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Ancient Wisdoms for Modern Times – my meeting with Dominique (T8aminik) Rankin, Grand Chief of the Algonquin


Jay Naidoo is founding General Secretary of Cosatu, a former minister in the Nelson Mandela government and is a board member of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation.

As I grow older I feel deeply that ancient indigenous wisdom has more relevance for today’s modern times than ever before in our humanity. I believe our salvation as a species relies on tapping into and learning from indigenous cultures.

I was born on the banks of the majestic Harricana River in Abitibi in northern Quebec, the son of an Algonquin chief. My father, a traditional chief and strong medicine man, saved my life following a crash of the plane intended to transport me and my mother to the “white medicine” after a difficult childbirth,” says Dominique (T8aminik) Rankin, now the Grand Chief of the Algonquin tribe.

I remember sitting around the fire and listening to the stories of the old way of life. It was the native way of educating us young people – the oral tradition and through ceremony.”

I feel his burden of memory. I have spent most of my life working with grassroots communities, from hostel dwellers who were the backbone of the union movement to informal settlements and villages across the world. They have given me my greatest learnings. I have always learnt so much from people who have had very little or no benefit of formal education but who have inspired me in my life.

His eyes mist over.

At the age of eight, I was kidnapped by missionaries. Together with my brother and four sisters, I was taken to a residential school. We had to burn the clothes and sacred articles we came with. They said they wanted to beat the “savage” out of us. But they were the savages. We could not practice our spiritual beliefs. We were physically and emotionally abused if we were caught doing this.”

The sadness wells up.

Our accommodation was substandard. We could not see our family. We were punished for speaking our language. All correspondence with our parents had to be in French. Many of our parents could not read French.”

Photo: Dominique (T8aminik) Rankin and the author

In 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada admitted that the residential school system did tremendous harm to indigenous children by its racist assumption that native American culture was primitive. And that native children had to be assimilated into modern society by adopting Christianity and speaking English and French.

Over the course of the system’s existence, about 30% of native children, or roughly 150,000, were placed in residential schools nationally; at least 6,000 of these students died.

While the Canadian government has formally apologised, there is a long way to go to restore the birthrights of the First Nations.

T8aminik was expelled for assaulting the priest who abused him. His treatment placed him on the road to social delinquency. But the Elders of the tribe took him through the traditional rites and he recovered. Today he shares his knowledge with people of all origins who are interested in learning about the simple, profound philosophy of his ancestors. His story is a vibrant tribute to forgiveness and reconciliation.

Weaving ancient traditions – including the Prophecy of the Seven Fires – and his own life story, he delivers a powerful testimony about respect, pardon and healing, one which leads the participants into the heart of a millennial tradition that many today seek to rediscover. This tradition has reached a crossroads and confronts a crucial choice between two paths: self-destruction or spirituality

The Circle of Life is central to the Algonquin culture and is a vast symbol of the countless interactions between all the elements that make up life. It includes the four races of humankind – yellow, red, black and white – that make up a huge family circle. The four cardinal points, represented by four sacred spirits, the Turtle, the Eagle, the Bear and the Buffalo, stand for the Feminine, Balance, Strength and Peace, respectively. Human beings are an integral part of this Circle and must never hold themselves apart from it. Although people today sometimes forget about our bonds with Mother Earth, we must remain inside the circle, for if Mother Earth suffers, we also suffer.

The Circle of Life is also a Medicine Circle, for human health depends on maintaining the proper balance between its different elements: body, heart and mind. Reconnecting with and protecting Mother Earth also means taking care of ourselves – giving our bodies, hearts and minds everything they need to flourish and be part of the oneness of life.”

Today the First Nations are at the forefront of environmental activism to stop oil pipelines and the exploitation of resources on their lands by mining, oil and hydro companies across North America.

As I grow older that truth resonates even more clearly with me. I feel deeply that ancient indigenous wisdom has more relevance for today’s modern times than ever before in our humanity. I believe our salvation as a species relies on tapping into and learning from indigenous cultures. Interestingly, they also espouse a theory of decolonisation that resonates with the Fallist movements back in SA.

Alongside the Khoisan of southern Africa, I have always been intrigued and fascinated by native Amerindian culture.

As far back as the 18th century, Chief Seattle, of the Squamish tribe, and a father of the Duwamish tribe, warned of the future we face. His words are as relevant today as they were then.

How can you buy or sell the sky, the warmth of the land? The idea is strange to us. If we do not own the freshness of the air and the sparkle of the water, how can you buy them? Every part of the earth is sacred to my people. All things share the same breath – the beast, the tree, the man … the air shares its spirit with all the life it supports. Take only memories and leave nothing but footprints. Humans merely share the earth.”

Cutting to the heart of human greed, he reflected:

We can only protect the land, not own it. Earth does not belong to us; we belong to Mother Earth. There is no quiet place in the white man’s cities, no place to hear the leaves of spring or the rustle of insects’ wings. Perhaps it is because I am a savage and do not understand, but the clatter only seems to insult my ears.”

In a world where the rise of violence fuelled by war has led to the greatest number of refugees since the Second World War, the average stay of the more than 60-million living in refugee camps now exceeds 17 years. Where intolerance and the rise of fundamentalism, racism, xenophobia and fascism festers and human greed strangles our environmental heritage, indigenous culture holds the ancient wisdoms needed for our modern times.

From every point of view our current economic system is bankrupt. The food system is broken, as hunger and malnutrition explodes, with one out of two people are hungry, obese or undernourished. Trust in democracy and public institutions has broken as the as the noose of state capture of our political parties and governments tightens.

The disease burden explodes as we destroy ancient traditional medicine and reach the limit of the use of antibiotics. But Nature is a super-pharmacy. Traditional medicine is based on the complex engineering of plants and their adaptation to their natural environment holds the key to many of the illnesses we face. After all, our ancestors have survived tens of thousands of years depending on Mother Nature.

To me indigenous tribes are the missing link to many of the solutions we seek.

I am not talking of harmful cultural practices that are patriarchal, sexist traditions that oppress women and have absorbed the worst of predatory capitalism and the rule of “big men”. I am talking of the genuine indigenous cultures which revere Mother Earth and require us to live in harmony with Nature, as part of Nature, not apart from it. DM


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