Following My Thread, By Shirley Hager (Winthrop Center Friends)

Message given at Durham Friends Meeting, October 31, 2021

Before I begin, I’d like to offer an acknowledgement that I’m living on land that was once the home of Abenaki peoples, part of the great Wabanaki confederacy. I realize, with both sadness and gratitude, that I benefit from this land that was cared for here in Western Maine for thousands of years before the settlers arrived. I’ve learned that one-half mile from my house was, for a time, the village of Amesokanti that formed in the late 1600s as Abenaki and other tribes, aided by the French, fled the English incursion into the interior of what is now Maine. That village too was ultimately deserted as the English encroached further.

Let’s take a moment to honor those peoples…

And now, as I’m going to be talking about leadings this morning, I’d like to begin with this poem by William Stafford:

The Way It Is, by William Stafford

There’s a thread you follow. It goes among

things that change.  But it doesn’t change.

People wonder about what you are pursuing.

You have to explain about the thread.

But it is hard for others to see.

While you hold it you can’t get lost.

Tragedies happen; people get hurt

or die; and you suffer and get old.

Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.

You don’t ever let go of the thread.

When I was invited to give a message this morning, I decided to speak about my leading to work alongside Indigenous people, and why I focus so much of my life on their concerns, which I’ve discovered are, and should be, all our concerns as well, but I certainly didn’t know that when my journey began.

As I’ve thought about my leading to do this work, I’d like first to offer my own reflection on the difference between a calling and a leading. I’ve not read anywhere that, in the generally accepted use of these words, there is a difference.  I think we typically use these words interchangeably. But to me these two words have slightly different connotations.  I think of a calling as something known to you. As in, I have a calling to be a doctor, or a teacher, etc.  It’s as if you see something calling to you and you begin to work your way toward it.  A leading, on the other hand, implies to me that something is leading you on, but you may have no idea what that something is.  Following that leading is an act of faith because you sure don’t have much else to go on.  It’s an inkling, a nudge, a little voice that won’t be quiet. It’s something that feels right when you follow it and doesn’t feel right when you don’t.

I’d like to read you a bit from my story that gives you a sense of some of those first inklings of a leading that I’ve had most of my life—this is from the book, The Gatherings: Reimagining Indigenous-Settler Relations that I believe many of you are familiar with, co-authored by myself and 13 others-both Wabanaki and non-Native and just published this year. The book tells the story of an experience between Wabanaki people, the Indigenous peoples of Maine, and a group of non-Natives that began 35 years ago, in 1986. In the book, we each tell our story of what led us, Wabanaki and non-Native, to meet together during long weekend gatherings over several years and many seasons in the 1980s and ‘90s.  We met to understand one another and to learn what it takes to have respectful and mutually beneficial relationships across our cultures and our horrific shared history. Bringing this message to you has given me an opportunity to look back at what led me to devote so much of my time, my energy, my whole heart to this endeavor and to the writing of the book that describes it. It also gives me an opportunity to share a few passages with you from the book itself.

As a child, I had a lot of romantic ideas about Native people. Of course, everyone watched Westerns back then, but when I watched Westerns I always sided with the Indians. I remember being fascinated by the tipis and the Indian “villages.” That’s how I wanted to live – the way they lived. I grew up in North Carolina during segregation. My mother was from the South and had stayed close to home most of her life. My father, however, grew up in Missouri, then joined the Navy and was stationed in Colorado; and when he got out of the Navy he went to college on the GI Bill. So, he had seen a lot more of the world, as well as being a very compassionate man. Once, when I was about eight years old, I saw a Black person being mistreated and, although I don’t recall the details, it must have bothered me. I remember being home that evening and looking up at my dad and asking, “Why? Why was this person treated this way?” I’ll never forget his response. He said, “I think it must be that some people put others down to make themselves feel big.” And then he said, “When I was out West they treated the Indians just the way we treat – he would have said “colored people” back then – colored people here.” A light came on for me. Since I had such romantic notions about Indians, if they were treated badly too then all of a sudden the whole system didn’t make sense. Suddenly it all seemed wrong.

I left North Carolina as an adult, and spent six years in Utah, attending graduate school and working. The whole time I lived there, I was aware that there were Native peoples living in Utah, and I hoped that I might meet some Native students at the university, but I never had the opportunity.

Fast forward to 1986. I was by then living in Maine and, at the time, was active with a Quaker peace program based in southern Maine. I heard about a new peace and justice organization that was devoted primarily to promoting sustainability in the Gulf of Maine bioregion, namely Maine and the Maritimes. This organization was called the Center for Vision and Policy (CVP), and I thought that the two organizations should be introduced. I contacted the founder of CVP, Elly Haney, and we met one morning at a local Portland diner. She filled me in on CVP, their activities, and plans for the future. Their plans included a particularly notable decision for a primarily “White” organization: a commitment that any vision of sustainability should include the perspective of the Indigenous people who had lived for thousands of years, and continued to live, in the bioregion. I was completely hooked:

[From the book] Currently the CVP board was mulling over the question of how to reach out and find Native individuals who would be interested in participating in this endeavor, and Elly [the founder of CVP] admitted they were pretty much clueless about how to start. She planned to contact existing Native organizations as well as a few people whose names she had been given, but was feeling less than confident of a positive response….[I said]“Well, I’m going to a New England Quaker gathering in Amherst next week,  producing the brochure from my purse. “There’s a Wampanoag man named gkisedtanamoogk” – whose name I couldn’t yet pronounce – “speaking there. Maybe I could talk to him.”

How the resulting Gatherings between Wabanaki and non-Native individuals that we speak about in the book came to be is a story much too long to tell in the time I have here but suffice it to say that my connection with gkisedtanamoogk proved to be the catalyst for everything that happened after that. The Gatherings developed over time, with much deliberation and planning, primarily between gkisedtanamoogk and myself. But once we began to meet in the Gatherings, it was the feeling that what we were doing was, as Quakers say, a “rightly ordered” thing to do, that kept me committed.

I’d like to share a pivotal moment for me that arose in the Gatherings.

The first Gathering that we held was a typical educational event, where we invited Wabanaki speakers to talk to us, the non-Natives, and educate us about their history, our shared history, and current issues in their lives. It went well enough that we decided to hold a second Gathering the following year.

[From the book] During the year after our first Gathering, when we were planning the second one, gkisedtanamoogk offered to build a Fire and to have a First Light ceremony there. This was before our decision to hold all of our meetings around the Fire, and so his suggestion caught me by surprise. I was tremendously excited because I had wanted to experience something like that my whole life.

Native women had already told me that when women were menstruating they didn’t participate in these ceremonies. Sure enough, that’s what happened to me and, after all the anticipation, I was crushed. While the ceremony was going on, I left the group and climbed one of the little hills overlooking the retreat center. I lay down between a couple of big boulders on the hillside and dissolved into tears. I had worked all year to put this event together and I wasn’t going to experience the very thing I had looked forward to the most. I remember praying up there among the rocks and asking for answers, or at least a way to cope with my disappointment, and what came to me was … this was a test of my commitment. We didn’t create this event so I could take part in a ceremony. This was about something much bigger, and I needed to accept things as they were, even though I didn’t fully understand them or necessarily agree with them. I think I grew up a little that day. I came to a realization of the seriousness of what we were doing, and that it was important to stay with it, no matter what.

[Important note: this practice of excluding women during the “Moon Time” as it was referred to, I understand from Wabanaki individuals has been challenged by women and men alike and I believe that it is rare now to see women sitting outside the Circle.]

I did, of course, get to experience the ceremonies and the Circles in which we met many times over the years.

And, as time went on, I say in the book:

I remember a distinct feeling of “filling up” as the Talking Stick would go around and the stories would be shared. Another way I describe it is, it felt like a wound healing that, until then, I didn’t know was there. I think that we White people carry around the wounds of the separations that we’ve created, whether it’s our separation from Native Americans or African-Americans, or from the land itself. Oppressed peoples feel the brunt of the system we’ve created, but we feel it too. We suffer from the separation without being aware of it most of the time. Being in those Circles was a spiritual experience, I don’t know any other name for it; as if we were doing something so right with Creation that you could feel it…

What kept many of us coming back to these Gatherings, kept a number of us in touch all those years since the Gatherings ended, and led the 14 of us to create this book about our experiences can only be attributed to the feelings that we had in being together. 

My experience in those Circles was perhaps the strongest sense I’ve ever had of being supported, even carried, by the Spirit. What we were doing felt so right—the sense of healing something that had been tragically broken, the feeling of being held together around the Fire that was lit for us every time—these are feelings that I have had in a few other situations, even occasionally in Quaker meeting, but never so consistently and so long-lasting as the sense of rightness that carried over from one Gathering to the next and was still present after nearly twenty-five years when we first came back together around the making of this book.

There are so many aspects of this experience that I could share with you—it was hard to choose. But I wanted to focus this morning on this experience of rightness, of participating in what God, Creator, the Universe wants to happen. I feel entirely blessed to have known this feeling. And only in reflecting back over my life can I identify those nudges, and recognize the still, small voice urging me onto the path that eventually led me to participate in the Gatherings, and to co-create this book.

I want to leave you with some queries for your own life: can you identify times when there were inklings, nudges, tiny voices, urging you in a certain direction?  Did you listen? Or not? Can you remember occasions when you felt a certain “rightness” in what you were doing? What was that like? Have those occasions informed the rest of your life in any way?

There’s a thread you follow. It goes among

things that change.  But it doesn’t change…

You don’t ever let go of the thread.

Has there been a thread that you’ve followed in your life?

Thank you.