First Nations people see no difference between their spirituality and their culture.
“For us, as the first people of this land, spirituality is both very simple and very complex. There is a Creator and we were created to live here in harmony with the land. We have always been here, connected to the land and all the other creatures that live on the land. The land provided for us and we cared for the land,” said Mollie Bono, Okanagan Indian Band representative to the Inter-Faith Bridging project.
The project, sponsored by Vernon and District Immigrant Services and funded by Embrace BC, brings together people of different faith backgrounds in the community to share and learn.
“It is important for us to be part of the project because it fits very well with what we are doing, which is working with people of all backgrounds,” said Bono, who is program director for the First Nations Friendship Centre, an Okanagan Indian Band councillor, and Vernon School District trustee.
“It’s easy to be part of this inter-faith discussion because we were able to find that we had so much in common. All faiths believe in a supreme being, prayer, sacred sites, rituals for life passages, celebrations, and in striving to be good human beings. Each faith has meaningful traditions about music, dance, sharing food and everyday and celebratory clothing. This is a way for us to de-mystify each other’s spiritual beliefs.”
Bono said she thinks there is little awareness of the depth of the spirituality of the Okanagan First Nations and other First Nations people. There are more than 100 First Nations groups in Canada with almost as many languages and cultures. There are 29 distinct languages in British Columbia alone.
“It’s all about geography, with each group basing their culture on their available resources. Traditional Okanagan practices included making birch bark baskets, hemp weaving and preparing deer hides. It was all about the necessities of life. We are teaching our young people these skills,” she said.
Bono was raised as a Roman Catholic but by the time she was in her teens, she was more interested in traditional spirituality.
“In my parents’ generation, it was against the law to practise Okanagan spiritual beliefs. From 1886 to 1956, people could go to jail for doing that, but people did them anyway, secretly. The land was always sacred to us. Nature is transformative and it is something we can have every day,” she said. “My grandfather lived with our family and he would tell us the stories. There are stories about everything: the people, their history, the land, the plants and animals, the rocks and water. Stories are so important. As soon as I could write, I wrote down the stories, sensing somehow that they were very meaningful. I wish I had those now.”
She is saddened that many of the First Nations stories were lost while they were prohibited, although the elders did their best to keep them alive.
Elders continue to be a vital part of First Nations spirituality, with people turning to their elders at times when they need to make decisions or to understand themselves and others better, as well as to learn their traditions.
Bono said that spiritual beliefs are changing as young people marry those of other faith traditions or become busy with careers and other interests.
“The elders are there for us. We learn from their wisdom for the day when we will be the elders.”
Bono looks forward to continuing to be involved in the Inter-Faith Bridging project.
“We’d all have better relationships with one another if we talked more.”
The Inter-Faith Bridging project will have a series of public workshops starting in February where people can learn about the different faiths in the community and take part in activities like workshops, visits to sacred spaces, the Diversity Health Fair, and a potluck gala evening.
Workshops include woodcarving, religious holidays, Bhangra/Latino dance, drumming, faith art history, faith fashions, meditation, prayer shawls, songs of faith, faith fashions, and mizuhiki (Japanese art style). All workshops are free but pre-registration is recommended. There will be free childcare with pre-registration essential.
For more information about the Inter-Faith Bridging project and the workshops and activities, contact Maytée at 250-542-4177 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.