11 October 2012

A paean to the Elbow River

Last Friday I attended a ceremony that involved giving thanks that fit nicely with the Thanksgiving weekend. It was, in fact, an offering ceremony, conducted by a Blackfoot elder and his assistant.

In 2008, our community association petitioned The City of Calgary to name a picturesque little park in our neighbourhood "Mok’nstsis." The word is Blackfoot meaning “elbow,” considered appropriate as the park is on the Elbow River just downstream from a natural bend. City Council subsequently approved the name.

The idea behind the naming was to honour our area’s first inhabitants, the Blackfoot people. In order to properly dedicate the park, the association contacted Lorna Crowshoe, Aboriginal Issues Strategist with the City, herself a Blackfoot, who advised us the site should be blessed by a Blackfoot elder and put us in touch with elder Leonard Bastien to further consult. Leonard felt the name was acceptable and agreed to facilitate an Offering Ceremony to appropriately give thanks for the river, its waters and the surrounding life the waters nourish.

The association agreed and Leonard, assisted by Grant Little Mustache, conducted the hour-long ceremony. Sweetgrass was burned, the director of the community association's Heritage Committee was daubed with red ochre to consecrate the offering, and appropriate words were spoken in English and Blackfoot. The offering was a calfskin dressed with eagle feathers, sage and tobacco. After the ceremony, it was left along the riverbank at a secluded spot for Nature to do with what She will. The community association will erect a cairn and bronze plaque to tell the park's story in the coming year.

As an atheist, the ritual of the ceremony meant little to me. However I respected the sincerity with which it was performed and I particularly respected the appreciation expressed for the river and all it offers. I live by the river, walk its banks several times a week, and appreciate it deeply. I enjoy and photograph it in its various moods: ominous in the spring flood, sparkling and joyful in the summer sunshine, warmly welcoming yet melancholy in its autumn colours, and patient and serene during the long winter. For me, having grown up in a prairie river valley, it offers a wisp of nostalgia for someone who really isn't very nostalgic, a spiritual connection for someone who isn't religious. A river to which I give thanks.

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