In the spring of 2010, I was asked by members of the Church of Christ at Dartmouth College to help with a Peace Pole they were erecting in the Memorial Garden next to the church. Knowing that I had worked with members of the Abenaki Nation, and that I teach about Abenaki culture in my programs and writing, I was asked, “How do you say, in Abenaki, ‘May peace prevail on Earth?’”
I discovered that the Abenaki word for peace, olakámigénoká, is a verb that reflects an entirely different concept of “peace” than we express in the English language. Olakámigénoká, “make peace,” is a linguistic window into the Abenaki world view, in which peace is more than a state of tranquility that exists in the absence of violence: Peace is an act that one makes toward other people and the rest of creation.
A few years earlier, in April 2006, the Quebec-Labrador Foundation asked me to facilitate an environmental education seminar at their 50th anniversary Alumni Congress in Budapest, Hungary. During this gathering of conservationists and educators from the United States, Canada, Latin America, Europe and the Middle East, everyone had 10 minutes to share what they were doing in the respective countries. After hearing about how I was using Native American stories to teach children about nature and stewardship in the “Keepers of the Earth” books, the director of environmental education for the Israel Nature and Parks Authority suggested that colleagues from the Middle East work together to gather folklore stories about nature from all around their region, and to use those stories to teach children about the natural world and environmental issues.
At that time (on that day, in fact), Israeli and Palestinian leaders in Gaza were actively engaged in a bombing campaign — a backdrop that generated considerable anger and tension during our meeting in Budapest. Despite this ongoing conflict, a surge of energy charged the room when everyone present from the Middle East agreed to collaborate on this environmental storytelling project, including colleagues from Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon and Palestine. These professionals had been working together for more than a decade as participants in QLF’s Middle East Exchange Program, which promotes peaceful collaborations among “conservationists without borders.” They had reached out to one another to build partnerships and friendships, despite the risk of criticism and ridicule from those who questioned the act of working across political barriers.
Thus was planted a seed whose gestation spanned more than a decade, including many trips to the Middle East to gather traditional tales from storytellers, Bedouins and other keepers of oral tradition. This, the Storytelling for Environmental Stewardship Program, eventually involved more than 50 individuals from 20 organizations in the Middle East and led to a book published in December 2017 — an illustrated anthology of children’s stories called “The Garden of Wisdom: Earth Tales from the Middle East.” In addition to teaching about environmental awareness and stewardship of the natural world, lessons about friendship, justice and faith are woven into the fabric of the stories. Back in 2006, no one could have foretold that this book would be on the verge of publication at a time when the forces of political and religious extremism would be driving government officials to make decisions that defy rational thought, promote conflict and undermine long-standing efforts to broker a lasting peace. The level of peaceful coexistence that exists in the Middle East today is rooted in the actions of the majority of people from this rich mélange of cultures and faiths who place a high value on living justly and in civility with one another. While hope fades for a government-brokered Middle East peace, it is the decency and humanity of individuals that holds the region together and prevents a descent into widespread violence. Their countless daily acts of kindness and compassion are the foundation for what the Abenakis would call “making peace.”