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By Colleen Hogan

In our fragmented world, it can be challenging to embrace identities that are often viewed from the outside as incompatible and to find spaces where acceptance is the norm. For many Indigenous Catholics, whose history is scarred by colonization, denial and denigration, it is often hard to be Catholic in Indigenous settings and Indigenous in Catholic contexts. 

Sister Priscilla Solomon, an Ojibway member of the Anishinabek Nation and a Sister of St. Joseph of Sault Sainte Marie, shared her insights and experiences on this complex intersection during a thought-provoking podcast video interview. She has spent years reconciling her Indigenous and Catholic identities. Her mission, shaped by her journey, aims to promote reconciliation between Indigenous peoples and the Church. “We have gifts to share, and we are called to live out our faith drawing from our Indigenous culture, traditions and spiritualities.” 

Can you share your experience growing up Ojibway and Catholic? 

I grew up in a very small, isolated community on Georgian Bay. The language was English, so that was the dominant culture, but the whole town was Catholic, and I grew up with a strong experience of Catholic faith community. 

I also grew up with the knowledge that I was Indigenous. The culture wasn’t hidden but wasn’t expressed to any great extent. My Mom used to speak to her Indigenous friends in Anishinaabemowin. We had sweetgrass mats and we knew the medicine plants. We were taught respect for others and honesty, but they’re so like Christian values that I never identified them as Indigenous.  

Was there ever a time when there was tension between your identities? 

During the early years in my religious life, my father began to reclaim his Indigenous roots. It became difficult for me because I would go home for holidays and a lot of Indigenous people who were angry with the Church and with society would be visiting my dad, and I would feel condemned with their anger because I was identifying myself with the Church. It took me a long time to sort out my own feelings and differentiate between who I am as a family member and who I am as a Catholic — that I could love my family even if they were angry at the Church and not feel like I was being rejected.  

At what point in your life did you undertake this exploration and when did reconciliation with your parents take place? 

Sister Priscilla Solomon (right) and her sister Eva Solomon, both members of the Sisters of St. Joseph, at a First Nations gathering in the early 1990s. Thunder Bay, Ontario. Photo: Scarboro Missions website.

Reconciliation happened in my mid-20s, but it wasn’t until my mid-30s that I came to see that I needed to know my culture and claim my identity as an Indigenous woman. One experience when I was able to see my two identities coming together was the first time I went into a sweat lodge. Because I grew up in pre-Vatican II times and questioned so much about Indigenous spirituality as a younger adult, I had some fear about going. There was drumming and singing and sharing. It’s total darkness in the lodge except for the fire in the centre. I was hearing people sing and share stories of their pain, their confusion, their wonderings, their hopes — deeply sharing their lives and their brokenness.  

I had a strong sense that this is like being in confession. I was able to share, and I felt understood and forgiven for harm that I had done. I also felt a deep connection with the others in their brokenness and pain. I had a sense that this is my spirit home. This is where I belong. It was my Catholic faith and my understanding of reconciliation in right relation with God and others, and that experience of being in the sweat lodge that came together as one. 

It was my Catholic faith and my understanding of reconciliation in right relation with God and others, and that experience of being in the sweat lodge that came together as one. 

What advice would you give to young Indigenous persons and others who grapple with different elements of identity and faith? 

I’d share with them my own belief that Indigenous people believe in the Creator, that the Creator made them, gifted them with life, and that that gift is a gift not only to them, but to all of creation, and that they have a purpose in life.  

From the Catholic tradition, it’s the same. God created us for life and gifted us with all kinds of personal gifts for ourselves, but also for the sake of the world and to give glory to God. We were put here by our Creator for a purpose, so they need to look for what their purpose is and for the gifts that will help them live out that purpose.  

We were put here by our Creator for a purpose, so they need to look for what their purpose is and for the gifts that will help them live out that purpose. 

Sr. Priscilla and other Sisters of St. Joseph: united in their diversity.

Are there moments of doubt, conflict or struggle as you navigate these two identities, and how do you overcome that? 

There are definitely moments of confusion, doubt and wondering. I’m an Indigenous woman living in a mainly non-Indigenous context. I sometimes wonder, am I really living as an Indigenous person? Am I living out my own spiritual tradition as well as my Catholic tradition?  

Some of the doubts are around how difficult it is for the Church as both an institution and as individual people of faith to understand the need for reconciliation, the need to relate differently to not only Indigenous people, but to other people who are different.  

What keeps you in a Church that has been questioned by so many? 

I believe that God is truly present in the Church and that the Church is God’s way of being present to us, nurturing us and calling us forth. I’m in the Church because I believe it’s God’s gift to me. Other human beings in the Church are broken, just as I am. We’re all sinners, but God is there. It’s not the brokenness of the human element that keeps me in the Church, it’s God’s fidelity to us that keeps me here. 

Slide

How do the Jesuits position themselves in relation to reconciliation and the self-determination efforts of Indigenous peoples? Peter Bisson, SJ, the provincial assistant for justice, ecology and Indigenous relations, clarifies: “In the Jesuits’ relationship with Indigenous people, I see mostly the dynamic of reconciliation. But since the pope’s visit, I’m beginning to see aspects of a spiritual self-determination within the Church, articulated in an intentional way. The Jesuits support these dynamics.” For instance, in September 2023, a gathering was held near Ottawa that brought together Indigenous Catholic leaders and a few allies. Fr. Bisson and Sr. Solomon participated. For the latter, “it’s really about God’s Spirit picking up on the work that Pope Francis did and gathering Indigenous people together with allies, people who are supportive of developing the faith life of Indigenous Catholics.” 

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