I was listening intently as our Canela language helper, Blackpalm, told a story to illustrate the meaning of a phrase I didn’t understand. Suddenly we were interrupted when Jo shouted from the house, “Jack, come quick! Cheryl’s hurt!”
Both Blackpalm and I jumped up and ran from our study shack to the house where we found the palm-thatch shade porch packed with neighbours, and a dozen relatives. Our three pre-school daughters were the centre of all the hubbub. The reason was obvious. Except for their sun-bleached blond hair and the whites of their eyes, they were black as coal miners, the result of finding some chunks of fresh charcoal and, imitating their Canela playmates, decorating each other.
Two-year-old Cheryl was limping and crying, the result of stepping on some hot coals while digging for more charcoal. The sole of her foot was starting to blister so I carried her to the creek behind the house to sit in the cool water and join her sisters in some thorough washing up with plenty of soap. I carried her home and put some pain-relieving medication on the blisters with a bandage to keep it clean. By supper time she was fine.
A few afternoons later I was again deeply engrossed in language study with Blackpalm when another hubbub started up at the house. We heard shouts of laughter mixed with screaming and crying. No need for Jo to call me, Blackpalm and I sprinted up the path. Arriving at the house, I found a much greater crowd than the previous one spilling out of the porch and swarming all along the front of the house. Relatives from both sides of our family were all there along with dozens of neighbours.
The centre of all the tumult were five adult Canela women shouting at each other. One was screaming and rolling about on the ground, holding her foot.
“What’s going on!” I shouted at Blackpalm above all the din, glad he was there to explain.
“Oh, it’s just a kritxwy [kreet-TSWUH] act,” he said. Then, seeing my uncomprehending look, he explained, “The woman holding her foot is Cheryl’s kritxwy, and those other two are your other daughters’ kritxwys. The two over there, looking worried, are you and your wife’s kritxwys.” I recognized them as the women who had decorated our bodies with red ochre and feathers during our initiation and adoption into Canela families.
“Give us some bars of soap and some burn medicine,” one of the kritxwys demanded. I brought them out and laughed with the rest of the crowd as the whole foot-burning incident was re-enacted with much embellishment, by our kritxwys who were acting as our alter egos.
“It hurts! It hurts! Owie! Owie!”
“Hold your foot still, how can I put medicine on it!”
“And you two, go to the creek and wash yourselves. And use plenty of soap!”
Valorie and Leanne’s kritxwys trudged off to the creek, trying not to show how happy they were with the two new bars of soap they had received.
At the end someone brought out a dance rattle and there was some singing while Jo’s and my Canela mothers brought out five pans of boiled rice and meat. These were divided among the five kritxwys who happily took them home. Then our mothers, looking stern, sat down with us and explained how we had to pay them back for all the rice and meat they had given away to pay the kritxwys.
“It is very expensive! But it has to be done. You must look after your girls and don’t let things happen to them. Aren’t you ashamed that the whole village now knows you let Cheryl’s foot get burned? You brought shame on both our families. Don’t do that again!”
We poured uncooked rice onto two pieces of cloth for our mothers to take home and promised to give them a piece of meat next time someone killed a deer and sold us some.
“Yes, now you know,” Blackpalm said, nodding his head wisely. “You have to look after your children well, otherwise, you will bring shame on yourselves and your families. The only way to restore your honor is to have your kritxwys act out how wrong you were before the whole village, and then you have to pay for the ceremony as well.”
The Good News for Canelas
In my journal, I noted that in our Canadian guilt oriented culture, Jo and I might have been criminally charged with child neglect and failure to provide adequate supervision. The Canela shame oriented culture, however, was focused, not on us and our mistake, but on the shame this event brought on us and our families. The Canelas didn’t want to punish, but restore honor to us and our families.
So a major aspect of the Good News for the Canelas is that Jesus took people’s shame on Himself so that His Father God could adopt people like the Canelas as His own children. What an honour!