ARTS & CULTURE | Feature Profile Bio: Pearl Gottschalk – Sacred Activism

By Lisa Bland —

 

Working with the World’s Indigenous People

On August 9 each year, the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples is recognized to promote and protect the rights of the world’s indigenous population. The United Nations first recognized the day in 1994, to be celebrated every year for a decade. In 2004, the UN proclaimed the decade of 2005–2015, with the theme, “A Decade for Action and Dignity.” People from different nations are encouraged to participate in observing the day with educational activities to gain an appreciation and better understanding of the world’s indigenous peoples.

One remarkable person that has devoted her life to furthering the voice of indigenous people and the environment, is Pearl Gottschalk, Lush’s Charitable Givings Ambassador. Her life and work reflect a degree of courage and compassion that is rare in our self-oriented society. I caught up with her for a conversation on Bowen Island, BC last year.

Pearl Gottschalk, wearing traditional Mayan clothes sewn by villagers, and holding a little boy with special needs at a special-needs school in Guatemala. LUSH visits the school each year on their trip to Guatemala. Photo submitted by Pearl Gottschalk

Pearl Gottschalk, wearing traditional Mayan clothes sewn by villagers, and holding a little boy with special needs at a special-needs school in Guatemala. LUSH visits the school each year on their trip to Guatemala. Photo submitted by Pearl Gottschalk

Pearl kicks off her flip-flops and her tanned feet sink into the muck at the low tide mark in the bay near her Bowen Island home. Her black hair flutters in the breeze and she stands at the tide line and waits as I pull off my shoes and grab the other side of the dingy. A nearby swan is oblivious, preening its white feathers as we wade into the murky, sulphur smelling water. We hop in, push off, and head for the sailboat, red oars banging against the hull of the dingy as we lurch into the bay. “I’m surprised I haven’t gone overboard yet,” she says, laughing. “I’m getting better, though. I took the sailboat out the other day.”

Once on the sailboat, Pearl pulls a couple of blue cushions from the hold onto the deck. “I spend every moment I can out here on the water,” she says. “It relaxes me, calms my nervous system.” She hands me a couple of carrots, apples, a jar of almond butter, and a handful of dates for lunch. Anchored in the bay, we stretch out in the sun, breathe in the salty air, and gaze at the houses dotting the hills as the boat gently rocks in the swell. Pearl lies back on her cushion and in between bites of carrot tells me what led her on the long road to activism and caring for other cultures—and why she believes we live in a time when the eagle and the condor can fly together in the same sky.

Pearl Gottschalk has spent the last decade immersed in education and training around issues of global poverty, environmental degradation, youth restorative justice, conflict resolution, famine relief, war affected youth, and gang violence. She has travelled to over 44 countries doing aid development work, and her involvement in initiatives—such as the Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary and War Affected Children of Sierra Leone and Women’s development programs in Ghana—have put her on the front lines of challenges globally disadvantaged people and species are facing.

Today, as Lush’s Charitable Givings Ambassador, Pearl manages a $2 million-a-year international small grant fund for over 150 charities and travels regularly to international project sites. I’ve managed to catch her just before she heads off to Tanzania to visit a project.

Pearl Gottschalk with Chief Raoni of the Kayapo people of Brazil. Chief Raoni has fought internationally for the preservation of the Amazon rainforest since the 1980s. Lush helped support his opposition to the Belo Monte Dam projects in the Amazon. Photo submitted by Pearl Gottschalk

Pearl Gottschalk with Chief Raoni of the Kayapo people of Brazil. Chief Raoni has fought internationally for the preservation of the Amazon rainforest since the 1980s. Lush helped support his opposition to the Belo Monte Dam projects in the Amazon. Photo submitted by Pearl Gottschalk

At first glance, Pearl seems quiet and mild-mannered, quite unlike the sort of person you’d imagine wading into the darkest corners of society and the environment to face the suffering and despair of what is lost, discarded, and broken. A bit taller than average, with dark eyes and a sprinkle of freckles across her nose and cheeks, she appears sun kissed beyond the reach of damp Vancouver winters. It’s easy to imagine Pearl in an exotic locale; she has an air of restlessness about her, like a world traveller might. Regularly making the rounds with prominent activists and leaders, Pearl is as comfortable salsa dancing as she is sitting in ceremony in the Amazon jungle in a circle of Indigenous elders.

“I think I always knew since I was little that I would do work internationally,” she says. At five years old she was watching World Vision on TV during the Ethiopian famine. It was 1984, a time when International Aid hit the world stage with humanitarian relief efforts, and Pearl decided she wanted to go to Ethiopia.

 

Pearl Gottschalk with Mayan children in Guatemala where she leads LUSH’s international employee volunteer trip to build plastic bottle schools in remote Mayan communities. Photo submitted by Pearl Gottschalk

“I remember reading books about being a missionary and seeing a group of children living in a garbage shack and standing outside smiling,” she says. “I always wanted to help people. I didn’t know what that meant, but it’s all I ever wanted to do.”

At 21, while completing her Bachelors of International Development studies under full scholarship in Winnipeg, Pearl travelled to Ethiopia as a volunteer for the Food for the Hungry International and Canadian Foodgrains Bank. When she landed in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, or travelled to Asia for the first time, Pearl felt at home. “I’m just standing there in a crazy sea of people, and all I have is a map in my hand. I felt completely anonymous but was so comfortable,” she says.

When I see the earth or a person suffering it’s as if it’s my own body and I can’t draw a distinction between the two. That’s what compels me to want to act and to do something”

Pearl’s desire to travel, work with Indigenous people, and help others grew out of her early church experiences. A woman of strong faith, Pearl’s mother was involved in the Baptist church, which helped support her as she raised her three children alone. The church often worked with tribespeople and Pearl remembers visitors coming from the Amazon. When she was 12, Pearl wanted to escape Winnipeg and go travelling. She wrote a letter to the southern Baptist missionary asking if she could join the mission. “I was devastated when they said no, come back when you’re 18,” says Pearl.

Prayer and spirituality have always been a strong theme in Pearl’s life. Her mother prayed every day that each of her children would attend university. When Pearl was 19, her mother landed a job at a high school attached to the University of Winnipeg and one of the benefits was free university for each of her three children.

Her childhood friend, Evonne Plett, remembers meeting Pearl at 14 and working together at a Bible Camp. “I was very drawn to Pearl because of her spirit. She seemed so full of love and life, beautiful from the inside and out,” says Evonne. “She always finds something valuable and beautiful, whether it’s in a person, place, cause, or event. Who’s the most interesting person I know? Hands down it’s Pearl.”

After completing her Bachelors degree, Pearl launched herself into the world and underwent a period of intense seeking of knowledge in humanitarian, political, and environmental issues. She describes this decade of her 20s as heart-breaking and heart-wrenching. During this time she travelled to 44 countries, worked in international aid development, organized social and environmental campaigns, completed her Masters in Dispute Resolution, and was invited to present her research at a 2008 UN Conference on people disabled by war in Sierra Leone.

For a long period of time Pearl took in the devastation around her with no way to release it or let it go. “When I see the earth or a person suffering it’s as if it’s my own body and I can’t draw a distinction between the two. That’s what compels me to want to act and to do something,” Pearl says. “Whether I’m carrying around thoughts of albino children having their body parts cut off, or a woman being attacked by acid in Bangladesh, or the devastation of the Amazon rainforest, the more I travel the more I care, and the more it affects me energetically in my body.” Without a spiritual practice or teaching or spiritual grounding to help pass the energy, Pearl explained that over time it became stuck in her body and made her sick.

Pearl retreated into nature and the wilderness to heal. “I had no choice but to move to this little island and leave the city with its noise and pollution and intensity. Nature is the only place that calms me and reminds me why I do what I do. Solitude is obviously what I do for fun,” she laughs. “But it’s not like I’m being a hermit and I’ve left the world. I still work in the city.” Pearl now practices a more grounded and spiritual approach to activism like that taught by author and scholar, Andrew Harvey in his work with sacred activism, and attends regular local Indigenous sweatlodge ceremonies for grounding and balance.

 

The Eagle and the Condor

 

Pearl Gottschalk with Borneo Chief, Ledjie Taq and Hereditary Chief Phil Lane Junior, founder of the Four Worlds International Institute for Human and Community Development. LUSH provided support to Chief Ledjie Taq's communities in Wehea Dayak, threatened by deforestation due to palm oil clearing and illegal logging. Photo submitted by Pearl Gottschalk

Pearl Gottschalk with Borneo Chief, Ledjie Taq and Hereditary Chief Phil Lane Junior, founder of the Four Worlds International Institute for Human and Community Development. LUSH provided support to Chief Ledjie Taq’s communities in Wehea Dayak, threatened by deforestation due to palm oil clearing and illegal logging. Photo submitted by Pearl Gottschalk

Looking back at the way the environmental and social justice movement has changed, Pearl feels we’re coming to a time of collective wisdom and balance, where the heart and mind align, heralding the time where the eagle and the condor may fly together in the same sky. The Eagle and the Condor prophecy originates with traditional indigenous cultures of North, Central, and South America, and describes a time where human societies split into two paths—the Eagle, the path of the mind, industry, technology, and masculine, and the Condor—the path of heart, earth based knowledge, intuition, and the feminine. It describes the 1490s as beginning a 500-year period where the Eagle path becomes powerful and overtakes the Condor people, but in the next 500-year period, beginning in 1990, there is the opportunity for the Eagle and the Condor to fly together.

Pearl describes the history of BC’s environmental politics, passing through the days of large protests such as Clayoquot Sound, to today, where First Nations people stand together and grandmothers are getting arrested. “Activism has always been about polarizing and the fight,” she says. “I’ve seen a lot of victories in our time. But living with contrariness all the time isn’t good for the body. You’re always in a cycle of opposites.” She believes it’s important to blend spirituality and caring for the world into one, otherwise it leads to burnout. “I do not talk about pipelines and tar sands after 5 p.m.,” she laughs.

In 2012, Pearl attended the Rio+20 Earth Summit, an event preceding a monumental change in global activism as well as in her own life focus. Thousands of indigenous people gathered together in traditional ceremony from the Americas, including the 13 Indigenous Grandmothers. Later, Pearl travelled into the Amazonian rainforests of Peru with Amazon Watch to meet elders of the Achuar people who had invited their allies to help in the struggle against Talisman Energy in their traditional territory. The Achuar people had asked them there to help dream a way out of the potential destruction of their homeland.

Pearl Gottschalk with two Achuar leaders in the village of Wisum, Peru.  Photo submitted by Pearl Gottschalk

Pearl Gottschalk with two Achuar leaders in the village of Wisum, Peru.
Photo submitted by Pearl Gottschalk

When the earthquake first hit, Pearl was teaching a group of kids to do the hokey-pokey…. “Most of the kids escaped the building quickly but those of us who couldn’t get out, knelt down in the middle of the room and us two remaining adults tried to cover the kids with our bodies”

Pearl describes the approach of the Achaur people as one of listening and not creating strategies. “Everyone came together and prayed, putting all their focus on dreaming a solution and a better way between the north and south,” she says. “Two months later Talisman energy withdrew from their territory.”

When asked about her feelings of hope for the future, Pearl is encouraged by indigenous youth stepping into leadership roles, such as 12-year-old Ta’Kaiya Blaney from the Sliammon First Nation in BC, who actively advocates for greater responsibility towards our Earth and waters. In the last three years, Pearl’s focus on sacred activism, prayer, and the teachings she’s received from First Nations people during sweatlodge, sundance, and pipe ceremonies have helped her rejuvenate and reset her spirit.

“Everything we do is part of a collective energy and sometimes I think when we stop trying to figure out the strategy and actually just use a different way of being to address a problem, something that draws on ancient wisdom or collective thought, it’s a very powerful way to change the world and help protect what we have,” says Pearl.

On her most recent journey in April 2015, Pearl was near Kathmandu, Nepal volunteering with one of Lush’s partner charities, building earthquake proof schools and visiting a charity called the Women’s Foundation of Nepal, when the 7.8 earthquake devastated the region and left more than 8,800 dead and 23,000 injured.

When the earthquake first hit, Pearl was teaching a group of kids to do the hokey-pokey. “Someone yelled, ‘Earthquake!’” says Pearl. “Most of the kids escaped the building quickly but those of us who couldn’t get out, knelt down in the middle of the room and us two remaining adults tried to cover the kids with our bodies, and we just prayed.”

They escaped the building once the first rumbling of the earth stopped, and then waited the next five hours huddled together for warmth as continuing aftershocks rocked the earth.

It was a harrowing journey, but Pearl made it safely back to her home in Vancouver a few days later. While it was extremely hard for her to leave the people and their rebuilding efforts behind, Pearl continues to work on aid projects to support the Nepalese people.

“My job is to continue to support the charities I was working with in Nepal and Lush has made a major donation to the relief efforts with a focus on women’s needs, pregnant mothers, and birthing centers in honor of all the mothers who have lost loved ones in this tragedy.”

Pearl suggests donating to Nepali NGOs such as the Women’s Foundation of Nepal (www.womenepal.org) or groups that support those most affected through this disaster. To read more about current relief efforts go to www.womenepal.org/blog/

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