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When Redfern Mianscum built a sweat lodge in his Cree community last October, he was hoping it would bring about spiritual healing. Instead, it brought criticism and a controversial ban on Native spirituality and sweat lodges.

Mianscum agreed last fall to build a ‘mitutsaan,’ or sweat lodge, in the backyard of a friend, Lana Wapachee, so their families would have a place to pray in the traditions of Cree spiritual teachings. “The sweat lodge helped me turn away from alcohol and things that were hurting my family,” said Miascum, who returned to Cree traditions four years ago after his family suffered the loss of a baby. “I went back to the healing methods of our ancestors, and it turned me around for the better,” he said. “I wanted to share that with my family and others who believe this way.”

A few days after the sweat lodge was constructed, Christian members of this James Bay Cree community circulated a petition, signed by about 130 people, demanding that it be torn down. “We further request that no native spirituality be allowed in our community such as pow wows and spiritual practices, and [that we] not even allow any person to come into our community to bring these kind of practices to confuse our youth,” it stated. “Our concerns are for our youth, our children and grandchildren. We have raised them with the Word of God and we will continue to do so. They know the difference between the Word of God and spiritual practices.”

Mianscum was shocked that members of his community would be intolerant of their own traditions, but he refused to take down the lodge. He believed that no government – including a tribal government – should deny its citizens the right to religious freedom. “I have the right to practice my spiritual beliefs using the methods of our ancestors. These ceremonies helped me with my healing journey,” he said. “These traditions should be respected and protected.”

He did a little research, and learned that under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the Quebec Charter of Human Rights, citizens are guaranteed protections for freedom of religion and maintaining their multicultural heritage. The newly adopted United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples also contains protections for the rights of Native peoples to perpetuate their cultures, languages, spiritual beliefs and ceremonies.

With all these protections in place, Mianscum wondered who had the authority to ban Native ceremonies.

As word of this conflict spread to other James Bay Cree communities, strong reactions shed light on the complex role Christian churches play among First Nations communities. While Christianity has been accepted since the 1930s with the influx of Anglican, Catholic, Evangelical and Pentecostal churches and residential schools, many First Nations have kept their ceremonies, sometimes intertwining common beliefs. It surprised many in leadership and traditional healing circles that any First Nation would turn away from – much less ban – its own ceremonies and traditions.

Many individuals—including priests and other religious leaders—wrote letters to the tribal council urging them to respect individual rights to religious freedom and to protect Cree traditional ceremonial practices. The Grand Council of the Crees, the regional governing authority, sent a resolution it had adopted in August 2010 reaffirming the importance of honoring sacred Cree healing ceremonies and emphasizing the individual rights of religious freedom within the Eeyou Istchee homelands. In addition, a local petition in support of the sweat lodge and traditional Cree spiritual beliefs began circulating in Oujé-Bougoumou signed by more than 100 people.

But when Mianscum asked the band council for time to present the petition in support of Cree ceremonies, his request was denied. [At publication time, the band council had not responded to ITCMN requests for comment on this story.]

For three days in late October, Chief Louise Wapachee and the Oujé-Bougoumou band council held meetings to discuss the sweat lodge and to formulate its position. In its deliberations, the council retraced its history of forced relocations caused by massive hydroelectric projects in James Bay, which caused widespread hardship throughout the 10 Cree settlements in the region. It was not until 1992 that the Oujé-Bougoumou Cree finally gained formal recognition from the Canadian government and was granted a land base to construct a new permanent village. (Mianscum, who is now in his early 30s, remembers walking a long distance as a child when the community finally settled here.)

According to the council resolution, at that time, “The Elders envisioned a comfortable home and future for Oujé-Bougoumou … and this vision did not include any form of native spirituality or practices such as sweat lodge, pow wow or other form of adopted traditional practices from other First Nations.” Citing this vision of their elders, the Oujé-Bougoumou Council adopted Resolution No. 2010-156 on Oct. 29, 2010, banning sweat lodge ceremonies and all traditional Native spiritual practices on the reserve. It states, “the Council hereby declares that the sweat lodge, along with any form of Native Spirituality Practices such as powwows, rain dances, etc., do not conform with the traditional practices and teachings of our elders.

“The Council hereby unanimously declares that the sweat lodge is to be dismantled and removed, and that all sweat lodge practices in the community immediately cease. Oujé-Bougoumou will continue to uphold its faith in and guidance by God.”

Though disappointed by this ruling, Mianscum hoped the council would reconsider, but he also began seeking legal and political assistance, writing to human rights attorneys and other Cree leadership.

Meanwhile, the Oujé-Bougoumou band council notified Lana Wapachee by letter in early December that several elders and community members were coming to her property to take the sweat lodge down. And they did. It was dismantled on Dec. 6 as Mianscum and dozens of community members stood witness. Police said the outer structure had to be dismantled as well. All the materials were left in a pile in the yard.

The ban—believed to be the first of its kind—signals trouble ahead for tribal governments that choose Christian beliefs over tribal traditions, according to some observers, who blame the heavy influence of Christian churches that often denounce traditional First Nations spiritual beliefs. “Our communities are still struggling with the consequences of forced assimilation through religious and education institutions designed to ‘kill the Indian’ in us,” said Innu human rights lawyer Armand MacKenzie, who attended a residential school in Quebec.

Mianscum has contacted several experts on Indian law, hoping the ban can be overturned, but has been told it is unclear whether the band council can be charged with human and civil rights violations, since it is exercising its inherent rights of self-government and self-determination.

In the meantime, Mianscum plans to continue using Cree spiritual traditions and a sweat lodge to help his family and friends – but he has to leave his reserve to do it. “I have nothing against any other belief or religion,” he said. “If it makes a person better and brings him closer to his God or Creator, then we should respect and not judge others for wanting to carry on the spiritual practices that kept our people alive and strong.

“All I know is that I’m doing this for my children and their future.”

Read Valerie Taliman’s award-winning column on the business of sweat lodges here.