Since this fall, Oujé-Bougoumou has been in an uproar over spirituality, recently banning all forms of Native traditional practices within their communty. Having expressed a desire to share his feelings with all of Eeyou Istchee, the Nation decided to grant Matthew Mukash an interview on the issue.

The Nation: Oujé-Bougoumou has banned the practices of sweat lodges, powwows and rain dances because the community claims to have been founded in the Christian values of their Elders and previous leadership as they see these activities are a means to communicate with the spirit world and have roots in shamanism. What are your thoughts on this?

Matthew Mukash: This is a community issue. The Oujé-Bougoumou decision indeed has wide-ranging implications, but I believe it will settle itself over time.

The real issue is for the Cree Nation to come together and seriously look at not only the issue in question today but also about how much our people have suffered as a result of the impact of colonization. And as far as Eeyou spirituality and religion are concerned the leadership, internal and external to the Cree Nation, of all Christian denominations that have entered our society and our own spiritual leaders need to come together to have a very serious talk. It has been done elsewhere in the world. Without this, the divisions that exist today over these issues within our families, our communities and within our nation will continue to escalate.

TN: So, how would this dialogue begin? Where would it begin?

MM: First of all, like all human societies in the world, Eeyou society is evolving. Along this path of evolution we are likely to continue to face many challenges as we have in the past and in the present. Without these challenges, we are not likely to grow, as we should. Whatever happens at any given time is all part of our growing up, so-to-speak. This is something we need to accept as we move forward in our evolution toward our destiny as a people.

There are realities that we first need to accept as a people, and they are: Christianity and Eeyou spirituality are here to stay. There are no two ways about it. What we need is a certain level of tolerance that must exist among the followers of various Christian denominations and of our people who chose the Old Ways as part of their personal development. This should be goal; otherwise, our nation will invariably be weakened to a great extent by internal conflict and unrest. It is already happening.

I think there is an opportunity for peaceful coexistence and silence is not the answer.

TN: What about the Oujé-Bougoumou resolution? Do you agree that this is a gross violation of basic human rights?

MM: Historically, many questions have arisen in various circles regarding the continued practice of traditional ceremonies and rituals, which were outlawed by the governments in the past, but are now protected by provincial, national and international human-rights laws. There are varying views depending with whom you talk to. Even our own Elders are divided on the issue. Thus, to effectively and adequately address the issue of Eeyou spirituality is not going to be an easy task; it could take years before we see results.

Within our nation there are many questions raised. Some are about basic human rights of conscience and religion, the rights of Cree individuals to choose their own spiritual path, the rights of legal entities such as the Cree Board of Health and Niskamoon, federal and provincial programs and services, even Cree local governments – that provide funding for traditional activities, which include powwows and spiritual ceremonies. The right of self-government and self-determination is also at issue. These are only a few of the important matters that need to be addressed within the Cree Nation and, if possible, outside of the Canadian justice system.

This is why I say that the Cree Nation should come together to agree on the principle of tolerance that should exist within our society on Eeyou spirituality and religion. This, in my view, is essential for our peaceful coexistence and positive growth. The truth is that Native spiritual practices and Christianity are not going to go away. We have to learn to walk side-by-side

TN: What can you tell us about the Old Ways of our Ancestors? What do people need to know to make peace with it?

MM: First of all, many people are afraid of the Old Ways because of the spiritual wars that happened in the past. This is a very legitimate concern, in my view. But like our Elders often tell us there are two sides of everything.

Human history is tainted with conflict and wars resulting from abuse of what our Elders call the “gifts of humanity”, which includes power and authority, technology, knowledge and wisdom, including spirituality and religion, which are often used as instruments of colonization to dominate and control others. Such conflicts are still ongoing today in the world, and often risk triggering a global conflict that could threaten world peace. Now, many spiritual leaders in the world are saying that the answer to world peace and, thus, human destiny rests with the knowledge and wisdom of Indigenous peoples of the world.

So, my question is: What will we have to offer the world if we let go and bury the spiritual knowledge and wisdom of our Ancestors?

TN: Can you tell us what your views are on the spiritual knowledge and wisdom of the Ancestors? Why is it important to protect the ceremonies?

MM: Eeyou spiritual ceremonies, as I understand them, are meant to honour life and make it better. This is the good way. The opposite or abuse of such sacred ceremonies is to dishonour and ruin life. The whole point of choosing the traditional path of spirituality is to know and honour yourself, your gifts and purpose in life, and to honour the reason you were created Eeyou. With it, you learn to be able to discern the fine line between the good and the dark side, not only of spirituality, but also of life. This understanding is only possible, once you truly know yourself. And to know oneself well is to know Chissa-manitou, which literally translates into the “Great Spirit”. The Old Ways teach you how to find your true self and live your purpose in life.

I grew up with very traditional people, and I’ve gone through many storms of life in my lifetime.

Although I have always understood them, I didn’t attend to them until much later, in my mid-30s. I took that extra step to conquer my fear. From then on I’ve seen many things. I’ve seen people come out of depression resulting from personal loss, the effects of residential school, violence and abuse of all forms, and alcohol and drug addiction. I’ve seen women who were told by doctors they will never have children, going to ceremonies for help and within a few months, they were pregnant. Now, they have grandchildren. I’ve seen people who had cancer getting healed and now they live healthy lives. My friend’s mother was diagnosed with a terminal disease and was given six months to a year to live. They made a commitment to attend a Sun Dance ceremony to pray for their mom. She went on to enjoyed another five years of life. These are only few of the good things that I’ve seen over the years about the proper use of traditional knowledge and wisdom.

TN: What is your stand with respect to Christianity?

MM: I have a different understanding of what it means to be Christian, and I know I may be accused of blasphemy for saying this. To be Christian does not necessarily mean to belong to a certain denomination of the Christian faith. To me, it means to search for the meaning of and follow the Sacred Law that governs the Universe and all its realms. It is the universal law that says that the sun will rise in the East each morning at a certain time, and that if understood and followed will connect you to the Life Force, which is the underlying universal truth, the story of which is told in the spiritual teachings and sacred writings of the past. Ultimately, how you find this truth is to look within, and I believe that this is the message Jesus Christ and the historical prophets and spiritual teachers of the world taught us to seek and live by.

Our Ancestors understood and knew this long before the arrival of Europeans. This fact is evidenced by the existence of stories and legends that have been passed on for generations, which by the way are still very strong in Whapmagoostui. By knowing and accepting that our Ancestors were guided by this knowledge and wisdom, gives rise to the growth of personal, communal and national pride and dignity. This, I believe, is the direction we need to go as a nation.

TN: Many Christian denominations condemn Native spirituality because they believe it is evil or demonic. How do you respond to this?

MM: I don’t believe that all denominations do so. Why I say this, is because in my wife’s hometown, the Abenaki First Nation of Odanak, the Catholic Church invites an Elder to do a traditional Pipe Ceremony during Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. Traditional people and Catholics commune as one in prayer. It’s an extremely heart-warming experience and I’ve seen this many times. Besides, many people of the Church go to sweat lodges and other ceremonies, as do some of our leaders.

The first problem is the definition of “evil” or “devil” no matter how you look at it. I know the Bible has its own definition as do other sacred writings, and they differ to a certain extent. But the question still remains how do we discern evil from that which is not? Who is the devil? I once asked this question to an Elder for whom I have high regard and respect. His response was something like: the concept of “evil” or the “devil” has to be universal to be an element of truth. That means that human concept of evil or devil is not the same as that of other species in the world. If you were to ask a fish, for instance, in any body of water on earth who the devil is, you’ve probably get the response that humanity fits their concept because we constantly threaten the fish nation with our pollution and harvest. I think the same goes for all other species.

What my Elders teach me is that universal energy is like a car battery – you need the positive and negative energy to generate power. Spiritual development is the same; you’re likely to face challenges at any level in your spiritual development as with the physical, emotional and mental aspects of being human. Positive and negative forces will be breathing down your neck, so-to-speak, to make sure you walk in balance. The goal of an individual’s spiritual growth therefore is understand and master both, an essential element in conquering one’s fear. A whole new insight of life can be found in the absence of fear, to that I can attest.

TN: As a previous leader, with all that has happened in the past and what is happening today, what message do you have for the Cree people?

MM: I’ll say it again, the answer to all of this is tolerance and acceptance of each other regardless of our faith, and this is very difficult to do. I’ve gone through many phases in my lifetime and the most challenging was to get out of this bind of fear of many things, including our own spirituality and going to hell. But I’m beyond that now. Having done so is like waking up to a sunny day after a relentless storm. It’s like walking into the Light. All it takes is that extra step – and that extra step is conquering your fear and embracing acceptance.