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A Cree from the James Bay region of northern Quebec remembers her troubled childhood in an Anglican residential school in the 1940s and '50s. "For twelve years I was taught to love my neighbour -- especially if he was white -- but to hate myself. I was made to feel untrustworthy, inferior, incapable, and immoral. The barbarian in me, I was told, had to be destroyed if I was to be saved. I was taught to feel nothing but shame for my 'pagan savage' ancestors... When I had been stripped of all pride, self-respect, and self-confidence, I was told to make something of myself..."

The residential (boarding) schools told generations of Native children to forget their language, culture and spiritual beliefs. The missionaries who ran the schools considered them pagans. And the Canadian government, which opened the schools in the 1880s, agreed.

Changes to the Indian Act in 1884 and 1895 outlawed many traditional Indian dances and ceremonies which were vital to the Native cultural and spiritual identity. Sun dances, thirst dances, potlatches (feasts), and other Native ceremonies were raided and shut down by vigilant police officers. It was official government policy to completely assimilate the Indian people; they were to disappear as a race. Their traditional ways were not permitted and spiritual objects were confiscated. It wasn't until 1951 that Indian dances and potlatches were legalized.

For almost a century, government and churches alike, believed the Indian culture had to be wiped out. And federal authorities were determined to transform the Indian children into faithful Christians. The best way to do that, they thought, was to remove them from their homes and the influence of their families.

As Geoffrey York explains in his book, The Dispossessed, Life and Death in Native Canada: "Until the First World War, federal officials kept up the pretence that Indian parents had requested a Christian education for their children." But the missionaries and federal Indian agents pressured the parents to send their children to the schools. They told them they would be jailed if they didn't. "Indian agents used the sweeping legal powers they held under the federal Indian Act to deny food rations to Indian families who did not comply. In many cases, children went to the schools only because they were orphans, or because one of their parents had died and the remaining parent could not afford to raise the children.

"By the 1940s, about 8,000 Indian children -- half the Indian student population -- were enrolled in 76 residential schools across the country."

Language was the first target of the residential schools. Officials were determined to destroy the Indian languages, to ensure that Native children would be assimilated into the white culture. Today, it is estimated that 50 of Canada's 53 Native languages are in danger of extinction.

So, a Gwich'in Indian at Fort McPherson, N.W.T., asks an elder in the 1990s why the Gwich'in have no traditional prayers and ceremonies. He learns they had been banned by missionaries more than a century before. "Most of us have been raised in the residential school and we only spent two months of our childhood days at home..," he says. "We have no drum. We have no songs. We don't know much about our ancestors' beliefs."

"In my experience in the school system, there was nothing about my Native identity," a Native prisoner told the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples in 1992. "I lost it for so long that I failed over and over again to find out who I am and what I am." He was one of several prisoners interviewed at the Stony Mountain Institution in Manitoba. All of the inmates said they need programs to help them find a lost sense of themselves and their Native identity, not more tips on welding or mechanics, to really move forward.

A 1948 parliamentary committee recommended that Indians be permitted to vote in federal elections, and that Indian children be educated with non-Indians in integrated provincial schools. However, Indians were not allowed to vote in federal elections until 1960. And it wasn't until the 1950s and 1960s that Indian children who lived near a provincial school were moved into the provincial system. Later, Ottawa started closing the residential schools. Not that the provincial schools were much better: Native children continued to be ridiculed and submerged in white society.

As recently as 1984, an Alberta government report said that, "The failure to respond to the special needs of Native students has been a shameful act of intolerance and misunderstanding," and there is "much to be done to redress the neglect, ill-conceived policies and paternalistic approach that has for too long symbolized the state of Native education." The committee found that the dropout rate for Native students was as high as 85% in some provincial schools. Provincial teachers often lacked the training necessary to make their classes relevant to Native children, and testing procedures are often biased against Indian children. The report said: "It is a feat of courage, perseverance, and dedication for a Native student particularly from an isolated community, to complete high school in Alberta."

Where education has failed them in the past, Native leaders see education as their salvation today. And they're taking charge.

In 1970 the Blue Quills residential school in north-eastern Alberta became the first Canadian school to be controlled by an Indian community. They taught the Cree language. Attendance increased and a high school eventually was added.

Then, in 1972, the National Indian Brotherhood, the forerunner of today's Assembly of First Nations, produced a paper, Indian Control of Indian Education. It proposed a dramatic shift in federal education policy. It identified the importance of local community control to improve education, the need for more Indian teachers, the development of relevant curricula and teaching resources in Indian schools, and the importance of language instruction and Native values in Indian education.

The proposals eventually became government policy. By 1983, more than 200 schools on reserves were managed entirely or in part by band councils. By the 1990s, 28% of Canada's 82,000 Indian elementary and high school students were attending schools controlled by Indian bands. The number of band-controlled schools in the country, mostly in British Columbia and the Prairies, continues to increase and stands at about 240. Funding is provided by the Indian Affairs Department, but committees of parents make the key decisions for each school.

Several programs to increase the number of Native teachers have been established in universities in Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, British Columbia, and New Brunswick. Some new training programs allow Indian students to remain in the north as they earn their degrees in education. Now, Native culture is being taught even at some provincial schools as well as at Indian-controlled schools. Elders are becoming part-time school teachers, passing on their wisdom to the children. Sacred pipe ceremonies and sweat lodges are an important part of daily life at Native-controlled colleges and adult education programs. Indian languages are being revived and strengthened by schools on Indian reserves and by institutions such as the Saskatchewan Indian Federated College and the Manitoba Association for Native Languages.

Native leaders are also beginning to recover some of the thousands of spiritual artifacts that were removed from Indian communities in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Perhaps to rectify the sins of the past, some Christian churches are including Native traditions in some of their services. The movement to blend religions started in the 1980s when the United Church apologized to Natives for being "blind to the value of Native spirituality." In 1988, the same church established the All-Native Circle Conference, a group that is operated completely by Aboriginal people.

Many Conservative theologians and Native spiritualists say their beliefs are being compromised by trying to combine the two. Others think it's the way of the future.

Even Aboriginal healers are gaining official recognition. In 1994, the Ontario government announced a new health policy that endorses the use of "traditional healers, medicine people, midwives, and elders" in the medical system, where they will serve Native people.


1. Native spiritual life believes that all natural things, all forms of life, are inter-connected. No distinction is made between spiritual and secular life. Spirituality is a total way of life. What other religions have a similar philosophy? Have their followers suffered the same kind of persecution as Canadian Indians?

2. Have a group of students read The Dispossessed by Geoffrey York, and have them prepare a report on each chapter.
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Title Annotation:Native People - Spirituality; of Native American culture
Author:Taylor, Linda E.
Publication:Canada and the World Backgrounder
Date:Sep 1, 1995
Previous Article:From paternalism to empowerment.
Next Article:A sad chapter.

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