Being Indigenous means seeing with different eyes

A head and shoulders photo of a man wearing dark glasses. His hair is parted in the middle and hangs to his shoulders. He is smiling.

A Richard Wagamese column originally published in 1993, Windspeaker

An old Native woman and a young man were walking through the woods one winter morning. The young one was seeking the Elder's company for those things he might learn about himself and his Native-ness. The old one was making herself available for the questions.

As they walked, they came upon a small grove of trees surrounding a small snow-covered meadow. The old one stopped and looked around, squinting her eyes and nodding her head slowly and respectfully.

"Lots goin' on here," she said to the young man.

"What do you mean, gokum?" he asked, surprised, not being able to see anything but a silent snow-covered meadow.

"Lots goin' on here," she repeated.

"I don't see anything," the young man said again.

The old one pointed to the very edge of the meadow. There a small spruce sapling was growing in the shadow of a tall poplar. The tiny spruce top was barely visible through the small drifts of snow that had collected at the poplar's base.

"You see that?" she pointed. "Stand here and when you start to see what's happening around you here you come tell me about it."

The old woman walked off in the direction of her cabin, leaving a very puzzled young man standing in the ankle-deep snow.

Looking as hard as he could, he was unable to see anything other than one small spruce tree poking through the snow. He stood there a long, long time.

Finally, in the middle of the afternoon the young man appeared at the old woman's door. She poured him a big mug of strong tea and sat him down by the pot-bellied stove to warm himself. He seemed happy.

"I saw it," was all he said at first and the old woman smiled, happy to share his victory.

"And what did you see?" she asked.

"I saw what was happening there," he said, and then he went on to explain his experience while the old woman sat with her tea and her pipe and watched him tell his story.

He said he stood there a long time looking at that small spruce tree. Pretty soon, though, the young man began to feel himself as being a part of that small meadow. When he began to feel that way he began to see.

The spruce tree wasn't just growing in the shadow of the poplar tree, it was being nurtured by it. As the snow fell, the poplar's branches would deflect it so it wouldn't land on the tiny spruce and crush it.

Then the young man said that in the springtime the poplar's roots provided solid ground for the small tree to grow in. When strong winds came, the spruce tree was rooted in solid soil and couldn't be blown over. When rains came, that same solid ground prevented the small tree from being washed away or drowned.

Because spruce trees love the coolness and shade when they're growing, the poplar tree provided great stretches of shade during the heat of the summer. The poplar was helping the spruce tree grow and get strong all through the seasons.

But that wasn't all the young man saw. He told the old woman that he saw the spruce tree growing to great heights, as spruce trees do. As it grew it no longer needed so much nurturing from the poplar. Soon it was taller than its friend.

By that time, the young man said, it would be time for the old poplar to return to the earth. Old trees love the coolness and shade and the spruce tree provided that. Old trees need solid ground for their fragile roots and the spruce tree offered that. When those strong winds blew the poplar wouldn't be blown over nor would the rains wash away the soil covering its old roots. The old popular would be nurtured by the spruce.

Then, the young man said, when it came time to go to the earth the spruce tree wouldn't allow the old poplar to crash to the forest floor. Rather, it allowed it to pass through its branches until it settled with dignity on the bosom of Mother Earth.

But still there was more. When that old tree surrendered its body to the earth it provided a source of rich soil as it decayed. Soon, in the fertile soil it provided, a young poplar would emerge and be nurtured in the same way by the branches of the spruce tree. The circle of life would continue in that small snow-covered meadow.

When the young man finished the old woman smiled and gave him a big warm hug. He'd learned.

"Learning to be Indigenous is learning to see with different eyes. When you see yourself as part of it all, you'll see stories and teachings in everything,” she told him. You're the only one who can close your eyes and you're the only one who can choose to open them again. The stories and teachings are always there for those who choose to keep looking."

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