Researcher Susan Gray
Susan Gray is the author of I Will Fear No Evil: Ojibwa-Missionary Encounters Along the Berens River, 1875-1940 a book that offers a unique perspective on missionary-aboriginal encounters in northern Manitoba. In exploring the story from the point of view of those the missionaries came to convert, she is able to trace the ways in which Christian beliefs have become incorporated into the traditional Ojibwa worldview. Mapping the movement from, and between, worldviews is a long time interest of hers.
Why this book?
Susan explains her motivation for this work:
When I was four years old, my family visited my grandmother, Anna Mahase in Trinidad. Anna came from Hindu roots, but she herself was a Christian, her parents having converted to Christianity before her birth. She was the first female East Indian teacher in Trinidad; now long retired, she was still the enthusiastic treasurer of the local Presbyterian Church.
Suddenly, a large multi-coloured butterfly flew in through a window. It went straight to my mother, and hovered close to her face. Then it flew to me and to my brothers – again, dancing so close and so beautifully that it took my breath away. Finally it flew to my father. When he began swatting at the butterfly, my grandmother – the pillar of the Presbyterian Church – said calmly, “Don’t do that. That’s Susan’s grandfather.” She went on to explain that my long deceased grandfather always came home when one of his children visited. I was taken with the wonder of this strong Hindu idea thriving in the sea of my grandmother’s Christianity. This experience sparked my lifelong interest in world views: their essences – their change over time – and, especially, the rich coexistence of disparate beliefs – the way that some cultures can flexibly find places for everything that touches the heart, mind, and imagination. The Ojibwa world view is one that has within it this capacity for flexibility. I am drawn to it.
Use of this Archives
As Susan explains, “I could not have done this book without the United Church of Canada Archives which made my research on the Methodist missionaries possible. I was able to access the personal papers of Roscoe Chapin, J.A.C. Kell, J.A. Lousley, Luther Schuetze, John Semmens, and F.G. and Mrs. F.G. Stevens. Biographical files of the missionaries I needed to study were available to me, and information on people such as: John James Everett, Joseph Henry Lowes, Joseph Jones, Percy Earl Jones, James A. McLachlan, John W. Niddrie. Data and correspondence from the General Board of Home Missions Files fleshed out so many details. It is a wonderful collection of records.”
Key Findings from the Study
The Ojibwa were active participants in the encounters with the missionaries. They accepted those missionaries who treated them with sensitivity and respect and integrated Christian beliefs and practices into their established belief system. Susan supplemented her historical research with conversations and interviews with Berens River elders. Today, a blend of Christian and Ojibwa ideas is still interwoven in the lives of Berens River residents, with both traditions holding meaning and sincerity. Their uniquely adaptive religion sheds new light on our understanding of cultural contact and conversion, placing the indigenous experience of these events at centre stage.
Susan Gray is a Research Associate to the Canada Research Chair in Aboriginal Peoples in an Urban and Regional Context at the University of Winnipeg.