Monday, March 24, 2014


Syncretism is a term that is in some dispute, but still useful.  When cultures collide, or even as today in Canada where they meet there is a degree of modification of both the host culture and newcomers. A few years ago I did a micro study of syncretism in northern Ontario between the 1880s and 1920s.  I used the Round Lake study database which was a major project growing out of the 1962 Round Lake Study.  The second project created a vast data base of some 7000 individuals with fields populated by data on residency, kin relationships, religion and so on. The First Nations of the Severn River basin in northern Ontario inland from Hudson's Bay offered a unique instance of a people touched by European contact to a degree far less than any other in North America. They speak a language closely related to both Cree and Ojibway.  This language was initially classified as the Severn dialect of Ojibway, but came to be recognized as a separate language and was called Oji-Cree.  The people themselves quite readily accepted this name and so they are today.

The Oji-Cree were converted to Christianity in the late 19th century by missionaries from the Church of England's Church Missionary Society [CMS].  The first bishop of the area was John Horden, a CMS supported cleric who was heavily involved necessarily in mission work. A principle technique was to employ natives as 'catechists', who could read the Bible and who had been trained in basic Anglican theology, and who knew Cree syllabics also.  The lived a fully native lifestyle and carried the Gospel with them.  European missionaries were in the field too, but recognized the need to integrate Christianity into the daily lives of people.  Churches were built, usually at HBC posts. The HBC did not like missionaries who disrupted the fur trade so the Christianity accepted by the Oji-Cree had to fit in with their lives.  Church registers of baptisms normally carry two dates from these  early days - one for the baptism in the name of the Trinity which any Christian can do as children were born in the bush many miles from even a Catechist, let alone a church.  Then when they came into the HBC post to trade furs, they would have the infant 'received into the church' using the Anglican Book of Common Prayer at the church. Their Christian name was then entered into the Anglican records.

Anyway,  here it is:

The following is the text of a paper I read a number of years ago in a session on First Nations’ studies at the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences. At the time I was working for Dr. Mary Black Rogers, an ethnohistorian who, with her late husband, Dr. Edward S. Rogers, had conducted a multi-year ethnographic study of the community of Weagamow, Ontario [Round Lake, in Englsh]. Their main goal was to produce an ethnographic database of kinship records. These records included all known names, kin relations, places of residence, hunting territories, places where they fished and where they gathered berries in season. The study covered the years from the late 18th century through to the present. The records were assembled through participant observation techniques between the years 1958 and 1974, careful collection and sifting of Hudson’s Bay Company post records found at the archives in Winnipeg, and Anglican Church records found at the diocesan office in Kenora, Ontario and at the archives at Anglican Church House in Toronto. The paper records of the ‘Round Lake Study’ as it was called are housed today at the University of Alberta archives in Edmonton and the database at the data archives at the University of Toronto. I had access prior to any of this material leaving Ed and Mary’s home office in Burlington, Ontario where I worked for Mary as a SSHRC assistant on two grants for six years. Her husband Ed, had predeceased her and she was determined to complete their project as a last way of honouring Ed, who was Curator of Ethnology at the Royal Ontario Museum and a professor of Anthropology in the Department of Anthropology at McMaster University in Hamilton.
I received Mary’s permission to use the data base to write this paper, which has not been published, but is, of course, copyright.

An Ethnohistorical Case Study of Syncretism in Northwestern Ontario
I will take a few minutes now to look at a specific analysis of the ministry of a Cree Anglican priest who was stationed in the area inland from Hudson and James Bay in north-western Ontario from the 1880s to the first world war - a time when Amerindians there were still living their traditional life-style, but apparently fully Christianized -- more interesting than this, was the activity of the clergyman himself - accounted by his Anglican superiors as being fully Europeanized and Christian -
The first recorded baptisms for the aboriginal people of the interior are entered in the Anglican church register at York Factory for Big Trout Lake in 1855. In 1872 the new bishop John Horden established a permanent mission to serve this area at the Big Trout Lake Hudson's Bay Company post, and these early records were transferred there. In 1880, Horden himself made the difficult journey by canoe and portage to the Trout Lake mission, where he baptized 203, confirmed 157 and gave communion to 17. Apparently the enthusiasm of the local congregation induced him to continue sending missionaries out from York Factory to attend to Trout Lake, and finally in 1883 to once again send a native catechist, this time a Cree from the York Factory post by the name of William Dick.
William Dick was perhaps a seminal character in the development which Christian belief assumed in this part of Ontario's north-west. It is not certain whether William Dick was fully Cree, or Orkney-Cree, a mix of Scots trader and native. What is certain is that he was regarded as "a real Indian", to use the words of a later Bishop --- Lofthouse in 1913, and most likely then, Cree.
William Dick, then, was a member of the trading post band around York Factory. Trading post bands were First Nations’s peoples who had settled around Hudson’s Bay company posts and often acted as mediators between those living fully traditional lives in the interior and Europeans at the posts.
He had made at least one trip when he was in his early twenties to Trout Lake as a canoe man for the Anglican missionary W.W. Kirkby in 1874, but is not
otherwise mentioned in connection with the Church. The normal mission practice at York Factory, as at Moose Factory, was a segregation of native and newcomer services. In 1883 the York Factory Anglican mission journal contained the short, but significant entry, "Wm. Dick communicated with the English for the first time" [
communicate is a verb which means to take communion - the central ritual in Christianity] providing a clue to the degree to which Dick had been accepted as fully acculturated. In the ensuing years at Trout Lake the HBC post journals carried regular references to Dick dining with, and interacting with, on a personal and private level the European post employees in preference to the natives of the region. From the beginning Dick instituted regular winter rounds of the hunting camps of the interior peoples. Reports from visiting clergy sent out to Trout from York Factory confirmed that the Church was pleased with him,
"Mr. Winter [the clergyman, G. Smith-Winter] returned on Friday from T Lake and Severn, after having a most encouraging & successful journey having baptized 100 persons, including 3 adults, admitted many fresh communicants, & married 22 couples. God has blessed Wm. Dick in his work."
In 1889 William Dick returned to York Factory to be ordained deacon in the Anglican Church, in a ceremony where again unusually natives and Europeans worshipped at the same service. This new clerical recognition for William Dick was, however, short of that usually accorded Europeans. While the diaconate in the Church of England allowed William Dick the authority to baptize and to perform marriages and burials, it denied him the essential clerical marque of celebrating the service of Holy Communion. For Europeans in the Church of England the position of Deacon was customarily of short duration, usually no more than one year of preparation prior to an almost automatic promotion to the priesthood. Dick's failure to move on immediately to the priesthood is perhaps a reflection of the opinion of Bishop Horden, who remained doubtful of the ability of natives to fully enter into the leadership of the church. Those who had, were notably of mixed parentage, usually European fathers and native mothers, while Dick, as noted was most probably pure Cree. Perhaps Horden's CMS ideals for a native run church were tempered by the reality by late Victorian racial attitudes which assumed a racialist and paternalistic view towards natives. This was despite the fact that Dick was apparently fully literate in both Cree syllabics and English.
Like Anglican clergymen everywhere in the world he kept careful records in his own scratchy yet legible hand of baptisms, marriages, confirmations and burials in the Trout Lake parish book . Dick also produced statistical reports for the Church Missionary Society of attendance at mission services. He was remembered fifty years later for the large Bible which he used for teaching and study. Dick trained a number of native catechists to handle services when absent from Trout Lake. There are a number of mentions in the HBC journal of trips taken to York Factory, seemingly every summer, to Kenora and even to Winnipeg on one occasion.
Not until 1895, after Horden had died and was succeeded by Jervois Newnham as bishop, was William Dick priested. This is perhaps because Newnham, unlike Horden, was raised in the north, albeit around Lake Nipigon, where he interacted with the Ojibway of that area even before knowing his own culture. By this period too, the Church provided William Dick with an annual salary, 75 pounds sterling.
Yet for all his seeming integration into the life of the institutional church, both Dick and his wife pursued a traditional lifestyle at the same time. He is recorded
as having shot the first goose of the season and tending the nets. His wife, Nancy, is at one point recorded as trading in furs at the post. His ability to survive in a traditional fashion can only have served to enhance his position with the people of the area, fitting as these practices did with traditional concepts of power.
He was to remain at Trout Lake, with only summer visits to York Factory until his retirement in 1917, returning for one brief visit in the summer of 1918 before his death at York Factory in 1919.
A number of interesting questions arise out of Dick's long tenure at Trout Lake. Elders at Weagamow, one of his mission stations far into the interior, remembered Dick, or at least stories of him as late as 1958 when anthropologists began to study that community. As traditional leadership in Ojibway society was a factor of charisma and of spiritual power, it is a reasonable supposition that William Dick may have had his share in the minds of the local peoples. Whether he, himself realized this is a moot point. The Indians of the interior, especially of the Weagamow area were recorded as being especially enthusiastic converts by the third bishop in the area, Joseph Lofthouse, who gave this report in a church newspaper in 1907,
"James Seagull, a Crane Indian, was our guide. He is a splendid fellow, and acted as catechist at Trout Lake all last summer, when Mr. Dick was at York Factory. One cannot help being struck with the difference betwixt these Indians and those near the railway [Bishop Lofthouse had travelled into the interior from the rail line to the south, at Osnaburgh]. All carry their books, which they read very well, and they always have morning and evening prayers, which one seldom finds with the Indians in the South. . . . we came upon another party of Crane Indians, on Round Lake. They had come some twenty miles to meet me. They belong to the mission at Trout Lake, though living fully 100 miles away. James Seagull acted as their catechist, receiving no pay, and they are all Christians. We had service with them, when I baptized three children . ... and married one couple. After staying about two hours, the whole party packed up, and accompanied me to Deer Lake, their camping ground. There were about 30 canoes, and it seemed like travelling in state, for they formed around me in a sort of bodyguard. I spent the night with them and we had another service."
Lofthouse's account of his reception upon arrival at Trout Lake provides more,
"At Trout Lake I spent 8 days. The Sunday evening I arrived we had a grand service, the church being packed from end to end. Mr. Dick has enlarged his
church since my last visit [Lofthouse visited Trout in 1904], but it is not large enough when all the Indians are in. We had a service every night, and never had less than 350 Indians. On Sunday, July 1st, a most lovely day, fortunately with a nice breeze, we had a full day beginning at 8:30, when the church was full and many standing outside; Mr. Dick preached. At 11 we had Confirmation, when 70 candidates were presented - 36 being men and 34 women. At 3 p.m. we had another service, ending with Communion, when 201 knelt around the Lord's Table - 97 men and 104 women. This service lasted over three hours, and the people were not at all anxious to leave. They wanted another service in the evening, but I was really too tired and had to refuse."
Several years later, in 1912, Lofthouse returned to the district, where the tone was similarly triumphant,
"I was most heartily welcomed by the Rev. Wm. Dick, a real Indian, who has been at Trout Lake just thirty years, and done a wonderful work amongst his own people. There are 720 Indians at this station, and not one who is not a Christian. They can nearly all read well in the Indian language, but not 5 per cent of them can speak or understand English.[in 1958 similar percentages obtained at Weagamow] . This year they paid over $50 for books, and subscribed nearly $200 for Church work. ... It certainly was a treat to see the way they all turned out to service, and the devout, intelligent way they took their part in it.”
Some years later, William Dick was succeeded at Trout Lake by a Euro-Canadian, the Rev. Leslie Garrett, who in marked contract to Lofthouse's cheerful optimism, expressed suspicion about the level of conversion. Early in his tenure there, in April 1924 he wrote,
"...I would say that all my T.L. Indians are nominally Christian ..." and in a report to the CMS a year later, "The more I see and hear the more I am convinced that the spiritual tone of this place is far from what it should be. ...Not that we have met with any open opposition but merely indifference and falling away...The Indians are so independent here...All through the were held every Sunday, Monday, Wednesday and Friday. All of which were well attended"
Garrett apparently hears confessions, a rare, but not unknown practice for Anglicans, for he writes further,
"So often they have had to confess failure and unfaithfulness. Sometimes, truely (sic) desiring a fuller experience of new life in Christ Jesus, but sometimes showing signs of hard resentment."
We do not unfortunately have anywhere recorded the thoughts of William Dick. We can only guess whether Garrett's sense of disapointment with the level of Christianization of the Trout Lake native people was a factor of his own personality, or a reflection of the earliness of his ministry there when he was still unfamiliar with the people and the language. Garrett was to take a somewhat violent leave of the Anglican church, moving to Weagamow to found an evangelical congregation after having smashed the altar and altar cross at the church at Trout. His disapproving comment on the 'independence' of the people here is highly suggestive of a laxity of adherence to norms expected by European clergy.
In an attempt to understand the sort of Anglican Christianity held by this nation, I extracted some figures from an ethnohistorical database containing some 7000 records, including data on marriages, baptisms and funerals by Anglican clergy. From the 7000, I found 604 persons who lived within the area cared for spiritually by William Dick during his time at the Trout Lake mission.
The data base shows that of the 604, fully 75%, or 453 were baptized. This high percentage accords well with what is known of traditional Ojibway beliefs as maintained in this region. Baptism, in Anglican theology consists of two parts, one in which the individual is received into the Christian community, i.e. the Church, and one in which the Holy Ghost or Spirit descends on the person and a name is given. Both beliefs fit easily into Ojibway belief systems. Conversely of 236 recorded deaths for this same population, only 10% (23) availed themselves of Anglican rites of burial. This large statistical descrepancy is likely the result of two factors. On a practical level it may reflect simple expediency. As most of the people in the Severn River basin were hunters, they were not ordinarily resident near the mission. Deaths would then most often have occurred elsewhere, and most often at too great a distance to allow for transportation of the corpse to Trout Lake. Secondly, the available ethnographic evidence on traditional rites surrounding death suggests that these fit less easily into Christian belief systems, and were in any case culturally more necessary to maintain. Usually where issues of great power were concerned, informants in Ojibway communities were less likely to speak openly, and information on death rituals was unusually thus kept from outsiders. There is evidence that both practiced burials, and that the Ojibway beliefs included an afterlife. At the Ojibway community in Red Lake Minnesota,
for example, graves were commonly surrounded by small, white fences. Similarly, the Anglican cemetery at Weagamow in modern times has graves individually surrounded by white fences, this time surmounted with Christian crosses, though what the significance of the fence to both Christian and non-Christian native person is unknown.
Statistics on marriages are more revealing, though producing their own complexities. There were 282 marriages in this period of which 221 were Christian and Anglican, a rate of 80%. The factor which makes marriage a better indicator of religious belief for natives as Christian laity is the existence of the indigenous custom of polygamy. Though thought to be common, only 33 instances of the 282 recorded marriages for the period of William Dick's tenure are identified as concurrent in the data base. Of these 19 can be attributed directly to William Dick.
I have chosen this statistic for deeper analysis because of the unvarying Christian opposition to polygamy which stood in stark opposition to traditional custom, which included both polyandry (although this was rare indeed) and polygyny, and to test the apparently unqualified acculturation of William Dick.
Of the 19, three cases are of particular interest. In the first, the man involved was married twice in Anglican Church records during the main part of Dick's ministry. He was again married at the Trout Lake mission during a final visit by Dick to Trout in the summer of 1918 a year after he had retired to York Factory. There is a second, similar case where a man had contracted two marriages, to use William Dick's customary phrasing in his register, 'according to the rites of the Church of England'. A third case was of a man who married twice, once at Wunimum Lake and the other at Deer Lake. In this instance, because it dealt with somone whose hunting camps were only on Dick's winter itinerary, it is possible he might be ignorant of the existence of one or the other of the man's wives, unless he checked his register.
There are some immediate problems with this data. In none of these three is it known for certain when the first and Anglican wife died, leaving open the possibility that they are consecutive and not concurrent marriages. Simply taking European records as hard evidence would show this conclusion to be valid. There is, however, no hard evidence either that both wives were not alive and married at the same time. While it is highly unlikely that a fully accultrated native, and impossible that a European clergyman would allow bigamy, the balance of evidence from field data suggests that this was in fact the case. The ethnographic
data was collected starting in 1958, as mentioned, at a time when there were still individuals living who remembered these people, either directly from their childhood, or through the memories of their parents. For example, in the first case cited the final Christian marriage for this man was solemnized in the Church in 1918. Although the evidence then for concurrent Anglcian marriages is circumstantial to some extent, it seems to be weighted on the side of concurrence. If this is so, we have caught William Dick, the seemingly fully converted aboriginal in three instances of disobedience to a law fundamental to virtually all Christian churches.
If there is some doubt whether Dick had gone quite so far, there is none that he did allow, or at least look the other way when native meembers of his flock married a second wife according to native tradition. While not so greivous a sin as bigamy to the church, there is little or no chance that any European missionary would have openly condoned this practice. In twelve cases of concurrent marriage, where one wife only was married in the church, and the other, or others 'according to the custom of the country', the native custom marriage was chronologically second.
Dick's awareness of these concurrent marriages is not in doubt as in six of these twelve, he baptized children of both, making it unlikely he would not be aware of both marriages. In one case, of a Weagamow man, there were two traditional custom wives, and when one died the man proceeded to marry the other in the church. In other similar cases where the marriage custom remained outside the orbit of Christianity, the children were all baptized by Dick. These statistics suggest several things.
William Dick obviously considered baptism to be more important than the Christian moral status of the parents. They strongly suggest, though not conclusively that William Dick himself did not always abide by even essential clerical definitions of Christian behaviour. Finally they do conclusively show a laity, i.e. the Oji-Cree speaking peoples of the Severn River basin happily selecting which and to what extent they will abide by clerical definitions of orthodox belief.
This statistical data is reinforced obliqely by the various ethnographic studies done in the region between 1958 and 1974. In this period there was still at least one person who had more than one wife. In the case of close cousin marriages, (the ideal form being first cross-cousin marriage), field research records the residents of Weagamow being amused by a Euro-Canadian clergyman who refused to marry first cousins, but in fact had done so on more than one occasion, ignorantly, because of the haphazard way surnames had entered this culture. In another, and
different case, an informant told the ethnographer when questioned abut the survival of traditional 'medicine', said that no, because you cannot follow two paths at once. Yet the anthropologist in this case knew from other sources that this particular informant was in fact occasionaly functioning as a medicine man or shaman, when requested to do so, while practising Christianity in a very public fashion. The very fact as well that such request were made is in itself significant.
The Ojibway practice of child naming, though not involved quite so directly in a syncretic understanding of the new religion, showed more than the surface statistics might indicate. Ojibway names were traditionally unitary. An individidual would as well have several names throughout life. There were names usually used, there were humourous nicknames, there were secret persoanl names, and a riutal name bestowd by an elder in infancy. Thus,
"... the traditional practice made ready room for the baptismal efforts of the missionary, which supplemented rather than replaced it. ... [but]there was a reluctance to accede to a euro dual naming system , for names can be involved in conceptions of power thus producing a reluctance to have a shared name ...thus a study of surname adoption might say much about the extent to which natives syncretized Christian beliefs - whether this amalgam includes abandoning concepts of power - ethnographic data suggest not- for throughout...1958-1975, Oji-Cree speakers were often reluctant to, or considered unimportant supplying a surname when being questioned, and in fact had to be prodded to do so" (from Round Lake Study report)
The aboriginal peoples of the Severn River area saw baptism then as supplementing traditional concepts of power and cultural traits involved in naming.
There is evidence too that traditional religious beliefs continued in the telling of stories and legends. Apart from the telling of traditional stories and legends which continued at least until 1975, if not to the present, there are at least two accounts of tradtional beliefs surviving to this period. In one, a windigo was reported as being seen in 1970, and in 1974 some bad travel luck was attributed to a medicine man at Sandy Lake.
The hard evidence shows that the natives of this region were receiving the message that a man is allowed only one wife at one time. They were however, understanding this message in terms of their own culture, that is, that only one wife at a time may be married in a church. There is even doubt in a very few, but significant cases that even this rule was being violated, not only by the laity who

might be expected to not always understannd all the nuances of Christian orthodoxy, but by a seemingly fully accultrueated natvie clergyman, William Dick.
A note on terms:
polygamy - having more than one spouse, either male or female polyandry - having more than one husband
polygyny - having more than one wife
windigo - an evil spirit that can seize control of a person and make them do evil things such as murder 

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