As It Happens

'I believe in the Spirit in me': A reading by the late Tsleil-Waututh elder Leonard George

Indigenous leader Leonard George has died at the age of 71. Ten years ago, he recorded this deeply personal essay for CBC Radio about life, loss, family and spirituality.
Leonard George — a revered Indigenous actor, writer, activist and leader — has died at the age of 71. (Leonard George/Facebook)

Story transcript

Throughout his life, beloved Indigenous leader, activist and actor Leonard George faced many struggles.

He overcame substance abuse and lived sober for more than 40 years. He lost two sons — one to sudden infant death syndrome and another, yeas later, to HIV/AIDS.

And in 2005, he was diagnosed with throat cancer.

But he wrote that each personal tragedy he experienced shaped his identity and brought him closer to his family, and the Spirit within him.

George died this week at the age of 71. Ten years ago, he recorded this powerful essay about life, loss, family and spirituality for CBC Radio's This I Believe. 

As It Happens aired this essay on Thursday evening as a tribute to the former elder of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation. Read and listen below:

Indigenous leader Leonard George has died at the age of 71. Ten years ago, he recorded this deeply personal essay for CBC Radio about life, loss, family and spirituality. 4:26

I believe in the Spirit in me, in the ones I love and the spirit of Mother Earth. The roots of my belief are inherited from my people, the Tsleil-waututh Nation, and from all Natives of North America — we all have a relationship with the Great Spirit. But the real lesson about the strength and beauty of the Spirit came from my youngest son, Isaac.

I have not always fully understood my culture, as my earlier days were tarnished by the Indian Act, residential school and religion. I, as a human being, was damaged, but my Spirit kept me alive.

My first turning point came when I met and married my wife, lover and best friend, Susan. We had five sons, or maybe I should say four boys, because Isaac was two-spirited, gay. We lost our second son Quatsame at six months of age. He died from sudden infant death syndrome. Our first six years together were shaky because of my drug and alcohol addiction. It was like I was there, but I wasn't there for my family.

Now, I have been clean and sober for 31 years and Susan and I will celebrate 37 years together this August. We have shared a lot in our time, the laughs, joys, fears, insecurities, frustrations, tears, celebrations and successes, all at a very deep level. Susan has always encouraged our family to follow Native ways — the sweats, pipe ceremonies, fasting, foods and the philosophy of the Spirit.

'I thought I was immortal'

Our biggest challenge and test of the Spirit within has come in these past few years. In late fall of 2005, I was diagnosed with cancer in the throat. I was devastated. I thought I was immortal.

Home was the only place I wanted to be. I curled up like a baby and cried. Susan was there for me. We began the journey of healing together.

A few months after that, our son Isaac came home to live with us. He had HIV and AIDS. He needed healing as well. The three of us spent the next nine months together. Susan put her own health challenges aside and nursed us both through the harsh treatments, tests, medicines and hospital stays.

For me, it was a good, warm healing process. For Isaac, it was his last days on Earth. In the end, with Susan on Isaac's right and me on his left, surrounded by his brothers and his sisters and his friends, nieces and nephews, we sent him to our ancestors in the Spirit world while singing and drumming a spiritual song.

Isaac was half-English, half-Salish. He was deaf and two-spirited. He lived each of those cultures to the fullest with compassion and love for them all, without any compromise or regrets. The way he described how the Spirit world feels and the peace you feel made death seem beautiful.

'Thank God I had cancer'

I now accept that I am mortal. When Susan and I feel like we're in a tsunami of emotions, we focus on our spirituality, our sons, our daughters and our grandchildren, and also on our beautiful Isaac. He taught us how to see the world through a rainbow of beautiful colours.

Thank God I had cancer. It caused me to stay at home and experience the Spirit inside myself through the love of my family and the courage and beauty of Isaac. I believe — with greater compassion and love and sense of peace than ever — in the Spirit in me.