The suicide epidemic in First Nations communities across Canada is now headline news. But when those headlines go away, as they always do, the crisis in many communities will remain. For a behind-the-scenes perspective, we reached out to Jonathan Maracle, Mohawk muscian with Broken Walls band.
Stephen@CONTEXT: You have ministered for many years now to youth and families in remote communities like Attawapiskat. Give us a behind-the-scenes perspective. What is the deeper story those headlines are missing?
Jonathan Maracle: Here’s what I see as the deeper story. These remote communities are separated from all of us and have had restrictions placed on them that have stopped their ability to dream and have a vision for their future. Very few of our remote communities have any type of positive economic structure that would bring work and self respect to the adults of the community. This leads to alcoholism, drug abuse, poverty and family dysfunction. Even though our native people live in the midst of forests and are surrounded by minerals and resources, they continue to live lives of poverty and self-abuse.
They are generally not able to take advantage of their local indigenous resources because of government restrictions. Engaging First Nations and partnering with them in well-planned resource management could help stabilize their lives for generations and give them hope and vision for their future. Now is the time for Canada to began partnering with our First Peoples to raise their self-esteem and value in this country so they can be proud and a contributing part of this great country.
At this point most people in our remote communities have nothing to look forward to and poverty surrounds them. Imagine that for yourself if you will. The Bible tells us that without a vision people perish.
Stephen@CONTEXT: Are Christian leaders in your network discussing how to respond?
Jonathan Maracle: I know that many people of the church are concerned and want to do something so the usual way this happens for them is to send a team or items to show their concern, love and support. But what we need is people who understand our First Nations people, who can see from their perspective, their world view. You see native people need to be understood in order to help them. For years the church with good intentions has been endeavoring to bring Jesus to the people but unfortunately are usually not able to bridge the cultural gap to true understanding and therefore deliver a “cultural conversion” message as part of bringing Jesus to the people. Which ends up saying “you must give up being who God created you to be and embrace our cultural ways.” This sets them up to ask the question “Does God really love us?”
Stephen@CONTEXT: What role can faith play in addressing this crisis?
Jonathan Maracle: We have been doing this type of ministry in remote communities for many years and I think the most important thing is to present from a place of relationship and basic cultural understanding. Native people love stories and we engage by telling our stories, our journeys from a perspective they can understand, including how our faith restored us and gave us hope as First Nations people. We sing our songs which are written from a native perspective to bring hope and love into their hearts. We have also developed a program called “Committed to Life” a suicide prevention program which we have presented all over North American and in places around the world.
Stephen@CONTEXT: How are local churches responding –and what kind of help do they need?
Jonathan Maracle: I believe the best way for local churches to respond is to make the effort to build “real relationships with the people,” don’t preach until they have a chance to see the love of Jesus in your life. Be willing to listen to their stories, this shows them you care. So many people who have worked with them see it as a chore rather than a relationship and this type of mentality must be changed. We do not have all the answers and that’s why we need Jesus. We need to help and let them see Jesus from their perspective. Broken Walls is set up to respond to these issues and we need lots of support in prayer and finances, so this is another way the church could truly help by enabling us to respond to the call.
Stephen@CONTEXT: Attawapiskat has declared a “state of emergency” among their youth. What kind of response is needed for a long-term solution? And who should be involved?
Jonathan Maracle: Restoration of self respect comes when people have a vision and the people need to know that God loves who He has created. The word says he sent his son to die for every tribe, tongue, people and nation. There are no prerequisites. He loves us all. Jesus can work equally well within all cultures and we need to be a part of allowing this to happen. No more judgement, but relationship and a willingness to share the love.
I believe the church and our government should support the effort to bring the change that is needed and we should not, as in the past, just run there and do what we have done in the past any longer. I believe that if churches are going in to our communities they should prepare through workshops and relationships and have a better understanding of how to present in a native community. This is also something Broken Walls can help with.
Contact the Broken Walls office to arrange to have me come to your church or organization.
Stephen@CONTEXT: How have you seen the good news of Jesus change lives and provide hope?
Jonathan Maracle: We have been to communities where hope has almost been lost completely and seen how Jesus can restore and bring life when shared in a good way. Only last month we were in a village in Alaska where about 600 people were attending our evening community concert, and over 400 stood to receive salvation after I shared my journey and played Rise Up Mighty Warrior.
Stephen@CONTEXT: We have seen Canada mobilize a massive response to refugee needs. What could be the ingredients of a similar response to bring hope to First Nation’s youth.
Jonathan Maracle: I believe an actual program of bringing good messages about Canada’s First People’s to the general public via, television, radio and newspapers. Perhaps looking at the good traits of the people and focusing on the positive things that are or were a part of their cultural heritage. By showing pride in the First People and perhaps a desire for forgiveness for the things of the past. My vision is to see our First People’s able to be proud of who they are, to know that they realize that our Creator loves them just as much as the next person. To see options for an economic base began to be established that will allow them to have a vision for their future. We know that poverty is a serious depressant. We need to see this start to change and now is the time.