24 Christianity and First Peoples

Introduction

Welcome to Logstown (1749) painting by Robert Griffing, 2003.

Prior to the arrival of Europeans on Turtle Island, Indigenous Nations had their own complex system of spiritual beliefs, the breadth and depth of which the Europeans colonizers did not fully comprehend. Indigenous Peoples’ spirituality was rooted in their connection to nature, the earth, and one another. They had creation stories and a spiritual perspective unique to the history of their Peoples that varied from culture group to culture group (Four Directions Teachings, 2015). While their system did employ ceremony and belief in a creator, it differed significantly from other organized religions of the world. In particular, many Indigenous Peoples carried a collective belief that everything in their environment possessed a spirit including the natural world, people, animals, and in some cases, inanimate objects (Four Directions Teachings, 2015). This belief system ultimately ensured Indigenous Peoples and their communities maintained a deeply interconnected relationship of respect and balance with nature, animals, and human life. Maintaining a positive relationship between these components was and is integral to their traditional world view.

Arrival of the Missionaries

When Europeans arrived in the seventeenth century, they brought with them religious and cultural ideologies from Europe. Missionaries from France, whether intentionally or not, played a large role in the violent colonization of Indigenous communities on Turtle Island.

Gallery 5.2 Historical maps

For the French, in these early years, evangelization was intertwined with the task of civilizing; to be “civil” was to behave and look like a French man or woman, and share their beliefs (Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada [TRC], 2015; D’Avignon & Trudel, 2013). While initially relations between Europeans and Indigenous Peoples benefitted both parties in the 1600s on Turtle Island, this balance shifted as the idea of converting and civilizing the Indigenous population gained popularity back in France (Knox, 2017). 

To accomplish this, Samuel de Champlain invited the Recollect priests up the St. Lawrence River in 1615, to bring Christianity to the Indigenous occupants he encountered there. The Recollects erroneously assumed that the Indigenous communities had no spirituality and believed their task of evangelization would be easy (TRC, 2015).

The Recollects quickly proved unsuccessful. The Indigenous Peoples on Turtle Island in the early 1600s possessed a strong autonomous spirituality, sense of community, and cultural identity. Also, both they and the general French colonial population on Turtle Island were much more interested in, and focused on, establishing trade relations. In contrast to conversion, trade promised valuable and immediate benefits for both parties: the new and struggling colonizers and the Indigenous Peoples (TRC, 2015; Knox, 2017). The Recollects would give up their efforts due to lack of funding after a few short years. Samuel de Champlain would then turn to the wealthier Jesuit order in 1625  for help in his mission of creating a French Christian “New World” (D’Avignon & Trudel, 2013; Heidenreich, 2006).

Wampum from Cathédrale de Chartres

Jesuit Presence in New France

By the seventeenth century the Jesuits had a strong track record with many converts across cultures all over the world. As part of this global evangelization effort, Champlain and the King of France called for the Jesuit order to come to New France to share the Roman Catholic religion with the Wendat, Petun, Nipissing, Ojibwa, and Ottawa Indigenous populations (Heidenreich, 2006; Jaenen, 2008).   

Gallery 5.3 Jesuits in New France

For the missionaries entrusted with the task of establishing congregations of acting Christians among the Indigenous populations of New France, the first step was to find commonalities between their belief system and that of their would-be converts. Missionaries worked to draw parallels between their systems and made the case that their Christian God was already present in the framework of Indigenous beliefs, therefore, He should be easy to acknowledge and accept (Knox, 2017; Niezen, Burgess, Begay, Fast, & Lambert, 2000). The Jesuits encouraged interested and curious individuals to visit with them and listen to their stories and rationale for making their Roman Catholic God the centre of spiritual focus (Knox, 2017).

During this period, some Indigenous Peoples refused to entertain conversion; others were more open to the slow process, eventually taking up a Christian lifestyle guided by the Jesuits (Knox, 2017; Richter, 1985). It was not uncommon for the formation of a new community of Indigenous converts to be mirrored by the formation of an opposing group, which tested the fabric of communities profoundly (Richter, 1985).

British Conquest and Evangelization

The British conquest of New France in 1760 brought French rule to an abrupt end. The British, however, would also soon adopt a policy of assimilation for Indigenous populations (TRC, 2015). By Confederation in 1867, the British presence on Turtle Island had grown considerably and many Indigenous communities had shrunk, their populations decimated by diseases for which they had no immunity (TRC, 2015). Canada’s policy of assimilation meant that now colonizers were concerned less with trade and diplomatic relations as with control and subjugation of the Indigenous inhabitants of Turtle Island. The Roman Catholic Church drew funding and power from the population of Quebec, and willingly took a central role in establishing and running the assimilationist education system, the residential schools, formally introduced in 1883 (TRC, 2015). With the introduction of residential schools, Indigenous Peoples felt and became subject to the true socio-cultural impacts of Christianity. The residential schools were also part of a government plan that involved working closely with Christian missionaries to encourage Indigenous Peoples to develop economic self-sufficiency in a manner that matched the colonizers’ ideology (Miller, 2012). Indigenous Peoples, once recognized by the French as Nations, allies, and military and trading partners, with distinct cultures, rights, and lands, were reduced to wards of the British Crown and forced to live under the rule of law and a religion in which they had no say (TRC, 2015).

Lasting Impacts of Christianity

Religious imposition deeply affected Indigenous communities. In the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Final Report, First Nations, Métis, and Inuit identified church-run, government-financed residential schools coupled with the introduction and imposition of Christian beliefs during colonization as key components in the breakdown of their Indigenous communities and cultural identity (TRC, 2015). The impacts of this trauma have been felt across many generations (TRC, 2015).

Due to this contested and complex history of indoctrination, spirituality among Indigenous Peoples varies widely across Canada today. Historical events have given rise to unique hybridized spiritual practices within some communities, where elements of the Christian faith are present alongside tenets of traditional Indigenous spirituality (Smith, 2011). In some cases, Christian beliefs have almost completely replaced traditional Indigenous spirituality (Smith, 2011). In others, communities have found a way to revitalize traditional Indigenous practices lost through colonization and evangelization. Some communities rejected the introduction and imposition of Christianity altogether. These communities work with their traditionalists to preserve, revive, and practice strictly Indigenous forms of spirituality (Smith, 2011).

Conclusion

Each Indigenous community today has a unique framework of spirituality, and it’s important to remember that the spiritual belief system of one community member may not be the same as another community member due to the complex impacts of colonization as well as personal preference. Many churches have since apologized for their role in the residential school system and their involvement in colonization and the imposition of their belief systems on Indigenous communities. However, as of May 2018, Indigenous communities are still waiting for an official apology from the Pope on behalf of the Roman Catholic Church.

References

Aboriginal Healing Foundation. (2012). Speaking my truth: Reflections on reconciliation & residential school. Ottawa, ON: Aboriginal Healing Foundation. 

Andrews, C. S. (n.d.). 1534-1842. Wyandotte Nation. Retrieved from http://www.wyandotte-nation.org/culture/history/timeline/1534-1842/

Anglican Church of Canada. (2018). Indigenous ministries. Retrieved from https://www.anglican.ca/im/

Basil, J. (1989). Indian school days. Toronto, ON: University Of Oklahoma Press, Norman.

Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops. (2018). The Catholic Church in Canada and Indigenous Peoples [Website]. Retrieved from http://www.cccb.ca/site/eng/church-in-canada-and-world/catholic-church-in-canada/indigenous-peoples

Christian Reformed Church in North America. (2018). Aboriginal Ministry. Retrieved from https://www.crcna.org/aboriginal

Dalal, N. (2011, December). The impact of colonial contact on the cultural heritage of Native American Indian people. Diffusion: the UCLan Journal of Undergraduate Research, 4(2), 1-10. Retrieved from https://www.uclan.ac.uk/courses/assets/rcs-dalal.pdf

D’Avignon, M., & Trudel, M. (2013). Samuel de Champlain. In Historica Canada. Retrieved from http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/samuel-de-champlain/

Folkins, T. (2017, September 20). Indigenous church possible by 2019, says primate. Anglican Journal. Retrieved from https://www.anglicanjournal.com/articles/indigenous-church-possible-2019-says-primate/

Fortune, L. (2016). Trending now: Native spirituality. In D. Martin (Ed.), Truth and then reconciliation: A trilogy (pp. 82-83). Toronto, ON: Coach House Press.

Four Directions Teachings [Website]. (2015). Retrieved from http://www.fourdirectionsteachings.com/main.html

Fr. Cholence, P. S. J. (2012). Saint Catherine (Kateri) Tekakwitha (S. J. William Lonc, Trans.) [Translated archival document]. Legal Deposit: National Library of Canada. Midland, ON: Martyrs’ Shrine. pp. 1-90.

Heidenreich, C. E. (2006). Ste. Marie among the Hurons. In Historica Canada. Retrieved from http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/ste-marie-among-the-hurons/

Jaenen, J. C. (2008). Jean de Brébeuf. In Historica Canada. Retrieved from  http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/jean-de-brebeuf/

Jury, W. W. (1946-47). St. Ignace II [Report]. The Canadian Catholic Historical Association 14, 15-27. Retrieved from www.cchahistory.ca/journal/CCHA1946-47/Jury.pdf

Mennonite Church Canada. (2017). Indigenous relations – Overview. Retrieved from http://home.mennonitechurch.ca/indigenous

Miller, J. J. (2012). Residential schools. In Historica Canada. Retrieved from http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/residential-schools/

Miller, J. R. (2000). Skyscrapers hide the heavens (3rd ed.). Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press Incorporated.

Niezen, R., Burgess, K., Begay, M., Fast, P., & Lambert, V. (2000). Spirit wars: Native North American religions in the age of nation building. New York: University of California Press.

North American Indigenous Ministries [Website]. (2018). Retrieved from https://www.naim.ca/

Pouliot, L. S. J. (2011). Joseph Chihouatenhoua Huron Apostle (d. 1640) (S. J. Lawrence Braceland, Trans.) [Translated archival document]. Midland, ON: Martyrs Shrine.

Presbyterian Church in Canada. (n.d.). Ministries with Indigenous people. Retrieved from http://presbyterian.ca/canadian-ministries/native-ministries/

Public Safety Canada. (2018, January 18). A matter of faith: A gathering of Aboriginal Christians. Retrieved from https://www.publicsafety.gc.ca/cnt/rsrcs/pblctns/mttr-fth-2006/index-en.aspx

Richter, D. K. (1985, January). Iroquois versus Iroquois: Jesuit missions and Christianity in village politics, 1642-1686. Ethnohistory, 32(1).

Rubin, H. J. (2014). Tears of repentance: Christian Indian identity and community in colonial southern New England. Nebraska, US: University of Nebraska Press.

Smith, D. (2010, August 9). Handsome Lake religion. In Historica Canada. Retrieved from http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/handsome-lake-religion/

Smith, D. (2011, December 4). Religion and spirituality of Indigenous Peoples in Canada. In Historica Canada. Retrieved from https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/religion-of-aboriginal-people/

Tooker, E. (1979). Native North American spirituality of the Eastern Woodlands. New Jersey: Paulist Press.

Troian, M. (2017, May 14). Indigenous Christian ministers walk in 2 worlds. CBC News. Retrieved from http://www.cbc.ca/news/indigenous/indigenous-christian-ministers-residential-schools-1.4110735

Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. (2015). Canada’s residential schools: The history, Part 1 origins to 1939. The Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (Vol. 1, pp. 1-133). Retrieved from http://www.trc.ca/websites/trcinstitution/index.php?p=890

United Church of Canada. (2018). Indigenous ministries. Retrieved from http://www.united-church.ca/community-faith/being-community/indigenous-ministries

Media (in order of appearance)

Lamprecht, W. [artist]. (1868). Clergy preaching the word of God to the First Nations people [painting]. Raynor Memorial Library at Marquette University, Milwaukee, WI. Retrieved from http://www.fort-odanak.ca/jesuites_politique_conversion-jesuits_politics_conversion-eng

Wampum from Cathédrale de Chartres (trésor), Chartres, France [digital image]. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.fort-odanak.ca/jesuites_politique_conversion-jesuits_politics_conversion-eng

Historical Map of New France [Digital image].  (1703). Retrieved from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Canada,_New_France,_Florida,_Virginia,_Pennsylvania,_Caroline.png

Historical Map of Huronia in New France [Digital image].  (1660). Retrieved from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Carte_Huronie_en_1660.jpg

Lamprecht, W. (1869). Pere Marquette [Painting].  Retrieved from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Pere_Marquette.JPG

First Abenaki language dictionary written by Jesuit missionary Aubery. [digital image]. (n.d.). Société historique d’Odanak, Musée des Abénakis, Odanak, QC. Retrieved from http://www.fort-odanak.ca/jesuites_politique_conversion-jesuits_politics_conversion-eng

Jesuit ring. [digital image]. (n.d.). Société historique d’Odanak, Musée des Abénakis, Odanak, QC. Retrieved from http://www.fort-odanak.ca/jesuites_politique_conversion-jesuits_politics_conversion-eng

 

License

Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License

Our Stories by Centennial College is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book