My family and I joined more than 180 others who traveled to Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, from all corners of the globe.
We came to engage in good work and play at the intersection of Indigeneity and theology by attending the NAIITS An Indigenous Learning Community’s 20th symposium at Canadian Mennonite University.
For decades, people have wrestled with the question of whether it is possible to be fully Indigenous and fully Christian at the same time. NAIITS answers this question with a resounding, “yes!”
NAIITS is a community comprised of artists, farmers, theologians and community leaders who seek to honor their culture and faith with like-minded others.
The only institution accredited by the Association of Theological schools that is designed, developed, delivered and governed by Indigenous people, NAIITS provides a rigorous academic education to its students in addition to its partnerships with seminaries around the world.
Its parent organization, Indigenous Pathways, also provides oversight to iEmergence, which, according to the website, “empowers Indigenous communities to engage in culturally appropriate community development.”
The gathering this year was especially unique because it marked the 25th anniversary of the inception of NAIITS, when the reality of a gathering like this was merely a dream.
Furthermore, this symposium was a profoundly sacred time because it marked an intentional shift in leadership two years in the making. Terry LeBlanc, founding director of NAIITS, passed the role to my friend and colleague, Shari Russell. With his retirement, Terry will become director emeritus of NAIITS and join the community of NAIITS elders.
This year, presentations at the NAIITS symposium centered around ethnomusicology: Indigenous heart languages. Presenters and attendees came from Panama, Bolivia, Columbia, Taiwan, the Philippines, Australia, Aotearoa, Canada and the United States, representing more than 30 tribal affiliations.
For three days, we danced, sang, prayed and shared meals together. It was impossible to count how many languages I heard and spiritual practices I participated in over the weekend. It was a beautiful embodiment of Revelation 7:9, which describes the vision of every nation, tribe, people and language worshiping Creator.
Colonialism has no new tricks. The harm it wields may have a unique manifestation in a particular place, but all around the globe, the work of contextual decolonization is necessary to live into wholehearted faith.
A colonial version of evangelicalism is certain about its doctrines and works to control the definition of what true worship looks like. It doesn’t have room for Indigenous dance, drums, smudging or other Indigenous faith practices.
Western Christianity is inherently colonial and ethnocentric. For thousands of years, Western missionaries have claimed that Indigenous converts to Christianity needed to abandon their traditional practices in order to worship Jesus correctly.
When these missionaries were scared of the unfamiliar practices they did not understand, it was easier to ban them rather than opening their hearts to the possibility of being transformed by the movement of Creator in another cultural context.
One symposium speaker, Jonathan Maracle, shared a moment when everything shifted for him, and he was able to integrate his Mohawk traditions into his music. He asked, “Why did we stop worshiping our Lord in order to worship in a way that is unfamiliar to us?”
Throughout the weekend, speakers, dancers, singers and poets at the NAIITS symposium modeled the reality of worshiping in a culturally relevant way by living it out together.
When people are free to worship Creator in their heart language and mother tongue, the level of sheer joy and delight found in culturally authentic expressions of faith is unmatched. Creativity is unleashed. New expressions of robust faith emerge.
As a settler who has been formed in Western Christians spaces, it has been healing to recognize that another way is possible. I can have a relationship with Jesus without the restraints of prescribed ways of expressing my faith.
Because I now understand that Jesus’ movement in the world manifests more broadly than Eurocentric liturgies, my experience of Creator is also more abundant.
Reckoning with colonial narratives expands one’s paradigms and ushers in the goodness of deeply embodied spiritual practices. Hearts beat in unison to the sound of the drum. Trauma can be metabolized through dance. And kinship grows in the presence of communal authenticity.
To say that Indigenous peoples are still here is to say that the goals of colonization, whose harm should never be minimized, has not succeeded. The NAIITS symposium is one example of the flourishing of Indigenous faith expressions in the face of colonial violence and I am grateful to be a part of this sacred and exquisite learning community.
Editor’s note: This article has been updated to correct an organization’s name. NAIITS An Indigenous Learning Community was formerly the North American Institute for Indigenous Theological Studies. It has also been corrected to note that this year marks the 25th anniversary of the inception of NAIITS, rather than Indigenous Pathways.