The community was out of control — the children, oh my God, the children, were sniffing gasoline and pretty much abandoning any pretense of a future — and the social and criminal-justice systems were just adding to the problem. Nothing was working.
“Our children slammed us against a brick wall,” Burma Bushie said.
This is the story of a culture in shambles. It was the early ’80s. Bushie’s community is called the Hollow Water First Nation Reserve, a village of about 900 people in eastern Manitoba, more or less at the end of the highway. There was one road in and one road out.
They may have felt utterly isolated in their troubles, but what a few of them started to do — in synchronicity with people in other indigenous communities — has spread hope and awareness across the planet. They began reaching beyond the known (i.e., Western) world, deep into their souls and into the roots of a lost way of life, to save their children and the future. Without intending to, they started a movement. And the slow reverberation of change continues to spread.
I felt it this past weekend in Des Moines, Iowa, at a remarkable conference sponsored by Des Moines University called Moral Injury from Sexual Abuse and War: Soul Wounds and Soul Repair (A Community Responsibility). Bushie was one of the presenters, along with Rupert Ross, a retired Canadian crown attorney and the author of Returning to the Teachings, which, among much else, chronicles the story of Hollow Water and the concept of healing-based justice; and Rita Nakashima Brock, author of Soul Repair and co-director of the Soul Repair Center in Fort Worth, which helps vets reclaim their lives.
This was a conference about paradigm shift, and no one embodies this with more amazement and humility than Burma Bushie, now an Anishinaabe elder, who was part of the Hollow Water group that stood up to the broken system that was devouring their children.
“Our children were acting out — not learning. That was our beginning,” she said. “We couldn’t hide anymore. The Indian reservation-school system, the child welfare system — all these systems that came to help us more or less became our enemies.”
The committed team of change-bringers began talking to one another about their own lives, as well as the troubles around them. They began addressing the issue of alcoholism, an obvious surface manifestation of far deeper matters. “Each time we cleared up one level, we found another,” Bushie said. “When we got to sexual abuse — we knew that’s what we had to deal with. . . .
“I was abused as a child,” she told us. “I thought I’d dealt with it, put it away, that it hadn’t touched me. Not true.” She was abused by a grandfather from ages 6 to 9. She was raped at age 12. “All that horror lived inside me — lived inside me.”
When she began talking to others about this, something extraordinary happened. She realized she wasn’t alone. She began learning that many, many others in this tiny community had had the same experience. “We lived day to day in the same community never talking about it. How could we live with ourselves, become mothers and grandmothers, with all that harm inside us?
“When we finally looked at ourselves, at what we’d gone through as children, we knew it was time to change that, to clear things up. We knew we couldn’t hand down that legacy to our children.”
And here’s where the collision of cultures comes in — or in point of fact, returns with a vengeance. Indigenous peoples all over the world had their ways of life shattered during more than four centuries of colonial conquest. And even when the conquest part ended, the cultural genocide continued, in the form of boarding schools and countless other attempts to nullify “primitive,” holistic cultures and strip native peoples of their spiritual legacies and connection to Mother Earth and one another.
All of us are reaping the consequences of the triumph of exploitative, disconnected Western civilization, in the form of war, eco-collapse and so much else, but indigenous communities such as Hollow Water bore — and continue to bear — far deeper, far more immediate consequences as well. The alcoholism, the rampant crime, the “whirlwind,” as Ross described it, of sexual abuse are all part of the legacy of a broken culture. When Bushie and others stood up to address their dysfunctionality and rescue their children, they reached for the old ceremonies and teachings, which had been dormant for at least half a century. In essence, they began rebuilding their culture.
And at the core of it all was the circle: the whole. They sat with one another in peace circles and talked with raw honesty. They sat with the injured and those who caused harm. As Ross put it, “Their definition of justice sounded more like our definition of healing.” It was about healing, about reconnecting people with one another and their surroundings. The Hollow Water team had made lifelong commitments to heal their community and supplant the Western replacement legacy of punishment-based justice and welfare bureaucracies, which only intensified the wreckage.
And as I say, this has now become a movement — often called restorative, or transformative, justice — that is spreading throughout the broken Western world, including my town, Chicago (murder capital of America).
We can’t continue to live in such a state of alienation and anger, or allow our children to keep teaching us — so often, with their lives — that change is long overdue. I look at the headlines and attempt to understand, as Bushie put it, “the sacredness of a child teaching you. You must go down to the same level as a child. How open they are, how trusting and how sacred that trust is. To learn from a child is a real eye-opener.”
And the lesson is to open our eyes and look at one another.