Terry Glavin: The first Christian prophets in Canada were indigenous. Now someone is destroying their churches

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As the pyres were made from sturdy little churches built by the First Nations, the sneer of all these white “allies” is the thing to notice.

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For generations of Gitxsan and Wet’suwet’en along the Bulkley and Skeena rivers of northwestern British Columbia, the arrival of Christianity did not happen when Oblate missionary James McGuckin came to the area in 1870. As the story goes, when McGuckin showed in the vicinity of Kyah Wiget, which was later called Moricetown, a village which now bears its proper name, Witset, people were waiting for him.

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McGuckin is told his visit was long overdue and it was understood he was from ghost land. The people made the sign of the cross, and they knew all about the commandments, and they knew heaven. They had learned these things years earlier from the dreams of the chief of Lake Babine, Uzakli, a prophet.

Uzakli was one of the many prophets who had come to acquire the knowledge that the Oblates intended to bring to the people. There was another man, Senesaiyea from Fraser Lake, and two women, Bopa and Nokskan, and a man from the Bulkley River named Lexs. But the greatest of all the prophets was Bini.

The greatest of all the prophets was Bini

The story of Bini comes back to us through the work of several ethnographers of the 19th and 20th centuries who have collected accounts of his life and his work, his miracles and prophecies, from around twenty storytellers, some of whom were quite old. to remember Bini when he was alive. Bini may have carried the name of Chief Kwis before his visions. He is believed to be buried in Hagwilget.

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Anthropologists have speculated that the vivid Christian inflections in Bini’s teachings come from native Oregon evangelists, or word-of-mouth ideas from Catholic missionaries or devout Métis east of the Rocky Mountains, or via an equally diverted theological transit from the outer coast, originating from the Orthodox missionary Innocentius Veniaminof, from Russian Alaska.

It doesn’t matter much. The New Testament also has some disputed origins. The point here is that the account of the catastrophic legacy of Indian residential schools that has occupied so much media bandwidth in recent weeks, and the obscene pleasure that many “progressive” Canadians have taken in the desecration of Indigenous churches, is nothing like a calculation with native history.

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  1. The burning remains of a church are shown in Chopaka, British Columbia, in a photo taken on Saturday, June 26, 2021.

    As some applaud the destruction of churches, First Nations are putting the pieces back together

  2. A Catholic church in Morinville, Alta. Burns to the ground on June 30, 2021, in what police have called a suspicious fire.

    Melissa Mbarki: This violence must stop. It’s only preventing reconciliation

On the one hand, it was not the “missionary vanguard” that brought Christianity to Indigenous peoples in the most remote corners of Canada, and rather than simply being an instrument of white supremacy or colonialism. or whatever cliché we’re all supposed to be recirculating, native Christianity was “mobilized as a religion of resistance” at the start of European colonization. In the analysis of Jason Allen Redden of the University of Manitoba, Native Christianity was like a manifesto, a statement to the churches and supposedly Christian authorities and settlers who found themselves as thick as fleas on a dog’s back. at the end of the 1800s: you don’t have it, we are entitled to it by our own enlightenment, it is not for you to give it.

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The facts confirm the indigenous possession of Christianity as early as the 17th century and the persistence of indigenous expressions of Christianity. This is the main point that seems to have completely escaped the instigators and supporters of the haute couture of the “burn everything” polemics that accompanied the burning of churches sacred to the people of Penticton, the people of Lower Similkameen, the people of High Similkameen, the Gitwangak people, and the rest – it was hard to count.

Among the non-Indigenous churches that were desecrated: a Vietnamese Evangelical Church and an African Evangelical Church in Calgary serving a congregation almost entirely made up of refugees, and a Filipino working-class church in East Vancouver that celebrates mass in Tagalog. And it’s not enough to say, well, indigenous people are angry – as if there is evidence that arsonists and vandals are indigenous, and as if it would make a difference if they were.

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Parish Church Heather Knockwood walks past the fire damaged exterior of St. Kateri Tekakwitha Church in Indian Brook, Nova Scotia on June 30, 2021. The fire at the Roman Catholic Church serving the Sipekne First Nation 'katik is suspicious in nature.
Parish Church Heather Knockwood walks past the fire damaged exterior of St. Kateri Tekakwitha Church in Indian Brook, Nova Scotia on June 30, 2021. The fire at the Roman Catholic Church serving the Sipekne First Nation ‘katik is suspicious in nature. Photo by Andrew Vaughan / The Canadian Press

It’s also not enough to say, well, that the churches in Gitwangak and Calgary weren’t even Catholic, so of course those profanations were wrong. It is a grave offense against human decency to hold innocently pious Roman Catholics guilty or responsible for crimes long ago committed by members of the Catholic clergy. Burning down a church for these crimes is no different than smashing synagogue windows because of an uproar in Gaza, or vandalizing mosques because of something miserable committed by Khomeinists in Tehran or the Saudis. in Mecca.

What many self-proclaimed white “allies” should notice is that not a single Indigenous leader in any of the communities that have become crime scenes in tandem with the feverish hysteria over residential schools has expressed further. nothing but revulsion and grief over their churches being burnt down. Even leaders who reject Christianity entirely and profess a hatred of the institutions that have interned generations of Indigenous children say they are just as disgusted and dismayed as devout Indigenous Christians.

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In the early 1800s, the Prophet Sto: lo Quitselkanum stood on top of the mountain called T’itema: mex, on the north shore of the Fraser River above Ruby Creek, which today stands just over an hour’s drive east of Vancouver. . This was in the wake of the smallpox disaster that struck Coast Salish civilization like an asteroid, killing two out of three people. There were new strange people starting to move around the landscape, the xwilitim – the hungry people. The old remedies couldn’t contain the disease. The whole world was convulsing in a kind of moral chaos.

The whole world was convulsing in some kind of moral chaos

God spoke to Quitselkanum and the other Sto: lo prophets, to Tawqpa’met and Kweles, and to Skimlaha, who met three men in a vision that showed him how to make the sign of the cross. Like Moses descending from Mount Sinai, Quitselkanum descended from T’itema: mex with some sort of parchment, with symbols on it, and with instructions on a new way of life that would deliver the people from their suffering. The laws were more or less the Ten Commandments.

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So when the Oblates arrived a few years later, the people of Quitselkanum saw them coming. They knew who they were. The Oblates, some of whom had been driven from American territories to “side with the Indians”, were, in contemporary diction, “allies”.

And the trust people placed in them has been horribly betrayed, in the most hideous way, as we have all known for years – even if it must be said that the Oblates apologized profusely and meticulously in the early 1990s. As if it mattered to anyone.

In the last few days, as pyres were built for the sturdy little churches that the Similkameen, Gitwangak, and Penticton have built, where they baptized their babies, tended to their old devotions, and mourned their dead, the sneers of all those white “allies” are the thing to notice.

It is as if the whole world is convulsing in some kind of moral chaos, and the old remedies cannot contain the disease.

Terry Glavin is an author and journalist.

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