Aboriginal experience of multi-faith work

(L to R): Lori Ransom, the Rev. Andrew Wesley, and Dawn Maracle speak at the North American Interfaith Network conference held Aug. 11 to 14 in Toronto. Photo: Marites N. Sison
(L to R): Lori Ransom, the Rev. Andrew Wesley, and Dawn Maracle speak at the North American Interfaith Network conference held Aug. 11 to 14 in Toronto. Photo: Marites N. Sison
Published August 15, 2013

Three indigenous peoples of faith have extolled the value of multi-faith work in Canada saying it not only provides opportunities to learn from others but also promotes healing and reconciliation among peoples and communities.

But they also acknowledged the need to do more to develop and strengthen relationships between aboriginal and non-aboriginal faiths and spiritual traditions.

The Rev. Andrew Wesley, Lori Ransom and Dawn Maracle on Aug. 14 spoke about “Indigenous Experience and Diversity” at the North American Interfaith Network conference held at the University of Toronto’s Multi-Faith Centre.

They were asked to discuss the challenges of First Nations experiences for inter-faith work, to reflect on the gifts of indigenous spirituality and on how these gifts can be seen “in their integrity, without falling into appropriation.”

Maracle, a Mohawk from Tyendinaga, Mohawk Territory in southern Ontario, underscored the value of having native people on boards of organizations in order to get a balance of perspectives on discussions and decisions.

“A lot of times, if native people are brought in, they’re an afterthought…We’re plugged into a space as opposed to being part of the process from the very beginning,” said Maracle, who is an artist, writer, educator and consultant based in Ottawa.

She issued a challenge to Canadians: “Do a homelands assignment.” One of the reasons why people are disconnected from indigenous people is they don’t take the time to study the land that they’re living in, she said. “They don’t take time to understand the history, what was the culture that was there. And because of that disconnect, there’s a wall between them.”

Once people, including new immigrants, understand the nature of the land they live in, it triggers the start of a relationship, “they can’t help but garner a new respect,” for the first peoples of the land and it “creates more curiosity and questions,” she noted.

Maracle cautioned people against “Pan-Indianism,” which she described as lumping all aboriginal people into one group. “It’s like saying people from every nation in the planet are the same; we have hundreds of nations and tribes and we’re all different,” she explained. “We have different languages, cultures, clans if we have clans…We’re different in how we relate; if we’re patriarchal or matriarchal, patrilineal or matrilineal…”

Great diversity exists among aboriginal groups, and “none of us can be so arrogant as to say our experience is everyone else’s,” added Maracle.

When working with native people, one must be kind, calm and patient, because a lot of them are “still on a healing journey because of everything that has happened,” to their culture and history, advised Maracle.

Many are still trying to overcome trauma inflicted by churches, by people who worked in churches and claimed to be doing it in the name of religion, she added.

Citing her own experience, Maracle said at age 16 she was confirmed in an Anglican church but she left it a week later, when news of the Anglican Church of Canada’s involvement in residential schools and stories of abuse suffered by students came out in the media.

“Hearing about it for the first time, I was completely devastated,” said Maracle, who was raised off reserve by her parents, both of whom were Status Indians who believed that their children would have better chances in life if they were raised as Canadians. After she told the priest who confirmed her that she had a crisis of faith, he gave his blessings “to go off and learn what I needed to learn about my own culture so I could make an informed decision about what I was going to do with the rest of my life.”

Today, Maracle is part of Women of Spirit and Faith, a North American group described by its website as being committed to “strengthen and nurture the leadership capacities of women of spirit and faith for the sake of the human community,” among others.

Lori Ransom, for her part, provided conference participants with an overview of the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC), where she is senior advisor responsible for churches and other faith communities

The TRC’s mandate is broader than the residential schools; part of its role is to help Canada discern a path to reconciliation between indigenous and non-indigenous people, she said. “This is about the future of the nation, of all the rich cultures and backgrounds that now call Canada home,” said Ransom, noting that discussions around reconciliation have to include “settler societies arriving today,” or new immigrants.

“It’s surprising how many Canadians do not know about aboriginal people. There’s a million of us to learn from [across Canada] and in Toronto, over 70,000 by most reckoning,” said Ransom.

Recent immigrants who may have no knowledge of Canadian history and no connection with aboriginal people often have perceptions that are based on what they see in Hollywood movies, she noted. “I say to them [immigrants] that when you take your Canadian citizenship card, you’re signing the treaties with us. It kind of blows their mind…that the treaties are part and parcel of our legal relationship in Canada… we hold them as sacred because they are an expression of our relationships.”

Recognizing the diversity that exists among aboriginal people, Ransom said the TRC works hard to ensure that traditions are respected in every territory that events are held. Elders and spiritual leaders are invited to play prominent roles and are consulted on what languages are used, what spiritual protocols must be upheld, how sacred spaces can be created, among others, added Ransom.

Meanwhile, The Rev. Andrew Wesley spoke about similarities and differences between Christian and native spiritual tradition, among them the relationship with creation.

A Cree from Fort Albany in northern Ontario, Wesley attended a residential school for 11 years, and is an ordained Anglican priest who works with the homeless and the aboriginal community at the diocese of Toronto’s Urban Native Ministry.

When Europeans first came to Canada, they thought native people worshipped birds and trees, said Wesley. “It wasn’t so. We worshipped the Great Creator,” he said, but added that native people talked to the birds and the trees because “they’re all our relations.” Native people are “in covenant relationship with God, the people and the land,” he said. “Our relationship with the land is so powerful because the land is us, too.” Nature has a lot to teach humans, he added.

Studying the Old Testament in seminary made him also realize that native people had their own ceremonies, spiritual leaders, prophets and healers, said Wesley. “We have dreams and visions just like the Israelites.” And like Israelites, there is a belief that “God will deliver us some day; we will be delivered from pain and oppression,” said Wesley.

Wesley said that while native people are now able to express their spiritual traditions, he is aware that fear still exists among many when he uses his native language. “What is he saying? Is he talking to the tree? To the bear?,” he said, when all he’s doing is blessing the gathering and “talking to the Creator.”


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