Our Words Create Worlds: Learning from a First Nations Community

The Other 6
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What’s the opposite of a problem?
Easy, you might say say: a solution.

Lately though, I’ve been learning from my young First Nations friends that in North America, the true opposite of a problem is a gift.

For the last three years I have directed a summer camp in the northern Ontario First Nations community of Mishkeegogamang. And I’ve learned over and over again that while I may enter this First Nations community to offer summer programming for young people, I am repaid many times over in relationships, in stories, and in deeper understanding. I have learned much from the people in this community about the complexity and beauty of my own faith and about the history that has birthed such commonplace hostility toward our host nations.

In North America we live in a moment of history directly following decades—even centuries—of government and church policies based on the understanding that North America has “an Indian problem.”

This perspective has led to—and still leads to—all sorts of harm to Aboriginal communities.

Growing up close to the Six Nations reserve, I heard lots of stories about the ways Aboriginal people were problems. Maybe you’ve heard some of these stories. And maybe you’re still telling them. . . .

Words Create Worlds
The truth is, if you’re told something often enough you begin to believe that it’s true. Our words create worlds; they color how we see the world. So when we use words like “problem” to describe First Nations people, we create a world that views and treats them as though they are problems.

This past December I returned to visit friends in Mishkeegogamang and to help lead a workshop. I sat in a room with young people I have grown to love and care for deeply. We sat together, and we listened to a simple yet often hidden truth: the people living in this First Nations community are not a “problem” to be solved but a gift to be recognized. Sitting there I realized that the people in this community need to know this—but that those of us outside that community need to know it too.

In a nation like Canada that is marred with historical wrongs, deep misunderstandings, and constant separation from our indigenous hosts, this is only half the work. The other half begins with each one of us.

So I dare you to become the type of Christian who is able to see gifts even when the dominant story tells us to see problems.

Learning to See Gifts
I have learned from my First Nations friends that I have been handed a worldview that sees them as problems. Not only is this wrong, it is unbiblical and unloving. And so I have been on a journey to relearn Canadian history and to question the views I’ve been handed regarding Aboriginal people and culture. Truthfully I see no greater need facing the North American church than to take tangible steps toward reconciliation by realizing the ways we still contribute to perspectives on our First Nations host nations that are oppressive, unloving, and untruthful.

The truth is that North America does not—and never has had—“an Indian problem.” The true problem lies in the fact that we call other people “a problem.”

If there is one thing I have learned thus far it is this: if you waste your energy viewing people as problems, you’ll be missing out on the indescribable gift of First Nations communities and the work of healing God longs to do on this continent.

About the Author

Deanna Zantingh is a student in theology at Canadian Mennonite University in Winnipeg, Manitoba. She also works for an organization that focuses on holistic leadership and community development in indigenous communities.

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