The Ojibwa world view and encounters with Christianity along the Berens River, 1875-1940

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Gray, Susan Elaine
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Conversions and the taking on of Christianity had multi-dimensional meanings and were interpreted in a myriad of different ways by Ojibwa people living along the Berens River between 1875 and 1940. Christian rituals and practices were integrated into the Saulteaux world view in ways that were controlled by and meaningful to the participants. Today, both Christian and Ojibwa ideas are interwoven in the lives of Berens River residents. Both strands hold power, meaning and sincerity. There is no doubt that aspects of Christianity sustain many in their daily life and it is equally true that many of the same people's beliefs remain grounded in such Ojibwa concepts as the Thunderbirds, the power of medicine men and conjurors (terms still used at Berens River when people speak in English) and the use of dreams as vehicles of prediction, guidance and foreshadowing. Ojibwa people living along the Berens River experienced and still live a deep, dynamic and complex religion based on the power of belief and yet which is adaptive and flexible. New ideas arriving in their midst, such rituals as the Dream Drum Dance, have often been welcomed if seen as valuable. Contrary to the assumptions of generations of Westerners, the Saulteaux employed empiricism and critical thinking at deep levels. The ability to incorporate outside ideas into an existing world view does not imply an inability to think empirically nor does it suggest a superficial belief system. In positive encounters with Christianity, native people along the Berens River were influenced by a number of factors. These included a wish for literacy and Western education and technical resources, a desire to understand the Bible as a source of potentially helpful and beneficial messages, added divine protection from illness and other crises, protection against bad medicine, access to Western medicine and added dimensions and powers to existing ones derived from traditional ones such as rituals. Where mission efforts were successful in these communities, it was usually as a result of the sustained presence of a devoted missionary who stayed long enough to achieve respect and earn trust. By the late nineteenth century, most Berens River Ojibwa were second generation Christians; thus a tradition and loyalty had been established among families. Christianity, however, was not always accepted out of hand. Lack of support by missionaries, lack of agreement with the lessons taught to children in schools, or lack of need to take on aspects of a new religion and lack of respect by a missionary for sacred Ojibwa rituals could all yield cold responses. Clearly, native people were in control of making choices here - it was they who decided when and how they would or would not accept Christianity.