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An Interview with Dr. Mary Thomas
Native Elder Mary Thomas celebrated her 85th birthday this year. This in no way has slowed down Maryís keen awareness of her environment and her ambition to integrate her native culture with mainstream society through the empowerment of both. In fact Mary has been a crusader for right human relations for most of her life and even more so as an elder of the Neskonlith Band of the Shuswap Nation. She has become an example not only in our community of Salmon Arm but well beyond its borders. On the international scene Mary has become known as speaking from the heart, in fact surprised that an acceptance speech was expected of her with one of her two honorary degrees, this did not faze Mary in the least: her impromptu speech was an inspiration to the August assembly and an admonition to her young family: "If Grandma can do it, so can you!"
The beauty of Mary Thomas is the strength of her authenticity balanced with her humility as a human being.
I met Mary Thomas some years ago when we travelled together to an international conference and healing circle of the indigenous peoples of the world in Eugene Oregon. For me as a non-native person, born in the Netherlands and only marginally exposed to native people, this was a very moving experience. It was made more profound by Maryís perspectives and insights, her wisdom on what the path of the native young needs to be, how to empower themselves through their culture without unnecessary confrontation. A project that Mary inaugurated and which is very close to her heart is The Shuswap Centre, called Knucwetwecw, (phonetically: kanoe-when-twah) which means Help One Another. The purpose of the Centre is to preserve the Shuswap language and culture and provide a bridge between native and non-native people to foster cooperation to sustain, regenerate and nurture the environmental, social, economic and spiritual needs of our communities and the earth.
This is only a short introduction to show why we chose Dr. Mary Thomas as an example on how one individual lives in this world of great diversity, of both challenge and the potential for beauty, truth and goodness.
Let us give Mary the opportunity to give her own perspectives, in her own words.
Alida Hilbrander, World Service Association (WSA)
Lighting of the World Peace Flame (www.WorldPeaceFlame.org)
My visit with Mary Thomas was on a snowy January 6 at Maryís home on the Trans-Canada Highway. Mary had asked me to bring my World Peace Flame and a candle for her to light from it. I had decided to bring two candles for Mary, which turned out to be very fortuitous as Maryís daughter Dolores joined us for this ritual.
Alida, (lighting the World Peace Flame): The World Peace Flame was born of seven Millennium Flames of Hope, which themselves came from peacemakers and spiritual elders on five continents. These flames were flown to England by military air forces to be united. This Flame has burned in sacred ceremonies, on peace walks, in parliaments, in prayer groups, at the bedsides of the ill and dying, in homes and schools throughout the world. The mother Flame burns continuously at a center in the Snowdonia National Park in Wales. Other countries have created World Peace Flame Monuments where the Flame is burning.
Mary and Dolores light their candles from the World Peace Flame.
Alida continues: The World Peace Flame is meant to help people remember the Light within themselves and to be passed on to create a river of light, both internal and external across the planet. Once your candle has been lit with the World Peace Flame, the energy of the Flame is in the wick. Any candle or lamp lit from yours also carries that energy.
We are peace-makers and peace-keepers and the candle you have just lit is the World Peace Flame which represents our right relationships to humanity, to the rest of the world and to nature, so that everything is working together in order to create unity and oneness. It is especially important in times of turmoil, which there has always been, that people confirm the Light within themselves, light the Flame and connect with each other so together we have the strength and the power to be the Light. The World Peace Flame is the symbol of the Light that we carry within ourselves which we need to share with other people.
Alida (WSA): Mary, in my introduction I briefly mentioned the Shuswap Centre, can you give us some information about this, about your vision for it?
Mary Thomas (M.T): I like to go back to how that vision started. It goes back to my time when I left the residential school, how bitter I was, and I was full of hate and anger and learning to connect with the Spirit, our God, our Saviour, our Creator. They have given Him so many names but in our language we call Him the Creator. When I learned how to connect with Him again, I learned how to pray. I could feel that peace in my heart. I started looking around: I valued my family, that the Creator allowed me to have a big family, that I could help to spread the word and share part of myself and to how I became the person I am today.
WSA: Because you had a lot to forgive.
M.T.: Mind you I did a lot of crying, always have that hurt feeling in my throat, knowing that what I went through almost destroyed my family. That is a part that really hurts me. Because I was so full of hate and anger that I did not have peace in my heart. I almost destroyed my family: my family were all drinking, I was drinking, always ready to lash out and point fingers at the so-called white man. Iíd say it is you guys that destroyed us, that is why we are what we are today.
After a long time I found that instead of helping myself .........I began to really see that I was heading for destruction....In order to gain that peace in my heart I had to learn to forgive myself and love myself again for who I was ....and using the residential school as an excuse, I turned it around and thought well if it was not for the residential school that taught me how to speak a different language I would not be where I am today. I can communicate with different nationalities with the one language. I look back now as a blessing instead of putting me down.
And I began to look at people different. If I can change people will look at me different, they begin to respect me, they begin to care for me. So I began to work really hard on myself. I still get angry once in a while, it is going to take a long time to really get rid of it. But since I have put my hand in the hand that leads me, I learned how to pray and I learned to accept people for the way they are. If anybody hurts me I think about it, why are they hurting me: is there something I need to work on? And If I see that I am doing something wrong, then I try to work on it. This way I can leave it alone because I do not understand it. I began to see myself as a mother number one, and how much I loved my own children and my grandchildren. I love them so much, that I want to change so that I can become a role model to them. And it went beyond that, I began to realize that respecting myself for who I am people are beginning to get attracted to me. And about that attraction, it seems that no matter where I go now I have this powerful feeling in me that I do not quite understand. It seems to draw people. The next time they see me they canít help to get this nice feeling , they give me a great big hug. Oh it is so good to see you again! And the nice feeling about it is that the very people I condemned because of the residential school, the non-native, it changed the whole picture for me. I began to see them as my friends, as part of my family. And I realize that working on myself that I was the problem, not people around me. When I worked on that I felt that I had so much to offer, that we are all brothers and sisters on this earth.
WSA: It must have taken you a long time to turn that around, how many years did that take you from that anger to turn that negative energy into something positive?
M.T.: Today I have that feeling that in order to share a part of myself I have to look way down in me: what is it that changed me? Number one, I learned how to pray again, always have that little deal up there of Footprints in the Sand *(pointing to a print of this well-known poem). I always love that when things begin to feel like I canít handle it anymore I think take me, carry me. And to think that when there is only one set of footprints in the sand is the day He carried you, knowing that there is Somebody there to carry me in my time of need. Today I keep praying that the Great Spirit will help me to build that bridge of understanding between the non-native and our own people. We need to be friends, we need to share.
WSA: Because you have a lot to teach.
M.T.: And when we are sitting at the table and there are things I do not understand, instead of getting angry and saying this is your problem, instead of doing that, I bring it out gently and say why is it like that, why does it happen that way? And I get my answers and it makes me feel good. Because I did not do it in an angry way. I know thatís why knucwetwecw, it has taken me a long time but I cannot but say that my Creator does things for a purpose - He is strengthening that feeling in me that if He made it easy for that Centre to be created in one year, I do not think we would appreciate it. It has taken so long to get it going, but we know it is going to happen, I know it is going to happen, I got that faith in me. In the meantime I am learning strengthening myself by being patient. But I am human sometimes and think who wants it?
WSA: Well you are 85, right, and you may think let somebody else carry the flame. But you still carry it strong.
M.T.: That is how the knucwetwecw started, and I can see that it has brought together a lot of people already. We have made friends, my family are all walking sober today.
WSA: And that must be the culture because the Centre is also strengthening the native culture. That is one of the main purposes so you have the strength and the power to bridge.
M.T.: That is why I like this idea of the candle. I know I neglected it because I am so busy doing other things. I am on call, on call here. But it only takes a few minutes, I should discipline myself and light my candle, say my prayers.
WSA: Because I know you have been meditating and this has been one of your strengths, saying your prayers, reflecting and receiving the insight to use that what was negative and to make it into something powerful.
M.T.: It is funny that since I began to heal, there are lots of things that I began to notice that I never took notice of before. That no matter where I go I just observe and pray and pray and pray. There are still a lot of our sick people, my own people, that are still very sick. Like this last trip I went to Vancouver to the convention on child care, I am really happy about that, knowing that there are a group of young people out there working hard to build a better road for our little children. In the evening my son drove me downtown and I have seen the other side of the picture.
Oh, my God....., I was really emotional, I felt is there someway, somehow, that I can implore the Creator to put peace in the hearts of these people, to get them off the street. Young, young girls walking the street, you could tell they are not well at all. They are under the influence of drugs or alcohol. I know what it feels like, I was there one time. I canít condemn them. I just pray, carry them, You are powerful, carry them, put peace in their heart so that they feel good about themselves and come back to Your Grace. Instead of condemning them I am driving around town, my son is driving me around the streets of Vancouver and I am praying.......
WSA: Praying for these young people. ........... Tell me a little bit of the conference you went to.
M.T.: That is about the children, we want to see more care given to the children. Our young mothers are still very sick people and they have gotten away from our teaching. When a young mother is having her child she is taken care of by the family. She was made sure that she was never in a painful way of thinking, feeling sad, but always in a happy frame or mood. And when her baby was born she was given the child and massaging the baby building the connection between mother and child. We have lost that. That is part of our culture, to build a bond between mother and child. Then the baby was wrapped and put into a little cradle and teaching that child self-discipline. Something needs to be done, we can not continue allowing our children to grow up in an environment that is bad for them. So what these young people are doing is to find ways and means on how we can raise our children, looking at things more in a positive way as they are growing up. That is what the Childcare Conference was all about and it had a lot to do with the cultural quality of our people.
WSA: Did you come to any insights on how you can go about it?
M.T.: They are building daycare centres now on the reserves and bringing in the little children. The other day there was a fine example of what effect it already has. This little boy came in, his Dad brought him down here. In the daycare centres they are taught everything by elders. They teach them what good food is and how your body becomes strong. They are teaching them their own language. Some of the teenagers asked him do you want some pop?, this little three-year old responded no, that is bad for me! He is learning early to say No.
They screen the workers, they have to be role models and they have to be all native people. They have to be very particular on how they look after the little ones. Teach them what is right and what is wrong. You cannot go into individual homes to do that, but they do this in daycare centres. In the meantime they have courses on parenting skills, and it is going to take a little while, it will not happen overnight, we have to be patient. But it will take roots and really make a difference.
WSA: Yes and at the same time adapt to society, because the world has changed so much.
M.T.: In the Bible they tell you that God has turned loose the devil, making things really miserable before it ever gets good again. In our way people never talked about that. My elders never told me that things were going to get really bad.
WSA: How far are you with the Cultural Centre?
M.T.: All we are waiting for is the water, we need quite a bit of money to get the water over there. Because it is going to be a public place they have to up the standards. It has to be commercialized, we cannot just move in there without proper fittings. We have to be patient.
We have got everything else, we have been raising a little money here and there, the only thing is the water, which is going to cost us quite a bit.
WSA: What message do you have for people if they are having difficulties relating and making peace?
M.T. : Number one, you have to have peace within your own heart. You have to love yourself. You have to have peace. That is what I did, growing up so hateful and just loved to hurt people if they just said one little thing the wrong way. That is how bad I was until I woke up and started thinking why am I so miserable?, and I began to look at my whole life. I hated myself, I hated God. Why did he create Indians if we are savages. I began to look at myself and I began to look at people around me and I began thinking it is me that made me who I am, letting that anger carry me. I do not want to be miserable. That is when I began to look at my life in a different way. When I began to see that it was changing my attitude I became stronger and felt this is the person I want to be. So the message is you have to be at peace with yourself, you cannot be anything to anybody unless you work on yourself first. It took me a long time. The nicest part of it was people began to recognize all the effort I was putting into it healing myself. Before I was always critical, now it makes me feel good to put a smile on peoplesí face.
WSA: I understand that you also began learning again about your culture because that had been suppressed.
M.T.: I have to thank my students, people that are going to university or college, doing their thesis on the native culture.That have passed their grades, and some have become professors today. Just knowing that I was there to help them, regardless of what nationality or what colour our skin is or what dialect we speak. We are all human beings.
And I have a beautiful copy of a girlsí thesis. Ann, I do not even know what nationality she is, she is like part of the family. She finished her degree, she has her Ph D. And she is way down in the United States. She wrote her thesis on ethno-botany.
And I have another one from the Northern University. She has her Ph D. and she will be teaching in sociology. All the help I gave her is what brought her to that point. That makes me feel good because I am a part of it. Then there is another girl Kelly, who has done her thesis on the Avalanche Lily, she passed her mark and she is professor today. I do not even know what nationalities they are except the one in Prince George, she is a Metis woman. She is part of my family. She passed her grade and she has her Ph.D. That is the part I really appreciate knowing that I was part of it, sharing of myself, because it is through people like that I will see changes happening. Margo did her thesis on the native culture and will be teaching people who become social workers. I helped her for three years, we worked on it, and she has finally made it. She is putting together a life history of the native culture, of me.
WSA: Because people really like your book The Wisdom of Dr. Mary Thomas, I read it from cover to cover.
M.T.: Those are lectures I have been doing at the University of Victoria to help people that do their thesis on the native culture and studying to become social workers. A lot of it has to do with childcare and how we dealt with it before and after contact. It also has some ethno-botany in it.
WSA: People are beginning to have a real interest in the healing power of plants and trees that grow all around us. Very much so.
M.T.: Last summer I wanted to go up the mountain and identify all the plants and their purposes. But the big fire happened and nobody was allowed on the mountain. Hopefully this year we will be able do to that. We will document it and take a camera. Last year we took a group of Japanese students on the Fly Hills with Nancy Turner, we identified a lot of plants up there and what the purpose were for our people. We are not prejudiced to any people and do not ask what are you going to do with it. We are all together as human beings. I do not question, I go out and do what needs to be done. This afternoon I have a meeting with Forestry on the environment. There is many changes happening because we are speaking out now. So much needs to be done, I hope my body will last.
I believe in the Flame (the World Peace Flame), my people believed in the flame. When we go to cleanse our bodies, our spirits, our hearts, our minds, it was through the flame. Our people would light a fire, heat up the rocks. And as soon as you had the fire going you would sit around and meditate, and look at the fire. It is consuming the wood that it is burning and you ask the flame do likewise with me, get rid of all the bad things that is bothering me, take it and turn it into peace. So this (indicating the lighted candle) is nothing new, it is part of our culture. We do that when we go into a sweat-lodge. When we sit around the circle we have to pray for ourselves first. They put water on the rocks and that creates a steam, it get really hot in there. And we pray that the Creator will heal my body in order to walk forward to carry our message. How can I carry a message if I am sick? After you finished praying for yourself, a grandmother used to give us four tips of branches tied together from fir-boughs and you rub that all over on yourself. Then you go out and wash and meditate again around the fire. Not a word is spoken. At the second time you go into the sweat-lodge you pray for your family, to pray that my family become united, that we walk together, to help each other to learn the good teaching and we go through the same ritual again. The third time we go in, we pray for our community, our relatives, we pray for them. The fourth time as we go in we pray for Mother Nature, pray that the Creator look after Mother Earth, she is suffering today, look after her. Then you go out and you are finished. If that is the work of the devil, I donít know. That is what they told us, our people were pagans with false gods. I find that ritual very refreshing. I have a lot of respect for the way our people believed. Pray for yourself, you need to pray for yourself. Pray for your families, pray for your community, pray for Mother Earth.
WSA: Thank you Mary for doing this with us because your experiences and insights inspire us to live our own lives to the best of our abilities, to meet our challenges and potentialities to create a better world for all of us. Your words will be shared with our meditation group on Right Human Relations and Goodwill and through the internet it will be sent all over the world.
M.T.: Is not that something!
Mary, Dolores and Alida hold hands around their three World Peace Flames while Mary gives thanks and prays for humanity and Mother Earth, for Healing and for Love and Peace.
* For the poem Footprints in the Sand go to www.footprint.com
** The Wisdom of Dr. Mary Thomas, consisting of five lectures (88 pages), can be ordered for Can. $20 plus shipping costs. To order, email: Alida Hilbrander (email@example.com) The full amount of $20 will go to the Shuswap Centre, Knucwetwecw.
Universal Laws Committee
The World Service Association - P.O. Box 733, Salmon Arm, BC. V1E 4N8
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