Volume 17 Number 6
Still Learning From Mother Earth
01 December 2004

William Commanda, an aboriginal North American chief, survived cancer and alcoholism to pioneer the idea of a ‘Circle of Nations’, reports Henry F Heald.

He teaches people how to make birchbark canoes; his sage advice is sought by world leaders; he has travelled the globe talking to schoolchildren and statesmen; he is equally at home in a luxury hotel or a canvas tent. But, at 91, his all-consuming passion is to teach people how to live in harmony with nature.

William Commanda, or Ojigkwanong, to give him his Algonquin name, was born on 11 November 1913, on the Maniwaki First Nations Reserve in Quebec, about 100 miles north of Ottawa. He served as Band Chief from 1951 to 1970, and still lives on the 150 square miles reserve where he carries the honorary title of ‘Chief’ and is recognized as an Elder by aboriginal peoples around the world.

He has welcomed prime ministers to his home and has held conversations with the Dalai Llama and Nelson Mandela.

Last year more than 2,500 people from many races and 13 countries visited his small property on the shores of Lake Pigobic in the nation of Kitigan Zibi, which is what the native people call the Maniwaki Reserve, to take part in his healing ceremonies and to learn about his concept of a ‘Circle of All Nations’.

On the first full weekend in August, when Commanda holds this event each year, his small property sprouts a city of tents, and parking space is limited as people pour in for the meetings and ceremonies. Each day starts with a sunrise ceremony around a fire in the sacred circle. As the sun comes up across the lake, drums beat softly and an Elder explains the significance of the moment when day and night meet as a time to make a commitment to walk on a new and better path.

Later as the crowd gathers under a large arbour for the more formal workshops, Chief Commanda— referred to by most people simply as ‘Grandfather’—opens the session with a prayer in English and Anishinabeg, the local Algonquin language. He prays that God will show people how to stop doing all the things we do that harm Mother Earth.

Life was difficult for Canadian ‘Indians’, as they were generally called, when Commanda was growing up. Their lives were controlled by the Indian Act, legislation that served as the model for the South African apartheid policies. Their children were shipped off to government-sponsored, church-run, regional schools by a government more interested in assimilating the native people than in understanding their culture. The children were not allowed to use their native languages, and the stories of physical and sexual abuse that are still emerging from those days have cast a pall of shame over the whole country.

Today, Chief Commanda says proudly, the children are educated in local schools in French, English and Anishinabeg, and more than 80 per cent of the young people in the community are fluent in their own language.

Commanda recalls one winter when his father killed a moose, butchered it and put the meat in a shed to freeze. It was to be their winter food supply. But the game wardens confiscated it. Although the Indians were theoretically free to hunt and fish as they liked, in reality the game and fish were reserved for the tourist camp operators. When Commanda was Band Chief, the council would make decisions, but the Indian Agent could—and often did—ignore them.

The scourge of alcohol gripped Commanda as a young man, as it did many Indians. He managed to keep out of jail by staying in the forest when he was drunk. The aboriginal people make up a disproportionately high percentage of the population of Canadian jails—mostly due to alcoholrelated crimes. Today he visits aboriginal Canadians in the prisons, conducts healing rituals and talks to them about the need for universal forgiveness and tolerance.

The transformation in Commanda’s life began with a medical crisis. In 1961 he was diagnosed with numerous cancers. The doctors wanted to remove his colon and some lymph nodes, but he refused. The doctors said he had only two weeks to live. His wife, Mary, a herbalist, treated him with her remedies, and an unlicensed doctor in northern Quebec gave him injections of insulin. When he went into hospital two months later to have a tumour on his appendix removed, the doctors could find no evidence of any cancer anywhere. He quit drinking, but one of the first things Mary noticed was that he no longer used bad language.

The ‘talking circle’ is a traditional means of communication and policymaking in most First Nations. During Commanda’s illness he had a vision of a ‘Circle of All Nations’ where all races could solve their problems by face-to-face communication in a talking circle. His first move was to begin restoring relations between the Algonquin and the Iroquois, who had been enemies for generations. The work of reconciliation has now been expanded to many cultures and races.

Many who come to the annual August event are young people looking for a spiritual foundation for their lives. They pitch tents on his lawn, or book rooms in the motels in the nearby town of Maniwaki. They take part in the drumming ceremonies, in smoking the peace pipe and in other traditional native healing rituals. They start each day with the sunrise ceremony and take part in the environmental workshops. Everybody gets fed.

Making canoes has been a lifelong occupation for William Commanda. One is in the Museum of Civilization in Ottawa and several are exhibited in the Canadian Canoe Museum in Peterborough, Ontario. When he cuts down a birch tree with the right quality of bark for a canoe, nothing is wasted. The wood is used for the frame and also for paddles and snowshoes. Today, he says, it is hard to find trees with good bark—which he blames on acid rain.

His skill with wood stood him in good stead in life. For 16 years he worked as a timber scaler for the giant Weyerhauser Lumber Company. Although he has had only two years of schooling, the company trusted him with a stack of blank cheques and sent him out to buy standing timber and contract with loggers to deliver it to the company. Prices were based on the number of flaws in the wood. He says his judgment was seldom challenged by the loggers.

Chief Commanda is convinced that the future of life on the planet depends on our learning to live in harmony with nature. Healing human relationships is the first step. Tolerance and forgiveness are essential. ‘I have been subjected to racism,’ he says. ‘But I am not a racist. I love all people the same. We have to treat Mother Earth with respect. Nature was my school and I’m still learning all the time. People need to ask forgiveness for the things they do wrong to others. With forgiveness comes respect. The result is unconditional love.’

Concern for children is one of the driving forces in all he does. ‘We must save the children; not just Indian children. We can make a beautiful world living in harmony with nature. I just hope we are not too late.’