Inner City Diary
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Religious persecution among aboriginals
February 23, 2003
The other day I was at a meeting about struggling communities. The leader asked why some housing and some communities are falling apart.

Introducing himself as an academic, someone at the back suggested, “There are cultural causes of housing problems.” I listened anxiously for something profound. But his example blew my mind.

“The reason for many housing problems in native communities is that we are building square homes for a culture that is based on circles. If we built round houses for people things would be different. If kitchens were designed so natives could hang caribou from the ceiling to butcher for meals, things would be different today.”

I almost choked on my laughter. In making a minor point, he’s missing the bigger point.

Single-minded focus on ethno-cultural issues is misplaced when youth are more impacted and influenced by media-cultural issues. MTV, for example, is no respecter of ethnocentric “old ways” and “old days.”

While theorists argue whether Canadian society should be a cultural “melting pot” or “stew pot,” kids laugh and smoke pot. While elders of all cultures call youth back to old ways and old days – kids live in new days. Look at second and third generation immigrants. The more time spent holding youth to some romanticized image of the past, the more rebellious they get. No matter how hard that academic tries to push aboriginals back into the wigwam, most would opt for a square house or a store-bought tent in a flash.

More important than the shape of houses or ancestral costumes is the ability of families to speak truthfully about their problems without deflecting responsibility for their decisions. I respect a person’s present values more than old photos, family trees or traditions.

Cultures can change without losing values, but when values change, entire cultures can disintegrate.

I have a friend who is a proud aboriginal mom. Her love for her kids and husband is both tough and gracious. She has my deep respect.

But she has committed the “unpardonable sin” for many advocates of aboriginal “culture.” She professes to be a Christian! This poses a huge problem for those who identify aboriginal culture with a singular form of aboriginal religious expression. Is it wrong to impose one form of religious expression (pow-wows, sweats, and smudges) on everyone of aboriginal descent?

From her childhood, she commented, the “old ways” gave her the willies. She couldn’t relate to romanticized religious practices and “medicine” which seemed wrong and dangerous. She’s not at all bashful about her faith or her culture. She has not adopted the “white man’s religion.” Rather, she has professed and grown in her own faith. “It’s not just my faith,” she says. “It was the faith of my parents, and grandparents and many others in our community.”

But she has noticed an awkward discomfort among some when she doesn’t match their “aboriginal” stereotype.

At a recent meeting about community problems, she talked about her personal values and her faith.

Instead of respectfully learning from her, a white social worker rebuked her for abandoning the “ways of her people,” abandoning native spirituality and being too strict with her kids.

Unbelievable. I’m not sure how I would have responded to such racism, but her response was profound. “Are you telling me to be a good little Indian?” She re-iterated the obvious. She is native. She is profoundly spiritual. She is determined to do good for herself, her family and her community.

Native people are not all the same. Not all will jump the same hoops or smudge the same smoke. Some will dance to the beat of a different drummer. Some gravitate more to guitars than drums. Some live in square houses and don’t butcher caribou hanging from their kitchen ceilings. That doesn’t make them less native.

Imagine the outrage if the government gave out grants to encourage all women with the last name of “Wiebe” to put their hair in a bun and all “Penner” men to become farmers. Would assumptions they should all attend German classes, love sauerkraut and sing hymns be part of “respecting their culture” or racism?

Too much funding for aboriginal programs is focused on static expressions of culture and religion. Some aboriginal programs have no respect for the religious and cultural diversity in their midst. One religion, one drum, one organization. Such monolithic demand for conformity is as racist and as flawed as some missionary mistakes of a former age. And it’s becoming increasingly irrelevant to many youth.

My friend’s expression of her culture may not conform to some people’s stereotypes, but her values affirm a proud aboriginal heritage. Her courage and her life are a solid example for us all.
Copyright 2003
Rev. Harry Lehotsky
Rev. Harry Lehotsky is Director of New Life Ministries, a community ministry in the inner-city of Winnipeg, Manitoba.
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