From a Nisga’a canoe

I’ve been reading John Ralston Saul’s A Fair Country: telling truths about Canada (2008), a Christmas gift from my wife.  Saul’s thesis is that Canada is a Metis civilization whose fundamental characteristic is the mingling and collaboration of Aboriginal and European cultures.  Those of us who grew up imagining that Canadian culture is essentially the projection of French and English (and latterly, American) values onto the northern fringe of the Americas have missed the point.  In order to survive, French and English settlers had to co-operate with the peoples they found here, and in so doing their cultures, both European and Aboriginal, were transformed into something distinctly Canadian.  The racism and the colonialism which have characterized so much of the relationship between Aboriginal and settler peoples in Canada were not features of the original relationship, but mid-nineteenth century imports from an increasingly anxious and insecure Europe which projected its own sense of inadequacy onto the indigenous peoples of Canada.  The cultural shifts within Canadian society over the past generation can be understood as a return to an earlier understanding of Canadian culture.  We have realized that we do not need to think of ourselves as outposts of a British, French, or American empire because there is already a distinctly Canadian culture rooted in the first encounters between European and Aboriginal peoples.  We have realized that our values and world view do not have to be shaped by European culture but can derive from our own indigenous Canadian culture.

Those recent cultural shifts have had a profound effect on the Christian churches of Canada, as we all know.  With very deep roots in Europe, we are not sure how to respond to the indigenization of our culture.  Aware of the tide of secularization which has swept over the European churches, we are not sure whether we are experiencing the same thing, or the emergence of a distinctly indigenous Canadian way of experiencing and responding to the sacred.  We no longer know how to be a Christian community in this time and place.  Just a couple of generations ago we thought we had clear sailing; now we find ourselves in shoaling waters, uncertain how to navigate.  Perhaps, then, it is time to leave the comfort of our increasingly inappropriate luxury liner and get into a canoe, the better to make our way in these unfamiliar waters.  For centuries, Aboriginal people in Canada have embraced the Gospel joyfully and lived by it faithfully.  They are willing to show us the way, if we are willing to follow.

For the past year I have been part of a parish that has found itself doing just that.  In 2009 the people of St David’s in East Vancouver entered into partnership with Nisga’a Ts’amiks, the Vancouver-area local of the Nisga’a nation.  We have been invited aboard the Nisga’a canoe, and now we’re taking the ride of our life.  From out here, on the ocean, things look different.  The landscape of faith, through which I have walked for half a century, is still there and has not changed, but my perception of it has.  Some elements that formerly loomed large (such as denominational differences) have almost entirely receded from view.  On the other hand, I can now see more clearly the relationship between different elements of that landscape–how this headland over here connects to that ridge over there.  As I have sat in the canoe hearing stories and sharing food, the gospels have come alive with a vibrancy I could not have imagined before.  Jesus’ talk  of feasts and banquets, and his use of the natural world to illustrate the Kingdom of God, are all immediately relevant to the lived experience of this culture.  Mediated through Nisga’a culture and carried in a Nisga’a canoe, the Gospel of Jesus Christ is as powerful as it ever was.  It is my deepening conviction that the Creator has called the Aboriginal peoples of North America to be the bearers of the Gospel in North America.  I believe this to be so because I have found the cultures indigenous to this place to be more effective vehicles for the Gospel, in this place, than cultures which have been imported from another place. 

I do not presume to have anything to teach about Aboriginal spirituality in general or Nisga’a culture in particular.  What I hope to do in this occasional blog is to share and reflect on some of my own experiences of growth and change as my faith has been deepened in my encounter with one particular Aboriginal culture.

Michael Batten is a priest of the Diocese of New Westminster and a member of Kwhlii Gibaygum Nisga’a, a group of traditional Nisga’a cultural performers.  He works with members of the Nisga’a nation and other north coast nations who live in the Metro Vancouver area, and is the incumbent of St David’s in East Vancouver.

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