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Treaties: Covenants under God


April 16, 2010
-Deborah Froese

WINNIPEG, Manitoba — Adrian Jacobs agrees with the sentiment displayed on billboards and advertisements across Canada. “We are all Treaty people,” he says. “When the Treaties were negotiated, they bestowed rights and responsibilities on both First Nations and Euro-Canadian settlers.”

An Aboriginal speaker, educator and author, Jacobs brought his perspectives to the April 9 opening worship service of the annual Spring Partnership Circle “Removing Barriers, Building Bridges,” which brought Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal partner churches together at Thunderbird House in Winnipeg. A ministry of Mennonite Church Canada and Mennonite Church Manitoba, the event was shaped around the theme “We are All Treaty People, Biblical Perspectives on Covenant.”

As a member of  Cayuga Nation of the Six Nations of Grand River Country, Jacobs grew up near Caledonia, a First Nations land claim area. With a number of relatives involved with land claims at leadership levels, Jacobs was exposed to the issues from an early age and when he became a Christian he felt even more compelled to participate. 

“I grew up thinking Christianity was a white man’s religion,” Jacobs says.  “But things happened that were miraculous, wonderful.”  He describes a youth of experimentation and rebellion and he jests that his older brother mentored him in sin.  But one morning Jacobs awoke at 4:00 a.m. to hear that same brother praising God for singing birds and the beauty of the emerging day.

“He changed,” Jacobs says.  “He was a follower of Jesus.”

Jacobs tried to argue against his brother’s new conviction, but to no avail.  Eventually Jacobs became a Christian too – and it challenged his identity. “I took everything that was native and burned it,” he says, referring to religious acculturation.  He was unhappy and unsettled without understanding why.  When he ventured into the library of the National Native Bible College  in Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory, near Deseronto Ont., he found that although the library held thousands of books, only a few of them featured Aboriginals.  The weighty imbalance led him to a study of Aboriginal issues and into a journey of rethinking his perspectives about culture and Christianity.

“Culture is such a pervasive thing that it’s something we don’t even realize we live with,” Jacobs observes in an interview for Mennonite Church Canada’s radio program, Church Matters. “Culture is the framework in which we respond to different things including faith.  Faith is an aspect of responding to the understanding that you have of God or of spirituality and Creation, and when you respond, you respond from your culture. As a native person my view of the world is shaped by my culture and my reading of scripture is shaped by God as well.” 

Re-embracing his heritage and understanding his faith through his culture led Jacobs to advocate for his people, particularly in regard to land claim issues.

Canadians generally view treaties and violation of them as something that the nation must get over and move beyond, Jacobs says, but in the Canadian Constitution, treaties are acknowledged as the law of the land.  First Nations people understand treaties to be covenants or agreements between people under God.

“It’s like the marriage commitment, something that is meant to be a lifelong commitment,” Jacobs says.
He refers to Saul’s murder of Gibeonites to gain favour with the Israelites in 2 Samuel, an act in clear violation of a 400 year treaty between the two nations. As a result, years later during David’s reign, famine ravaged the land. Jacobs points out that David did not deny responsibility for the violation because it had taken place under another administration, but instead asked how he could make amends. The Gibeonites were gracious enough to accept less than what the law required in retribution.

Similarly, Jacobs realizes that Canadians can never fully pay First Nations people what they are owed and First Nations people must be gracious enough to forgive past wrongs so that together, they can work for what is right and fair to both sides. “We don’t want to kick people out of their homes,” he says.

Involved in ministry for more than 20 years, Jacobs has church-planted on his home reserve and served as General Director for Native Ministries with the Wesleyan church.  He belongs to the ministry staff of My People International, and is active within the North American Institute of Indigenous Theological Studies (NAIITS).  In addition, he has written a number of books for Native people and others about Christian life and well-being, and encouraging men to embrace vulnerability and openness. He currently works for the University of Alberta as a Cultural Facilitator with a traveling diabetes medical team.

Borrow writings by Adrian Jacobs at