By Dane Neufeld
Voices of the Plains Cree by the Rev. Edward Ahenakew (1885-1961) is essential reading for Canadian seminarians. Ahenakew, a Plains Cree, was an Anglican priest in Central Saskatchewan through the first half of the 20th century. Although he wrote Voices of the Plains Cree in the 1920s, it was not published until after his death. It is an unusual but deeply insightful book told through the voices of two old men, Thunderchild, one of the last great warriors of the Plains Cree, and Old Keyam, a fictional character of a later generation. Through them, Ahenakew narrates the complicated and difficult transition that European settlement brought to the people of the plains, and he raises serious questions about the transmission of spiritual traditions in times of incredible upheaval and change.
The book begins with the mesmerizing and legendary stories of Thunderchild. They describe the old way of life in southern and central Saskatchewan and Alberta, the land in which I grew up. While some of the places are recognizable — the cypress hills, the Saskatchewan and Bow rivers, the distant southern Rockies — the character of life is utterly mysterious. The stories of the buffalo hunt, foraging grizzly bears on the open prairie, the harsh winters and spectacular summers, the endless skirmishes between the Cree and the Blackfoot, the sundances beneath that immense and lively sky, all belong to a world that few of us understand, even though Thunderchild died only 90 years ago. Thunderchild’s world was difficult and at times severe, but it was coherent as history. The sprawling freedom of daily life, the earth, and God were all part of a unified whole.
The stories of Old Keyam, on the other hand, narrate sentiments that are far more familiar. In the introduction, Ahenakew describes his character, much like Ahenakew, as an old man caught between two worlds. In this world
an old man may feel keenly the passing of his influence. He cannot be expected to understand that his own inability to adapt to changing circumstances has made him an ineffectual advisor to others. (p. 75)
Though Ahenakew was only 37 when he wrote these stories, the character is clearly autobiographical, and depicts his deep concern for his people. Old Keyam is unlike the elders before him, who occupied strong traditional positions in their communities; “he was born too late to make a name for himself as a warrior or buffalo hunter” (p. 76). He continues to tell the stories of his people’s past, about the spiritual traditions of the plains, but he is no longer sure what he thinks of them. The old man feels an obligation to keep up with the times and adapt to the changes, but his heart is continually drawn to all that seems to have passed away: “Now that I am growing old, I am becoming more like those children — not willing to give up my past beliefs entirely, until I have better ones to put in their place” (p. 101).
Ahenakew’s final description of Old Keyam is poignant and sorrowful:
In Old Keyam, it is true, much of the past lingers deliberately, though he is an inferior and often garrulous successor to the Old Men. Still, he makes the effort to look also to the future. In his youth he had tried to fit himself to the new ways; he had thought that he would conquer; and he was defeated instead. If we listen to what he has to say perhaps we may understand those like him who know not what to do and, in disguising their bewilderment and their hurt, seem not to care. (p. 76)
The transitions that European settlement brought to Canada, in this case to the plains, are well known but seldom felt and experienced in any tangible way. While most Canadians are aware of how the arrival of Europeans shattered the ancient world of indigenous peoples, we do not always know what wehave lost. The life and sentiments of Old Keyam puts flesh on familiar but difficult and perplexing questions.
Early settlers regarded the vast and seemingly empty land with a combination of unease, fear, and incomprehension. The poet Duncan Campbell Scott, a government official who traveled throughout the north, looked out on the endless water and land and saw only a world that was “deep with the sadness that dwells at the core of all things” (“Rapids at Night”). It was a cold and alien place, beautiful but also threatening, spiritless, and bleak.
Most settlers did not understand the people who lived here and the spiritual traditions that animated their world and gave it structure. These traditions were regarded as superstitions, and Old Keyam used this same word to describe the beliefs of a people who “lived in the unchanging stillness of centuries, small in the vastness of land and sky” (p. 92). The Cree were monotheists who also believed in a whole realm of lesser supernatural figures that haunted and enlivened the natural order. Old Keyam struggled to place this spiritual order in the new world, but still he felt the diminishment of these beliefs as painful because it entered his people into a place of suffering and confusion.
Furthermore, governmental suppression of these beliefs and particular practices such as the sundance witnessed, in his mind, against the very spirit of Christianity: “I would never come between him and what he holds to be his God, except with kindly advice, carefully and prayerfully considered” (p. 136). Yet Old Keyam also said, “In my own heart, I long for the day when the Christian Church will be strong on every reserve” (p. 140). Ahenakew was known as a faithful priest, a good preacher, and a student of the Scriptures. It was possible, at least in his case, to be devoted to the new faith with sincerity and affection while feeling the loss of the Old World as somehow regrettable.
Old Keyam’s mixed feelings stemmed in part from what he regarded as the incoherence of Canadian society and its supposed values. Concerning treaties, he said: “The Chiefs who signed the Treaty saw the Bible on the table and they understand that it was a symbol of everlasting faith” (p. 154). And yet the terms of such treaties, not least Treaty 6, were frequently amended and increasingly not even acknowledged or followed, which seemed to contradict the spiritual and everlasting basis upon which they were signed. Likewise, Old Keyam found the division between Church and state, the spiritual and material, to be incomprehensible: “Our life is not so easily divided. It is one life” (p. 117). He acknowledges that early settlers and missionaries understood and sought to work within this implicit unity, but as settlement increased and treaty negotiations progressed, his people were exposed to a confounding array of interests, values, and conflicts.
Thunderchild too, though not identifying as a Christian, accepted the changes as a reality somehow “permitted by God,” but now his people must prepare themselves “to go on a long and difficult journey” (p. 72). Part of this journey was negotiating the competing versions of reality they had heard — Protestant and Catholic — and he wondered why his people’s belief in one God could not be added to this plurality.
It is a sad irony that as Christianity encountered many of the spiritual traditions of indigenous peoples, Christians were immersed in a period of confusion that could give little structure to this journey. The spiritual character of reality, the place of the spiritual and the miraculous, ideas of providence, were notions undergoing the same secularizing in the Western Church. There is an odd parallel between Old Keyam’s mourning and the fate of Western Christianity in general. The advance of Western society, industrialization, and secularization has stripped many cultures of their past, and it has divided the world into isolated and anemic spiritualities that struggle to make sense of the whole. The Enlightenment idea of “superstitious” beliefs and practices has sown doubt among modern Christians about very basic realities, such as prayer or the personal and spiritual presence of God. Because we struggle to revere the past and the traditions that have been handed down to us, we find ourselves spiritually dislocated and uncertain.
However, a central vocation of all Christians is to narrate and pass along the stories and traditions of God’s relationship with his people:
I will utter dark sayings of old,
Things that we have heard and known,
That our ancestors have told us.
We will not hide them from their children;
We will tell the coming generation the glorious deeds of the Lord
And his might and the wonders that he has done. (Psalm 78:2-4)
The teaching of the Scriptures, and the witness of communities and individual lives that are rooted in their reality, show the unity of God and the world from one generation to another. For Christians in Canada, uncertainty about how to tell the stories of our recent past has troubled the transmission of the faith from one generation to another, and has perhaps hidden these truths from generations of people who have struggled to perceive the continuity of God’s presence in the land in which we dwell. Simple narratives about the transmission of the gospel in our country — its success or failure — will do little to illuminate this uncertainty. The stories that Ahenakew tells in Voices of the Plains Cree are just one perspective in the wider world of indigenous Christianity, but they are vital in the larger process of truth-telling and discerning the faithfulness and unfaithfulness of God’s people.
Given the incredible collision and convergence of cultures, beliefs, and traditions on Canadian soil, it is no small miracle that Christian faith endures among so many peoples in every region of our country. My friendships and acquaintances with Indigenous Anglicans have helped renew my experience of God and has given me hope for the future of our church. The future is so much a mystery that I am not entirely sure what to hope for other than that Christians in Canada will be able to tell their children of God’s wonders and his glorious deeds.