Father, forgive me for I have sinned.
Pity the god who made me in his image. I just turned sixty-five and have not been to confession since 1954 at the age of fourteen, the experience of which is clearly etched in memory. It was an acrimonious and a deeply traumatic event in my life in residential school. I swore I would never go back.
At that time, the confessional was an enclosed stall tucked in the back of the chapel. It had three compartments, the central cubicle being reserved for the priest who represented the all-forgiving Christ. On each side was a tiny compartment where the sinner knelt on an oak step to whisper a prepared recitation of sins through a little screened window, following which the deserved penance was meted out. The priest would then slide the window shut and open the other side to hear that confession. Usually, the penance consisted of a set of Hail Marys from the rosary in a number commensurate with the gravity of the confession. Sins were divided into two basic categories of contravention against the prescribed doctrine: mortal sins being major transgressions and venial sins being minor infractions. A sinner wearing a mortal sin upon death would go to hell. One carrying venial sins would go to purgatory. An unbaptized infant, presumed upon death to carry Adam’s original sin from the Garden of Eden, could not enter into heaven until the final Judgment Day and would, therefore, wait in a place called “Limbo.” But sins and punishment were the central preoccupations then. Such is my memory, although much seems to have changed in the Roman Catholic Church since then.
Confession is now the Sacrament of Reconciliation. The new rite may be done in three formats. The first is a celebration with one penitent. The second is a group confession, but only individual absolution is received. The third is group reconciliation where a general confession is performed and absolution is granted to all participating penitents. While the revamped sacrament still has to do with the confession of sins, the emphasis is now on healing where sinfulness is the disease and sins are its symptoms.
My confession will, more or less, follow the old protocol. It is intended for you to understand what I have gone through to get here. It will also give you my perspective on how we got to this necessary point of reconciliation. In addition, there are historical factors from the Old World thinking that have contributed to the breakdown of peace and harmony upon which Christianity, your faith, and my traditional spirituality are founded. These will be reviewed because unless we address them together, any hope of reconciliation in our society is seriously undermined. Father, given the chance, we will come to accept what we have in common and learn to respect our differences.
How did I get here?
I was literally thrown into St. Mary’s Residential School at four years of age after my father died and my mother took sick immediately thereafter. She would spend the rest of her life in and out of the hospital. My very first memory of my entry into the school is a painful flashback. For whatever reason, I am thrown into a kneeling position. My head is bashed against a wooden cupboard by the boys’ supervisor. Instant shock, the nauseating smell of ether, more spanking, then numbness; sudden fear returns at the sight of the man. Was this discipline or just outright cruelty? This had never happened to me before. Where is my dad? Where is my mother? They’re not here. Where are my three older brothers? Step in if they dare—they see what’s happening, they watch in horror, but they are helpless. Father, in time, that supervisor would be consecrated as a holy priest into your order.
You and the Oblate Fathers of Mary Immaculate and the Sisters of Saint Joseph ran the school. French was always used among yourselves and the nuns who often called us “Merde cochon!” We had to learn English, it being the only language permissible among ourselves. Latin was the official language of religious rites and rituals then. Although the language was foreign to me, I quickly became proficient in Latin recitations of the Mass as a devoted altar boy. For our part, we were strictly forbidden to use our own language at any time under pain of severe punishment.
From four to seven years of age, while the other children went to their classes, my time was spent alone in the cavernous playroom. It was dark and dreary. The room seemed haunted with strange shadows dancing about in the corners. There was no kindergarten, so occasionally a playmate would be allowed to spend time with me. When she could, my mother would take me home until she had to be readmitted into the hospital. Finally, I could begin classes at seven. The first classes were spent memorizing the catechism, the manual of questions and answers that taught everything all young Catholics must know about their religion. The first question: Who made you? God made me. Second question: Why did God make you? God made me to love him, to serve him in this world, and to be happy with him in heaven forever. There were many others.
As intriguing as some of the teachings became over the years, we could never ask why the answers were as they were. To question was to doubt, a manifestation of the devil’s work. To analyze was to mock God. To argue was to commit blasphemy, a mortal sin. The answers, we were told, came from God through the Pope, who was infallible. We were blessed with the true Word of God, and we were to pray for the strength to simply believe. We accepted everything, and we memorized the catechism dutifully. There was a heaven and that’s where we all wanted to go, but there were gnawing thoughts always reined in by my fear of the alternative. The notion of going to hell for eternity was absolutely frightening to a six-year-old, especially one with an active imagination like mine. One day, I asked the nun who served as my teacher and catechist to explain hell. First, she asked me about any previous burns. Every little boy knows the excruciating pain of fire. By way of comparison, she took me to the window and pointed to the thermometer outside on which the highest mark was 212 degrees Fahrenheit. She said that the sun is a million times hotter than that, and hellfire is many times hotter still. How does one not used to mathematics relate to a million? In our traditional system of counting, one million is conceptualized as running out of numbers once. That is heat beyond comprehension. If I die with a mortal sin in my soul, this is where I am going. Should I die with a venial sin, I am going to purgatory with fire as hot as hellfire except not for eternity but only until my sins have been purged. The young impressionable mind is stricken with absolute fright.
In the darkness of the dormitory and alone in bed, I am suddenly overcome by cold sweat. Although baptized into the Catholic faith, my poor unsuspecting mother still adheres to her traditional spirituality. A little boy so loves his mother that he never wants to see her hurt. Yet, in these circumstances, she is so precariously close to the door of hell. Satan will take her straight to the fires of eternal suffering never to get out once she is there. Pagans and sinners are condemned souls unless they join the faith. It’s up to me. From here onward, my prayers will be perfectly sincere and ardently pious. You will never see a more dedicated altar boy offering masses served for his mother’s salvation. But what about my daddy who died so suddenly? Would such a kind and loving man go to hell? If he went with a mortal sin, the answer is painfully obvious, I am told. I will never know if my prayers are too late.
My grandparents who had refused baptism because of their traditional beliefs would also be in hell for having spurned the chance to be saved. All my ancestors, for that matter, are in hell because they believed in something other than the only true Church of God. Indeed, so are all sinners and Protestants. Protestants, what are they doing there? Risking wrath but feigning innocence, I once asked in catechism class, “How do we know that ours is the one and only true faith?” My first brimstone and hellfire sermon was to follow. When she calmed down a notch, she called me to the front of the classroom where so many children had been humiliated before. “Spell the word ‘Protestant’,” she yelled. Her mocking tone sounded as though the word was beyond my capabilities to spell. No trouble: P-R-O-T-E-S-T-A-N-T. Now she demanded that the last three letters be struck. The naked word stood exposed. “You see, the Protestants are protesting against the true Word of God,” she proclaimed loudly to make the point. Through no choice of his, one of my brothers had gone to a Protestant residential school. Was he going to hell? “Well, he’s a Protestant is he not? Freddie, you just don’t listen,” she replied with an obvious air of vindication.
At eleven years of age, my curiosity turned into voracious reading in search of some expanded explanations perchance to reinforce my religion. Nothing was forthcoming. We moved on to grades seven and eight at a time when we were also becoming young men and women with the psychobiological changes that come with normal adolescence. More sins, but that’s another story. For me, this was not an easy time. Blind faith was not doing for me what it seemed to do for others. My search became even more desperate. Outside books might do the trick. But my quest ran smack into the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, the Catholic List of Prohibited Books. Another priest explained that publications in the list were banned because their topics were those of heresy, moral depravity, and other matter written by atheists, agnostics, and all manner of degenerate philosophers. The List was discontinued in 1966, years after my time of desperation. The books obviously posed a danger to all of us in the faith, and this explained why no outside literature was available. We were being protected. It also explained, in part, why our personal letters to and from the school were censored. But the idea of books on philosophy tweaked my inquisitive mind even more. Father, I sinned in coveting such books. What’s more, I sneaked out of the school in search of them. I sinned again.
We were usually confined to the school grounds and our time was regulated by a regimented schedule. On Saturdays, however, we had no classes and we might then be allowed to go into town with our parents. Otherwise, if we had the money, we might on occasion be escorted to a movie by the supervisor. Rarely did I have money. But on one memorable day, I went with the group and sneaked away during the show for a quick visit to the local library. Under no circumstances was anyone allowed to wander off alone. Breaking this rule would lead to prohibition from ever going into town again in addition to other punishment. When I arrived at the front desk, the matronly librarian pointed me to the children’s section downstairs. But I told her that I was looking for the section on theology and philosophy. She smirked in bemusement. This town was known for its racism and Indians were not simply allowed to enter any public place. And what’s this, an Indian kid looking for philosophy? Every aspect of her demeanour seemed condescending, but she humoured me and led me to a row of books. She bowed her head slightly to allow her glasses to slide down her nose just so far. She peered and pointed her pencil toward the section. At once my heart palpitated with fear and excitement. This time, I had gone way too far. A title jumped out at me: Why I am not a Christian by Bertrand Russell,1 the renowned atheist, but of course unknown to me at the time. This book had to be mine. I stole it. Father, I felt relieved that I was not alone after all. Then another book struck me with awe: Living Philosophies, a collection of personal credos by Einstein2 and other luminaries. There were more books on questions that had caused me so much anguish. Here was the Holy Grail. The hidden treasure was here. The library became a private and secret destination. Father, I sinned and would knowingly continue to do so again and again. I had defied the List of Prohibited Books. I had now eaten of the forbidden fruit!
Father, on the occasions we talked openly, you seemed to understand that mine was a questioning mind. Believing nevertheless that my search was evil, my only recourse was confession and prayer, more penance and contrition, then more prayers. The story of doubting Thomas, the Apostle who had to see and feel the wounds of Christ before he was convinced of the holy resurrection, rang so true to me in my predicament. The mind craved the sanctified truth of Catholicism, but there was also a compelling need to understand. My inquisitiveness did not so much need evidence as it sought plausible explanations to my perplexities. The catechism was so arbitrary, and reasoned discussions never took place. Among many others, there were questions about the Immaculate Conception. The Ascension of Christ needed at least some discussion. There appeared to be a contradiction in an all-forgiving God and his eternal punishment for a temporal sin carried at the time of death. There was a nagging question of predestination versus free will. There was unkindness and intolerance in a Church built on the teachings of Christ who had spoken on behalf of the poor, preached about understanding, and even taught acceptance of human frailties. It was also impossible for me to accept that my ancestors, who had not known about the religion prior to the arrival of the missionaries, could be condemned to hell for not following the Catholic way of life. I was told that these were some of the mysteries that one must simply accept as part of salvation. But by natural disposition, I was not easily given to blind faith.
At fourteen and going into grade nine, I went through what all Catholic boys must go through at one time or another. Your dedication and apparent peace of mind was an inspiration. Father, the priesthood seemed attractive. Here the answers and my life’s work would surely be found. With great surprise, my application to enter the seminary was accepted. But something happened on the way to my Damascus.
Questions about my religion persisted and constituted the most oft-repeated recitations in the confessional. So monotonously recurrent must my sins have become that the priest in the confessional that day finally stirred from his usually passive composure and asked impatiently if this was Freddie. “Yes,” I replied with surprise and nervousness. He admonished sternly, “Why don’t you get these doubts out of your head and be a good Catholic boy like you’re supposed to be.” The forgiving Christ, represented by the priest, suddenly became a scowling human being, indeed a very intense, scolding old man. In the classroom, the use of the name “Freddie” was usually followed by a painful clout to the ears, a deafening shock to the eardrums that left a burning sensation and a lingering hum fading into a distant buzz. My reaction was impulsive and my words came out in a quick defiant whisper:?“If I were a good Catholic boy, I wouldn’t be here.” Outside the confessional, this priest doubled as the principal of the school. I was in very deep trouble. “Don’t talk back,” snapped my confessor. “Well, don’t give me hell,” I blurted unaware of my prophetic words. This was a sacrilege, an act of unforgivable irreverence to Christ, the confessional, the sacrament, the priest, and everything the Church stood for. Stunned by my own insolence, I arose and slithered out of the confessional like the condemned serpent banished from the Garden of Eden. I was certain of only one thing, excommunication from the Church leading to eternal damnation. Stepping back into the chapel, the altar bells rang as the chalice was raised in consecration, the most sacred part of the Mass. But instead of all heads bowed in reverence as the wine was being transformed into the blood of Christ, the whole congregation, so it seemed, was turned back toward our commotion in the confessional. This would be my last time in the confessional, although I continued to attend religious ceremonies in this state of mortal sin for the rest of my years in residential school, thus compounding my damnation. This was surely the time to leave school. I no longer belonged here, and I was certain that I no longer belonged in the faith. Yet, Father, I was transferred to another residential school even further from home. I was sent from St. Mary’s in Kenora, Ontario, to St.Paul’s High in Lebret, Saskatchewan.
Now, how did we get here? It’s a long story, to be sure, but I will give you a condensed version.
Given the Eurocentric notion of the discovery of North America, finding the new lands was an act of divine providence that rewarded Christian explorers from the Old World in their search for new riches and exotic resources. For the Catholic Church, the prospect of saving untold multitudes of heathens from their godlessness was a daunting mission, yet, nevertheless, one that had to be done in the name of the European God.
Scandinavian, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Dutch, French, English, and Russian explorers had all left a footprint on the land and an indelible imprint on the Aboriginal people they had made contact with. All had invariably believed that the new lands were virgin wilds inhabited by uncivilized savages. Even after they came to be considered human after all, and not without fierce and prolonged debate among church and legal scholars, Indigenous peoples of Turtle Island were defined according to Old World conceptualizations. Throughout all the activity of discovery, settlement, and battles for control of North America, two premises were absolutely clear. First, Christian law did apply to the new world. Second, claims to the new lands could be validated only in terms of European law, not according to Indigenous laws.
Turtle Island, in its own right, was a continent populated by a variety of peoples who shared, in general terms, a common land and civilization in much the same way the settlers did in the Old World. The people of the New World “had occupied all habitable zones from the Arctic tundra to the Caribbean isles, from the high plateaus of the Andes to the blustery tip of Cape Horn. They had developed every kind of society: nomadic hunting groups, settled farming communities, and dazzling civilizations with cities as large as any then on earth,”3 according to Ronald Wright in his book Stolen Continents.
In terms of numbers, Olive Dickason, arguably the most authoritative Aboriginal historian in Canada, writes in Canada’s First Nations: “Estimates for the hemispheric population have been going steadily upward in recent years, and have reached a very high 112.5 million for the fifteenth century on the eve of European arrival.”4 According to Dickason, this “would have been higher than the 70 million estimated for Europe (excluding Russia) at the beginning of the sixteenth century.”5 She adds that for North America north of the Rio Grande, estimates range up to eighteen million and even higher for the early sixteenth century.
Sacred Relationship with the Land Undone
As you know, Father, the British defeated the French in 1760 and thereby assumed supremacy over what would become Canada. Relationship between the First Nations and Britain developed in three successive and overlapping stages in which Christianity, through its various churches, played a pivotal role. First, the Indians were considered separate and special peoples to be dealt with as friends and allies. In the second stage, the Royal Proclamation of 1763 instituted a treaty-making process between the British Crown and the Indigenous nations. The third stage was an era of special legislation that overran the good spirit and intent of the treaties. Henceforward, the official policy of the government was to do away with the Indian problem once and for all. The Indian Act would be the means to that end.
When they created Canada in 1867, the federal and provincial governments divided jurisdictional powers among themselves. Contrary to the spirit and intent of the treaties, traditional territories of the First Nations came under provincial jurisdiction. By this division, unfettered access to the natural resources that had sustained Indigenous peoples since time immemorial was now denied by governments that totally disdained First Nations and disregarded their treaty rights. All this occurred without their consent. The provinces, confronted with challenges to such deceit and treachery, even to this day rationalize that the rule of law must prevail in Canada, but never mind that treaties constitute part of the rule of law. The damage to the traditional lifeways was irreversible and created a toxic relationship between First Nations and the provinces that continues to this day. It was inconceivable that any other governmental action could have such an adverse effect on the lives of the First Nations. More was to come.
By Section 91(24) of the British North American Act, the federal government reserved for itself exclusive and total control over “Indians, and Lands reserved for the Indians.” Out of these seven words came the Indian Act that would effectively destroy all other aspects of First Nation life and reduce the people to a state of tutelage.
Identity and citizenship, the most fundamental of human rights, were stripped away and replaced by membership in “bands” created by the Indian Act. Also, reserves that had been set aside pursuant to the treaties were placed under the Indian Act, the crude administration of which quickly turned them into veritable internment camps. Among many other federal policies, a segregated system of justice was created under the Act that gave the Indian agent total control over the behaviour of Indians on and off reserve. While the agent did not seem to encourage extirpation, neither did he appear to discourage it. He did abide and enforce total subjugation of Indians as wards of the government. Among other prohibitions, traditional spiritual and religious practices were also outlawed. It was illegal to raise money for claims against the government, and lawyers were not permitted to advocate for Indians. It was also against the law to pursue land claims.
To take the territorial lands away from a people whose very spirit is so intrinsically connected to Mother Earth was to actually dispossess them of their very soul and being; it was to destroy whole Indigenous nations. Weakened by disease and separated from their traditional foods and medicines, First Nation peoples had no defence against further governmental encroachments on their lives. Yet they continued to abide by the terms of the treaties trusting in the honour of the Crown to no avail. They were mortally wounded in mind, body, heart, and spirit that turned them into the walking dead. Recovery would take time, and fortunately they took their sacred traditions underground to be practised in secret until the day of revival that would surely come. Father, that day is upon us!
Canada’s Statement of Reconciliation
In 1998, Canada issued a Statement of Reconciliation, its formal response to the Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, the most exhaustive study ever done on the subject. It read, in part:
The ancestors of First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples lived on this continent long before explorers from other continents first came to North America. For thousands of years before this country was founded, they enjoyed their own forms of government. Diverse, vibrant Aboriginal nations had ways of life rooted in fundamental values concerning their relationships to the Creator, the environment, and each other, in the role of Elders as the living memory of their ancestors, and in their responsibilities as custodians of the lands, waters and resources of their homelands.6
It went on to say:
Sadly, our history with respect to the treatment of Aboriginal people is not something in which we can take pride. Attitudes of racial and cultural superiority led to a suppression of Aboriginal culture and values. As a country, we are burdened by past actions that resulted in weakening the identity of Aboriginal peoples, suppressing their languages and cultures, and outlawing spiritual practices. We must recognize the impact of these actions on the once self-sustaining nations that were disaggregated, disrupted, limited or even destroyed by the dispossession of traditional territory, by the relocation of Aboriginal people, and by some provisions of the Indian Act. We must acknowledge that the result of these actions was the erosion of the political, economic and social systems of Aboriginal people and nations.7
How many Aboriginal people formally accepted the statement as an apology is not known. For First Nations, at least, it was reasonable to expect a more enlightened approach from the federal government thereafter. Instead, the government reverted to its previous approach of unilaterally imposing its policies on them. The minister of the day, who claimed to be of Aboriginal extraction, tried to ram a suite of legislation through Parliament without the approval of First Nations. This included a First Nations Governance Act that was seen as a blatant and irrevocable breach of First Nations’ inherent rights. First Nations across Canada rallied to defeat it. And they did.
Human conflict is a clash of wills and interests over an intractable issue. Reconciliation is a process that enables adversaries to rebuild relations toward a new future together. As such, it involves ongoing personal and collective processes. Reconciliation has gained currency in the larger societal context where people have experienced a period of domestic conflict. There is no standard definition or model for reconciliation and understandably so. The variables will depend on the circumstances, the nature of the issues, and certainly the adversaries themselves. There is, however, general agreement on some common features of an effective process among practitioners of reconciliation, such as those recited by Hizkias Assefa in The Meaning of Reconciliation:
- a) Honest acknowledgment of the harm/injury each party has inflicted on the other;
- b) Sincere regrets and remorse for the injury done;
- c) Readiness to apologize for one’s role in inflicting the injury;
- d) Readiness of the conflicting parties to “let go” of the anger and bitterness caused by the conflict and the injury;
- e) Commitment by the offender not to repeat the injury;
- f) Sincere effort to redress past grievances that caused the conflict and compensate the damage caused to the extent possible;
- g) Entering into a new mutually enriching relationship.8
Father, there are those who believe that a generic reconciliation process is a Western-based concept to be imposed on the Aboriginal peoples without regard to their own traditional practices of restoring personal and collective peace and harmony. We must therefore insist that the Aboriginal peoples have meaningful participation in the design, administration, and evaluation of the reconciliation process so that it is based on their local culture and language.
If reconciliation is to be real and meaningful in Canada, it must embrace the inherent right of self-determination through self-government envisioned in the treaties, and it must be structured to accommodate the cultural diversity and regional differences in concepts, approaches, and time frames of the First Nations in Canada. The courts have struck down many of the impediments to reconciliation, but the government takes those decisions more as limitations on its unilateral powers than as opportunities to engage First Nations in the implementation of the treaty provisions. Where government refuses to implement Aboriginal rights and the original spirit and intent of the treaties, the citizens of Canada must take direct action to forcefully persuade its leadership. Treaties and memoranda of agreement are simply the stage-setting mechanisms for reconciliation. There must be action.
Let me put it more succinctly, Father, you and all Canadians have treaty rights too. We all have fundamental rights under the law of man and the Creator. That behoves us to come together.
You see, Father, sovereignty and the inherent right of self-determination constitute the very spirit of the treaties and the substance of the inherent rights of the Indians, Inuit, and Métis. It is upon these rights and obligations that our relationship is founded. That is why we insisted they be enshrined in the Canadian Constitution as well as in our own traditional constitutions. I have some knowledge of such dynamics having had the honour of being one of the First Nations’ negotiators in the repatriation of Canada’s constitution in the 1970s and 1980s.
The Residential School System
If they were dispossessed of their very soul and being, what was left of the First Nations for the churches?
Father, I have already made reference to the complicity between the churches and the government. To borrow some sentiment of the times, there were still many wretched souls to be converted and, if the Indians could not be exterminated, many more would be born.
From 1831 to 1998, residential schools into which Indian children were forcibly placed operated across Canada.9 The churches would run these schools. At first the schools were located near reserves, but by 1900, it became evident that the policy of assimilation was not working. The children had to be taken away from the pagan influence of their parents. Changes to the Indian Act enabled the schools to relocate away from reserves, which they did. Further legislative changes to the Indian Act in 1920 allowed for children between the ages of seven and fifteen to be forcibly removed from their parents and placed into these schools. Some families withdrew into their traditional territories to keep their children away from the churches and the school. It then became punishable by law, not only for the children to be out of school, but also for parents to withhold children from attending these schools. \
Restrictions on their civil rights meant that “Indians” were not “persons” under the law and therefore had no means of challenging intrusions on their families and communities. For all intents and purposes Indians were considered to be “wards of the government,” and this made it possible and easy for churches to assume legal custody of Indian children in the residential schools. Thus, care and treatment of the children were at the total and unquestioned discretion of the churches and their personnel.
Many changes over the years reflected the various attempts to force assimilation upon us. No amount of brainwashing and punishment had the desired effect of beating the savagery out of us heathens. Certainly there was serious and irreversible damage, but no policy could assimilate us.
Immediately upon entry into the school, the staff began to beat the devil out of us. Such was my experience. We were humiliated out of our culture and spirituality. We were told that these ways were of the devil. We were punished for speaking the only language we ever knew. Fear stalked the dark halls of the school as priests and nuns going about their rounds in black robes passed like floating shadows in the night. Crying from fear was punished by beatings that brought on more crying and then more punishment. Braids were immediately shorn. Traditional clothing was confiscated and replaced by standard issue uniforms. Our traditional names were anglicized and often replaced by numbers. Those who ran away were held in dark closets and fed a bread-and-water diet when they were brought back. Any sense of dignity and self-esteem turned to self-worthlessness and hopelessness. We came to believe that “Indian” was a dirty word, oftentimes calling each other by that term pejoratively. Many of us were physically beaten, sexually fondled, molested, and raped.
The future seemed hopeless. We were incarcerated for no other reason than being Indian. We were deprived of the care, love, and guidance of our parents during our most critical years of childhood. The time we could have learned the critical parenting skills and values was lost to the generations that attended residential schools, the effects of which still haunt us and will continue to have impacts upon our people and communities. In many instances, our role models were the same priests and nuns who were our sexual predators and perpetrators. To be absolutely certain, not all the religious staff committed such sexual atrocities. To their credit, many appeared pure and conscientious in their duties. But having taken their vows of lifelong chastity and celibacy, and even giving them the benefit of any doubt, they were understandably hard-pressed to talk about the act of procreation, personal parenting, and other normal facts of life in a Church that taught us that sex was a taboo subject in school. In fact, there was no such thing as a healthy sex education. Sex was dirty, and even thoughts about sex were sins—matters, indeed, for the confessional. Touching a girl in any way would lead ultimately to “one dirty act,” said the nuns invariably. Once planted in the mind during the formative years of an adolescent boy, this notion was insidiously inescapable, even sounding implausible. The psychological damage was done. Many fathers to this day are unable to express their love to their children, especially their daughters. Personally, I was not able to hug or kiss my mother until she was seventy-three, the final year of her life.
Father, I tried to rationalize what I saw and experienced. The treatment of children, as horrific as it was, must have been our normal lot for having been the pagan sinners that we had been. Was everything all right? Was it even humane? None of us had any idea as to what the law was regarding children but somehow there was a general feeling that it did not apply to us anyway. Even the crown attorney from town was in the chapel for Mass every Sunday. So things must have been all right, not known, or condoned. Besides, we were afraid to say anything to anyone outside the school. Would anybody believe us anyway? If we told our parents, and they came to our rescue, the police would be called to arrest them. If that were not enough, we were told that violence committed or intended against a person of the cloth was an unforgivable sin deserving of immediate condemnation into hell, but it seemed permissible for them to touch us. Those students who were sexually abused suffered a trauma so severe that it affected them, not only then, but also for the rest of their lives. Uncomfortable as it was, we kept quiet. We would abide the unwritten code among the students: never rat.
Because I came to hate everyone connected to the school and the religion—the nuns, priests, brothers, and the staff—I committed a sin. For that, I repent. And for the times I blamed God for the pain and anguish that we were going through and allowed myself to think in anger that he was mean and wicked, I sinned against him. I am deeply remorseful. For all the things that I personally saw and experienced and knew were wrong but did not report to the authorities, I committed an act of complicity. To all the students in residential schools who were with me and have now passed on, I sincerely regret that I did not fight harder at the time.
Would this nightmare ever end? Finally, after over one hundred and sixty years, the actual nightmare ended. In 1998, the last residential school was shut down, but the aftershocks continue.
The Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement
Many Survivors have pursued a resolution to the intractable issue of the residential school system by launching class actions in various parts of the country. They also directed the Assembly of First Nations to seek a fair and just resolution of the Indian residential school legacy. After signing a political agreement with Canada on 5 May 2005, National Chief Phil Fontaine, himself a Survivor and fierce advocate for redress, assembled a team to negotiate a settlement with Canada and the lawyers of existing class action suits and the churches. The Honourable Frank Iacobucci, former justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, had been appointed as the federal representative at the table. I was named the Elder to the Assembly of First Nations’ negotiating team. As such, I advised that that the mandate of the federal representative ought to be consecrated by our Elders before the beginning of actual negotiations. I had the honour to lead the ceremony, which was conducted as a feast in the Sacred Roundhouse using the Sacred Pipe, Grandfather Drum, and Spiritual Songs. The National Chief, with a delegation of Chiefs and other Elders, invoked the Creator to bless the Honourable Judge with kindness, strength, wisdom, and courage. Ironically, Father, these were the type of ceremonies that were seen by your church as part of devil worship and consequently banned by law in 1884.10
Negotiations on an agreement in principle were completed in November of 2005, and Canada has agreed to the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement.11 It is now court-ordered and court-supervised. As part of the settlement, an advance payment has already been issued to the elderly. The core package includes (a) a common experience payment for every living Survivor based on a $10,000 base payment plus $3,000 for each subsequent year attended or any part thereof; (b) an independent assessment process for the resolution of individual claims for physical and sexual abuse over and above the common experience payment; (c) a healing endowment; (d) a truth and reconciliation commission; and (e) a commemoration fund. The Aboriginal Healing Foundation will administer the healing component, thus enabling it to continue its mandate pursuant to the Statement of Reconciliation of 1997.
Father, you will recall in its statement that Canada acknowledged its role in the establishment of these schools and their effects:
One aspect of our relationship with Aboriginal people?… that requires particular attention is the Residential School system. This system separated many children from their families and communities and prevented them from speaking their own languages and from learning about their heritage and cultures. In the worst cases, it left legacies of personal pain and distress that continue to reverberate?… to this day. Tragically, some children were the victims of physical and sexual abuse.12
At the time of its establishment in 1998, the Aboriginal Healing Foundation received a fund of $350 million to support healing projects across the country. In the Settlement Agreement, the foundation will receive another $125 million one-time healing fund to be disbursed over a five-year period.
Father, this is the biggest and most comprehensive compensation package of its kind ever awarded in the history of Canada. Yet, we know that the harms and injuries committed under the residential schools system can never be adequately addressed by dollars and settlements alone.
As great an achievement as the Indian residential schools settlement is, and all the players in its development are to be applauded, the agreement is only the stage-setting mechanism for personal and collective reconciliation processes that must follow. The real test is in its implementation, and the challenge is in the design that will allow for the widest participation and effect. Somehow, all Canadians and First Nation peoples must be afforded the opportunity to participate.
Collective Reconciliation versus Collective Amnesia
There are many realities that we need to address. There are those among the Canadian public who would decry the need for any settlement at all. There are citizens who deny the legacy: “It never happened. It can’t be true.” Others take the position: “Well, I had nothing to do with it. Leave me alone.” Misinformed hardliners may say: “You were defeated. Get over it already.” Then there are those who simply say in exasperation: “So it happened. Deal with it!”
The sound of pain in any narrative on the legacy left by residential schools is not merely the incessant whining of hypochondriacs seeking to elicit pity. Father, we do not need pity. Your people and our people both need the healing that comes with reconciliation. Experience shows that Canadians, by and large, are a kind and friendly people, almost always politely apologetic and willing to please, a characteristic noted by many other people in the world. Yet, as peace-loving as we are, we are racked by a common history of unresolved grievances resulting from the legacy of the residential schools. We have deep-rooted fears and suspicions about one another. We are prone to blame one another as we lull ourselves into a sense of resignation for corrective action that is beyond the individual—it is too big for any of us. But Father, you know and I know that it is precisely at the personal level where the process of reconciliation begins and where it has the most profound meaning.
While international conflicts are fought between enemies on a very clear and simple proposition of win or lose, the choice here in Canada is one that must be made among friends and neighbours. We must face the underlying tensions. We must understand them and we must resolve them. Neither side believes that the other is going anywhere. This is home. So, how do we live side-by-side and build a future of prosperity together? We share space in a common land. We constitute a society that is envied by other countries. We are economically interdependent. We have many social ties. Our children are married to one another through which we share generations of grandchildren. So inextricably tied are we that our options are also very clear and simple: we can all win or we can all lose.
In the coming months, there will be much discussion and activity as the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement is being implemented. Of special importance will be the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that will enable First Nations and Canadians, in general, to come to an understanding of what really happened, how it happened, and to jointly determine that it will never happen again. Most importantly, it will afford an opportunity for both sides to design a future together. We can retreat to collective denial and amnesia over the legacy of residential schools. Or, we can deal with it. That is the challenge of, and the chance for, collective reconciliation.
What are First Nations doing?
Nimishomis – Nokomis Healing Group Inc.
The lingering aftershocks require a comprehensive approach that addresses the individual, the family, the community, and indeed, the nation. The trauma in the residential schools was so thorough that it requires a holistic approach to heal the body, mind, heart, and spirit of the residential school Survivor. Strategies differ in application from community to community. Some use the principles of twelve-step programs. Others may use Christian religious rites for therapy. Some will employ outside professionals. Still others may combine traditional and contemporary practices. Depending on the severity of the symptoms, residential or outpatient services may be provided. Whatever works for the individual!
Nimishomis-Nokomis Healing Group, over which I preside, is a consortium of traditional healers who have combined their collective strengths, knowledge, and traditional resources to provide healing and therapy to all people regardless of gender, nationality, age, or residence. We operate a project funded by the Aboriginal Healing Foundation. Our principal clients are Survivors both on and off reserve—men, women, children, and elders. Four seasonal healing gatherings are held in a Sacred Roundhouse. (Many of these have now been reconstructed by Anishinaabe First Nations, indicating evidence of community reconciliation.) Survivors are notified through their community offices and service agencies. They come of their own volition and are encouraged to share and expose their trauma. The Survivors, in many instances, continue to have their lives shaped by the experiences they suffered in a residential school. As a consequence, their families and communities share the effects of what is now known as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
There is a parallel between the phases of the grieving process used to deal with the death of a loved one and treating PTSD related to residential schools. But instead of having lost a loved one, the death experience has been inflicted on the Survivor himself or herself. The lingering effects are the symptoms of unresolved grief. The phases, of course, do not occur necessarily in the order offered here, but consider the following:
Shock is the condition associated with circulatory failure and sudden drop in blood pressure and characterized by pallor, sweating, a fast but weak pulse, and often fainting. This condition can be brought on by pain, fright, or injury. Flashbacks and memories also bring on the same symptoms. Nightmares are not uncommon. Many Survivors suddenly break down in therapy sessions caused by the sudden awareness of the range and depth of their own trauma. Our approach is to assist Survivors explore themselves through a process of self-revelation and self-assessment.
Panic usually sets in after the initial shock. A Survivor suffers disorientation and confusion, which often emerge as personal dysfunction or aberrant behaviour that also has consequences for the family and the community.
Denial almost automatically follows. This is a protective reaction that allows the shock to be absorbed more slowly and, in turn, provides an opportunity for adjustment, if addressed. Many Survivors are still in this phase and have not progressed to recovery. The family, the community, and the public at large also often express denial.
Numbness: the trauma temporarily overloads the emotional circuitry allowing the Survivor to appear capable of carrying on with a semblance of normalcy, stoicism, and even humour.
Rage and Lateral Violence: rage is the opposite of numbness. It burns and churns inside a person, and it may strike unexpectedly and unreasonably at oneself or at others. But it always comes, and it may continue for years with devastating effects. Many Survivors are unknowingly stuck in this phase. Rage comes and continues to gnaw until it is released through therapy or a self-destructive act or behaviour. Thus, the incidence of rage and lateral violence within the family and the community, and indeed among the leadership, ought not be so surprising. This is not an excuse. It’s a symptom that must be dealt with.
Anguish and Despair: during this phase, an individual is hit with the full force of the trauma, sometimes giving up any hope and withdrawing into despair—a feeling of total helplessness that is more than the Survivor can handle without help. The vicious cycles of addictive behaviour, violent behaviour, and suicidal behaviour are launched unless an effective intervention strategy is implemented.
Bargaining: at this phase, a person begins to wrestle with acceptance. Why did it have to happen? Why us? Why him? Why her? Why me? While this sounds like self-pity, it really is a cry for therapy, healing, and reconciliation.
Reconciliation: blame for forced attendance in a residential school and the terrible experiences must be directed somewhere. Certainly there is blame, but rather than vengeance, the Survivor seeks an understanding of what transpired. The person makes peace with himself or herself. Elders are always willing to help. More than anything else, one must forgive oneself. The old adage “to forgive is to forget” is not helpful. The whole being has been traumatized. The flashbacks, pain, and scars remain.
Acceptance: comes once the Survivor takes ownership of the trauma. This decision leads to treatment of the trauma—therapy—and reconciliation, bringing a determination to pursue a new future.
Maturation: the Survivor begins a personal journey of healing with supportive therapies and personal networks. Relationships are renewed. The Survivor begins and continues to help other Survivors.
Throughout these phases, our therapies include the use of traditional practices and medicines, teachings and instructions, counselling and ceremonies, and language and history. The shaking tent, sweat lodges, sacred pipes, and traditional drums and songs of the Anishinaabe are a vital part of healing. Obviously, spirituality is central to healing, as it is to reconciliation. All spiritualities offer some means of personal reconciliation. Father, you have yours and I have mine.
Cultural Reconnection as Reconciliation
Culture circumscribes a world view or a cosmology upon which the lifeways of a people are based. Overholt and Callicot quote noted scholar Irving Hallowell on the ways of the Anishinaabe people in the following manner:
All cultures provide a cognitive orientation toward a world in which man is compelled to act. A culturally constituted world view is created, which, by means of beliefs, available knowledge and language, mediates personal adjustment to the world through such psychological processes as perceiving, recognizing, conceiving, judging, and reasoning?… which intimately associated with normative orientation, becomes the basis for reflection, decision, and action?… and a foundation provided for a consensus with respect to goals and values.13
Mine is the world view of the Anishinaabe people, and I am contentedly reconciled to it as the foundation of my living philosophy. My lifeways are those of the Anishinaabe culture, and I have the honour of being referred to as a traditional teacher.
I will share the basis of my credo in a form that is unchanged in its essence from the narrative that I use in other forums.
Anishinaabe World View and Cosmology
In the beginning, the Creator placed the four colours of mankind in the four directions: the yellows to the east, the blacks to the south, the reds to the west, and the whites to the north. To each was given special gifts and instructions by which to live in harmony with all creation. The people of the four colours would come together and, abiding by their respective instructions, would thrive in the collective prosperity of the human family. While distinct from each other, they were nevertheless equal in life, in will, and in freedom before the one and only Supreme Being; however, each one would understand the Creator.
For the Anishinaabe, life is Pimaatiziwin, and its meaning is more than mere existence in a chronological progression of time. It is perfect, and it is intrinsically connected to Kizhemanito, the Great Spirit—the maker of all things. Therefore, like the Creator, life has no beginning and no end—everything that ever was continues to be, and everything that will ever be already exists in spirit. Pimaatiziwin, then, is the completeness and totality of creation itself imbued with the spirit of the Creator.
In every direction of the sky is the eternal expanse of our cosmos in which, far beyond the human mind and eye, the physicality of life began. The Creator summoned four spiritual beings who, in their sacred essence, were in colours we would come to see as red, green, blue, and yellow. With them, the Creator shared his wishes for creation. Blowing a sacred wind toward one another with such force and speed, they created the breath of life that would permeate the cosmos. Sky Order Woman (Nenaikiishigok), who had been given the duty to maintain perfect harmony in the heavens, thus assigned all starbeings to their places. We see them even to this day and night. Then she asked others to encircle the clearing that had been created by the swirling winds. This opening came to be known by the Anishinaabe as Pagonekiishig, meaning “Hole-in-the-sky.” The constellation Pagonekiishig is seen clearly as four concentric circles consisting of eight stars in each circle. These circles would become the life channel for life in our world, and it reveals the genesis of the Anishinaabe.
Amidst all the starbeings was the special one that we call Grandmother Earth. At first, only the grandfathers—the mountains, the rocks, the boulders, the stones, the gravel, and the finest of sand were on Grandmother. Then soon they wanted to share their place with other beings and asked the Creator to bring down other life. In time, one by one, four star spirit ladies appeared.
The first one announced as she came down: “The Great Spirit has heard your pleas. And has sent me down to you.” As she spoke, something the grandfathers had never seen before began to trickle amongst them. She spoke again: “That which you see among you is saltwater. The Grand Father will place all waterbeings there, and I will look after all that. I will be with you forever.”
The second star spirit lady now made her appearance and spoke: “The Maker of Life has heard your invocations, and I have also been sent down to you.” As she spoke, mists of water began to rise, forming clouds that fell back upon the rocks. “That which rises and falls upon you will cleanse and purify you and all the life that will grow among you. I will look after the rainwater. And I shall be with you forever.”
The third star spirit lady came down and said: “Now among you have been placed your brothers and sisters: the trees, the plants, the winged-ones, the four-leggeds, the waterbeings, and the crawlers. They will need to drink and be nurtured. I will look after the freshwater of the lakes, rivers, streams, and springs. And I shall be with you forever.”
Finally, the fourth star spirit lady came down and spoke kindly and softly: “The Grand Father has also sent me in answer to your invocations. He has heard you and is now preparing to send the two-legged brother down for you to love. He will be absolutely dependent on everyone and everything else in creation—all of us. He will carry sacred gifts of our Grand Father Creator, but he will not know how to use them unless we show him. We will all look after him and we will give him everything he needs. So helpless will he be that he will need to be cradled in sacred water inside the woman before he is born. It will be thirteen times for the Grandmother-That-Lights-The-Night-Sky to shine in her full glory before this one is born—four times as we prepare the woman who will carry him and nine more while he is inside the woman. I will look after the birth water and I shall be with you forever.”
The Origin of Turtle Island
So it was that the Anishinaabe came down through Pagonekiishig and was placed on Turtle Island, the western hemisphere. Why do they call it Turtle Island? The Turtle is one of the most exalted spiritual healers and benefactors of the Anishinaabe. Among his many other functions, he is the principal messenger in the shaking tent ceremony that is used in healing. He has sacred roles both on land and in water. The Grandmother-That-Lights-The-Night-Sky so loves him that on each occasion of the full moon, she comes to kiss him. Now, look on the back of the Turtle’s shell (carapace) and one can count thirteen platelets that form the shell—five down the middle and four on each side—one platelet for each time the Grandmother has kissed the Turtle. Thus, for the Anishinaabe, there are thirteen moons in one lunar year. So the Anishinaabe accepts this hemisphere as Turtle Island and knows it as his special place i n creation.
Nanaboshoo – the First Anishinaabe
The first Anishinaabe was Nanaboshoo. There are many stories of his adventures, especially about his relationships to nature and the spirit world. Western-oriented writers have attempted to usurp his value as the first man by relegating him as a mere trickster in folklore and myth. But read Ronald Wright’s views on myths in his book Stolen Continents:
The word myth sometimes has a debased meaning nowadays—as a synonym for lies or fairy stories—but this is not the definition I intend. Most history, when it has been digested by a people, becomes myth. Myth is an arrangement of the past, whether real or imagined, in patterns that resonate with a culture’s deepest values and aspirations. Myths create and reinforce archetypes so taken for granted, so seemingly axiomatic, that they go unchallenged. Myths are so fraught with meaning that we live and die by them. They are the maps by which cultures navigate through time. Those vanquished by our civilization see that its myth of discovery has transformed historical crimes into glittering icons. Yet from the West’s vantage point, the discovery myth is true.14
Nanaboshoo is alive and strong in traditional Anishinaabe life. He is responsible for the second creation after the great flood that destroyed the earth. He is capable of transformation. He is the Creator’s baby, factually and figuratively. He has all the gifts of the Creator, yet he is totally reliant on nature to survive. He learned his survival skills by emulating the birds, waterbeings, crawlers, and the animals. He named them all and gave them their distinctive markings and personalities. His adventures are replete with his creations and inventions. His misadventures are the source for the Anishinaabe’s sense of humour and his ability to laugh at himself. He discovers new ways of doing things and assumed new perspectives. He was given all healing and medicinal powers. He named all the trees and knew the healing powers of all flora and fauna. He was at once man and deity with supernatural powers, but did not and still does not know quite how to use them rightly except in sacred ceremony. Who else can this be but the Anishinaabe? Nanaboshoo is a spiritual archetype. Incidentally, when Anishinaabe people meet, they will greet each other saying, “Boshoo!” This has been misinterpreted as a poor emulation of the French salutation, “Bonjour.” The conjecture is not true. Boshoo is a contraction of Nanaboshoo—an affectionate acknowledgement of the person being greeted as a brother or sister through a common progenitor.
The Meaning of “Anishinaabe”
The Anishinaabe is at once proud and humbled by his origin: proud that he is integral to creation, humbled that he is totally dependent on it, and yet loved by all spirits. The word Anishinaabe is a self-designation and has two meanings:
- The spiritual meaning of Anishinaabe comes from its two components: niisiina means “descended,” and naabe means “male.” Hence, “the man descended.” In the context of spiritual genesis, this morpheme brings all the sacred nuances of man and creation together in the one word.
- The second meaning is colloquial: anishaa means “of no worth or value, nothing.” Combined with naabe, it means “man of no value.” But the Creator does not make anything of no value. It simply means that the Anishinaabe sees himself as neither above nor below any other life form.
There is no mention of the woman. To put this into proper perspective, the star spirit ladies who came in answer to the Grandfather’s invocations at the beginning of life on earth are sacred. They fulfilled sacrosanct functions and are still with us, as they said. Women, as we see them, are still endowed with all the spiritual powers of these star spirit ladies and are, therefore, inherently sacred. To refer to them as anishaa or being of no value like the man would be to denigrate their sacred nature as the carriers of life.
The Anishinaabe Nation continues to occupy a vast territory on Turtle Island, a tract that runs generally from the Maritimes in Canada and south along the Canadian Shield, west through the prairies, on to the Rocky Mountains, and then southeast to the present-day shores of the Carolinas. To be sure, we share this territory with other Indigenous nations. You know us by various foreign designations. In the Atlantic Coast, we may be referred to as the Mi’kmaq, Maliseet, Abenaki, and other names; in Quebec, we are the Innu and Algonquins; in Ontario, we are the Ojibway, Ojibwa, or Chippewa; in Manitoba we are called Saulteaux; in Saskatchewan, we call ourselves Nakaini; in the Rocky Mountain country, we are the Blackfoot; in Montana, we are the Cheyenne; the state of Illinois is named after us; in Texas, where some of our nation has settled, we are the Kickapoos. Some of us have also settled in northern California. The people of the nation are also known by other names that may reflect a clan or their geography. But we are all part of the larger Anishinaabe nation and recognize each other as such.
The Seven Laws of Creation
The Anishinaabe received the seven fundamental laws of creation to mediate his relationship with all other life: love, kindness, sharing, respect, truth, courage, and humility. The Anishinaabe sought to follow the meaning of these laws and came to understand that they could be deciphered through the sacred four that had touched him during his descent.
The Principles of the Sacred Four
Pagonekiishig: the four concentric circles of stars in Pagonekiishig reveal the gifts that give form and meaning to the sacred four of Anishinaabe spirituality.
There are four layers of the sky: red, green, blue, and yellow; and there are four spiritual lodges: sweat lodge, shake tent, round house, and learning lodge.
There are four drums: little rattle drum, water drum, hand drum, and ceremonial drum; and there are four pipes: red, yellow, black, and white.
There are four seasons: spring, summer, fall, and winter; and there are four stages in temporal life: childhood, adolescence, adulthood, and elderhood.
There are four types of clans: winged ones, four-leggeds, waterbeings, and crawlers.
These are but a few examples that are only intended to indicate why the Anishinaabe’s fondness for doing and seeing in fours.
Spiritualities: spirituality is a personal relationship with the Creator, and there are four principal societies through which an individual adherent may live this relationship. The way within each society is as individual as it is personal and is guided by its own ceremonies. But the four ways are complementary, meaning that a person can belong to all four: the spirituality of the east is Waabanowin; the spirituality of the south is Shaawanowin; the spirituality of the west is Ogimaawin; and the spirituality of the north is Midewewin, the principal society.
At the appropriate time of each season, especially in the spring, the water drum calls toward the four directions beckoning all Anishinaabe into spiritual council. They meet at principal places in lodges or places specially designated for ceremonial purposes. Here the laws are recited and feasted. Civil ceremonies are performed. Relationships with other nations are feasted and celebrated. The well-being of the nation is scrutinized. The state of the land and resources is analyzed. Medicines and new therapies are dispensed. Healing ceremonies are conducted. External threats and opportunities are considered, and internal strengths and weaknesses are balanced.
Media of Sacred Symbols: the Anishinaabe is considered to be mostly an oral society. As such, some of the modes used to transmit knowledge are by means of language, song, visual symbolism, mental communication, and practice of spirituality that do not separate the sacred and the secular in daily life. In addition to the oral traditions, the Anishinaabe have a rich and powerful tapestry of symbolic media. The meanings of sacred events in their history are stored in birch bark scrolls, rock and earth formations (petroglyphs), and painted visions (pictographs), to name some of the other media. Sacred offerings are placed where these are found.
Language is the principal means by which culture is transmitted from one generation to the next. It is especially vital for oral societies like the Indigenous people of Turtle Island. The very meaning of world views and traditional lifeways are understandable in their original languages. The origin, the history, the peoples’ relationship to the spiritual world, and the land are in the language. The totality of social, cultural, economic, and political systems of Indigenous nations is also in their native languages. The cultural nuances and intricacies of Indigenous constitutions, laws, and governance structures must be explained and understood in the language of origin. A language is one’s identity. A language is an inviolable gift to the Indigenous peoples from the Creator and their ancestors.
The Spiritual Name and Identity: the spiritual name is one’s actual spiritual identity. According to the Anishinaabe belief system, each person is a spirit becoming manifested in bodily form through birth. A name is not selected as a mere matter of personal or parental preference. An Elder or a respected member of the community is chosen to conduct a ceremony. Really, it is not so much a name-giving ceremony as it is an invocation to confirm the spiritual identity. In effect, it is the passing on of a spiritual identity to an individual. But it must be done lest the individual becomes spiritually lost, disoriented, or even ill for lack of the spiritual identity.
It is not unusual for a person to receive more than one name because spirits constitute one whole spiritual entity. Names may be given before, during, or some time after birth, although parents are urged to have the ceremony done as quickly as possible. Other names may be given out of love or honour, for strength, and also for recovery from an illness. In this way, a name will heal, and a name-giving ceremony is therapeutic to form part of one’s personal reconciliation when it is needed.
Ndotem: The Clan System
The Anishinaabe also enjoy a spiritual connection referred to as the ndotem system of relationship from which the word totem originates.
It is told that at a time when the earth was totally covered with ice, the Anishinaabe found themselves in extremely dire circumstances. They were freezing, homeless, starving, and facing certain death as a people.
The White Bear (Waabimuhkwah) came down from the north and saw the sorrowful conditions of the people. He took pity on the poor people and adopted them. He cared for them and protected them as little brothers and sisters, and thus became the first ndotem (clan). Then, the White Wolf (Waabimaaingan) came down from the east and also adopted the Anishinaabe in their miserable situation as brother and sister to become the second clan. In like manner, the White Winged Spirit of the south (Waabibinesse) came down in kindness and adopted the Anishinaabe. The White Buffalo (Paashkote Pishikii) then came down from the west and adopted the Anishinaabe and became the fourth original ndotem. In time, all other spiritual beings followed until all Anishinaabe families were adopted forming the original clan system.
These events established the sacred lifeline to the four-leggeds, the winged ones, the waterbeings, and the crawlers who continue to look after the Anishinaabe. It also explains the spiritual dependence of the Anishinaabe on other life that enabled them to survive and maintain continuity. The Anishinaabe who seek personal healing and reconciliation must therefore know his or her clan. It is absolutely vital to the spiritual identity.
My Personal Reconciliation
Father, I have shared much with you that needed to be said. Respectfully, I am not seeking penance and far be it for me to deny hell. I have seen it. It is here and it is man-made. Forgive me if you must and pray for me. But it is reconciliation that I seek—between you and me and our respective peoples. We need to build a new future. You have also glimpsed into my own reconciliation, the note upon which we should leave for now.
Personal reconciliation is making peace with one’s own self and reclaiming one’s identity. Through the kindness of the Creator, I am at peace with myself. I have returned to Midewewin, the principal spirituality of the Anishinaabe. I have come to understand and respect the interconnectedness of all life, and I am very happy with my place in creation, humble as it is. Mine are the gifts of life so sacredly conferred upon my ancestors by the Creator. Through this spirituality, mine also are the experiences that have rendered insights into life’s eternal questions: whence, what, whither, and why.
I am contentedly reconciled to traditional spirituality as my living philosophy. Now, mine is an unconditional wish to reach out and help people on the basis of my culture and traditional ways. I have received the honour of being referred to as an Elder, a custodian of traditions, customs, laws, and spirituality. May I be forever worthy of those who wish to claim the traditional teachings that are theirs through me and other elders. May I continue to be deserving of the privilege of receiving youth who seek strength, courage, and enlightenment through my ceremonies. Having nothing to teach you but much to share, I reach out to you also and the other players in the legacy of the residential schools.
A government founded on peace, order, and good government and yet responsible for inflicting the horror of the residential school system is one that I am prepared to meet with to discuss the rule of law that includes enforcement of Aboriginal rights and treaties as the basis for a reconciled future. A church that validated the ruthless superiority complex of European monarchs to persecute Indigenous people, steal their land, and overrun their cultures by condemning them as ways of the devil is one I am also prepared to discuss reconciliation with. My willingness to do this is based on having sincere regard for the seven traditional laws of Creation. A clergy abiding a faith founded on the teachings of Christ, who so loved the purity and innocence of children, yet whose own agents inflicted sexual and physical abuse on Aboriginal children are men and women I am prepared to meet in my community to discuss reconciliation. And should they still believe in hell, may they be spared. Yes, Father, I am prepared.
In ultimate personal reaffirmation, it was not God that hurt generations of innocent children, but the human beings in the churches who undertook to deliver Christianity and inflicted the sorrow in His name. It is not my right or prerogative to forgive what was done to my brothers, my sisters, and my dearest friends as they must speak for themselves and, unfortunately, many of them are now dead. Nevertheless, I dedicate this statement of reconciliation to their memory. I can speak for myself, Father. I am happy that my ancestors saw fit to bring their sacred beliefs underground when they were banned and persecuted. Because of them and the Creator, the ways of my people are alive and in them I have found my answers.
I gratefully proclaim that I am a dedicated adherent of traditional spirituality of the Anishinaabe.
I am a born again pagan.
Fred Kelly is from the Ojibways of Onigaming and is a citizen of the Anishinaabe Nation in Treaty Number Three. He is a member of Midewewin, the Sacred Law and Medicine Society of the Anishinaabe. He is a custodian of Sacred Law and has been called upon to conduct ceremonies across Canada and in the United States, Mexico, Japan, Argentina, and Israel. He is head of Nimishomis-Nokomis Healing Group Inc., a consortium of spiritual healers and Elders that provides therapy to victims of the trauma and the horrific legacy of the residential school system. Fred is a survivor of St. Mary’s Residential School in Kenora, Ontario, and St. Paul’s High School in Lebret, Saskatchewan. He was a member of the Assembly of First Nations team that negotiated the historic Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement and continues to advise on its implementation. He has served as chief of his own community, grand chief of the Anishinaabe Nation in Treaty Number Three, and Ontario regional director of Indian and Northern Affairs Canada. Fred is fluent in the Anishinaabe and English languages and is a personal advisor to numerous First Nation leaders.
Confessions of a Born Again Pagan is written in the form of a confession. The author, now a distinguished Elder, imagines himself back in the confessional he permanently vacated at the age of fourteen. He recounts his early years in residential school and examines European ideologies and Canadian history as a way of understanding what happened to him as a boy and to his ancestors in the centuries before his birth. As a counterbalance to his early indoctrination in Catholic cosmology, he presents the Anishinaabe creation story. Fred described the thinking behind his article in the following way:
Reconciliation processes can be personal and societal. In the personal sense, reconciliation is the means by which one regains peace with oneself. Collective reconciliation is the process that brings adversaries to rebuild peaceful relations and a new future together. Both form the thrust of this narrative specifically on the legacy of the Indian residential schools and the conflicting interests among the policy makers, the operators, and the Survivors of that system. ↩
- Russell, Bertrand (1957). Why I Am Not a Christian, and other essays on religion and related subjects. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster. ↩
- Einstein, Albert (1931). Living Philosophies: A series of intimate credos. Brooklyn, NY: AMS Press Inc. ↩
- Wright, Ronald (1992:1–2). Stolen Continents: The Americas Through Indian Eyes Since 1492. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Company. ↩
- Dickason, Olive Patricia (2002:9). Canada’s First Nations: A History of Founding Peoples from Earliest Times, Third Edition. Don Mills, ON: Oxford University Press Canada. ↩
- Dickason, Olive Patricia (2002:9). ↩
- Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (1998:para. 2). Statement of Reconciliation: Learning from the Past. In Gathering Strength — Canada’s Aboriginal Action Plan. Ottawa, ON: Minister of Public Works and Government Services Canada. Retrieved 31 October 2007 from: http://www.ainc-inac.gc.ca/gs/index_e.html ↩
- Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (1997:para. 4). ↩
- Assefa, Hizkias (no date:para. 17). The Meaning of Reconciliation. Retrieved 20 July 2007 from: http://gppac.net/documents/pbp/part1/2_reconc.htm ↩
- Forced attendance was legislated in 1920 for children aged 7–15, although there are stories of children as young as age five being taken as well as accounts of forced removal before 1920. ↩
- In 1884, potlatches and all other cultural activities were banned, and in 1927, a prohibition was placed on creating and funding Indian political organizations. ↩
- Indian Residential Schools Resolution Canada (2006). Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement. Retrieved 18 September 2007 from: http://www.irst-rqpi.gc.ca/english/pdf/Indian_Residential_Schools_Settlement_Agreement.PDF ↩
- Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (1997:para. 6). ↩
- Overholt, Thomas W. and J. Baird Callicot (1982:6). Clothed-In-Fur and Other Tales: An Introduction to an Ojibwa World View. Blue Ridge Summit, PA: University Press of America. Boston. ↩
- Wright, Ronald (1992:5). Stolen Continents: The Americas Through Indian Eyes Since 1492. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Company. ↩