Written by Rev. Dr. H. Daniel Zacharias
Inevitably, as June rolls around and people recall that it is National Indigenous History Month in Canada, individuals and perhaps churches begin to think again, “How should I celebrate this?” “What should we do as a community?” “What should I do as an individual?” Or perhaps, because it comes around every year you have forgotten about it and life just carries on. But there are reasons that we’ve placed into the annual rhythms of Canada’s year markers to remember and markers to celebrate.
Learning & Unlearning
Most of you who know me know that I have Indigenous ancestry (on my mother’s side). This is something I did not really know much about for many years. There are lots of reasons for this. Many people with Indigenous heritage in Canada are rediscovering their culture and their identity, which requires a lot of learning and unlearning. Canada is a colonized country, and part of the long process and history of colonization was the erasure, subjugation, and marginalization of the many Indigenous people of these lands.
Growing up, my family did not discuss nor celebrate our heritage as peoples Indigenous to the area now called Manitoba, Treaty 1 territory. This was because of the assimilationist policies of Canada. My great grandfather, for example, lost his treaty status early on in his life in order to take a job with the railroad – this is an example of an assimilationist policy. The result was that my mother and her mother did not have the treaty rights that belonged to them.
The more complicated component that I personally have wrestled with as a theologian and biblical scholar is the fact that assimilation and discrimination came especially from the church. This was theological colonization, the wedding of European culture with the Gospel and Christian practice. My family, like so many others, were told by the church that their culture was godless at best, demonic at worst. This not only displayed a lot of ignorance, but it was bad theology too. When hearing the Gospel and when coming to faith, an explicit requirement was shedding any of those things which remotely looked or felt like Indigenous culture.
We were told to trade our culture for the culture of the European settlers by the missionaries who shared the Gospel – to be conformed to the image of Christ, Indigenous folks were first told to conform to the image of the European missionary. This has resulted for many Indigenous peoples in a sort of self-hatred, a denial of one’s heritage, and often a desire to disconnect ourselves from our past family lines. Happily for many, including myself, this is not the end of the story.
Canada’s attitude toward the Indigenous peoples is changing, slowly but surely. Make no mistake, racism in parts of Canada is still prevalent, and systemic racism is not gone. But cultural reclamation and resurgence is here and should be celebrated. That’s what June is about.
So, as June comes around again, it is a reminder for me to keep learning. Because of the suppression of our heritage and culture by society and the church, I don’t know as much as I would have liked. But I’ve been able to learn some things I had not known. This has helped me renovate my faith, learn new ways of knowing and being, and has helped me encounter God’s Word and God’s world with my Indigenous eyes. And I hope that my journey is an encouragement for other Indigenous followers of Jesus to be proud of who we are even as we reckon with the reality that the church that we love has bad history against our families. The way to change this, though, is not by cutting things off, or breaking relationships, or fighting.
The way through this is truth telling. And this means that the church needs to be reminded that there’s bad history that we need to learn from – so let the month of June be that reminder. And for Indigenous people like myself who may have grown up relatively disconnected from their cultural heritage, there is a chance to dig a little deeper, as I’m still on a learning journey myself.
I also celebrate the resiliency of Indigenous peoples. Because my ancestors are Indigenous to the area of Manitoba, I, like most of you reading this, am a guest or settler living in the land of Mi’kma’ki. It’s important for me personally, and I daresay for most of you reading this, to learn the history of these lands and the original inhabitants. Most of us know very little of their history, the process of colonization, and what they endured because of colonization. But I also celebrate the resiliency of the Mi’kmaq, Wolastoqiyik, Penobscot, and Passamaquoddy. They are strong, proud, and resilient people. They have things to teach us, but colonization silenced their voices. June is about giving them a platform, a megaphone.
You will be a different person if you watch the documentary We Were Children or the movie Indian Horse. You will not think the same about these lands of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island after reading excerpts from Daniel Paul’s We Were Not the Savages. And I hope in facing the hard lessons of works like these that you’ll appreciate all the more that Indigenous people are still strong and still proud. Celebrating their voices and their contributions as well as encouraging those who are still on the journey of cultural reclamation is something that we can all do.
Let this month be that annual reminder to learn something new and celebrate resiliency and diversity.
Danny completed his PhD in New Testament studies through the University of Aberdeen at Highland Theological College, and is a graduate of Acadia Divinity College (ADC), with both his Master of Divinity and Master of Arts (Theology). Previous to this, Danny resided in Winnipeg where he earned his Bachelor of Arts at Providence College. Danny is Associate Professor of New Testament Studies at Acadia Divinity College and also carries administrative responsibilities including directing the Master of Arts (Theology) program and the Hayward lectures. In addition to his role at ADC, Danny is a faculty member of the NAIITS Learning Community.
More than any of these achievements, Danny is most proud to call Maria his wife, Lex, Jack, and Hudson his sons, and Ella-Rose his little princess.
Danny teaches in the area of New Testament and Advanced Greek.