Bishop Lydia Mamakwa and National Indigenous Bishop Mark MacDonald spoke to Council of General Synod (CoGS) Nov. 14 about the long journey toward the establishment of the first indigenous diocese in North America, the Indigenous Spiritual Ministry of Mishamikoweesh, and of how that journey is continuing in the wake of its creation.
Mamakwa, an Oji-Cree from Kingfisher Lake First Nation, located north of Sioux Lookout, Ont., talked about some of the ways in which the diocese, which was created in June from the northern region of the diocese of Keewatin, is unique. “As a diocesan bishop,” she explained, “I do not have the sole authority to make the decisions. The elders and the people are involved; the chiefs and councils are also involved. When making a community visit, it is my duty to acknowledge the community leadership and listen to their concerns.”
She also mentioned another significant difference: “We can communicate mostly through our own language, written and orally.”
Important steps toward putting indigenous structures into place, Mamakwa noted, were taken at the first Sacred Circle, which will serve the function that a diocesan synod serves in non-indigenous dioceses. In addition to choosing provincial and general synod delegates and electing an executive council (which will serve as a diocesan council), a council of elders has also been elected, which Mamakwa said would “play a big part in Mishamikoweesh.”
Mamakwa also spoke of some of the challenges Mishamikoweesh faces. The diocese includes many remote communities, and travel is not easy. “We have no highways, we have no roads, we only get a winter ice road during maybe two or three months out of the whole year,” Mamakwa said. She went on to note the inefficiency of air travel in terms of both time and money, explaining that getting to a community only 15 minutes away by air is $1,100 one-way, and can take a day or more depending on the freight plane schedules.
However, despite the challenges Mamakwa expressed her gratitude toward those who helped bring Mishamikoweesh into being, and her pride at the change it represents. “Indigenous people have the authority to use their God-given gifts to govern themselves within a church using their traditional ways,” she said. “Yes, we have a lot of issues to deal with from the residential school era and abuses that have been inflicted on our people, but despite the issues that are still there, our people are resilient through it all.”
For Mamakwa, Mishamikoweesh is important for all indigenous Anglicans in Canada. “I feel that the birth of Mishamikoweesh has opened the doors for our fellow indigenous brothers and sisters in Christ, and I pray that doors and opportunities will be opened for them also.”
In his part of the presentation, MacDonald spoke further about the importance of Mishamikoweesh for indigenous Anglican communities across the country. Praising Mamakwa as a “trailblazer,” he stressed the very different forms of governance employed historically and to the present day by indigenous peoples in what is now known as North America, and the importance of allowing indigenous peoples to return to structures of governance that are built around their understanding of power as shared in communities, rather than organized in a “vertical” fashion.
“We’re beginning to see a different way of imagining how a church can be in an indigenous community,” said MacDonald, “and we now have the freedom in Mishamikoweesh to work things out in a way that makes sense in our cultural environment. I think that this, over time will be revolutionary – not just for us, but probably for the rest of the Anglican Church of Canada.”
Archbishop Fred Hiltz, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, responded by expressing what a “great to joy” it was for him to see Mamakwa seated as bishop, and sharing some of his memories from his visit to Kingfisher Lake First Nation to mark the formal creation of Mishamikoweesh.