By Kim Twatt
Pilgrimage to Orkney
One afternoon in 2002, I chanced to meet Howie Firth, organiser of Orkney’s Science Festival, in Kirkwall’s Albert Street. He asked if I knew Robert Ermine.
I have been told that Robert Ermine took a troupe of First Nations dancers to Estonia. Do you think he might do the same for the Science Festival in a couple of years?
Thus, in September, 2004, after two years of liaising and fund raising on both sides of the Atlantic a group of dancers, singers, storytellers, a genealogist, researchers, film crew and a CBC reporter all arrived in Orkney. For making this at all possible I have to thank the Chief and Council at Sturgeon Lake First Nation, The First Nations University of Canada, and for funding from The Scottish Arts Council, Canadian High Commission, Orkney Islands Council, Orkney Enterprise, Orkney Heritage Society and donations from the people of Orkney.
My personal reasons for working towards this goal were to provide an opportunity for the First Nations visitors and the people of Orkney to experience each other’s culture as well as explore our common heritage in the islands. Also, I believed we could accomplish this exchange in Orkney, free of prejudice and any fears or tension. I wanted our visitors to meet the Orkney people today, and appreciate the life that the Orkney men had left behind when they went to Canada – to let them know that these men’s families had, for generations, worked Orkney’s land according to the seasons, the weather and the resources available to them. I hoped they would understand why the men went to Canada. It was not to change the lives of the native people or sell their land.
My cousin, Yvonne Seesequasis, came to spend that summer with my family. Although we are related, we soon discovered that we are very different culturally. We overcame differences and difficulties usually with humour and understanding. And, although I made some unforgivable mistakes with protocol and tradition when the group was in Orkney, they all gave me the space to realise where I was going wrong through experience. They all showed great understanding, kindness and patience.
The group really rocked the islands at various venues and performances. It turned to be a rollercoaster of emotions; eight beautiful days which left me one and a half stone lighter! Orcadians encountered drumbeat, the sometimes furious sometimes elegant dancing, hilarity and then heart wrenching agony brought forth in Willie Ermine’s lecture, Persistent Mind and Body, part of the day of lectures entitled, Airbrushed Out of History. This was an emotional lecture as Willie recalled his experience of industrial residential school. Rather than giving the standing ovation due to Willie, the audience was stunned into silence.
The entire group were amazed at the warmth of the Orkney people. They relaxed in cafes and on the street and were pleased to stop and chat to people who approached them for a blether. They were readily spotted in their red jackets. All of this, they told me, would not happen in town centres back home. The Sturgeon Lake group made wonderful, unofficial ambassadors for their people.
They were fascinated, looking through the Orkney phonebook, to find so many, what they considered to be First Nation names, listed there – names like Flett, Isbister, Drever (although they spell it Dreaver), Harcus, Linklater, Rendall, etc. Even Alexander Dietz who had travelled to Orkney to be here at the same time as his First Nations friends, and who spent long hours researching genealogy in Orkney’s Archives, had not realised just how extensive these links are.
There are moments from the week which I specially cherish. Watching the young dancers dance on the sand at Pierowall in Westray. The sea, sparkling and twinkling, crept in around them and left them on a little sandy island. They had no idea how that had come about. So we experienced the tide. Next morning Elder Paul Dreaver from the Big River community in Saskatchewan, visiting Westray to meet his own relations, dragged me out of bed to watch the sun rise. But I’m so pleased that he did. As, behind us, the sun coloured the eastern sky gold Paul watched the Atlantic light up and spread westwards towards Canada as he sang and lightly beat his hand drum.
Dance leader, Terry Daniels, along with his family and most of the dance troupe, visited the ruin at Kirbister in Orphir where his ancestor, Magnus Twatt grew up, lived with his family and worked until he left for Canada in 1771. It was a moving visit. There Terry told me the reality and realisation that he was walking the same ground his ancestors had walked came to him as he had listened to a prayer being given in Cree in Orkney’s St Magnus Cathedral. He knew he belonged in these islands. He had thought about the people who had lived in Orkney and built the cathedral. He looked forward to returning to Canada, able to tell his family and friends of his ancestor’s life here in Orkney, the warmth he felt here and that sense of belonging. He felt that, by looking into their past, he would be able to help his people look to the future.
The First Nations people had regarded their visit as a pilgrimage, a healing journey.
Back home in Saskatchewan Yvonne became quite a celebrity. During one interview she was asked whether her experience had changed her cultural identity, to which she replied definitely, no. She had enjoyed her trip to Scotland, learned much as she explored castles, beaches, stone circles, attended weddings and functions, and chatted to the locals in cafes. She left many new friends behind in the islands. However, she added that the trip had inspired her to look more closely at her own Cree culture and, in her own words, she did not feel less Indian at all.
That night as the rhythmic sound of the drum and singing echoed throughout the crowd at the Pickaquoy Centre in Orkney, and as the dancers started to move with all their majesty and colour, one could almost sense the awe and the power that cut through time and space in the meeting of cultures. I have heard the songs before and watched the beauty of the dancers many times, but watching them perform that night was like seeing for the first time. To watch our young people perform their ancient traditions in a manner that exuded contemporary pride and confidence has a power that is simply indescribable. No amount of political diplomacy would have matched this performance. – Willie Ermine, Sturgeon Lake First Nation.
Coming up next – Kim brings her moving account to a close with Sturgeon Lake Pow Wow, 2005