Today is national Indigenous People’s Day in Canada, a day to celebrate the “history, heritage, resilience and diversity” of Indigenous peoples. Given Encounter’s mission of promoting religious literacy, today seems ideal to share some great learning opportunities I’ve been fortunate enough to discover over the years. Below are some podcasts, books and videos that I have valued most.
Indigenous traditions cherish storytelling and there is some amazing storytelling below. They include accounts of residential schools, about rituals, some works that help explain spiritual traditions while others look at history. I hope you find something below that you love or that will move you.
Stolen, Surviving St. Michael’s by Connie Walker
Connie Walker is a Cree journalist, formerly of the CBC and now employed by Gimlet media. She won a Pulitzer prize for this podcast that investigates the life of her deceased father who was raised and sexually abused in a Canadian residential school run by Catholic priests. It’s a hard listen but very good. Her earlier podcasts called Missing and Murdered, done for the CBC, were some of the best podcasts I’ve listened to. Season one was subtitled Who Killed Alberta Williams and season two, Finding Cleo, was arguably even better. Both are riveting series you won’t be able to stop listening to.
Podcast cover. Photo Credit: Gimletmedia.com & Canva.com
The Truth About Stories, by Tom King
There is an accompanying book but oddly, my advice is to not read it. You want to listen to King, a former CBC radio host, tell the stories. The point of these five Massey Lectures was partly about oral stories and while King is a gifted writer and accomplished author, for my two cents, you want to let his voice fill the space and envelope you. He is insightful, sarcastic, witty, reflective and always willing to question established narratives in trying to show us that “the truth about stories is that’s all we are.”
The Three Sisters by Greg Koabel
This is a single episode of the historical podcast The Nations of Canada. This episode focuses on the Haudenosaunee (or Iroquois) peoples and shares how the arrival of key crops (namely the “three sisters” of squash, beans and corn) completely transformed Haudenosaunee life including agriculture, settlement patterns, gender relations and social hierarchies. Indigenous peoples are often depicted as timeless unchanging artefacts which robs these societies of their dynamism. Here is a story of evolution and change. An earlier episode in this series, Artic Migrations, does the same for the Inuit, showing how a couple key technological innovations allowed them to conquer the north and displace its earlier inhabitants.
Interview of Phil Fontaine by Barbara Frum
This famous 1990 interview was the first time many Canadians heard that the residential schools fostered a system of unspeakable abuse. It is only seven minutes and please remember: this is 1990. Speaking of being sexually abused, especially for a man, was near unheard of. Fontaine here is clearly uncomfortable yet shows unimaginable courage. This display of genuine inner strength was the first break in the damn.
Interview of Phil Fontaine by Barbara Frum. Photo Credit: screenshot from cbc.ca
The Sun Dance
This is a good 8-minute video on the Sun Dance, one of the central spiritual rituals for the Lakota (and some other nations as well). The Sun Dance intrigues me as the ritual involves intentional physical suffering, the sacrifice of your body in a way that modern people tend to pull back from. Dancers tie a thong from a central pole and embed it in their pectoral muscle with a claw that pierces the muscle. As they bleed, they dance, for days in a ritual of endurance and suffering. As one dancer explained to me, one offers to sacrifice the only thing one ultimately has: one’s body. We live in an age where we banish physical pain with aspirin and surgeries and physical therapy. Historically, people had to learn to endure pain, to bear it. And oddly, in a way I struggle to explain, I think the Sun Dance shows how physical suffering can create meaning.
Indian Horse, by Richard Wagamese (novel)
An amazing novel about an Indigenous boy who loves hockey and faces serious struggles. The book conveys so much feeling and is honestly one of the best descriptions of ice hockey I’ve come across. When I finished, I sat holding this book in my hands for a few minutes like I was holding sacred prose.
Book cover and author profile. Photo credit: Amanzon.com & Canva.com
Medicine Walk, by Richard Wagamese (novel)
Not afraid to go to the Wagamese well twice. A meditation on manhood that centres around three Indigenous men. A quiet book suiting its pastoral and mountain setting.
21 Things You May Not Know About the Indian Act, by Bob Joseph
Bob Joseph explores this historical legal document and shares how often it ensconced bias, prejudice and discrimination into law. We hope for law to be just but sometimes law is the way power and abuse become legal. You will be surprised.
Indigenous Religious Traditions in 5 Minutes, eds. Molly Bassett and Natalie Avalos
The title might sound silly but it’s one in a series where over 80 scholars write very short answers to individual questions. Each entry is so bite-sized you can read it in…well, five minutes…but you can learn a lot. The book’s scope includes indigenous traditions around the globe. A bit scholarly so be warned if that’s not your thing.
Native American Religions: An Introduction, by Sam Gill
Sam Gill is a Native American, a dance instructor, and an academic. His book is a wonderful work of translation, helping to explore Native American spirituality and translate it for outsiders in a way that provides insight and understanding. He explains how literacy changes the way we interact with culture and that Native American traditions were more performative. You behave, you engage in the ritual, and it works its magic on you in a way that a text cannot convey.
God is Red, by Vine Deloria
In this classic work, Deloria makes many comparisons between Native American traditions and the Christian perspective that dominates his society.
I hope you find something here to listen to or watch or read. And feel free to share below any of your own recommendations.