Journey across water, time
Members of the Gitxaala Nation at the 2014 Qatuwas Festival. (photo by Kris Krug)
Vancouver, Erev Tisha b’Av (Aug. 4): As Jews across North America are preparing themselves for the sombre, mournful fast commemorating the destruction of the holy temples in Jerusalem, Jews in Israel and across much of the world have already begun fasting. We fast to mark the calamities that befell our people on the ninth of Av throughout history, and to acknowledge that we are still living in exile, awaiting the building of the third Beit Hamikdash.
For a moment, imagine that we are in Yerushalayim while the Temple stands and hearing news of a siege of the city. Food is growing scarce and we realize that the walls will soon be breached, and destruction leveled upon us and upon our holiest of places. Invasion, murder and desecration are almost certain. If we survive, we will almost certainly be forced into exile, and our city would be burned along with the centre of life for all Jews, the Holy Temple.
As I sit, I reflect upon our history, my history. I reflect upon 2,000 years of exile, upon the Holocaust, upon the war in Gaza. I wonder what may come tomorrow. Exactly three weeks earlier, I was away from the city, visiting my mother on Denny Island, B.C. I went there to spend time with her, to go fishing with my stepfather and to eat Mom’s cooking. I hadn’t planned on meeting people from other nations that have faced destruction, assimilation and exile also, or to learn from their resolve.
Waglisla, Heiltsuk territory, three weeks earlier (July 15): I stand in the grass under the blazing sun, straw hat on, squinting at the dancers. They wear traditional garb: robes, cedar hats, blankets and paint; they sing. Today is the 17th of Tammuz and I haven’t eaten since the night before. I am at the 2014 Qatuwas Festival, an annual gathering of the First Nations of North America’s West Coast – from Alaska to Oregon, where the nations have traveled by glwa (gil-wah, an ocean-going canoe), some for more than 30 days to reach their destination. Qatuwas, the Heiltsuk word for “people gathering together,” has its roots in 1985 in Waglisla (Bella Bella), when a group of local residents built a glwa to paddle 500 kilometres to Vancouver for Expo ’86. They now make a journey each year to a different nation to build connections, morale, identity and community. Nearly 30 years after Qatuwas began, there are hundreds gathered on the grass field in Heiltsuk territory.
My mother moved to Denny Island about two years ago and I’ve taken the 10-minute ferry to Bella Bella to see Qatuwas for myself. I sit in the shade with Jessica Brown, a beaming, bright young woman from Heiltsuk Nation, who is part of the host committee for Qatuwas. She smiles while she speaks about the festival:
“It’s pretty amazing. Last summer, we left Bella Bella and paddled for 32 days on the water, and stopped at every first nation – for a day in the life of each nation. You can be there for a funeral, or you can be there for a lahal tournament or a powwow. It’s a journey of healing, drug and alcohol free, and it’s supposed to be about resurgence, revitalization.
“Young people on the canoe say that the water is a healing process, from the effects of colonization, continuing and ongoing.”
As I contemplate my physical hunger, my fatigue, I feel connected to my spiritual hunger, our collective desire as Jews to return to the Holy Land, a holy time. At least some of my emotions are shared by the nations celebrating at the Qatuwas Festival. Like us, they have suffered innumerable losses. Spirit, though, as it is with knowledge, faith and hope, can never be taken away from one person by another. They can only be given up.
I leave Qatuwas in peace. The days are long here on the central coast in summer, but the sun is slowly burning towards the horizon. Spirits are high on the ferry back to Denny Island.
Vancouver, Erev Tisha b’Av (Aug. 4): The hour of the fast is nearly upon us. Soon I will get into my car and drive to shul to sit and pray on the floor like in a house of mourning, and mark the beginning of the fast of Tisha b’Av. I have a flash from three weeks prior, when I asked Jessica about the land we stood on at Qatuwas.
“We’re not treaty people,” she said, “and that means that we’ve never given up access to our land. We basically consider ourselves the Heiltsuk Nation, a sovereign nation.”
“Am I in Canada?” I asked with an intrigued grin.
“No, you’re in Heiltsuk territory.”
As Jews across Israel and the Diaspora prepare to mourn on Tisha b’Av, I’m inspired by the strength of our people and by that of the First Peoples of Canada.
Despite the destruction, chaos, hatred and exile, we still hope to be free peoples in our own land. For us, the land of Zion, Yerushalayim. Am Yisroel chai.
Benjamin Groberman is a born and raised Vancouverite. He is a freelance writer, and is pursuing a bachelor of education degree, with aspirations to teach in a Jewish high school. He is a resident of Vancouver’s Moishe House.