Seeing Indigenous People in the Image of God

As I Was Saying

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As Canada is reeling in response to the news on the mass unmarked grave sites, the numbers will most likely continue to expand. Many Indigenous People already knew there were bodies, but through radar technology and circumstances leading to the Kamloops discovery, this has all been brought to the surface. As I mentioned to a journalist last week, ‘The grieving process for many of us has been boiling under the surface, but this has brought it to the surface, and each person will respond and grieve in different ways.” 

One of the major factors that influenced the leaders in Canada, in the residential school system and, quite frankly, in the last 500 years of colonialism, has been the inability to see Indigenous People as made in the image of God. In the United States this has happened with African Americans and Native Americans. In our far north it’s been the Inuit People, and farther south, that extends to people of Mexico. On the B.C. coast, it’s the Haida people, and in the east, it’s been the Mohawk People. And these are just some examples of people groups who are dehumanized in those areas.

From north to south and east to west the people in power in Canada and the U.S. historically have failed to see others in the image of God. They saw them as people that needed to be like them in all ways. These attitudes had nothing to do with God’s call to salvation, sanctification, and discipleship. It was a mindset of domination and control—of people and natural resources. The sad truth is that my fellow Indigenous People were stripped of  many things that are beyond the scope of this column.        

In light of these new discoveries, it will be hard for Indigenous People, whether they are believers in Jesus or not , to process this grief. It also will be hard for non-Indigenous People, whether believers in Jesus or not. I personally have received heartfelt concern from the non-Indigenous People I know. In fact, my home church at Hope CRC in Stony Plain has always been very receptive to the ministry my wife and I are engaged in.

The response we’ve received from this congregation and its leadership is the way Jesus would respond. In essence, it’s the way all believers should respond to this news and all the other historical clutter surrounding it. When I step outside of myself, I know and acknowledge that all people have their own story of suffering, and so we all need to get better at telling our stories and listening to other stories. This is all part of being made in the image of God and reflecting this image of God as image bearers.

When we all found out about the number of unmarked graves in Saskatchewan, our hearts should have melted even more. I’ve heard people say, “When are they going to get over it? I’m tired of hearing about residential schools.” When I was giving a workshop one time on “Understanding Indigenous People More,” this question also came up. As a group, we concluded that the reason people have this attitude is they don’t realize the extent of the intergenerational trauma that we as Indigenous People have gone through.

Many times we also hear about tragedies across the oceans and seas on the 6 o’clock news, but because it’s so far away our lives go on as usual. We bring it up at a coffee break or in casual conversation. Now it feels close to home, but it always has been close to home. This news from Kamloops and then from Saskatchewan is symbolic of a volcano erupting. The heated lava rock has always been there, but these findings have caused an eruption of what’s always been there, and has been slowly heating up over the past 500 years. Various forms of sickness, neglect, and abuse have filled these unmarked graves.

I can’t help but think of the mass graves in Nazi Germany or the Nile River, when all the male babies were drowned in the times of Moses. Whether it’s been the Pharaoh of Egypt, Hitler and his assassins, or the broken-down dysfunctional residential school system, all the guilty people failed to see the other person as being in the image of God. They all failed because they were filled with pride in regard to their own culture and worldview. They all thought, “I’m superior, my race is dominant, God or some god has placed me in charge, and you don’t deserve dignity and the basic rights of humanity.”      

So in order to get through this together, we all have to approach each other with this in mind. Even for those who struggle with a belief in Jesus and the church. If they can see that we are all made in the image of  the Creator and the Spirit of the Creator, then the healing process will be much easier—but still hard. Grief is a lifelong process, but it has to start somewhere. Yet many of my people are struggling where to start.

There will be more news and more updates, and it will most likely put our patience with each other to the test. Indigenous People and non-Indigenous People will react and respond in different ways. As believers, it’s up to us to lead by example. Be calm and patient as we strive to continue to see each other as made in the image of God. Right from the start of creation after Adam and Eve sinned in the Garden of Eden, their son Cain killed his brother Abel, not seeing him as made in the image of God. It’s been a struggle ever since.

Not seeing each other as made in the image of God is a struggle between the world, the flesh and the devil as seen in Ephesians 2. It’s a sin, and I myself have been guilty of this at different times. It’s something we all struggle with to different degrees. As we move forward with the ongoing news related to these mass unmarked graves, this is one way one forward: to see each other as made in the image of God. This image of God is what brings beauty to all of creation.

About the Author

Parry Stelter is originally from Alexander First Nation that is part of Treaty Six Territory. He is a doctoral candidate in contextual leadership with Providence University and Seminary who offers workshops on grief, loss, and intergenerational trauma. He is a member of Hope CRC in Stony Plain, Alta. His website is wordofhopeministries.ca.

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