Culture is Irreplaceable. We must protect it.

Cowichan River estuary
Image by ciboulette via Flickr

Tonight I attended an extended family meeting to arrange a celebration of life for my father-in-law. I felt my role there was to help keep my baby occupied and let my fiancée, her mom and siblings work on details. I tend to shy away from offering my opinions where other people’s memorials are involved. I respect other people’s beliefs and don’t want mine to have any sway in such an important time in their lives. Sometimes being an atheist during a time where loved ones are looking for meaning can be a bit tough…

So, I kind of awkwardly went in and out of the room and listened to the plans. My mother-in-law invited a man named Dan to help organize a special ceremony to be done during the service. He is from the Cree First Nation.  He was telling of how people of his culture deal with grief, and some of the symbolism in the circle of life. I thought he was quite fascinating, though I missed quite a bit of what he had to teach.

Here is one thing that he talked about that I wanted to share. He said that when someone is grieving, to not offer them a tissue. He used the analogy of taking a fist full of sand and pouring it in the river. When you first pour it in, the water is cloudy, murky, not clear. But the flowing water moves the sand and the water becomes clear again. If you pass someone a tissue while they are crying and grieving, people tend to try and stop crying, essentially it stops the flow of water, and the pain and grieving can’t come to an end.

This story resonated with me. He had more stories about spirits coming and going, how they enter the body of a baby, and how they leave during this ceremony they are going to have on Saturday.

The main thing I took from all this, was that culture is precious. It has no monetary value, but must be protected. Aboriginal culture in Canada has been attacked for generations. Even where I’m from, school boards are still trying to close schools with high percentages of aboriginal youth, and integrate them into other local schools where cultural programs don’t exist.

As a society, we can learn so much about the way people have lived and in this case coped with loss, by sharing our cultures, not integrating them.  My grandparents came here from Poland, and didn’t speak a word of English. By the time two generations had passed, our family had lost it’s native language, and with it, most of its culture.

So the next time you hear that someone shouldn’t be allowed in your country because they don’t speak English, tell them to shut up. We should put more focus on learning about other people, and what lessons we can take from their culture.

Dan, thank you for your stories, and teachings. They meant a lot.