can throw your Bible into the fire, and where does that leave your God?” he asked, leaving me with my mouth hanging open.

“You see,” he continued, “you White People live an artificial life. You even carry your God around in a book. But we Indians live a natural life; we carry God around in our hearts.”

Thus began my friendship with the globetrotting Chief George McLean, better known as Walking Buffalo (Tatâga Mânî, in the Stoney Nakoda dialect of Sioux).

Many knew the philosopher-chief best from his summertime presence at the Calgary Stampede Indian Village or through reading Grant MacEwan’s 1969 book, Tatanga Mani, Walking Buffalo of the Stonies.

But I had the privilege of getting to know him personally over many wintertime meals with us and through travelling the length and breadth of the Stoney Reserve with him as my guide and mentor in the language and culture of his people.

He was not actually disrespectful of the Bible or anyone’s religion, but he loved to poke fun at the White Man’s ways. Many times while riding around his rural community with me, he’d point at an old wreck of a car and say, “There’s another dead artificial horse.”

He often shared lessons he’d learned in “Nature’s University.” One of his classic stories is about the forest. See all the different kinds of trees and plants there are, he’d say. There are poplars, spruce, pine, willow, cranberry, and a wide variety of flowers. But they don’t fight with each other. They get along together just fine; they live in harmony. That’s why the forest is so beautiful.

“Why can’t people be that way?” he’d ask.

In fact, it was his strong conviction about the people of the world living in harmony that took him on a world journey with Moral Re-Armament (MRA, now known as Initiatives of Change) in 1960–61. He travelled to Australia, New Zealand, South America, the Nordic countries, and elsewhere, meeting with political and labour leaders and proclaiming harmony through apology and forgiveness.

In the spirit of nation-builders such as Mahatma Gandhi and French Resistance leader Irène Laure, and Frank Buchman, the initiator of MRA, Walking Buffalo urged people to listen well to the still, small voice of God within themselves and to act responsibly according to the moral absolutes of honesty, purity, unselfishness and love, values common to all peoples of good will, he said, including his own Stoney Nakoda people.

In particular, he urged his audiences to respect the rightful place of the world’s Aboriginal peoples, a call to good relations which he demonstrated by his own hospitable ways toward non-Aboriginal visitors to the Calgary Stampede.

On Boxing Day, 1967, at the age of 96, Walking Buffalo died. But his message lives on.

Picking up the torch was his son, Bill McLean, now 86. A respected elder and former chief of the Bearspaw Band of the Stoney Nakoda First Nation, Bill is a rodeo rider, peacemaker, and motivational speaker – and as of this week’s issue of the Cochrane Eagle, a newspaper columnist.

Bill travelled widely with his father and made friendships with people who had a powerful impact on his own life. In recent years, in classrooms and at international conferences, he speaks passionately of his struggle to rise above a bitterness rooted in his residential school days. He speaks to the young people of his community and the world about becoming agents of positive change, instead of wallowing in self-pity and hate.

But you’ll be reading all about that from Bill himself – here in this newspaper.

Best wishes on your new column, Bill. We look forward to reading your thoughts on making our world more harmonious and more beautiful.

© 2007 Warren Harbeck

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