First person, by Daniel Zacharias
MY NAME IS Daniel Zacharias. Like everyone, I’m on a journey. For many years, my journey was aimed forward to specific goals that revealed themselves along the path. Awesome spouse, check. Great kids, check. PhD, check. Great job, check.
As I was completing my doctoral studies and establishing myself as a seminary professor, I met the prominent Mi’kmaq/Acadian theologian Terry LeBlanc. This initial encounter and some follow-up discussions sparked me to consider a question that had been in the back of my mind for many years. I had put off pursuing it because of the busyness of a young family and higher education, but the desire to know and understand has always been there. What does it mean for me to be an Indigenous follower of Jesus?
This question sparked a change in my journey – this time I aimed backward to my past and my heritage. That first meeting with Terry LeBlanc continued into friendship and kinship as my new uncle encouraged me in this path of discovery, and introduced me to a wider community of Indigenous followers of Jesus connected through NAIITS: An Indigenous Learning Community.
I am an Indigenous man. On my mother’s side my ancestors have lived for thousands of years in and around Lake Winnipeg and Lake Manitoba in what is now Treaty 1 territory. Those ancestors, in several generations and families, intermarried with European settlers who came over to work for the Hudson’s Bay Company. And it is this family from which I also received my Christian heritage.
While our family rightly celebrated our Christian heritage and bond, our heritage as Indigenous people mostly stayed unspoken. I still recall the time when, sitting in my grandparents’ home, my mother and her siblings were discussing the process of receiving their treaty and band cards. I did not understand what they were talking about. If I’m remembering correctly, I think I even asked, "We’re Indian?"
There are three main reasons why our Indigenous heritage was not at the forefront of our family identity. The first had to do with Canada’s assimilationist policies. One of my great-grandfathers in trying to support his family, took a job with the railroad. To do this he had to renounce his treaty status (this same rail company let him go one week before he turned 65 so that they didn’t have to pay him a pension). He received his treaty status back postmortem, which enabled treaty status to be passed on to his descendants.
The second reason is that my mother and her siblings faced racial discrimination in the north end of Winnipeg growing up. Being the darkest skinned kids in the community translated into plenty of racist attitudes and actions, which understandably led to a measure of shame for some of my family.
The irony of this racism was that there was no more devout family on the block than my grandparents’ household. Despite the small house size, hospitality was the default. Church was several times a week. Preaching, teaching, reading Scripture and prayer infused our family life. And I still maintain that no one could out-sing my family in old gospel tunes except the Gaithers themselves. And yet many light-skinned neighbours wouldn’t embrace people with our dark complexions.
But another reason for downplaying our Indigenous heritage was because of our Christian faith. Like many people in the past, and still many today, Indigenous people’s culture was seen as pagan at best, demonic at worst. Christianity was wedded to European society. To be a Christian was to live and act like the European settler society.
Like most Indigenous people who became believers, my ancestors adopted this opinion toward their Indigenous culture. Instead of pride, there was shame. The Apostle Paul when talking about salvation uses the metaphor of being "clothed with Christ" (Galatians 3:27). For Indigenous people the world over, this has meant covering over and hiding who they were because of their faith in Jesus. That was a mistaken interpretation of Paul’s metaphor, which actually speaks to an ennobling of who they are and who they were created to be.
I am aware my journey backwards mirrors many of my Indigenous brothers and sisters across Canada. As churches seek to respond to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and initiate new and lasting relationships with Indigenous communities in our neighbourhoods, I have sought as best as I could to assist. This translates to important committee and facilitation work, and educating others.
But all of this work for my wider Church family continues to be built on my own journey. I continue to educate myself, learn what was not passed on to me, decolonize my mind and my theological education, and continue down the narrow path as an Indigenous follower of Jesus.
Dr. H. Daniel Zacharias is associate professor of New Testament Studies at Acadia Divinity College, where he also serves as the director of the Master of Arts (Theology) program, and is also a faculty member with NAIITS: An Indigenous Learning Community.