Tuesday, November 16, 2010


A mother is always a mother, and even if I have my faults, if she can see I am true, she will be full of love for me. 
--Louis David Riel 

When I started Ten Thousand Virtues, I compared the study of the virtues to a journey, such as Marco Polo’s travels along the Silk Road. We could liken each virtue to a fantastic oasis, discovered just beyond the next mountain or the next bend in the river, with its own fascinating character, much like the Invisible Cities described by Polo to Kublai Khan in Calvino’s wonderful book.

Another metaphor might be to consider virtue studies like bird-watching: When we walk the forest, we don’t expect any one tree to host an example of every avian species. Rather, in each tree we may easily spot one or two birds roosting, and with Patience eventually find a few others hiding out. With Abiding, we may discover a trove.

Likewise, each human being shows a mixture of qualities. That is being human, after all. And it is on that note that I bring today the story of Canadian folk hero Louis Riel, and a contemplation of the virtue Zoongide’ewin (Strong Heart), a value of the Anishinaabe-speaking tribes of North America.

“Mixture” is a term to keep in mind as we contemplate the life of Louis David Riel, who led a people of mixed European and First Nations blood, the Métis. As a reflection of their mixed heritage, the Métis speak a dialect called Michif that mixes French, English, and Anishinaabe (also known as Ojibwe or Chippewa). Riel’s story mixes fact and speculation; his life, triumph and trauma; his ending, madness and honor; his legacy, villainy or heroism, depending on whom you ask. He died in a governmental hangman’s noose, 125 years ago today.

For Americans who tend to think of our northern neighbor as quietly peaceable, the bloodshed of the consolidation of the Canadian frontier makes for surprising reading. In the late 1860s, while the U.S. mopped up from the Civil War, Canada added the western provinces to its confederacy. In Manitoba, Riel, the oldest son of a large, close-knit family of Métis Catholics, led the French-speaking majority, who faced a Canadian government survey that threatened their land rights. The result was the Red River Rebellion.

Tensions between local leaders and the pro-Canadian confederates surged when Riel’s provisional government hastily tried and executed an agitator named Thomas Scott. In the aftermath, Manitoba joined the Canadian confederacy, but provisional government leaders like Riel faced charges for the execution. Riel fled to the U.S. and spent the following years moving back and forth across the border as political winds changed. It was during this period that he had a mental breakdown of a particularly religious flavor: Riel believed God had chosen him to protect the Métis from harm resulting from the English-speaking confederacy’s expansion across the frontier.

After a final surge of resistance in Saskatchewan during the North-West Rebellion, Riel surrendered to Canadian forces on May 15, 1885. At a trial for treason, his attorney urged him to take an insanity plea, but Riel refused. A jury of six English-speaking protestants found him guilty and urged mercy, but the judge assigned Riel death by hanging. Riel had two small children, and witnessed the death of his third infant son while he awaited his execution. During the 4 months he awaited his death, he made peace with Catholic clergy he’d alienated during his rebellion and wrote a memoir.

Riel’s martyrdom had lasting effects on relations between French- and English-speaking Canadians--in fact, Québécois nationalists embrace him as a symbol of resistance to this day. The domination of the Liberal party in Canadian politics throughout the 20th century can be traced in part to repercussions of Riel’s execution. The complicated meaning of his life led one author to remark,

Riel is regarded by some as a heroic freedom fighter who stood up for his people in the face of racist bigotry, and those who question his sanity still view him as an essentially honourable figure. Riel nevertheless presents an enigma, although as historian J.M.S. Careless has observed, it is possible that Riel was both a murderer and a hero. [Emphasis mine.]

So: A mixture. And that brings us to Zoongide’ewin, or Strong Heart. A simple translation of this virtue would be “Courage,” but Zoongide’ewin means more than this. A better choice would be Integrity. As the scholars of the White Earth Tribal and Community College explain,

When we have a strong heart, we are able to face challenges with courage and integrity. A person living the value of zoongide´ewin acknowledges her own weaknesses and faces them with a strong heart.

Riel’s leadership of the Métis, especially during his last stand, when they faced overwhelming military force, of course demonstrates the bravery of Zoongide’ewin. But to me, much more telling was his refusal to reject or disown his actions by attributing them to insanity. Riel said simply, “Life, without the dignity of an intelligent being, is not worth having.” By embracing all of who he was and what he had done, without excuses, without defensive justifications, he showed Strong Heart.

During his last statement prior to walking to the hangman’s noose, Riel blessed both his own legal team and those of the government. An excerpt from his statement especially moved me:

The North West is also my mother, it is my mother country... I am sure that my mother country will not kill me [any] more than my mother did forty years ago when I came into the world, because a mother is always a mother, and even if I have my faults, if she can see I am true, she will be full of love for me.

When we examine our own actions, may we acknowledge all of what we are and have done, even those things that may have been rash or destructive. The path to our own liberation lies in embracing all of who we are, Dark and Light, the wholeness of the Truth, without flinching, but rather with the love of a mother for her all-too-human children.

Louis David Riel, we embrace all of you today.

May we see the gates of Zoongide’ewin, and perhaps make a home there.

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