Writings of Oblate missionaries explored by Aboriginal scholars at U of A

(Oct 30, 2007) - Edmonton - The University of Alberta has joined with the Aboriginal community and the Oblates, Alberta's oldest order of priests, to help revitalize and restore the Aboriginal language to its people.

"What I really hope is that access to these texts will form a bridge between Aboriginal students and the traditional knowledge holders in their own communities," said Dr. Cora Weber-Pillwax, principal investigator for the project. "The purpose is to reconnect young Aboriginal people with their own language and culture and the means of expressing it."

The exploration of more than 50 books and journals which include dictionaries, grammars, illustrated catechisms and gospels written in Aboriginal languages and collected by the Oblates over 120 years, is a starting point for Aboriginal scholars, community members and students interested in understanding the complexities of the historical relationships and connections between the earlier generations of their own peoples and the missionaries.

The books came to light when Father Camille Piché of the Missionary Oblates of the Lacombe Province received a call from the U of A's Campus Saint-Jean, which had been in possession of the material since the closure of Edmonton's Oblate office.

"They said, 'We have some books over here that might interest you,' and I said, 'What books?' Once I realized what was there, I thought that rather than just gather dust, maybe they could be used," said Father Piché. "We are keenly interested in developing renewed relationships with the First Nations and the Métis through healing and reconciliation and recognition of their spirituality and unique view of life."

The project, a five-year partnership, is being fostered by the U of A and other universities and Aboriginal colleges across Canada. It is funded through the Community University Research Alliance, an initiative of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

The books - some in Cree, some in Dene, Inuktitut, Dogrib, Rabbitskin or Ojibwa - will be essential links to an ancient knowledge system for First Nations communities, said Weber-Pillwax.

"In some ways, this could be a process of 'walking where our ancestors have walked before us,'" said Weber-Pillwax, a professor with the Faculty of Education. "Through this intellectual exercise, we can anticipate a transformation of ourselves, based on reflections and recollections of past relationships. Hopefully, such transformations will contribute to our own healing and the healing of many others as individuals and communities."

The collection of documents is being contributed by the Oblate Missionaries of OMI Lacombe, who have opened their archives for the purposes of research. The order of Roman Catholic priests worked as missionaries in northern and western Canada with Aboriginal peoples, beginning in 1841.

Weber-Pillwax says the availability of the materials has prompted curiosity and questions from First Nations communities. "They want to know what they can discover from this," she said. "All of a sudden we have research questions coming from the communities themselves."

The Oblates will continue to provide documentation and support to the project in several ways, including the provision of archival materials and translation services.

"We now have the opportunity to re-contextualize our language, so we can see the meanings our ancestors were intending," said John Crier, Hobbema community member, and past Dean of Cultural Studies at Maskwachees Cultural College.

"This project addresses a need that has long been identified as critical for Aboriginal peoples in Canada. We see re-awakening and empowerment of our languages and culture as integral to the identity, healing and survival of us as Indigenous people of this land."

The research permits interpretations of the historical texts, a process that will breathe new life into what can easily become "dead material," Weber-Pillwax said. For many of the partners involved in this project, language is considered key to the healing process.