Douglas Todd: Canadian Indigenous spirituality anything but monolithic 

Another good reminder:

“All First Nations believed their values and traditions were gifts from the Creator. One of the most important and common teachings was that people should live in harmony with the natural world and all it contained.”

That’s what the Canadian government’s educational resource for young people says every Indigenous person believed before settlers arrived. And today many continue to believe there is uniformity in contemporary Indigenous spiritual practice.

But the recent Canadian census reveals that Canada’s 1.8 million Indigenous people are anything but monolithic in regard to religion and spiritual practice. The range is extraordinary.

To begin with, the census, which every decade asks about religion, found a fast-rising number of Indigenous people, about 47 per cent, are checking off the box: “No religion, and secular perspectives.” That compares to only 20 per cent in 2011.

At the other end of the spectrum, a declining number of Indigenous people, also about 47 per cent, says they’re Christians.

And only four per cent of Canadian Indigenous people put themselves in the category of “traditional (North American Indigenous) spirituality.” This small group would be closest to the historic form of spirituality described in Ottawa’s educational resource for young people.

Indigenous religious diversity stretches surprisingly wide in 2023, flowing into unfamiliar streams.

The census, for instance, found 1,840 Indigenous Canadians who say they’re Muslim, while another 1,615 Canadians are Jewish.

I reached out to some Indigenous, Muslim and Jewish organizations to interview a First Nations, Inuit or Metis who is Jewish or Muslim, whereupon the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs introduced me to Cheyenne Neszo.

A status member of the Lheidli T’enneh First Nation based in and around Prince George, Neszo is deep into the process of converting to Judaism, the proud religion of her fiancé, Zach Berinstein.

Neszo, a 32-year-old lawyer, grew up in North Delta, where her extended family occasionally attended church and had in many ways lost touch with their Indigenous roots. That changed in recent years, as Neszo, her mother and grandmother applied for First Nations status and reconnected to those cultural origins.

Now, Neszo is three years into studying Judaism with Rabbi Dan Moscovitz at Vancouver’s Temple Sholom, where she and Berinstein will be married in September. “It’s just one of the most welcoming places I’ve come across,” said Neszo, who specializes in Indigenous law. Their wedding will be Jewish, with Lheidli T’enneh elements.

To understand the evolution in Indigenous religiosity over the years, I have frequently interviewed First Nations, Metis and Inuit elders and others who are Christians, who belong to one of the three denominations that ran Canada’s defunct federally funded residential schools.

Although the proportion of Indigenous people who belong to those denominations is declining, it remains that 485,000 Indigenous people today (27 per cent) still say they’re Catholic, 110,000 affiliate with the Anglicans and 42,000 are United Church members.

In addition, 28,000 Indigenous people belong to the Pentecostal Church, which did not operate a residential school. And what of the 6,515 who are Jehovah’s Witnesses and 5,035 who belong to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormons)?

Although he was not available for an interview, John Borrows, who is of Anishinaabe heritage and a committed Latter-day Saint, was recently profiled by Cardus, a Canadian think tank. Borrows is a professor specializing in Indigenous law, as well as head of the Victoria Multifaith Society.

Like other Anishinaabe people, Borrows went on a Vision Quest as a young man, fasting and being alone in the forest. Although he joined the Latter Day Saints when he was 19, he believes those experiences of encountering God’s presence in nature still inform his faith.

Ray Aldred, a member of the Cree Nation who directs the Indigenous studies program at Vancouver School of Theology, is not surprised more Canadian First Nations are classifying themselves under “no religion, and secular perspectives.”

They are essentially saying, Alder believes, that they don’t want to be associated with “one of those,” by which he means the Christians who are increasingly being condemned for their role in operating about 125 residential schools, which were almost all closed by the 1970s.

There was “no such thing as secular” in traditional Indigenous culture, said Aldred. “The category didn’t exist in the Indigenous mindset.”

He said Indigenous people are picking up the concept from attending college and university, where faculty tend to vilify Christianity and academic papers about the faith seem to only get published if the author can show they hate the religion.

“All that has an impact.”

At the same time, Aldred said many Indigenous people don’t see a contradiction between Christianity and their peoples’ ancient spiritual ways. “Their families have been part of the church for a couple of hundred years.”

For his part, Aldred, who is an Anglican priest, said he believes settler culture and religion has brought both positives and negatives.

Rather than Indigenous people zeroing in on their specific religious or non-religious identities, Aldred suggests they “try to focus on a communal identity,” which connects them to the land and to each other.

He talked about how Metis people, as well as the Nisga’a of northern B.C., follow many different denominations and religious traditions without fighting about it. He admires the Nisga’a creed: “One nation, one heart.”

And in an era when social media incites groups to feel contempt for the other, Aldred rightly encourages people of different faiths and no faith to engage in authentic dialogue.

“The important thing is people learn to speak heart to heart, so we hear one another.”

Source: Douglas Todd: Canadian Indigenous spirituality anything but monolithic 

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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