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  • Writer's pictureKen Cohen

Praying with the Geese

Updated: Jan 16

While traveling in eastern Canada a few years ago I had the opportunity to meet with my old teacher and friend, N’Tsukw. Now in his mid-eighties, he is the last of my original indigenous mentors who is still alive. N’Tsukw is an Innu (called the Montagnais in French and Naskapi in early ethnographies), a branch of the original peoples from Quebec, Labrador, and Baffin Island. To honor the elder, I offered a sacred pipe/prayer ceremony in his honor. We sat on a bench in his back yard, amidst his garden of medicinal herbs, trees, and stones, each of which had a story. I unrolled a multicolored cotton altar cloth and placed my red stone pipe on it. After smudging with sage and sweetgrass, I filled the pipe with the natural smoking mixture, placed it back on the altar, and sang four songs, including the “Chief’s Honoring Song.” (I have been given about 300 sacred songs over the years, which I keep in memory and honor, sharing only as needed.)

N’Tsukw (Innu Elder)

After the “song circle,” we each prayed. N’Tsukw thanked Kitche Manitou (Great Spirit) and the Four Winds and then expressed some kind thoughts about our 30+ years of friendship. Then, Randall, a member of our spiritual family, spoke words of gratitude and requested guidance. Finally, I prayed with thanks for this beautiful day, our lives, and wisdom shared. I also asked for health and help for N’Tsukw and a lessening of physical pains. As prayers ended, each of us said “All My Relations” in the Innu language, meaning that our prayers were intended for the good of all, including those people or subjects that, in the inspiration of the moment, we may have overlooked. Thus, no one leaves the ceremony thinking, “Oh I forgot to pray for my aunt who has cancer” or “Why didn’t I thank Creator for the safe journey here?” “All My Relations” also balances our tendency to be pre-occupied with our own needs. Prayers completed, I lit the pipe and passed it clockwise through our small circle. As each person took four or seven puffs, the smoke drifted up and out into nature, carrying prayers and reminding us that Creator put the same breath in us all. One of the unusual aspects of that particular pipe ceremony was the exclamation that N’Tsukw made after or in the midst of listening to my or Randall’s prayers. When we said something that he found moving, instead of the usual “Ho” common among Plains Tribes or an Amen or Hallelujah heard in other circles, N’tskukw gave an enthusiastic, “Ho, ho, ho Eshqua.” I didn’t know what that meant, but I knew enough about First Nations culture not to ask the question. It’s not just that I didn’t want to interrupt the ceremony, but I also knew that there was a lesson, a teaching here that the elder would explain when the time was right. Patience is a virtue in Indian country. It is common to share food and celebrate life after a ceremony. After the pipe ceremony, we went to Randall’s house for dinner. Before the food was served, I was standing outside on the front porch with N’Tsukw, watching a glorious sunset. I seemed to hear a bird sound in the far distance. N’Tsukw asked me, “Did you recognize that?” I said, “Yes, I heard Canadian geese honking.” I scanned the sky but they were not in sight, perhaps they were flying low, below the distant tree-line. N’Tsukw continued, “In my language, the goose is called “Eshqua.” We honor the geese because they migrate with the seasons and Creator put them in the world so hunters would know when the South or North Wind is blowing, when it is time to hunt and when it is time to dry and store food and prepare for winter.” That evening, N’tsukw shared the Creation Story of his people, a two-hour version of what could have taken all night. We learned more about the importance of Eshqua. These teachings were again in my mind when, in 2010, I learned of the sad and tragic events that were taking place in New York City. Noticing the lack of Canadian geese, so common in other parts of the country, one of my students told me that the city government had told New Yorkers that it was their civic duty to kill geese. So far 150,000 had been killed, including tens of thousands gassed in the parks. The preliminary goal was to eliminate 170,000. I understand the reasoning. Bird migration routes sometimes, though rarely, cross LaGuardia and JFK airline flight paths. The US Airline jet that made an emergency water landing shortly after takeoff is fresh in everyone’s memory. Thanks to an extraordinarily skilled pilot and a good measure of luck, those passengers survived, but next time they might not be so lucky. I fly in and out of New York City a few times a year. Yet I do not agree with the measures being taken. By this logic, many cities would follow similar policies based on the remote chance of bird-airline collisions. If our submarines find a new, underwater equivalent of jet propulsion, will we kill the few remaining whales? Do human rights take precedence over animal rights? Does might make right? Bird migration paths and their natural sense of direction, orientation, harmony or danger are disrupted by noise, light, and electromagnetism (produced by cables, wires, cell phones, television, radio, and radar). We already live in a world where people need to look for birds, and bird watching is a kind of treasure hunt. Only a hundred years ago, passenger pigeons would darken the mid-day sky, a flock of whooping cranes would completely hide a marshland until they landed, and Canadian geese reminded people that they needed to observe nature to keep a sense of purpose and direction. There is a disturbing postscript to this story. In December of 2010, I was having dinner in New York City with a group of “spiritual leaders,” involved, as we are, in interfaith dialogue and with ties to indigenous rights groups at the United Nations. I brought up the tragedy of the geese. The group was unanimous in its sighs of regret and launched into a discussion of human-animal-spirit relations. Yet no one in this group had actually objected or done anything about it. They had found a new justification for human dominion and colonization of the natural world. Fundamentalist interpretations of the Bible were considered in poor taste, but “evolution of consciousness” was very much in vogue. Though never expressed directly, as I listened to the conversations, I heard a subtext that read “We are superior; it’s survival of the fittest.” Such reasoning (or, rather, its lack) justifies clear-cutting the rain forest and trolling the ocean. Continuing, when I asked if they, the religious leaders, had performed ceremony for forgiveness from the geese and our common Creator or prayed for the release of their spirits, one explained somberly, “We just don’t have time for that.” I kept my mouth shut, wanting to see where the conversation was heading and suspected that it might be waste of time to again bring up a very different view of reality. (Note: Eshqua, here spelled phonetically, may be unique to N’Tsukw’s dialect of the Innu-Montagnais language. “Goose” is commonly Nishk, meaning Goose, or Uapishk, Snow Goose)

Recently one of my Native American colleagues was involved in a court case to protect migration routes and habitat of birds, threatened by cell towers. He planned to cite my book during testimony and asked me if I had any other thoughts. I wrote and sent him the following essay:

The observation of birds and natural bird migration patterns are absolutely essential for the survival of Native American healing, spirituality, and culture. Hunting, planting, and ceremony are often coordinated with the appearance of particular birds. Birds also remind storytellers that it is time to teach children about the lessons learned from the eagle, the hawk, the heron, the dove, and so on. A bird such as the eagle does not simply represent flying close to Creator or seeing from a higher perspective. Rather the eagle teaches and is this value and power. This is very different from the perspective of EuroAmerican culture in which birds and animals may symbolize human values. There are numerous examples of bird symbolism in the Bible. If Native Americans only valued birds for their symbolic value, then they might be satisfied to read or think about them or view them in an aviary. But they are not, because birds must be observed in their natural state in order to learn directly from them.

Bird behavior plays a central role in the origin/creation stories of many tribes. The raven is linked with the sun among the Tlingit of Alaska. The eagle teaches early humans how to survive among tribes as diverse as the Hopi and the Ojibwe. The Innu, an Algonquian people closely related to the Mikmaq, Passamaquody, and Cree, revere the Canadian goose because, in their creation story, he/she helped bring the warmth of the South. Geese migrating south to north mean that the snows are melting and it is time to hunt again. When they return south, it is time to store goods for winter. And at the end of a prayer, or in closing a ceremony, instead of "Amen," Innu will sometimes exclaim "Ho ho ho Eshqua." Eshqua is Innu for the goose.

The presence of birds is essential for the protection of nature's diversity. The great Mohawk elder Ray Fadden lamented the loss of songbirds in New York forests. No more spreading of seeds to nurture the once rich undergrowth, healthy trees, and the insects and animals that depend on them. Mr. Fadden told me that even the bear were ill as a result: far less plants to eat, fewer roots to dig. The bear, ancestor of one of the three Mohawk clans (turtle, bear, wolf) and first teacher of herbal medicine, is threatened by the loss of birds.

Birds leave no tracks and follow no ruts. If we value freedom, we had better ensure their freedom. Native American culture depends on it.

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