Relationships are the key to all teachings. Traditional teachings had led me to a place where I now embrace my past. I am able to embrace the child abuse and the systemic neglect I experienced as homeless youth on the downtown eastside of Vancouver. Equally, I can now embrace the part of my past that used to scare me throughout my healing journey on the Red Road.
My introduction to Cree ceremony was at Saulteaux Nation in Moberley Lake, BC, when I was 13 years old. I had run away from the severe child abuse in my family home back in the suburbs of Toronto. I sought refuge at my kohkum’s cabin. She would smudge the house and pray in Cree while I followed her around. I was disoriented to this foreign language. She would sit me down and prepare moose nose soup for me and tell me stories. She talked about the importance of staying away from drugs and alcohol. I did not listen.
After a night of drinking, one of my buddies said we should go to the sweat lodge. While I no idea what a lodge was I said, “Sure.” We arrived and we were told to leave because we were drunk. We were talked to sternly, but with respect. It was not long after that I was taken out on a hunting trip and dropped off at kohkum’s parents’ trap line. Kohkum and mossum Davis were in their late 90s. I stayed with them for a couple of weeks. They did not speak a lick of English. I cried a lot.
I helped with dry meat racks and making bannock in the house. I helped split wood and stretch hides. Then next time someone came out with supplies, I left. I always reflected on how kohkum and mossum would feed me and make me Indian teas. Kohkum would touch my face and her eyes filled with tears. Mossum would indiscernibly say, “Good boy, my grandson.” No one ever said those things to me before.
I left the rez. I went to town. I hung out with a group of guys and we got drunk and high and caused a lot of ruckus. The media labeled us a gang. I started hitch-hiking to Vancouver for drugs. Progressively I immersed into a destructive life. I became more and more hateful and violent. After nearly two years in juvenile detention, I hit the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver and lived on the streets. Then things got real serious.
I spent nearly ten years in the white supremacist movement, committing hate crimes all over western Canada. For years fear became a demon that brought me to my knees. I attempted to wish my past away. I sought refuge in suicidal ideation…until community-healing circles invited me.
People were watching me in the spaces I sought support from: typical Western spaces like 12-step meetings and counselors. These places helped me set my feet on the ground, but also seemed to limit me to a status quo degree of healing. I needed more.
During my time at a men’s treatment facility in Abbottsford, BC, there were two men that helped me. First was a theologian counselor who said, “Daniel, you’re an intelligent guy entrenched in your right wing belief structure and there is no one that can help you. I recommend you go into social sciences to unravel your distorted beliefs.” The other man was a fellow client from Lillooet, BC, named Andrew. He was a First Nations’ man who wore a medicine bag for prayer. Without knowing he became an instrument to cracking me open.
In the yard of the treatment center I stood at a tree staring into the sky with my back turned to the other men. I was hiding my sputtering tears. I was wrecked. I was no good. Damaged.
Andrew approached me. He saw my giant Swastika tattoos but did not judge me. He was the kindest person I think I had ever met, up to that point. He offered me his vulnerability. He offered his experience with prayer and dealing with his personal pain and suffering. Then he listened to me spew out hate and contempt, but it did not move him. He understood. He reminded me of my childhood friends on the rez, his wisdom reminded me of both my kohkums and aunties, but I knew I ruined those relationships by becoming a racist skinhead.
I had beaten, stabbed and tortured members of their community. No joke. A couple of them tried to kill me because I was so out of hand, but I fought too hard and my hate was my survival. I was dying inside and I wanted to take everyone with me.
A couple years after being sober I was attending college, which I started at age 26 with only a grade 7 education, in Edmonton, Alberta. That is where I met Gary Moostoos a fluent Cree cultural teacher. He took me in. He and former Chief Jerry Goodswimmer became my friends and the most poignant teachers of my life. Both would tease me as I was learning Cree at the University of Alberta.
A community language holder from northern Alberta, Marjorie Memnook was obviously somebody’s kohkum. She knew my past and yet offered me extra time to talk and teach me about the structure of Cree language. My classmates had heard about me somehow through their family connections. In Indian Country, word gets around fast. I guess people were watching me. I thought it was because I was so insane but the truth was it was because they cared.
When I finished my Cree courses Gary Moostoos invited me into his home and gifted me with an Eagle Feather. He prayed and smudged and talked to me. He thanked me and told me he saw my future and that I was going to teach people. I thought he was insane and even told him so.Jerry Goodswimmer approached me from another angle. He gave me a book by Howard Adams called Prisons of Grass. Jerry counseled me through the book as I read. It was difficult because it was about the evils of white supremacy; a doctrine I once believed was a solution.
Around the same time I was approached in a 12-step meeting by a Sundancer who heard me talk about racism in meetings. He invited me to a sweat lodge. I had not even heard that phrase since I was kicked off ceremonial grounds when I was a drunk 13-year-old kid. I thought, “Maybe I am being invited home.”
There I stood: a small, nearly naked white guy with a giant Swastika on my stomach and racist tattoos scattered all over my pale body, surrounded by large Sundancers whose chests were covered in scars. I was watched closely but treated with respect when directed about protocol. Never was I made to feel ashamed. Later we feasted together. I kept going to ceremonies, and have been doing so for a decade now.
In the third lodge I attended I received a scary gift. A voice in my head told me I had to come forward with information about an unsolved bombing near a reserve in Fort St. John, BC. A guy I recruited into the movement planted the bomb. I was a witness in his trial. He was convicted with a slap on the wrist. The ironic part is that the reserve he targeted was the same reserve that notorious and murderous racist skinhead who recruited me was from. I asked him what rez he was from because he would say things in a way that sounded like home. He disclosed the secret to me because he knew where I came from and had me swear I would never tell anyone he was part Native. Years later, after ceremony, I found myself at a crossroads.
I talked to the lodge holder and asked if I should come forward with the information. He said, “You should do what feel right.”
So I did. Soon after, a journalist who is a Dakota Pipe Carrier heard about my story from an ex-girlfriend. He approached me and asked if he could do a story. Ten years ago I agreed to my first media story about my path of redemption.
I remained friends with that journalist, but eventually he sat me down and had asked me to join him in a pipe ceremony. We smoked and prayed and then he invited to go out on my own. He stated he had to separate from me because there were areas of my life that were too toxic for him on his healing journey, but made it clear he loved me and knew I would find my way out of the pain.
He was right. Gary Moostoos and Jerry Goodswimmer were grounded and strong enough to continue guiding me, and I tell you, it was not easy for them. But their work paid off.
Eventually I got well enough to start hunting for my food. I started remembering the lessons I learned on the rez. Drinking tea, butchering meat and smudging my home. Eventually I returned to northern BC to hunt. Then one day I decided to stop in and see my auntie at the Tan’si Friendship Centre. I was rushed out to the rez to have dinner with my other auntie’s and my kohkum. I had not seen many of them for more than a decade. They all knew about my life and that I was doing well.
I was invited home and kohkum grabbed my hands and looked in my eyes with more love than I had ever felt in my life. It was that moment that I realized I was now home. “Welcome home gran’shun.” She pulled me to eat.
The guy sitting across from was an old friend who tried stabbing me in the heart after I had beaten someone from his family very badly years before. He looked in my eyes and said, “It’s good to have you home Daniel.”
Everything, all the lessons in language, ceremony and on the land have taught me one major teaching: Relationships are the most important contribution we can make in this life. Today I choose to honor relationships that reciprocate dignity and foster non-violence. These are some of the teachings I was gifted, but I have many examples of individual stories that I want to share with you all.
I hope we get the opportunity to share these stories of how indigenous teachings helped save my life and contributed to helping me understand the depths of the racism I learned from the racist society I lived in.