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D. Cardinal: Towards a Circle of Nations and a Culture of Peace

Address to the Conference organized by UPF-Canada and the Women's Federation for World Peace-Canada
“Should Canada See Itself as a Welcoming Family?”
Ottawa, Canada Oct. 5, 2013

By Dr. Douglas Cardinal, OC
Aboriginal architect - Canadian Museum of Civilization, Ottawa/Gatineau; National Museum of the American Indian, Washington DC, USA

My Blackfeet clan forefathers would greet newcomers to their territory and say even if you come as our enemy we greet you and are willing to share with you. The dust of our land is the dust of our ancestors, and their spirits are with us.

Animals don’t kill their own species. Even wolves don’t kill their own. Human beings shouldn’t kill their own. This land is a land of peace. That is why you all have come here, for all these countries that have been at war. You have come here because this is a land of peace. The people who lived here were people of peace. We knew there were cultures of war, but our culture said not to follow those cultures. The Creator is one of love.

I was feeling the pain of some of our people here. The issue is that we did not come from a hierarchical system, like you do, of power and control. We don’t come from a patriarchal system dominate by males, focused on power and control. We don’t come from a pyramidal system where the people on top are in control. The hierarchical system is adversarial. Even your justice system is an adversarial system of adversarial warriors.

Women are the soul of life. They are the ones who bring life into the world. It is the man’s role to support the women. We don’t come from a hierarchical system of power and control by fear. We come from a society where everybody is noble. We come from a society that is a circle where each person is honored and respected, each person is unique, and each person has an individual talent. Their identity and responsibility is very important to the group. In a society based on a circle, everyone is equal.

The great law of the Iroquois was based on the Asinabka* and was the basis of the American constitution. But they unfortunately put it in their hierarchical male system. In the Great Law, the women were the “House of Representatives,” the clan mothers. The “Senate” was the leaders, both men and women. Men needed guidance from the women; otherwise, they would go off and compete, doing all the things men do to show that they are strong males to attract females. The patriarchal system was a system unchecked by the love of women. The Great Law was one of love, peace, and harmony, not just for each other but for Mother Earth.

There was also a different concept of a Creator—one of pure love, flowing through all life, not just ourselves, but through the fish, stones, and the earth itself. All life is spirit. All life is interconnected. So we ask the Creator for blessings … to us and all our relations. “All our relations” are everything - the brothers and sisters who are fish, animals, birds, and trees.

We do not separate ourselves from nature. We are in symbolic relationship with nature. If we pollute the air we pollute ourselves. The rivers are the blood of the planet; if you pollute the rivers you pollute your blood. There is no color, no separate race. Just the human race. We are all brothers and sisters.

When people came on this land we shared everything. We encouraged our women to intermarry for peace. We encouraged our women to intermarry and we adopted those they married. That was the way to establish the interconnected human family. So as the culture of peace, our way was to respect women first. They are the ones who teach the language and culture to the children. They are the ones who absolutely have to be supported by the men. The women are connected not only to the earth and sun, as we are; women are connected to the moon. Women have a special relationship to the whole universe.

When you have a culture where everyone is equal in a circle, when you have a culture that respects everyone and shares with everyone, it’s not about how much people gather around them with greed and avarice; those are considered sad people. The people we consider valuable in our culture are those who give - not only giving to each other but also giving to the earth. We nourish the trees and the forest. We nourish the animals.

This was a veritable Garden of Eden before contact. They [Europeans] came here and saw that it was an amazing place to live. But they didn’t understand that we knew every plant because it was the source of our livelihood. We protected our life-giver, because it was important for the next generations. We are responsible for seven generations. Every act we do, we are responsible for seven generations. The Creator is part of us. We are co-creators on this planet. We are veritable gods on this planet. We can do anything. We have amazing power. We have unlimited power because we are reflections of the creator. We have to be responsible.

We have the power to destroy this whole planet. We have to learn to be responsible for our acts.

We were responsible and we kept Turtle Island in balance. We were in love, not only with each other, but with the planet itself.

We opened our hearts to the people who came here. We helped them survive the winter. We helped them become fruitful. But they did not follow our ways. In a few generations you laid waste to the lands here, the rivers and forests. We find that the planet itself is in jeopardy, through global warming, because you have no heart. We have to love. The Creator loves us all. We don’t give power to evil. When we are hurt and in pain, the important thing is to forgive. To forgive. When you have been here thousands of years and have the teachings of the elders, you have that knowledge and that wisdom. We hope we can teach you to love the earth, the clear waters and mountain streams, the wind that blows across our brow.

The important thing is to bring the people’s vision into reality; this is what William Commanda** wanted.

My father taught me the traditions of thousands of years. My mother was a German immigrant. She lived under the hierarchical system. Her mother was a non-person under the hierarchical system. But she rose to be a nurse and the director of a hospital. But she decided that she would rather go with my father and raise eight children in a log cabin in a culture of honor and respect.

The indigenous people in this land, with the Asinabka worldview, live on the land of our ancestors. We don’t judge people with a different worldview. It is a different worldview, and we have to learn from it and respect it. Our worldview of love and caring is basic to us. We see evidence of the love of the Creator in the love for each other, in the life of every animal and fish, in the joy of living on this blue planet. That is why it is important for us to continue living on with our beliefs and traditions and cultures.

After I had been trained as an architect by my mother, who trained me in all the cultures and traditions of Europe because she felt architecture was an important tool for communicating cultures, the elders asked me if I could bring my skills as an architect to both nations’ capitals, to bring a very strong architectural statement of love and caring. They also asked me to come to the east to bring William Commanda’s vision here.

I saw all the nations represented by embassies, and I asked, “Where is our embassy?” Where is the voice of the 85 Asinabka people? I was told that Victoria Island [in the Ottawa River flowing between Ottawa and Gatineau] was where our nations all came to make offerings. William Commanda wanted it to be a circle of nations, a culture of peace. He also had the sacred wampum belt from before contact that described the whole future of the First Nations. The prophecy was that we had to build an indigenous center, a circle of all nations, and bring that knowledge and wisdom that had been here for thousands of years and share it with all the people that we welcome to the land. We are a culture of sharing. The land does not belong to us. It belongs to the Creator. We cannot sell the land because you cannot sell your mother. William wanted to establish that center, the Circle of All Nations.

William passed away a few years ago. He said, "It can’t be just us to ask for this center to be formed; all have to come together to make this happen." The message of loving and caring for Mother Earth is important for future generations.

This year, my 80th birthday, I’m asking the Creator and everyone here to help make William’s vision of a Circle of All Nations and a Culture of Peace a reality here in the Capital.


Q: You have seen a lot. Given the challenges you have overcome in your life, what you say to the First Nations youth, the Black youth, who are going through challenges, such as the incarceration rates? What would you say to a young person like myself to take back to young people, to encourage them?

A: What really helped me when I was young was going back and learning from the elders - learning about the responsibility I had to not only myself but the community around me. The guidance and wisdom of the elders was so important to me, - to return to the tradition of my father’s people when it was against the law to practice our culture. You could be jailed for practicing our ceremonies, but they were able to keep it anyway. To go through the fasts and sun dances and amazing experiences that connected us to the earth and each other was very important for me. The vision quest. To go throw a fast you had to learn how to be humble and how to be forgiving and how to open your heart to the Creator to be able to go through a long fast.

Not only myself, but I find many people today who have the same issues and same problems. In my office I have a young 20-year-old who just graduated from the university and questions the values of society. In my office I have people from Italy, Korea, Ireland, and many backgrounds. One day they asked me where I was going, I said I was going to build a sweat lodge. When it was done they asked if they could come in. The elders say the sweat lodge is not complete until all people come in, so I said, “Yes, you can come in.” Four went out west on a fast with the elders.

The elders of the civil rights movement were guiding us when I was going to school in the [US] South. Look what happened. Now we have a president of the United States who is black. We have a long ways to go. It was an honor to be part of the movement in the South.

That inspired me to come back and try to do the same here. It’s much harder here in Canada, because people are more enslaved from the residential school experience. To be inspired by people who are loving and caring is what you need.

Q: How do we infuse the spirit of love and connect it with society?

A.: I think that it naturally happens. What is happening more and more is that women are being recognized and the power of women is being encouraged. It is taking a lot longer in some cultures, and that has caused a lot of strife in the world. We have to support women’s power and honor the powerful position they are in. Everywhere I go, and even in the lodges, we pray for the Creator to give women more power in our lives.

In terms of democracy, there are more women than men. At one time, we were all matriarchal. At one time Europe was a matriarchal society. It took 500 years to change it to a patriarchal society. Many women who were powerful were burned at the stake. One can only wish that things will change.

I know that anything I can do to support our indigenous cultures to be who they are and the way they are for thousands of years is so important.

Q: In the Christian tradition women are to be subjected to men and serve men. It doesn’t allow for equality. It leads to abuse of women. How to change the imprint of the Christian and Islamic traditions?

A: You are on Asinabka land, and you are all welcome on Asinabka land. On Asinabka land, women were all honored. On Asinabka land, women were served by men. I think that’s natural law. The Creator gave us natural law. It involves all life on this planet. Women are sacred and should be treated so.


These notes reflecting the flavor of his presentation and interaction with the audience were taken by Joy Pople, UPF International. For a report of the gathering Dr. Cardinal addressed, click here.

*An Asinabka National Indigenous Center is envisioned on Victoria Island between Ottawa and Gatineau, Canada, to support the healing of indigenous people, the healing of relationships with others, and the healing of relationships with Mother Earth. It will share with Canada and the rest of the world the values and way of thinking of the indigenous peoples. See

**William Commanda (1913 – 2011) was an Algonquin elder, spiritual leader, and promoter of environmental stewardship. Commanda served as Band Chief of the Kitigàn-zìbì Anishinàbeg First Nation near Maniwaki, Quebec, from 1951 to 1970. In his life, he worked as a guide, a trapper and woodsman, and was a skilled craftsman and artisan who excelled at constructing birch bark canoes. He was Keeper of several Algonquin wampum shell belts, which held records of prophecies, history, treaties and agreements. In 2008 he received the Order of Canada.