“The Challenge of Reconciling with Indigenous Spirituality”
A Lecture by Blair Stonechild, PHD, at Regis College, St. Joseph Chapel,
U of Toronto, March 22, 2017
by David Fujino
Imagine being interned for 150 years! — and your language, culture, spirituality and family, your very self — was stripped away under the powers that be. Such a thought causes deep shudders in Japanese Canadians, but for indigenous peoples this is present day reality.
Doctor Blair Stonechild — Professor of Indigenous Studies at First Nations University of Canada — began his lecture by greeting the audience “from the centre of the universe, Regina” and wryly observed that, of course, his lecture would be in English, “the language of business”.He then gave thanks to Creator Manitou.
By simply stating facts, Stonechild’s plain-spoken historical lecture became a form of j’accuse. He explained the basic difference between Indigenous spirituality and many religions of the world — including Christianity and Islam — many of which claim their followers are born guilty sinners. This is probably their way of controlling their followers, Stonechild observed, whereas the indigenous view is that we are spirits, entering physical bodies in order to experience life on earth.
Here I was sitting in a Roman Catholic chapel along with restive sympathetic worshippers, but I felt caught in a replay of the first contact between indigenous peoples and the first wave of conquest-minded settlers. While Stonechild was soft-spoken, calm, and communicated facts in his lecture, his demeanour was overpowered by the air of strict argument and rigorous debate that hung in the air of the chapel. Surely the arrival at real truth and reconciliation involves deep listening and hearing each other out, then apology, followed by forms of meaningful restitution that are cast into law, I mused, but perhaps my imagination was running away with me.
Professor Stonechild referred to two terms he uses as an ‘academic’ — ontology and espistemology. The Great Principle of ontology asks, where do we come from? This is known as wahkotowin where humans are understood as spirits entering physical bodies to learn about life on earth. Epistemology is The Great Law (miyu-wichetowin) or The Law of Circular Relations that views natural, human and animal interactions as occurring in ever-generating cycles and spirals on this earth. There was nothing flashy or verbose in his highly factual talk and slideshow.
Slide 1 — Thomas Moore at Regina Indian Industrial School 1891 — stated the case of there-named person Thomas Moore as a charge of the * residential school system. Professor Stonechild attended this same school where Moore had died of TB at the age of 12. The children were strapped for speaking their own language in schools that were run “like reformatories where the only wrong was being indigenous.” Spiritual abuse was rampant and many of the children eventually died of deaths from cases of abuse and alcoholism. The standard food was baloney sandwiches and the one remaining legacy for Stonechild today is his fondness for baloney sandwiches. * Author’s note: At one point, the Anglican Church of Canada ran 300 residential schools. Residential Schools operated from 1820 to 1969. [CBC Morning Live, Mar. 21, 2017]
Slide 2 — Claiming a Continent by Planting a Cross — brought us directly to Western religion and its belief in the divine right to conquest and colonization. The work of the missionaries in spreading the message of the superiority of Christianity and Christians was not mentioned.
Perhaps this was due to the lecturer’s desire for brevity and simplicity as well as his awareness that the lecture took place in the chapel of Regis College, a Roman Catholic college for the Jesuit order. But the impactful slide and its title said it all.
Slide 3 — My mentor Mushum Danny Musqua and me — paid loving tribute to BlairStone child’s mentor and Mushum (grandfather) in spiritual guidance. A photo was a purely visual token of the lecturer’s respect for an elder. In all other cases, the spoken lecture was supported and enhanced — not merely echoed — by the slides.
Slides 4 and 5 covered materials found in the main body of discussion seen above.
Slide 6 — Spirituality as an essential aspect of Being — brought us right back on track.
A spirit circle was divided into the four aspects of being — mental, spiritual, emotion, physical
— key components of spiritual beings.
Slide 7 — An Inconvenient Truth — had questions and statements on it. “Are we all spiritually colonized?” “Resource exploitation and militaristic defence run counter to” a spiritual life. Thereafter, Doctor Stonechild observed that indigenous people had — “for 27,000 years” — maintained a harmonious relationship with the environment (inferring rightly, that indigenous
peoples are not despoiling our waters, building pipelines, and clear-cutting our forests.) But nature is not the only thing we should look at. During the Q&A section of the evening, one audience member asked if a person with a huge house and a big fancy car can be spiritual? To which Stonechild promptly answered, “yes”, if they lived a spiritual life, if they truly lived in harmony with other beings on the planet.
By way of conclusion, Professor Stonechild offered that indigenous life should be reflected upon as a system of respectful relations among humans. Surely this is the only effective way to begin a process of Truth and Reconciliation that moves beyond rhetoric and promises deferred.
The lecture ended appropriately in a mature spirit of reconciliation.
•Professor Stonechild is a member of the Muscowpetung First Nations in Sasakatchewan. He
obtained his B.A. from McGill and his Ph.D. degrees from the University of Regina. In 1976 he was the first academic hired by the Saskatchewan Indian Federated College. Professor Stonechild is currently Professor of Indigenous Studies and has served as Dean of Academics and Executive Director of Development for The First Nations University of Canada (formerly Saskatchewan Indian Federated College.) He co-authored with Dr. Bill Waiser, Loyal Till Death:
Indians and the North-West Rebellion, which was a finalist for the Governor General’s Literary Award in 1997. Dr. Stonechild also wrote the biography of an international icon, Buffy Saint-Marie: It’s My Way (2012). His latest book is The Knowledge Seeker. Blair Stonechild is married to Sylvia and is father to Michael, Rachel, and Gabrielle.