Walking right off the map: from Old Montreal to Kahnawà:ke Mohawk Territory

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Maps of Montreal, Canada, usually show the neighbouring Mohawk Nation as an empty space. It appears as a grey block, sectioned off from everything around it. Nothing could be more symbolic of the relationship between the Montreal urban community, which numbers millions of citizens, and Kahnawà:ke, a little town of about 8,000 Mohawk inhabitants, known mostly for its sales of cigarettes, its annual Pow-Wow and for political restiveness.

The first time that Professor Sara Terreault and I tried to find a foot-path from Old Montreal, where the first permanent French colonists landed with Samuel Champlain in 1642, to the Mohawk community, we were met with surprise. “Why would you want to walk there?” demanded a clerk in the neighbouring town’s city hall. She folded her arms. “There’s no way to the reservation except on the highway. The police would have to block it off. I’ve lived here for over 30 years and I’m telling you, it cannot be done.”

She was wrong. 2017 marks the fourth year that we’ve taken students and others and walked a 40 kilometer, circuitous route, from Old Montreal to Kahnawà:ke. The final bit of trail, along the river, is easy to find. It has always been there. Most Mohawk know the way, but most Quebeckers in nearby towns do not. Every year, for four years, we’ve been welcomed by the Mohawk community, and made it our mission to try to educate Montréalers about the First Nation that exists right on their doorstep.

The walk is part of an annual class on pilgrimage, designed by myself and Professor Terreault, offered by the Department of Theological Studies at Concordia University, Montreal. The idea for the walk was born at an academic conference in the UK, where I noticed that American and Canadian academics were presenting on European trails. Why were we not presenting on pilgrimage routes on our own land? Those words – “our own land” – soon led Sara, who is Catholic, and me, as a Lutheran pastor and professor, to grapple with relations between Canada and the First Nations. As people of faith, we asked ourselves how pilgrimage, as a real, physical journey, is related to justice and to faith. How could physical pilgrimage help us understand the relationship between Montreal and the Mohawk? The English word “pilgrim” derives from words that denote ‘stranger’, or ‘foreigner’. In Christian tradition, the pilgrim’s first step is to leave the safety and security of home, in a quest for transformation. Did a pilgrimage between Old Montreal and Kahnawà:ke require us to remember that we who are newcomers are truly strangers, foreigners in this (often stolen) land we think of as our own?

A year after our first walk, Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission published its report. Among its conclusions were that churches and universities should do much more to seek reconciliation with First Nations. We must begin to redress a history of wrongs that includes theft of lands, forced relocations, and attempts at cultural genocide, where state and church were often partners. Our pilgrimage turned out to be important, not just to our little class, but as a symbol of what Canadian society, including the churches, should be doing, to move forward.

The pilgrim group varies from year to year. Besides students, the group includes other interested walkers, and occasionally media. The students are typical of a large urban, secular

university – Christian, Muslim, Jewish, agnostic and non-identifying. They usually start off not knowing much about the Mohawk, or each other. However, the experience of a three day walk (we go slowly, paying attention to the many different neighbourhoods through which we pass) bonds this very diverse group into community. The students have remarked in their journaling assignments that they learn about community, about themselves, AND about the Mohawk First Nation and its history. They are surprised, as we were, to learn that Kahnawà:ke began as a Catholic mission (Saint Kateri, pronounced ‘Gateri’, the first Indigenous woman to be sainted, has her shrine there). They learn, as did we, that the Mohawk are part of the larger Haudenosaunee Confederacy, that their land has been first promised, then sold or stolen from under them again and again, that Canada’s Seaway was built by expropriating their land, and that the Oka Crisis of 1970 helped define the modern Mohawk nation, in its resistance to ongoing acts of colonization.

As a pastor and member of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada (ELCIC), I’m struck by how important physical journey can be to a specific, concrete commitment to peace, justice, and reconciliation. The multiple betrayals of the Mohawk have led to a profound distrust of the church, as an agent of colonization. Rediscovery of Mohawk language and identity has been modelled, not by the church, but by the traditional longhouse, and cultural vitality has been upheld most by the traditional authorities. In such a situation, it has been absolutely necessary for me, as a Christian, to take a position of listening and learning (of being a ‘foreigner’) even were that not also my position as a professor in a secular university.

My students often debate the shifting line between a tourist and a pilgrim. The difference, we’ve decided, is in part that the pilgrim receives whatever is given, not demanding but being thankful. This has been our experience with our gracious Mohawk hosts. I’ve also learned from my Indigenous students that what distinguishes Indigenous spiritual journey is a/attention to specific land and b/the seeking of blessing, before entering land, from the elders, the ancestors, and the land itself. We have tried to do these things in Kahnawà:ke. These learnings have been so important for my spiritual life that I cannot help but feel blessed through my interactions with this First Nation.

In 2017, in the year of Canada’s so-called ‘150th’ anniversary, the Eastern Synod of the ELCIC, as part of its commitment to reconciliation, donated almost a third of that year’s Old Montreal to Kahnawà:ke walk budget. The Lutheran-subsidized walk led, interestingly, to a second trip to Kahnawà:ke, in which Concordia University’s senior administration took part, inspired by our class. The Lutheran church in Canada is leading by example, seeking, not just here, but in Six Nations (the Haldiman Tract), and elsewhere, to be part of the move forward toward reconciliation between Canadians and First Peoples.

Notice how the metaphor ‘moving forward’ implies and is based on a physical act, a real movement. Sara and I discovered, in planning the first year’s pilgrimage, that no number of emails or phone calls could substitute for actually going to visit Kahnawà:ke. Like most small towns, it was only once we were actually there that we began to meet people and to form relationships. Reconciliation cannot begin without relationship. We had to go “off the map”. That made us pilgrims, and led to this incredible walk – a real walk – of faith, of learning, of community, and of reconciliation that we hope will continue for many more years.

For more information on the pilgrimage for justice and peace.

A short video about the Old Montreal to Kahnawake walk.

A short video about pilgrimage as a teaching tool, using this walk as an example.

Rev. Dr. Matthew R. Anderson, Eastern Synod, Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada.

Matthew Anderson’s blog is www.somethinggrand.ca

Filed in: Spirited Reflections


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