Unity and healing are at the center of Chief Dr. Robert Joseph's teachings. We spoke to him about universal values, his own elders, and Indigenous languages as "languages of the land."
Chief Dr. Robert Joseph, OBC, OC is a Hereditary Chief of the Gwawaenuk people, Ambassador for Reconciliation Canada, Chair of the Native American Leadership Alliance for Peace and Reconciliation, and the 2016 winner of the Indspire Lifetime Achievement Award.
He has worked with social change leaders around the globe, including in South Africa, Israel, Japan, and the US, was Executive Director of the Indian Residential School Survivors Society, and is an honorary witness to Canada's Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
His new book, Namwayut: A Path to Reconciliation, is reviewed in the November/December 2022 issue of Spirituality & Health.
S&H: You describe reconciliation as an “ancient imperative.” Can you elaborate on what you mean by this?
Chief Dr. Robert Joseph: The very first struggle in reconciliation is to acknowledge that we are all one, but from the human perspective, that was likely our first struggle as a species as well. Our wellbeing rests with discovering peace and balance for ourselves, acknowledging our interconnectedness. Over time, if we do that, we can live that truth.
Why is storytelling such an important part of the reconciliation process?
A long time ago I learned a lesson from an elder. After the ban [on Indigenous Potlatch ceremonies that was enacted by the Canadian government] he attended a Potlatch, and he ended up in Oakalla Prison. All of his treasures were taken away from him and his only role was feeding swine at the prison.
He said, “Everybody on earth has a story to tell.” That sentence haunted me for a long time. And then I got into the work of reconciliation and I recognized that we needed to tell each other our stories if we were ever going to get beyond our broken past. There was no dialogue between Indigenous people and Canadians, so there was no way at all to bridge the walls of misunderstanding.
If we never talk to each other, how can we have a deeper meaning of who we are as a collective, or how can we have a better understanding of the people on the other side of the equation? Our stories are what make us matter.
Which of the values you identify as “universal values”—truth, love, respect, humility, integrity, trust, and openness—would you say is the most important in the reconciliation process, and why?
Love. Love fiercely! Love yourself. Anybody can love. That's where you start. Don’t wait for someone to love you first. You are right there in front of you. It’s the only way to begin living. Love yourself. If we can't love ourselves, how can we love others?
When did you first feel a spark of hope after the trauma of your childhood and your struggle with addiction? What triggered this spark of hope?
I had an actual epiphany one night, looking up into the skies above me. I felt called by the Creator to stop hurting myself, to find my true purpose in being. For me, my vision allowed me to understand that I belonged on this Earth, and this was the cornerstone for everything I began to believe about myself. A single moment in the depths of despair can yield to a sense of knowing that life can change.
You mention Chief Tom Dawson in your book as a leader who played an important role in your life. What is the greatest lesson you learned from Chief Dawson?
He taught me to be a good person, but most of all to work hard, and to work ethically. He encouraged me to see myself as more than the sum of my parts. He showed me through his words and his actions that he really cared about others, and cared about me. We all need someone like that in our childhood, and I was lucky to watch him take care of his community. It’s something I aspire to every day.
You indicate that humans have the ability to reach a “higher level of humanity.” What would the realization of this look like, and what is the first step to achieving this?
We have all of these markers that we’ve achieved as a society, towards peace-building and as a part of the reconciliation process. They are like stones in a field. None of them alone would be sufficient to resolve all the problems we have. There has to be justice. There has to be reparation. There have to be apologies.
But all of these facets of humanity require understanding, transformation, and change. It takes a lot of work, and everybody wants it done right now. Many people are focused on one lens, a critical lens, the #landback lens. But what we need is a kaleidoscope where we can change our lenses and view the beautiful, broad perspective from a number of different angles at once. The first step is to love ourselves, and the next is to invite stories of change so that we can understand what we have accomplished.
When our great-great-great-grandkids are leading the way, the work will still continue because we're imperfect. But it's time to shift human consciousness just a little bit, and recognize that reconciliation will be a touchstone for future generations to understand equality and justice. It's the work of generations, not hours.
You describe Indigenous language as “language of the land.” Can you elaborate on this idea?
For Kwakwa̱ka̱ʼwakw and for all Indigenous peoples, the land was so central to everything we did. We prayed in the forest. It was sometimes our prison when we sent people to exile. It was our cathedral when we sent initiates to learn their spiritual duty and the Potlatch. It was where children learned about spiritual entities and animals. It was our place of Genesis.
Indigenous people's sense of connection about who they are and where they come from is knowing the land where our Gi̱lga’lis, our first ancestors, originated. Our homelands and reserves are so important because in the absence of that, wherever else we went up until fairly recently in our history, we have never felt accepted. That’s why land acknowledgements are so important, as even in ancient times they were part of our ceremonies to ask permission to come ashore.
Read our review of Namwayut here.