Let us now Praise a Worthy Man: Grandfather Commanda at age 90.

© – Copyright 2003 by Steven McFadden

William Commanda marked his 90th birthday on Nov. 11, 2003. He is worthy of honor for having attained great age in a sacred manner, and for having accomplished great good over his many years.

Grandfather William Commanda (author photo, 1996)

Grandfather William Commanda (author photo, 1996)

Grandfather Commanda is a traditional Algonquin Elder from the Kitigan Zibi Reserve in Maniwaki, Quebec, Canada. He is the Keeper of three Wampum Belts: the Seven Fires Prophecy Belt, the 1700s Belt, and the 1793 Jay Treaty Border Crossing Belt. I’ve known Grandfather since 1989 when I met with him then related part of his story in Chapter 2 of Profiles in Wisdom: Native Elders Speak About the Earth.

At many times and in many ways, Grandfather has expressed his understanding that it’s crucial for all the children of Mother Earth to come together at this time with one heart, one mind, one love, and one determination — to create a fitting legacy for all our children and our children’s children.

Among his many accomplishments, Grandfather provided guidance to the 1995-96 Sunbow 5 Walk from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean — an epic pilgrimage under the sky sign of the Whirling Rainbow.

As the Sunbow 5 Walk made its way from East to West under Grandfather’s guidance  in 1995 and ’96, I kept a daily journal.  Over the course of eight months, the pilgrims walked south from First Encounter Beach on Cape Cod, Massachusetts to the Qualla Boundary-Cherokee Reservation in North Carolina. Then the walk turned west for the long stretch to Los Angeles, finally turning north to end in Santa Barbara, California, on February 2, 1996.

By way of a 90th birthday tribute to Grandfather  Commanda for his sure guidance throughout that long walk and far beyond, I offer below some written sketches of him as I recorded them in my journal along the way.

The journal begins with an account of a Thanksgiving Day gathering, seven months before the first steps of the long walk:

Day 0 – Thursday, November 24, 1994 – In the last few moments of a weakly illumined night, tar-dark clouds roiled and raced over all. Then just before the Sun pulled above the horizon on this piercingly cold Thanksgiving Day, a west wind raked across the hills and valleys of Massachusetts.

stor-creative-commonsThe wind spiked out over Cape Cod Bay, frothing the blackened waters into angry, spitting caps. A great, bitter wind was upon the land and the sea. Still, the people came. In the face of icy needles cast by the unrelenting gale, 40 people broke from their cars into a wild, scattered search for a place with a scrap of windbreak. They needed protection, for they had arrived to light a sacred fire at First Encounter Beach, just five years before the Millennium.

We found a low place, a depression about four feet below grade of the road on the West, and marked by a wispy picket of marsh grasses to the East. The people gathered and piled driftwood shoulder high in a tipi form, then held up blankets and huddled close around Tom Dostou, sheltering him as knelt to strike a spark. The wind raged, the spark struggled against the screaming elements. Then the fire came. Within moments it was big, strong, and wild. ?Under the guidance of Algonquin Grandfather William Commanda, the group of about 40 people — representing all the colors and many of the spiritual traditions of the world — formed a circle and began the ceremony.

We had come to help open the Eastern Door, one of the spiritual gateways to North America, and to pray for a planned prayer walk of some 3,700 miles that would start from this same beach, and from this same sandy hollow, in seven months. In the minutes after sunrise on Thanksgiving Day, 1994, as the people huddled in blankets about the wildly blowing fire at First Encounter Beach, a sacred song was sung. Pipes were filled then lit. Grandfather Commanda prayed in the Algonquin language. Then Tom Dostou called on four people to speak: one person representing each of the Four Directions, the Four Colors.

Months later the Sunbow pilgrims walk west. (author photo, 1995)

Months later  the pilgrims walk west (author photo).

When the ceremony ended that cold, windy Thanksgiving morning, we hurried back to the shelter of our vehicles, and fired them up to travel 15 miles to the home of Tom Dostou and Naoko Haga on Bank Street in Harwich, Massachusetts. A river of coffee awaited us, to wash down a wild smorgasbord of turkey, squash, doughnuts, pies, sweet rolls and butter.

After we feasted, Grandfather Commanda settled into an arm chair by the fireplace in the sun-filled living room. He laid out on the carpet a prayer cloth. Upon the prayer cloth he set some of the ancient, elegant Wampum Belts that he has been entrusted to keep since the 1960s: the Seven Fires Belt, the Jay Treaty Belt, and the 1701 Montreal Treaty Belt.

The belts are about four inches wide, and perhaps three feet long. Two of them are beautifully crafted of beads made from wampum, the white and purple shell of the Quahog clam. The softly colored cream or purple beads are strung together with rawhide to serve as records of important agreements, occurrences, or understandings. As I understand it, an elder who reads the wampum does more than faithfully remember what the symbols woven into the belt represent. He or she also communes with the spirit of the wampum beads — for each bead bears its own living vibration, the quahogs being among the Earth’s oldest creatures.

Together the linked wampum beads form a coherent field of meaning that is alive in time and carries authority. The wampums not only serve as records of the past, but also reflect the present and the future. They are a link to Creator’s mind, Grandfather said to the 30 people crowded into the living room. “I don’t own these belts. I just keep them for the people.”

With the support of his helper, Frank Decontie, Grandfather Commanda told the story of the first belt, the oldest belt, the belt of the Seven Prophets and the Seven Fires. His understanding of this has been deepened over the years, as he has interacted and shared with other Anishinabe elders such as Eddie Benton-Banai. Part of the teaching of this wampum belt, the part about the Seventh Fire, indicates that “new people” would arise at a time of great troubles. These new people would have an opportunity and a responsibility to retrace the footsteps of the ancestors to find the sacred ways that had been left behind long ago.

It was at this time, as I heard Grandfather recount it, that the light-skinned race would be given a choice. If they choose the right road, then the seventh fire would light an eighth and final fire: an eternal fire of peace, love and brotherhood. But if the light-skinned race makes the wrong choice of road — the road of greed and materialism — then the destruction which they brought with them on coming to this great Turtle Island continent will come back to them, causing much suffering and death.

“It is time to walk,” Grandfather Commanda told the gathering that Thanksgiving Day in 1994. “It is time to retrace the steps of the ancestors and find what was left by the side of the trail. It is time to walk now.” ?When Frank and Grandfather finished speaking, Tom Dostou (Nabesse Pishum) huddled with guest after guest, making plans for the long cross-continent pilgrimage that would start in just seven months, in June, 1995. Tom was to be the head man. He had been afire with the idea of a long walk since the Cry of the Earth Conference in New York in November 1994 — and since he had participated in a second walk for native rights in Canada. The walks had stirred him deeply.

Sunbow - Whirling Rainbow

Sunbow – Whirling Rainbow

With his wife Naoko Haga, Tom shared a vision of the Sundog, or Whirling Rainbow. When this natural phenomenon occurs, a full 360-degree circle of a rainbow appears in a wide ring around the Sun. Tom and Naoko spoke of it as the Sunbow, and added the number 5 to it to signify five colors of human beings: Red, White, Black, Yellow, and Brown. The long walk, Tom said, would be called the Sunbow 5 Walk for the Earth.

The Sunbow, or Whirling Rainbow, represents an emerging understanding. In some indigenous communities, it is considered a sign from the Creator. It has long been held that a time of great change, or transition on the Earth, would be signaled by an increase in the number of visible Sunbows.

These full-circle rainbows around the Sun, elders say, may be understood as a sign to people of the necessity to live a life in respect and harmony with all the creations that make life possible: plants, animals, waters, minerals, winds, and other human beings respecting all races and religions. But there is a lot to learn about the Sunbow. We are just at the beginning of our understanding.

Day 14 of the Sunbow 5 Walk – Thursday, July 6, 1995 – As they were making their steps today the walkers realized that they had covered a far stretch of road over two weeks. They had walked across Cape Cod, Massachusetts and Rhode Island, and then West along the shore of Connecticut toward New York City. This day — the 14th on the road — the walkers covered about ten more miles across New Rochelle and the Bronx, ending at the Willis Bridge on the margin of Manhattan.

Though the walking distance was short, it took over five hours for the walkers to make all the steps, for the way was congested and the road was hot to the point of torment.

koyaanisqatsiValaine Lighty and Erika Haga looked about them as the walk approached New York City, and they discussed their experience. Reaching for descriptors, Valaine asked: “Have you ever seen the film Koyaanisqatsi? That’s what it was like.”

Koyaanisqatsi is a Hopi word and concept. It means chaos, or “world out of balance.” From 1975 to 1982 a film was made under this title depicting traffic, pollution, hatred, and the desecration of the earth, air, and water — all set to a musical score by Philip Glass that intensifies the experience to an excruciatingly painful degree.

Throughout their long day on the road, Valaine, Erika, and the other walkers, heard horns honk and various machines ratchet, throb and grind. They saw jagged stretches of pavement, burned-out buildings, graffiti, trash, people engaged in furious argument, and drug dealing. They saw unattended children bawling on the street, beggars, and not a few people just sitting and blankly staring. They saw a woman try to cross the street and almost get run over by a car. They heard her cry out: “What? Do I not exist?” For the walkers this overheard cry of frustration and despair seemed to epitomize the voices of far too many souls in the modern world.

The walkers prayed as they went. They put down tobacco in places where they saw trash, decay, or suffering. They contemplated their visions, and their mission. They kept walking. ?Meanwhile, Grandfather Commanda and Ned Pashene (Naskapi Cree) arrived in New York via Air Canada, to accompany the walkers to their meeting with officials at the United Nations on Friday.

After Grandfather and Ned got off the plane and greeted the walkers, they told everyone the story of their difficulties in crossing the international boundary from Canada to the United States.

They had been detained and hassled at the border by immigration officials — as they often are — because they are not citizens of the US or Canada, but rather First Nations people. In being stopped at the border, Grandfather said, there was for him always a bitter irony. That’s because, in addition to the other sacred artifacts he keeps, Grandfather is the keeper of the Jay Treaty Border Crossing Belt.

Aa_Jay Treaty Belt 1793A belt of beads is the traditional Algonquin device employed to record the solemn and binding agreement they entered into in 1793 with the US and Great Britain. This was a time when the newly formed government of the United States was defining its corporate existence upon Turtle Island and the Canadian nation did not yet exist. Native nations were full and equal partners to the treaty, with the same standing as the United States and Great Britain. But the Algonquins did not use black marks upon paper to keep important records; they used beads woven into beautiful, long-lasting belts.

The Jay Treaty has many provisions. One article stipulates that First Nations peoples would always have the right to freely cross the border between the US and Canada. After all, the native people had never drawn lines on the earth to define regions, but rather had accepted the natural boundaries of the earth. Native peoples considered the idea of drawing lines on a map, and designating them as “real boundaries,” to be both artificial and arbitrary. Many of their traditional tribal homelands overlap what is now the US-Canada border.

As agreed upon by all parties, the Jay Treaty states explicitly that Native Americans may travel freely back and forth across the U.S./Canadian border, and that this is a permanent understanding: “The Indians dwelling on either side of the…boundary line… {shall have the right} freely to pass and repass by land or island navigation…and to navigate all the lakes, rivers and waters thereof, freely, to carry on trade and commerce with each other.”

The way the Algonquin people recorded this permanent agreement — as with all important matters — was to fashion a belt of beads in a pattern that would plainly symbolize the understanding. For the most important agreements, they used beads fashioned from the shell of the Quahog clam (venus mercenaria), known as wampum in Algonquin. ?Grandfather Commanda is the contemporary keeper of the Jay Treaty Belt — but that is of scant relevance to US or Canadian officials when he crosses the border. He gets hassled anyway, just as Native American people often are when crossing. As Grandfather put it, their right to recognition as Native people is often not respected.

On this July day, after a long delay and intensive questioning by border officials, Grandfather Commanda and Ned Pashene were finally admitted to the United States, and traveled on to New York to join the walkers at the United Nations.

Day 15 of the Sunbow 5 Walk – Friday, July 7, 1995  – At 9 AM  the walkers met at the Willis Bridge and began walking down Second Avenue to 44th St. and then over to United Nations headquarters, which sits close by the shore of the East River.

The House of Mica - UN Headquarters

The House of Mica – UN Headquarters

As the walkers passed through Harlem many people offered warm smiles, and said “good morning.” It was an easy journey, and their spirits were peaceful as they walked and prayed. The walkers soon reached the technological and bureaucratic wonderland of the United Nations (UN), perched upon the fabled $26 island acquired through an infamous 1626 trade between the Manhattan peoples and a company of European merchants.

While at UN headquarters the walkers met with Delphine Redshirt, the chairperson of the UN’s Committee for the “International Decade of the World’s Indigenous Peoples (1995-2004),” and with Elsa Stamatopoulou, an official of the UN’s Centre for Human Rights. The Sunbow walkers and Grandfather Commanda had come to reiterate the messages presented during the prophetic and historic “Cry of the Earth” conference in 1994.

Grandfather Commanda opened today’s meeting with a prayer, and then Ms. Stamatopoulou welcomed the walkers to the UN. In her remarks she outlined what the UN was doing for the Earth and for indigenous peoples.

Tom Dostou responded with a brief speech. “Many of the nation states that belong to the UN are afraid of indigenous peoples. But we have no guns, no money, and no systems of power of the kind that they need to be concerned about. We have our spiritual basis. That’s about it. We don’t want to overthrow the nation states and create more fear, hate, and harm. That won’t help anybody. We don’t feel we ‘own’ the land, but rather that we are all — every color, and nationality, and religion — tenants on the Earth Mother. Indigenous people are trying to help show the industrial-commercial nation-states how to live on the land, how to be in good relation with it. That’s something that we all need to know. It’s important, and it’s important now.”

Grandfather hold the belt.

Grandfather holds the belt.

After this statement Tom rested and Grandfather Commanda opened his medicine bag and withdrew the Seven Fires Wampum Belt to show it to the walkers and the UN officials. The Seven Fires Wampum Belt is primarily dark, purple wampum beads, with a pattern of seven white diamonds, each diamond representing a ‘fire,’ or epoch of time. The middle fire is represented by a double diamond, indicating the promise of an Eighth Fire, or epoch, if people heed the foundational lessons of honesty, love, caring, sharing, and respect.

Grandfather Commanda explained to everyone about the belts, briefly telling the meaning of each of the seven diamonds shown on the belt (representing the Seven Fires).

I noted the core of his message during a phone conversation later that day that day, Grandfather told the officials: “We are in the time of the Seventh Fire now. That’s the reason for this Sunbow walk. We need to maintain our honesty, and to bring things into keeping with the way the Creator intended. That way we can bring the double-diamond at the center of the belt together, to make one diamond representing the lighting of an Eighth Fire. That fire does not have to burn or destroy, but can illuminate this world that we are part of. It’s up to us which way it burns. We have the choice now, and can use our will as we want. It’s up to the people.”

“The first key in this healing,” Grandfather said, “is forgiveness: to forgive those people, and nations, and races that we feel have done us harm. We may not forget, but we have to forgive. That will begin to heal the hurt. We have to forgive ourselves, too, for the harm we have done to ourselves and to others. It’s very difficult. It’s not easy. But that’s what’s required. Those are the teachings that have been handed down to me. That’s part of what the wampum belt is about, and that’s what I have to share.”

“If all the races will come together,” Grandfather Commanda said at the UN, “and stop doing what they are doing, it can begin. Forgiveness, peace, love, respect — those are the four important things. With all of that, then the waters can again be pure, the air can be clean, the Earth can be healed, and the children can live. Whether it will happen or not, we don’t know. The people have the choice. The time to choose is now. We pray for the good things. That’s why the walk.” Many months later.

Day 224 of the Sunbow 5 Walk — Thursday, February 1, 1996 – The rain kept coming on and off. We all sat on logs and chairs and tarps around the main campfire at Circle K Ranch, in the hills just to the East of Santa Barbara, California, on the shore of the Pacific Ocean. From the coals they cared for, the firekeepers had built the blaze up big. We talked for a while, getting ready for the closing ceremony that was planned for the next day, and we looked around the circle at ourselves, soggy and tired.

Sitting by the fire near the end of the odyssey - Ned Pachene, Joe Soto, Grandfather Commanda.

Aroundthe fire at odyssey end: Ned Pachene, Joe Soto, Grandfather Commanda.

Grandfather was wearing his silver cowboy hat with beaded band, and a black vest as he sat by the fire, with his daughter Evelyn at his side. Someone had placed a blanket on his chair. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a letter he had brought with him, dated January 26, 1996.

He read the letter aloud: “Greetings Walkers, It is very pleasing to hear that you have completed your walk. It has been a difficult journey, and you have certainly sacrificed yourself for this sacred purpose. This walk is a history that will be remembered, respected, and honored…You have done your job, the message is delivered. May the California Sun shine into your hearts and minds. – Frank Decontie, Algonquin Nation.” ?Grandfather folded the letter back into his pocket, and looked up. “No more walking after this,” he said. “Let nature talk to us. Observe it. We’ll see if the people will listen.”

– end –

Note: By the time of his death at age 97 in August 2011, William Commanda held many honors from both Native and international nations. He was holder of a Key to the City for Canada’s capital of Ottawa, and had also been recognized with the highest civilian honor the nation offers, Officer of the Order of Canada.

Some teachings from Grandfather Commanda’s tradition can be found at this link.