Walking in Beauty and with Power – the Spirit of an Ojibwe Elder, Art Solomon

Art Solomon, 1996 - Photo by Jody Freeman

[This tribute to Art Solomon is an adaptation of a radio documentary written for Radio Canada International in 1995, a year and a half before he died. Now, twenty years after his death, his words and actions and powerful spirit continue to give heart to those wounded and dishonoured by the violence and sleazy arrogance of the old white capitalist boys’ club and its “just us” system, as Art called it. His respect for women was deep and reverent, rippling outward in ever-widening circles. I first met Art in 1993 when he came to Montréal to speak at an international suicide prevention conference at the Université du Québec à Montréal.]

Imagine that we are all sitting in an auditorium in a Canadian university. It is 1993, and we have come halfway around the world for an international conference on suicide prevention. The key­note speaker is Art Solomon, who has been invited to share his insights and experience as a spiritual teacher in Canada’s Indigenous communities. A tall slim man not quite 80 years old, with light-flecked eyes shining out from under thick black eyebrows, Art Solomon brings an immediate hush to the auditorium. Art lights sage in a traditional sacred ritual, and as he gives thanks to the Creator, smoke from the sage spirals up, slowly reaching all of us with its sweet scent. Then, with humour and simplicity, passion and humility, Art speaks of the injustices suffered for hundreds of years by Indigenous peoples in Canada, and of the healing that is needed to restore balance within ourselves and within all Creation. The auditorium is transformed into a place of sacredness where all are honoured: the dead, the living, those yet to be born, the land and air and waters that sustain us. We all feel it. This is a deeply heartful man whose gentle presence has great power to heal and inspire.

Art Solomon was an Ojibwe elder. His mother was French-Canadian and his father, Ojibwe. Art and his wife, Eva, lived in northern Ontario and were married for 59 years. Their five daughters and five sons had 29 children and grandchildren. When Art was asked how he became an elder, he said simply, “People (from the community) make that choice and call that person out. There’s nothing formal about it.”

For the last 30-odd years of his life, Art worked tirelessly for his people and for world peace. He rarely received a salary for this work. Art helped inspire movements as diverse as the World Council on Religion and Peace, the Canadian Alliance in Solidarity with Native Peoples, and the American Indian Movement. He also helped create the Native Studies Department at the University of Sudbury in Ontario, and the University Prisons Programme.

When Art was asked how this all came about, it didn’t occur to him to take personal credit. “It started by itself,” he answered. “It really didn’t start anywhere.” His work in Canadian prisons began in response to what was needed. People asked him for help and he responded. Art’s prison work was initially with Native women, and his first book of poems and essays, Songs for the People: Teachings on the Natural Way, begins with the following:

“If this is poetry,
It is given and dedicated to the Native Sisterhood in the prison for women
At Kingston, Ontario,
To the women’s side of our Indian nations
And to all true women…
…We must walk in beauty and with power.”

Women hold an honoured place in Art’s vision of “setting things right.” In his subsequent book, Eating Bitterness, Art writes that women “are our source of spiritual power, they are our inspiration, they are our backbone, they are the heartbeat of our nations, and we must have a strong and true heartbeat to be a strong people. If our heartbeat is weak, we will be weak. Those are some of the reasons why we must give honour to our women people like it was long ago.” Women’s leadership role in restoring the harmony and balance between all living things is central to Art’s vision.

Urban deer – Montréal street art – Photo by Jody Freeman

Art Solomon’s love, dedication and wisdom earned him deep respect in Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities across Canada and beyond. In his home province of Ontario, the provincial government presented him with the Ontario Bicentennial Medal and named him a Member of the Order of Ontario for his longstanding contribution to the community. Queen’s University awarded him an honorary doctorate in Divinity, and Laurentian University granted him an honorary doctorate in Civil Law.

Art’s concern for peace and justice took him all over the world: to Switzerland in 1977, for the World Council of Indigenous Peoples’ conference; to the Island of Mauritius in 1983, for the World Council of Churches’ conference; to Nairobi in 1984 and Australia in 1988, for conferences of the World Council on Religion and Peace; and to Beijing in 1989, for the World Council of Churches’ conference.

His message couldn’t be clearer: we must care for the land, the water, the air and all living things, for we are all related. If we don’t take care of the earth, we don’t take care of anything. We must reverse the destruction and undertake a profound healing process to become whole again. We must learn from Indigenous peoples around the world, who, in Art’s words, are “the final teachers on this earth.”

When asked if there were something in particular he would like to share, Art reflected on the centrality of women. “When women take hold of their part and start to come together,” he says, “that will right the balance. We have to wait for that.”

Art Solomon trusted in that vision and tended it while he waited, carefully planting the seeds of heartfulness and harmony, fiercely protecting and nurturing the soil in which they grow.

His words call us to remember what it means to be whole. In his presence, we feel as if we are part of a great and abiding forest freshly washed with rain.

Jody Freeman is a member of our editorial team.