Ghosts of the Past

Reuel S. Amdur July/August 2015

When thinking about violations of religious liberty, we have a tendency to think big—Muslims in Burma, Christians in Pakistan, and so on. Or we may think historically, with the persecution of Jews. It is too easy to forget the campaign of suppression carried out by the American and Canadian governments against aboriginal religions. Here we are looking at religious discrimination in a smaller community. But the effects can be socially devastating. First a bit of background.

In 1883 the U.S. Commissioner of Indian Affairs was instructed to put an end to Indian dances and feasts and to eliminate medicine men. Imprisonment was meted out to aboriginals who resisted. Men who wore long hair for religious reasons were forced to cut it, and Indians were ordered not to use face paint.

The Ghost Dance was a dance of particular concern to the agents of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. That dance was part of a religious movement initiated by a Paiute prophet named Jack Wilson (Wovoka in his native language). His religious preaching combined ancestral traditions with aspects of Christianity. In 1890 the dances proliferated, as a reaction to severe economic conditions and the danger of starvation. The Indian agents were so concerned that they called in the Army to put down the ceremonies forcibly. There were many casualties in the process.

During that period Dakota children were enrolled in boarding schools where, as with the Canadian boarding school experience, the effort was made to suppress their culture, religion, and language and turn them into Christian Anglo-Saxons with dark skins.

The Canadian residential school system, run from around 1880 to 1996, was in the hands of Catholic, Anglican, United, and Presbyterian churches till 1969. (Methodist schools and most of the Presbyterian ones became United when the United Church was formed in 1925.) The schools forcibly imposed their brand of Christianity and suppressed expression of indigenous religions. Speaking of the Canadian experience, Cliff Dee, an Anglican priest who has served many aboriginal communities in Canada, reported, “All traditional spiritual ceremonies of the First Nations people of Canada were at one time outlawed. The Christian churches at one time seem to have universally condemned all of the traditional spiritual practices like sweat lodges and powwows as being pagan, heathen, and evil. The Anglican Church, which I serve as a priest, was no different.” A sweat lodge, by the way, is a hut used for ceremonial steam baths and prayer. A powwow is a gathering that has cultural resonance and normally includes some religious elements.

Suppression of indigenous religiosity took an ironic twist when one small native band in northern Quebec outlawed sweat lodges, powwows, rain dances, and other native spiritual practices. The Oujé-Bougoumou band council passed this bylaw on October 29, 2010. Then, on December 6 of that year, a sweat lodge on a band member’s property was torn down by order of the band council.

On the face of it, 2010 could not be equated with the situation in 1880. How was such discrimination possible in recent times? While Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms was adopted in 1982, and the Canadian Human Rights Act in 1985, an exception to the act was made in the case of Indian reserves. It was argued that Canada should not interfere with native self-government, or that at least that there should be an opportunity for Indian bands to have time to adjust to the new legal situation. In 2008 residents of reserves were given the protection of the act, except in relation to their band councils. Then in June 2011 that restriction was removed. The discriminatory bylaw adopted by the Oujé band council was adopted prior to the coming into force of coverage under the Human Rights Act.

Redfern Mianscum is a resident of Oujé-Bougoumou, a Cree reserve of some 725 people. He speaks of growing up in a dysfunctional family characterized by alcohol abuse. He was “always in trouble, suspended and expelled from school.” As an adult, he was into alcohol and drugs, till he latched onto his grandparents’ perspective. When he was out of school and out of the parental home or foster home, he went with his grandparents out on the trapline. They followed traditional cultural and religious practices. “The ceremonies were to help people. It told them where to find food. The drum was especially important. When Christian missionaries came out to the bush to try to convert us, Grandfather would hide his drum,” remembers Redfern.

The funeral of Mianscum’s stillborn child in 2008 was a life-changing event for him. No more drugs or alcohol. He turned to the traditional beliefs of his grandparents, and powerful dreams told him to build a sweat lodge. He saw the sweat lodge and traditional religion as ways to help people to stay away from drugs, alcohol, and violence.

Band council members saw things differently, viewing native spirituality in the way that Christian churches had seen it many years ago and as the local Pentecostal church still does. Many of the band councillors and many others living on the reserve were local Pentecostal churchgoers. Hence the bylaw forbidding traditional religious practices. Hence the destruction of the sweat lodges.

Mianscum contacted Julius Grey, a distinguished Montreal constitutional and civil rights lawyer, and a letter went forth to the local chief and band council threatening court action. In response the band council asked for time to work the situation out. Then, after election of a new chief and band council, the discriminatory bylaw was repealed in 2013. “I told the council that if the matter went to court we would lose,” said Chief Reggie Neeposh. And in 2014 Neeposh took part in a powwow on the Oujé-Bougoumou reserve.

“I have no objection to a sweat lodge,” Neeposh said, but he thought it might be best outside the community. And while he noted the right to have a sweat lodge as a matter of religious freedom, he would draw the line at the shaking tent ceremony, a ceremony that, he said, “produces hexes and curses.” Mianscum takes part in such ceremonies and denies that they produce hexes and curses. A perusal of the Web does not support Neeposh’s contention. It appears that his view of the matter may be on account of the influence of the local Pentecostal church. While there is the Pentecostal church on the reserve, there is still no sweat lodge.

Cliff Dee also tells of the situation in another Quebec Cree reserve. “In Waswanipi there are two churches, one Anglican and one Pentecostal,” he says. “There are folk in both churches who participate fully in their churches and also sometimes in traditional ceremonies, including sweat lodges.” Actually Dee met Redfern Mianscum in Waswanipi, where they were both taking part in a sweat lodge ceremony.

There are also folk in both churches who are suspicious of traditional ceremonies, especially sweat lodges. The situation with respect to the sweat lodge and Christian practice among First Nations peoples is extremely diverse across Canada and is likely at least a little bit different in every First Nations community.

Article Author: Reuel S. Amdur

Reuel Amdur writes from Val-des-Monts, Quebec, Canada.