ABORIGINAL SPIRITUALITY IN CANADA
There is no recorded beginning to Aboriginal religions. They probably were brought to Canada by the Native people as they migrated here following the retreat of the last Ice Age between 8,000 and 9,000 years ago.
All Aboriginal peoples in Canada have their own religious faiths. Some have fallen into disuse, but many more are undergoing a revival.
All the Native peoples resident in Canada prior to contact with Europeans had their own religious belief systems. Europeans felt compelled to convert Canada's Native people to Christianity; early missionaries believed that by doing so the Native people were being saved from spending eternity in Hell.
Close to home for me (just two miles north) is The Saugeen First Nation which is home to many denominations of Christianity, such as the Wesley United Church, Saugeen Full Gospel Church, Baptist Church, Roman Catholic, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and a small multi-denominational Church on French Bay Road. Many residents, however, are going back to the traditional ways or co-practising Midewin and Christian religions.
In general, most Aboriginal religions share the belief that all natural things, all forms of life, are inter-connected. No distinction is made between the spiritual life and the secular life; Aboriginal spirituality is a total way of life.
Creation is explained in the Earth Diver story, in which either the Great Spirit or the Transformer dives, or orders other animals to dive, into the primeval water to bring up mud, out of which he fashions the Earth; this belief is held by Indians of the Eastern Woodlands and Northern Plains.
The Trickster creation story frequently but not always represents the Transformer as a comical character who steals light, fire, water, food, animals, or even mankind and loses them or sets them loose to create the world. This explanation is heard among West Coast and some Prairie tribes.
Among the Mi’kmaq and Abenaki of the East Coast, the Transformer appears as a human being with supernatural powers who brings the world into its present form by heroic feats. Across the Great Plains, there are said to be two Transformers. They compete with each other in feats of strength, ability, or cunning. The result of this contest is the formation of the world as it now exists.
All Aboriginal religions have elaborate ceremonies and rituals. These are performed to please the gods so rain will come for the crops, or hunters will be successful in finding game. Other rituals involve fertility, birth, and death.
As an example, let's look at the Shaking Tent Ritual where a client would pay a shaman (a kind of priest or healer) to build a special cylindrical lodge or tent. The shaman would enter the tent in darkness and singing and drumming would bring his spirit helpers. The arrival of the spirits would be signaled by animal cries and the shaking of the tent. The shaman would then use his spirit helpers to cure the client of whatever ailed him or her or to ward off black magic or a curse.
Among First Nations there is usually a belief in an afterlife but the world of the dead is thought to lie at a great distance from the living. The dead usually have to make a difficult journey often beyond a great river, on islands far out at sea, in the remote mountains, or in the underworld to get to their place of rest. Occasionally, there is contact between humans and the world beyond.
Spiritual stories are needed to explain spectacular events such as a thunderstorm or an earthquake. A Native shaman might explain the Northern Lights by saying that the dancing waves of colour are powerful guardian spirits; the spirits of ancestors dance across the northern sky, weaving their way through the black of night, moving in harmony with the eternal rhythms of Father Sky and Mother Earth.
A key concept among Indian and Inuit societies is the notion of the Guardian of the Game. This is a supernatural person who looks after one or all of the animal species, especially those hunted by man.
Typical examples are to be found in the Bear ceremonial of the Abenaki and Montagnais-Naskapi, the Spirit of the Buffalo in Plains societies, and Sedna the sea goddess and Guardian of the Seals among the Inuit.
Inuit religious thought is grounded in the belief that anua (souls) exist in all people and animals. Individuals, families and the tribe must observe a complex system of taboos to ensure that animals continue to make themselves available to the hunters.
The underwater Goddess Sedna watches to see how closely the tribe obeys the taboos and releases her animals to the hunters accordingly. There are other deities who release land mammals. Many rituals and ceremonies are performed before and after hunting expeditions to ensure hunting success.
There are no written texts; Native spirituality is contained in stories told by the Elders. Most of these religious tales have a moral or ethical dimension in which behaviour patterns are ordered, banned, recommended, or condemned.
Religious Tolerance quotes an unknown Native woman as saying: "If you take [a copy of] the Christian Bible and put it out in the wind and the rain, soon the paper on which the words are printed will disintegrate and the words will be gone. Our bible IS the wind."
Sources used in this series:
Religions in Canada, Directorate of Human Rights and Diversity, Government of Canada.
The Encyclopedia of World Religions, Robert S. Ellwood (ed.) Facts on File, 1998.
Religion for Dummies, Rabbi Marc Gellman and Monsignor Thomas Hartman, For Dummies Publishing, 2002.
Religious Tolerance, Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Religion, CBC Montreal