46. Ian S. McIntosh, E. Moore Quinn, and Vivienne Keely, eds., Pilgrimage in Practice: Narration, Reclamation and Healing

pilgrimage in practice

I think I’ve written here about the advice I’ve received from my supervisors about this project. They tell me I should be “skinning” the books I read: reading the introduction and the conclusion and skimming the chapters in between, looking for anything relevant to my project. I’m usually reluctant to do that, because you never know if you’ll miss something that might turn out to be important, but this book, a collection of essays on pilgrimage originally given as papers at the 2014 Sacred Journeys conference at Mansfield College, Oxford, was a prime candidate. Not because the essays are uninteresting–no, that’s not the case at all. Had I time, I would love to read about the experience of twelfth-century pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago, or the explorer (not the actor) Richard Burton’s journey to Mecca in disguise, or pilgrimages in South Africa’s Eastern Free State, or Jerusalem as a contested (to put it mildly) pilgrimage site. But I don’t have time, honestly, and this volume contains an essay that is very close to my research: Matthew R. Anderson’s “Pilgrimage and the Challenging of a Canadian Foundational Myth,” a paper anticipating the 350-kilometre NWMP Trail walk, from Wood Mountain Historic Post to Fort Walsh in southwestern Saskatchewan, that took place in the summer of 2015. I’ve written about Matthew R. Anderson here before, too; he’s the friend who sent me a pile of essays about pilgrimage. Although I didn’t participate in the NWMP Trail walk, Matthew and I were part of the group that walked from Swift Current, Saskatchewan north to Battleford in 2017, and from Mortlach, Saskatchewan, south to the cathedral in Gravelbourg in 2018. Matthew’s essay–because I know Matthew, I’m going to refer to him by his given name, rather than by his surname–casts an important light on the work I plan to do, and for that reason I was very happy I read it.

First, though, I read the book’s introduction, written by its editors: Ian S. McIntosh, E. Moore Quinn, and Vivienne Keely. They begin with a sense of the range of activities that are collected together under the rubric of “pilgrimage.” “Pilgrimages are some of the most ancient practices of humankind and are associated with a great variety of religious, spiritual and secular traditions” (ix). They clearly disagree with Peter Jan Margry’s argument that secular pilgrimage is an oxymoron (14). In addition, they give a sense of the range of activity that can be considered pilgrimage: “330 million people embark on traditional pilgrimages in Saudi Arabia, Iraq, India, Japan and Spain” every year, they write, and “one-third of all international travellers are on some form of pilgrimage or spiritual tradition” (ix). Given this level of activity, “the taken-for-granted parameters around which the subject of pilgrimage was ensconced have come under scrutiny,” they write. “Can anyone say what pilgrimage, in its essence, is?” (ix). Their answer is no. While traditional definitions encompass sites such as Lourdes, Mecca, and the Japanese temple island of Shikoku, there are many other practices that could be considered to be pilgrimages (ix). The scope of pilgrimage leads McIntosh, Quinn, and Keely to ask a number of important questions: “Can ‘pilgrims’ be categorized, pigeonholed or deemed distinct from others who journey ‘for a purpose’? Can a distinction be drawn between the sacred and the secular?” (ix). “What is ‘pilgrim behaviour’? Can it be distinguished and quantified in meaningful ways?” (ix). The purpose of the anthology they have put together is, they write, “to explore some of the knotty questions confronting scholars of pilgrimage” by “inviting those from a vast array of disciplines who, it was hoped, would deal with the experiential, practical, historical, psychological and phenomenological aspects of pilgrimage” (x). The multiplicity of approaches reflects the fact that “the ground has shifted from unity to diversity” (xi). There are many approaches to pilgrimage studies, and many ideas of what pilgrimage as a phenomenon is, and that is reflected in the papers collected in this volume (xi). I find the editors’ openness to a variety of approaches to pilgrimage, and a variety of definitions of the phenomenon, refreshing; that openness reflects Simon Coleman’s contention that there is no point in making “dogmatic assertions” about what pilgrimage is or isn’t (364).

Matthew’s paper on the NWMP Trail pilgrimage begins with his discovery of the Trail’s history. NWMP stands for “North West Mounted Police,” the precursors of the RCMP, Canada’s national police force, and the trail ran from Fort Walsh in the Cypress Hills to an NWMP post at Wood Mountain. The trail, Matthew writes, was “crucial to the historical and political developments that forever shaped both Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities in Canada”:

It constitutes one branch of Canada’s own “trail of tears.” Along this path and others, thousands of starving Indigenous peoples were evicted from the very lands that some groups had only recently signed treaties for, and sent to walk helplessly towards security and food that were promised by Her Majesty’s Government, but that rarely materialized. (149)

“It was along this path,” he continues,

that the fate of Sitting Bull and his warriors, of a collapsing natural resource, of the Métis hunting economy, of the national boundaries of North America, and of a 1000-mile-wide natural ecosystem based on the prairie bison was decided. The NWMP Trail was a route of heroism and a path of ignominy, a place touted in parliamentary debate as destined for a bright future and one of the very real routes for a calculated policy of ethnic cleansing. (149)

Because of the NWMP Trail’s importance, he decided to organize (along with Hugh Henry, a naturalist and historian living in Swift Current) a walking pilgrimage along the trail. This paper reflects Matthew’s thinking about the walk before it took place; it would be interesting to read his reflections on the experience.

The draw of the NWMP Trail was not only historical. The walk also offered an opportunity to encounter the land in an intimate way; walking, Matthew writes, “allows a slower and more nuanced view of what is in fact a nuanced landscape” (150). That’s very true, particularly on native grassland, where one’s attention is divided between the grand sweep of the horizon and the plants and grasses one is walking through. There are many other attractions to the trail: “In short, walking this trail satisfies the historian interested a truer picture of the past, but it also intrigues the nature lover, storyteller, amateur geologist, documentary maker, cultural critic and political junkie” (150). It also would engage anyone with a sense of the land as sacred, something the previous inhabitants of the Cypress Hills–the Cree, Nakoda, and Saulteaux people–believed, and a central idea for the pilgrimage.

The emphasis of this pilgrimage, as with other walking pilgrimages, would be the journey, the path walked, rather than the destination–an emphasis that is characteristic of contemporary walking pilgrimages, Matthew writes. “[T]he slow and careful transformative experience afforded by walking pilgrimage seems ideal to the study and experience of the Trail,” he suggests, noting that

a trail by its nature emphasizes terrain, a sweep of land rather than a spot. Historically, it was the land, its grasses and coulees, its hawk and deer and elk and bear, its creeks and rivers and sloughs, its disappearing bison and its promise for cattle and crops, that were at issue for hunter, trader, smuggler, soldier, warrior, politician and surveyor. (151)

Again, one of the central goals of the NWMP Trail walk was to experience the land in a direct and intimate way, through “the body of the pilgrim” (151). “For a pilgrimage about land to be effective,” Matthew writes, the land must speak and be listened to. It will speak slowly, through soil, stone and grass, and through all those other aesthetic and physical factors that prairie naturalist Trevor Herriot calls ‘the givens of place'” (151). The reference here is to Herriot’s book The Road is How, which I wrote about in this blog some time ago. “[W]alking will allow for a sustained and close contact with the land, with its flora and fauna, its landscape and what could perhaps be called its ‘footscape,’ that no other form of mobility across the prairies can give,” Matthew writes (155). The possibilities that walking offers for encountering the land is an important part of my research, and I agree that it probably offers the best compromise between mobility and an experience of place we have. At the same time, as I’ve written elsewhere, “The more slowly you go, the more you apprehend. And yet, according to that logic, the best thing to do would be to stop” (129). That doesn’t mean I don’t agree with Matthew about the power of walking as a way of experiencing land; it’s just that, in my own experience, it’s possible to get caught up in the rhythm of walking, or the interior meditations it provokes, and end up ignoring the territory through which one is walking. Perhaps that doesn’t mean one’s body isn’t experiencing the land–the hills one ascends or descends, or the feeling of sun or wind on one’s skin–but it may mean that one isn’t entirely aware of those experiences.

Matthew is also interested in the idea of reconciliation between Indigenous peoples and descendants of settlers, and that idea animates his hopes for the walk. He refers to the Two-Row Wampum as a metaphor of partnership between Indigenous peoples and settlers: according to the Two-Row Wampum’s symbolism, each group travels separately but in parallel, “in a spirit of mutual respect” (151). His hope was that the walk would articulate the spirit of that metaphor. Such an articulation would not be easy:

Of course, it is one thing for a descendant of settlers such as myself to hear the challenge to journey in this way, and quite another actually to identify a path and begin to walk with the intent of emphasizing, among other things, the repressed history of one’s ancestors’ dealings with others. (151-52)

He notes that other walks are made in Canada: Indigenous political marches to Ottawa or to provincial capitals that focus on issues of injustice, and there are many of those, as I  have learned in my own research; and a few non-Indigenous pilgrimages, typically associated with Roman Catholic shrines. However, “there has never been a specifically designed Canadian pilgrimage with the goal or re-walking, and therefore retelling, contested history. That is, there has never been a ‘Settler’ pilgrimage, at least not on this scale, in Canada” (152). As a pilgrimage characterized by unsettling and truth-telling, the NWMP Trail would require “intentional personal decolonization” and “an ongoing questioning on the part of Settler pilgrims of unconscious attitudes and privilege, including academic assumptions” (152).

Like most writers on pilgrimage, Matthew turns to the Victor and Edith Turner and their book, Image and Pilgrimage in Christian Culture. Everyone who writes about pilgrimage responds to the Turners; I have to read that book. Matthew suggests that their work on the subject “overstated the positive aspects of pilgrimage, and yet their work points to the possibilities, at least, that pilgrimage offers for a certain rethinking, recasting and reliving of existing social and political structures necessary to the Indigenous-Settler relationship” (152). Those possibilities are the reason he thinks of the walk as a pilgrimage, rather than a hike. But there is another reason to consider the walk a pilgrimage:

While it may not be a fixed ritual, simply walking the prairie landscape for any distance, and almost singularly unusual activity, is extraordinary, and is widely perceived as such in the public mind. Rural Saskatchewan is normally a space approached by machine and understood in terms, not of land, but of vectors: (i) working on the fields; (ii) driving through on the way somewhere else; and (iii) watching for crops or cattle from within the comfortable confines of an air-conditioned or heated vehicle. Walking 350 km across land that is rarely walked turns the distance covered into a liminal space, with the usual potential of a liminal space for the upsetting and recasting of values. (152)

That transformation, that “upsetting and recasting of values,” is an important aspect of walking pilgrimages, as Nancy Louise Frey suggests in her book on the Camino de Santiago, which I wrote about this week.

The connection between this walk and reconciliation between Indigenous peoples and settlers is such an important aspect of this pilgrimage that Matthew returns to it in more detail. “To walk a pilgrimage while paying specific attention to Indigenous history and to contemporary Indigenous concerns, then, can be one way for non-Indigenous people to ‘attune’ themselves to a world normally neglected” (152). In addition,

There is an embodied aspect to walking pilgrimage that opens the pilgrim to a reconsideration of history and of the historical and cultural ‘other’ . . . and it is for this reason that walking pilgrimage seems so suited to a reclaiming of the NWMP Trail and a rethinking of the complex and difficult historical place of the Trail in Canadian history and contemporary Indigenous-Settler relations. My expectation is that the physical demands of the walk, and differing evaluations of its place in history, cannot help but occasion some conflict as the pilgrim group encounters First Nations individuals, Métis community leaders, ranchers, farmers and townspeople, with these groups often overlapping. (152-53)

He suggests that Ian McIntosh’s discussion of reconciliation in Australia can help to suggest a way forward for Canadians. McIntosh writes of the importance of “visioning,” imagining a reconciled future, and “backcasting,” working back from that imagined future to concrete steps one might take in the present to effect it. Both visioning and backcasting are future-oriented (153). However, looking to the future can only happen in Canada “after a basic precondition that is addressed by the NWMP Trail pilgrimage” (153): settlers need to know and understand the truth of our history. Matthew writes,

Awareness of the present condition of First Nations must come hand in hand with at least some awareness of the history that created the conditions in which so many Indigenous groups now live. In a situation where many Indigenous people know our shared history only too well, and many Settlers not at all, there is little doubt as to who must do the “moving.” Walking is one way to put feet to our growing awareness. (153)

Walking the NWMP Trail is “a gesture that may become an event; whatever importance it will have comes from the raising of awareness, especially among Settler groups in Saskatchewan and beyond” (153). For that reason, it would be important to tell the story of the pilgrimage (153). Descendants of settlers need to understand that the myth that the settlement of the Canadian west was kinder and gentler than the American version “ignores those government-approved policies of starvation and removal that did in fact take place” (158).

Given the strangeness of walking in Saskatchewan, that story might well find an audience:

Almost no one walks on the Canadian prairie. That is, no one walks unless they walk to or from a vehicle, they are in trouble, or they are too young or too poor to have a car or truck. In many cases, walking in rural Saskatchewan may denote low social status. It is certainly an unexpected sight. In the southern Saskatchewan countryside, a lone walker will not simply be stared at. In areas where one can spend hours without any sign of human activity on the horizon, hikers are as likely as not to encounter well-meaning good Samaritans, stopping their pick-up trucks to ask how they might help. (153)

As I learned walking to Wood Mountain last summer, these comments are absolutely true. To choose to walk here is to choose marginality, even if one is (like me) clearly a member of a privileged group (a white man). Still, Matthew continues, even if no one walks in this land anymore, people once did: First Nations peoples, European explorers, and homesteaders (154). “In terms of human history, it was not that long ago, on the Great Plains, when there was a relationship between the human body and the land, between muscles and distance, a relationship that has disappeared only in the last three-quarters of a century,” Matthew writes (154). “The decline of foot traffic on the prairies seems natural, even inevitable,” but it’s a recent phenomenon, caused by the rapid and widespread adoption of mechanized transportation and the rapid depopulation of the Canadian west. The weather–the heat and cold; thunderstorms, hailstorms, and snowstorms–also makes the prairies “not conducive to walking” (154). All of these conditions make a pilgrimage across Saskatchewan “particularly unusual” (154). It’s important to remember, though, that the use of the NWMP Trail by earlier walkers was much more difficult; they had no support vehicles, mobile phones, or farmers or ranchers to call upon for help (154).

Walkers are exposed on the prairie landscape. They are “often the only noticeable vertical line in a landscape of horizontals,” and that visibility (and their marginality) make them objects of “curiosity and even suspicion” (155). That too is a connection between walking on the prairies and pilgrimage. After all, in Europe, pilgrimage has a history as a subversive activity, something outside of official church structures, and shrines were often places where populist and uncontrolled ideas were spread (155). The pilgrimage along the NWMP Trail would be subversive in its own way, because although the trail is a public trust, it runs across private land. “[P]erhaps the most radical aspect of the NWMP Trail pilgrimage will be the walking itself,” Matthew writes (155), because farmers and ranchers are protective of their property, and there is no culture or history of public access to private land for recreation in Canada. “While we will make every effort . . . to respect landowners’ rights and wishes concerning the crossing of their property,” he continues, “such a walk by its nature makes certain implicit claims about private land and public access” (155). The multiple political aspects of the walk would be intertwined in practice: “the historical recollection of the political injustices to First Nations and Métis”; “the issue of public knowledge of, and access to, a trail which now exists largely on private lands”; and “the fate of the grasslands of the northern Great Plains, an endangered ecosystem that may only be saved if there is enough public awareness of its richness as a cultural treasure and its potential loss” (155).

“Pilgrimage is movement, and it takes its roots from the fact that all movements are transformative,” Matthew writes (159). “What the paradigm of pilgrimage can offer to Settler-Indigenous relations in Canada is a hopeful, but still open question,” he continues, but he hopes that the pilgrimage will function as a search for reconciliation, both personal and societal (159). The NWMP Trail walk would be a “dark pilgrimage”:

an attempt to address a lack of knowledge of a history whose full complexity has perhaps been forgotten in part for its shamefulness. In its public access and its naturalist dimensions, the trek also raises awareness of a common patrimony that is, as it once was, again under threat from sometimes distant economic interests. (159)

It is time for what Paulette Regan, in her book Unsettling the Settler Within: Indian Residential Schools, Truth Telling, and Reconciliation in Canada, calls “re-storying,” Matthew concludes, and this walking pilgrimage will be one of the ways to accomplish that “re-storying” (159).

There are many parallels between Matthew’s project and my own, although given the difficulties of planning a long walk on private land, I will probably end up walking primarily on secondary roads. However, we are both interested in walking as a way of apprehending land, and in walking as a gesture towards reconciliation. That is, assuming reconciliation is even possible: there have been too many disappointments since the release of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s final report in 2015 for me to have much faith that descendants of settlers will find it in themselves to address Canada’s ongoing genocide of Indigenous peoples. There are differences as well; my project is rooted in the history of Treaty 4, for instance. But the similarities between our projects are important, and I hope an opportunity to read Matthew’s reflections on how the NWMP Trail walk worked in practice will present itself.

Works Cited

Anderson, Matthew R. “Pilgrimage and the Challenging of a Canadian Foundational Myth.” Pilgrimage in Practice: Narration, Reclamation and Healing. Edited by Ian S. McIntosh, E. Moore Quinn, and Vivienne Keely, CABI, 2018, pp. 148-63.

Coleman, Simon. “Do You Believe in Pilgrimage?: Communitas, Contestation and Beyond.” Anthropological Theory, vol. 2, no. 3, 2002, pp. 355-68. DOI: 10.1177/1463499602003805.

Frey, Nancy Louise. Pilgrim Stories: On and Off the Road to Santiago, U of California P, 1998.

McIntosh, Ian S., E. Moore Quinn and Vivienne Keely, eds. Pilgrimage in Practice: Narration, Reclamation and Healing, CABI, 2018.

McIntosh, Ian S. “Reconciliation: You’ve Got to be Dreaming.” Conflict Resolution Quarterly, vol. 32, no. 1, 2014, pp. 55-81.

Regan, Paulette. Unsettling the Settler Within: Indian Residential Schools, Truth Telling, and Reconciliation in Canada. UBC Press, 2010.

Wilson, Ken. “Wood Mountain Walk: Afterthoughts on a Pilgrimage for Andrew Suknaski.”International Journal of Religious Tourism and Pilgrimage, vol. 7, no. 1, 2019, pp. 123-34. https://arrow.dit.ie/ijrtp/vol7/iss1/13.