As the choirs’ final note of “Die Zeit ist Kurz” hung sublimely in the sanctuary of Knox United Church on April 18, the indigenous drums began to beat and the Buffalo Gals started into the “Wolf Song.” Once they were done, it was back to the Faith and Life choirs and the University of Manitoba Women’s Chorus for “Come Let Us All Unite to Sing.”
The back-and-forth of hymn and drum song, settler and indigenous, culminated with a song described as a “prayer for our grandchildren” led by elder Margaret Harris. Each line of the Cree song was echoed by the huge joint choir behind her, with many of the 900 audience members joining in as well. The commissioned work closed out Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) Manitoba’s long-anticipated 50th anniversary benefit concert.
While the choral piece was rich in symbolism and powerful moments, it also felt like a first-time collaboration, at times a bit hesitant, the juxtaposition somewhat imbalanced. The three choirs were big, uniformed in black and polished. The Buffalo Gals in the front were barely more than a dozen in number, including kids and elders, and featured authenticity and spirit more than polish.
The drum group holds no auditions and has a more flexible, although deeply symbolic, dress code. The black, white and rainbow colours of the ribbons in the women’s skirts illustrate “inclusiveness towards all nations,” says Jaki Skye, the group’s coordinator. Rooted in indigenous teachings, the Buffalo Gals meet weekly at Winnipeg’s North End Women’s Centre to support each other on their journeys. They occasionally perform for others, but their focus is healing.
Widely regarded conductor Henry Engbrecht, standing on the front pew before the stacked choirs, simply let the drum group do its thing.
Earlier in the evening, Joe Clark, former prime minister and foreign affairs minister, delivered a keynote address in which he praised MCC and highlighted the importance of reaching out to people who are different from ourselves.
Clark recalled a time during his tenure as Canada’s foreign minister when the government was delicately trying to open dialogue with Palestinian leaders. MCC played an “intermediary role,” with Linda and Ken Stucky hosting the first meeting of the two sides at the MCC house in East Jerusalem.
Clark also highlighted the leading role Mennonites played in sponsoring Vietnamese boat people, again extending a welcome to people very different than ourselves.
“You also face up to hard issues at home,” Clark said, referring to the controversy that resulted in the postponement of the anniversary event last November. At that time, the host venue, Immanuel Pentecostal Church, indicated the Buffalo Gals would not be allowed to hold a private smudging ceremony on the grounds prior to singing, as is their custom. MCC chose to postpone the event.
Clark applauded MCC for the quiet, respectful and resolute manner in which it handled the situation. “On questions of faith there will be genuine differences,” said the seasoned diplomat. “I hope we can work out those differences.”
Earlier in the day at Canadian Mennonite University, Clark had spoken at an event entitled “From truth to reconciliation,” which focussed on indigenous relations.
In the evening, Clark noted that MCC has often worked with people of other faiths around the world. Given the tensions in the world and the temptation to build walls, Clark said the need to venture beyond our personal zones of comfort has never been greater.
The speech, which included light-hearted anecdotes from Clark’s broad international experience, drew a standing ovation, punctuated by the beating drums of the Buffalo Gals in the front pew.
The evening concert raised $40,000 for a major affordable housing initiative that MCC is undertaking with Eden Health Care Services. An additional $80,000 in sponsorships and corporate donations had been raised in advance.
The Buffalo Gals, along with some MCC staff and Clark, smudged in the church prior to the event. But other than Clark’s mention of the November postponement, and emcee Michelle Sawatzky’s opening acknowledgement that we met in Treaty 1 territory, no attention was drawn to the smudging controversy that had highlighted the diverse views in the Mennonite community and what MCC Manitoba director Ron Janzen calls the need for ongoing dialogue.
Although the role of the Buffalo Gals was not played up, there was no missing the historic significance of an indigenous elder leading the finale of one of the biggest Mennonite events of the year in her own language with a drum in hand.
As for the performance itself, the shades of awkwardness were perhaps fitting. Despite decades of Indigenous Neighbours work and international outreach, a broad-based coming together of indigenous peoples and settler Mennonites is relatively new. It is bound to be a little tentative at first.
When Harris, who was recovering from bronchitis, struggled to reach the high notes in the final song, the multitude of voices behind her gently lifted the Cree melody to the rafters and beyond.
Afterward, more people posed for selfies with the former prime minister than the Cree elder, and Clark had a nicer car waiting for him at the door. But it was the presence of the Buffalo Gals that most aptly illustrated the path toward the next 50 years of MCC bridgebuilding.
Elder Margaret Harris and Donna Roach flew in from Vancouver to celebrate with MCC Manitoba at Knox United Church in Winnipeg. (MCC photo by Alison Ralph)
MCC Manitoba executive director Ron Janzen, left, presents a gift of handmade moccasins to Joe Clark, a former prime minister of Canada, in gratitude for his participation in the celebration of MCC Manitoba’s 50th anniversary last month in Winnipeg. The moccasins bear the MCC logo on the top in intricate beadwork. (MCC photo by Alison Ralph)