Learning from Canada’s Indigenous Peoples: Students’ Reflections

A key aspect of the Act Five program, particularly first term with our Place, Home and Land course, is learning from the indigenous peoples of our area. We study the history of residential schools, reserves and treaties, and consider our place in the story of our nation and our particular place. This month included a significant portion of the indigenous learning curriculum, including a virtual visit to the Mohawk Institute, an in-person visit to the Woodland Cultural Centre and Mohawk Chapel, a blanket exercise, and conversation with our friends working on the reserve, Brian and Andrea Chiki.

Abby writes this about the different learning experiences she’s had this term, and what they mean for her thoughts about Canadian indigenous history:

What stuck out to me in our first class with Naaman Wood was this lost art of lament in the church. “White flight”, a gradual large-scale migration of white people from areas becoming more racially or ethno-culturally diverse has come, in part a result of this lack of lament. I realized that my being white with a culturally Mennonite background is a result of “white flight”, and I am now privileged in society for it. The awareness of my privilege stayed at the forefront of my mind as we were led by Cindy through the blanket exercise, all through the virtual Mohawk residential school tour, and the “Trick or Treaty” documentary. I caught myself wanting to react to these learning experiences in ways that Naaman had warned us about; paralysis, anger, withdrawal or numbness and facts (skepticism). I continue to struggle with the practice of ‘resisting these reactions and to look to God to equip me to be changed by what I hear’ as Naaman invited us into through our class on lament. 

Yesterday, when we visited the museum and saw the outside of the residential school, there was a brick displayed that read; “In the midst of winter, may we find an immortal summer”. It was this bitter-sweet hope of the people who have courageously chosen to move forward through such injustice and wrong — the residential school survivors — whoever wrote on the brick that stuck out to me most. 

Shir-El writes the following:

I remember learning about the Holocaust in school when I was nine. The concept felt pretty foreign in a way because it ended in 1945 and for the most part took place in Europe. Canadians were on the “good” side of the war. Kids in my class could easily separate themselves from it because there was very little connection between them and that story. I, however, never felt like I could separate myself from that story because in a way, in some confusing way, I was a part of it. My mom is Jewish, her entire family is Jewish, and by extension, according to those who don’t believe that my Judaism is stripped away by my Christianity, I am Jewish or at the very least my ancestors were…

What I’ve learned in these past few weeks is that there has been another type of Holocaust on the land on which we live, and within the past twenty years and today that we, as Canadians, once we are made aware, cannot separate ourselves from because we stand on one side of the treaties that have allowed these injustices to go on. I’d heard about the residential schools but I’d never heard about the extent of the horrors that went on there. I’d never heard about the complete history of our country that we were made aware of in the blanket exercise. I’d never been told anything about reserves before, the fact that they are still running and the fact that they are like a tiny, tiny pocket of land set aside for the first people of the land we live on, or how they live in third world country conditions in our first world’s backyard. How backwards. This has to matter to us because it’s too close to home not to and us settlers have to take ownership for our side of the treaties that were dealt with unfairly. This has to matter specifically to us as Christians because it was in the name of our “Jesus” that this harm was done.

Noah writes the following about wampum belts and their covenant significance:

Especially during the virtual tour I couldn’t stop thinking about how I don’t know how people, let alone “Christians,” could be part of something so cruel. It’s horrible how because of the residential schools indigenous people lost languages, traditions, families, and so many lives. The main topic that really stood out to me was the wampum belts and what they meant to the indigenous people and how the settlers just absolutely disrespected and disregarded them over time. I get that it was over a long period of time but it still was a complete going against of what the covenant of the wampum belt meant. The one belt that I’m thinking of is the belt with three white lines and two purple lines in between them. The three white lines represented peace, respect, and friendship. The two purple lines represented the two parties, the indigenous people and the settlers, going down the same path, neither interfering with the other. All of the information that we learned throughout the study of indigenous people was so important just to make a step towards learning and trying to understand, even the smallest amount, what they went through and how much it has affected and is affecting indigenous people across North America. I think that it’s so important to try and understand what kind of things affect people and how, as well as what is happening right now in our cities.

Rieneke writes this about why she believes education about the indigenous peoples of Canada matters:

For starters, Jesus was also human. That’s something I’ve been seeing painted all across the Gospels. And I feel the same realizations standing in front of the Mohawk Institute, looking into the windows that those kids would’ve stared out of, touching the bricks that boxed them in – these kids were human. And these kids, now grown up, are still humans, broken just like me. But standing in front of this building, I got a glimpse of the specific ways that they were hurt, and I got to see the place that damaged them more than I can ever fully grasp. 

For me, this year is redefining a lot of what I thought the definition of church was. And I’m realizing: the church isn’t perfect. Living in a suburban neighbourhood where everyone looks like me, I sometimes forget that my own driveway used to be an earthy forest floor, or home to countless living things. And every Sunday, I pull out of my driveway to meet with other people who look just like me and don’t know the history of their driveways, either. We need to do better, to be more Christ-like. He cared for the lowly, for the people on the fringes. Even more, he deeply and personally knew the struggles of every demographic and individual. I think it’s part of the church’s responsibility to understand this history that’s so tangled up with our own…

Most of all, I think my goal is just to keep caring and continue praying. I want to care about the people I’ve met and the culture I’ve learned about. I’ll pray for reconciliation, for a country that chases shalom, but I’ll mostly pray for God to keep working in this. As massive as these stories are, I know He’s bigger than them all. 

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