Indigenous witness

Jan 5, 2015 by

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On Nov. 16, 1885, Louis Riel, a political and spiritual leader of the Métis people of western Canada, was executed in Regina, Sask., on the charge of treason. Riel had sought to preserve the rights and culture of the Métis — an ethnic group of mixed Cree, Ojibwe, Saulteaux and French Canadian descent — as their homelands were claimed by provincial and federal authorities. For many, he came to symbolize the struggle of indigenous people (or First Nations people) in Canada to maintain their identity and land in the face of the westward movement of European immigrants. In the mid-1870s some 7,000 of those were Mennonites, new arrivals to western Canada who came from South Russia where they were fleeing new military conscription laws and diminishing economic opportunities.

Roth

Roth

It is one of the abiding ironies of Mennonite history that virtually everywhere they have immigrated — be it the steppe lands of Russia, the forests of Pennsylvania, the rich prairies of Kansas and Manitoba, or the scrubland of the Paraguayan Chaco — they were part of larger movements that displaced indigenous people. From their perspective, Mennonites received the land as a gift from God; only later would the tragic story be revealed that these “gifts” came at the cost of dispossessing indigenous people already living there.

Efforts to redress the violence wrought on First Nations peoples are burdened by the distance of history and disparities in power. But one small expression of reconciliation can be seen in the pages of Intotemak, a quarterly publication sponsored by Mennonite Church Canada, that has focused on the interests of First Nations groups in Canada since 1972.

Intotemak, which means “my friends” or “ones who walk in solidarity,” began as a news­letter of the Mennonite Pioneer Mission, a program begun by the Bergthaler Mennonite Church with an outreach to indigenous people in Manitoba. In 1957 the program was absorbed by the Conference of Mennonites in Canada and, in 1973, became Native Ministries.

From its inception, Intotemak was a trusted source of news for the mission staff and the communities they served. Edith von Gunten served as editor, overseeing its transformation into a 12-page periodical and broadening the subscription base well beyond Manitoba. Von Gunter sought to include material related to First Nation issues from each Canadian Mennonite conference while educating the church on indigenous history and culture. From the start, each issue has included a biblical meditation, with the scripture passage printed in Ojibwe syllabic script.

With Steve Heinrichs as editor, Intotemak expanded to 16 pages with more emphasis on advocacy, particularly settler “decolonization.” Indigenous movements that led to the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission and its work were covered extensively in 2014, including a formal expression of repentance and reconciliation that Canadian Mennonite and Brethren in Christ church leaders signed.

The most recent issue includes news stories, an editorial on land and identity, two essays retelling Bible stories from an indigenous perspective, a report on a conflict over the location of a nuclear waste repository and a review of two films related to abuses associated with Indian Residential Schools.

Intotemak is a stubborn reminder that all of us are “treaty people,” living on land that comes with a history.

John D. Roth is professor of history at Goshen (Ind.) College and director of the Institute for the Study of Global Anabaptism.


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