Christian Crees Tear Down Sweat Lodge

Valerie Taliman

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.

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bwop4's picture
Submitted by bwop4 on
This makes me sad for the people in this community. They have forgotten who they are. I can't imagine someone tearing down my family lodge. My heart would be broken. We need to pray for this community and call upon the help of the ancestors.

syilxwoman's picture
Submitted by syilxwoman on
As I read this story, once again memories of the residential schools were brought to my mind. Churches of every denomination , be it catholic, Anglican, Evangelical, these have no right to tell anyone how to live or to pray. Christianity is about love, compassion, forgiveness, not about rules, or regulations. These churches are organized religions. Run by people who have no clue about Christianity. Jesus said in the Bible, in Matthew chapter 4, verse 19, Jesus says, " And He said to them, Come after Me as disciples ----letting Me be your Guide , follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men ! No where did Jesus say, go catch the fish and clean them then bring them to me. Oh no, He said, Letting Me be your Guide , follow Me and I will make you fishers of men. Christianity is about letting Jesus the Son of God be the Guide , not the preachers, deacons or anyone from any church group. Shame on these supposedly Christians for tearing down the sweat lodge, shame on them, God will discipline them for hurting innocent people.

syilxwoman's picture
Submitted by syilxwoman on
I applaud the man who did his research, and found that he does have the freedom and the right to practice his beliefs. The organized religions which are run by churches with it's roots, from the catholic, Evangelical, Anglican, as well as others, the leaders of these organized religions are wrong to try and enforce their beliefs and religious views on any First nation, be it Cree, or Aboriginal. The chief and council do not have the legal right to enforce anyone's faith or beliefs, or tearing down a sweat lodge.

thechief's picture
Submitted by thechief on
As sad as it is you must respect the tribes sovereignty.

thechief's picture
Submitted by thechief on
That thing is also an eye sore. couldn't they get some blankets that matched.

skinu's picture
Submitted by skinu on

wanbli's picture
Submitted by wanbli on
Wow I not surprise but a Christian Jihad on Traditional Peoples and our Spirituality our Constitutional and Human and God given divine rights to engage in "Prayer!" Sound like the Sadducee and Pharisees of Christ time that have a politics, fear of loss of power and control and the abomination of false Christian practices of empire! And of course its about what crooks will control the empires money in the end!!!! These so confessed Christian was told not to Judge before the time....Its not Time Yet, But a Judgment has started in 97 in the House of the Christianity and now we see clearly its real fruits manifesting before the end of the world, and these fruits of the fruits of violence, divisions, hatred, racism, colonialism, greed, lies, corruption, perversions fear of men and a irresistible attraction to they're "Oppressors and his Values and Lifestyles", "Empire" and not of Creator. They will pay for there ignorance and assimilated institutionalized miscalculations because everything will be clear in the end when Christ messengers finish they're work: when its truly time to "Judge" these empires and all empires and there "religious greed" "violence' and complicities in the genocide of the indigenous poor of earth (The Red Sovereign Children of Christ and his father Jehovah) in the 21st century and their coming end throughout the human races and for all eternities. If these really new Christ they would not have persecuted those that would have prayed with them, unbias.

grammy03's picture
Submitted by grammy03 on
I am a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, and I am also an Anishnabeg woman. I believe that both Christianity and spiritual beliefs using ancestral traditions can live in harmony with each other...clearly, Mr. Mianscum benefitted from his experience in the sweat lodge, and I am sure that others could as well. There is no reason why we can't appreciate this form of healing and wellness that encourages individuals to become better people. It is so sad that we cannot be more tolerant of each other and those things which help to heal and make us whole - all blessings bestowed upon us by our creator.

critic46's picture
Submitted by critic46 on
I am a Christian. As such, I am disappointed that my brothers and sisters would deny any native American his or her heritage. I do not consider a sweat lodge to be disrespectful of my Christian belief. I believe, rather, that if Jesus had been able to bring the spirits of the western world to the Holy Land, he would have incorporated those spirits into his teaching.

ogichidaag's picture
Submitted by ogichidaag on
I guess then these Cree will be ok when other tribes and bands outlaw Christianity in Indian Country? Self hatred and failure to resist the European infection of Indian Country

rainy's picture
Submitted by rainy on
I feel sorry for "thechief." His comments are laced with hatred and pettiness. Who cares if the sweat lodge covers don't match, as long as they do the job. Sounds like a red neck comment.

wonderful's picture
Submitted by wonderful on
thechief guy is a fucken goof

northfire's picture
Submitted by northfire on
Franz Fanon's book, Wretched of the Earth, comments on the psychological effects of colonization. One of the effects would be for the oppressed to see that emulation of the oppressor culture has benefits to the oppressed. Unfortunately, one of the worst aspects of the dominant religion of the oppressor culture, the fundamentalist Christian belief that only a certain religious view can be tolerated and that all other religious views are properly obliterated, has been adopted by the Chief and Council, and many of the population of this First Nation. They do have the traditional right to manage their affairs without interference by other First Nations. As a member of the dominant culture, I respect that tradition, but am not bound by it and venture to comment. The blinders that fundamentalism puts on its adherents make honest and open discussion of differences with them extremely difficult, if not impossible--usually a fruitless effort and waste of time. A practical approach to this impasse, derived from oriental philosophy, is to cease to resist the unwholesomeness of the closed minds while also not compromising with them in any way, and then to go elsewhere--physically or symbolically- and to use one's energies to develop the positive aspects of one's views that are have been condemned by those unable to see. In this case Redfern Mianscum is building a sweatlodge off the Reserve. To be excluded in this manner yields suffering, but also a measure of personal power. Possibly one day his wisdom will be recognized by his community, despite the effects of the hardships of the First Nation's colonial past.

ronmitchell83's picture
Submitted by ronmitchell83 on
its funny how its labeled " Christian Cree " why not just Christians Tear Down Sweat Lodge? EgH. Well this article makes me sad that any native could have done what they have done. No respect of heritage and a total lost of self identity. NONE. I hope all this gets thrown out and that this sweat lodge it put back up again and that such law from a first nation be taken out of the books. The elders have disappointed me. No human being should regulate but themselves to whom they should worship. No matter what color or road they follow. It us that the creator will pity for we have not yet learned to live and co-exist. I feel sorry for my brothers and sisters who have become this type of representation to the Christian faith that they follow. I on the other hand respect my faith and others that follow their own. I truely hope this tribe will find peace and the family as well....

ronmitchell83's picture
Submitted by ronmitchell83 on
On this note, Iam Navajo who follows the traditional road with a feather in my left hand and carries the bible on the other. I will always know who IAM.

druithunder's picture
Submitted by druithunder on
I have read through this article and I was raised in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, with my own experience with them judging me "unfit" to be part of their religion and excommunication, this does not surprise me from any religion based on Christianity. These are the type of things that happened when the Christians came to this land, they tried to do this with the European pagans, this was called the burning times, and then the inquisition, Salem, and the crusades. It seems to me that people need to start learning from the past or this will continue to repeat its self over and over. If it was but one thing I have learned from walking the path of shamanism and druidism, one can create his/her own beliefs and walk their own path that fits them and most attuned to their spirit from what they have learned throughout their lives and only then can they be true to themselves. I have found that those that try to do what these Christians doing, shows that they truely do not fully believe or follow their paths they have chosen or have learned in their lives or what comes from their heart and spirit, Those that do these things to other belief systems, religions, and people, do this to validate themselves, they must try to convert, if that don't work, they will try to destroy, whether it be spiritual or physical, it all come right down to people's hearts and souls knowing that the path they follow is not the correct one for them and they fear that they may be wrong. If it was the correct path for them, they would be living by example, have no problems with other religions, peoples or beliefs, and would even defend those with different beliefs systems. which I do see this from the Christians that have stated they follow that path and have posted and I have to give you your kudos for your defense of other belief systems. As for you "thechief", do you think in times of old, before the "white" man came to this land, they used nothing but buffalo hides or deer hides to make their lodges? no they didn't, they used what they could get, much the same way this one was made.

naaniitus's picture
Submitted by naaniitus on
Is Communism making a come-back? Are Chief's and Band Councils on the road to Dictatorship? No government can force religion of any type on its people. Growing up we were taught that no one person's religion is better than the next. I find the actions of the Ouje-Bougoumou Band Council despicable and it may be that the only way to over-turn this decision is at the Ballot Box. Does anyone remember Jim Jones and his flock...let that be a lesson to us all. Stay strong Mianscum - what is in your heart they cannot take away!

cottonwood's picture
Submitted by cottonwood on
What is wrong with these pple? I don’t wanna believe what I read on ICT website! So, then Round Dances r made by a non-christian (purposely written w/o capital letter) called devil, Grandmother Earth and Old Woman is... nonsense anyway, Norther...n Lights beliefs are a big BS only, what do they call spirits? Financial analysis and Wall Street Journal? … what the hell they r trying to achieve with their revision of a statute from Oct last year? Cripple the customs or the people?? 10 minute break: The longer I think about, the more my so well tamed temperament is coming out…what is christianity nowadays anyway or even centuries ago? At the base not bad at all, and ive read the old and the new testament to build my own opinion, but happened w it? Twisted, turned up side down, kicked, burned, misused, lied about, tortured book of wisdom..why do need pple guides, cant they think for themselves, thought they don’t like to be compared w animal instincts and behavior, ha! How damn close r they still. how about, they go into themselves and envision how they like to be treated and apply this to everyone else in their world, then we wouldn’t need gurus and religious clans and whatever was grown in the last centuries and still is … the old customs told exactly that.. I gotta get off from this, need a walk w my dog … time for another painting too

cottonwood's picture
Submitted by cottonwood on
Huh? Ah, now I get, they should have consulted Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia and turned it into a contest, too... sweatlodge that what u taking about? Geez On which planet are u living?

shadowsedge's picture
Submitted by shadowsedge on
From what I understand, christianity does not carry a message of intolerance or condemnation. It carries a message of reconciliation and salvation. To deny others is to deny yourself the right to choose your own path and down that way lies slavery and condemnation. "Do we follow a spiritually and/or religion not our own?" "Do we practice tolerance of other traditions?" are the questions. Both can be put to the sweat lodge and christianity for this tribe. If they exclude the sweat lodge, they need to exclude christianity and any others that were not their history. As for confused youth, that is what parents are for. Youth would not and will not be confused if their parents raise them strong. Strength to weather the storm of doubt but these christians would rather block out non-christians and be isolated. Isolation only fosters weakness and destroys life. Government CAN choose a religion if they want because that is what government is based on. The right to choose how to live. Government is just another name for community but on a larger scale. Get 10,000 people together in one area and they form their own government that chooses to have a specific religion and it is so. A person can and does choose what religion another believes in, it is done all the time. What religion do you raise your children? Do not split hairs. Either your forcing your belief system on someone else or your not...regardless of their age because in God's vision, we are all children. Black, white and shades of grey are all the same color to the blind. I agree with ron, I will always know who IAM. There are always 3 sides to the story. Their side, your side and the truth. Until you have all 3, you will never fully understand.

leigh's picture
Submitted by leigh on
This is sad. From what I've heard of Jesus, I don't think he would condone these "Christian's" actions. It seems that stepping on people's rights in the name of Christianity is still the way things are done. Not a religion I would want to follow. If, as these Christians claim, that their youth "know the difference between the Word of God and spiritual practices”, then why are they threatened by traditional worship?

jolah's picture
Submitted by jolah on
That's very sad since our language, culture, and spiritual practices identify us as First Nations people. Without all of that, one is a mainstream person so what's the sense in claiming that one belongs to a First Nation tribe and live on tribal land? Those who do not wish to participate in cultural and spiritual practices have given in to the government's plan to colonize First Nations people. Becoming totally mainsteamed and leaving culture, language, and spiritual practices behind is defeat.

ribluebird's picture
Submitted by ribluebird on
In the words of Jesus "If you are without sin than cast the first stone.Think these who proclaim to be christians to look into their hearts to see if they are doing the right thing. Also are we all also created in the image of God.

kbearchief's picture
Submitted by kbearchief on
This is incredible. How can any First Nations people deny their own aboriginal belief system, culture and heritage. What they are practicing now is an ango-cultured religion, and that is their right, but they have NO RIGHT to dictate the cultural rites, and civil rights of it's own people to worship as they please. This council will ultimately be proven wrong, and in violation of certain religious freedom laws afforded anyone, anywhere.

thechief's picture
Submitted by thechief on
Ya, it reminds me of the new ager that became friends with some of my dad's neighbors. They built this hideous "teepee" and held "ceremonies" in it. I could only imagine what my ancestors would think of these mongrels. After reading the resolution it seems like this community has declared that "sweatlodges" are not what their elders practiced and do not want them on their land. They do promote their own traditional practices but are against pan-indian practices. This article leaves that out.

jerome's picture
Submitted by jerome on
Native Americans reside on soverign tribal lands due to our unique languages, spirituality, customs, traditions, etc. If tribes or certain tribal peoples don't want to be recognized as Indians then they should leave tribal lands and inter mixed with the rest of America. Just as I would say to the rest of America.....leave us alone!

500milerunner3's picture
Submitted by 500milerunner3 on
After reading the article I had to respond on behalf of the American Indian Movement. The American Indian Freedom of Religion Act not only gave us the opportunities for our economic growth but to protect and preserve our cultures and traditional ceremonies. I honor you for going back and learning your ways and hope you continue to stay clean and sober in the process. The Creator, or God, as many Christians call him, but millions all over Mother Earth call him the same only in different languages. The gift of the Creator is love and respect. I have been involved here and throughout the United States in our Traditional Ceremonies for over 36 years. I began learning and protesting over 39 years ago. I also have 37 years clean and sober. Since 1975 all our children in Youth Authority, and our people in the Adult and Federal Prisons have a choice to learn these ways. I have tried to teach all of our spiritual leaders that many of our people are still Christians back home but don't go back and argue or fight them. That is their choice. We still all have to live together because wherever we are that is our home. Our ceremonies must continue for our children. The Six Nation people when we were there tought us about the tree of peace. It is my belief from these teachings all weapons and thoughts of fighting have to be buried. I believe the Creator gave us these abilitiesto all the time make things better for the world. My brother Dennis Banks uses the saying "ALL LIFE IS SACRED" I belive the Grand Council there will rule in your favor if you have the patience to listn to all the insults like we did here and many 100's of others before us have endured, some even were arrested. The ceremonies still went on, some in peace, some not. Good Luck to you. Our ceremonies here are clean and sober and noone cusses or brings anything wrong to the Sacred Grounds. In the long run this is a way of life. Fred Short American Indian Movement Spiritual Leader for the State of California and President of the Native American Spiritual Council for the State of California Department of Corrections

m8lsem's picture
Submitted by m8lsem on
I have been a Pastoral Associate at a Catholic Church on an Indian Reservation in the US and have never heard of any such attitudes ... We must treasure all ways in which people without harming another seek to communicate with their own better natures and our mutual Creator/God/Allah/Dieu/Gott/choose your reference that gives you comfort ...

softbreeze's picture
Submitted by softbreeze on
Absolutely shocking. Why would these people think they have the right to tell other people what to do? Tribal governments are not supposed to be dictatorships. It seems to me that they have not learned the true meanings behind the traditions of their ancestors. I feel very sorry for them and for the victims of their misguided actions. Prayers for all concerned.

downtoearthperson's picture
Submitted by downtoearthperson on
Shame on all you apples! You are worse than hangs around the fort you are brainwashed traitors! Only thing worse than a white man killing a 1st Nations person, (body, mind or spirit,) is another 1st Nations relative killing his own kind! Too bad that we can't take care of you with tribal law! I pray you apples will see the light, and stop participating in the genocide of your own people! You scouts are disgusting, wake up before there is nothing left for your children, you will never be white! Sincerely, Nol Day