Canadian Mennonite
Volume 10, No. 21
October 30, 2006

Pastor Allen Owen of Pauingassi, Man. digs into some Alabama corn on the cob.

A busload of 34 Canadians made the trek from northern Ontario and the Prairies to Atmore, Ala., this summer, where they joined people from across the United States for Native Assembly 2006. The gathering was hosted by pastor Steve Cheramie Risingsun and the congregation of Poarch Community Church.

The theme of the assembly was “God is one…we are one.” Howard Jolly, a Cree pastor from Winnipeg, was the featured speaker. One morning the group met at the tribal powwow grounds with leaders of the Creek tribe, to learn of the tribe’s history and some of the initiatives it is working on now.

There were many good comments made on the trip back to Canada:

• “The way the conference brought together different tribes and people and church groups was very encouraging and exciting. The efforts to include young people and children with activities was very good. (Rochelle Martin, Sioux Lookout, Ont.)

•“I enjoyed the music by the different native American groups singing in their own native tongues.” (Marge Johnston, Pine Dock, Man.)

• “Reports from Argentina as well as Russia made us aware of the wider [indigenous] community. (Erna Enns, Winnipeg)

Before the assembly, the Canadians took a side trip to Bayou la Batre, Ala., to visit the Mennonite Disaster Service site that was set up in that community after hurricanes Katrina and Rita struck the Gulf Coast last fall.

“To drive by shrimp boats tied up at the dock because the bank owns them, to see boats one year later still up on shore—these people not only lost their homes but lost their livelihoods as well. I can’t even imagine the hardships these people endured,” Johnston said.

Pat Palson of Riverton, Man., was encouraged by the visit. “Seeing firsthand how the volunteers choose to take time out to help others was a blessing which I felt very strong about,” he said. “It made me feel more thankful for the riches I’ve been blessed with.”

After the visit to Bayou la Batre, Hilda Franz, also of Riverton, said, “The assembly then reminded us that we worship one great, awesome God who calls us to ‘be one’ in the midst of a very needy, troubled, diverse world—to be one great, mighty river of love and healing flowing forth from him who is love.”

—Neill and Edith Von Gunten

The authors are co-directors of MC Canada’s Native Ministry.

‘God is one...we are one’


Howard Jolly, a Cree pastor of First Nations Community Church in Winnipeg and a graduate of Providence College and Seminary, gave three messages on the theme of “oneness” at this past summer’s Native Assembly in Atmore, Ala., excerpts of which are presented below.

• There are two biblical codes for life on Earth: “Everything is from God” and “Everything is for God.”

Aboriginals, for the most part, connect present circumstances to the coming of the white people. We cannot get out of a cycle of dysfunction if we live life from this premise. Bitterness and unforgiveness are what lead to destruction. We must deal with life in relationship with God. That is where the path to freedom begins. The people of God in biblical times always connected their circumstances to God—not to Satan or other people groups.

We struggle as a people to reflect God as we should within our culture because of the loss of land, language and cultural identity. The colonization and assimilation, which are part of our history, have affected that loss. In Christ we are called to be part of a new creation, which is to be a reflection of God in the power of the Holy Spirit. We obtain a new identity in Christ, who makes us children of the Most High. Within this new identity we must realize that God made us who we are as aboriginals and that we are free to express our worship to God within our uniqueness as a people.

• God is a rewarder of those who are in right relationship—with God and with people. Unity with God is connected to unity with people. Finding peace with God is indelibly connected to peace with others. It is only as we deal with life in relationship with God that we are able to deal with it properly in relationship with others.

•The Book of Lamentations proclaims God as compassionate and merciful. The people of God need to emulate these traits in bringing the gospel to the world. As we experience God’s character intimately, we will be able to reflect it to others, which is what being a new creature in Christ is all about.

God calls us to be part of God’s work of salvation in the world. The majority of people in contemporary society are in a “what’s in it for me?” mentality. But the church—the community of God—is called to be concerned with restoring humanity.

—Compiled by Leona Dueck Penner

The importance of assembly symbols

Walter and Hilda Franz of the Riverton (Man.) Fellowship Circle participate in a traditional water ceremony.

The North American Native Assembly this summer included a variety of symbols that helped participants experience God’s presence and draw them closer to each other.

Participants were asked to bring a stone and water from home that were significant to their identity. At the beginning of the assembly, participants placed their stones in front of a wooden cross. Each stone was marked with the place of origin and the people group represented. At the close of the assembly, participants were invited to take a stone from another people group and use it as an ongoing prayer reminder.

Assembly planners also invited participants to bring a symbolic offering of water that was significant to them. Participants poured their water into large containers symbolizing their gratitude for God’s gift of life and also the unity God desires. After contributing their water, they had opportunity to anoint themselves with it.

Another important symbolic act was the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. Participants were invited to share in communion served by aboriginal and non-aboriginal leaders in a moving act of God’s grace that transcends the barriers people often erect to differentiate themselves from others.

All three symbols served to highlight the diversity of experience and insight, and also the opportunity for a rich expression of unity that comes from a generous sharing of those unique perspectives.

—Norm Voth

The author is the MC Manitoba director of Evangelism and Service Ministries.

First Nations recognize MDS for 40 years of service

Pastor Steve Cheramie Risingsun of Poarch Community Church, Atmore, Ala., presents a quilt to Kevin King, Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS) executive director.

With 400 people from across North America looking on, Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS) was honoured this summer for its work among North America’s aboriginal people groups over the past 40 years.

“My experience with [MDS] has been a good one,” pastor Steve Cheramie Risingsun of Poarch Community Church, Atmore, Ala., the host of this year’s Native Assembly, said. “There has never been a time when I picked up the phone and called [MDS] that they don’t respond…. And I appreciate that very much.”

Risingsun listed many of the projects MDS has undertaken with First Nations people in both the United States and Canada dating back to the 1960s’ civil rights disturbances that impacted American First Nations communities, including responding to both natural and manmade disasters.

“In 1972, MDS responded to an invitation by Mennonite native leadership to help in the reconstruction effort from the events at Wounded Knee, South Dakota,” noted Risingsun. “Also, in 1992, a response to the memory and the pain of the 500-year anniversary of Columbus reaching America—MDS worked on several projects with First Nation people.”

A handmade quilt was specifically presented to MDS executive director Kevin King as a gift from the Gulf State Conference and from Mennonite Native Ministries in the U.S. and Canada.

“I know a lot of love and care went into each stitch,” King said in accepting the quilt on behalf of the thousands of MDS volunteers who have made a difference over the past 40 years.

—MDS release by Scott Sundberg

Event attempts to bridge racial, theological gaps

Bannock and good-natured banter were in abundance at this year’s annual Bridging The Gap Ministries weekend event at Heaven’s Gate Ranch in late August.

The meetings—some up to three hours—included testimonies, prayers for healing, special music from aboriginal Christian singers, and sermons. Powerful personal stories were told and the aboriginal family music groups sang country gospel.

The event was held in English, although several of the aboriginal musicians and speakers from First Nations across western Canada indicated there was a renewal of their languages in progress. It was good to hear this and also the affirmation of many elements of aboriginal culture.

I learned that Siksika (Blackfoot) Nation members have all heard about Christianity, but it appeared to me that it is still in some ways the “white man’s religion,” as was evident in the uncritical acceptance by some speakers of such “white” theology as dispensationalism.

There are several Christian groups active within the Siksika Nation, most having ties with established traditions from Canada’s “white” culture. The hope is that they will all be strengthened by the yearly events put on by Bridging the Gap, an organization of nine churches from different traditions of Christianity that share a vision of reconciliation between aboriginal and non-native persons in the region surrounding the Siksika Nation, about an hour east of Calgary.

—Dan Jack

Mennonites, Lutherans pledge solidarity with First Nation in land claim dispute

Members of the Young Chippewayans First Nation sing and play drums during the grand entry on Aug. 22.

Stoney Knoll, Sask.

More than a century after Mennonite and Lutheran settlers established homes and farms around Laird, Sask., their descendants met together this summer with the Young Chippewayan First Nation to exchange stories, play games and link hearts. The gathering happened at the request of Chief Ben Weenie and was the result of many meetings between area farmers and pastors and members of local aboriginal communities.

The meeting took place at Stoney Knoll, a slightly elevated section of land outside of Laird that was first used by the Plains Cree band as a sacred site and later by the Lutheran community in 1910 as a place to build its first church.

The Aug. 22 gathering was a memorable stepping stone on a journey begun by two people groups 130 years ago—both cultures connected by their love for the land and directly impacted by a federal government decision made in 1876.

That year the government signed Treaty Six with a number of Indian bands, granting them the rights to certain parcels of land in Saskatchewan and Alberta. Chief Chippewayan chose a large tract of land close to where the town of Laird is now situated. But because they were a nomadic people and their main source of food—the buffalo—was scarce, the First Nation members moved to another area for survival. Although the land still legally belonged to them, they never settled on it.

Twenty years later, when settlers began arriving in Saskatchewan in the late 1800s, they quickly saw the need for more land. Without consulting the band, the government gave the settlers the Treaty Six land in accordance with its plan to settle the Prairies through agriculture. Now it belonged to Mennonite and Lutheran settlers moving into the area. And none of them realized the injustice that was done.

In 1977, a group of Young Chippewayan First Nation members came to Laird to raise the issue of their loss of land. Some of the things they said made local farmers feel uneasy and tensions between the two groups lingered.

The Conference of Mennonites in Canada asked Leonard Doell to prepare a paper about the incident and, two years later, Mennonite Central Committee organized a peace conference at Tiefengrund Mennonite Church, close to Laird. At that time, an attempt was made to hear both sides of the matter. Doell stayed in touch with the First Nations communities in Saskatchewan, eventually ending up as coordinator for the MCC Saskatchewan Aboriginal Neighbours program.

Despite time constraints faced by farmers during harvest time and the long distances travelled by many individuals, the Aug. 22 event was hailed as “an historic day,” and was everything organizers hoped for.

Weenie put minds at ease during his opening remarks. “We don’t have a quarrel with the local farmers and we don’t want their land. Our fight is with the government,” he stressed.

Those thoughts helped to bring a measure of healing to the Mennonite community.

Said Wilbur Froese, who served as a co-pastor at Laird Mennonite Church for 15 years, “For us, it was like a burden lifted. For 30 years, we’ve…lived with this sense of shame, misplaced guilt.”

A memorandum of understanding was signed by a representative from each group—Young Chippewayan, Mennonite and Lutheran. It acknowledges that “the Young Chippewayan band respects the current ownership of the land by the settlers and, in return, the Mennonites and Lutherans pledge to support the Chippewayan’s ongoing struggle to get compensation for this land.” The land claim by the Young Chippewayan band has been stagnating in the courts for about 15 years.

Eldon Elias, who owns 1,100 acres of Treaty Six land and whose father was involved in the Tiefengrund conference, was a glad participant of the event. “I just hope it doesn’t end here,” he said. “I hope we do more.”

—Karin Fehderau

Back to Canadian Mennonite home page