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Bridging the Gap


Different Aboriginal groups attending the Native Assembly 2006 in Atmore, Alabama in July, 2006, processed over the meeting grounds with symbols of their tribes. Here, representatives of the Choctaw tribe from Louisiana make their way to the gathering.

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November 24, 2006
- Krista Allen with Dan Dyck

Winnipeg, Man. — Since 1972, Neill and Edith von Gunten have been using a small, nearly invisible little quarterly magazine called Intotemak to share stories among non-Aboriginal and Aboriginal peoples.

With only 1300 subscriptions and about twice that many readers, this informal, newsy little paper also makes its way to about 100 homes in the United States, and oddly, to Hong Kong, and Paraguay, and Argentina.

It is perhaps not the very localized news that attracts foreign readers, but the model on which it is based. When Native groups come together to share common experiences, borders are erased, say the von Guntens. For Aboriginal people, story sharing is an almost genetic way of bridging differences, passing on knowledge, and building relationships.

Fast-forward to the Argentinean province of Formosa, where Mennonite Mission Network workers Keith and Gretchen Kingsley have stumbled across a copy of Intotemak. Here they learn about the 2006 bi-national Native Mennonite Assembly 2006 in Atmore Alabama – a small but dedicated group of Aboriginal Mennonites gathering for worship, fellowship and cross-tribal sharing.

The Kingsleys realize that their ministry with the indigenous peoples of Argentina’s northern Chaco region has commonalties with ministry in a North American Native context; they eagerly sign up to attend the Alabama event – which is where they are greeted to a memory flashback of sorts when they meet old acquaintances Neill and Edith von Gunten.

“We grew up together in the same church and played basketball together as children in Berne, Indiana,” Neill reflected. “Now we had opportunities to catch up with each other and I found that we have so much in common.”

Crossing cultural borders has become a special ministry for the von Guntens. Much of what they have learned about cultural border crossings has come from walking alongside Aboriginal people for over 37 years.

“We were surprised to find out that [the Kingsleys] knew about us and our ministry in Canada through Intotemak. This little newsletter has so much potential for breaking down the walls that separate us culturally.” Edith said. “We definitely need to expand on those connections and build more bridges.”

At the Native Assembly the von Guntens eagerly listened as the Kingsleys shared about their lives with the Toba indigenous people in Argentina. In the process, the Kingsleys formed an immediate bond with North American Aboriginals in attendance. “It was important to hear their stories and realize that we all come from small, struggling Native churches and to know that they understand” said Neill.

At the closing session, Steve Cheramie Risingsun, pastor of the hosting congregation, presented the Kingsleys with a wall hanging as a symbolic gift and blessing from their North American brothers and sisters to them and their Toba brothers and sisters in Argentina. A prayer of encouragement and blessing followed for their ministry the Toba churches.

The von Guntens muse about the possibilities for more such cross-cultural meetings among different world-wide aboriginal groups at the Mennonite World Conference sessions to be held in Paraguay in 2009.

“[Aboriginal] churches and communities have so much in common, and it would be such an encouragement to all of them if they could share and learn from each other,” said Neill von Gunten. In the meantime, the von Guntens will continue their ministry of bringing together non-Aboriginal and Native people in Canada and sharing their stories through Intotemak.

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