Forgotten Words


by Sheena Koops
I am singing “As Long as the Grass Grows: A Treaty Song from Saskatchewan” at the front of a wooden-pewed, domed assembly hall on a Sunday morning in Regina, Saskatchewan, Treaty Four Territory. I have sung the first verse:
They are living documents, First Peoples’ and the Crowns’
Building blocks of Canada, to which we are bound
Sacred agreements, the Pipe and the Pen
Brother to Brother, Peace Good Order to Men

I am singing the chorus a second time, and I begin to feel anxious. I can’t remember the beginning line to the next verse. I keep singing the chorus, waiting for the words to spring into my memory, but my time has run out.
I stop singing. I look up at the congregation. “I’m sorry,” I say, “I’ve forgotten the words.”
“I’ll find the words,” I say.
Kind faces smile at me from the audience. Most of them are settler descendants, many are elderly, some are my age, and not many are younger.
“Let’s pretend that I planned it this way,” I say, once I’ve found the lyrics. “Now you’ve learned the chorus so you can sing along.”
One man, who has just returned from Mexico, jumps up with his drum in hand, and I invite him to accompany me. The congregation sings the chorus:
As long as the grass grows, as long as the sun shines
As long as the river flows, through this heart of mine
As long as the grass grows, as long as the sun shines
As long as the river flows, through this land of mine.

Afterwards, they clap and I smile. I share my benediction, “Go forth and be awkward.” There is a little laughter and I confess my philosophy of awkwardness. I unpack this humble posture, once more illustrated by my stumbling performance. I am not the hero. I am not smooth and seamless in my delivery, even though I want to be.

My embarrassment turns to a teachable moment as I use this experience as a metaphor for my work. Even in the writing of the song, I have been awkward, using Nēhiyaw-itwēwina (Cree words), but not immediately following a protocol of taking an elder tobacco to ask for help in learning the correct way to pronounce the words. I share how my awkwardness turned to beauty in the creation of this song, once I did follow protocol. I hope I am clear in illustrating the awkwardness of work, walking as recovering colonizers, unsettling our settler legacy.

There is rich discussion after the service. This community is responding to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s Calls to Action. I am encouraged by their sincerity and openness.

As I reflect on my morning, I am touched by the symbolism of having said, “I have forgotten the words.” I imagine this is what has happened to us as settler descendants. We have forgotten the words, those sacred Treaty words, that we promised to uphold in the presence of our own laws and our Creator.

When I forgot my words in front of the assembly, I went back to them, I read them again.

As families, as communities, as governments, as colleagues, it is time for us to reread the Treaties. We must listen to our Treaty partners who have kept their side of the relationship, allowing us access to settlement and to development. We must remember our words, not just as contracts, but as living documents, with spirit and intent, as communicated in these four Treaty concepts and Nēhiyaw-itwēwina (Cree words):

Getting along with others, miyowîcêhtowin.
Making a living, pimâcihowin.
We are one with the land, wîtaskêwin.
We are the people of Turtle Island, the Treaty makes us kin, wâhkôhtowin.

As churches, we need to remember our own sacred teachings about integrity, confession, humility, generosity, relationship, wisdom, sacrifice, activism, and sweet justice for the oppressed. We need to remember the words which will walk us towards reconciliation. Haven’t we been called to do just that?

1 Comment

  1. Candy Wise on May 10, 2016 at 9:52 am

    Thank you Sheena for the encouragement to re remember. Together all Canadians can remember and be challenged by the sacred teachings of Jesus and His reflection of love and concern for all peoples.

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