An underground Christian faith existed among Indigenous peoples since the beginning of their contact with arrivals from Europe, Mark MacDonald, the national Indigenous bishop of the Anglican Church of Canada, says.
It survived efforts by the church to suppress it and is re-emerging now, he said August 8 at a conference on theology and liberation attended by about 400 people from around the world. Two other Aboriginal persons made much the same point in a panel discussion at a World Forum on Theology and Liberation, an adjunct of the World Social Forum, which drew about 15,000 people.
Nicole O’Bomsawin, an anthropologist and storyteller from the Abenaki community of Odanak, Que., near the mouth of the St. François River about 25 km east of Sorel-Tracy, said the Roman Catholic church was “my second home” and she later became familiar with the Anglican church, also active in Odanak. O’Bomsawin said that she came to see striking resemblances between Christian and traditional Odanak spirituality and symbols. “I realized that you can understand things by other means, besides just words.”
Fr. Eleazar López Hernandez, a priest-theologian in Mexico working with a Roman Catholic agency that helps Indigenous missions, said the church’s suppression of Aboriginal spirituality has cut humanity in general and cut the church off from the rich potential contribution of people who could be “interlocutors and interpreters of the true God.”
Hernandez said the church is beginning to appreciate the profound significance, to many Aboriginal people, of apparitions to Juan Diego in 1531 by the Virgin Mary, now known as Our Lady of Guadalupe. Diego was an Indigenous peasant, born in Cuahtitlan, a city north of Mexico City, which had been a Chichimeca (Nahua tribe) village in the 14th century. He was canonized a saint by Pope John Paul II in 2002.
Just before the panel discussion, Kevin Ka’nahsohon Deer, faith keeper of the Mohawk Trail Longhouse in the Mohawk community of Kahnawake, across the St. Lawrence River from Montreal, welcomed participants in the forum to traditional Mohawk territory with traditional Mohawk ceremonies.
Missionaries and others working with Indigenous people viewed their ancient form of Christianity as a form of resistance to the missionaries’ civilizing efforts, which became a negation of the older spirituality, MacDonald said. “There has always been an Indigenous form of Christianity. Indigenous cosmology and practice has been present, but underground.”
The situation began to change in the Anglican Church of Canada in the 1970s, with the publication in 1969 of the Hendry Report, which urged the church to establish a new relationship with Indigenous Peoples based on “solidarity, equality and mutual respect.”
Since then, the Anglican church has embarked on steps to heal its relationship with Indigenous people. There were similar changes in other denominations in Canada and the United States.
Hernandez said also said that certain attitudes cut off the dignity and riches of Indigenous spirituality from the church, and negated the social and religious rights of Indigenous people. But today these attitudes are being revised.
For Indigenous Christians, he said, God is not inaccessible.
“He is the heart of the Earth. He is a father; she is a mother.”