When I think back to the pre-colonial lives of my ancestors, the most striking thing about the way they lived is that they were constantly engaged in the act of creating: making clothes, food, shelter, stories, games, modes of transportation, instruments, songs and dances…. Creating was the base of our culture. Creating was regenerative and ensured more diversity, more innovation and more life. In essence, Indigenous societies were societies of doing; they were societies of presence. Our processes – be they political, spiritual, education or healing – required a higher degree of presence than modern colonial existence.
In the space of the modern empire, society is a culture of absence because consumer culture requires both absence and wanting things in order to perpetuate itself. Without wanting, consumer culture simply cannot exist. In terms of representation, modern society primarily looks for meaning (in books, computers, art) whereas Indigenous cultures engage in processes or acts to create meaning. Indigenous cultures understand and generate meaning through engagement, presence, and process – storytelling, ceremony, singing, dancing, doing. The re-creation story of dancing on the turtle’s back means that creation requires presence, innovation and emergence. It also requires the support of the spiritual world: the process of doing or making is one way that the spiritual word intervenes (through dreams). Making aligns us with our Creation and Re-creation stories because we begin to act. We use the creative, innovative intelligence imparted to us by Gzhwe Mnidoo [the Great Spirit] to create and voice our truths, to strategize our response, and ultimately to act in creating new and better realities. Creating aligns us with our Ancestors because when we engage in artistic or creative processes, we disconnect ever so slightly from the dominant economic system and connect to a way of being based on doing, rather than blind consumption. – Leanne Simpson, Dancing on Our Turtle’s Back (2011)
For many years after becoming a doctor I was too caught up in my workaholism to pay attention to myself or to my deepest urges. In the rare moments I permitted any stillness, I noted a small fluttering at the pit of my belly, a barely perceptible disturbance. The faint whisper of a word would sound in my head: writing. At first I could not say whether it was heartburn or inspiration. The more I listened, the louder the message became: I needed to write, to express myself through written language not only so that others might hear me but so that I could hear myself.
The gods, we are taught, created humankind in their own image. Everyone has an urge to create. Its expression may flow through many channels: through writing, art or music or through the inventiveness of work or in any number of ways unique to all of us, whether it be cooking, gardening, or the art of social discourse. The point is to honour the urge. To do so is healing for ourselves and for others; not to do so deadens our bodies and our spirits. When I did not write, I suffocated in silence.
“What is in us must out,” wrote the great Canadian stress researcher, Dr. Hans Selye, “otherwise we may explode at the wrong places or become hopelessly hemmed in by frustrations. The great art is to express our vitality through the particular channels and at the particular speed Nature foresaw for us.”
– Gabor Mate, When the Body Says No (quoted in his own book, In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts)
Good human work honors God’s work. Good work uses no thing without respect, both for what it is in itself and for its origin. It uses neither tool nor material that it does not respect and that it does not love. It honors nature as a great mystery and power, as an indispensable teacher, and as the inescapable judge of all work of human hands. It does not dissociate life and work, or pleasure and work, or love and work, or usefulness and beauty. To work without pleasure or affection, to make a product that is not both useful and beautiful, is to dishonor God, nature, the thing that is made, and whomever it is made for. – Wendell Berry