Lily Wesley was a champion of culture, environment

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, October 31, 2007

Many of our coffee companions have contacted me about the Oct. 21 passing of Stoney Nakoda elder Lily Wesley, of Morley (see last week’s column). I’ll share one pair of e-mails, in particular, that speak of her passion for inter-cultural understanding rooted in environmental sensitivity.

But first, this from Morley resident Myrna Kootenay, Lily’s niece. Myrna sent me a note about Lily’s farewell words, as reported to her by one of the family who was at Lily’s bedside. The words were apparently prompted by a vision Lily had.

“My cousin, my mother and others, they’re waiting for me across the river,” Lily said.

Myrna added, “It must be the river in Paradise that you wrote about.”

Now to Oakville, Ont., coffee companion Helen Hare, who wrote that Lily’s story re-awoke her longing to know more about the contributions of First Nations peoples. Helen’s late husband, Dr. Kenneth Hare, Chancellor of Trent University from 1988 to 1995, and chair of Canada’s national Climate Program Planning Board from 1992 to 2002, was a prominent advocate for our natural environment. I see Helen as an advocate in her own right – an advocate for our cultural environment.

“Reading about the life and work of Lily makes me wish all of us Canadians could integrate more,” she said.

Well, about Lily’s role in helping Canadians integrate more, I do have one more story to share, and this one overlaps with the Hare family’s interest in both culture and environment.

Longtime Canmore coffee companion Susanne Swibold, anthropological photographer and film producer, wrote me about one of her personal memories of Lily.

Back in the early 1980s Susanne decided to have a tepee erected in her Canmore yard at the edge of the Rockies just below Spray Lake. She called on Lily and her husband, Lazarus, to come and show them how to do it. Susanne even invited 15 of her more adventuresome non-Stoney friends, both men and women, to be on hand to help out.

“It was quite a day,” Susanne said. “Lily instructed me that since this is a woman's house, the woman directs the men in what is to be done.

“Before Lily and Lazarus arrived, our guys were trying to get the three set poles even and had a long ladder up, with a plumb line hanging down from the center, trying hard to get the poles even, but with no luck.

“When Lily and Lazarus arrived, the fellows made a mad scramble to hide the ladder and plumb line, embarrassed at their technical attempts. Lily stood with hands on hips, shaking her head at the abysmal lopsided set poles. She gestured to Lazarus to cut a certain amount off one of the poles. Lazarus pointed to one of the fellows to come over and operate the chain saw and cut the gestured amount off. The fellow he asked was terrified of chain saws and turned white while Lily indicated to go and do it.

“Well, he did do it and did an excellent job, and the whole tepee settled in perfect balance. Lily then instructed our men friends to place the other poles and put on the canvas 'skin.'

“When the skin was on and pegged together, Lily stood in front of it, hands on hips, and declared to all the women standing around, ‘Now it’s our turn. This is women’s work. We put in the pegs to tie the tepee down and give our approval.’ She just giggled around us women as we pounded the pegs into the ground, all laughter and fun.”

Susanne then asked Lily and Lazarus to bless the tepee after a meal. They agreed, and excused themselves to prepare for the prayer ceremony.

“When we entered the tepee we were quite taken aback,” Susanne said. “There sat Lily and Lazarus in full regalia. It was an astounding sight. Quietly, everyone sat down. For one full hour Lily and Lazarus prayed back and forth for all living things of the valley, for all the waterways, for all the weather patterns, for all the flowers, the soils, the stars, moon and sun, for all the seasons and what they bring, and for our protection within our new tepee-home.

“What was so amazing is that the prayers were the most complete knowing of all that our valley world is made up of, and of how much gratitude there was – for every creepy-crawly, through to the stars. It was the most amazing biology, astronomy, climatology, flora, fauna, geology lesson one could ever sit in on, and it was spoken with the passion of the heart for Life and thanksgiving to the One Who Creates.”

This was Lily and Lazarus’ lesson that day at the intersection of creation and culture. Thank you, Susanne, for sharing this moment, and thank you, Helen, for your desire to know.

© 2007 Warren Harbeck

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