Unsettled

(Christian Courier article, August 13, 2012 issue)

I’m reading Unsettling the Settler Within by UBC professor Paulette Regan. Regan argues that non-Aboriginal Canadians must undergo “decolonization” before any genuine reconciliation can occur with Aboriginal Peoples. Regan painstakingly presents her case with credibility borne from her experience as an Indian Residential Schools claims resolution manager for the federal government.

I’m unsettled. And not just by this book. The catalyst for my unease was serving on a grassroots committee to bring the CRC’s reForming Relationships exhibition, Kisemanito Pakitinasuwin – The Creator’s Sacrifice, to Sarnia.

I’m learning some things, about myself as a Christian, first of all, and secondly, about aboriginal issues. As a Christian, I’m learning to look within … to examine whether I harbour prejudice. I live near Ipperwash and I have friends and family in Caledonia, the site of one of the most recent struggles involving First Nations people. Those conflicts colour my perceptions. But I haven’t made much of an effort to know more, or to understand better. I haven’t been a listener. If I want to have integrity as a Christian, loving God and my neighbour, I need to cultivate an openness to, as Regan defines it, the “Other.”

In a recent Christian Courier editorial, Michael Wagenman noted that “love is being slow to speak, quick to listen.” He was writing about the development of a curriculum for faith-formation in young people that allows them to participate, that encourages them to be more than vessels into which we pour knowledge. Love isn’t like “downloading information,” he said. I agree. Love is enfleshed in respectful relationships.

At our deepest levels of being we all want to be heard. Simple listening can be an affirming act. In a discussion, nothing is more frustrating that being shut down without an opportunity to share your viewpoint. Serving on a committee that seeks improved relationships with our aboriginal neighbours or reading books about the fallout of residential schools can function as small, but concrete ways, of adopting a “listener” posture.  

My listening has, in fact, begun to broaden my outlook. Usually that’s what happens when we really listen to others. I’m gaining a better understanding about our shared past. For example, I knew that aboriginal people were decimated by the smallpox virus brought here by white settlers. I always believed this was simply a tragic “accident” of history. Then I was informed that some settlers gave infected blankets to indigenous peoples deliberately, knowing full well that it would wipe out families and even whole tribes. I tried to verify this. What is historically accurate is that Lord Jeffrey Amherst, a British commander during the French and Indian War (1756-63), wrote a letter to his subordinate about using smallpox-infected blankets as a possible means to eradicate their Native enemies. While it’s not clear if Amherst followed through on his plan,  William Trent, commander of a local militia in Pittsburgh, did. He wrote in his journal, dated May 24, 1763, “… we gave them two Blankets and an Handkerchief out of the Small Pox Hospital. I hope it will have the desired effect.” I had always assumed I knew the history of “colonization,” but maybe not.

I also found I needed to adjust my perceptions about time. In my mind, it was eons ago that Jacques Cartier stumbled upon Newfoundland. I’m not connected to that event. It didn’t impact me on a personal level. But historical events that impact you personally remain close. I’m beginning to understand how recent and continuing their struggles are to First Nation Peoples. The relocations to reservations, bad-faith bargaining by white officials, compulsory attendance at residential schools and ongoing racism are contemporary currents in their lives. The last residential school wasn’t closed until 1996 and there are still 80,000 former students still living.

More than anything else, it was the art that propelled me to a new place. I watched a video about Ovide Bighetty’s preparation for this series of artworks. His humility was arresting. He sought advice from his Cree elders and also from his Christian mentors. In fact, he gave the honour of choosing titles for his paintings to his elders. It took courage to pursue this project. Some Christians objected to his vision of Jesus clothed in aboriginal garb. Some Native peers objected to his use of aboriginal symbolism for the “white” religion. He risked rejection from everyone to create this visual narrative of an aboriginal Easter. But from these canvases, a solemn Cree Jesus challenged me to recognize his image in all peoples.

One of the venues for the exhibition was a downtown church. Passersby stopped in to sample the fry bread and to chat. Two friends who came specifically to view the art introduced themselves: Iva Stankovic, 21, from London, Ont., originally from Bosnia, and Ashley Stone, 21, who identifies herself as Ojibway/Chippewa, from Aamjiwnaang First Nation. Ashley explained to me that she is a Christian. Both women appreciated the art, but Stone, in particular, was deeply stirred to see both of her identities combined in the paintings: “It’s beautiful. They tell a beautiful story. It’s interesting the way he put the Creator and the God of Jesus Christ together.” 

 I still have many questions: about colonization, residential schools, Caledonia and where we go from here. Regan writes, “We must work as Indigenous allies to ‘restory’ the dominant culture version of history; that is, we must make decolonizing space for Indigenous history – counter-narratives of diplomacy, law, and peace-making practices – as told by Indigenous peoples themselves.” I’m ready to ask, “Please tell me your story.” And I’m unsettled enough to listen.

 

 

 

At Redeemer CRC with Diane Plug and Mary Abma …

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