Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
March 30, 2009
Sweetgrass melds with Church tradition
Ojibwa priest describes ongoing spiritual struggles between cultures
Fr. Daryold Winkler
WESTERN CATHOLIC REPORTER
EDMONTON — Despite their rich culture and spirituality, First Nations people became Christians in order to survive, says a Basilian priest.
“They knew that the culture as it existed could not be sustained because all the game had been depleted. Their hunting style of life could not be sustained; they knew that they had to adapt to a new way of life so they became Christians,” Father Daryold Winkler said at St. Joseph’s College March 23.
STILL SECRET CEREMONIES
After they joined the Church, natives continued holding secret ceremonies away from the priests. That still happens today, according to Winkler, who is a native himself.
The theology professor at St. Joseph’s University College spoke to a crowd of 40 during St. Joseph’s Lenten lecture series.
A member of M’Chigeen First Nation, an Ojibwa community on Manitoulin Island in northern Ontario, Winkler has been a Basilian priest and teacher for 20 years.
The Church’s approach to culture has changed radically since the mid-1960s.
“Before that time, culture was seen in a negative way, especially the culture and traditions of other people,” Winkler noted.
“So when the Church went out to do its evangelization, it felt and understood that God resided within the Church and nowhere else. And so when the missionaries went out, they were bringing (to people) God and culture and those things that belong to Christian faith, such as salvation. All those things were being brought to people.”
The idea of culture, indeed the very word “culture,” was not a part of common parlance until the 1930s, when anthropologists began to figure out what culture was and began to define it.
“We didn’t know. Today everybody knows what culture is and what it means,” Winkler said. “It’s what we are as human beings. Each culture develops its own vision, methods of survival and methods of healing.”
Today the Church has a better understanding of native culture and by and large has allowed native people to mix their traditions with the Christian faith, although it is still struggling with what works and what doesn’t.
Says Winkler, “What works in native communities is communal sharing, where people share in a circle; where consensus is achieved and where councils have been formed. The method is common to aboriginal people — you don’t have one expert doing all the talking. You have everyone learning together.”
In cultural issues, though, diversity is a challenge. At Sacred Heart Church, for example, there are Dene, Cree, Ojibwa and Blackfoot Indians. “So what Sacred Heart does is it tries to incorporate things that are common among those cultures like smudging,” Winkler said in response to a question.
SACRED HEART MEETING PLACE
At Sacred Heart they also allow people to take their time during the Sign of Peace because that’s when they visit, children are allowed to run more or less freely during Mass and the congregation sings Metis-inspired music.
At the time of the contact with the newcomers, native people were able to negotiate with other native cultures for hunting territories — an important skill needed for their survival, which was their main goal, Winkler had said earlier.
“So they did it peacefully through spiritual ceremonies. And it wasn’t just a matter of cultures coming together but sharing spirituality.”
The Ojibwa, however, would say, “we are not here just for survival. We were not put here just to learn how to hunt. There must be more to life than this. This was central to Ojibwa culture.”
Winkler quoted a Cree writer from 1845 saying that when native people met the hero figure of the Christians, Jesus, “it was a disaster.”
Contrary to the viewpoint presented by this hero figure, the Creator says the Ojibwa were put here “to have one heck of a good time,” the writer said. “Living a good life was the vision of Ojibwa people,” Winkler explained.
From the Ojibwa in Manitoulin Island, the Jesuits learned how to solve problems by consensus.
They also learned native people already had their own spirituality. “With each people there is spirituality given to them by the Creator and we have our own,” the natives told the missionaries.
“You say someone came to you because people are sinful. What happens was you didn’t pay attention to the Creator the first time around so you have to get help again through a saviour,” the Basilian said as he read from an unspecified document.
“We never had that. Our religion and our tradition have been fulfilled from the start and so we don’t need fulfillment. You say Christ comes to fulfill? There is nothing to fulfill. We are fulfilled already. Please respect our diversity.”
In the 1960s there was what Winkler calls a “spiritual renaissance” in which native people began to celebrate their ceremonies in a public way. “Ceremonies thought to be extinct were being practised.”
During the early 1980s native people participated in the First Ministers’ conferences initiated by Pierre Trudeau and were able to make many political gains, including formal recognition in the Constitution.
“Native leaders who didn’t know law or anything were negotiating with prime ministers. They became astute politically and astute spiritually.”
Eventually under Chief George Erasmus native people recognized that, despite the gains, their communities were devastated by unemployment, violence, and drug and alcohol abuse.
“That’s where we are today,” Winkler said. “Native communities have moved from the political to the healing agenda.”