Magazines 2023 Nov - Dec The Holy Spirit and the Eagle Feather: The Struggle for Indigenous Pentecostalism in Canada

The Holy Spirit and the Eagle Feather: The Struggle for Indigenous Pentecostalism in Canada

30 October 2023 By Adam Stewart

An extended review of this 2023 book by Aaron A.M. Ross

McGill-Queen's, 2023. 384 pages. $39 (e-book $32)

Note: Our print issue contains a shorter version of this review. Faith Today welcomes your thoughts on any of our reviews. We also welcome suggestions of other Canadian Christian books to review: Contact us.

This is a book that has been conspicuously missing from the recent renaissance of academic scholarship on Canadian Pentecostalism initiated by Trinity Western University’s Michael Wilkinson in the early 2000s. Scholars of Canadian Pentecostalism have recognized for some time that a careful, critical and comprehensive examination of settler-Indigenous relations within Canadian Pentecostalism was needed. Most who pondered pursuing such a project were, perhaps, dissuaded from taking it up by some combination of the subject’s enormous scope, sociopolitical complexity and, not least of all, personal emotional toll. That was, however, until now.

Canadian Pentecostalism – and especially its largest denomination, The Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada (PAOC) – has a complicated and still evolving relationship with Indigenous peoples in Canada. In 2021 Indigenous Peoples comprised about 8 per cent of Canadian Pentecostals and about 5 per cent of the overall Canadian population. Admittedly, 8 per cent does not sound like a very large number. This approximately 30 percent overrepresentation of Indigenous peoples within Canadian Pentecostalism, combined with the fact that Indigenous peoples are not as evenly distributed across the country as are Pentecostals as a whole, results in several majority-Indigenous Pentecostal congregations in Canada that play important cultural, economic, political, religious and social roles within their communities, especially in the northern regions of the provinces and throughout each of the territories.

Just beneath the surface of the apparent success of Pentecostal proselytization among Indigenous Peoples in Canada, however, has always lurked a largely unexamined colonialist, paternalistic and even racist impulse that continues to prevent Indigenous Pentecostals from achieving full autonomy, belonging and respect in many Canadian Pentecostal denominations. Within the majority-settler denomination of the PAOC, for instance, Indigenous pastors have never held any executive office, lack access to adequate – let alone, Indigenized – theological education and are largely relegated to remote, under-resourced and often forgotten congregations dispersed throughout the Canadian hinterland. Those congregations in which most Indigenous Pentecostal pastors work share little resemblance to the multimillion-dollar, soft rock-playing, Starbucks latte-sipping congregations endemic to Canadian suburbia, which are overwhelmingly pastored by their settler (and mostly white and male) Pentecostal counterparts.

In The Holy Spirit and the Eagle Feather, Ross very skillfully dissects and explains the complex and changing relationship between Canadian Pentecostal settlers and Indigenous peoples. Although he pays special attention to the work of the Northland Mission – a domestic missionary effort directed towards isolated northern Ontario Indigenous communities – Ross integrates his interpretation of Canadian Pentecostal settler-Indigenous relations into the larger historical and political context of late 20th and early 21st century Canadian society so that it is equally relevant to readers from coast-to-coast-to-coast. Akin to an actual autopsy, Ross’s inspection of settler-Indigenous relations within the shared body of the PAOC is, at times, difficult for one to observe without flinching. Despite the embarrassment, regret and even shame that the consistent pattern of assimilationist missiological strategies adopted by the PAOC might elicit among some settler readers, this difficult story allows us to see clearly for the first time precisely how settler Pentecostal attitudes, behaviour and policy laid the foundation for the unequal relationship that persists between settler and Indigenous Canadian Pentecostals to this today.

In addition to all of this, Ross also successfully tells this story without the either overly self-righteous or excessively self-flagellating rhetoric that is common to so much recent settler writing concerning Indigenous Peoples. He does this while, at the same time, remaining faithful to his primary objective, which is using this story’s difficult lessons to prompt those settlers in his audience to better fulfill their duty of seeking reconciliation with their Indigenous brothers and sisters. Ross is a settler pastor of a PAOC congregation in one of Canada’s wealthiest cities, yet his work demonstrates the highest standards of critical, interpretive and reflexive historical scholarship, making it – in my opinion – a benchmark of excellence for other insiders who similarly intend to examine their own institutions in an as even-handed, fair and honest way as is humanly possible.

I cannot recommend this book too highly. It should be made required reading at every Pentecostal educational institution in Canada, discussed with care and in detail within every Canadian Pentecostal congregation and, put simply, be on the reading list of every Pentecostal in Canada. The Holy Spirit and the Eagle Feather successfully answers Michael Wilkinson’s tireless call for Canadian Pentecostal scholars to shift their insular emphasis from the well-travelled areas of settler theology, education and history to the less-visited corners, closets and maybe even cellars of the Canadian Pentecostal experience. It is possible to see Ross’s book and the ministry from which it developed as marking an important and necessary turning point for Canadian Pentecostal research and ministry. Ross’s book, for instance, might signal the emergence of a new generation of Canadian Pentecostal scholars who are better equipped to examine topics that lay outside the familiar mainstays of the Canadian Pentecostal experience. Furthermore, Ross’s ministry – the crucible from which his book was born – might indicate a new type of Canadian Pentecostal pastor who better knows how to look for signs of the fruitfulness of their ministries in places not necessarily related to attendance, buildings and giving.

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