I’m not sure if my actions are justified by my thoughts, but I’ve been frustrated by a certain practice done at my church and I wanted to take some time today to hammer out my thoughts and my position.
Every year, our church prepares for Christmas day by celebrating the Sundays of Advent with Christmas carols and hymns. I love it.
However, without fail, we also manage to sing the “Huron Christmas Carol”.
I don’t understand why, but it doesn’t seem to be problematic to anyone… Not to the people at my church and surprisingly, not to the people of the Internet.
Looking at the Internet, the overall response to this hymn as a problematic resource was scarce. Most of the responses consisted of summarized histories of the song. Others were kind of random. Yet, one other tried to explore the issue of racism and quickly dismissed it because they have “yet to hear a complaint coming from someone who self-identifies as a First Nations people”. Exactly the sort of research rigour we need.
Before I provide my personal analysis, I will provide the song lyrics as well as some context.
When all the birds had fled
That mighty Gitchi Manitou
Sent angel choirs instead
Before their light the stars grew dim
And wandering hunters heard the hymn
In excelsis gloria
The tender Babe was found
A ragged robe of rabbit skin
Enwrapp’d His beauty round
And as the hunter braves drew nigh
The angel song rang loud and high
In excelsis gloria
Is not so round and fair
As was the ring of glory
On the helpless infant there
The chiefs from far before him knelt
With gifts of fur and beaver pelt
In excelsis gloria
O sons of Manitou
The Holy Child of earth and heaven
Is born today for you
Come kneel before the radiant Boy
Who brings you beauty, peace and joy
In excelsis gloria
Context: According to The Canadian Dictionary, the Huron Carol was written in the late 18th century by (supposedly) Jean de Brebeuf. Brebeuf was a Jesuit missionary amongst the Huron and sought to convert the Huron through preaching in the Huron language. He is famously known for the torturous death that he endured at the hands of the Iroquois and has been subsequently canonized as saints in the Catholic church.
The Huron Carol replaces the traditional Nativity story with imagery and concepts familiar to the Huron as a way to connect the Christian gospel to Huron religious concepts. In particular, the English version uses a traditional Algonquian name, ‘Gitchi Manitou’ as a way to express ‘God’.
What I think so far:
1) Potential appropriation or misuse of Native language and imagery? First of all, I don’t understand why the replacement of the Nativity scene with Native American concepts is an acceptable way to convey the Christmas story. One can argue that the “essence” of the Christian Christmas story (hereon out “Christmas story) is not lost. However, I think that the Christmas story simply did not happen this way. I think it is offensive to both ends and it compromises the cultural and theological meanings that both Indigenous cultures and Christian doctrines uphold.
2) Perpetuation of institutionalized, liturgical forms of colonization: According to the Native Languages of the Americas website, Gitchi Manitou is “the great creator god of the Anishinaabe and many neighboring Algonquian tribes. The name literally means Great Spirit, a common phrase used to address God in many Native American cultures.”
Further: “As in other Algonquian tribes, the Great Spirit is abstract, benevolent, does not directly interact with humans, and is rarely if ever personified in Anishinabe myths– originally, Gitchi Manitou did not even have a gender (although with the introduction of English and its gender-specific pronouns, Gitchi Manitou began to be referred to as “he.”)” “Gitchi Manitou” (or one of its many variant spellings) was used as a translation for “God” in early translations of the Bible into Ojibway, and today many Ojibway people consider Gitchi Manitou and the Christian God to be one and the same.
First of all, it is important to remember that the English language is a colonizing tool. I think Linda Smith’s book, “Decolonizing Methodologies” mentions this. To make things understandable in the English language means to convert the meaning of things. As in the case of the gendered-God, the meaning of Gitchi Manitou is altered from an abstract entity to a definitive gendered entity. This discursive shift in understanding the Gitchi Manitou systematically establishes certain meanings which could only be understood of in English and erases other meanings because it cannot be understood in English.
The Huron Carol displays the appropriation of Indigenous concepts and language for the purpose of conversion and for expression of the Christian faith.
I pose a strong critique against the Huron Carol because this song, like many other cultural phenomena today, perpetuate and depoliticize the atrocities of colonization. As much as my faith is important to me, I find it essential to also tread respectfully with regards to Indigenous issues.
So, as a Christian and as a critical social scientist, I wonder how both groups can worship
together respectfully in a reconciled manner? How can the Church establish a decolonizing mindset and action plan? What in the Scriptures can help the Church understand how to incorporate reconciliation? In my mind, the Huron Carol does not achieve reconciliation. Rather, it depoliticizes colonization as a Christmas hymn.
I think my next steps are to report my thoughts to my home church. Hopefully, I can start a broader conversation around colonization and the Gospel of Jesus Christ.