Religion or Culture?

Randy Fred

In November 216, a mother in Port Alberni, BC, on the west coast of Vancouver Island, took her children’s school district to court. She claimed that the kids had been made to participate in an Aboriginal spiritual ceremony, violating their right to religious freedom. A letter had been sent home to parents, informing them that a member of the Nuu-chah-nulth Nation would lead a smudging ceremony, a cleansing ritual.

The school responded to the legal action by saying that participation in the ceremony was optional, and apologized for not making that clearer in the letter to parents. Nuu-chah-nulth leaders stated that smudging is a cultural practice, not a religious one. The district school superintendent said that the school is committed to “teaching and learning about different cultures and traditions,” and in fact all BC schools have a mandate to integrate Aboriginal content into curriculum. The case and the responses have sparked an interesting debate about religion and culture.

In smudging, a practice in many cultures, cedar or herbs or other plants are burned for the purpose of cleansing. I am Nuu-chah-nulth and I do not recall our people ever burning cedar for this purpose. Cedar branches were used to cleanse rooms but they were not burned. There may have been an error in reporting, as a Vancouver newspaper stated that sage was burned for the smudging ceremony, other accounts mentioned burning cedar, and a CBC report stated that students would hold a cedar branch “while smoke from sage was fanned over them.” (I am surprised that none of these reports mentioned that smoke inhalation is unhealthy for children.)

The sobriety movement in coastal BC tribes has incorporated ceremonies from the Plains and the Interior of the province. For example, smudging with sage or sweetgrass and the use of the sweat lodge are not traditional to the BC coast. They are part of a Pan-American movement—an informal alliance of groups throughout North, Central and South America with shared political and social goals, who also adapt other groups’ practices. Tribes in BC are so diverse, with so many languages and dialects as well as cultural and religious beliefs, that it is much more convenient and inclusive for coastal treatment centres and Aboriginal organizations to apply a Pan-American style. It invites groups to emphasize their strengths and it clearly illustrates how cultures can evolve.

This process is increasingly important as the current necessary reconciliation work taking place in Canada brings First Nations cultures into classrooms, government offices and other workplaces. The desire of individuals, organizations and governments to advance the process of reconciliation, and to understand our long history of racism, is indeed honourable. But in presenting indigenous history and knowledge to non-indigenous people and institutions, the distinction between religion and culture can be cloudy.

That process is not unique to Aboriginal content. For example, as meditation and “mindfulness” become more popular in classrooms, other aspects and values of the source of these practices come along too. That source is Buddhism, and Buddhism is a religion. A petition to “Remove Mindfulness Programs” from Canadian schools, as a violation of religious freedom, has been launched in Vancouver and has more than five hundred supporters.

All cultures are blends of history, art, politics, religion and other rituals and traditions. Is it possible to introduce one culture to another without any hint of religious beliefs or practices? Is it desirable to do so? Should Canadian taxpayers be paying for religious practices in Canadian institutions?

If I sound like I am opposed to my own people’s religious practices, it is perhaps because the Indian residential school was successful in taking the “Indian” out of me. I like to believe as an “urban Indian” I am able to stand back and take a wide view of situations. Either way, I want my grandchildren to be free of religious practices in their schools.

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Randy Fred

Randy Fred is a Nuu-Chah-Nulth Elder. He is the founder of Theytus Books, the first aboriginal-owned and operated book publishing house in Canada. He has worked in publishing and communications for forty years. He lives in Nanaimo.

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