There’s an imbalance here. Of the 250-ish gathered for Native Assembly 2014, indigenous participants are overwhelmingly outnumbered by non-native folks.
A few months ago, planners were concerned that not enough white church folks would attend. But this turnabout troubles me. Dominant people can often become dominant voices. So I’m trying to listen more and say less.
The theme for the gathering is “Ears to earth, eyes to God.” I’m learning a lot about the many references in Scripture that tie people to creation and land they occupy, and the implications this holds for people of faith. To say that this teaching was not part of my faith formation during my childhood and young adult years would be an understatement.
In Vince Solomon’s workshop, “Where do aboriginal beliefs and teachings intersect with Scripture,” I realized that I’ve too often understood my faith through the lens of culture, rather than trying to understand my culture through the lens of faith. This topples my worldview and identifies the ease with which Christians write off each other’s belief systems in the guise of culture.
Solomon, the Aboriginal Neighbours coordinator for Mennonite Central Committee Manitoba, says, “There’s only one reason I became an Anglican priest, and that is Jesus Christ.”
It’s a profound revelation considering that his chosen profession has been such an isolating experience. Even as he underwent religious training, Solomon was rejected by white society. Fellow students marked his dorm room door with an “X,” warning others not to associate with him. Many of his own people have rejected him, asking why he chooses to be part of a church that hurt his people, and why he is perpetuating that hurt. But in the midst of all that, Solomon recalls hearing God say, “I don’t think I ever told you to stop being native.”
Since then, Solomon has been recovering the theology of the land he grew up with. At the same time, he is studying Scripture to understand where Christianity lost the knowledge that the created order is the “stage of God’s revelation in history. . . . ‘If you don’t take care of it, the earth will vomit you out’ ” (Leviticus 20:22).
“We see creation in everything,” he says. “This does not mean animism, monism, polytheism or pantheism.” It was the Creator’s intention for first nations to understand God through the attributes revealed to them through the land, he says.
During the question-and-answer time, Solomon is asked what bugs him most about western non-native culture. “Individuality.,” he declares. “It should not supersede or get in the way of commu-nity.” Individuality, he adds, exists in every culture at some level. But he is stunned by the way it trumps community and caring for one another in settler societies.
I remember Solomon’s comment later during a learning tour of the historic Forks area in downtown Winnipeg, where the Red and Assiniboine rivers meet. Many first nations used this location as a meeting and trading place for thousands of years. Its waters connect with the Mississippi to the south and Hudson Bay to the far north.
Tour leader Clarence Nepinak tells the group that this land was no man’s land, saying its value as a meeting and trading place made it “too important to be held by any one people.”
Too important to be held by any one people?
Perhaps all land is too important to be held by any one people: “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it; for he has founded it on the seas, and established it on the rivers” (Psalm 24:1-2).
Today, I meet my indigenous brothers and sisters at Native Assembly 2014. Many were robbed of their dignity by the Indian Residential School system and relocated to impoverished reserves in rural and remote areas, while my home and office are constructed on Treaty 1 land. Their land. In many of the areas where they live, government-sanctioned resource extraction has poisoned water and stripped timber, probably to build the 1950s’ era home I live in. Lands where indigenous people once hunted and fished were flooded by hydro dams constructed to power the computer I’m writing on.
None of this is news to me. But it hits home in a new way when I sit beside them and sing the theme song for this event: “Creation is a song, a song that we can see / A sacred gift from God, let’s join the harmony.”
--Posted Augsut 13, 2014
More on Native Assembly 2014:
Ears to earth, eyes to God (main report)
Personal reflection: In another skin
Young Voices personal reflection: A world of diverse Mennonite faith