Near the end of his presentation, ‘Seven Grandfather and Medicine Wheel Teachings’ last Wednesday evening, Gerry Martin held aloft a $10 bill and proceeded to rip it in half, to a theatrical gasp or two from those present. The action wasn’t intended simply to provoke a reaction, though – it was to prove a point.
“We get so immersed in the token economy,” he told us; we forget that the real source of all that “wealth” is grounded in the natural world.
The action served equally as a symbol of his rejection of western philosophy in favour of Anishinaabe teachings. He told the group assembled in the faculty lounge about the seven grandfathers and the medicine wheel, traditional ways of understanding and interpreting the world traditionally used by Anishinaabe First Nations – one of the largest linguistic and cultural groups of First Nations in North America, stretching from the prairies, around the great lakes and into Quebec.
Though he was comfortable telling stories, teaching, talking with and entertaining the group, Martin was careful in accepting the label of elder.
“It’s like accepting a job,” he says. “You’re on call 24/7, fifty-two weeks a year, for the rest of your life.”
But it isn’t the burden of responsibility that causes Martin to be careful with the term – it’s also the complexity of its meaning.
Martin’s hesitation to identify himself as an elder indicates the deceivingly complex nature of Anishinaabe teachings, which certainly overflows the bounds of a few convenient terms which could be listed here. As recent visitor John Ralston Saul suggests, aboriginal culture is perhaps more comfortable with complexity than is western culture.
The medicine wheel is a “philosophical tool” symbolizing the balance and harmony of life. Its four colours – black, white, yellow and red – can represent everything from the seasons, elements, races, and stages of life to directions, among other things. The seven grandfathers (or seven gifts) are the guiding principles of wisdom, love, respect, bravery, honesty, humility and truth. The central values epitomized in these traditions are balance and an association with the natural world, including animals.
“It isn’t religion,” says Martin; “it’s spirituality.”
“A lot of Anishinaabe people don’t understand the teachings of the medicine wheel or the seven grandfathers,” Martin comments, pointing to residential schools as a particularly brutal way in which a generation of aboriginals was cut off from their cultural history.
Much traditional knowledge was nearly lost in the 1960s, he says. “Only in the last thirty years are a lot of First Nations starting to repatriate these things.”
To that end, Martin strives to spread these teachings among young children in the Lakehead School Board here in Thunder Bay, as well as through the University. A man who once occupied the office of Indian and Northern Affairs in a 1973 protest and is now a Taoist tai-chi instructor; he clearly has many stories to tell and knowledge to share with those willing to slow down, as he counsels, and listen.
“Somebody’s got to carry this vision forward,” he says. “We have teachings and knowledge that are different from European philosophy.”