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Integrating Catholic and indigenous identities part of reconciliation

By Deborah Gyapong
Canadian Catholic News


OTTAWA (CCN) — Reconciliation between the Catholic Church and indigenous peoples has been a life’s work for Harry and Germaine Lafond, one that started with integrating their own dual identities.

The Lafonds say Our Lady of Guadalupe may provide a key to reconciliation.

Harry Lafond belongs to the Muskeg Cree First Nation in Saskatchewan where he grew up in a Catholic family with a Cree father and a Métis mother. “I always had a need to be involved with the church in some way or another even as a child,” he said. He has played a leadership role as a member of the Canadian Catholic Aboriginal Council and executive director of the Office of Treaty Commissioner in Saskatchewan. In 1997 Lafond was invited to the Vatican attend the Synod of the Americas as an observer.

As a young man, Harry joined the Oblates of Mary Immaculate and began to prepare for the priesthood.

At university, while studying English literature and anthropology, Harry developed an interest in his indigenous roots and began asking questions about his Cree background.

Though Cree was his mother tongue, he had nearly lost it, he said. “We lived on the reserve, but we were not encouraged to be too involved in the Cree ways,” he said. So he began to educate himself about the Cree worldview and Cree ceremonies that had been largely set aside.

The turning point came when he and another Oblate scholastic took a journey to northern Alberta to the land of the Nakota people who were holding an ecumenical gathering of many different nations and tribes along with the established church to talk about spirituality. “From that point on I realized very clearly the Cree way of believing and the spirituality of the Cree people was not something to be ignored, but something to be explained,” Harry said. “I haven’t looked back. It’s been a continuous journey.”

The journey has involved speaking to elders, learning ceremonies and protocols and studying the Cree language, to the extent he is now studying at the University of Saskatchewan to be qualified to teach it.

Lafond has found the Catholic faith and the meaning he has discovered in Cree spirituality are not “mutually exclusive.”

His wife, Germaine, grew up in a Métis family that spoke a patois of French and Cree at home. She attended a Catholic school run by the Sisters of Providence, a French order. Her mother died when she was eight, so Germaine went to live in residence. The experience was so positive she eventually joined the order and trained to become a teacher.

Harry met Germaine while she was a nun but both of them left consecrated life well before their friendship led to marriage. The couple has five children.

The Lafonds hope to find ways of further integrating elements of indigenous spirituality that respects the diversity of expression in one Catholic faith.

At Duck Lake, Sask., there is a shrine to Our Lady of Lourdes where indigenous people have gathered on July 16 every year for the last 100 years, Harry said. There, they were able to organize what he described as a “Cree mass” that began with a pipe ceremony by one of the elders who is considered a “knowledge keeper of his people.” Then a priest celebrated the eucharist in the Cree language. When the mass ended, the elder “closed the service by putting the pipe down.” Though it is not always easy to find a priest who speaks Cree, they have tried to continue this tradition.

While there is growing curiosity about indigenous spirituality, passing the Catholic faith on to the next generation is not easy. “There a lot of anger about the residential schools,” Harry said. “People are expressing their anger by letting go of everything.”

Because the church exercised such control over our communities for a number of years, with missionaries exerting authority and almost becoming the governance, many are expressing their freedom, he said. The younger generation is saying: “We really don’t need the church. Our spirituality has been given to us as a statement of emancipation.”

“I don’t know where that’s leading us in terms of a healthy Catholic Church in our community,” he said. “In our own parish, it’s just a small group in our generation that continues to go to church.”

Young people bring their children in to be baptized and come once in a while, he said.

Our Lady of Guadalupe may provide a key.

“We need to peel back the leaves and explore the depths of Our Lady of Guadalupe’s message,” Harry said. “I think there is something there to lead us forward.”

The apparitions of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico 500 years ago and her miraculous image captured on the tilma or cloak of a St. Juan Diego led to the conversion of millions of Aztecs in Mexico 500 years ago. The cloak was recognized by the Aztecs as a pictograph using symbols understandable to their culture and portrayed the Virgin Mary as a pregnant indigenous woman.

“If we explore our Lady of Guadalupe, in my personal opinion, we only understand a shallow part of who she is to us, as someone who delivers a message,” he said. “I think we get the headlines. We have to discover the content, the details, the gift, the spirituality she came with.”

“What message is she delivering about indigenous cultures and Christ’s message of salvation and resurrection?” he asked. “I think it becomes part of the reconciliation process within the Catholic Church itself in North America,” he said.

Reconciliation as a foundational belief system needs to be incorporated at all levels, from the family, up to a national level, he said.

“My vision of the future has to be grounded on reconciliation, on having the sense of safety to put it on the table, look at it, explore it as a way forward. United we can learn to celebrate diversity instead of fearing it,” he said.

Otherwise we will “continue to suffer the impact of racism, stereotyping, and oppressive beliefs” and not have the ability to deal with the Indian Act, other harmful legislation and barriers that were created to separate people, he said. In the church, there is the same need of some spirit of coming together.

Reconciliation is like what takes place in a marriage when there’s a disagreement, Germaine said. “You don’t walk away, but you look at each other, hold hands and look at it together, eye to eye,” she said. “That way we go beyond the mistakes and see how we can build on the differences.”

In the Cree worldview there’s a strong emphasis on wakotowin — the law of seeing relatedness with others, to seek to be related to the person we encounter, Harry said. If we seek our relatedness, then “diversity becomes a way forward of celebrating our humanity.”

Wakotowin is a “powerful driving force for Cree people,” rooted in the whole creation story about everything being related, he said. “It’s a law of love.”

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