The Land Where Your Dead Are Buried

The sacredness of the land beyond cultural boundaries

By Joshua Dueck

I remember the first time meeting the post-secondary student advisor from my home reserve of Fisher River Cree Nation, I had never met anyone from here before and I was nervous. I was nervous because for basically my whole life I have struggled with knowing how to identify. I was also nervous because I have never lived on reserve, and I struggled with knowing whether I would be accepted as one of their own or seen as an economic burden.
Those that know me well, know that I am not very touchy and certainly someone who avoids hugs at all costs. Though it feels like I have cried this whole week [Truth and Reconciliation week], probably most people would think I have no emotions either.

However, when I met my advisor, she embraced me; I remember just wanting to hold that hug and wanting to weep. My fears of being accepted were definitively abandoned. After regaining my composure, she said some of the most profound words I had ever heard: “Josh, you are from Fisher River Cree Nation. You are welcome home anytime. It is the land where your dead are buried.

The value of the land for Indigenous People

I have replayed that line in my head hundreds of times, and I have come to a fuller understanding of the value of the land for Indigenous People. The significance of land is not just resources; it is significant because it holds the memories and stories of those who have passed on. This phrase became even more profound as news of unmarked graves began to emerge this year from the sites of former Indian Residential Schools.

Regardless of the cause of death—whether disease or mistreatment—it is absolutely horrific in every way. In the time since the first discovery at Kamloops Indian Residential School I have heard people, even people I once respected, defend the oppressive colonial system saying it was probably just disease that killed those children. This implies it was okay for the children to be taken, it was okay for them to die away from their families, and it was okay that their bodies were not returned to their families and to their land.

As I reflect, I am reminded of Joseph’s story. He was betrayed by his family, sold as a slave, taken to a foreign land, falsely accused and thrown into prison. Even after rising to power, he still longed to be in the land promised to his ancestors. Confident that God would honour his word, he gave final instructions that, on the day God would fulfill his oath to his ancestors, his bones were to be taken out of the land of Egypt and brought to the land promised to them (Genesis 50:24–26). Over 400 years later, the time when Israel received the land promised, Joseph’s bones were laid to rest on the plot of land his father had purchased centuries earlier (Joshua 24:29–33).

Where our loved ones are laid to rest

I am further reminded of burying my father-in-law just over a year ago. I remember being astonished at the gentleness, care and honour bestowed upon him by the local fellowship of believers in northern Alberta. They prepared his body. They made the casket. They dug the grave and filled it by hand.

Just this summer my brother-in-law returned from a trip to visit the site and brought back with him to Manitoba some dirt and a wildflower that had been growing there. Again, I was astonished by the sacredness of land, especially the physical sites where our loved ones are buried; it is an experience that transcends cultural boundaries.

Within the EMC, I am sure that many of us who have buried loved ones have at special occasions such as birthdays, Mother’s or Father’s Day, or even at Christmas made “pilgrimages” to cemeteries where our loved ones have been laid to rest. For others, perhaps, where our loves ones are buried a great distance from our homes, either in another province or country, there might even be a sense of loss knowing that journeys to the site to reflect, reminisce and remember are difficult or even impossible.

The truth is our compass

I recently had the opportunity to speak at a chapel service for a local high school. Specifically, I spoke about Truth and Reconciliation. I began by asking the students: “Why does truth matter?” After a few moments of silence someone shouted, “If we know what is true, then we know what is wrong.” I responded with this story:

I remember once I was out in the woods looking to harvest a deer. It was late into the season; snow was already on the ground, and I was in a new area I had never been in before. Hours passed with nothing happening. The cold got to me, so I started walking to stay warm. Before long I became disorientated; when I attempted to follow my prints in the snow, I realized I had already been walking in circles and I had no way of knowing which prints the right ones were to follow. Thankfully, I soon remembered I had a compass in my medical kit. With that compass was able to orientate myself to know which was the right way out.

The truth acts for us like a compass. By knowing what is true we can also know what is untrue. That student got it exactly right! This is why acknowledging, remembering, and learning the true story of Canadian government and the church’s partnership in the destruction of Indigenous People is so important. When we can identify what was and is wrong, shameful and evil, we will hopefully be able to orientate our lives in ways that foster compassion, understanding, and justice.

A lament for an ugly and shameful truth

As I reflect this week on the atrocities committed against Indigenous People of Canada, I lament greatly, remembering many thousands of innocent children died while attending Indian Residential School away from their families and communities. I lament greatly in knowing that the land where many of our dead are buried are on the grounds of the schools and not in the communities of our people.
As a community of believers, let us be intentional about acknowledging the ugly and shameful truth of what our country committed, together with those who vainly took the name of Christ. This is the Jesus way. Let us lament.

Let us lament that it has taken so long for our country to acknowledge what it has done. Let us lament that it has taken so long for churches to acknowledge what they have done. Let us lament that so many stories and lives have been forgotten. Let us lament that the damage caused continues to harm intergenerationally. Let us lament that the systemic racism that prompted such oppressive policies continues to be perpetuated throughout the country.

The One who is Truth has not forgotten

Let us also not forget that we are convinced that the One who opposed the oppressors and the One who loved the oppressed, the one who loved children and the One who walked with the marginalized, the One who calls himself the Truth and the One who has reconciled people to God by the shedding of his blood has not forgotten.

One day, true justice will prevail that is not bound by time. Until that day, brothers and sisters, let us live lives that honour truth, and let us be reconcilers. Let us live in such a way the world will never mistake us for the wolves who clothed themselves as sheep. Let us live in a way that values people. Let us live in the imitation of Christ who demonstrated his love by the laying down his rights and even his life.
Let us also commit ourselves to learning the true story. Let us be committed to being shaped in a way that honours both those who were lost and those who survived Canada’s Indian Residential Schools.

Josh Dueck

Joshua Dueck (BA Christian Ministries, Steinbach Bible College) lives in Kleefeld, Man., with his wife Helyn, their three elementary-age sons and preschool-age daughter. Their home church is Steinbach EMC. He studies at Providence Theological Seminary and works as Community Life Director and Indigenous Student Advisor at Steinbach Bible College. His home community is Fisher River Cree Nation, but due to the Sixties Scoop he was raised in non-Indigenous care.

Leave a Reply