During my time growing up on the Moose Factory First Nation reserve, I was constantly aware and reminded during most weekends of the social problems that seemed to fester and flourish in my family, as well as others on the reserve. The major factor that contributed to family and community breakdown in our small village during the 1970s was the same thing that affected most Canadian and American reservations— alcohol. During the summer months, it ran rampant all summer long.
It was not uncommon to witness physical fights, screaming verbal disputes, and woman and children openly weeping. In the winter, it was a dangerous thing to drink and walk around the village because your body was susceptible to the elements, and indeed there were horror stories in both summer and winter. As most intellects and professionals will tell you, self-worth and knowing who you are were two major factors that exhibited and contributed to these very heart-wrenching scenarios.
This article will hopefully delve into two religions that were embraced by this community in hopes of answering these problems as well as others.
Like other villages along the James Bay coast during the fur trade, the Crees were bombarded with new and strange spiritual leaders dressed in black apparel who talked of a god, promises, repentance and a heaven.
I interviewed three people for this article—all drawing from their vast knowledge in their respective religious beliefs. Their individual passion for life and love for a creator is reflected in the way they addressed and responded to each question I posed to them. I asked questions pertaining directly towards their creator and many questions about Native spirituality; its definition, its status in the communities, its practices, its place among the many denominations and about pre-European contact in James Bay. Questions were raised around Christianity as a legitimate creed among the Native communities.
Was it needed for the well-being of the Crees? Were the Crees practising pantheism? Were the Christians doing their tenet conversions under man-made movements? What was true Christianity? Did the Crees possess the ability to embrace the Holy Spirit? You have all these generic questions that seemed to assail both doctrines in a time of great change for the Crees and new world people, and this still occurs even in today’s modern movements.
The three participants are all from the Moose Factory-Moosonee area. The first man, Bob, is the only practising traditional Native spiritual leader in the community. He speaks his language, raised on the land and later in the community. He is in his late thirties, single and started his journey toward attaining the title of Native spiritual leader 18 years ago, but never really fully embracing it until the 1980s.
The second man is Mervin, 34 years old. He is the pastor of the Cree gospel chapel in Moose Factory and is Cree. Mervin accepted the Lord in June of 1976. Went to bible school out west for a number of years prior to gaining his pastoral duties. He is married, has three children and preaches in Cree.
The third person is Diane, in her 40s, is a true Christian formally of the Pentecostal denomination. Presently she is completing her degree in criminology at Carleton, married with five children and has lived in Moosonee for well over 25 years.
WHO IS THE CREATOR? The question of recognizing a creator was one that seemed to reach consensus from all three. That is, yes there is a higher power, he created all living things and along with that created man. Speaking with Bob, the Native spiritual leader, on the existence of a creator, he proudly says the creator is a being he cannot see but that he feels his presence. He is an entity, he’s within every individual, he’s within the sun, the solar system, the whole universe. The grass grows every year, it grows new, the leaves grow, the rivers grow and life, like the woman, is also a creator because it creates life. The creator is in everything, it’s never ending. Bob’s approach is non-aggressive, he speaks with a calmness and belief within him that is somehow wise.
Mervin, the Cree gospel pastor, views it from the one document that has consumed his life and has been his life for many years, the Bible. For Mervin, the creator is God. He quotes from the Bible and even proceeds to change a word to show his point.. “Jesus said I am the way, the truth and the life, no man comes unto the father and says no man comes unto the creator…” The quote ends: “…but through me.”
He continues by saying we were created by God to worship and to worship him, and every human being has that choice. I say if you are not worshipping anything you are worshipping something else. It could be Native spirituality, you can worship all kinds of things. Worship means your affection is on something.
Now, could Mervin be referring to that “something else” as a wrong way? His tone of voice reflected this, using that “something else” as a metaphor for perhaps the unenlightened, the dark side, as in being blind.
Still on the issue of a creator, I invited this query for Diane to explore. A very outspoken and intelligent person, she first replied by saying the Bible says everyone was born with the spirit of God, a knowledge of God in them. He is God, God created the sun, heaven and earth. A lot of people in different religions missed God. It’s like not seeing the forest through the trees. They were so close to the truth they didn’t see him.
And this is what’s happening in Canada and America today. Today, there are many who don’t know who the true God is. They’re going back to the old religions like the nature religions, druid-type ceremonies, witchcraft. You ask a Native person what is the name of your God, they’ll say “gitchi manitou” which in English means Great God. That is not a name that is a title like president or vice-president. “Great God,” God, Mighty God. What’s his name? There is only one God, Native spirituality is worshipping the creation and not the creator.
For example, the ones who have clans— the bear clan, the turtle clan. This means something, more than belonging to à clan. There is a type of worship because you depend on that magic. There is such a worship of animals even so much so that you have astral travel and telepathy—the Natives call it spirit walking. She goes on and says they don’t realize who the true God is, all animal worship is demonic. The bible says God cuts the spirit from the body. He does not allow astro travel because man is in no position to have that right now.
There is only one God and that’s the one who created man. God said don’t make any images of man in heaven or on earth. And this has and is happening. You look at the Egyptian ruins, gargoyles on old churches, paintings.
On Natives and God, Diane says she is very afraid for Native people right now. They are not seeing the whole religion and who it is based on, Satan. There is only one God, one truth and one spirit, and you can’t have harmony from confusion. You can’t have contradiction and have harmony.
SALVATION For the pastor Mervin, salvation is knowing first and foremost that you, as a human, fall short in front of God. We sinned against God and therefore we’re out of touch with him. But then again, we were created for God and you grow up in life and find there is something missing, and you turn to things to fill that void. It could be Buddhism, Hinduism, alcohol and drugs or Native spirituality. But the only way to salvation and the only one who can fill that void is God through Jesus Christ.
Diane’s response to the question of salvation is much along the same lines as Mervin’s. Saying you are a person who is made up of a physical body, you know you have a soul, everyone knows this. Somehow they know this body is not all that we are. You have something in you that feels spiritual or eternal or almost exists on its own. It couldn’t be something existing through physical things like blood pumping or electrodes, it’s too intelligent and has feelings that go beyond anything man could get out of a computer. Your soul soars and it can’t soar without salvation. Jesus Christ is the connection to salvation. God’s law said the sacrifice had to be perfect and none of us humans were. Jesus knew he had to pay the price, so in order for us to reach salvation he died on the cross.
We can see parallels with both Diane and Mervin on the way to salvation. Bob, on the other hand, viewed salvation on a much simpler, terrestrial level, referring to the number four in his beliefs. The body achieves salvation through its achieving serenity, by acknowledging the spirits in the earth, wind, fire and air. These elements are correlated with the animal, vegetable, mineral and human. There is no recognition or existence of sin or iniquity in humans, he says, arguing that if the creator is good he creates only good. He created people as good. Otherwise if it weren’t good we wouldn’t be here.
What Bob is implying here is that you are born without sin. Salvation is continuing to live well, respecting the earth, animals, Elders, all life on earth and passing on to the spirit world when you die.
DID CREES NEED CHRISTIANITY? For Bob, growing up into a family where his parents practice the Christian faith was not fully enriching spiritually. He says I didn’t fully understand the religion of the whiteman. There were a lot of contradictions in his practices and the way he perceived to be who he was.
Around the James Bay area, in a remote Cree settlement called Kashechewan back in 1977, I talked with Elder James Wesley and he told me the Indian people knew that the whiteman was coming even before he came.
So you could say the Crees were living just fine without the whites and their foreign religion. They co-existed with nature for thousands of years and had their own spiritual arrangement with a creator that was clearly defined. Essentially, it was this law of kindness, honesty and sharing that was taken advantage of by the Europeans.
The whites soon took the land, animals, minerals, water, etc. It was in their Bible and its teachings that the whiteman wrote of sharing and honesty. But the Native people were living it. To confirm his belief Bob asks why did Natives have all this religion, all this land? It was so green before the whiteman came, and in fact it was so clean and so nice that when they came here they called it “new.” New world—it was the same age as theirs. Our ancestors knew how to keep it green.
The early Christians on the other hand regarded the Native peoples as heathens, infidels, pagans. Their motive was to divide, conquer, civilize and to save souls. Up in the James Bay area this was done by the Wesleyans, Anglicans, Jesuits and Catholics.
The first ones arrived in the 1600s along with the economic boom of the fur trade. A product of this spreading of the word was Mervin, the pastor. He conveys the scripture of sinning against God and applying it to the context of filling that void in one’s life.
He says he’s met enough people who are also into Native spirituality who are still empty in their lives, and some have turned to Christianity. When asked about being Native and Christian, he resolves by saying their are five features to every culture; material, social, linguistic, aesthetic and religion.
For Mervin, religion is central. He adds, “But when you become a Christian it doesn’t affect who you are. I’ll always be an Indian. Even before I was saved, Indian was my culture and I was very proud of that, and still am. But when I became a Christian, the religion aspect changed. No longer was my culture my religion, Christianity was, but I still practice and hold onto my culture very much. In my church, I still preach in Cree.”
Of the three who spoke on this issue of whether Christianity is needed by the Crees, none investigated it more than Diane. She began by saying, “The Bible says if you ever want to know what a people is look at their behaviour, look at the fruits of the spirit they call it They appear not any different from any other nation that is without God. And this goes for the Native peoples of this land prior to the advent of the whiteman.
They were divided, they had wars amongst themselves, fought for greed, land, women. Just like any other nation. The same thing happened when the Romans conquered England. Look at the Saxons? It’s in history.”
“I’ve heard Christianity being called a whiteman’s religion, and I’ve heard them say Jesus Christ is a white man. Jesus Christ is more closely related to Native people, having come from the tribe of Shem, traditional tribe of the Semites. The three sons of Noah were: Ham, Jaffith and Shem. Jaffith became the Europeans, the people of the Arabic and Negro nations were derived from Ham, and the Shem people were the Jewish, Turkish and remnants of Orientals, Mongolians and Inuit”
Diane continues on about Jesus by saying, “Actually we’re worshipping a god who really derived from a tribe that is more closely related to Native people.”
I can assume that both Mervin and Diane have a consensus in saying that true Christianity hasn’t been in organized religion for a long time. Mervin believes that denominations are not from God but are man-made. It shows the sinfulness, that we can’t relate, we can’t get along, and also reflects our failings as human beings.
FUTURE OF CHRISTIANITY and NATIVE SPIRITUALITY Bob felt very strongly about the survival of Native spirituality in the James Bay area, but was legitimately concerned for the Cree language. He says, “You see there are Elders but they are not practising it, and to find an Elder who knows what they’re talking about, that’s the real thing.”
Interestingly enough, Bob says a lot of the Elders are confused and were raised with the strong influence of the church in their lives. The church effectively erased the traditional Cree ceremonies, using the government to assist it Back in the time of these Elders’ youth, the church was like the government today. It had quite a strong influence over the people in most aspects of their lives.
Bob continues by saying the Elders want to keep their language at the same time. Today, a lot of the kids in the James Bay area are looking outside of the community, which is what I have done. Talking about preserving language, culture is not enough. You have to practice it, do them.
You see some of the teenagers wanting to learn about those things and wanting to travel to where these older traditions are still practised or are being revived. You’ll definitely see a big movement towards Native spirituality in the next five to 10 years. Right now the movies got that thing moving, but I think more people are going to get into what I call the realism about it, a real feeling about what’s happening. For the kids, it’s going to be a new thing. In James Bay they are going to want to know.
But Diane sees it differently. She says, yes, she sees the push toward Native spirituality. Yes, I already see the fighting and I see it in a kind of a racial way. Religion should not be racial. Native people thought they have given Christianity a chance, it let them down.
But is it Native religion itself that has caused people to stop drinking? A lot of people said they went to the Elders who used to drink and talked, and they stopped drinking. This sounds like Christianity. Sounds like the stories of Christianity. Was it truly their religion—the sweatlodges, the dancing that finally brought them together to finally lean on each other for the first time in history? Because Native people as a whole were not used to sitting down and talking emotions, they find this very hard to do, very difficult. Is it really the Native religion or is it that they started to care for one another? You see, they think it’s Native religion that’s doing this, but in fact, it was the Native religion that was doing the cohesive uniting, bringing them together to one place at one time.
But if you take a religion like Native religion which professes that no sin exists, are you really doing your child a favour by teaching them that there is no right or wrong? Is it alright to maybe ruin someone else’s life in his learning process? To Diane, this whole movement toward Native spirituality is in the Bible. It’s just another religion whose approach to life is based on pantheistic beliefs. She goes on to mention the fact that so many Natives were scared off from Christianity because of its man-made aspects which come across as aggressive and wrong.
The young pastor Mervin says we’re fighting a losing battle here. “I don’t want to sound pessimistic, I really find it tough that people are going to continue,” he says.
“I know people were turning to Native spirituality in the last few years, but yet, people have been neglecting the other side, our language. A lot of people claim that they’re into Native spirituality, but yet don’t know the language. They don’t care to learn it I see young people probably getting more confused because they’re not really getting that fulfilment out of it If I may use this phrase, ‘I’m proud to be an Indian by race, but more proud to be a Christian by grace.’ I call myself an Indian Christian.”
In interviewing these people, I found a unique approach to each one’s beliefs. Their strength in their words came across in their presence. Most certainly, agnostics would be swayed to think and persuaded otherwise in their own existence. It seemed odd and awkward perhaps to ask these people, whom I’ve known and grown up with, for an interview on an aspect of life that is their centre. In the words of Bob, Native spirituality is not a religion but a way of life.
In the James Bay area, I see these two religions at their throats at times, and this is a product of the man-made side of religion. There were good points made from both convictions. There were some obscure and some unequivocal aspects on the question surrounding a higher power, history and culture.
And so this life goes on. There are so many people both lost in earthly and heavenly doctrines. There are so many lost in manmade goodness or man-made badness, or are these really the same? What is life? Good question. Well, based on these two religions, one makes it quite simple, so simple in fact that we completely miss the true meaning and become consumed in believing through sight The other one makes it as simple as breathing the air, drinking the water and listening with your mind-ears.
It was a joy to talk of the unseen and seen from aspects of these religions or ways of life. These friends were both insightful in their knowledge and gracious in their time.