VST Indigneous Studies Program

Indigenous Thought

by Ray Aldred

I am the Indigenous element. A purveyor of exotic raw data sent here to illuminate and beguile, to be faithful yet a bit treacherous, a singer of songs, a teller of stories, a hunter and a traveler.

Indigenous identity in Canada has meant that the Vancouver School of Theology has adopted the Indigenous value of making room for people to be who the Creator made us to be. Indigenous people in Canada and the United States have all experienced trauma¹ and it has been our companion and told us tales in the dark that shaped us and helped us to see some things clearer and at other times distorted our vision. In the Indigenous Studies program, we are attempting to see and work on our distortions. The eschaton reminds us that we see only partially, and we need a community to see a bit clearer. So, listening to the voices of Indigenous people, Vancouver School of Theology, through the Indigenous Studies Program, gives back space to try and hold these two stories beside each other: Indigenous identity and Christian faith, until they can be told together.² So, all of you will, I hope by the end of your time at VST be familiar with at least two Indigenous spiritualities so you can be an ally as we work to build our home on Indigenous Land.

As I write this piece, and the Indigenous program operates at the Vancouver School of Theology, we are mindful that we are all on the unceded territory of the Musqueam people. They have welcomed us here and we are living as guests, according to their way of understanding things. We respect one another so we will not fight about our different religions, but we will behave and make room for one another to be who we were created to be.

You will notice that the first statement is taken up by the preliminary comments, this is protocol. Protocol is how we hold and care for one another in a respectful manner. For the Indigenous world, the preliminaries or the protocol is always important. Put another way by my friend Adrian Jacobs, for Indigenous people the preamble is as important as the rest of the proceedings. The preamble includes giving introductions and reminding ourselves of all our relatives and the land. Relationships are what is most important for Indigenous people and for Indigenous Studies. Now that we have done the work of protocol or preamble, we can move on to the question of how do we talk about Indigenous Studies?

The late Vine Deloria asks, “how do we talk about [Indigenous Identity] intelligently?” In light of the colonial legacy, how do you have a conversation about Indigenous theology and identity without quickly becoming polarized and politized in thinking about Indigenous life and identity. What is needed is to think in terms of a respectful dialogue with Indigenous thought and people. Deloria suggest that there are at least three things necessary to begin to understand Indigenous thought. First, an Indigenous approach to life and ultimately theology is different from modern Western thought, but equal.³ Indigenous studies should not be approached as gleaning raw data for one’s own ideas, but as entering into relationship with Indigenous people in order to understand.

Second, in order to enter into an Indigenous way of proceeding in theology, new-comers must adopt or respect Indigenous boundaries in specific situations. For example, Indigenous scholars, because of their focus on relationship related stories from relatives and elders, which means the research paper is often in the form of a first person narrative. This has rubbed the enlightenment thought the wrong way, particularly researchers who claim objectivity rules supreme. Narrative forms of discourse seem to show a greater level of respect for Indigenous people by not reducing a people into a set of principles for use by the world. Indigenous Studies does not exist so that scholars can collect and refine “exotic raw data” for their project. You cannot reduce Indigenous peoples to one group; therefore, we engage in culture specific examples in our teaching. There is, as well, a greater attention given to the oral nature of Indigenous wisdom that requires a narrative approach that honours the communities’ approach to keeping wisdom. This has included research projects that took on alternative forms other than written papers. Honouring Indigenous boundaries also means that some things are out of bounds to speak about. The researcher must respect communities’ rules about recording information and guard against cultural appropriation.

Finally, Deloria suggests that one must embrace an Indigenous communal identity to understand Indigenous philosophy. For example, acknowledging whose traditional territory we are standing is a beginning of this process. We must understand that we are responsible to all our relationships, to live in a respective way toward all our relatives. I have found that Indigenous people can teach the enlightened autonomous individual about communal relationship. The modern world is consumed with individual rights, but in Indigenous country, we want to make choices that honor our relatives, relatives that includes those who have passed on and those who will arrive in the future. It requires that new-comers listen more than talk. For other newcomer individuals, entering an Indigenous learning space will mean they must give up their perceived “right” to verbalize their thoughts. Communal identity means learning to see the web of relationships all around and acting responsibly in that context.

Rev. Dr. Ray Aldred is the Interim Academic Dean (2020-2021) and Director of Indigenous Studies at the Vancouver School of Theology. He is status Cree from Swan River Band, Treaty 8. Ray was ordained with the Christian and Missionary Alliance in Canada.

This article is part of the upcoming book by VST faulty, Theological 10%.

1. Martin Brokenleg, “The Spirituality of Self-Determination” (Anglican Indigenous Sacred Circle, Prince George, British Columbia, August 7, 2018).
2. Andrew Wesley, “Traditional Aboriginal Spirituality” (paper presented at the Consultation on First Nations Theological Education, Thornloe University, Sudbury, Ontario, May 21, 2009).
3. ine Jr. Deloria, “Philosophy and the Tribal Peoples,” in *American Indian Thought*, ed. Anne Waters (Maldan, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2004), 5-9.