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Dismantled sweat lodge exposes rift in Christian, traditional teaching

They arrived in the darkness of a northern winter day, some holding axes, others grabbing objects in gloved hands. They tore away at blankets and birch branches. They hacked at the rope that lashed the lumber together.

In time, the aboriginal sweat lodge that Redfern Mianscum had built in his Quebec village was forcibly dismantled - not by outsiders, but by members of his own aboriginal community.

"Sweat lodges are part of our native way of life," said Mr. Mianscum, 34. "It's a place of healing. And here, it was taken down."

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The last place one would expect to see a sweat lodge destroyed is in a native community. Yet that is what happened in Oujé-Bougoumou, a predominantly Christian Cree village 725 kilometres north of Montreal. Instead of helping heal, the sweat lodge exposed a rift between Christian teachings and a younger generation's embrace of once-taboo native practices.

Now Mr. Mianscum has retained high-profile Montreal human-rights lawyer Julius Grey to fight his case on the basis of his religious freedoms.

Mr. Mianscum built the sweat lodge in a friend's backyard last fall to connect with his aboriginal roots and help his community. The homemade structure, held up by logs and branches from the vast surrounding bush, quickly stirred up suspicion in the village of 700.

A petition demanding its removal was started by opponents, who eventually collected about 130 signatures. Then the band council passed a resolution ordering it dismantled, invoking the Cree nation's right to self-determination.

"The community was founded by Christian faith and values of our elders and past leadership," the resolution reads. "The members of the Cree Nation of Oujé-Bougoumou hereby declare that the sweat lodge along with any form of native spirituality practices and events such as pow-wows, rain dances, etc., do not conform with the traditional values and teachings of our elders."

Chief Louise Wapachee, reached by phone, refused to discuss the case. Other band members also declined. But one Cree elder who opposes the sweat lodge said he believes it doesn't belong in Oujé-Bougoumou.

"We don't want to confuse our youth," said John Shecapio-Blacksmith, 61. "I'm a Christian. A lot of people here got saved through prayer. That's why we don't want to build anything." He added: "You have to be careful what you bring into the community. You don't want to bring in witchcraft."

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The conflict underscores the complicated legacy of the Christian church among Canadian aboriginals, from residential schools to the missionaries who tried to suppress traditional ceremonies associated with shamanism.

"Missionaries came up and said, 'This is wrong, you're invoking Satan," said Ronald Niezen, an anthropologist at McGill University and an expert on native rights. "It's been internalized by an older generation that is devoutly Christian. That generation doesn't want to see the return of shamanic traditions. They feel that with Christianity, they got rid of sorcery and the magical component of their tradition that led to spiritual harm."

Today the dominant movement and sole church in Oujé-Bougoumou is Pentecostal, a revivalist form of Christianity that has become an influential force in northern native communities in Canada.

Yet at the same time, an emerging trend is seeing a younger generation, untouched by the scars of residential schools, search for its identity through native spirituality.

"The two resurgent faiths," Prof. Niezen said, "are coming into collision."

Oujé-Bougoumou's own identity was forged by adversity; the community was carved out of the northern wilderness after members had survived years of displacement and abject poverty. The modern-looking village that rose in the early 1990s was a model community recognized by the United Nations. It dubs itself : "the place where people gather."

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Yet it faces its own struggles. Mr. Mianscum said he built the sweat lodge to deal with the woes of domestic violence, alcoholism and drug abuse that are scourges in many native communities; on Thursday, the people of Oujé-Bougoumou gathered to mourn the suicide death of a 23-year-old local man.

"I wanted to help my people, especially youth," Mr. Mianscum said. "I wanted them to know what native spirituality is. It makes people strong, and gives them a sense of their identity. We've lost so much."

Rev. Canon Cliff Dee, priest at St. Barnabas Anglican Church in Waswanipi, wrote a letter to the Oujé-Bougoumou band council in support of the sweat lodge. In it, he lamented the "division and bitterness" the issue opened up "along religious lines."

"I'm deeply saddened by this," he said over the phone from his parish. With the problems facing the community, "people have to be united and working together and respecting one another's differences. … If everyone was working together, they wouldn't be tearing down sweat lodges."

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About the Author

Ingrid Peritz has been a Montreal-based correspondent for The Globe and Mail since 1998. Her reporting on the plight of Canadians suffering from the damaging effects of the drug thalidomide helped victims obtain federal compensation and earned The Globe and Mail a National Newspaper Award, Canadian Journalism Foundation award, and the Michener Award for public service. More

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