by Nathan R. Elliott
If you are not familiar with the Muskrat Falls project in Canada’s eastern-most province, Newfoundland and Labrador, it might be useful to know that the project represents a decades-long effort on the part of the Newfoundland government to provide energy to people of the province through a hydro-dam built on the Lower Churchill River in Labrador. Initial promises on the project were high: in 2012 the then premier of the province Kathy Dunderdale promised “lasting benefits to the people of Newfoundland and Labrador.”
By 2016 it had become clear that the cost of the project would far exceed original estimates, and that the economic burden would saddle the province with debt for generations to come, and ran a strong risk of collapsing the province’s economy. Premier Dwight Ball would eventually call the project “the greatest fiscal mistake in Newfoundland and Labrador’s history.”
First Nations, Innu, and Inuit activists also became increasingly concerned about the environmental destruction the project would bring, and raised concerns about the potential of wide-spread methylmercury poisoning of an entire ecosystem surrounding Lake Melville that might result from flooding the area. The poisoning of the ecosystem would have a dramatic impact on traditional food sources for Labradoreans, essentially robbing an entire people of a food chain they had relied on for centuries, perhaps millennia. They also pointed out that some independent researchers had raised concerns that a dam failure in the area was plausible. And finally archeological findings at the site increasingly suggested that the project would represent an enormous blow to our attempt to understand the history and culture of pre-European settlement Labrador.
Labrador Land and Water Protectors compellingly argued that the project represented a multi-pronged form of cultural genocide on the part of Newfoundland and Labrador’s government. In late October of 2016, sixty of these activists occupied the Crown corporation Nalcor’s building site, and three artist-activists went on hunger strike. That action precipitated multiple civil and criminal court actions, including an attempt by the government and the corporation to punish a journalist for reporting on these events.
Canadian courts recently upheld journalist Justin Brake’s right to cover the story, and in doing so Canadian commitments to free speech and the freedom of the press. Other legal actions against the activists and the journalist are ongoing. In 2018 an official inquiry was launched into the decisions that led to this point; that inquiry is still ongoing but has so far provided an ugly spectacle of denial, accusations, and counter-accusations by government officials attempting to deflect blame.
The people of Newfoundland and Labrador are still in the midst of a developing crisis.
“Is it possible to decolonize without this spiritual understanding?”
I ask this question at the end of the conversation. She pauses for a moment, mulls it over. “I don’t think so.” She thinks another split second, repeats herself. “I don’t think so. It would take much longer. It’ll take much longer.” She muses on the nature of the structures and frameworks that colonization brought. “Colonization took the spirit out of the people, turned land into property,” she continues. She explains in the analogies of shapes: European colonization comes in the shape of a hierarchical, patriarchal triangle. “There’s no way to decolonize,” she continues, “without that spiritual understanding, without getting back into the spiritual circle.”
Where the triangle creates domination and definition, the circle creates sacred connection. She is careful, throughout the interview, to distinguish between spirituality and religion. Religion, she tells me, is about structure and the power to manipulate and control. Spirituality, she suggests implicitly and explicitly throughout the interview, is about creating sacred space.
She carries her drum everywhere, she carries her eagle feather, and she smudges: these medicines, these actions, and that smoke creates sacred space, and in doing so they make the truth, however painful, possible. And the truth, in turn, keeps alive the possibility of reconciliation.
I’m often skeptical of a sharp distinction between religion and spirituality. I’ve heard it used to create categories that I’m not sure that I can accept, and I sometimes smell the whiff of fresh dogma creeping in behind the definitions: someone wants to define their faith behind the positive concepts of spiritual, relegating others to the pejorative of religion, and this often murky distinction—without any clear difference—between ‘religion’ and ‘spirituality’ is the way to pull off this particular trick.
Yet I find myself compelled, for the first time, by her use of the two ideas, perhaps because she grounds the difference in a critique of power relationships. Creating sacred space brings people into relationship with one another, and possibly reconnects them to the lands they are standing on: to inhabit that sacred space of interconnectedness is to discover one’s spirituality, whatever gods, spirits, or narratives one might use to describe that sacred space. Religion, if we are going to use the word to proscribe where this sometimes go wrong, might be used to describe the ways in which a stoutly defended dogma, an orthodoxy, might destroy the sacred by putting us back into positions of hierarchical power.
If so religion is directly connected to colonialism, as the two came from Europe to colonial spaces in the name of hierarchical power.
She learns, over the course of a lifetime, to treat herself as sacred.
“Have you forgiven yourself yet?” The elder is in her car, she met him for the first time only a handful of minutes ago, and she really has no idea what the man is saying to her, what he’s asking.
“Your people were nomadic. They moved, they didn’t settle down,” he explains, gently. “So, have you forgiven yourself, for not settling down, the way that you were always taught you should?”
She’s moved, she’s needed to be different places, and she’s always been aware that this behavior seemed odd, that it didn’t conform, but she had never even named the feeling to herself. And for the first time in her life, she feels seen, and perhaps in being seen, she becomes sacred, unto herself. She is, even then, in the throes of various destructive addictions. She will, over the course of the next few years, learn to forgive herself, learn to face the truth, and in doing so she will allow herself to be brought back into the sacred circle, where she can heal.
With one deft question, he overturns colonial priorities. He brings the hierarchical pyramid into question, and creates sacred space, right there in her car.
She is up at the falls, Muskrat Falls, for the first time, and she can feel that the land is in pain. They have started to limb the trees. The people who brought her up to this sacred, spiritual space, are seeing the destruction, and the promised advent of more destruction, for the first time.
She’ll learn the stories, stories of spirits who swim through the Labrador ground the way that seals swim through water. She’ll hear the old stories about hunters who harmed those spirits, intentionally or not, and who were hunted down by the spirits.
She believes in these spirits; she knows this land, this water, is sacred. And she knows the land is calling on her to speak for it. The spirits are swimming around her, begging her to defend their ground.
She is nose-to-nose with the provincial politician: she is screaming, he is yelling, she is yelling, he is screaming.
The local media captures it all. She is on the supper-time news, and her father calls her to tell her how very proud of her she is.
It’s then she knows that she has made a mistake.
She didn’t take the time to create the sacred space, and she got carried into a power struggle. And to be carried into a power struggle, she knows, is to be carried back into a colonial way of being.
A few years later, the land protectors are stopping traffic. They are trying to protect the sacred falls. The police are everywhere. The situation grows tense between law enforcement and the protectors. She gets a call, and she comes down, and she brings her drum, and she smudges the land protectors—cleansing them in sage, cedar, tobacco, and sweet grass smoke, praying for guidance from the Creator—and she smudges any of the police officers who will agree. She smudges Quebec transport drivers leaning out of their trucks, who ask her to do so.
The situation deescalates.
The police officers thank her.
She tells them that they came there because they felt that land protectors were breaking the law.
She points out that the police officers were violating the land, that she was the one who could diffuse the situation, because she could recognize the sacred.
I can’t help but notice that her actions in the story recognized the sacred in all of them.
Sometimes she saw a warrior, in full regalia, stern and fierce. Other times she saw an Inuk grandmother in seal skins, puckishly teasing her out of her own self-seriousness, her sadness.
These visions came to her; it took her a while to understand.
Both, not either/or.
Both the mischievous grandmother and the fierce warrior are her. She is two-spirited. She is fire and water, water and fire. And as another two-spirited mentor will teach her, most two-spirited people end up fighting violently with one side of themselves. They try to put out the fire, try to keep back the water. They resist the male in them, or try to squash the female. They try to square the circle, to put one side of the self into dominance over the other, to create a hierarchy within her own body.
She learns—she is still learning—to embrace the fire and the water within her. She learns that she needs both to play the role she needs to play in her community. She begins to see that the male and the female within her are sacred, and that in the days before European colonization both sides would have been celebrated. These two spirits are not about the definitions and descriptions of gender and sexuality provided by the compulsive European habit of classification and taxonomy.
In learning to love both spirits, the grandmother and the warrior, she learns to love herself.
When she was nine, ten years old, she would go out from a home that was often filled with violence and trauma. She would go towards the river, to one particular spot, to one rock. She would feel the trees on either side of the path reaching out to her. She would hear the water talking to her, telling her that they had her, that they were holding her, that it was okay.
She would talk to the crows, the crows she would eventually understand as her animal guides.
When she looks back at these collective moments, she recognizes the sacred; she sees the ways in which she was being folded into the sacred circle.
When she looks back at moments in the Pentecostal churches, she sees games of hypocrisy, played for the sake of maintaining power. After her brother died, all she could see is a preacher who felt compelled to state that there were consequences for actions, rather than having empathy for a loss.
I am not indigenous, and it would be hypocritical for me to put my faith in the same narratives that she has.
Yet her profound sense of the sacred is calming, and comes at a time when I have begun to speculate that it’s just that—that sense of the sacred—that various forms of faith might have to give to us.
She and the Labrador land protectors must, at times, feel incredibly defeated. They are being charged by the government, tried by the corporation. The environmental destruction—let alone the economic decimation—of the Muskrat Falls project is going forward, even as politicians argue and try to cast blame away from one another in the Muskrat Inquiry. The entire project threatens to sink Canada’s eastern-most province into penury and yet another round of colonial exploitation and destruction.
A small band of land protectors made an entire government stand up and take notice. They brought home to people the folly, the destruction. They maintained their sense of the sacred, and in doing so they shaped the conversation, and from a position that looked—according to colonial eyes—utterly powerless at one point. They disrupted, they recreated, they demonstrated that the sacred still has a place in our lives. In doing so they gave me a very small, very hard, very precious kernel of hope at times that I needed it, and I know they have given that hope to many of us who were connected to the province of Newfoundland and Labrador these past several years.
In telling us the old stories about the land and the water and the crows in a new way, they are refusing the structures of colonial domination.
They are reminding us all that the sacred exists, and however we might find our paths to it, we must find our way back to the sacred. We will perish—individually, and as a species—if we fail to do so.
This is the fifth of articles about faith, progressive politics, and voices of faith from unusual perspectives. Please message Nathan on Twitter at @writeronabike if you think you know of a person, a church, a mosque, a synagogue, a faith community of any creed that might be of interest.
Nathan R. Elliott grew up in Idaho, was educated in Chicagoland, worked as a professor in Georgia and Newfoundland, and now writes and lives in Montréal. He has published peer-reviewed research on the intersections of nineteenth-century British Literature and nineteenth-century science; he has published fiction and creative nonfiction in a variety of venues. He is the recipient of the 2016 NL Arts Council’s Lawrence Jackson Writers’ Award.
Featured Art: “8 of Cups” by Rhonda Pelley