“When I carve on this pole, I let go of my anger and my hurt,” Isadore Charters says. “The new me comes out because I know that people are trying to help and not just trying to forget.”
Charters is talking about a unique project that grew out of a local church Sunday school class and may have important implications for cross-cultural relations in Canada.
In studying various contemporary issues, the Journeys class at Sardis Community Church in Chilliwack, B.C., became aware of the harmful effect of Aboriginal residential schools. Charters, an Aboriginal artist and member of the Coqualeetza elders group, is a regular participant in the class; he shared with the group his vision of carving a Residential School Healing Pole.
With the encouragement of Don Klaassen, another participant in the class and a church mission coach with Outreach Canada (outreach.ca), a 200-year-old, eight-foot, yellow cedar pole was donated by a local businessman, and a way to transport it was designed. The pole will be designed and carved by former residential school students or their family members as a means of gaining healing.
However, the pole will not remain within the Aboriginal community but will also be carried to various churches and public venues where non-Aboriginals will be invited to assist in the carving. This will help non-Aboriginals understand the impact residential schools have had on Aboriginals, make them more aware of the issues facing First Nations people generally, and build positive relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal communities. The organizers point out that residential schools have also had an impact on non-Aboriginals.
“The Residential School program was an expression of our cultural arrogance. As a
result, we have wounds of injustice embedded deep in our society. We need healing,” says Darryl Klassen, Director of the Aboriginal Neighbours Program of the Christian relief and development organization Mennonite Central Committee. “Finally there is someone brave enough to say, ‘Let’s do this together!’ Working together on this pole could increase our understanding of our cultural differences and similarities.”
Various groups and churches are now being offered the opportunity to have the pole come to them. For instance, the pole was prominently displayed in the Exhibition Hall at Missions Fest Vancouver January 27-29 (missionsfestvancouver.ca), and attenders were invited to help carve. The pole may also become a feature of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (trc.ca) events to be held in B.C. in 2012 and 2013. Upon completion of the carving, the pole will be put on permanent display in a place accessible to the public.
Some Christians have raised questions about Christians endorsing use of a totem pole, says Missions Fest director Dwayne Buhler, fearing that it is either an idol or an object that depicts evil spirits. However, he points out that this understanding was a misperception of early missionaries and explorers. In fact, it was missionaries who gave the name “totem poles.” It is now understood that the poles were never objects of worship. The Native word for them means “story pole” or “kinship pole.” They generally recount important events in clan history. While some were used to celebrate cultural beliefs, that does mean that the medium is inherently evil—that would be akin to suggesting books are inherently evil because some books celebrate the occult.
In the Vancouver Missions Fest magazine, B.C. pastor and author Mark Buchanan recounted the visit to his congregation of six First Nations people: “I was unprepared for the emotional weight of their stories. Most of them were tales of loss and abuse. Some of the suffering our friends have endured is almost beyond imagining, and especially so since much of it was delivered at the hands of Christian leaders. I was even more unprepared, though, for the real story that emerged: the power of forgiveness. Each of the story-tellers, including the two who are as yet not Christ-followers, talked openly about forgiveness. One of the non-Christians admitted that he’s still not ready to forgive everyone who hurt him, but knows one day he must. One man recounted the abuse he went through from early childhood on, and how bitter and angry and cold he became. Then he talked about how Jesus led him to truly forgive, from his heart.”
Buchanan added, “Many white people, many of them Christians, have said to me, ‘I know that Native people have suffered. But when will they get over it?’ My answer now: ‘Most have. When will you?’”
Don Klaassen is challenging Christians and churches to get involved in the pole carving and in Aboriginal issues generally. “Aboriginal people in Canada are sometimes referred to as the most evangelized and least reached people. Their forced attendance at ‘Christian’ residential schools contributed to widespread misunderstanding of the gospel and suspicion of Christians and churches by First Nations people. Although not all students at these schools were physically or sexually abused, the legacy of these institutions is seen as overwhelmingly negative and viewed as a stark example of what can happen when one culture uses power or privilege to force its values on another culture. Even though most Christians alive today, and many denominations, did not participate in the residential school program, it is still an issue that needs to be sensitively addressed and understood by all of us before honest relationships can be built between indigenous and non-indigenous people.”
Klaassen explains, “Cross cultural ministry in and out of the local church is challenging these days. It seems that we face so many barriers in our own backyards that it is often easier to go far away to practice following Jesus. However, our effectiveness globally may depend on our willingness to practice discipleship and overcome barriers much closer to home.…If Christians acknowledge and address this issue, they will be better equipped to live out their faith and will be blessed in their efforts to overcome barriers of suspicion and misunderstanding wherever those barriers exist.”
Brander McDonald, Indigenous Relations Coordinator for Mennonite Church B.C., adds, “As a First Nations Christian, I want to be an equal partner in walking the healing Jesus Walk with non-Aboriginal believers. The process of carving this pole together is more important than the pole itself. Attitudes change and healing happens when we work together.”