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Trauma trickles down through generations


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Anita Keith

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Participants in Spring Partnership Circle, from left to right; Abe Bergen (Bethel MC), Allan Owens (Pauingassi), Louis Young (Bloodvein River), Jake and Margaret Harms (Lowe Farm MC), Henry Neufeld (Springstein MC).

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April 28, 2009
- Deborah Froese

WINNIPEG, Man. — According to Anita Keith's research, 90 to 95% of the North American Aboriginal population died within two generations of contact with Europeans. That staggering death toll marked the beginning of years of misunderstanding and trauma that continue to affect Aboriginal people to this day.

Keith, an Aboriginal teacher, writer and speaker - and an ordained minister - shared her quest for God's healing and hope across cultures with those who gathered for Removing Barriers, Building Bridges, an annual event co-sponsored by Mennonite Church Canada Native Ministry and Mennonite Church Manitoba (MCM). The event took place on the evening of Friday Feb. 27 at Sterling Mennonite Fellowship in Wpg, Man., as part of the Spring Partnership Circle meetings on Feb. 27 - 28

These meetings bring together participating Manitoba Mennonite congregations and the Aboriginal communities with whom they are partnered. Through these relationships, cross-cultural understanding, mutual support and transformation are nurtured - an important step toward healing age-old wounds between cultures.

As the keynote speaker for the event, Keith drew information from her own experience and from her book, For our Children, Our Sacred Beings; Understanding the Impact of Generational Trauma on our Aboriginal Youth. (Healing the Land, Delta, B.C. 2006).

The arrival of Europeans in the Western Hemisphere in the late 15th century exposed Native North American populations to diseases they had never experienced before, like smallpox, measles, influenza, yellow fever and cholera. With no acquired biological resistance, disease spread rapidly, claiming lives and fragmenting thousands of years of traditional practices and culture. These losses were exacerbated by cultural and religious misunderstandings that eventually led to the segregation of Native communities and the development of controlling laws, such as the Indian Act.

"We have to think in terms of assessing the truth," Keith said to those gathered. "I don't want you to feel guilt. I want you to feel as though we are in this together." She stressed that her intention was to help non-Aboriginal people understand the complexity of challenges facing Aboriginals, and to help Aboriginals recognize their own dignity as people lovingly made in the image of God, our Creator.

Understanding history helps to explain the challenges facing Aboriginal communities today. Keith referred to this concept as Historic Trauma Transmission. As collective memories of trauma are passed from generation to generation, an inability to adapt healthy social and behavioural patterns arises. These crippling behaviours contribute to the stereotypical images of "Indians." They also affect how Aboriginals view the world and their place in it.

"Why can't we be Aboriginal and Christian too?" Keith asked. "We have to remember that we are moving toward wholeness and the church is a part of that movement."

The Canadian government first acknowledged its participation in the injustices perpetrated against Aboriginals in 1996. "Attitudes of racial and cultural superiority led to a suppression of aboriginal culture and values," said Jane Stewart, then the Minister of Indian Affairs.

A 2008 statement from Prime Minister Harper offered a formal apology. "We now recognize that, in separating children from their families, we undermined the ability of many to adequately parent their own children and sowed the seeds for generations to follow, and we apologize for having done this."

While Keith recognized these statements as an important step forward, she said that in order to promote healing and make communities whole again, an effort to understand Aboriginal culture is required.

An evening worship service included music by the Aboriginal band, Northern Gospel Light Singers. Bill Meade, a member of the music group, offered his own perspective of cross-cultural relationships - with a smile. "When we get to heaven we'll be one. So we might as well get used to it right now."

On Saturday, Keith led a workshop about building strong relationships - beginning with mutual appreciation. "Relationships come alive when there is an appreciative eye," she said. Once appreciation develops, each party's gifts can be utilized through provocative thinking, and ultimately, collaboration.

MC Canada Native Ministry developed its new curriculum, Reaching up to God our Creator, as a tool to help both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people understand and appreciate indigenous culture, while learning about the common ground of Aboriginal Sacred Teachings and the Bible.

In an address to MC Canada staff a few days earlier Keith said, "Maybe Jesus was red. Maybe he was different than what we've been taught in the mainstream church in North America . . . We are both walking along our journey. When our paths cross, we help one another along the journey - not by one being over the other; but as brothers and sisters travelling the Jesus Road."

For a selection of Anita Keith's published work, see

Manitoba Partnership Circles

Currently in Manitoba, several Mennonite/Aboriginal partnerships exist:

Riverton Ministry Circle with Riverton Fellowship Circle and Bethel MC, Douglas MC, Home Street MC, and Sargent Avenue MC, all of Winnipeg.
Matheson Island/Pine Dock and Grace Mennonite Church of Winkler
Manigotagan Chapel and Steinbach Mennonite Church
Pauingassi with Emmanuel MC of Winkler, Morden MC and Springstein MC
Cross Lake First Nation is looking for one or more church partners.

If you are interesting in participating in a Partnership Circle, contact Mennonite Church Canada Native Ministry at 1-866-888-6785 or 204-888-6781. Email:

It's about Christ

Aboriginal teacher, writer and speaker, Anita Keith, is hesitant to talk about the details of her life in biographical terms. "It's not about me, it's about Christ," she says. "I don't have a life without him. That's how I feel."

When asked where she comes from, geographical locations don't come up. "If we're to reflect back into the womb, where did we come from? We came from God."

This shared origin forms the foundation of the common ground between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal communities, and Keith has made it her life's work to peel away the layers so that people can see their kinship across cultures. She shared her insights at Removing Barriers, Building Bridges, an annual event co-sponsored by Mennonite Church Canada Native Ministry and Mennonite Church Manitoba (MCM). The event took place on the evening of Friday, Feb. 27 at Sterling Mennonite Fellowship in Wpg, Man., as part of Spring Partnership Circle meetings on Feb. 27 - 28.

Keith experienced a variety of jobs before she stepped into her current position as an Aboriginal Education instructor at Red River College in Winnipeg. An ordained minister, she now participates in numerous institutions that focus on Aboriginal education, including the North American Institute for Indigenous Theological Studies, for which she is an administrator. She is also working to create a Christian Aboriginal Healing Centre in partnership with Corrections Canada Chaplaincy.

An invitation from Youth With a Mission (YWAM) representatives to write a chapter for a book about Aboriginal Christian ministry launched Keith's writing career. She responded with a piece that was too long to be included. Rather than scrap her efforts, she added to them. The result was a 2004 publication, Rise Up (published by Healing the Land), which examines the cultural differences between non-Aboriginals and Aboriginals.

That same year, Keith published two more books with Healing the Land: Sacred Children Sacred Teachers and Sacred Learning explore culturally relevant approaches to Aboriginal education.

For the Spring Partnership Circle gathering, Keith drew from her study about the impact of generational trauma on Aboriginal culture, For Our Children: Our Sacred Beings (Healing the Land, 2006.)

The single biggest barrier to healing the relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal communities is racism and denial of it, Keith says in a Mennonite Church Canada Church Matters radio interview. Pervasive stereotypes "bleed into our lives, into our spirit, into our prayer, into our programs. It's very painful for Aboriginal people."

The church has an important role to play in healing, but attitudes need to change. "The paradigm needs to shift to ministering with us, and not to us," Keith says.

She likens her life journey to a tapestry of image and story threads, but also to a period of waiting for the bridegroom, as described in Matthew 25:1-13. Her journey is shaped by direction-giving encounters with God. "When I see where he is, I go there. I do what I see my father do."

See see for the Church Matters interview with Anita Keith