I went to college in Alaska, where the Alaskan Native students sometimes referred to us pale-skinned incomers as "Gussucks." The word was sometimes a playful jest, sometimes a stronger epithet. I understood it to mean, to them, what "Yankee" means to a Southerner and what "Sassanach" means to a Gael. Even when used among friends, with winks and grins, the word has a cutting edge. It was not, shall we say, a compliment.
This morning I participated in a sunrise ceremony to cap a week of indigenous observances known as "Wabanaki Days." The clergyman who usually shares in the service was unable to attend, so I was invited midweek to step in. I was asked to offer a Gaelic invocation and a brief homily that would acknowledge the connection between Euro-American immigrant heritage and our state's indigenous peoples.
This was not an easy situation--Native elders would be participating with drumming and prayers from their traditions, and I was not only the new kid on the block, ceremonially speaking, but a gussuck as well. The invocation wasn't worrying--I had a volume of the great Hebridean ethnographic work, Alexander Carmichael's Carmina Gadelica, and it was full of prayers honoring the elements, creatures, and Creation. I drew on prayers to the sun and the new moon, as well as a blessing that speaks of "power of raven, power of eagle...power of storm, power of land, power of sea..." These ancient prayers allow the Gaelic tradition to speak for itself, while affirming other indigenous earth-centered traditions.
The homily was harder. I knew the sight of a clergyperson in an alb could trigger anger, distrust, and generations of resentment. I debated whether to wear my alb at all, but I wanted to wrestle with the challenge-- the challenge to myself, to conduct myself with utmost humility and respect, and the challenge to them, that my witness might move them to reconsider their long-held assumptions about the general toxicity of anything associated with the Church. My offering of words would be a part of that witness...but hey, no pressure, right?
When we arrived, the stone ridgeback of the point was shrouded in heavy fog. Only barely could we make out the shapes of others emerging from their vehicles in the pearly half-light of dawn. I saw one of the elders cast a disapproving glance my way as I pulled on my alb over my regular clothes. A couple minutes later, she came up to me and asked what church I came from. I said, truthfully, that I'd worked with many different groups and gatherings, but I was a part of the U.C.C. (United Church of Christ.) She leaned close and looked me squarely in the eye. "Is that one of them conservative churches, or liberal?"
"Progressive...er...liberal." (I tend to stumble when using the L-word, as I find it an unhelpful and troublesome term, but I knew she was waiting to hear one or the other of the words she'd offered me.)
She leaned even closer, her eyes squinting slightly, pinioning me with her glare. "So, which kinds of folks does your church exclude?"
An unintended smile of pure relief spread across my face. Of course she had every right to be suspicious, to be angry. But what a wonderful question, and how deeply satisfying to say, with absolute honesty, "why, we belong to this church because it doesn't exclude anybody! We welcome everyone!"
It wasn't the answer she was expecting. She actually looked a little disappointed, a little unsettled by my response. But by then people were joining the circle, gathering to take part in the ceremony. We both turned our attention to the work at hand: the acknowledgement of arrivals, the hailing of honored guests, and the clearing and blessing of this sea-carved, salt-washed, mist-wreathed sacred space.
There were words of welcome. A match was set to a small bundle of sacred leaves cradled in a seashell, and the smoke wafted among us, ritually purifying all that it touched. The drummer lifted his drum and sang, in its rhythm, words our bodies could all feel even if some of our minds could not comprehend. Two elders shook rattles in time to the drum. They spoke more words, some in their native languages and some in translation, for the benefit of us gussucks. At their invitation--a nod in my direction with the statement, "Now, I guess we're gonna hear some Christian-churchy-Lord-in-heaven prayers..." I offered the Gaelic invocation I'd prepared, along with an English translation. Two tongues, two languages, slowly revealed the meaning of the prayer, and with each stanza their eyes widened. "Oh King of the elements, be ours a goodly purpose toward each creature in Creation..."
Perhaps they felt a little of the shock of recognition I felt, when first I discovered those words more than a decade ago. My Pacific Northwest upbringing had exposed me to the stories and teachings of many Native peoples, and the words of Black Elk and Chief Seattle were regarded with the same respect accorded to the Christian Gospels. I grew up hungry to embrace teachings that honored the Earth, yet I was fiercely aware of the innate wrongness of "playing Indian." Only when a visiting bard--David Whyte--gave a lecture series on "The Celtic Imagination," did I discover the mythic characters of Salmon, Raven, and Deer in a context I could wholly embrace without borrowing the cultural trappings of others.
Other words, silence, and music followed. The Piper offered her own musical gift, and as she struck in to an eerie tune on the pipes, the elders reached out and signaled for all of us to take hands and make a circle around her. The thrum of the drones, like the beat of the drum, moved in our blood and our bones as well as the mist-laden morning air. It seemed like a suitable and satisfying end. I tucked my now-damp folded notes behind my back, hoping I was off the homiletical hook. No such luck. The same elder who had confronted me at the beginning fixed me, once again, in her sights. She nodded to me. What was I doing there? I was no elder, no great storyteller. Surely I didn't belong... But she was, after all, in charge, and she was telling me to speak. I took out my notes, apologized for relying on them, and began:
We are border people. Like a basket's woven design or Celtic knotwork carved into stone, our life shows most clearly at the edges. What beauty we have lies where pieces are split and broken, where the ragged ends are tucked and woven in.
We are journeying people. Along these edges we move, back and forth, backward and forward, and we carry this history on our back. It weighs us down, like a creel full of seaweed. It pulls and presses, like a basket heavy with stones.
My ancestors were Scottish and Scots-Irish immigrants to Maine. They came on ships from the lands of their people, the coastlines and hillsides that knew them best, held their stories, held their bones. They came as unwilling passengers on packet ships. They arrived awkward and ignorant and scared, like many of their fellow immigrants, having been burned out of their homes and pushed off their land by poverty, circumstance, or government agents.
A story: The British government spent years conducting military campaigns against the Scots and the Irish before they made their raids on the so-called New World. Francis Drake, Walter Raleigh, and others used Ireland as a proving ground, a convenient neighborhood of savages to be cleaned up and cleared out. After four years on the blood-soaked frontier, one English correspondent sent this description back:
“Out of every corner of the woods and glens they came creeping forth on their hands, for their legs would not bear them. They looked anatomies of death; they spake like ghosts crying out of their graves... in short space there were none almost left and a most populous and plentiful country suddenly left void of man or beast.” The “void” meant vacant lands for English resettlement. This was the Irish frontier in 1596.
Meanwhile, the SSPCK--the Society in Scotland for Propagating of Christian Knowledge--was intent on stamping out “the barbarian tongue” of Gaelic, the first step towards civilizing the “Wild Scots” of the Highlands. They also busied themselves with New World heathens. In 1735, they began a search for a missionary to preach to Native Americans in the Colonial territory of Georgia. They settled on one Reverend Iain MacLeoid. A Gaelic-speaker, they believed, would be able to converse with the natives quite easily--one barbarian to another.
Less than a generation later, my ancestors came. Like other immigrants, they came for many reasons. Some were good reasons. Some were less than good. Whatever their reasons, they did not arrive entirely without skills--they may have known how to weave and spin, how to carve stone or tend livestock, how to write or keep accounts, but they did not know all that was needed to survive in this unfamiliar land.
Some were so used to fighting, they never learned how to unclench their fists. Kicked out of their own land, they signed up as soldiers to shove other people off their ancestral lands. They remembered how to fight, but they lost touch with the ancient codes of honour that once governed their battles. We cannot be proud of what they did, but we can try to understand the reasons behind their ignorance and fear. We remember them as we remember the dark length of our shadows in the clear light of the rising sun. We cannot shake their darkness away from us. It will follow us always.
Some of our ancestors did not forget the old ways. They remembered that, at the shining heart of their culture, there were sacred rules of hospitality. They understood what it meant to offer food to hungry wanderers, to offer shelter to a stranger. They were humbled to receive the compassion and care of this land's Native Peoples. Without this kind and patient guidance, they would never have survived the biting cold and the bitter winds. With it, they endured beyond the edges of starvation. And because some of them kept the old ways alive, they understood that such actions bind people together and create community, as surely as two colours interwoven become a beautiful design.
We are still travelers, still border people, living at the thresholds of land and sea, standing between cultures, standing at the threshold of survival itself. We still reach, blindly, in our dreams, for that sweet promise of a land called home. We still struggle to find our place in Creation's intricate design, a place in the great pattern of justice and peace where we genuinely belong.
What we must acknowledge is this: we have not made our own way in this world. We arrived here and survived here through the care of countless others, people who helped us over the threshold, cared for our bodies and souls, and ensured our survival in a thousand different ways. We live as a result of their risks, their gifts, their love.
This, then, is how we honor your ancestors and ours: we come back to this place of rough edges, and with the Creator's gracious Spirit and the Travelers’ tales to guide us, we remember. We strive not to repeat the mistakes of our oppressors, who called everyone savages and brutes and other less-than human names. Instead, we humbly recognize that we share this land and this fully human story. We humbly acknowledge that we must listen more deeply as stories and old ways are shared. We are called to move together in this open space, to weave together, from our rough edges, a design of healing and promise, a design of wisdom and beauty.
--copyright Mainecelt July 2009
Source notes: this homily made use of material from the following history texts: Ronald Takaki, A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America, (Boston, Little, Brown & Co., 1993)
Michael Newton, We’re Indians Sure Enough: The Legacy of the Scottish Highlanders in the United States, (Saorsa Media, Auburn, NH, 2001)
Photo of Alaska Native mask found here.
Basket image from Diane Kopec collection at the Abbe Museum.