Escaping the culture of oppression

Published July 15, 2011

Dr. Patricia Vickers, ethno-consultant, with Anglican Indigenous Bishop Mark MacDonald at Partnering for Prevention, A Safe Church conference. Photo: Jenny Price

This is a summary of the keynote address given by Dr. Patricia Vickers at Partnering for Prevention, a recent Safe Church Consultation conference on the legacy of abuse in the church. Vickers is currently rewriting her doctoral dissertation, “Ayaawx (Tsmsyen ancestral law): The Power of Transformation." It will be published as a book by Caitlin Press.  

In 1989, God as I understood Him, was shattered for me by trauma in the family and betrayal of trust in the church.

Society had taught me that the reason for my father’s infidelity, incestuous behaviour, violence and alcoholism was that he was an Indian. When my father’s incestuous behaviour turned from me to my two daughters, protecting them was my priority. Reporting the incident after confronting my father was the pathway demanded by courage and truth.

At the time, Bruce and Dolly Landsdowne (from Bella Bella, the community my grandfather is from), who were both graduates of The Meadows Treatment Center in Wickenburg, Arizona, were my coaches and sole support. When I confided in the wife of the minister of a church I’d been attending with my family in Victoria, she went on to tell others, and soon that which had been private was made known to the entire congregation. One person had passed on the information to the next person without ever making inquiries regarding privacy and confidentiality.

The shame that my seven- and three-year-old daughters and I were already grappling with was compounded by the many people who came to tell me how sorry they were. My older daughter recalls experiencing a great discomfort that she now recognizes as shame.

At that point, the logical decision for me was to put distance between myself and all such sources of betrayal. My life was a tangled web with dominant threads of shame and fear. Bruce and Dolly encouraged me to go for treatment at The Meadows and in 1991, at a cost of US $19,000, I signed myself into the program.

Out of approximately 75 patients, only three of us were not of Anglo origin. The patients who were there for treatment were mainly from wealthy families or had ample insurance coverage. A very small minority such as myself went into debt to transform their suffering.

While in treatment, I came to understand that society had conditioned me to believe that my problems existed because I was an Indian. The church was no exception. The non-aboriginal patients at the facility taught me otherwise. Many of them had histories of incest and sexual abuse as well.

From 1995 to 2008, while enrolled in graduate studies at San Francisco’s Saybrook Graduate School and Research Center and the University of Victoria, I came to understand that incest occurred in the context of oppression–oppression through residential schools, segregation and ethnic discrimination. The writings of Brazilian thinker Paulo Freire, author of The Pedagogy of the Oppressed, taught me that oppression was a human condition. Oppression puts oppressor and oppressed in the same vessel, and ethnicity is not the issue but rather human principles.

What were the principles that governed my thoughts and behaviours? For one, the fallacy that my father’s ancestors had nothing of importance to offer me or the world. This became something to unravel not only for myself but also for my children.

Through the study of ancestral law and spiritual cleansing through ceremony and ritual, my shame is being transformed into freedom and wisdom. Our people have land-based ceremonies that were given to us by the Good Creator, and through ceremonial ways I have returned to the church to offer what has been given to me.

As a keynote speaker at the International Conference for Partnering for Prevention, it was my first step in forgiving the wrongdoing of the church against me and my family. I have come to understand that the ceremonial ways that have been given to us as Indigenous peoples will not only transform our suffering but the suffering of all people.

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