Manitoba History: Book Review: Tolly Bradford and Chelsea Horton, eds., Mixed Blessings: Indigenous Encounters with Christianity in Canada.

by Jennifer S. H. Brown
Professor Emerita, University of Winnipeg

Number 87, Summer 2018

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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Tolly Bradford and Chelsea Horton, eds., Mixed Blessings: Indigenous Encounters with Christianity in Canada. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2016, 226 pages. ISBN 078-0-7748-2940-3, $29.95 (paperback)

Mixed Blessings is a useful book, thoughtfully edited. It gathers nine contributions from scholars of varied backgrounds—history, Indigenous and interdisciplinary studies, and theology—who participated in a workshop on Religious Encounter and Exchange in Aboriginal Canada at the University of Saskatchewan in 2011. Following the editors’ introduction, “The Mixed Blessings of Encounter,” the chapters are organized into three parts that focus first on communities, second on individuals in encounter, and finally, on contemporary encounters between Indigenous people and Christian missionaries and institutions.

The editors’ interest in these topics was piqued in part by “a discernible [American] shift towards examining the complex, and often contradictory, role of missionaries and Christianity in the construction of the Native American religious landscape” (p. 3). The book contributes to the exploration of that theme in the Canadian context. A central concern in all the chapters is to take seriously the role of Indigenous spiritual experiences and knowledge, recognizing that in Indigenous responses to missions, the political and spiritual were closely interwoven (p. 6). The authors acknowledge the trauma and conflicts that attended much mission work and which came to a head so often in the residential schools. But they focus on the intellectual, emotional, and personal aspects of the intertwined spiritual and political encounters spawned by the coming of Christianity into Indigenous lives and worlds. Issues of communication and understanding—or their lack—loom large, as does the role of Indigenous agency, countering simple assumptions about passive victims.

Chapter 1 by Timothy Pearson and Chapter 2, by Elizabeth Elbourne focus on colonial eastern North America. Pearson draws attention to rituals as major points of misunderstanding between Catholic priests and Indigenous people in the 1600s. For the priests, the Mass made the divine immanent, in the mystical transubstantiation of bread and wine; Huron ceremonies, in contrast, called upon and made use of diabolical spiritual forces (p. 23). Overall, the Jesuit archives offer only “ritual in text,” records of Indigenous performances that the priests disparaged or condemned, holding themselves aloof from non-converts and from real understanding. Elbourne’s essay examines how Haudenosaunee (Mohawk) people saw Anglicanism, 1760s–1830s, as a source of both power and danger amid military and diplomatic tensions, as they worked out how to “tap into Christianity’s sacred power while keeping at a distance its more dangerous effects” (p. 39). Religious texts translated into Mohawk, and their use for teaching, offered some means for local control and the development of Mohawk versions of Christianity (pp. 48–9). Key religious symbols such as bells and silver vessels became associated with community identity and with Mohawk-British alliances (pp. 49–50). All changed, of course, when after the War of 1812, Indigenous people lost standing as military allies and became wards of the government.

In Chapter 3, “A Subversive Sincerity,” Amanda Fehr examines the history of the I:yem Memorial, a large granite cross and plaque erected in 1938 by Sto:lo Coast Salish Christians above the Fraser Canyon, where some of their ancestors were buried. The monument honoured their ancestors and affirmed their claim to the land by means of a symbol, the cross, which they had made their own. Potlatches were illegal, but their dedication ceremony “combined Christian symbols with a format similar to a potlatch to publicly mark I:yem as a Sto:lo place” (p. 70). Fehr traces in detail the stories, rich in meaning, of the men who erected the cross, and the complex political dynamics leading to its destruction in 2008 by members of the Yale First Nation.

The chapters in Part 2 shed some new light on individuals already known to many. Cecilia Morgan offers an empathetic portrait of Englishwoman Eliza Field, whose interracial marriage to Kahkewaquonaby (Peter Jones), Mississauga Methodist missionary, created a stir in 1833. Eliza constructively combined her competing impulses to missionize and uplift, and to learn from her husband and his people to whom she became deeply attached, supporting their challenges to the colonial authorities. Her life and writings are a remarkable record of a woman who navigated the “transatlantic missionary world” of Morgan’s title and personally experienced the tensions, and sometimes tragedies, that came with its mixed blessings.

In Chapter 5, Jean-Francois Belisle and Nicole St-Onge offer a striking framework for understanding Louis Riel and the ultramontane Catholicism that so coloured his later life and writings. They propose that Riel’s second provisional government of 1885, his “Exovidat,” constituted “an alternate model of both religious and political power ... an original societal construction that we label the church-state” (p. 104). The model was derived from Ecuadorean president Garcia Moreno, whose regime defined his people as Catholic, dedicated to the cult of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. It stirred much interest among radical ultramontanists in Canada. The Catholic hierarchy soon rejected its extremism, but Riel took up Garcia Moreno’s ideas. When the church refused to support the Métis in 1884–1885, Riel emerged as a prophet, proposing to found “an alternative political regime and church” (p. 110). The essay shows that inferences about Riel’s mental state do not suffice to explain the political/religious course he was following, as expressed in his writings and his actions.

Edward Ahenakew, Cree Anglican clergyman born in 1885, is the subject of Chapter 6 by Tasha Beeds. She draws on her study of his life and writings and on her own Cree-Métis background to explore how Ahenakew “bridge[d] the Indigenous and non-Indigenous worlds in terms of language, spirituality, and politics” (p. 120). Bilingual and active in the church, he treasured and wrote down the stories of his kinsmen, the “Old Men,” with great respect and a deep sense of responsibility, while working with friend and scholar Paul A. W. Wallace to bring his work into publication. Politically, he assumed an active role in the League of Indians of Canada.

The three chapters in Part 3 turn to contemporary encounters. Siphiwe Dube, of the University of Pretoria in South Africa, examines Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission on residential schools through the lens of his own nation’s experience. He offers a nuanced study of the role that Christianity played in the Commission’s proceedings. While religious institutions were on the defensive, Christian discourse was prominent on the stage, but fraught with ambiguity given the culpability of the churches: how do we separate “the good message [of healing] from the bad messenger”? (p. 152). Should Christianity have been jettisoned in favour of Indigenous spirituality, which also had a role in the proceedings? Many survivors, however, referenced the role of Christianity “as key to their healing journeys following their experience of residential school trauma,” and some testified to the similarities between Indigenous and Christian traditions (p. 157). It seems there is no single path to “true reconciliation.”

The last two chapters are more personal. Denise Nadeau reflects on her experience of teaching about Indigenous traditions, women, and colonialism. Problematizing “religion” as a category that does not transpose easily, she asks how one can “decolonize religious studies” in an academic department bearing that name, or teach at a distance about Indigenous traditions rooted in communities. She has developed an Indigenous knowledge framework that counters stereotypes and considers, particularly, “how Indigenous women’s understandings of their traditions can inform the decolonization of settler, diasporic, and Indigenous populations” (course description, p. 179). Finally, Carmen Lansdowne (Chapter 9), a Heiltsuk United Church minister, explores her longing to understand “the history of my people and the beautiful (as well as the oft-described ugly) reasons we converted” (p. 184). Her historical research on the matter led to frustrations—and to autoethnography, a method that focuses “on the subjective experience of the researcher rather than the objective observation of the beliefs and practices of others.” This approach led to vulnerability—“the willingness to write the personal into the academic,” connecting the past and the present through personal history (pp. 185, 189). It also led to insights about herself and her people beyond what she could glean from archives and mission histories.

This book offers many “teachable moments”; the essays, interesting in themselves, could provoke students and others to deeper reading, thinking, and discussion about the complex topics they raise. Ranging widely across time and space, they share an important common theme—the mixed blessings that have attended Indigenous encounters with Christianity in Canada.

We thank Clara Bachmann for assistance in preparing the online version of this article.

We thank S. Goldsborough for assistance in preparing the online version of this article.

Page revised: 8 April 2021