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Bi-national Native Mennonite assembly in Manitoba
September 20, 2004
Riverton, Man.— The retired leader of an isolated native community would rather not have a road connecting his remote Manitoba village to the outside world. A Métis woman and leader in the Anglican church (Métis are persons of mixed French or Scottish and Native heritage) talks about growing up in a normal, loving family and challenges the white stereotype of native children who grow up in abusive alcoholic homes. A Cheyenne leader from Oklahoma shares about how his ancestral tribe members practiced restorative justice long before there was a name for it.
These and dozens of other stories surfaced at the North American Native Assembly held here from July 26-29 when leaders and delegates of Mennonite Church Canada Witness – Native Ministries, the Mennonite Indian Leaders Council and United Native Ministries gathered for a joint, bi-national gathering – an event rarely held in Canada.
Harry Cook, retired leader of Bloodvein First Nation in Manitoba served as chief and then councilor for a challenging 25 years. Cook’s father was the first person in his community to learn about Mennonites, and in 1948 invited what was then called Mennonite Pioneer Mission to be a presence in the Bloodvein community.
Cook tells of how he was frequently challenged and sometimes ostracized by community members for his views, preferring to move forward with a vision rather than lobbing offensive political maneuvers at his naysayers. It was “not me, but God that gave me the courage not to fight back,” he said.
He was instrumental in getting ferry service, a post office – and more, modestly listing a series of other accomplishments during his leadership. With humilty he shares about his own struggle with alcohol, then mid-interview humbly shifts directions to open his large print Bible and share some personally meaningful scripture passages.
Cook would rather not have an all season road leading to his community he says, fearing an increase in alcohol and drug infiltration. An ironic reality is that with less than three kilometres of roadway in the lake and wilderness bound village, there have recently been two collisions resulting from impaired driving.
Barbara Shoomski, guest speaker from an Anglican diocese in Winnipeg, openly shares her personal life with the congregation during a worship service. It is important for you to know who I am, she says, for the theology I am about to share to be meaningful. Her formative years were spent in a loving family, with gracious parents who would not allow alcohol in their home. Now she leads a core area soup kitchen in a Winnipeg church, and is frequently called upon to use her skills as a trained social worker to counsel native teens involved in street gangs. Her presence, her words, and her being personify love for all humanity.
Lawrence Hart, respected leader in both Mennonite and American Indian communities, delivers a passionate seminar tying in the Old Testament birthright story of Esau, Jacob, and Rebecca to historical evidence of his Cheyenne ancestor’s model of reconciliation and restorative justice. For over an hour this graduate of Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary seamlessly moves between Biblical teachings, out-of-print books documenting the Cheyenne way, and compelling conversations with high profile judges in the American justice system. God, Hart says, has been working in many ways among many cultures throughout history.
These are just a few snapshots of the event. Another is when the 280 registered participants spanning 7 US states and 6 Canadian provinces put together 103 health kits for Mennonite Central Committee. A special evening prayer service for healing reminds everyone of the continued economic, health, and spiritual poverty the world can deliver, but also brings subtle glimpses of hope to the faces of petitioners. In a moving moment during another worship service, the clear, powerful voice of DarDar Antoinette from the United Houma Nation in Louisiana belts out a French language hymn with the passion of an impoverished street singer and conviction of a an old-time traveling evangelist. A glance around the room reveals that nary a soul is left untouched.
Near the end of the week, Neill and Edith von Gunten, who have dedicated their lives to Native Ministry since 1969, begin to show signs of wear as well as relief. The leadership they have given to the volunteer and staff planners, the carefully crafted logistics for worship, seminars, meals, lodging, and tours, has come off with no obvious glitches. The children’s program led by Karen Yoder of Macon, Mississippi, with assistance by volunteers from Springstein MC has been well attended. Youth participants have experienced the isolation (and a lack of shower facilities) by camping in the fishing community of Matheson Island under the leadership of several young adults. Thirty volunteers from Manitoba Church Manitoba congregations and local native communities have received accolades for their cooking, serving, and cleaning skills, including a moose stew prepared by the local women and Ernie Fontaine, a Native man skilled in moose calling.
As worshipers move to the front to celebrate communion with bannock and juice on closing night, the theme banner on the wall confidently proclaims the words from Psalm 121:2: “Our help comes from the Lord.” The words, voices, songs, and prayers of the week have been a testament to those six faith-inspiring words from Psalms.
Experience some of the sights and sounds of this event by visiting www.mennonitechurch.ca/events/riverton/photos.htm