Indigenous Voices of Faith is a series of interviews conducted by Cardus in the fall of 2022, in which we asked twelve Indigenous people in Canada to tell us about their religious faith and experiences. Since 47 percent of Indigenous people in Canada identify as Christians, Christian voices are the primary but not sole focus of this interview series. The purpose of this project is to affirm and to shed light on the religious freedom of Indigenous peoples to hold the beliefs and engage in the practices that they choose and to contextualize their faith within their own cultures.
Father Deacon Andrew Bennett, program director for Cardus Faith Communities, interviewed Rosella Kinoshameg in Wikwemikong, Ontario, on October 11, 2022.
Fr. Dcn. Andrew: Rosella, to begin, why don’t you tell me a little bit about yourself and the community you’re part of here, and a bit about Wikwemikong?
Rosella Kinoshameg: Well, I’ve lived here most of my life. I lived in the south end of the reserve in South Bay. I did go to residential school because we didn’t have a school bus. So my sister and I went. We came back after they got the school bus, and then the Pontiac School here in Wikwemikong was opened. Then we moved here and went to school here. They had high school till grade 10 at the time. Then I went to North Bay, where the nuns used to run the St. Joseph’s College, for grades 11 and 12, and did some of my 13. I missed out on a couple of subjects, so I did those at night school later.
Then I applied to a nursing school. I applied both in North Bay and Sudbury and got accepted at both. I chose Sudbury because it was closer and I could go home on weekends. So I went there for three years, graduated, worked in Sudbury for a year, got married, and my husband wanted to go to University of Windsor. So we moved to Windsor in September, but I was pregnant, and so I had my first baby in January in Sudbury. Then in May of that year, I applied at a couple of hospitals in Windsor. I got a job at Hôtel-Dieu on the psychiatric unit and was there for three years. By this time my husband finished his course, and he moved, he got a job in Ottawa. So we moved to Ottawa, where I did the post-RN program, and then when I finished, I guess they were looking for nurses for here. So I put in my application, and I got the job in Wikiwemikong as a community health nurse. So I came home, and by this time I had three children.
So I was here maybe a total of eight years or nine years, and then I quit. And then I got a job in Little Current, covering the other reserves with another nurse for another eight years, nine years. And then I worked in Nipissing First Nation for a total of seventeen years, before coming home again as health manager. When they say “interim” they don’t mean it; it turned out to be a whole year. And then I said, “Well, I was supposed to be retired.” But anyways, so I came home, and then I got another call: Could I come and do another interim position? And then COVID came along.
Fr. Dcn. Andrew: And now here you are.
Rosella Kinoshameg: And here I am. When I came back as a nurse, these ladies in the community said, “What if we should make you parish council president?” What? I’d never been in the back of the church. I didn’t know what was there. So I had to learn everything myself to know what’s there, where do they keep this, and just look at everything and find out where all the things were.
Fr. Dcn. Andrew: But this is the parish you grew up in, of course.
Rosella Kinoshameg: Over there. Our Lady of Grace.
Fr. Dcn. Andrew: Tell me about your faith. Tell me how you live out your faith and why it’s important to you.
Rosella Kinoshameg: Well, I suppose as children, we learned our prayers in the [Algonquian] language. And my father played the organ in church all the time. He took us to church every Sunday. Or maybe not every Sunday, but when the priest came. Sometimes it was once a month in the summer. We used to go by boat. We’d take our food and go by boat along the shore and go to the church, have something to eat, and then come back. In the winter, I don’t know if we had any winter Masses. If we did, we went by horses.
But I remember coming here once to Wiki; we came by horses all the way from South Bay, which is about twenty kilometres. And it was in a wagon, and we were well covered with hay and stuff. I remember coming, I think it must have been for Christmas Mass. After I came back from residential school, I guess my dad taught us all how to play the organ. I think I was twelve years old when I first played the organ. So we got started that way. And, well, of course when we went to residential school we had to get up for Mass every morning, going to chapel. We would go across the road on Sundays to the boys’ school that had a bigger chapel. And that’s where we went.
Fr. Dcn. Andrew: Right. And where was the residential school you were at?
Rosella Kinoshameg: In Spanish.
Fr. Dcn. Andrew: And where’s that in relation to Wiki?
Rosella Kinoshameg: Oh, if you come through Espanola, you keep going straight west and it’s about maybe an hour from there. I was just thinking about my grandson. They just had a baby this morning.
Fr. Dcn. Andrew: Oh, congratulations!
Rosella Kinoshameg: Once we were going to Sault Ste. Marie, and on the way I had heard they were demolishing that boys’ school. So I told my husband, I said, “Let’s stop and look at where they’re at in this demolition.” So we pulled in to go toward the school. My grandson says, “Where we’re going, Mama?” I said, “We’re going to go have a look at the school, the boys’ school, the residential school.” “Is that where they made you wash and wash and wash until you became white?” he says to me. I said, “Where did you learn that?” He said, “Somebody came to our school, and that’s what they told us.” I said, “Oh.” So I had to do a little explaining.
Fr. Dcn. Andrew: Wow. Tell me a little bit about your life here in the parish and how you’re living out your faith in this place?
Rosella Kinoshameg: Well, I guess when I became [parish council] president I had to learn lots of things. Before then, I think the only thing that the people were allowed to do was to do the fundraising. They weren’t involved in anything else in the church, just the fundraising. And I thought, “There’s got to be more to the church than fundraising.” And so that’s when I started thinking about spirituality. We lived a very traditional way of life as children. We lived those teachings that they talk about. That’s the way we lived. And so when I got a little bit older, I was thinking, “How come people aren’t living the same way as we did?” That’s what I used to see, the different ways of life such as alcohol and violence and those kinds of things. Our home was a house of refuge for these women that were experiencing violence at home. They would come, and their husbands would never come to our house because they were afraid of my father.
Fr. Dcn. Andrew: He was a good man.
Rosella Kinoshameg: He was a good man. He was a very spiritual man. He did all the prayers when somebody died. He went to all the wakes. He did all the prayers and the singing and the playing. That was what he did. But at home we did observe some of the traditional things like offering tobacco and doing smudging. My dad would do that, as well as some other ceremonies that we became aware of that was happening in the home. But then, when we went to residential school, we never spoke about anything. We never shared anything about how we lived. We couldn’t.
I think that’s what helped me in becoming a nurse. The basic teaching of that way of life that we had kind of helped us. When I did come home, there was this priest who came one day, and we were invited to the church, it became open, and he said, “Bring in your traditions, bring in your culture.” I said, “Oh yeah, we do that.” So we brought in the colours, we brought in the smudging. Mind you, that was very difficult at first. People wouldn’t do it because they were told this was evil and they would go to hell. I think they had that in their mind, and so I had a lot of explaining to do every Sunday. I would say, “These are the medicines that the Creator gave us to use for purification, to cleanse.” On Good Friday, we set up the wake for Jesus after the three o’clock service. We set up the cross, and then I used to put the smudge bowl and the feather and everything up there. An elderly person who cleaned the church, she was always helping, was against that. She was one of those who was told, “Go to hell if you do this.” Once I was in the back of the church, and she was busy cleaning around, putting papers and books away. And I was sitting there when all of a sudden I said, “Well, what’s going on up there?” I could see smoke. She was smudging.
I never thought I’d see that day. Yeah.
Fr. Dcn. Andrew: Tell me more about that, Rosella. Because I think there is this view held by some, I think, in our country, that you can’t be authentically First Nations and be Catholic. Where does that come from? What’s your thought on that?
Rosella Kinoshameg: I’ll give you an example. I was working at the Wikwemikong Health Centre, and this lady come around just traditional, totally traditional, not Catholic. Then this was after we introduced the smudging and the colours and that in the church. She came around, and she said to me, “We have to take those things out of the church.” And I said to her, “These are the things that our ancestors did. They used these ceremonies, they used these objects, they used these sacred items and the smudging, the medicines.” I said, “So if I want to smudge as a Catholic, I’ll smudge, wherever, whenever I want. And no one is going to tell me otherwise. No one,” I told her. She went to the chief and to somebody else, who told her the same thing. So then she just kind of backed off, I guess. She wouldn’t speak to me; now she does.
And then there was a little later a young lad who was getting into the traditions, I guess, learning about all these things. He came to us at the church after we were finished one time. He was telling us the same thing, that we had to get these things out of the church. They didn’t belong in the church. Our deacon Gilbert was there too. We listened to the boy. Then Gilbert said, “If you even practice one of those teachings that we have, respect, you wouldn’t be talking to us like this.” Well his tone of voice just changed.
Fr. Dcn. Andrew: We were talking a little bit before we began the recording that there’s nothing inconsistent between having Indigenous cultural traditions and the Catholic faith.
Rosella Kinoshameg: No.
Fr. Dcn. Andrew: What would you say to someone from outside the reserve, from outside Wiki, who would question how Indigenous you are because of your Catholic faith?
Rosella Kinoshameg: Well, I can’t change being Indigenous. That’s something that is me. I can’t change that. But to believe in the things that I was taught, the traditional things, the way of life and the meanings of these things, and then in a church, well, those things help one another and they make me feel stronger.