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Myth, Symbol, and Colonial Encounter: British and Mi'kmaq in Acadia, 1700-1867.

These two books represent two widely different approaches to the period of European colonialism in the Americas. In the context of the British-Mi'kmaq encounter in Acadia (New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island), Reid considers the problem of alienation from the perspective of historians of religion. McKay and Silman (both ministers of the United Church of Canada, both with Cree ancestors) use dialogues and anecdotes to highlight the historical encounters between Christians and Cree in Manitoba.

Reid shows that the British and the Mi'kmaq developed a substantially different sense of self-identity and significance by reason of their rootedness to a particular place and landscape. The British recreated Acadia in their image of English society, a place with which they felt some sense of continuity. They displaced the Mi'kmaq to the peripheries of their colonial re-creation, considering them "strangers" outside civilization, at times invisible. While the British regarded diversity as destructive, the Mi'kmaq saw it as a context for extending their patterns of meaning. Their sense of identity was derived from a profound intimacy with the land, a deep affinity with animals, and a commitment to the principle of human community. They imagined a New World in which human diversity could constitute the foundation for new relationships and communities, where all humans could live freely. Because of these fundamentally different mythic and symbolic structures, the British and the Mi'kmaq in Acadia have remained largely alienated, despite centuries of interaction.

In Manitoba, by contrast, healing has occurred between Europeans and the Cree nation in recent years. In its 1996 apology for historic injustices of colonialism and mission, the United Church of Canada asked pardon for being blind to the spiritual values of Canada's "First Nations" peoples, for confusing Western ways and culture with the depth and breadth of the gospel, and for imposing civilization as a condition for accepting the gospel. McKay and Silman set these apologies in sharp relief with the Crees' growing awareness of their own identity and their growing insistence on the freedom to work out that identity within the Christian church. The Cree have had to reconsider their past and face the challenges of the future. In the context of past fur-trading, e.g., they maintain their ethic of "taking only what you need" against a European approach based on material greed. Their real challenge for the future is to determine how their traditional ceremonies and story-telling can provide their young people a spiritual vision to face problems of racism, social breakdown, alcoholism, and violence.

Among missionaries and colonists there were many decent, hard-working people of valiant faith. In the end, though, the prevailing materialism and prejudicial spirit of their age triumphed over the simple message of the gospel. While both books chronicle the history of this secular attitude of Europeans toward native American people and religions, one concludes that fundamentally different symbol-systems will continue to keep them apart, while the other shows evidence that a process of healing has already begun.
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Author:Biallas, Leonard J.
Publication:Journal of Ecumenical Studies
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1997
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