Have you heard of the Blanket Exercise?
Prepare to be moved; prepare to cry; prepare to feel for a short period of time the smallest, tiniest fraction of feelings that accompany the stories of betrayal and land grab, decimation of culture, hunting grounds, food sources, forced removal of children, introduced disease, Residential School survival, lost nationhood, denigrated personhood, decimated family life, and the ongoing saga of sadness and indignities inflicted on First Nations’ people and their communities since colonization.
Prepare to open your heart and really feel the Blanket Exercise – a journey towards healing and relationship building – prepare to learn a little bit about First Nations history that you were never taught.
The few of us who first arrived at Chi Chuy in Tla’amin were offered various maps to peruse before the exercise, maps like the one below that show the country was far from ’empty’ when Europeans first made contact. In fact, Indigenous peoples went from using and occupying all of the land we now call Canada, to a situation where reserves, or “lands reserved for Indians”, amount to only 1/10 of 1% of Canada’s land mass (below the 60th parallel).
Long before the arrival of Europeans, Turtle Island was home to millions of people who lived in thousands of distinct societies that formed hundreds of nations. These were fishing, hunting and farming societies, with their own languages, cultures and traditions. These nations had their own laws and ways of governing themselves; trade agreements with neighbouring tribes; well established trading routes; complex systems of barter and payment; agreed upon and established hunting and fishing territories; and family and community structures with spiritual leaders, respect for elder knowledge, and a profound awareness and harmonious relationship with nature.
By the time 30 of us had gathered, we had passed each map around the room and gained some awareness of the wholeness of First Nations lives and territories across Turtle Island, as some Indigenous people call North America, before Europeans arrived.
To start the Blanket Exercise, three narrators, Devon Pielle, c.c. Duncan and Zoe Ludski, spread many different blankets on the floor – the blankets represent the distinct cultures and nations which live on those lands to this day – and participants were invited to step onto the blankets – the people represent the First Peoples.
For the next hour, participants were led through the history of first contact and the establishment of Christian control by Europeans over First Nations. Spain, for example, was given the right in 1493 to ‘conquer any lands its explorers discovered.’ Blankets were flipped back exposing space now ‘occupied’ by Europeans and participants, who took part by reading scripts and scrolls, were sometimes asked to sit down as they represented a vast number of First Nations who died following the introduction of diseases by Europeans. Participants learned that some experts believe fully half the Indigenous people alive at the time died from small pox, measles and tuberculosis.
First Nations people had no immunity to these diseases and entire villages were wiped out. Spreading diseases was a part of the military’s plan: British military leaders Lord Jeffrey Amherst and William Trent have passages in their journals from the end of the 18th century that reveal a clear intent to spread smallpox to Indigenous peoples through infected blankets. Quote, “Infect the Indians with sheets upon which smallpox patients have been lying, or by any other means which may exterminate this accursed race,” end quote. Written by Lord Jeffrey Amherst, 16 July 1763.
Soon the Europeans began to outnumber First Nations. First Nations numbers shrunk yet again when their land was rapidly being given to settlers causing inevitable clashes between First Nations and the military.As the Blanket Exercise progressed, blankets were taken up, pushed aside or made smaller and smaller to represent the advancement of Europeans and the decimation of First Nations communities.
By the end of the Blanket Exercise, many participants representing entire tribes, had been removed and there were very few blankets left on the floor. The handful of blankets that remained had been folded again and again into smaller and smaller pieces, representing the shrinking of First Nations territorial lands throughout Turtle Island. The Blanket Exercise ended by bringing participants up to date on treaty processes and what’s happening with the Royal Commission on the Truth and Reconciliation Committee.
Taking part in the Blanket Exercise was a profoundly moving experience. The sharing circle after the exercise gave each participant a chance to speak their heart and give thanks for the opportunity to take part. Elder Dr. Elsie Paul was on hand to give a prayer and sweep and cleanse each participant with cedar boughs following the exercise. Strangers hugged one another, and a visitor from Italy voiced his profound gratitude to the community of Tla’amin for allowing him the privilege of taking part in the exercise.
For weeks following my participation in the Blanket Exercise, I could only feel the deepest feelings of empathy, love and appreciation for the resilience and strength within each and every First Nations person. And I am so grateful that from such unhappy times springs hope for our future and from such devastation comes promise.
Thanks to KAIROS, Devin Pielle, c.c. Duncan and Zoe Ludski for their compassion in sharing the Blanket Exercise – Drewen Young.
If you are interested in taking part in the next Blanket Exercise, it is being hosted by Texada Arts Culture & Tourism and will be taking part in Van Anda on Saturday, March 12 starting at 12:30 pm, $20 per person. For more information, contact Devin Pielle at 604-483-8395.
Fifteen years ago, the Aboriginal Rights Coalition worked with Indigenous elders and teachers to develop an interactive way of learning the history most Canadians are never taught. The Blanket Exercise was the result; it has since been offered thousands of times and was last completely updated in 2013.
The Blanket Exercise has been offered many times in Powell River and is currently being presented at schools throughout the district. For more information on Blanket Exercise Workshops, visit kairoscanada.org.
KAIROS unites 11 national Canadian churches and religious organizations in faithful work for human rights and ecological justice through research, education, partnership, and advocacy. In 1996, the report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples stated that public education is key to realizing a renewed relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples – one based on sharing, respect and the mutual recognition of rights and responsibilities. This Exercise is one expression of our commitment to that public education.