ask any native person what they want for Christmas and they might tell you: their land back, an end to economic and social racism and possibly, better cable selection. And what do I want? I want this festive season to bring me a better understanding of the love/hate relationship First Nations people have with Christianity and its celebratory traditions. And a new computer.
My seasonal quest for knowledge began just last week, when I made a pilgrimage to the General Synod Archives for the Anglican Church of Canada, on Jarvis. Ironically, I was scheduled to pick up some photographs of aboriginal residential schools and their students/conscripts for the National Film Board documentary I'm working on. (Oddly it's about native erotica.)
Immediately upon entering the lobby I feel uncomfortable, something I've encountered before in religious venues. It's the feeling that somebody is watching you, knows what you've been up to, knows that aboriginal people believe in living in harmony with nature and not having dominion over it as indicated in the Bible, and doesn't like it.
I was probably getting in touch with the ghosts of the generations who were kidnapped from their families and abused in order to be shown the way to heaven. The Golden Rule, "Do onto others as you would have them do onto you," must have been edited out in that edition of the operator's guide to civilizing heathens.
Of course, many cultures all over the world have had orthodoxy forced on them by conquering nations. That was part of the original inspiration for Columbus's voyages and the Islamic expansion during the seventh century. History and hymns are written by the winners.
Just after Cortez's destruction of the Aztec empire, the Spanish government, with the pope's blessing, decided to instigate what was called the Requerimiento. Feeling a little guilty about the rampant desecration of Central American civilizations, church and state decided to give the people a voice in their own annihilation.
As conquistadores marched into aboriginal villages, somebody at the head of the column would read aloud from the Requerimiento, a proclamation telling all citizens they could decide either to become voluntary vassals of the pope and Spanish king or be utterly destroyed -- a minor point being that the document was read in Spanish. Felix Navidad.
Not long after came the introduction of Christmas to the Americas with its message of peace and love in between waves of epidemics and forcible relocations. And this unique co-existence has remained until today, resulting in the fact that native people are both suspicious of and loyal to the church.
I have travelled to over 120 native communities across Canada and the U.S. -- many of them disadvantaged -- and one of the most common things I've encountered, aside from satellite dishes, are massive Christmas lights on houses that looked barely strong enough to hold them up.
Christmas, commonly viewed by historians as a pagan rite dressed up in a priest's collar, is a hard tradition to turn down. Many native people, even the ones damaged by residential schools, have a soft spot for stories about babies being born. And it really isn't His fault what happened 2,000 years later.
Eggnog knows no spiritual boundaries. Personally, I like this season, though I hold no particular allegiance to Jesus Christ or Santa Claus, both of whom are popular white men with far too much say in the native community. But I hum the songs when I hear them on the radio. I spend way too much money on gifts, and my blood sugar level drifts dangerously close to the endemic diabetes constantly knocking on the aboriginal door.
The bottom line is, Christmas is fun. Any man willing to die for your sins is worth baking a turkey for.
But just think, if Jesus were around today and were native, he'd probably be in therapy from residential school trauma. Happy birthday, buddy.