Memories of Stoney feast, dancing, and meaning of the manger

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, December 23, 2014

Sharing was what this feast was all about . . . . It was how the community – an oyade, “a people at peace” – showed its gratitude to the Creator and to each other.

An intriguing convergence of events has altered the course of this year’s Christmas column.

I had originally intended to build the column around a statement Marie-Linda Plante made at the end of last week’s column on her recent 400 km trek around the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal. You’ll recall her reflection on embracing many of the villagers along the way:

“I have learned much from the materially poor but spiritually affluent people living very simply in the Annapurnas,” she said. “No matter how rich we are as tourists, we all have to use our own two feet to walk those huge mountains, just as the inhabitants do.”

I had planned on writing about how Jesus, the One also known as Emmanuel (“God With Us”), was born in material poverty, lived in poverty and died in poverty – indeed, using His own two feet to walk with the poor of whom He said in His Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are the poor.”

But last week’s funeral for our halo-haired Cochrane coffee companion Sylvia Wylie reminded me of the passing some years earlier of my toe-tapping Stoney mentor Bert Wildman, which in turn reminded me of my first Christmas in Stoney Country.

Let me start out with that memorable Christmas feast in 1965 at the old Morley Community Hall. That was back in the Stoney Nakoda First Nation’s pre-oil-wealth days, and it beautifully illustrates Marie-Linda’s comment on spiritual affluence.

The cooking crew had arrived at the community hall on Christmas Eve. Whole families teamed up in the all-night session of thawing and roasting turkeys, peeling and boiling potatoes, and preparing the traditional rice pudding and stewed dried fruits. The men assembled three 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.

Mary Anna, our year-old son Reg and I arrived at the community hall early afternoon on Christmas Day. We were met with the festive aromas of turkey and trimmings, children’s gleeful laughter, and the welcoming handshakes from the elders already seated on the benches around the perimeter of the hall.

By dinnertime so many people had gathered from Morley and nearby ranches, towns and reserves that the event coordinator had to call for three sittings.

Folks ate their fill. Then, to show respect for their hosts, they filled the lard pails and bags they'd brought with the leftover stewed fruits, dried meat, mandarin oranges, apples, cakes, and other goodies for taking home at the end of the day.

Sharing was what this feast was all about, we were told. It was how the community – an oyade, "a people at peace" – showed its gratitude to the Creator and to each other. It was about happy people sharing the joy of just being together.

Elders and leaders prayed and spoke wise words. Visitors brought greetings from near and far.

Globe-trotting Stoney Chief Walking Buffalo was there, together with David and Daisy Crowchild, his travelling companions from the Tsuu T'ina Nation. Laughter filled the hall when Hansen Bearspaw told his jokes and sang his songs. The Chiniquay, Mark and Wesley families led in Christmas carols.

And come evening, Sykes Powderface and his country musicians played to the calling of Bert Wildman as we square-danced and two-stepped into the night.

Ah yes, Bert Wildman. He died on Dec. 17, 2008, at the age of 87.

I wrote my Dec. 24 Christmas column that year about him and concluded with words from that old Shaker hymn, “Lord of the Dance.” Its linking of Bert’s love for dancing and God’s love for His creation was obvious: “I came down from heaven / And I danced on the earth, / At Bethlehem / I had my birth.”

Last week on Dec. 17, the sixth anniversary of Bert’s home-going, we in Cochrane celebrated Sylvia Wylie’s life in a farewell funeral.

A memory many of us shared was of an action Sylvia surprised us with at the end of her late husband Peter’s funeral nearly three years earlier.

She and Peter had been life-long square dance partners, and when the service closed with that toe-tapping hymn, “Lord of the Dance,” and she was following Peter’s casket out of the service, she broke spontaneously into one last dance behind her beloved. (See my column for April 4, 2012.)

Dancing amidst their loss, trekking with the poor, born in a stable in Bethlehem and named “Emmanuel.” Blessed are the spiritually affluent, rich in true wealth.

Thank you, my companions in the Journey, for mentoring me in the meaning of the manger.

Merry Christmas!


© 2014 Warren Harbeck

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