Visions in an Anishinabe Catholic community
© Canadian Corporation for Studies in Religion / Corporation canadienne des Sciences Religieuses
As I reflect now a quarter of a century after the period he was co-director (along with Paul Younger) of my MA project, I see that David Kinsley's methodology for religious studies was the primary guide for how I went about my study of Hanum \[amacr] n (1978).
My studies of the philosophical and theological writings of Bernard Lonergan (1957, 1972) had convinced me that there was a religious dimension to the human person that could be related to other dimensions of human consciousness but should not be reduced to them. I anticipated that my study of other religious traditions, if adequate to the object of study, would respect the transcendent differentiation of consciousness of the believers in those traditions. I found that David Kinsley took a similar position in stating the presuppositions of his method of study of the figures of K \[amacr] l \[imacr] and K \[rudot] \[sudot] \[nudot] a in his book, The Sword and the Flute, K \[amacr] l \[imacr] and K \[rudot] \[sudot] \[nudot] a: Dark Visions of the Terrible and the Sublime in Hindu Mythology. Kinsley states:
As Kinsley's interest in his book was primarily in K \[amacr] l \[imacr] and K \[rudot] \[sudot] \[nudot] a as they manifested visions of the divine within Hindu tradition, my interest in my MA work on Hanum \[amacr] n was ``motivated by a single desire -- to appreciate the figure of Hanum \[amacr] n as he is revealed in the Hindu tradition'' (Duggan 1978: iii). I wished to identify and to understand the patterns that characterized the vision of the divine that was expressed in the figure of Hanum \[amacr] n. Working from a range of sources, but primarily from the literature of the religious tradition, I identified contrasting violent and peaceful characteristics that formed a pattern of ambivalence that was gradually purified and integrated into loving service. Reading the religious epics, the V \[amacr] lm \[imacr] kir \[amacr] m \[amacr] ya \[nudot] a and the Tuls \[imacr] d \[amacr] sar \[amacr] macaritam \[amacr] nasa, I became aware that the stories of Hanum \[amacr] n's exploits occupied major portions of the epics. I speculated that the Hanum \[amacr] n stories had been popular with the audiences of the story tellers who had maintained the oral traditions at the root of the received texts of the V \[amacr] lm \[imacr] kir \[amacr] m \[amacr] ya \[nudot] a. I noted that the intensity of Tuls \[imacr] d \[amacr] s' devotion to Hanum \[amacr] n was evident not just from his epic R \[amacr] macaritam \[amacr] nasa but from other poetical works he had created. A later trip to Varanasi and the Hanum \[amacr] n temple in that holy city confirmed for me that there was a special fervour to the devotion shown to Hanum \[amacr] n. Hanum \[amacr] n was close to those in need of answer to prayer. The devotion to Hanum \[amacr] n was intensely felt by people with concrete needs. Hanum \[amacr] n was accessible to the people. My later experience of the popularity of Hanum \[amacr] n among the Hindu population of Trinidad did not contradict this assessment of Hanum \[amacr] n's role within the religious worldview of the Hindu devotee. Hanum \[amacr] n reveals the passionate and caring aspect of the divine that bends close to the believer and, on the testimony of devotees, responds in an effective manner to human need. A guiding principle for myself as a student of another religious tradition was to respect the reported experience of the adherents of that tradition. I was to follow Kinsley's suggestion that he put forward in the introduction to The Sword and the Flute:
A primary presupposition of this study is the conviction that religious phenomena can best be understood on their own plane of reference... . Man is clearly a social, economic, and historical being. He is also, however, a religious being -- a being who has traditionally demonstrated that he must relate himself to an ``other'' dimension of reality in order to be human. (1975: 3)
With Kinsley's guidance I struggled to be open and receptive to what I had initially found strange and difficult to comprehend. I found myself inspired by the courage of Hanum \[amacr] n in dealing with the eruption of energies from within himself that he could not fully control; I marvelled at his integration of those energies in loving service that set no boundaries to generous self-giving.
To understand religious things one must acquaint oneself with their contexts, one must be sensitive to the cultural setting of a given phenomenon. But what is more important one must seek to discern the visionary aspect of a religious phenomenon... . It does not allow one to foreclose any possibility but demands an openness to a dimension of reality that may not be experienced by the interpreter in his own life. (1975: 4-5)
Kinsley's commitment to this set of methodological presuppositions are not limited to his earlier work. In reading through the chapter on Mary in Kinsley's book The Goddesses' Mirror: Visions of the Divine from East and West, I was struck by this statement on the popular beliefs concerning Mary:
Kinsley appears to be of the view that the divine is revealed in an authentic manner in the religious experience of people. He operates as a scholar of religious traditions by taking seriously the testimony of religious people. In like manner I hope to take seriously the visions of the divine among the Anishinabe Catholics of the church where I am pastor. In doing so, I follow a methodology of research that is more that of an ``observing participant'' in the religious life of the Anishinabe community than that of a ``participant observer'' maintaining distance from the community.
In my discussion of Mary, I do not limit myself to the official teachings of the Roman and Orthodox traditions. Mary is, among other things, an extremely popular being who very much belongs to the piety of unlettered, unsophisticated, and earnest believers throughout the Christian world. Their testimony about Mary, past and present, should be taken seriously, even when it has been declared heterodox by church officials. (1989: 218)
Achiel Peelman writes of the prevalence of ``religious dimorphism'' among North American native peoples who integrate both Christianity and Aboriginal spirituality:
It is the changing pattern of religious dimorphism and the integration of religious systems that I wish to illustrate in what follows. St. Raphael's Spiritual Centre is the Roman Catholic Church on Sagamok Anishinawbek First Nation, a reserve located on the North Shore of Lake Huron's North Channel, directly north of Manitoulin Island. The reserve is one of the largest in the area with a population of over 2200 people of Ojibway, Odawa and Pottawatami tribal heritage. The reserve encompasses some 27,000 acres of forest, lakes and mountains. The present one-story, white brick church building is not very impressive seen from without. The interior, in contrast, is log construction in a white pine that glows with a golden colour. On entering through the east main entrance of the church, what one sees facing from the west wall above and behind the altar is a large portrait of the risen Christ. The eyes of Christ meet those entering the church in a direct, almost piercing fashion. Christ is represented as appearing in a vision to a native man in traditional garb. This man has his left hand on a large rock which can be identified as his prayer rock. His right hand is raised as to shield himself from the brilliance of the vision of Christ. This Christ is the Indian Anishinabe Christ with black hair, black beard and braids, feathers hanging from his wrists, the squirrel totem on a medallion hung around his neck. He is also definitely Jesus of Nazareth for he is represented with his wounded hands from the crucifixion. Three doves fly up in the vision. The doves carry the healing medicines of the Anishinabe: sweet grass, sage, tobacco and cedar. In the lower right hand corner as one faces the painting are two names with two separate dates, 1985 and 1992. These are the names of the two artists, both Anishinabe men, and the dates on which they completed their separate work on the painting.
The religious situation of many Amerindians can best be described as religious dimorphism: the simultaneous or successive belonging to two religious systems... . These interactions extend from the simple juxtaposition of the two religious systems to their almost complete integration. (1995: 158)
There is a story here that tells something about changing visions of the divine. In the original painting of 1985 Jesus Christ was represented with golden hair and no braids, no feathers, no medallion with the squirrel totem. Nor did the doves carry the traditional healing herbs. The people tell me that at the time of the shift from the former church to the new church with its greater focus on native symbols the painting was taken away to be redone. Wanting the painting to coordinate with the greater emphasis on native symbols in the new church, the Jesuit pastor approached the original artist to do the revisions. Getting no response, he then turned to another artist to rework the painting. The Christ figure came back pronouncedly Anishinabe in facial features, with darker colouring of skin, eyes and hair as I have described above. In contrast to the assertive presence of the Anishinabe risen Christ, the blonder risen Christ of the original painting appears softly defined, floating and removed. The Anishinabe risen Christ is more vividly inserted, a commanding and bold presence.
What can the changed representation of the risen Christ say to us about the vision of the divine among the Anishinabe Catholic community of St. Raphael's Spiritual Centre? The community seems to have received the new representation enthusiastically. Christ is accepted as one with Anishinabe facial features and colouring. Christ is no longer to be represented as a European coming to the Anishinabe person, but as the native Christ. It is legitimate to express within Catholic religious practice what is distinctive and particular to the Anishinabe people in culture and spiritual tradition. Yet one could ask how much of this is firmly rooted in the Catholic sensibility of Anishinabe people? Is the influence towards integration of Anishinabe culture and spirituality solely an initiative through the resident non-native Jesuit priest from a broader Catholic community sympathetic to inculturation? Or are Anishinabe Catholics expressing more integrally visions of the divine true to an emerging more unified religious consciousness?
There is evidence that the Christian healing tradition is radically inculturated in the Anishinabe Catholic community of Sagamok Anishnawbek First Nation. On the occasion of the millennium, the President of the Parish Council of St. Raphael's, Hubert Eshkakogan, worked diligently to bring a statue of the Archangel Raphael to the church community whose patron is the Archangel. Eshkakogan looked to the work of Aboriginal artists who might present an original vision of Raphael. His travels led him to Wilmer Nadjiwon of Cape Croker. He happened to visit the wood-carver's shop on a trip he made to the Bruce Peninsula. He told Nadjiwon of the desires of the Parish Council for a representation of the Archangel Raphael. The conversation revealed that the artist was ready with a generous spirit to help the Sagamok community in preparing a carved wood statue of the Archangel. Nadjiwon, 80 years of age at that time, was expert in carving out figures with a small chainsaw. The present carving was from a log piece of white pine three feet in diameter and eight feet in height. The log had been rejected by a local sawmill because it was too large to process and had been donated to artist. He went ahead with the rough carving of the Archangel Raphael. Eshkakogan later did the finishing work on the body and the face.
The eight-foot carving is impressive. It is an expression of people close to the forest and a people who earn their living to this day in the forest industry. Eshkakogan explains that the angel is both male and female with smaller feminine hand holding the medicine pouch and larger masculine hand holding the eagle staff. Raphael's face is an Anishinabe face shaped to represent different ages -- young adult, middle-aged, elderly.
Raphael, whose story is told in the Book of Tobit, is also believed to be the angel who stirred the healing waters of Bethsaida. In the Catholic tradition, the archangel Raphael is the Healer and one who blesses marriages. For this community at Sagamok the healing emphasis is primary among people suffering significant health problems. There are those in the community who are known as people who pray powerfully for healing. This carving appears as an expression of a community whose members share a vision of the divine as effective healing power. The vision is notably inclusive of male and female, young, middle-aged and elderly. In contrast to the painting of the risen Christ, the carving of the Archangel Raphael appears as an unambiguously inculturated expression of an Anishinabe Catholic vision of the divine.