Indian Ecumenical Conference book a winner

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, July 23, 2003

It is rare to have in one's hands a book that immediately evokes such deeply satisfying memories in all five senses. And yet that is exactly my experience with James Treat's recently published work on an intertribal gathering hosted by the Stoney Nakoda First Nation toward the end of the last century.

Around the Sacred Fire: Native Religious Activism in the Red Power Era, A Narrative Map of the Indian Ecumenical Conference recounts the convening at Morley of First Nations spiritual leaders from across the U.S. and Canada. Nearly every summer from 1971 to 1992, they gathered for a week at Stoney Park, powerfully reaffirming Aboriginal young people in their identity – and teaching me, an observer of the scene, much about the meaning of being human.

Just looking at the cover photograph of the conference's tepee encampment, I can smell the evening wood smoke from scores of campfires. Bells on ankles jingle as dancers, preparing for the approaching powwow, walk among tents where elders are sipping coffee after a meal of buffalo and bannock. I am vividly aware of two elders in particular, Jacob House and Paul Mark – both since deceased – inviting me to sit by the fire with them and listen to stories about life in harmony with nature and a spirituality that defies colonialization.

And that's all coming back to me before I even open the cover of this well-researched contribution to the literature on this formative period in modern North American First Nations history.

The author, a religious studies scholar and himself of First Nations ancestry, is an assistant professor at the University of Oklahoma. He undertook the writing of Around the Sacred Fire to document the conference's attempts at dialogue between Christianity and First Nations traditional spirituality. He ultimately traces a "transformation from interreligious conversation to intergenerational encounter."

Longtime colleague Ian Getty, historical research director for the Stoney Nakoda First Nation, has followed the evolution of the Indian Ecumenical Conference (IEC) in detail from its beginnings. I asked him what he thinks of Treat's book.

He replied that the book "will appeal to any reader who wants to understand the roots of today's First Nations cultural identity, Native traditionalism, and political activism."

Though Treat does not lose sight of the religious reasons for the conference, Getty said, "this is the story of cross-cultural awareness that swept North America in the 1960s and 1970s.

"Treat's book captures the excitement of the Red Power Movement of this period and demonstrates how the Stoney Indian Reserve and the leadership at Morley became a focal point and catalyst in the pan-Indian movement during one of the most exciting times of the empowering periods of Canada's First Nations and people."

The book, in its own way, is very much like the journeys that brought so many First Nations young people to the IEC.

"This is truly an odyssey of what it took to inspire, organize, and bridge the spiritual and cultural genesis of a movement that became the IEC, describing the extraordinary commitment of a few visionary spiritual leaders," Getty said. "Surprisingly to the organizers, the gathering eventually attracted upwards of 5,000 to 8,000 delegates at its height. The IEC was to become a turning point in many people's lives during the 1970s and 1980s."

Getty sees Treat's academic approach as both its strength and weakness. "It is rich in narrative detail," he said, and gives leading organizers "the public credit they rightly deserve; but the reader has to wade through mountains of organizational detail before uncovering a nugget of personal insight."

So, does Getty recommend Treat's book? Absolutely!

Getty said – and I agree – "this book will take you on a journey of self-learning and one of nostalgic reflection for anyone who attended and participated in one of the most important attempts to bridge the communications and spiritual connectedness between Native traditionalism and Christianity."

© 2003 Warren Harbeck

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