The Strength of the Ancestors

Through all the controversies that have swept through the Anglican Church in my lifetime, I’ve always lined up on what I have thought of, with a certain streak of self-righteousness, as the “progressive” side.  The theological debates which have preoccupied our church over the last few decades have had to do with sexual ethics, gender roles and appropriate cultural expressions of our faith.  In all of these, I have felt that the voices articulating traditional values have not represented my experience, nor offered a viable way for the church to live in our time and place.  I have found myself suspicious of such voices.  What’s the hidden agenda?  Whose interests are really being served?  And, to be honest, I’ve sometimes felt threatened.  “Traditional” values and culture were something to be resisted because they represented the way of the past rather than a way forward. 

Now, I find myself immersed in a traditional culture, learning the language, the songs, the dances, and most importantly, the values of the Nisga’a people.  It’s not my culture, so perhaps that is why I do not feel threatened by its old-fashioned ways, but it is very definitely a traditional culture embodying traditional values such as respect, hard work, discipline, restraint and personal responsibility.  Suspicious of traditional values as they are embodied in my own culture, I find myself drawn towards the traditional values of another culture, and I am acutely aware of the inconsistency of my own position.

A parishioner of St David’s, who belongs not to the Nisga’a but to another north coast nation, was sharing his perception of Nisga’a culture with me. “I was always amazed at how old-fashioned they are,” he said.  “Why did they hang on to all those old ways?”  And then he answered his own question:  “Because it made them strong.”  Rooted in traditional culture and values, which included traditional forms of Anglicanism, the Nisga’a people were able to adapt to and survive colonization.  They were able to stand up to the Government of Canada and negotiate a treaty for their traditional territories.  They were able to move to an urban environment in which many of them have been able to thrive and prosper.  They were able to do all this because they never forgot the traditional ways of their ancestors, and the strength of their ancestors’ values.

The traditional culture of the Nisga’a is not frozen in time.  It is a living tradition, adapting to changing circumstances but always grounded in its traditional values.  Tradition, like the Nass River itself, nourishes all life, is ever-constant yet always changing. 

The traditional culture of the Nisga’a has reminded me of the importance of traditional ways and values.  I will probably still count myself among the “progressives” (but maybe I’ll find another, less condescending, word), and I doubt that I will change my mind on any given issue, but I have been given a new respect for traditional values, for the strength and resilience they impart, and for the people who espouse them.

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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