Spiritual Stereotypes – An Indigenous Atheist’s Experience

July 12, 2023


I was raised on a wonderful reserve on Rice Lake in Ontario. While I did not live on the reserve, or hold “status”, I spent weekends and summer holidays being mentored by Native elders, aunts and uncles, and community members. I learned oral history while sitting around the fire told in traditional ways. I harvested wild rice in the traditional method, with one paddler and one harvesting from a canoe. I learned traditional uses for all of the wild plants as we walked through the woods. Every plant, tree, rock and feature had a story, like how the marks on the trunk of a birch tree were put there by the thunderbirds returning to their homes after a storm. There was always a connection of how the bark was an excellent way to start a fire, because of the flammable oils and the help from the thunderbirds. These many lessons were given to me in our Anishinaabe (Ojibway) language. Because of my love for being in the woods at night, I was honoured with the spirit name Maheengun (Timberwolf).

When not on the reserve, I attended Anglican church, sang in the choir, served as an alter boy and learned all things Christian. At 13 years old, I stopped attending church because I simply found the teaching impossible to believe. I became an atheist. Since my Indigenous upbringing had not had anything to worship, I didn’t feel any cognitive dissonance.

As I grew older, I became interested in all aspects of Indigenous culture and society. My home library, today, contains 6000 books, many of which are on Indigenous matters. From the east coast to the west coast and from the arctic to South America, I have immersed myself in comparing similarities and differences in the myriad of cultures across the Americas.

The Anishinaabe language contains animate and inanimate nouns. A rich understanding of our culture can be gleaned from speaking the language. Just because an object would be considered inanimate in the European view, it can be animate in Anishnabeg. A glacial erratic boulder, special because it is uniquely out of place, would be a spirit and animate. Certain herbs, seen as sacred, contain spirits and are animate. The world of spirits is experienced through our language, daily.

Interestingly, growing up, I don’t remember references to Gitchi Manitou (the Great Spirit). There were spirits everywhere around me, but there was no special creator. In fact, even our origin stories start with Sky Woman falling through a hole in the sky, falling toward Earth, and being gently lowered by geese. The Earth was all water and Sky Woman asked various animals to swim to the bottom of the ocean to retrieve mud. After many unsuccessful attempts, a muskrat came to the surface, almost dead, with a tiny ball of mud clenched in its paw. Sky Woman spread the mud onto the back of a turtle, which began to spread and grow forming Turtle Island (North America). There was no Creator that made the muskrat, Sky Woman, the Earth, or the ocean.

As I worked my was through the educational system, earning an M. Sc.in computer science and an executive M.B.A. my world view was focused on logic, rational thought, and scientific enquiry. I still participated in my Native community’s cultural events. Living in an urban environment, I created a Friendship Centre for my urban brothers. I led that organisation for several years until I decided to give others the reins. We provided a wide variety of programmes and services for Indigenous peoples: language classes, craft classes, healing circles, feasts, and Powwows. When the centre began experiencing challenges, I was successful in having the programs and services incorporated in to a local health service provider where it continues to flourish. I don’t recognize anyone when I attend events.

I was quickly becoming recognized as a Traditional Knowledge Keeper and used that role to bring many diverse Indigenous people together. Later, an Elder recognized the great work that was being done and awarded me my first eagle feather. Others followed. I was also made a pipe-keeper and taught the Anishinaabe traditions and ceremonies. I began attending Elders’ conferences and learning how others practiced their leadership roles. I was introduced to an Elder who was a member of the Midewewin society of the Anishinaabe. I attended annual ceremonies and learned aspects of Anishinaabe society that I had never been exposed to.

My pipe, suddenly, became the source of my cognitive dissonance. The ceremonies that I was being asked to perform had taken on a structured, religious countenance. There were meticulously prescribed prayers to be given at many stages of every ceremony. Suddenly, Gitchi Manitou had become a real entity. I was closing every ceremony with a prayer that begged for forgiveness and mercy from an all-powerful deity.

As a pipe carrier, I was expected to perform these rituals any time it was requested or needed in the community. Given that my community had grown to include the largest city in Canada, I was becoming very uneasy that, for the first time since Anglican church, I was going through the motions and no longer comfortable with my duplicitousness. I was still involved in our culture, but avoided involvement in all things spiritual. I led a couple of Idle No More protests and continued to deliver language courses and programmes.

A few years later, I was on a conference call with Dr. Lloyd Robertson. After the presentation, he and I agreed to meet on-line to discuss his talk. We began speaking about the challenges of being a rational thinker in Indigenous societies. After a few excellent conversations, it became obvious to me that I had one foot in each of two very different worlds. I decided that I could no longer hold my pipe and conduct ceremonies in which I was simply reciting a script.

Just before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, I was visiting a First Nation about 20 minutes from my home. I had been a very influential member of the community, but hadn’t visited in a couple of years. I had brought the first Powwow to their nation 18 years earlier. I had installed two Elders at a ceremony that I had officiated 22 years earlier. Since their council had been successful in establishing a charitable gaming facility (later, a full fledged casino), the community had become wonderfully prosperous. There is a beautiful band council office building. There is a huge community centre with lots of programmes and services. There is a health facility and small library. I dropped into the community centre and was introduced to the Community Outreach coordinator. He was new to the community, as were many people. The population had grown from about 80 people 25 years ago. As we spoke, I described my desire to become active in the community again. I reviewed my long Indigenous resume and he was most excited to reintroduce me. I was to attend a sweat lodge the following week and help them to construct a ceremonial lodge in two weeks. And then, a bomb shell. He informed me that the community that had been a part of my life for 50 years, was now Midewewin. The lodge that I would help build would be to Midewewin specification. The sweat-lodge, in which I had participated hundreds of times in my life, was to be conducted to the exacting religious specification of the Midewewin society. Strict religious practice had been instilled in the community. As it turned out, the sweat-lodge was cancelled due to an illness. Then, the Midewewin lodge construction was delayed due to other priorities. A few weeks later, access to all Indigenous communities became strictly controlled as the pandemic circled the globe.

I’ve had a couple of years to give sober thought to my experiences. I’ve observed many poignant developments in Indigenous culture, activism, and spirituality. I’ve passionately embraced Truth & Reconciliation and am involved in helping non-Indigenous people understand the recommendations.

As I was writing this, I received a job posting from the friendship centre that I helped to create. The position was for a program designer and coordinator. As I read the requirements, I was surprised to see that it was now a requirement for employment that the candidate, “have an intimate knowledge and understanding of Indigenous ways of knowing and being.” As a skeptic and rational thinker, I do not believe that there are alternative “ways of knowing.”

I have become concerned about the consequences of violating cultural expectations within my traditional community and about social expectations beyond that community. If I were to continue to engage as I have in the past, it would only be a matter of time before I could expect to be ostracized for cultural appropriation.

Over my lifetime, I have been privileged to have some of the most respected Elders in Canada and the U.S. as my friends and mentors. All of my Elders are now dead and I struggle to form connections with those to whom I can relate. I am still a very scientific, rational, atheist, but with little tolerance for magical and superstitious thinking. I don’t have a foot in each of two different worlds any longer; I am proudly and firmly planted in one.

Lloyd Robertson