Guest column: A first step toward truth and reconciliation

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, October 25, 2018

Stoney Nakoda Elder Becky Beaver taught Mary Anna Harbeck to see life with new eyes while tanning moose hide. Photo by Warren Harbeck

Several of our coffee companions saw implications in last week’s column for the current conversation around truth and reconciliation.

You’ll recall that in that column I featured Stoney Nakoda culture crusader Tasina Pope’s amazing autumn photo taken along Chiniki Lake Rd. west of Morley near where her great-grandparents, the late Lazarus and Lily Wesley, used to live. I spoke of how those two Elders had become important mentors to my wife Mary Anna and me. Indeed, they embraced us within their family circle.

Family circle? Yes, and what treasured life examples we were blessed with, as witnessed to by a reflection Mary Anna has written about a first step toward reconciliation that she experienced while learning to tan a moose hide from Lily’s stepmother, the late Becky Beaver, who had “adopted” Mary Anna as her daughter.

But you can read her reflection for yourselves. Here is this week’s guest column by writer/educator Mary Anna Harbeck.

KNEELING BEFORE A MOOSE HIDE stretched on a wooden frame and using a blade attached to a length of moose antler, I worked at scraping off the hair from the hide. Beside me on the frame was Becky Beaver, the stepmother of Lily Wesley. Becky, whom I refer to as Înâ (“my mother” in her Stoney Nakoda language), had traditionally adopted me as her daughter and ever after referred to me as mîchûksi (“my daughter”). She was instructing me with Lily’s help. After I had been scraping for a while, Lily translated this compliment from Becky: "My daughter is my equal now."

As a young woman in my early twenties, I had come to Alberta with my husband Warren and our one-year-old son to live among the Stoney Nakoda First Nations at Morley. At the time, we were members of the NGO Wycliffe Bible Translators/Summer Institute of Linguistics (WBT/SIL). Stoney Nakoda Elders had invited us to assist them in linguistics and the translation of the Scriptures into their language. Upon arriving in the area, we’d met with Calgary-based WBT/SIL Canadian Director Howard Klassen.

During our dinner together, Howard, who had wide experience in other cultures throughout the world, had amazed me by saying that the Stoney Nakoda people would believe that their way of life was superior to our way of life.  And, now, here was an example of what Howard was talking about: this First Nations woman, who didn't even speak English, believed that I was raising my status in her mind by learning how to do things her way.

Over the years, I've come to realize that all of us are convinced that our manner of doing things and our point of view are superior to everyone else's. But I think I especially thought that it was my goal in life to enlighten others. I’ve always believed in the Christian faith, but, as a young person, I’d confused my faith with my culture. Looking back, I’m sure I expected that I would not only share my faith with people of a different cultural background, but that I might also improve their lives by sharing my culture. It has taken me time to learn – and probably I’m still learning – that although my cultural background and that of the Stoney Nakoda people are very different, my way is not superior to their way.

When Înâ Becky used the word “equal,” I believe she hit the nail on the head. If we humans can just learn to see and accept each other as equals, then we will no longer have to be concerned about “irreconcilable differences.”

To rephrase a popular song, Let there be respect-based equality on earth, and let it begin with me.

P.S. I should add that this very wise, gracious Stoney Nakoda Elder, so talented with her hands both while scraping hides and with needle and thread, was totally blind. And in her blindness she opened my eyes to a better way.


© 2018 Mary Anna Harbeck

Return to Coffee With Warren home page