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Indigenous Religions and Spiritualities in Canada

Understanding Indigenous religions and spiritualities is complex due to a history of sociopolitical misrecognition and dispossession of Indigenous peoples in settler societies. Indigenous peoples have and continue to make kinship relations in multiple traditional territories and homelands in what we now call Canada. Indigenous religions and spiritualities are a central part of that sociopolitical, nationhood/peoplehood engagement informed by situated knowledge, relational governance and legal structures, and co-constitutive diplomatic engagement between collective peoples, human and more-than-human.

The central problem in this discussion is the imposition of settler colonial definitions of religion and spirituality that actively or inadvertently seeks to obstruct Indigenous self-determination in order to enforce colonial mandates and worldview. In the hands of settler governments, Christian denominations, and companies/corporations, religion as a moralising and civilisational concept and force has justified settler claims over Indigenous territories and resources, place names and languages, communities and bodies, and governance structures, economies, and cultures. Religion as seen through a Eurocentric, evolutionary, and institutional lens objectifies Indigenous peoples as discerned, consumed, possessed, and controlled by non-Indigenous audiences. This type of objectification of Indigenous cultures and identity represents a racialised logic that actively marginalises Indigenous peoples in Canada as a form of settler colonial possessiveness (Moreton-Robinson, 2015). This logic shapes a structural racism embedded in education, justice (law, police services, and corrections), social services, and health services in Canada. But it is particularly evident in Canadian courts where Indigenous title, rights, and land usage (i.e. harvesting) are sublimated into definitions of traditional religions and spiritual practices as “discernable” types of culture and identity within Canadian society.

It is with this legacy of settler colonialism in mind that many people prefer to talk about Indigenous spirituality in order to better represent the non-institutional, localised nature of Indigenous ways of being and knowing. But, akin to religion, spirituality also carries with it colonial baggage that misrepresents Indigenous experiences, epistemologies and ontologies, and kinship structures. David Delgado Shorter (2016) problematises the concept of spirituality pointing to its binary and evolutionary logic regarding ideas of sacred/profane, objectivity/subjectivity, ethical religion/natural religion, and modern/premodern. Again, the problem is that even using language and concepts that seem more inclusive and individually representative, we are still deploying and reifying Western and settler colonial values and worldview that dispossess and marginalise Indigenous peoples.

In order to rectify our misconceptions, we must frame the collective, co-constitutive nature of Indigenous sovereignty in our understanding of Indigenous experiences and conceptualisations of religion and spirituality. We first centre relationality defined as “grounded in a holistic conception of the interconnectedness and intersubstantiation between and among all living things and the earth, which is inhabited by a world of ancestors and creator beings” (Moreton-Robinson 2016, 71). Relationality is a principal concept and ethos that informs Indigenous epistemologies and ontologies as well as mobilises governance and kinship structures. Secondly, we assert the concept of nationhood/peoplehood as representing a kin-based, co-constitutive orientation of Indigenous sociopolitical relations. Peoplehood describes Indigenous collectivity shaped by “language, sacred history, place/territory, and ceremonial cycles” (Holmes et al. 2003, 13); and adding to this the importance of nationhood in defining the contours of specific communities (Andersen 2021). Together, nationhood represents internal and peoplehood external dynamics that are driven by relationality, self-determination, diplomacy, and kinship. This sociopolitical and religiospiritual framework speaks to how Indigenous peoples understand themselves in terms of common values and ideas, relational languages and relations, storied places and collective homelands, and kinship-based governance structures and law. It also accounts for how nations relate to other nations, humans and more-than-humans, through consensual diplomacy and making kin (TallBear 2019).

It is from this sociopolitical, relational place that we can unpack and better understand the religious and spiritual language that is embedded in and operationalised by Indigenous communities and ways of being and knowing. Religion and spirituality as relations serve as an analytical lens that centres Indigenous sovereignty. This, for example, allows us to see the dynamics of relationality in themes like revitalising traditionalism, religious diversity in Canada, Indigenous Christianity(ies), and Indigenous protest as protectors. Instead of understanding religion and spirituality as assimilative and dispossessive, we can see it as expressions of Indigenous self-determination through an ethos of relationality situated in nationhood/peoplehood engagement.

 Andersen, Chris. 2021. “Peoplehood and the Nation Form: Core Concepts for a Critical Métis Studies.” In A People and a Nation: New Directions in Contemporary Métis Studies, edited by Jennifer Adese and Chris Andersen, 18–39. Vancouver: UBC Press.
 Holm, Tom, J. Diane Pearson, and Ben Chavis. 2003. “Peoplehood: A Model for the Extension of Sovereignty in American Indian Studies.” Wicazo Sa Review 18 (1): 7–24.
 Moreton-Robinson, Aileen. 2015. The White Possessive: Property, Power, and Indigenous Sovereignty. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
 Moreton-Robinson, Aileen. 2016. “Relationality: A Key Presupposition of an Indigenous Social Research Paradigm.” In Sources and Methods in Indigenous Studies, edited by Chris Andersen and Jean M. O’Brien, 69–77. New York: Routledge.
 Shorter, David Delgado. 2016. “Spirituality.” In The Oxford Handbook of American Indian History, edited by Frederick E. Hoxie, 433–52. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press.
 TallBear, Kim. 2019. “Caretaking Relations, Not American Dreaming.” Kalfou 6 (1): 24–41.

D 9 September 2021    APaul L. Gareau

CNRS Unistra Dres Gsrl

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