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“Wâhkôhtowin is like ‘love thy neighbour’ on steroids”: Author Jesse Thistle on the Indigenous teaching that’s getting him through the misery of social distancing

By Jesse Thistle
"Wâhkôhtowin is like 'love thy neighbour' on steroids": Author Jesse Thistle on the Indigenous teaching that's getting him through the misery of social distancing
Lucie Thistle

It’s only been a few weeks since the lockdown began, but I can hardly remember a time when I could see my friends, eat at a restaurant or come within one llama space of another human being. Aside from my wife, Lucie, I am utterly alone. This period of social isolation reminds me of when I did dead time—pre-trial detention—in 2007 on a theft charge. It’s a time of stress, anxiety and restless nights because you don’t know if you’ll get two weeks or two decades. All I could do was lift weights or chat with other inmates to take the edge off. Believe it or not, this social isolation is worse. I feel physically frozen, like a fly in house-arrest amber. The uncertainty across the globe has left me starved for connection like never before. To feed my hunger, I’ve turned to group chat, Zoom and Skype for social interaction. People smile and chat in their Brady Bunch boxes, but their thousand-mile stares tell me that they, too, are stunned and frightened, searching for something that a computer screen just can’t give them.

I recently started a twice-weekly Facebook Live chat with my friend Ian Campeau, formerly of the DJ crew A Tribe Called Red. The show is called Chatting With Homies, and it’s supposed to be like a Native version of The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson—Ian is more Johnny, I’m more Ed McMahon. We’ve brought on guests like the CBC’s George Stroumboulopoulos, Indigenous artist and writer Aylan Couchie and Olympic athlete Clara Hughes. We’ve talked about Anishinaabe survival teachings, ancestral Indigenous oral traditions around naming, the migration patterns of eels and salmon, and how to grow our own vegetables and share in a barter economy in case capitalism collapses.

In every discussion, I’ve brought up a Cree teaching called wâhkôhtowin. I’m Métis-Cree, and for years I was cut off from my maternal heritage. Several years ago, I was researching my lost family history for my PhD, and my doctoral supervisor introduced me to Maria Campbell, an elder in Saskatchewan. She was kind enough to educate me about my Métis-Cree family within the context of Canadian colonization. The wâhkôhtowin teaching was part of that.

Wâhkôhtowin is an ancient Nehiyaw (Cree) and Michif (Métis) worldview that frames everything as a giant web of kinship. Maria told me that this was the one thing I needed to grasp in order to understand the Métis. The plants, animals, humans, sun, moon, elements, everything: these are our relatives, our kin, and we all have reciprocal responsibilities toward one another.

I like to think of wâhkôhtowin as “love thy neighbour” on steroids. Jesus never specified that your neighbours were limited to people: perhaps he was also including birds, water, rocks, turtles, the planet. If that’s the case, we’ve been doing it wrong for 2,000 years. In this current calamity, where we’re all separated by masks, sanitation wipes, computer screens and plexiglass barriers, I believe the connected web of wâhkôhtowin has the power to improve things—let’s be the neighbours we all want, the neighbours we all need.

For my own practice, I started small. After cooking dinner recently, I found myself thanking the cow that had given its life to feed Lucie and me—something I’d never done in all my 44 years. When my cat Poppy comes to me in the morning, I make sure to give her a few solid minutes of affection before I scroll through Twitter or Facebook. The birdsong, as well, is something I’ve come to cherish. Over my morning coffee, I listen to our robin and cardinal kin fill the morning sky. Their songs are constant and clear, hopeful promises of spring and life amid uncertainty and death.

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Some of my friends are reconnecting in much the same way. Many have started seedlings, rekindling a personal relationship with our plant relatives; my wife Lucie plans to do a seedbed with beans, tomatoes and lettuce as soon as the frosts abate. Some people outside Toronto are purchasing chickens and pigs and are giving away eggs and meat to those who can’t afford them. In the process, they’re learning a whole new respect for livestock.

Others, like me and Ian, are creating online platforms where people can share ideas on Indigenous knowledge that they might never have otherwise heard, knowledge that can bring us the emotional and spiritual connection we all need. I’ve also seen people risking their lives by dropping off groceries to elderly and immunocompromised neighbours who can’t leave their homes. Many of these people are perfect strangers, yet they’re stepping up because that’s what good neighbours do. It reminds me of how Maria helped me when I needed it most, back when I didn’t know who I was as a Métis-Cree man.

I believe we can mend the tattered strands of the web of wâhkôhtowin, but only if we work together and come to respect creation once again. We can begin by treating one another as relatives and go from there. It worked for me once upon a time in Saskatchewan, and it can work for us now. Wâhkôhtowin frames the world as a giant web of kinship.

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Jesse Thistle is a professor of Métis studies at York University and the author of the bestselling memoir From the Ashes.

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