In the communities, there is sometimes conflict between Native spirituality and Christianity. Instead of religion strengthening the communities, is it creating divisions? Nellie House, program coordinator for the Cree Board of Health and Social Services, talked to us about her views on how to find oneself and build self-esteem. Being open, accepting and understanding may help people know who they are as Crees.
The Nation: How does Native spirituality help you to know who you are as a Cree? Nellie House: In terms of Native spirituality, I am not into it to extremes, but it is something that was helpful for me. I am 39 years old now and as a child I was brought up in the traditional lifestyle. We were brought up in the bush for 10 months of the year and we lived in the community for two months during the summer. My body consisted solely of food from the land. I can still remember the first time I ate an orange. It was a traumatic experience because it was foreign food for me.
My parents were traditional people, living off the land. That is what they knew—hunting and surviving.
And the day I turned five years old, I was taken to a residential school. Everything seemed so foreign and so unreal to me. It took me many, many years to find myself and my identity as a Native person. I just remember the residential school being cold. You couldn’t speak your language, you had to cut your hair, you had to dress the right way and I always found that the ages from 5 to 7 are the formative years for a child.
My parents taught us the values of being a Native person, but you are put into another situation where you feel so lost and you wonder who is telling the truth, and it does something to a 5 or 6 year old. I was in school for many years, and when I was 11,1 was put in the south and grew up in a white French home. During those years I found that I didn’t want to go home for summer and I felt really ashamed to be who I was. I didn’t want to interact with my own people. I used to go to my grandmother’s home and think, “Oh, it’s not clean, it’s dirty and they are not supposed to behave like this.”
Something happened when Boyce Richardson was making his first movie. I was part of the group he interviewed. But I didn’t say anything—why I don’t know. Maybe I believed in the project, that it was right for the people. And then 10 years later, he approached me again for an interview. I said OK, but I didn’t go. I was at that point of my life where I wouldn’t know what to say to him. And even if I answered, they would be wrong answers, they would be superficial, it would not be coming from my heart—honest answers. And that is when it started, my search for myself.
I remember trying to read a book, “The Diary of Anne Frank,” and I couldn’t finish it I had to close it as a young girl. Even in movies such as “Schindler’s List,” I had to turn it off. I even do it now. Things on the Holocaust or on apartheid in Africa—I can’t look at them because the pain comes and then I have to understand where that is coming from. Because of the same experience I went through, where something was taken away from me, of who I was. And then I had to have an understanding of why I get so sensitive to these kinds of issues. I find that it really affects me. I needed to have an understanding of what was happening to me and I have to retrace my roots, of all the years I was in the bush with my parents and in the years I was in school. From that I had to find who I was. The memories of being in the bush with my parents were very special and there was a lot of love.
Those memories stand out now more in my life—my person was oppressed. I was being oppressed in terms of who I was as a Native person and I wanted so much as a person to have my own power, to be a Native person and to be capable of what I can do. When I look at my own life, I find that I have to understand and question and I have to read up on it and what people were put through. And then also I find in my own community, within the Crees, we oppress each other. I am a woman and I am Cree, and I find that in this work I do as a coordinator in social services, the non-Native people seem to have more confidence in me as a worker and a professional than my own people. But I understand where it comes from. People for many years were so oppressed and were told that there is something much better than them and they have to assimilate.
One of my other sisters went through the same experiences and she gave me a good example. She said, “When we were young and going to school, I used to think I would find the perfect life if I become a white man, if I look like a white man.” And through my search of who I am, that is where I started learning about my own Native spirituality. It’s a personal thing for me and I don’t impose that on people. I don’t criticize other religions; my parents taught me Christianity and that I should go to church and I did my lessons and I learned them well. But I also know that we were people before another society told us that we were wrong. We had our own way of doing things and our own values.
I remember the first time I went to see a medicine man and he worked with me on something, but I didn’t know what. The next day I went to see an Elder in the community and I told him what happened and his response to me was: “We used to have these traditions and these ways of doing things.” Even going to the sweats, before you do things you have to understand why you are doing them.
In terms of the conflict between traditional spirituality and Christianity, I find we are starting over again with another situation of religion. I found that people were brainwashed and now they are not open in their thinking. As a person I am open to other people’s beliefs and values. What feels good for a person and what they feel is right And for me if it’s wrong because people say it’s wrong, I say, “Well, if it’s wrong then I am the one who is going to face the consequences.” What we also seem to do is give two messages to the youth and it’s very sad for them. People cannot seem to find a compromise… an understanding. I could talk and talk about oppression. We need to understand that in ourselves. I always feel that way when there are big meetings—I think we ignore that aspect of our lives that we were oppressed people and need to understand what happened to us.
And with Native spirituality—that helps you understand the oppression and helps you find what you lost in yourself? I found Native spirituality through finding myself.
When did you start exploring Native spirituality ? About four years ago. I’m a grandmother now of a three year old. My grandchild was traditionally baptized. You see that’s where I was mixed up too. I wanted her so much to be traditionally baptized, but after, I also took her to church. In my mind I didn’t want to go to church, but that’s what my aunts or uncles expected me to do.
But for me it was okay. She was traditionally baptized by an Elder in the community and it was the good and right way. I also see a problem with Native spirituality or some people have taken it to extremes and they try to impose that on people. It’s your own personal thing or your own personal belief or search. I learned when I used to go to church as a Christian, everybody would be dressed up and learn the same sermon and read the same book and read the same prayer. But for me through Native spirituality I found how to communicate now with the Creator, with God. It’s like talking to you, I have my personal communication.
There’s a lot of criticism of what’s happening now with the drum, the sweat lodge. Some Elders tell us that the drum is an evil thing. It’s so ironic, that’s what the first missionaries told people! You know, they burn the drum and this is the work of the devil.
So people don’t know where to turn nowadays? I think first when you want to find yourself you need to go through a lot of personal feeling. You need to know who you are, what your values and beliefs are. I find that for me personally I have to do a lot of work on myself, a lot of feeling on personal stuff and I find that when I went past those personal issues my self-esteem and confidence went very high and I think that’s the first step when you are trying to find yourself. I read a lot of your issues, I read a lot of newspapers that the Native people see and I always find that people see a lot of words, a lot of ideas. When I read, I always see people and I see that they aren’t living up to what they say.
You mentioned the drum, sweetgrass, sweat lodges. What are your other views on these practices? For me, when I pray I smudge myself with sweetgrass. In my own personal way, the sweetgrass is like… I find something in there, I don’t know how to express it I feel more in tune with myself and I feel more close to whoever is watching me.
It’s cleansing? Yeah, and when I smudge myself and when I pray, sometimes I find that the words just come. I don’t have to search for words. The words just seem to come to me. And I use tobacco a lot. But I have to learn why I use it. You know, it’s an offering to the Creator, to be thankful. When I pray now—when I was a Christian, I used to ask for so many things. Now when I pray, I’m just thankful.
want to forget? No, I think some people are so rooted. When I talk about myself and I look back at the years I was put in school, those are my formative years. What I pick up or what I’ve learned. Things were done to us that were extreme, but a lot of people got out of it Maybe for some it hurts a lot. There’s so much pain. I know there’s a lot of emotional, sexual, physical abuse that was in the school I was in. But me, I think, fortunately, I was one of the lucky people. As a child, I didn’t have to go through that experience. Sometimes I think maybe that’s why it’s easier for me to have gone to the school I went to.
For someone who recognizes both Native spirituality and Christianity, what does each mean for you? My children start to work with me sometimes. And I do not force that on them. It’s their choice. It’s their choice, it’s their decision of what they want to get into. When they’re down or when they’re upset, one of them will say, “Can you light the sweetgrass and smudge the house?” You feel more intimate—that’s what has helped me. Before, a couple of years ago, when I went to church still, I would sit in the back of the church and I would not participate with the whole group. Instead I did it my own way. I would communicate with God in my own way in the back of the church. Because I think that when you are a group of people, you’re expected to do the same thing, you’re expected to say the same prayers, you’re not an individual. And that’s what it taught me—Native spirituality—that you’re an individual to your Creator, you’re one person with your strengths and your weaknesses.
Do you feel the Cree people became dependent because of Christianity? I think that before Christianity came, before the schools and the missionaries and whatever, I’ve always believed we were such a dependent people. And now we had this for many years, this dependency on other things, other foreign things. It’s like in my work, in social work, we try to teach people to take the responsibility of being an individual person. To be independent, to be responsible for your life. Now, because of this attitude we feel that somebody will fix me up, somebody will own my problem and will solve my problem.
But in social work, it’s completely unrealistic sometimes what people expect us to do. But I understand also where it comes from. It goes back to being oppressed. As a person you need to have your own power, your own choices, your own decisions. Sometimes I see it so clearly, why we have so many social problems. Some of our leaders, still they say, “No, we can’t do this, we have to wait for this.” It’s always something outside themselves or outside the community. The feeling is so good when you have the power to be your full potential as a human being. I guess I always feel that we need to know about our oppression. We need to understand it.
Or at least recognize it first. Do you think some people Do you think there is room in the Cree community for both forms of spirituality? My colleagues do.
They follow Christianity and Native traditions? Presently I think there is no room. But I’ve learned that what I believe in is good for me and that is what I must follow. That is what I will follow. When we discuss these things, the person who comes to my mind is Ghandi. I find that he was a man who lived to his principles, to the extremes. This winter we had a lot of meetings on this issue. I always believe that everybody has the right to express their opinion.
I find also that the people who were into Native spirituality were starting to bicker with the other side.
I used to tell them it’s his right express his opinion. And I think it’s also an issue of people not knowing who they are. I’ve always found in the type of work I do that a lot of people’s personal baggage or their personal issues block you from seeing clearly and from understanding. I think when you don’t understand something you should be silent.
Sometimes acceptance can be the hardest thing to do. Do you think people accept the situation where they are now? No. I think a lot of people are mixed up. People talk but they don’t live the reality of what they say. For instance, parenting. People have a lot of nice things to say, but they actually don’t live it in their daily lives, in their home. And I think that’s where we are. We fight amongst each other because we were oppressed people. And there’s a lot of hurt, emotional hurt.
My parents died at a very young age. I was 10. They died in a plane crash. But they taught us so much about love. That’s the value they gave us. How to respect people. But in this community I find there’s a lot of issues and social problems we don’t confront And then we give it to the next generation. People talk about the first priests who were here, they talk about molesting children and I had a very hard time with that. I think, how can these people who work in the church have done this? People still look upon them as superiors.
I went to a suicide conference three years ago in Ottawa. We started talking about the different ministers we had in our communities. And we all came to the conclusion that these ministers were the ones who had once worked in the South and had personal problems. There’s a minister I heard about who preached about how bad it is to have extramarital affairs and when he left the community he ran off with his maid. They were contradicting their lessons or their sermons.
So, ultimately, would you like to see more of the Cree community going back to traditional practices? I’m happy with myself and I don’t impose my own personal beliefs, but I see that people criticize it and don’t understand. How can you criticize something without understanding? Do you think the youth in the communities should learn more about traditional spirituality? I guess people have lost their religion, their spirituality, a lot of people. People hardly go to the church here. A lot of people don’t teach their kids to pray. Whatever religion they are. It’s like this— two of my boys haven’t been confirmed, only my daughter. For me, people get their kids confirmed, but why? Do they understand why they’re getting confirmed and what is the purpose and how do you support it? My daughter got confirmed, but it was her own choice. And my boys I don’t push.
I remember the year my daughter got confirmed, I had to find out why. What does this mean? What is the meaning of this ceremony for her? People don’t seem to grasp the reality of what’s really supposed to happen. At pow wows too, I find that. My granddaughter this year got initiated into a jingle dress dancer and for me the importance of it was that we still have a lot of work to do, my family, on healing. On my children too. The jingle dress symbolizes healing. Like when we dance, you dance to heal. You dance to heal your family and there has to be a meaning why we initiated her into the circle of that.
Does that mean a lot to her? She’s three. But she knows how to dance and it will be something that we teach her as she grows older. Also to teach her to make her own dress, her own colours, to be able to identify why she’s doing that It had a very deep meaning for me. It wasn’t just a costume she put on. It had a deep meaning for her. And every pow wow, me and my family, my sisters would have a big feast And the feast is for all the people. This last pow wow we had, we had a big feast again and I think we fed about 200 people. That has a meaning too.
An Elder told me when you prepare and give a feast for people, it’s like healing for your family. My sister told me a story about a man from Waswanipi who had some kind of illness and so one day he told his family, “Come, we’re going to go out on the land and I’m going to prepare a feast,” and that I guess for him was the healing of his illness. Do you understand? I guess for me, my purpose is I found myself, who I am. I’m not perfect; I have my ups and downs, but I find myself as who I am as a Native person. Something strange happens, when I think back to my early years, I must have been about two, three, four and I can remember a lot Everything comes back. The memories of living on the land. I can remember my childhood memories very clearly.
Positive images? Yes. This spring I had a chance to go to LG-4, my uncle’s camp, and I have only shared this with a few people. I used to take long walks, I used to listen to the wind and I used to sit alone. I used to be in solitude. Things would start happening. One time I went to aharbour that my father had made 30 years ago, where they used to put their supplies and it was still up, it was old and I went to see it and I spent some time there and I prayed. For me, I have a problem with that, my parents, and there I felt like I was talking to them. In my prayer, I said, “If you are really listening to me, give me a sign.” To see if they were hearing what I was saying, or God, the Creator.
And that evening, it was windy that day and it calmed down and I came out of my uncle’s cabin and the sun was just setting down. One of the islands in the lake just glowed with red. First thing I thought was, “That’s my answer.” From the reflection of the sun the island was lit up with a red glow. I don’t know how to say this, but when you look to yourself and ask what you believe in, things start to happen for you. You have to have faith and believe. That’s what has taught me what I’m following. The process. When I look back at the religion I was taught, I followed it, I read it and I learned the proverbs and the psalms. I tried to live my life from the proverbs. Some of it are good lessons, you can learn from it But for me I felt something was missing. It was not real for me. It didn’t come through for me. I guess that’s how to put it Is it disrespectful to our Elders and parents if we do not follow the same religion? I remember my grandmother was a very strong person and she lived off the land and she did things off the land and on the other hand she believed in Christianity to extremes. For me, the way I understood her was that when she talks about the church or the missionaries, she’d always name the minister. She would say, “This is what Reverend Watton told us. This is how we’re supposed to live, this is how we’re supposed to pray. You’re supposed to do what he said.” I guess that name, Rev. Watton, always stuck in my mind from my childhood, because she was always saying how good he was, how he helped the people, how he brought the religion, how he preached.
The way I understood it, the only word that comes to me is brainwash. My uncle is a very respected Elder and I still listen to him. He teaches me a lot But I never talked to him about what I believe in, what I do. Because every time you speak to an Elder now you always need to follow the church. I guess without confrontation we often find the spirituality of the community has been dead for many, many years. That’s why I think we have so many social problems. It’s like what the Chief said in his last interview with The Nation, “My father taught me about the church and I respect my father.” Me too, I respect my Elders, but for me, what made me look at things clearly was when I started to work on myself. Who am I? Who is this person? Will your children follow your example? It always comes down to the same thing. We need to know who we are first, before we become people. I don’t impose anything on my children. They see me. They see me light the sweetgrass. They see me smudge myself. If they come to me and tell me they want to be a part of this, it will be their own choice. When you do things, you need to follow things and be patient. I told my sister I have this urge to buy a hand drum and I told my children this. I told them I’m going to sing and what comes to my mind is a lullaby. To beat on the drum and sing lullabies to my grandchildren. But things seem to come to you. It’s like when I started using tobacco. I was out on the land, I was in Great Whale and I climbed that hill and I was looking at the roots of the trees and at the rocks as I was walking and I had this urge to just put tobacco on it. And I understood why afterward. Just to be thankful for this creation around me. When you do things it has to be honest and real. That’s why I don’t talk about what I do. I do it in my own way.