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Making Space

Today is National Aboriginal Day here in Canada. It is a day which, since 1996, has been set aside to learn about and honour the diverse cultural heritage of Canada’s First Nations, to recognize their ongoing contribution to Canada, and (hopefully) to remember that there remains much work to do in addressing the many problems that remain from Canada’s mistreatment (past and present) of its first peoples. Southern Alberta has a significant aboriginal population, with the Blood and Peigan tribes to the east and the south and the Siksika to the north, all three of which, along with the South Peigan in Montana, are part of the Blackfoot Confederacy. It is a region of Canada blessed with a rich and diverse aboriginal heritage.

Having said this, I am embarrassed to admit that as a kid growing up in southern Alberta I more or less swallowed the familiar stereotypes and latent racism that was all around me. I heard the comments about the “lazy, drunk Indians” we would see downtown, I saw the substandard living conditions on the reserves in our area where I would go to play hockey, I laughed along with the racist jokes at school. Even though I went to school and played hockey with a few aboriginal kids, and even though I got along fine with them, the Indians were always an easy target to pick on. It was easy for a mostly ignorant white kid to just assume that there was something wrong with “those people” who lived on the reserves—some inherent flaw that accounted for why they lived the way they did, and why they didn’t have the same societal status and privilege as everyone else. Far too easy.

Over time, of course, I learned that there was (surprise!) more to the story. I learned about how the First Nations were conquered and had their land taken from them, I learned about church-run residential schools whose explicit goal was the “civilization” of the Indians, including the eradication of their languages and cultures, and often severe physical, sexual, and emotional abuse. I learned about how, despite our “official” posture of celebrating diversity and honouring our First Nations, and despite prime minister Stephen Harper’s official apology in 2008 (and the subsequent establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada which will be coming to Alberta next year, and is beginning an event in Saskatchewan today), Canada’s aboriginal population still scores the lowest on almost every quality of life indicator, is still vastly over-represented in statistics about incarceration, addiction, mental illness, poverty, and  suicide. I learned, in short, that there is a long, complicated, dark story behind what remains a very difficult and complex reality today.

Eleven years ago this week, I became the father of twins who are of Ojibwa and Métis descent. This, more than anything I learned in a book, has changed how I view the issue of how Canada has dealt and continues to deal with its First Nations. From that point on, I began to look at things differently. Increasingly, I would almost instinctively see and hear things through their eyes and ears (or, what I imagined these to be).  Every casual comment, every quasi-racist insinuation, every newspaper article, every radio or TV program, anything that had to do with a negative portrayal of aboriginal people in Canada began to put me on high-alert. I found myself feeling angry and defensive a lot, even if only internally. Perhaps it was an implicit attempt to assuage some of the guilt from my own stereotypes in the past. Perhaps I was (and am) bracing myself for the day when my children will have to face the racism that I was such an uncritical participant in during my own childhood.

The text I am wrestling with for this week’s sermon is Genesis 26:12-33. It is the story of Isaac’s dealings with the Philistine King Abimelech after he moves down to Gerar to avoid famine. Isaac is initially allowed to stay but because he is so prosperous and powerful, the Philistines become envious and Abimelech asks him to leave. Isaac tries to settle and dig wells in a number of places, but meets resistance at each step along the way. Eventually, the quarrelling stops, and he and the king sign an agreement whereby Isaac is allowed a place to stay.  Isaac names the spot “Rehoboth,” which means “room” or “space.” It is the story of a gradually-arrived-at peace, a slow, somewhat reluctant “making of space.”

I don’t know what the next few years and decades will look like for Canada’s First Nations. I don’t know what the fruit of the Truth and Reconciliation process might be. I don’t know what challenges my own children will face in their lifetimes because of the colour of their skin and the (often tragic) narrative they find themselves a part of. But I am hopeful. I am hopeful that, like Isaac and Abimelech, we Canadians can learn to make space for one another, whether this “space” is the physical land, or spiritual, emotional, and relational space. I am hopeful that, however slowly change comes, however the blame and responsibility are finally apportioned, however attempts at reconciliation are offered and accepted, however reluctantly or fitfully peace is arrived at, that we can—as individuals, as communities, as a nation—arrive at a point where we see that there is, truly, room enough for all.

8 Comments Post a comment
  1. Ken #

    What a difference location makes, and perhaps the subculture in which one moves.

    Down here, native Americans mostly just blend in with everyone else, unrecognizable as such. To an appreciable extent, down here their ancestors are revered for their ecological ways. It is cool to have native American ancestry down here.

    I met a man on a trail last weekend who told me that he was native American. He said that he is naturally close to nature as a native American. He said he hears his grandfather whispering to him as he hikes – words about the land and its creatures.

    We talked about the mountain and places we have been in them. We talked about the snakes in the rocky places. We talked about the wind that was roaring in a gale through the canyon that day. I would have enjoyed hiking with him, and his grandfather, whose whisper I heard too. I was headed down as he was headed up.

    The Isaac passage seems too ellipticized, one might say, to deal with on its own. It is such a small piece of a very large story. The immediate context appears to be set in Gen 26:1-6. In those verses is the promise. And again in verse 24.

    June 21, 2012
    • I think there are similar views towards natives present here, even if they may not be as prominent or are sometimes found in (quite incoherent) combination with implicit racist assumptions. There are certainly many people who think that various elements of (their understanding of) native spirituality are quite cool. In my experience, these elements of native spirituality are often accessed quite selectively and in whatever (often romanticized) form is useful for the causes they wish to promote (i.e., environmental causes, political causes, protests against big oil, big business, big religion, etc). I worry that while our intentions might be good, we are often guilty of reducing our understanding of the “native way of life” or “native spirituality” to something that is useful to us and our purposes, whether individual or corporate, rather than trying to approach them on their own terms.

      If one were cynical, one might say that first we colonized their land for our own purposes and now we’re doing the same with their spirituality.

      The Isaac passage seems too ellipticized, one might say, to deal with on its own. It is such a small piece of a very large story. The immediate context appears to be set in Gen 26:1-6. In those verses is the promise. And again in verse 24.

      Yes, I am aware that this passage is part of the larger story of God’s promise (especially when seen in connection with similar narratives about Abraham in Genesis 20-21). I was not attempting in-depth exegesis here, only a brief reflection on the experience of reading this passage alongside the issues highlighted in the post, and thinking about matters of “space.”

      June 21, 2012
    • Ken #

      re: “… we are often guilty of reducing our understanding of the “native way of life” or “native spirituality” to something that is useful to us and our purposes, whether individual or corporate, rather than trying to approach them on their own terms…”

      I see that here too. This is especially common here in museums of natural history and the nature centers at parks. I also see it at the organic grocery stores that also sell “native American flutes” and new age CD’s containing recordings of such flutes. Even anthropologists struggle to overcome this problem in their work.

      California, especially in the large coastal cities, has relatively mild intercultural prejudices. It is one of the liberating aspects of life here. Marriage between persons with different cultural backgrounds, at least the backgrounds of their ancestors, is now occurring at extraordinarily high rates. We are “browning” in the way that Richard Rodriguez used that metaphor, browning because people from all places are falling in love. As he wrote, brown is the color of love.

      Sorry if what I wrote about the difficulty of working with the Genesis passage implied that I thought you were not aware of something or were attempting exegesis in this posting. The passage was in your mind as you prepare for your sermon, and its words crossed in your mind as you thought about the issues in your posting here. I was only thinking about the difficulty I would have working with it myself when I wrote what I wrote.

      June 21, 2012
      • Brown is the colour of love… I like that.

        It’s hard to read where Canadian culture is going when it comes to stereotypes, intercultural relations, etc. Our official national narrative is that of multicultural “mosaic” where each diverse group contributes to a more beautiful whole. As always, though, reality tends to lag behind rhetoric—not least, when it comes to the First Nations. It’s far easier to buy their artifacts and praise their spirituality than it is to analyze and address the enormous problems on most reservations and our complicity in bringing these about. A beautifully diverse mosaic sounds nice, but having one identifiable minority group whose standard of life is lower than every other part of the mosaic on pretty much every indicator fits pretty awkwardly into the story we would prefer to tell.

        Re: the Genesis passage, no apology necessary. It’s good to hear where your comments were coming from.

        June 22, 2012
  2. Interesting post as we just arrived home after a day spent at Aboriginal Day celebrations not far from here. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about my own children’s unconscious adoption of racist stereotyping and the complex roots it has – classic children’s literature and grandparents’ language, to name a few. It’s hard to battle the societal trend, and it was encouraging to participate in a mini pow-wow where the aboriginal people there welcomed the practically all-white audience with warmth, dignity, and hospitality. It was encouraging to see my children take in the displays of aboriginal culture with an openness and an eagerness because it gives me hope for peace in the future.

    June 21, 2012
    • I’m glad you and your kids could participate in this! I think these are the kinds of events and experiences that shape new (better) assumptions and implicit postures towards others. Little building blocks of hope for the future!

      June 21, 2012
  3. Hey Ryan, Its good to read your thoughts. Having an adopted native sister I am often embarrassed by the lack of knowledge I have to share with her about her birth culture. This winter the CBC aired an excellent series on Canada’s native peoples called Eighth Fire. I didn’t feel so ignorant after watching. It is well worth the viewing if you can take the time. Check out cbclearning for the 4 episodes. Take care hopefully I’ll see you in Nanaimo next week.

    June 27, 2012
    • I, too, often feel remarkably ignorant about First Nations culture… Thanks for the recommendation! I will look for that CBC program.

      We are very much looking forward to reconnecting with our Nanaimo “family!”

      June 27, 2012

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