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A ton of wisdom in a simple bookmark

By Paul Knowles

There’s a unique quirk to the business of travel writing: free stuff. No other kind of journalism involves getting free stuff. Nobody but a travel writer will come home from an assignment with a new backpack, a golf shirt, a logoed sweater. Travel writers do. Not surprisingly, it’s one of the things I like about that part of my job.


But while, yes, I have picked up an occasional golf bag, beach towel, or leather-bound notepad, my favourite freebie in the past year or more is… a bookmark.

Yep, a simple bookmark. Although it’s not currently in a book – it’s hanging from a magnet on my fridge.

It was given to me by Elizabeth Edgar-Webkamigad, the director of Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre at Algoma University in Sault Ste. Marie. I’ve written a feature article about the school for Broadview Magazine.

The bookmark lists the “Seven Grandfather Teachings” of Ojibway tradition. It has a leather thong, on which are strung four beads – red, yellow, white and black. And it lists seven “teachings” given by “the Seven Grandfathers who were given the responsibility by the Creator to watch over the people living on earth.”

The coloured beads are symbols of the Ojibway medicine wheel, each standing for one of the four directions. Elizabeth explained each, from yellow for the east – the beginnings – to black, for the “western doorway,” representing our departure from this world. Red is for the south – the warmth of the day. White is for the north; Elizabeth explained, “the north talks about all the experience and life knowledge we gain – you think about Grandmas and Grandpas and their white hair – and that special connection we have to them because of their life experience.” There is, of course, so much more to these simple but powerful symbols.

The “Teachings” are fundamental virtues – Respect, Wisdom, Humility, Bravery, Honesty, Truth and Love. These, explained the Grandfathers, are “the way to live in harmony spiritually and with mother earth.”

Humility is explained, “To know humility is to know yourself as a sacred part of creation.” And Love: “To know love is to know peace.”

I was very struck by this simple bookmark. First, because the “Teachings” are undeniably right, and they hang on my fridge in my own feeble effort to remind myself of these things. Shingwauk school is a living, breathing example of harmony – it’s a former residential school, site of all the atrocities of which we now have heard, but now, through the work of its own “survivors,” a place of Indigenous studies involving Native Canadians and non-indigenous people alike.

And second, I like the bookmark because in our world, harmony is a rare thing – and every little step toward it has to help.