This poem was written by Steve Bell for a special May 2016 issue of INTOTEMAK magazine titled “Wrongs to Rights: How Churches can Engage the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.” INTOTEMAK is published quarterly by Mennonite Church Canada.
Winner of the 2017 Word Award for Poetry
by Steve Bell
—on having read the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People
Treaty people know from history
The path of freedom teaches them this wisdom:
Ironically, we’re only free to be
When we’ve committed to another’s freedom
A curse, conversely, falls on those who wend
A selfish way, betray a trust forsaken
For covenant is holy and extends
Till all has been restored that once was taken
The narrow way, the strait of the Great Spirit
The way the ancients knew the meaning of
Our better angels know we need not fear it
The best of angels speak the truth of love:
We’ll come to see the healing of the nations
If first we learn and live our declarations.
Steve Bell is a singer/songwriter who lives in Winnipeg, Treaty 1 Territory and homeland of the Métis Nation. Steve was an organizer of Churches for Freedom Road, a coalition of congregations who joined other solidarity groups in the summer of 2015 to support Shoal Lake 40 First Nation, a community that was forcibly relocated more than 100 years ago to make room for Winnipeg’s aqueduct. For generations, Shoal Lake 40 implored Settler governments to right the wrong of their artificially imposed isolation. On December 17, 2015, municipal, provincial, and federal representatives met with leaders of the First Nation and signed an agreement to build a road from the reserve to the TransCanada Highway. The road was completed in the winter of 2019, with celebrations taking place June 2019.
Steve’s notes on the poem:
There are a couple things I’d like point out. First, beside the main message of the sonnet— we’re only free to be when to the other’s freedom we commit— I wanted to associate treaty with covenant and declaration (declare: make clear), pointing out that a treaty is more of a relational document than coldly legal.
Then, as “the strait of the Great Spirit” is the meaning of the word Manitoba, and refers to the narrows of Lake Manitoba, the association with the narrow Jesus way (the way of love known to our better angels) should be reasonably obvious. And for those who know the story of Freedom Road, some may discover in the narrow strait a veiled reference to the recently built bridge linking Shoal Lake 40 to the mainland, which has been made possible, in part, because Christians discovered their own narrow way (Jesus way) in their solidarity with SL40.
The phrase “our better angels” is from Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural address. He used the phrase (perhaps cynically) after having just guaranteed the South that he wouldn’t interfere with the slave trade in an attempt to ward off civil war. It must have been a bitter concession for him as he hoped that by conceding to one evil, he was avoiding a greater one. So, it offers an interesting tension to the sonnet in that our better angels aren’t always our best angels… a certain sober humility befalls us when we realize that we can always do better than what we propose to do.
Healing of the nations, of course, references Revelation’s healing waters (2:2) that flow to bless all (7:9) as compared to aqueducts, which, in our case, have blessed only some while bringing harm to others.
Wending suggests a needless meandering… indirection, something one might expect to find in the self-oriented.
It is only a happy accident in this case that “declaration” means “make clear.” Considering that Freedom Road will hopefully make possible a water treatment plant to clarify waters that have been sullied, there’s a gratuitous poetic accident in the last word of the poem.
Finally, “to learn and live the declaration” is directly out of Steve Heinrich’s editorial in INTOTEMAK and is the phrase that caught my eye and kick-started the process of writing this poem.