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Sep17MonSalvationists reflect on the North American Institute for Indigenous Theological Studies symposium. September 17, 2018 by Kristin Ostensen
From June 7-9, delegates from across North America and beyond gathered at Acadia Divinity College in Wolfville, N.S., for the annual symposium of the North American Institute for Indigenous Theological Studies (NAIITS), the theme of which was “White Supremacy, Racial Conflict and Indigeneity: Toward Right Relationship.” Lieutenant Kaitlin Adlam, Alex Stoney and Major Wade Budgell were among the 17 Salvation Army delegates who attended.
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- Opinion & Critical Thought
Combating White Supremacy
by Lieutenant Kaitlin Adlam, corps officer, Brandon, Man.
I am a Mi’kmaw woman who also has Colonial Settler roots. My family comes from Mi’kma’ki (Nova Scotia). I am thankful to the peoples of Treaty 1 and Treaty 2 territory for allowing me to reside on the traditional land of the Anishaabeg, Cree, Oji-Cree, Assiniboine, Dakota and Dene Peoples and the homeland of the Métis Nation in Brandon, M.B.
I have had the opportunity to attend the NAIITS Symposium for the last three years, and I would like to share with you some of the teachings that I have received through these experiences. As I started my journey home to Brandon after the conclusion of this year’s symposium, I was reminded of the legend ”How the Cougar Came to Be Called the Ghost-Cat” by Michael James Issac, a Mi’kmaw story teller. He shares the story of a Cougar named Ajig who leaves his home to journey to another forest. He finds all the other animals there are afraid of him. Feeling lonely and wanting to belong, he begins to act like those other animals to fit in. Feeling out of place, Ajig returns home only to find out that he is not welcome; he has become too different. Lost between the worlds, alone he becomes a ghost-cat.
As Cheryl Bear, a Carrier Sekani from Prince George B.C., said on the last day of the symposium, “We get to be who we truly are at NAIITS.” Each time I attend NAIITS I feel less like the ghost-cat; rather, I feel like I belong, and that it is not only OK to be me, but that I am a child of God.
This learning community, in all its diversity, creates the space needed to safely have messy discussions and explore unsettling topics that are necessary to journeying life together in a good way.
The dominant culture permeates all systems that govern our lives, including our systems of theology.I was reminded this year of how much our culture shapes the way we do theology, the way we act out our beliefs. We deconstructed what it means to see the Scriptures through a white colonial cultural lens. This lens promotes and institutionalizes white supremacy, even when this is not intended. It does this through ignorance of other cultural viewpoints, and an arrogance in the assumption that its way of thinking and being is the only or the superior way.
While this theology sees its practical application as good and helpful, the results are very damaging as they come from a foundation that ultimately places white people in a position of both power and rightness. This leaves no space or value for theologies rooted in other cultural paradigms, such as Black Liberation Theology and Indigenous theology.
White supremacy through colonial culture has influenced our systems. This influence is seen not only in the secular arena, but also in the way we think about passages of Scripture that so subtly places white people in the role of God—or if lower than God, then still above people of colour. This way of thinking, in turn, permits injustice, poverty and superiority.
In her presentation, Erna Hackett, a Korean and white woman living in Seattle and pastoring at a church community rooted in Black Liberation Theology, gave the example of the western theological understanding of justice, which comes out of Scriptures such as Luke 4, where Jesus opens his ministry with the declaration that he cares for the poor, the marginalized, the blind and the oppressed. She cites Tim Keller, a mainstream moderate theologian, who asks, “Why should we care about the vulnerable ones? It is because God is concerned about them.” In a binary culture, like our mainstream western culture, we end up having to choose who we are to identify with and we choose to identify with God, not the vulnerable. This puts us in a position of power and authority. When put into practice, this theology of justice, our helping the vulnerable, can end up looking like what happened with residential schools; it opens us up to sharing a message of our own power.
Another example of how western culture shapes how we read Scripture is built right into the English language. Western culture is individualistic, and that viewpoint is expressed through the language itself. We do not have words that mean a collective “you”—“you” meaning a group of people—unlike the languages of collective cultures. So when we read a verse such as Jeremiah 29:11 (“ ‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord”) on its own, we naturally read it as a personal statement, when it is directed not at one person but is for an entire community. Our language helps shape an individualist theology of individual salvation, with no space for a conversation about collective theologies that prioritize the welfare of the community over the welfare of an individual.
The dominant culture permeates all systems that govern our lives, including our systems of theology. This reminds us of just how important cultural awareness is in understanding God and our relationship to him, and ultimately our relationship with each other and the rest of creation. At NAIITS, we were blessed by Alister Reese, a Pākehā New Zealander (New Zealander of European descent), who helped us see a way forward, a way that likens our treaty relationships to covenant relationships, reminding us that reconciliation in a land-based culture is not an end goal to be completed, but is a relationship that is continuously journeyed together.
The Whole Picture
by Alex Stoney, children and youth ministry co-ordinator, Upper Skeena Circuit, B.C.
This was my second NAIITS symposium and I found it inspirational. The topic is one that needs to be discussed and addressed, and the people I met greatly motivated me in my ministry and in my personal walk with Jesus.
I was inspired by the diversity of Indigenous cultures represented at this conference—cultures from all over North America and Australia. I am from northern British Columbia. We have many different nations throughout our province with our own distinct languages and dialects, so to see that diversity greatly multiplied was wonderful and invigorating.
One of the most beneficial aspects of my experience at the symposium came through my talks with non-Indigenous people, as we discussed the topics of the presentations on a more personal level. Oftentimes, I assume that one person knows as much, if not more, about a given subject as I do. Sharing my knowledge and experiences as an Indigenous person with others reminded me of the importance and the value of what I have to offer. It was also enriching to view the topics from a non-Indigenous perspective. Understanding others’ perspectives helps us to see the whole picture. When the whole picture has been revealed, then we can begin to move toward right relationship.
The people I spoke with wanted to know more about Indigenous peoples’ connection to the land they belong to. I said we believe we have a responsibility to the land, to care for it so that future generations will be able to live and prosper on it. It is part of our ayookw (laws) that we are to care for the land that was given to us. I wondered if this topic came up because many non-Indigenous people don’t have a connection to the land due to colonization and immigration.
Sharing my knowledge and experiences as an Indigenous person with others reminded me of the importance and the value of what I have to offer.Another conversation I had concerned the trials and struggles of being an Indigenous person. I talked about how many of us have struggled with addiction, depression, prejudice and so on. Many of these symptoms and conditions are a result of the government’s systematic attempts to assimilate Indigenous peoples into western ways of being. Many Indigenous people did not know how to cope with the atrocities they experienced in residential schools; many turned to substances to dull the pain. This substance abuse has been passed down to the next generation because they witnessed their parents’ substance abuse. Substance abuse has also led to physical abuse and neglect. This is what many Indigenous children have had to endure because of their parents’ abuse in residential schools. I greatly appreciated speaking with fellow open-minded people about correcting wrongs and elevating the marginalized.
It was also enlightening to hear the presenters speak about matters that I could never put into words myself. This symposium gave a voice to what many of us can only think about. Erna Hackett’s presentation, which addressed the issue of white supremacy, was particularly helpful. A lot of people I spoke to associated white supremacy with skinheads and their extreme views and actions. But as Hackett said, white supremacy is a way of thinking that “presents whiteness as normal and neutral—to physical appearance, to how you talk, your value system.” Western theology was created by white people and is shaped by their white experience but, in general, that fact is not acknowledged or named in the way that, for example, black liberation theology, Indigenous theology or feminist theology are.
Reflecting on the symposium, I wonder what we are to do now. Obviously, things have to change so we can have equal representation, but how do we go about it? I don’t know, but I am ready and willing to participate in that change. I may not be the one to lead it, but I will be there to encourage and strengthen that movement when it happens.
An Unending Process
by Major Wade Budgell, divisional commander, Maritime Division
I experienced the NAIITS symposium as an opportunity to bring worlds together—nations, tribes and theologies—to strive “toward right relationship,” as the theme of the symposium suggested. But how do we do that? The past, with all its pain, was present throughout the symposium and, as a white person, I was challenged to feel that pain.
Terry LeBlanc, director of NAIITS, reminded delegates that, in western culture, we are all about moving on, making plans, proposing solutions and producing results. It’s our way of avoiding or not dealing with the past. “Yet there can be no reconciliation without truth,” he said. The journey of reconciliation is not about sprinting into the future with a multiplicity of strategies and solutions, but taking the slow walk into the past to process history on an intellectual and emotional level. While it is true that pain was undeniably present, it was my sense that hope was the honoured guest. The language of hope pervaded the presentations and conversations, and the conviction that deep listening, respecting and responding is opening a path toward right relationship.
That was another theme that resonated with me—apart from relationship, there is no way forward. As one presenter reminded us, in the context of Indigenous-settler relations, “reconciliation” may not be the right word as it implies that a previous relationship existed. For example, a treaty by its nature is a legal contract, not a human relationship. So in many respects it is not about reconciling broken relationships but creating new relationships on the basis of mutual respect and not contractual convenience.
Apart from relationship, there is no way forward.Furthermore, delegates were repeatedly reminded that reconciliation is not a state or a checklist but a process. Apologies, important as they are, do not achieve true relationship. They are necessary first steps in a process that is unending. The idea that injustices spanning centuries can somehow be corrected in a few years through completed checklists is terribly naive and adds insult to injury for our Indigenous friends who will continue to feel the impact of the past for a long time. We must therefore be committed to hearing their stories, feeling their pain, sharing their hope of a better future and journeying with them into places of healing and hope.
Finally, I was reminded that moving toward right relationship requires love. Referencing 1 Corinthians 13, Kimberlee Medicine Horn Jackson reminded delegates that “love is patient.” Her reflection on her experience of forced adoption and separation from her mother for four decades was incredibly moving. Mother and daughter, ripped from one another’s embrace, until the day their patient love was rewarded as they reunited. “The hand of God has brought us together,” Jackson said to her birth mother in that precious moment of reunion. As we look to the future, we must remember that it will take time to overcome the sins of the past and achieve right relationships, but we should not be discouraged for “love is patient” and “the hand of God will bring us together.”
Videos of the NAIITS presentations are available on Facebook. Search “An Indigenous Learning Community.”
The North American Institute for Indigenous Theological Studies (NAIITS) is a non-sectarian organization dedicated to encouraging the Indigenous community to develop and to articulate Indigenous perspectives on theology and practice. NAIITS currently has five degree program partnerships offering bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral programs. Major Shari Russell, territorial Indigenous ministries consultant, is a member of the board of NAIITS.