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The Gift of Indigeneity
What might we non-indigenous people gain by taking a fresh and appreciative look at how indigenous peoples look at life and the world? 

An awakening

I grew up with a negative stereotype of First Nations Peoples. "Indians," as we called them back then, didn't fit into our mainstream society. Their traditions, ways of life, ceremonies, even their spirituality was harshly judged. Small wonder that many wasted away. Little did I realize back then that their cultural degeneration was really the by-product of a ruthless colonialism that had little appreciation of those who were different.

… I also see something else. I see potential gifts First Nations People bring and offer to other peoples of the world.

My awakening took place as I began to journey with First Nations Peoples in New Brunswick: the Maliseet, Mi'kmaq, and Passamaquoddy. The Maliseet live along the beautiful Wolastoq, known to us today as the St. John River, and were initially called the Wolastoqiyik—"people of the beautiful and bountiful river." The Mi'kmaq are a coastal people living along the north shore of New Brunswick. The Passamaquoddy straddle the New Brunswick and Maine borders. Recently I have also come into contact with some Maori people of New Zealand.

In my journey I continue to see the residual social, economic and cultural effects of a colonial past on First Nations Peoples. But I also see something else. I see potential gifts First Nations People bring and offer to other peoples of the world.

A journey of discovery

Every year for the past ten years I take my first year class to participate in a First Light Ceremony conducted by a Maliseet Elder. We arrive before first light at a Native Burial Ground along the Wolastoq (St. John River). We marvel at the first rays of the morning sun, and a prayer of thanksgiving is offered to the Creator for the coming of a new day. We participate in a smudging. We learn of the deep concern First Nations People have for community, the close connection they have with the land, and their sense of responsibility for the natural world. Mostly we come to appreciate their deep spirituality and the importance of ceremony.

I also take my students once a year for a full day to visit a First Nations Community. Thus far we have visited seven different communities in New Brunswick and Maine. In every community we are welcomed without hesitation. We sit and talk to Elders, listen to the history, hardships and challenges of the local community. We also break bread together. With every visit we are embraced by their warmth, generosity and hospitality.

I am part of a research team at the University of New Brunswick that is documenting the Wolastoq language. We interview Elders, record their stories and create a "language bank." Their language is under threat, with only about 60 "mother tongue speakers" remaining. There is considerable urgency to preserve the language as a way to preserve their culture, education and worldview. Language, as I am discovering, contains both visions of life and ways of life that are unique and invaluable to a people. Each teaches us something important about the human journey.

This summer three Renaissance College (UNB) students will spend a ten week internship at Te Wananga-O-Raukawa, the Maori university in Otaki, New Zealand. I have now twice visited this university and developed close relationships with a number of its faculty and staff. The university is deeply grounded in Maori spirituality, in a manner that parallels the religious grounding of our Christian colleges. Our students will be exposed to the challenges Maori students face as they preserve the uniqueness of their traditional ways of life and as they find ways to thrive in the midst of a dominant Western secular culture. What will our students learn in the process?

The gift of indigeneity

In my journey with Indigenous Peoples I have learned numerous things. Most importantly, I have learned how destructive the dominant Western culture has been of their ways of life. Its neo-colonial efforts worldwide continue to pose huge threats to traditional cultures. No doubt modern Western culture, particularly its scientific and technological advances, has brought with it tremendous benefits in a variety of fields, and we have all gained from it. But it has also assumed to know what constitutes valid knowledge and as such has run roughshod over traditional ways and understandings, much the same as it dismisses Christian ways and understandings.

What might we non-indigenous people gain by taking a fresh and appreciative look at how indigenous peoples look at life and the world? They too are created "in the image of God" and hence enrich the diversity of creation. Their deep understanding of our dependence on and connection to the earth can open our eyes to the destructive ways of the West that even we so readily embrace. Their sense of community, of ritual, mirrors ours, yet can also teach us much.

Though not without their shortcomings, they too struggle to live authentic lives in relationship with the Creator. But as they renew and ground themselves in their traditions, and face the challenges of living in a global world, they will uncover and deepen visions of life and ways of life that are rich and powerful. These may well become part of their gifts to the rest of us.

Dr. John Valk is Associate Professor of Worldview Studies at Renaissance College, in the University of New Brunswick. He is a member of the CCG.

Originally published in the CCG’s Mobile Justice Newsletter, April 2010.

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