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by H. Daniel Zacharias


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by H. Daniel Zacharias

LIKE EVERYONE , I’M ON A JOURNEY. For many years, my journey was aimed forward to specific goals I had in mind. Awesome wife, check. Great kids, check. PhD, check. Great job, check. In the midst of these busy pursuits, as I was coming near to the end of completing my PhD and becoming part of the faculty at Acadia Divinity College (ADC), I had occasion to meet a man named Terry LeBlanc. Terry would later approach ADC about a partnership with NAIITS: An Indigenous Learning Community, and our friendship has blossomed into kinship. But these initial encounters and discussions sparked in me something that had been dormant in the back of my mind for many years. I put off thinking about it partly because of the busyness of young family and education. But the desire to know and understand has always been there. And it sparked in me a new journey, but this time I aimed backward to my past and my heritage, and what it means for me as a committed follower of Jesus.

I am an Indigenous man. On my mother’s side, my ancestors have lived for thousands of years in and around Lake Winnipeg and Lake Manitoba in what is now Treaty 1 territory. Those ancestors, in several generations and families, inter-married with European settlers who came over to work for the Hudson’s Bay Company. And it is this family from which I also received my Christian heritage. Yet, while we rightly celebrated our Christian heritage and bond, our heritage as Cree people largely stayed unspoken. I still recall the time when, sitting in my grandparents’ home, my mother and her siblings were discussing the process of receiving their treaty and band cards. I did not understand what they were talking about. If I’m remembering correctly, I think I even said, “we’re Indian?”

There are three main reasons we silenced our Indigenous heritage. The first had to do with Canada’s assimilationist policies. One of my grandfathers, when requesting assistance from the government to feed his family, had to renounce his treaty status to receive food stamps. He received his treaty status back post-mortem, which enabled treaty status to be passed on to his descendants. The second reason is that my mother and her siblings faced racial discrimination in the north end of Winnipeg growing up. Being the darkest-skinned kids in the community translated into plenty of racial slurs and fistfights, which understandably led to a measure of shame for some. The irony of this racism was that there was no more devout family on the block than my grandparents’ household. Despite the small house size, hospitality was the default. Church was several times a week. Preaching, teaching, reading Scripture, and prayer imbued the family. And I still maintain that no one could out-sing my family in old gospel tunes except the Gaithers’ themselves. And yet many of the ‘civil’ light-skinned neighbors couldn’t see past the dark complexion.

But the final reason for the suppression of our Indigenous identity was because of our Christian heritage. Like many people in the past, and still many today, Indigenous people’s culture was seen as pagan at best, demonic at worst. Christianity was wedded to European ‘civil’ society. To be a Christian was to live and act like the settlers. Like most Indigenous people who became believers, my ancestors adopted this opinion towards their Indigenous culture. Instead of pride, there was shame. The apostle Paul when talking about salvation uses the metaphor of being “clothed with Christ” (Gal 3:27). For Indigenous people the world over, this has meant a covering over and hiding of who they were because of their faith in Jesus, rather than an ennobling of who they are and who they were created to be.

continue on this journey to better understand myself as an Indigenous person. One of my favorite realizations came when listening to Cheryl Bear in 2015 talk about the role of humor in Indigenous culture. I smiled to myself and shed a little tear as I realized that assimilation had not stripped my family of all of their cultural identity — my Anderson family has always laughed loudly and teased one another mercilessly. And as I have continued on this journey of learning about Indigenous culture, I have been able to see other ways in which my family held on to their indigeneity, even if in modified form. And I am conscious that as I seek to understand what it means to be an Indigenous follower of Jesus, I do so not only for myself, but also for my ancestors who were pressed to believe the lie that to be an authentic follower of the Christ meant forsaking your culture and adopting another.

I am also cognizant of the fact that my journey backwards is a process that many of my fellow Baptists are going through across Canada. As we seek to respond to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and initiate new and lasting relationships with Indigenous communities in our neighborhoods, I have sought as best as I’m able to assist my brothers and sisters in the faith. I have been part of the Indigenous Working Group for the Canadian Baptists of Atlantic Canada, and am happy to have played a part in what will be the denomination’s official response to the TRC Calls to Action. A big part of this role has been continuing to educate myself so that I might educate others. Part of our response to the TRC is an educational piece. There is a wealth of excellent material available online, and the working group has sought to help others navigate this. The result is an online course that will be free. The course will take a person approximately 20 hours to complete, with additional recommendations for further learning as well. My hope is that Baptist pastors and leaders will go through the course to educate themselves so that they can educate others and equip congregations to be allies and friends with their local Indigenous communities. To do this, we must journey back to understand and come to grips with the fractious history of Canada’s past and the broken relationship between the Church and Indigenous peoples.