Inculturation and imagination: the aesthetics of liturgical formation

I’ve just spent a week among the Cree, to be specific, the Swampy Cree of several different nations in the north of Manitoba. At the invitation of their bishop, The Rt. Revd William Cliff, I accompanied him on sacramental rounds (primarily first communions/confirmations) across a huge geographical area, to scattered communities on different reserves, plus a couple mining towns with quite mixed ethnicities. My intention was to learn from them through observation and conversation, and specifically to learn about popular religiosity that linked life and liturgy, part of my current book project. What I learned was far more – about so many different aspects of the lives and histories and hopes of these Anglican Christians, and, at the same time – far less about the specific focus of my research.

Perhaps a bit of background between church and aboriginal cultures in Canada may be helpful in orienting the following reflections. Northern Manitoba (the Canadian province roughly above North Dakota), is sparsely populated. It reaches up to Hudson Bay in the Northeast, borders Nunavut across the North (a territory carved out of the Northwest Territories in 1999), and shares its western border with the province of Saskatchewan. While most of the contemporary political boundaries do not match the original tribal boundaries of indigenous peoples, it was helpful to think of bands of cultural groupings stretching west to east, with the various Cree nations around and above the large lakes of Winnipegosis and Winnipeg, to the north of them the Dené peoples, and to the north of the Dené the Inuit peoples in Nunavut. Throughout the region there are also Métis, descendents of first nation peoples and French or English settlers.

The two primary Christian missionary groups in this broad region were the French-speaking Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate (OMI) and the English-speaking Anglican Church Missionary Society (CMS) out of the Church of England. Building on early French Roman Catholic missionary work, Roman Catholic and Anglican groups cemented an enduring influence through the 19th century residential schools, a system run by the Canadian government but infamously administered primarily by the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches.

Much has been written of these schools (the final residential school closed in 1986). They were deliberately designed to strip aboriginal children of their language, their culture, and their families in order to make them Christian (which was not compatible with their native culture in the eyes of those running the schools). Beginning in the 1820s, the residential schools were unfortunately very successful in this regard, with an impact continuing to this day (many living Cree were in residential schools – it is not ancient history). In addition, in recent decades, the emotional, physical, and sexual abuse in these schools has come to light leading to public apologies, a national truth & reconciliation committee, financial compensations, and a lasting shift in the self-identity of Canadian Anglicans and Roman Catholics. The real surprise is that the churches have any credibility amongst first nations peoples at all, but, they do.

What I thought I would experience, and what I actually found myself in the midst of liturgically were two different things.

Aurally I kept thinking I would hear Cree music, what I heard were Protestant hymns sung in Swampy Cree, N-dialect. The combination makes for a very different version of hymn singing – in a way both indigenized and colonial – or perhaps better described using Anscar Chupungco’s older mathematical imagery of inculturation, where A equals the indigenous (here a way of singing and a translation into the vernacular), B equals the colonial European music on which the hymns and texts are based, and the result is C, something new, unlike either A or B.

Visually I thought I would see Cree artwork on the walls of the churches, in the vestments, and in the liturgical colour scheme. While there was some indigenous art in the parish halls, most of it was not. The paintings, the crucifixes, images of the Sacred Hearts of both Jesus and Mary (very frequent), and more were mostly what one could see elsewhere in very different cultural settings. The oldest of the churches in The Pas was the exception with a number of indigenous works of art, but was also ironically a mostly white worshipping community. A number of the traditional vestments, however, mostly gifted from other churches and schools, had been ‘localised’ with the application of exquisite beadwork between orphrey bandings.

Spatially I was surprised at the arrangement of churches. Swampy Cree (and many other first nation peoples) gather in the round for important events – preferably at an Arbor Site (a round structure with a partial roof around the outside and open to the sky in the middle). In spite of this, all the churches were set up as longitudinal spaces, with pews facing an altar area, almost always with an altar rail (and a couple with a full English Anglican quire scheme), again, the floorplans of the European missionaries. Even the attire of the children for their confirmations and first communions were not what one would immediately call ‘inculturated’ – white shirts and ties for the boys, white dresses and often white veils for the girls. I was puzzled and asked several elders why there were no Cree items of clothing for these important rites of passage?

This snapshot of some outward ritual manifestations of faithful Anglican Christians amongst the Swampy Cree, however, is just that – outward. All symbols have related outward and inward meanings, and inculturation, particularly liturgical inculturation, is a very complex dance of identities – expressing and creating new generations. When one of those generations was raised in residential schools, without their families, their clans, their language, and other cultural bearings, it becomes even more complicated.

With no attempt to resolve things into either colonial or indigenous sets of practices, or to suggest that what makes sense in one culture automatically transfers to another, here are a few things I have learned from these gracious and welcoming communities.

One aspect of the presence or absence of traditional dress, chanting, drumming, and more is that in the work to resurrect Swampy Cree culture after the residential schools, the ‘traditional’ (indigenous) movement has become virulently secular. Even though the bulk of the work in translating and teaching Cree language is because of the churches’ involvement, there was a palpable tension – what is it to be a Cree Christian if the restoration of Cree practices is identified with ‘traditional’ religion or, more frequently, anti-religion? I asked about the meaning of the white shirts and white dresses – “they mean purity”, was the answer I received, many times over. Babies and children are the joy and the hope of the Cree communities I visited, but the very young age of first-time mothers is also a concern. Not unlike Latino Anglicans, or other cultures around the world, the rites of passage that mark arriving at confirmation and first communion (sometimes in that order, other times reversed and separated over several years), are profoundly complicated. They serve as a marker of maintaining virginity; they serve as a means to gather the children together for catechesis and protection from other influences; under the insistence of preparation, they serve as a formative antidote to the epidemic of teenage suicide; they represent a stance against evil – outward purity against forces drawing their children elsewhere (and evil is very real and personified in the lives of these communities); they represent a coming-of-age in a blending of Christian and Cree traditions.

The post-residential school re-teaching of family (especially supporting multi-generational family ties) was strikingly evident in the way in which first communions were administered. The candidate does not receive communion alone, but is surrounded by family units of parents, grandparents, siblings – they receive together. The rather chaotic and relaxed approach to beginning liturgies, even through the liturgy of the word and homily was a sharp contrast to the celebration of the eucharist – these are powerful events and communion is not received lightly, nor even is the altar approached by assisting ministers during the eucharistic prayer or communion.

In a similar way, getting holy water right – confecting holy water with clean water, salt, the correct prayers and gestures – these are important because the apotropaic uses of holy water matter, particularly in rites surrounding dying and death, as well as reclaiming places marked by death. In these practices, what appear as remnants of a colonializing Christianity actually have been re-imagined as the outward expressions of deep indigenous beliefs about how God works in the world, and how vigilance against evil is necessary. These were a few of the insights I experienced in the extraordinary time with the Opaskwayak Cree Nation. Ritual and liturgical inculturation are a complicated dance of identity and communication – with thanks to the Swampy Cree and Bishop William for teaching me many things about being Christian in a particular context.


  1. Any attempt at re-inculturating the liturgy in this context would need to tread carefully lest it become a pastiche of Cree culture or yet another form of cultural oppression where they are still made to act how outsiders *want* them to act (i.e. “We feel bad that you were forced to act like white Europeans, now we demand that you act more Cree so we don’t feel so bad about it”). A move towards re-establishing aspects of Cree art/music/ceremony will ultimately have to come willingly from within the community even if it takes generations and ends up taking forms one wouldn’t expect.

    1. Thanks Jack, absolutely…and I think the presumptions about what that ‘should’ look like are part of the problem-a new colonialism indeed when we try and direct these processes as well-intentioned outsiders…

  2. Thank you for spending some time with us in the diocese Dr. Larson-Miller. Your observations are much appreciated.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *